Steelers Report Card for 2019 Opening Loss to Patriots – No Practice Makes for Imperfect

Taken from the grade book of a teacher dismayed that his pupils STILL haven’t learned that practice makes perfect, here is the Steelers Report Card for the latest loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

Donte Moncreif, Donte Moncrief Steelers debut, steelers vs patriots

Donte Moncrief’s Steelers debut definitely left a lot to be desired. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
No sugar coating here: Ben Roethlisberger looked every bit the quarterback who had thrown 13 passes in the preseason. He was out of synch with receivers. This was brutally evident on several long balls, but he also tried to force a slant route that should have been a pick six. Ben Roethlisberger was far from the only culprit this night, but he says “He needs to play better.” Agreed. Grade: F

Running Backs
With the way the game evolved neither James Conner nor Jaylen Samuels had much of a chance to get going. Both made some catches, but these were not factors. And the run blocking wasn’t there. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Word has been that to protect his health, the Steelers were going to keep Vance McDonald on ice. Well, they certainly did that. Vance McDonald didn’t get into the action until garbage time where he caught 2 passes for 40 yards, Xavier Grimble was invisible and Zach Banner didn’t get work as a third tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster first game as the Steelers official number 1 WR drew mixed results. JuJu managed to make some nice catches, but didn’t approach being a game changer. In contrast, Donte Moncrief led the team in targets and looked terrible. James Washington could have had a game-breaking play, yet lost his balance. Ryan Switzer caught 6 of 6 balls thrown to him, but that merely highlights how well covered the rest of the WRs were. Grade: F

Offensive Line
Credit the offensive line for giving Ben Roethlisberger time to throw. There were several times when Ben had too much time no one was open. However, the offensive line’s run blocking was atrocious. 3 times in the first half the Steelers faced 3rd and 1 or 4th and one and failed to convert. Making those conversions could have at least altered the dynamics of the game. Instead, the Steelers lost the battle of scrimmage. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Patriots had some success running the ball early in the game that put them in 3rd and short situations, which they converted. That’s not all on the defensive line, but it starts there. The Steelers couldn’t get pressure on Brady consistently, and if you give Brady time he will burn you. And Brady burned the Steelers. Yet again. Grade: F

Linebackers
Bud Dupree had a sack. Vince Williams, Mark Barron and Devin Bush split time inside. The linebackers got some pressure on Brady on a few odd occasions, but that was too little too late. Brady decimated the Steelers with the short passing game and while that’s not all on the linebackers, they shoulder some of the blame. Grade: D

Secondary
Any one want to question Sean Davis’ value? Kameron Kelly got his first start and looked every bit the like an AAF retread. Terrell Edmunds made a few nice plays but nothing to indicate he’s about to make the 2nd year leap. Steven Nelson’s name wasn’t heard much, which is good. Joe Haden did not appear to make any egregious mistakes. But Tom Brady passed for 341 yards and six touchdowns while converting 7 third downs. The totals could have been double had the Patriots passed more. Grade: F

Special Teams
On the positive side, Chris Boswell made his one attempt and Jordan Berry boomed off several long punts. Ryan Switzer returned no punts and was average as a kick returner. But the Patriots returned two punts for 35 yards. That was hardly a decisive factor, but it does show just how much things went wrong. Grade: C-

Coaching
At half time Mike Tomlin told NBC that lack of execution was the issue. He was right. To wit, if the Steelers can force a 3 and out after kicking a field goal and then score a touchdown to open the second half, they’re very much in the game.

  • But that doesn’t get the coaching staff off of the hook.

The New England Patriots were in championship form. The Pittsburgh Steelers looked like they were still playing preseason. Judging by the tone of coverage of reporters who’ve been watching the team daily for the last two months, Pittsburgh’s piss poor performance surprised them as much as it did the fans.

Yet here we are again in early September, and the Steelers aren’t simply failing to execute, failing to adjust, they’re also not playing with any confidence or poise.

  • Could that have been solved by more reps for the starters in preseason?
  • Is it something else?
  • Is it just a fluke?

It matters not. The Pittsburgh Steelers were woefully unprepared for Prime Time. And that’s on Mike Tomlin. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
If there was one brightish spot for the Steelers, it came in the form of T.J. Watt who got in Tom Brady’s face and was easily the most impactful and consistent defender and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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Concerned about Ray Sherman’s Return as Steelers WR Coach? You Shouldn’t Be.

Last week Mike Tomlin named Ray Sherman as Steelers interim wide receivers coach, filling the vacancy created by Daryl Drakes’ untimely death. The move was expected, as Ray Sherman had been working with the Steelers wide outs at St. Vincents, and he is by far more experienced than William Gay or Blaine Stewart who’ve also been coaching wide receivers.

  • But raise your hand if you weren’t concerned when you first saw Ray Sherman’s name surface.

Twitter tells no lie. Guilty as charged. Ray Sherman was the Steelers offensive coordinator in 1998, and he was a disaster.

With that said, Ray Sherman’s first stint with the Steelers over 20 years ago offers and important lesson for today.

Ray Sherman, Ray Sherman Steelers wide receivers coach

Steelers interim wide receivers coach Ray Sherman on the South Side. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Of Conference Championship Losses and Offensive Coordinators

Conference championship losses can be curious affairs.

Any conference championship loss delivers a dose of disappointment. The idea is to open heaven’s door, not knock on it. But every conference championship loss can be viewed as a “Half-Full/Half-Empty” experience. It either signals that you’re ready to cross the threshold or that you never will.

  • Unfortunately, in the immediate aftermath which direction your team is heading in is never clear.

In 2004 rookie Ben Roethlisberger set the