4 Lessons Learned & Random Thoughts on Steelers Growth Since Vikings Loss in London

When the Pittsburgh Steelers kickoff for their 2017 home opener against the Minnesota Vikings this afternoon, 1450 days will have passed since these two franchises last squared off. Normally you don’t think of intra-conference games marking milestones, but this one does.

Because if the Steelers post Super Bowl XLV rebuilding project began with the Tebowing in the playoffs against Denver in January 2011, the rebuilding effort scratched rock bottom on September 29th, as the Vikings dropped the 2013 Steelers to 0-4.

  • To put this into perspective, the previous Steelers head coach to start 0-4 was Bill Austin, in 1968.

With that in mind, let’s look at how the Steelers have changed, and remained the same, since then.

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Le’Veon Bell scores his first touchdown in the Steelers loss to Vikings in London. Photo Credit: Daily Mail Online

1. Sort of Failing at Left Tackle is Like Being Sort of Pregnant

By the fall of 2013 the Steelers had relegated their “Plug ‘n Patch” approach to offensive line building to history. Indeed on that day they started Ramon Foster, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert just as they will this afternoon (and they would have started Maurkice Pouency had he not been hurt.)

  • They also started Mike Adams at left guard.

Mike Adams didn’t represent any sort of Jonathan Scottesque attempt to get by on the cheap at left tackle. No, the Steelers invested a 2nd round pick in Mike Adams and made it very clear from the get go that they wanted him to win the starting job. He couldn’t do that as a rookie (and surprise, they turned again to Max Starks), but they gave him the job 2013.

  • The move was an epic fail, and the London loss to the Vikings was its supernova.

Adams struggled all day, and first and only time in his career, Ben Roethlisberger played like he had happy feet. The Vikings ended the game by sacking Roethlisberger, and while Adams didn’t directly allow the sack, he clearly didn’t win his battle at the line of scrimmage which helped collapse the pocket, paving the way for a sack.

The Vikings game in London marked Mike Adams final start at left tackle and Kelvin Beachum’s assent to the role.

2. Le’Veon Lived Up to the Hype, Jarvis Didn’t….

While neither he nor Mike Tomlin uttered the word “Rebuilding,” after the 2012 Steelers 8-8 finish Kevin Colbert as much as admitted changes were needed. Ergo, two key building blocks would come early in the Steelers 2013 Draft Class. One worked out, the other didn’t.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Ed Bouchette isn’t one to exaggerate, but even he seemed to be drinking a little Koolaid a big when he declared in July 2013 that Le’Veon Bell’s preseason debut “…will be one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

  • Le’Veon Bell’s debut didn’t come until London thanks to his Lisfranc injury.

While Le’Veon Bell’s statistics were rather pedestrian on that afternoon, he did score two touchdowns, and flashed some of the ability that the Steelers offense has come to depend upon.

On the flip side, Jarvis Jones, who’d boldly requested number 95, was making his third start at outside linebacker for the Steelers. Jones had one tackle on the day and by any measure must be considered Kevin Colbert’s only true first round bust.

3. How Long Does It Take to Rebuild Defense? Four Years

One striking observation is that there’s been very little turnover in the Steelers offense since that fateful London day. Sure, Health Miller retired and the entire tight end depth chart has turned over (thanks to David Johnson’s waiver). But the line remains intact and that was the first game that the Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown played together, and the trio has powered the offense since.

  • On defense you find an entirely different story.

Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were still manning both safety spots. Ike Taylor was still starting at corner, and Cortez Allen, the unit’s rising star, returned to the line up to get burned on a 70 yard touchdown. Aside from William Gay, who was back after a one year hiatus in Pittsburgh West, the entire Steelers secondary has turned over since the London Loss.

Looking at the linebackers, Vince Williams was making his first NFL start, and if the rookie looked woefully unable to fill Larry Foote’s shoes, no one can argue he hasn’t grown into the role. But Vince Williams is the only Steelers linebacker left from the London Game (remember, James Harrison was in Cincinnati.)

If the Viking’s victory in London marked the Vince Williams first start, it also marked Ziggy Hood’s last one, as Mike Tomlin would name Cam Heyward starter after this game. The other starters that day were Steve McLendon, who was just taking over from Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel. 1450 days later, the story remains the same on defensive line. Cam Heyward remains, everyone else is playing elsewhere or has begun “Life’s Work.”

4. Assistant Coaches Do Matter – See Mike Munchak’s Influence

People forget this, but Mike Adams wasn’t the only Steelers offensive lineman under fire 1450 days ago. Just one week earlier, in the Steelers loss to the Bears, Steelers coaches had rotated Kelvin Beachum on at both tackles.

While the Steelers offensive line improved during the course of 2013, Mike Tomlin quickly fired Jack Bicknell at season’s end and replaced him with Mike Munchak, and no one argues that the Steelers offensive line is far better for Munchak’s influence.

Young Money had been all the rage prior to 2013, but the promise of those young receivers was largely unrealized, as even Antonio Brown’s play was a little uneven by the end of 2012. Mike Tomlin responded by replacing Scottie Montgomery with Richard Mann, who has clearly transformed the Steelers wide receiving corps.

As Dick Hoak reminded everyone on the day he retired (after nearly 3 and half decades of serving as a Steelers assistant coach) NFL assistant coaches are “Hired to be fired.” He’s right. Often times assistant coaches act as the fall guys when either head coaches fail or draft picks flounder as busts.

But the additions of Richard Mann and Mike Munchak show that good assistant coaches can and do make a difference in the NFL.

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Third Times Charm for Pittsburgh @ Cornerback. Steelers Sign Coty Sensabaugh to 2 Year Contract

Word was the Steelers were planning to open free agency making a play on a starting cornerback. Whether the Steelers did have the Bengals Dre Kirkpatrick in their sights or not, the deal never materialized.

Then the Steelers wined and dined Davon House who became the NFL equivalent of a date who ignores you and instead dances with all of the other guys at the party – he signed with the Green Bay Packers while he was visiting with the Steelers.

  • The third time was the charm for Pittsburgh in their quest to add a cornerback in free agency as the Steelers signed Coty Sensabaugh.
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Coty Sensabaugh has 194 career tackles 2 picks in 72 career games. Photo Credit: Samuel Stringer, Icon Sportswire

The Tennessee Titans picks Coty Sensabaugh in the 4th round of the 2012 NFL Draft and he played in Nashville for four years, making 27 starts and recording 2 interceptions, including a pick six on Jameis Winston‘s first career pass.

A year ago Coty Sensabaugh was inking a three-year, $15 million contract with the Los Angeles Rams only to see the Rams cut him in October. However, Sensabaugh didn’t stay unemployed for long, and was signed by the New York Giants where he remained for the rest of the season.

Coty Sensabaugh’s Impact on the Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback

The Steelers are projecting Coty Sensabaugh as a nickel/slot back. William Gay occupied that role for much of 2016, but the veteran is showing signs of slowing and the Steelers would like to replace him. Artie Burns is set to return as the Steelers starter at cornerback, and opposite him the Steelers had restricted free agent Ross Cockrell in 2016, who could still return to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers will also bring Al-Hajj Shabazz to training camp as well as 2015’s 2nd round pick Senquez Golson whose NFL career consists of 2 and a half training camp practices. The Steelers are also expected to draft a cornerback in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, Sensabaugh declared “I came here to help these guys get two games better,” while affirming that the Keith Butler’s defensive system is similar to that of Dick LeBeau’s whom he played with down in Tennessee.

Like Justin Hunter, the free agent wide receiver the Steelers signed last week, Coty Sensabaugh also has a relationship with Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchack.

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Steelers Sign Justin Hunter, Whose Roster Spot is in His Sights?

Pittsburgh’s first successful free agent foray outside the confines of the South Side saw the Steelers sign Justin Hunter, a wide receiver drafted by Mike Munchak with the 2nd pick of the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Justin Hunter played three years for the Tennessee Titans before getting cut at the end of training camp in 2016. From there Hunter spent time with the Miami Dolphins but got cut before the end of September, before landing with the Buffalo Bills.

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James Harrison looks on as Justin Hunter catches one of 2 pass in the Steelers 2014 win over the Titans. Photo Credit: McPeak, USA Today, via SCI

Finding/establishing a viable number two wide receiver to play alongside Antonio Brown has been a priority for the Steelers during 2017 off season that took on greater urgency after Markusy Wheaton walked.

  • However, even though Justin Hunter was drafted a round and a half ahead of Markus Wheaton, the Steelers clearly don’t see him as a replacement.

For comparison’s sake, despite seeing both his rookie and “senior” seasons marred by injuries, Markus Wheaton left Pittsburgh with 107 catches and 8 touchdowns, whereas Justin Hunter only has 78 grabs, although 12 of those were for touchdowns.

Whose Roster Spots Does Justin Hunter Have in His Sights?

Assuming he gets reinstated by the NFL and assuming he avoids further suspensions, Martavis Bryant looks to compete with Antonio Brown for Ben Roethlisberger’s attention down the field. Eli Rogers impressed during his rookie season and the coaches see him as a natural slot receiver, although Darrius Heyward-Bey has also shown he’s a competent number 3 wide out.

The Steelers had hoped that Sammie Coates would blossom into a viable number 2 wide receiver but Coates arguably dropped more passes than he caught in 2016.

  • Injuries played a factor, but there have also been rumblings about his worth ethic and practice habits.

At the bottom of the roster the Steelers have Cobi Hamilton, who performed extremely well for a training camp injury replacement 6th string wide receiver, and Demarcus Ayers who also delivered when pressed into action late in the season.

On paper, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers are the two players that Justin Hunter will likely place his bulls eye on, although neither Darriuss Heyward-Bey nor Sammie Coates should get too comfortable.

With that said, while terms haven’t been released yet, the Justin Hill’s one year contract with the Steelers suggests that this is at or near a veteran minimum signing which, if correct, would not even ensure his roster spot.

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Steelers Restricted Free Agent Tender to Chris Hubbard is a Low Risk No Brainer

When talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers group of upcoming free-agents, reserve offensive lineman Chris Hubbard probably doesn’t enter into most discussions among fans and the media.

But that’s the thing about backup offensive linemen in the National Football League:

  • You never know when you’re going to need them.

Such was the case for the Steelers and Hubbard early last season, when starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert and veteran backup swing tackle Ryan Harris were both lost in a 43-14 Sunday night victory over the Chiefs at Heinz Field.

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Chris Hubbard lines up as a tight end in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Chris Hubbard’s Steelers Career

Chris Hubbard, a 2013 undrafted rookie free-agent out of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), bounced back and forth between the team’s practice squad and active roster during 2013, 2014 and 2015 before finally finding a permanent job among the final 53 in 2016.

Its a bit ironic when you look back, as Mike Golic Jr. and Nik Embernate aka “Embernasty” got all the headlines when the Steelers 2013 undrafted rookie free agent class was announced, but four years later, it was Chris Hubbard who was suiting up for the AFC Championship game.

A versatile lineman who can play guard, center and tackle, Hubbard proved his worth against Kansas City in that aforementioned Week 4 match-up, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had perhaps his best game of the season, passing for 300 yards and five touchdowns.

With Marcus Gilbert and Ryan Harris both ruled out against the Jets seven days later, Chris Hubbard got his first career start at right tackle. The result: a more than satisfactory performance in a 31-13 Steelers victory over the Jets at Heinz Field.

  • A week later, Chris Hubbard struggled quite a bit in a 30-15 loss at Miami, as Pittsburgh also lost Ben Roethlisberger with a torn meniscus.

Chris Hubbard started two more games at right tackle before Marcus Gilbert finally returned from his ankle injury, and the young lineman would  remain the backup tackle the rest of the year, as Ryan Harris, who suffered a shin injury against the Chiefs, ultimately had to be placed on Injured Reserve.

Chris Hubbard also saw extensive spot-duty as a third tight end in the Steelers “Big Boy” package, helping David Johnson and Jesse James open holes for Le’Veon Bell.

Pro’s & Con’s of Steelers Decision to RFA Tender to Chris Hubbard

As the Steelers approach free-agency, Hubbard is of the restricted free agent, meaning the Steelers retain the right of first refusal should any other team offer Chris Hubbard a contract.

  • Will there be any offers for Hubbard, 25? Probably not. Should have tendered him a right of first refusal option (as they have) anyway?

If you were to say linemen of Hubbard’s pedigree are a dime a dozen, you would be correct. If you also were to say that Jerald Hawkins, Pittsburgh’s fourth round pick out of LSU in 2016, is someone the team probably is counting on to make strides in 2017, you are also surely correct.

  • Fact is, the Steelers seem set at both tackle positions for the near-future.

Marcus Gilbert is signed through 2019, while left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who only has two years of NFL experience and is an exclusive-rights free-agent, meaning he simply must take whatever offer Pittsburgh gives him.

A year ago Chris Hubbard was a “nice to have” type player to have on your depth chart, now he’s one play away from protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside.

Obviously, the Steelers could fill the backup tackle void with just about anyone, but why not with a player who has been in their system for some time now and also has had and will continue to have the privilege of being coached my Mike Munchak, perhaps the best in the business at what he does and certainly the most respected assistant coach on Pittsburgh’s staff.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Chis Hubbard

When you see the improvements of the likes of Marcus Gilbert and more notably Alejandro Villanueva in recent years, Chris Hubbard is certainly in good hands, and if any offensive line coach can get max out of his abilities, it’s Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak.

  • The Steelers have already offered Chris Hubbard a right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard.

Exact figures for 2017’s right of first refusal offers are suggested to be in the 1.85 million dollar range. So its doubtful that another team will try to sign Chris Hubbard away.

Its says here the Steelers made the right move in protecting Chris Hubbard. The Steelers have invested heavily in his development, and the truth is Chris Hubbard will be on someone’s roster in 2017. He he might as well be on the Steelers’ because you just never know when his services will be needed.

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Steelers 2017 Free Agent Cody Wallace – Does B.J. Finney’s Rise Mean Wallace’s “Life’s Work?” has Arrived?

In the modern, salary-cap era of the NFL, getting a pink slip on cut down day doesn’t necessarily spell doom. Current Steelers Fitzgerald Toussaint, Anthony Chickillo and James Harrison have been cut only to see another NFL Day.

  • But when The Turk came knocking down in Tampa in September 2013, Cody Wallace had to fear The End had arrived.

After all, Cody Wallace had bounced around between the 49ers, Lions, Texans, and Jets rosters and practice squads from 2008 to 2011 and landed a spot duty position with Tampa in 2012. When you’re a 28 year old NFL offensive lineman who has been with 5 teams in 5 years and you get cut, “Life’s Work” is usually comes next.

But even then, Cody Wallace appeared to be an insurance pickup. Maurkice Pouncey was continuing the Steelers tradition of stability at center that runs (almost) unbroken from Ray Mansfield, to Mike Webster, to Dermontti Dawson to Jeff Hartings. Little did they know, the Steelers would need Wallace’s services and need them soon.

That was four years ago and now the Steelers must decide if free agent Cody Walllace’s services are still worth it.

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Cody Wallace starting at center in the Steelers 2013 game against Green Bay at Lambeau Field. Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch, USA TODAY Sports

Capsule Profile of Cody Wallace’s Steelers Career

When Maurkice Pouncey went down on opening day 2013 against the Titans, Cody Wallace was in street clothes. The Steeler signed Fernando Velasco who started the next 11 games until he too got injured in the Steelers Thanksgiving loss to the Ravens.

It was Cody Wallace’s turn to be the next man up, and Wallace finished that game and started the final four games of the Steelers 2013 season. In 2014 Cody Wallace appeared in 15 games and gave two solid performances starting at guard.

When Maurkice Pouncey went down for the count in 2015, Cody Wallace started all 16 of the Steelers regular season games and both playoff games at center. Going into 2015 the Steelers had a pretty good record when Cody Wallace started, and during 2015 Ben Roethlisberger enjoyed solid protection the entire time, and Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams had solid run blocking.

Cody Wallace only appeared in one game during 2016 and was put on injured reserve just before the Steelers game road game against the Ravens.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Cody Wallace

Cody Wallace gives the Steelers veteran depth at the offensive line and the ability to step in and start at not one but two positions. While the NFL injury gods haven’t tortured the Steelers in recent years the as badly as they did at the beginning of the decade, the Steelers have learned the lesson that you can never have too many good offensive lineman.

Cody Wallace knows Mike Munchak’s system. He’s a quality player who has shown the ability to deliver when called upon time and time again.

The Cast Against the Steelers Signing Cody Wallace

B.J. Finney and Chris Hubbard. Both are younger lineman benefited from Wallace’s injury and absence in 2016. While both players offer the rare combination of experience and youth. They’re known commodities.

  • In contrast, Cody Wallace will turn 33 this year and he’s coming off of an injury.

The Steelers also have 2016’s 3rd round pick Jerald Hawkins coming back in 2017. While Hawkins plays tackle he’s another younger lineman that the Steelers will need reserve a roster spot for. Given that, Cody Wallace isn’t worth even a minimal signing bonus. The Steelers can get the same depth with younger, cheaper players.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Cody Wallace

If this were simply and X’s and O’s decision, and if my medical staff assured me Cody Wallace’s injury wasn’t long-term, then this arm-chair general manager would bring him back. It is true that B.J. Finney did an exceptional job as a guard.

On the Steelers first several 3rd downs ended in sacks as, the Browns ran right at Landry Jones and on came Jordan Berry. That was fine for a meaningless game against the Browns, but if you’re Mike Tomlin, do you really want to roll the dice with letting that happen to Ben Roethlisberger?

But of course personnel decisions in today’s NFL don’t simply come down to the X’s and O’s, they’re just as much about the bang for your salary cap dollar.

  • And in that analysis, the argument for letting Cody Wallace walk gets a lot stronger.

And at the end of the day, the Steelers will almost certainly hold off on making any sort of an offer to Cody Wallace, see who they can pick up in the 2017 NFL Draft, and only then seriously consider bringing him back.

In all likelihood, while the door isn’t completely closed, the Steelers look set to move on from Cody Wallace.
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16 Defining Moments of the Steelers 2016 Season

Just stop and think for one moment of everyone and everything that comprises the product of an team’s NFL season? It’s a process the delivers the collective sum total of the actions taken by hundreds of players, dozens of scouts and coaches and scores of front office personnel .

  • Trying to quantify that endeavor is as daunting as it is foolish.

While we’re not quite so ambitious here at Steel Curtain Rising, we have tried to single out the 16 Defining Moments of the Steelers 2016 Season.

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Antonio Brown’s last second touchdown vs the Ravens on Christmas was a defining moment for the 2016 Steelers. Photo Credit: Fred Vuich, AP.

1. Steelers Sign Alejandro Villanaueva

This moment of course came 2 years before the 2016 season even started and, in the predigital age, only would have warranted an inch or two of column space, if even that had it not been for Alejandro Villanueva’s Army background and service in Afghanistan.

  • But Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Mike Munchak saw something they linked in the young man, decided to give him a shot at a new position.

Two years later that move paid dividends as Kelvin Beachum left, while Ryan Harris and Jerald Hawkins got hurt – yet thanks to Villanueva’s development, the Steelers offensive line played perhaps its best football of the Tomlin era.

2. Heath Miller Retires

After a highly depleted 2015 Steelers roster came SO close to upsetting the Denver Broncos at Mile High in the AFC Divisional playoff game, it was tempting to look to 2016 and imagine the team picking up just where it left off.

However, as Mike Tomlin reminds the media and his team at the end of every season, each year brings a new start and there is no carry over.

And Heath Miller’s retirement was the first example of this. The move, while not surprising, wasn’t anticipated and, if Heath Miller was no longer a threat to stretch the field, Heath Miller gave Ben Roethlisberger about as dependable target as a quarterback can get.

3. Martavis Bryant Suspended

If Heath Miller’s retirement was a subtle but sobering reminder that the Steelers won’t field the same team in 2016 that they finished with in 2015, Martavis Bryant’s latest suspension of substance abuse made the point with shocking clarity.

While consistency eluded Martavis Bryant during the 2015 regular season, during the 2015 playoffs Bryant showed that he had Jerry Rice-like transformation talent.

His suspension showed that he also had Randy Moss off the field discipline issues that could prevent him from realizing his full potential.

4. Steelers Release Cortez Allen

The Steelers decision to release Cortez Allen 2 weeks before the 2016 NFL Draft hardly ranks as a surprise, given Mike Tomlin’s comments on Allen at the 2015 season’s end. But cutting Cortez Allen, along with the decisions to let Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin depart as free agents, and not bring back safety Will Allen for yet another year, showed that Tomlin, Colbert, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake were going all in on renewing the Steelers secondary.

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Sean Davis and Artie Burns at Steelers rookie mini-camp. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

5. Steelers Draft Burns, Davis and Hargrave

The Steelers need to rebuild on defense has been well documented, particularly their failure at rejuvenating the secondary.

The Steelers went into the 2016 NFL Draft with a plan to boost the defense, and Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin never flinched drafting Artie Burns in the first round, Sean Davis in the second round and Javon Hargrave in the second round.

The move paid handsome dividends as each player stepped up to make important contributions to the Steelers 9 game winning streak that closed the season.

6. David Johnson Returns

In June the Steelers surprised everyone by signing David Johnson, the final pick from the 2009 Draft Class who’d spent 2014 and 2015 with the San Diego Chargers. The move telegraphed Matt Spaeth’s release, further reinforcing the turnover theme.

However, as training camp dragged on, and Ladarius Green came no closer to practicing, it was clear that David Johnson would give the Steelers a veteran presence and solid blocking ability to a very green crops of tight ends.

7. Senquez Golson injures Lisfranc

During the off season, Mike Tomlin spoke glowingly about Senquez Golson, the cornerback the Steelers took in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft who lost his rookie season to shoulder surgery.

  • The Steelers were counting on Golson to do big things in 2016.

Unfortunately, Senquez Golson’s 2016 season amounted to two padded practices in change as he injured his Lisfranc. The Steelers kept Golson on the active roster, but ultimately had to put him on injured reserve, further highlighting the magnitude of the risk the Steelers were taking with their secondary.

8. Steelers Sign Cobi Hamilton

When the Steelers signed Cobi Hamilton on August 5th they were picking up a guy who’d bounced around to several practices squads over the last three years. By the look of it, they were doing little more than picking up another body to help them get through training camp drills.

  • But Hamilton did well enough to make the final roster.

And if Hamilton did struggle during the Steelers AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, the rookie effectively functioned as the Steelers 3rd wide receiver during their 9 game winning streak.

Cobi Hamiltion, defining moments steelers 2016, steelers vs browns, steelers new years overtime win browns

Cobi Hamilton catches game winner in overtime over Browns in Steelers New Years Day win. Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham, AP via Herald Star

9. Markus Wheaton Gets Hurt in Steelers Preseason win over Saints

The Steelers preseason win over the New Orleans Saints served as their dress rehearsal for the season, and by all accounts the Pittsburgh passed with flying colors.

Steel Curtain Rising admits to being somewhat of a homer for Markus Wheaton, but Wheaton played very well down the stretch in 2015 and the Steelers sure could have used him during the second half of 2016. Alas, Wheaton did return for a 3 game stretch in early part of the season, but was lost for good in week 11.

10. Le’Veon Bell Returns

Le’Veon Bell started 2013 injured, finished 2014 injured, began 2015 on suspension and finished the year on IR. Again, he began 2016 serving a suspension. So let’s remember that there WERE legitimate question as to whether this young back could deliver on the field when the Steelers hosted the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday Night Football.

  • Le’Veon Bell steamrolled the Chiefs for 178 all-purpose yards.

In doing so, the young running back put the NFL on notice that stopping the Steelers would mean stopping him.

11. Big Ben Gets Injured in Miami

Its no secret that Ben Roethlisberger remains the one, indispensable player on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster. His injury, in addition to the coach’s decision to abandon the run early, cost the Steelers the game in Miami, and arguably cost the Steelers on the road to the Ravens. Those losses prevented the Steelers from securing a first round bye, which proved costly.

12. Ryan Shazier Returns to Full Health

The naysayers in Steelers Nation have long been down on Ryan Shazier for being injury prone. The fact is that, with on disrespect to Vince Williams, the Steelers missed his athleticism during the middle portion of the season.

  • Shazier returned to his status as a full time starter against the Ravens.

And while the Steelers defense didn’t pick up its performance immediately, within two weeks Ryan Shazier was back to making splash plays all over the field, and by the season’s end, he was easily the Steelers best defender.

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James Harrison’s return to full time starter helped fuel the 2016 Steelers nine game winning streak. Photo Credit: USA Today sports via 247 Sports

13. James Harrison Returns to Full Time Stater

Since James Harrison returned from retirement in 2014 the Steelers have rotated him in some form or fashion, attempting to groom Jarvis Jones to take over the role full time. But Jones flinched on the critical play of the Steelers loss to the Cowboys, and Mike Tomlin wasted little time in promoting James Harrison to a full time starter.

  • All Harrison did was lead the team in sacks in his 7 starts.

More important, James Harrison held transform the Steelers rush defense from a liability into an asset. As Mike Tomlin rhetorically questioned when he announced the move, “What are we saving James Harrison for?” A playoff run, which is what the Steelers got.

14. Steelers Christmas Comeback over the Ravens

Yes, the Steelers needed this one to clinch the AFC North division in an all or nothing shot. Yes, this epic Christmas game was worth of narration by NFL Films legend John Facenda, yes Antonio Brown last minute stretch was an act that revealed his sheer greatness.

  • But there’s something more important that happened on Christmas 2016 for the Steelers.

The Pittsburgh Steelers snapped a 5 game losing streak to the Baltimore Ravens with this win. And while that hardly reestablishes the Steelers as the alpha male of the division, a six straight loss would have conferred that status to the Ravens.

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Le’Veon Bell breaks the Steelers playoff rushing record vs. the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via CBS Pittsburgh Local

15. Le’Veon Bell Breaks Steelers Playoff Rushing Record. Twice

When Le’Veon Bell broke the Steelers single game playoff rushing record the first time this, we stopped and reflected on what it meant. Then Bell went out and did it again in the following week.

On an individual level, this feat highlights just how special of talent Le’Veon Bell has. However, on a team level this also seemed to underscore that the Steelers were going to go as far as Le’Veon Bell would take them….

16. Steelers get Thumped by Patriots in AFC Championship (Again.)

…And Le’Veon Bell’s ride would end early in the first quarter against the New England Patriots, where the Steelers would fall 36-17 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score indicates.

For all of the growth they made and for all of the adversity they overcame, the 2016 Steelers simply weren’t Super Bowl worthy, as their latest AFC Championship loss to the Patriots revealed.
We’re wrapping up coverage of the Steelers 2016 season this week. Check back for their regular season report card and season summary.

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The Truth Hurts: King Tom Brady Reigns over Pittsburgh in Steelers Patriots Rivalry

In case you haven’t been paying attention to the latest edition of the Steelers Patriots rivalry (or simply tried to block it out of your mind), the Steelers are home for the rest of the postseason, after suffering a humiliating 36-17 loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium this past Sunday night.

  • If the words “humbling” and “embarrassing” sound familiar to you with regards to Pittsburgh’s run-ins with the Patriots over the years, that’s because they’re pretty accurate and descriptive.

After Sunday’s loss, the Steelers are now 2-10 against New England in games in the Tom Brady era. Furthermore, after accruing another  three touchdown passes in the title game, Brady now has 22 to zero interceptions when facing the Steelers in the Mike Tomlin era, which started in 2007.

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Sammie Coates doesn’t stand a chance as 4 Patriots gang-tackle him in the AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

And if you want to really be sick to your stomach, you may need a bucket after learning that the Steelers’  had zero passes defensed against Tom Brady on Sunday, this despite him dropping back to pass 42 times.

  • If there ever was a team that had another’s number, it’s the Patriots over the Steelers.

Obviously, if you are a die-hard Steelers fan, you were hoping against hope that they’d be able to exorcise the New England demons and walk out of Gillette Stadium with a postseason victory and a trip to Super Bowl LI.

  • Unfortunately, if you  really are a die-hard fan of the Black-and-Gold, you now realize the Patriots are clearly the superior franchise and have been for the past 15 years.

I mean, did Sunday’s loss look any different to you than the debacles that took place at Heinz Field in both January of 2002 and January of 2005, when Pittsburgh fell victim to the Patriots with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line?

Going into the game, this one had the feel that it might be different. After all, there were a lot of Steelers-Patriots playoff firsts in this one:

At the end of the day, it might has well have been Kordell Stewart under center handing off to Amos Zereoue and trying to hit Bobby Shaw in the slot, with Lee Flowers and Dewayne Washington tackling receivers as Brady picked apart the Steelers zones.

They seemed all-too familiar, and now, after clinching their seventh trip to the Super Bowl since 2001, it’s clear the Patriots, and not the Steelers, are the standard of this excellents modern era.

Steelers Patriots Rivalry Decidedly One-Sided

Oh sure, the Steelers, with 10 playoff appearances, eight division titles, six AFC title game appearances, three trips to the Super Bowl and two Lombardi Trophies since 2001, have been one of the stars of the NFL in the 21st century. But the Patriots, with 14 AFC East titles, seven trips to the Super Bowl and four Lombardi Trophies over that same time-frame, are rightfully the measuring stick for all NFL franchises.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. While Pittsburgh, with its four Super Bowl victories in six seasons, was the dynasty of dynasties of the 1970s, the Cowboys and Raiders, with their star-studded rosters and combined three Super Bowl titles, certainly carved their own places in NFL lore.

  • The only problem is, it appears that the Patriots’ dynasty, one that seemed destined to end years ago, will continue on for seasons to come.

Bill Belichick, for all his faults with regards to Spygate, is one whale of a head coach. Belichick took over as New England’s coach in 2000, stumbled upon  the greatness of Tom Brady due to injury and soon found a formula for success, one where he has discovered a knack for going after a specific type of player at a specific type of position (can you tell where Wes Welker began and where Julian Edelman ends?) and plugging that player into his system and having success.

Steelers Patriots rivalry, Ryan Clark, Wes Welker, Steelers vs Patriots

Ryan Clark tackles Wes Welker in the Steelers 2008 win over the Bradyless Patriots. Photo Credit: Stephan Savoia, AP via Post-Gazette

Sure, it helps to have Tom Brady at quarterback, but the scary thing about him is, at age 39, he shows no signs of slowing down. I mean, we’re not talking about Peyton Manning, who threw nine touchdowns to 17 interceptions in his last season in 2015; Brady threw 32 touchdowns to only two interceptions in 2016, while only being sacked 15 times in 432 passing attempts.

  • In other words, Brady looks like he can play another five years, and if you’re a Steelers fan who watched him carve their defense up in the AFC Championship game, that has to be kind of chilling.

In-addition to Belichick, Brady, the system the Patriots employ and their franchise-wide commitment to winning, New England has and apparently will continue to benefit from an overall weak AFC East Division.

Comparing Steelers Patriots Rivalry to Steelers Rivalries of Old

If you are old enough to remember the ’70s, you know that while the Steelers dominated the old AFC Central to the tune of seven division titles, they still had to stave off the Browns, Bengals and Oilers, who were determined to build their franchises up in-order to compete. Houston came close, challenging the Steelers two years in a row in the AFC Championship game, while the Bengals swept Pittsburgh in both 1980 and 1981 and actually advanced to Super Bowl XVI, following the ’81 season.

Joe Greene, Dan Pastorini, Steelers vs Oilers, Steelers Oilers AFC Championship, 1978 AFC Championship

Joe Greene closes in on Dan Pastorini in the 1978 AFC title game. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Besides the Patriots, only two teams have won the AFC East since 2001–the Jets in ’02 and the Dolphins in ’08. The Bills haven’t been to the playoffs since before New England’s run started (1999), the Jets’ last postseason appearance was 2010, while Miami just made it back this year after an eight season absence.

With Rex Ryan, Mark Sanchez and a great defense, it looked as if the Jets would become a worth challenger to New England, and they were…for two seasons, before imploding into just another doormat in the division.

  • In other words, nobody in the Patriots’ division appears to be even close to challenging them now or over the next few years.

Say what you will about the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals, but they’ve gone about trying to challenge Pittsburgh in the AFC North–particularly Baltimore, who has simply built its franchise to beat the Steelers over the years and with great success.

If you’re New England, and you know you’re all but guaranteed five or six wins within your own division every year, you just have to win another six or seven against the rest of the league in-order to capture no worse than a number two seed and a bye into the second round of the postseason.

  • If you do that every year–New England hasn’t had to play in the Wildcard round since 2009–the odds of getting to the Super Bowl increase that much more.
  • To summarize, the Steelers have been a major player in this era, but the Patriots are clearly the standard for success.

And it doesn’t look like New England’s dominant run either over the NFL or in the Steelers Patriots rivalry will end any time soon.

 

 

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What’s Missing from Steelers Christmas Win over Ravens? Narration from NFL Films John Facenda

The Steelers 31-27 win over the Ravens secured the AFC North, eliminated their rivals from playoffs and snapped Pittsburgh’s 4 game losing streak to Baltimore. The Steelers and Ravens fought an instant classic, featuring legendary performances on both sides of the ball.

  • Compared to the Lombardi-Landry matchups of yesteryear, the only thing lacking from the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens was narration NFL Films legend John Facenda.

Both stars and understudies stepped up at critical times to make the plays the Pittsburgh Steelers needed to prevail, but like all good Steelers-Ravens matchup, the winning team carried the day because they hit the hardest.

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Four Ravens can’t stop Antonio Brown from score the game winning touchdown in Steelers Christmas win over Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Set Tempo Early, but Fail to Maintain Rhythm

Perhaps most disturbing aspect of the Ravens win over the Steelers in early November 6th was the fact that Baltimore dominated at the line of scrimmage. Le’Veon Bell had 32 yards on 14 carries, and DeAngelo Williams only managed a single yard on his only carry.

  • The Ravens front seven didn’t simply dominate the Steelers run blockers, they bullied them.

Mike Munchak’s offensive line has played much, much better football since that day, and the Steelers lineman came out early in the game looking liked they’d taken their November manhandling personally.

In the space of just over five minutes, Le’Veon Bell ripped off runs of 10, 7, 7, 6 and 10 yards. And, foreshadowing things to come, Ben Roethlisberger hit Xavier Grimble for a 20 yard touchdown strike, giving the backup tight end his first catch since the Steelers loss to the Cowboys.

  • The Steelers first drive against the Ravens impressed by any measure

More importantly, it established the game’s tempo – this game was going to be won in the trenches, with contributions coming from across the depth chart.

Ravens Match Pittsburgh Physically, Peck Away at Lead

The Steelers had done well to set the physical tone for the game, but unfortunately Pittsburgh struggled to keep pace. The Raven’s first half offense might have lacked for fireworks, Steve Smith Junior’s 44 yard catch notwithstanding, but the Ravens established that Baltimore was ready, willing and able to match the Steelers physical challenge.

  • During the first half, the Steelers defense did a good job of matching the brute force of the Raven’s attack.

Both Lawrence Timmons and Bud Dupree had sacks which helped force punts, and on two other occasions, the Steelers defense turned away the Ravens offense, forcing them to settle for field goals.

But, more importantly, the Ravens defense responded to the gauntlet the Steelers had thrown down to open the game. Sure, the Steelers offense made its share of penalties during the first half, but the Ravens took advantage of those by forcing the Steelers to punt three times.

Roethlisberger Send Steelers Nation Cardiac Units into Overdrive

The difference between Ben Roethlisberger’s play on the road and at home has provided one of Steelers 2016 season’s the more interesting subplots, even if Ben Roethlisberger’s road performance perked up during the second half of the season.

  • At home, Ben Roethlisberger had been virtually untouchable….

…Until the third quarter of the Ravens game. Ben Roethlisberger opened the 3rd quarter with an ugly interception, and closed it with an uglier one. Observer-Reporter scribe Dale Lolley spoke for everyone in Steelers Nation after the second pick:

Baltimore capitalized on the Raven’s first interception, scoring a touchdown and two-point conversion. Thanks to some smart play by James Harrison, Ryan Shazier and Sean Davis, the Steelers defense held the Ravens to another field goal following Ben Roethlisberger’s second pick.

  • But in just over 1 quarter, the Ravens had scored 14 points, and the Steelers only three.

More ominously, during their 8 minute 3rd quarter field goal drive, the Ravens had proven that they could run the ball on Pittsburgh’s defense, as L.T. Walton, Javon Hargrave and Ricardo Mathews seemed to struggle in Stephon Tuitt’s absence.

That did not bode well for a Steelers team that needed at least 2 scores in 15 minutes to take the lead….

Ben Roethlisberger Channels His Inner Hulk Hogan in the 4th

In the 1980’s, Hulk Hogan transformed professional wrestling into a mainstream industry in large part by pretending  to get beaten into despair, only to rally when things looked to be their worst to secure victory.

  • While he certainly didn’t script it that way, Ben Roethlisberger did something similar against the Ravens.

Ben Roethlisberger started strong, only sputtered around for much of the first half, and then followed by playing some of the worst big-game football of his career in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, Big Ben, did what true Hall of Fame caliber quarterbacks do – elevate their play when a trip to the playoffs hangs in the balance.

Demarcus Ayers, Steelers Christmas win over Ravens, Jerraud Powers

Demarcus Ayers stiff arms Jerraud Powers in his first NFL catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

When NFL Films retells this game to future generations, they’ll rightly credit Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown for their All Pro 4th quarter performances. But the performances of the players below them on the depth chart, as well as the Steelers defense were just as important to the final outcome.

  • Jesse James started it off with his impressive, 21 yard catch
  • Demarcus Ayers followed by drawing a pass interference penalty that put the Steelers in the Red Zone
  • Two plays later, Ayers blocking occupied Kyle Arrington allowing Le’Veon Bell to reach the end zone.

Let the record reflect, that when the Ravens got the ball back, they stuck with what had been working for them as Kenneth Dixon got 7 yards on two runs. But Bud Dupree stepped up and defended a pass on third down, forcing Baltimore to punt.

  • At this point, the Steelers offense was on fire.

Le’Veon Bell took the first handoff and ripped off a 23 yard run. His next carry when for 13. Then Ben Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for 21 and 26 yard receptions where Brown earned the bulk of his yards after the catch.

Then the Steelers showed what makes their offense special. As Le’Veon Bell explained to Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell:

…[Ben] was looking the other way. He said my name. I heard it. ‘L. Bell,’ that’s what he said. I’m blocking but I turned around and he was scrambling to the right but looking to the left, so when I caught it, nobody was there because he looked everybody off and he was wanting to go to me the whole time. That’s a special play but it’s stuff like that that he does all the time. In certain times in prime-time drives, when he knows we need it, he comes up huge. That’s what we need. You need that from your quarterback. You need that on your team.

With 7 minutes remaining, the Pittsburgh Steelers had pulled off a dramatic comeback to take a 24 to 20 lead at Heinz Field, having clearly put the momentum on their side. But the 4th quarter drama was only beginning.

Fantastic Fourth Quarter Finish

There wasn’t a single Baltimore Raven who was ready to back down. Baltimore got the ball at the 25, where Joe Flacco proceeded to convert 3 third downs, as he moved down the field consuming precious clicks on the clock.

  • It was at this point in the game that Baltimore’s commitment to the run paid off.

Ravens running backs had a number of impressive carries on this drive, as all of them refused to go down at first contact, and they fell forward each time. With just a minute 1:25 to play, the Ravens handed it to Kyle Juszczyk who saw a couple of Steelers bounce off of him en route to the end zone and a 27-24 Ravens lead.

Again, Dale Lolley echoed the thoughts of Steelers Nation. The lesson of loss to the Cowboys seemed to reveal that the 2016 Steelers simply weren’t that good.

If the Steelers 5 straight wins had disproved that lesson, then Kyle Juszczyk’s touchdown seemed to assure the Ravens a 5th straight win over the Steelers, hammering home the painful reality that John Harbaugh’s Ravens were simply better than Mike Tomlin’s Steelers.

  • But this group of Steelers wasn’t finished writing their story.

Working with two time outs and starting at his own 25, Ben Roethlisberger hit Jesse James twice, Demarcus Ayers once, Eli Rogers once, and Cobi Hamilton once to bring the Steelers to the 4th yard line with 13 seconds to play.

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, steelers christmas win over Baltimore ravens

Ben Roethlisberger stands with Antonio Brown in Steelers Christmas win over Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

With no timeouts remaining, the easy call would have been to bring Chris Boswell on the field to tie the game and bring on overtime.

  • Instead, with the season in the balance, Mike Tomlin chose to go for all the marbles, trusting in Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger, in turn, trusted Antonio Brown to get across the goal line, even though he had two men in front of him.

  • Brown caught the ball, then squiggled, squirmed and stretched towards the goal line.
  • Before he was done, four Ravens were hitting him.

But in the end, they couldn’t hit Antonio Brown hard enough. Brown broke the plane, which ut  Pittsburgh ahead for good. The Steelers were AFC North Champions, while the Ravens would spend January at home.

Steelers in Position to Make a Run for a Ring

The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers began the season looking like sure-fire favorites to contend for a championship. Midway through the season, things looked quite differently, as rookies struggled to learn the defense, and injuries took their toll on the offense.

  • But Mike Tomlin’s team never blinked.

The Steelers scratched and clawed their way first back to respectability, getting a little better each week. Now the Steelers are headed to the playoffs for the 7th time since Mike Tomlin arrived in 2007. Can the Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers bring home Lombardi Number 7 their 7th trip to the playoffs?

  • Time will tell.

The Steelers won’t enter the playoffs as the AFC favorites, but both the resiliency and the championship caliber plays the men in Black and Gold  made against the Ravens proves that Pittsburgh is capable of proving a lot of people wrong.

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Rushing with Flying Colors – Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Win over Bills

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased to see his freshman and sophomore setup up, even if his star senior struggled, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Buffalo Bills.

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Bud Dupree sacks Tyrod Taylor in the 4th quarter of the Steelers 27-20 win. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
After playing one solid and another spectacular game away from Heinz Field, road rust hit Ben Roethlisberger, and hit him bad. Against the Bills, Ben Roethlisberger went 17 of 31 for 220 yards and 3 interceptions. Two of those interceptions came in the Red Zone, which is particularly troubling. Ben Roethlisberger was efficient at other times, but his mistakes in the Red Zone made this game far closer than it needed to be. Grade: C-steelers, report card, steelers grades, steelers vs. giants, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers bills

Running Back
236 yards on the ground. 62 yards through the air. 3 touchdowns, no fumbles and a 6.2 yards per carry average on a day when his longest run was 33 yards. Le’Veon Bell set the Steelers single game rushing record, came just a hair below breaking 300 yards from scrimmage and threatened that record as well. Le’Veon Bell took over the game vs. the Bills in a way that only a true great back can. Fitzgerald Toussaint had one carry for 6 yards. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
Ladarius Green 2 passes for 25 yards including an 18 yarder which helped set up Bell’s first touchdown. Green was targeted 6 times, although given Ben Roethlisberger’s erratic passing, those four non-catches might not have been his fault. David Johnson got open and caught a 15 yard pass on 4th and one and provided excellent blocking for Le’Veon Bell on a number of occasions. Jesse James caught one pass on 3 targets for 5 yards. This game was won in the trenches, and the tight ends did their part. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet day, all things considered, for Antonio Brown. Brown caught 5 passes for 78 yards and no touchdowns, although long receptions of 9, 29 and 40 yards setup to scores. Cobi Hamilton had a 15 yard catch that helped set up another Le’Veon Bell touchdown, and Eli Rogers 3 catches for 20 yards. It is clear that this point that the Steelers really need someone to complement Antonio Brown, and while Rogers and Hamilton have been serviceable, they haven’t stepped up. Grade: B

Offensive Line
This is the type of offensive line play that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin had in mind when they authored contract extensions of Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert and David DeCastro. B.J. Finney again played in relief of Ramon Foster, and clearly the offensive line didn’t miss a beat. Chris Hubbard also saw extensive time as a third tight end. A running back doesn’t average 6.2 yards without good blocking. What’s more, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t get sacked and was only hit once. Grade: A+

Defensive Line
No Cameron Heyward, no Javon Hargrave? No problem. The Steelers defensive line played in what was clearly its best game of the season. Stephon Tuitt had a half sack, a pass defensed, a quarterback hit and one and a half tackles behind the line of scrimmage. And that probably wasn’t his best play, which came when he chased down Shady McCoy 30 yards down the field while the Steelers held a lead. L.T. Walton saw his first significant action and registered a tackle for a loss. Ricardo Mathews had one tackle. Daniel McCullers name didn’t show up on the stat sheet, but if he hadn’t been doing his job. LeSean McCoy wouldn’t have been doing his Walter Abercrombie imitation so well. Grade: A

Linebackers
Welcome Back Bud Dupree. The Steelers sophomore linebacker had two sacks, but his best play came when Tyrod Taylor evaded him, broke a few other tackles, only to have Bud Dupree come from across the field and stop him for a one yard game.

  • It should tell you something that Bud Dupree wasn’t the best linebacker on the field.

Ryan Shazier earned that honor, who led the team in tackles, sacked the quarterback once, defensed a pass on third down, and had a tackle for a loss. Whenever McCoy or Taylor threatened to run, Shazier was there. Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison had quiet days, although Harrison’s efforts in sealing the edge on the run game should not be overlooked. Grade: A

Secondary
With each game Sean Davis continues to improve. You know a safety is doing his job well when in on two tackles in the backfield. Davis also had a sack and a half. And it was Davis play in coverage that helped set up Artie Burns interception, which prevented Ben’s costly pick from morphing into a momentum changer. Ross Cockrell also had a solid day, as did William Gay who saw a pick six get called back on a penalty. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell knocked in three field goals and three extra points – all on a cold, snowy windy afternoon alongside Lake Eire, all after coming off an injury. Fitzgerald Toussanit had two respectable kick returns, and Antonio Brown made noise as a punt returner. The Bills got nothing in their kicking game. It was a strong game for the special teams, although penalties drop their grade a bit. Grade: B

Coaching
Was Todd Haley hearing echoes of the Dolphins game on Sunday afternoon? Mike Tomlin wouldn’t tell, but the fact is that unlike his trip to Miami, Haley realized he had a back looking to take over the game while his franchise quarterback struggled, and he put the game in the hands of the best player on the field.

  • Both Haley and Mike Munchak must earn credit for the outstanding performance of the offensive line which dominated all afternoon long.

The Steelers defense perhaps gave up a little more than you’d like to see in the 4th quarter, but Keith Butler’s crew negated two of Ben Roethlisberger’s 3 turnovers. More importantly, they directly attacked the Buffalo Bills strength, succeeded in neutralizing their running game.

Mike Tomlin would unquestionably be the first person to insist that he has accomplished nothing yet here in 2016, and far be it for Steel Curtain Rising to take issue with him. But the fact is, with 2 games of December football in the bank, the Steelers are positioning themselves to participate in January football. That’s not something that seemed likely just four weeks ago. Credit Tomlin for that. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Next summer the Steelers Media Guide will read, “Most Rushing Yards, Game” 1. Le’Veon Bell, 236 (12/11/2016 vs. Buffalo). Willie Parker and John Fuqua’s names will follow.

  • But there’s another name that should be mentioned there, but won’t. So we’ll mention it here.

No running back dominates like Le’Veon Bell did without quality blocking. Bell got that from his offensive line and the tight ends. But he also had a herald in the form of Roosevelt Nix, who cleared the way for Bell time and time again. Nix also had a specular special teams tackle that prevented a return, and for those contributions Roosevelt Nix wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Bills.

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Setting Up for a Late Semester Surge: Steelers Report Card for Giants Win

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders if the growing pains his student suffered early in the year won’t fuel a late semester surge, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the New York Giants.

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Eli Manning has no where to run as Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison close in. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger found himself playing against a much tougher defense, and the numbers bear that out, although a number of recievers did drop catchable balls. Against the Giants Ben Roethlisberger went 24 for 26 for 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. It should be noted that while Eli Rogers receiver got both hands on the ball, it was slightly under thrown. The Steelers were 7-15 on third downs and 1-1 on fourth downs and the latter stat really counted. A solid day for the Steelers signal caller. Grade: B+

Running Back
The New York Giants have a stout run defense, and Le’Veon Bell had to work for his yards on a number of occasions. But Le’Veon Bell earned the tough yards against the Giants, saw his patience pay off when the hole was not immediately clear, and hit the holes hard when they were there. And he also 6 passes for 64 yards to add to his 118 rushing yards. Roosevelt Nix was used extensively at fullback, and he played well. Le’Veon Bell did cough up the ball which led to New York’s non-garbage time fumble, which drops his grade a notch. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
This was the Ladarius Green the Steelers thought they were getting when they signed him to a 20 million dollar contract. Ladarius Green proved to be again be a field flipper and a difference maker in catching six passes for 110 yards, including a touchdown. Jesse James also saw extensive action, and if he did have an early drop, he made up for it on later plays including a critical 4th down conversion in the 4th quarter. Both tight ends acquitted themselves well. Grade: A

Wide Receiverssteelers, report card, steelers grades, steelers vs. giants, coaching, special teams, unsung heros, steelers colts thanksgiving
The Giants managed to “contain” Antonio Brown fairly well, as Brown only had 6 catches for 54 yards. But he made those catches count, with a jaw dropping touchdown catch and another excellent toe tapper to keep the ball in bounds on the Steelers final touchdown drive. Brown didn’t get a lot of help for the rest of the receivers.

Eli Rogers did have a nice 18 yard catch, but that was his only one. Cobi Hamilton caught two balls, but they only amounted for 11 yards. Sammie Coates saw limited action at wide out and did not see a pass come his way. Ladarius Green’s emergence should help Antonio Brown, but Brown will need help during December. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger saw more pressure than he has in recent weeks, but per the numbers on ESPN, he was only sacked twice and only hit three more times. More importantly, the Steelers offensive line’s pass protection held when it needed to.

Any breakdown of the game tape is going to reveal battles at the line of scrimmage that the Steelers offensive line lost. But as the game wore on, the Mike Munchak’s crew wore down the men in front of them and ultimately, imposed their will in the fourth quarter. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
The New York Giants didn’t come into the game with much of a rushing offense and didn’t establish one during the game. Stephon Tuitt didn’t put up a lot of statics, but he was moving around and forced New York to account for him. Ricardo Mathews earned his first sack as a Steeler, and ended an attempted Giant’s 4th down conversion. Overall the line played so well, that yours truly didn’t notice that Javon Hargrave missed the second half with a concussion. Grade: B+

Linebackers
Lawrence Timmons has taken a lot of heat for supposedly slowing a step this season, but he has put together several strong games and stepped it up a notch vs. the Giants, making a field flipping interception when New York threatened in the Red Zone. Ryan Shazier’s stat sheet might seem slim, but he made a key pass defense in the Red Zone. Bud Dupree hasn’t made any splash plays, but getting around the field (and he was held a lot.)

And what else can you say about James Harrison? He’s 38 years old and has had 5 sacks in five weeks. Grade: A

Secondary
The Steelers secondary took another stride forward this week. Odell Beckham may have pleased fantasy owners, but the Steelers kept him out of the end zone.

Artie Burns continues to improve, particularly in his tackling. Mike Mitchell also played another strong game defending two key passes. But the real star of the show was Sean Davis, who made several plays early on, and then came down with an interception when the Giants were trying to rally. Grade: A

Special Teams
It was a quiet week for the Steelers special teams, with the Giants making little noise in the kick return game, and the Steelers got two decent returns. Randy Bullock came in at the last minute and knocked in 3 field goals and one extra point. You can’t ask for much more than that. Penalties continue to be an issue, and that drops the grade of this unit. Grade: B

Coaching
It was easy to write off the Steelers wins against the Browns and the Luckless Colts. Sure, the Steelers haven’t always done well in those “should win” situations, but its also true that neither team offered the Steelers a real test.

  • Todd Haley designed a game plan that called for ball control, and his unit executed it to near perfection.

And if the Steelers still need help at receiver, Haley was able to incorporate Ladarius Green as a vertical threat, something which clearly made a difference in this game.

Keith Butler’s defense delivered what is perhaps their strongest performance of the season, with the Steelers forcing the Giants to go 0-3 on 4th down conversions.

More importantly, several members of Butler’s defense stepped up at critical moments to deliver splash plays. We saw a lot of that in 2015, but not much so far this season. Hopefully this is a sign of more to come.

Mike Tomlin appears to have succeeded in getting his team to avoid riding the roller coaster. They didn’t let a four game losing streak take the wind out of their sails, and they didn’t allow winning 2 games in 5 days to go to their heads.

The one real quibble we have with the coaching are the penalties. The Steelers win could have been much more decisive were it not for inopportune flags and this is becoming a reccuring issue, and hence drops the coaching grade. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
He won’t get the ink that his counterpart is deservedly getting. He didn’t score a touchdown and probably won’t make any ESPN highlight reels. But this young player atoned for a drop with a nice 16 yard catch, helped set up the Steelers first touchdown with an 11 yard catch, and caught a 5 yard 4th down conversion that iced the game, and for that Jesse James wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Giants.

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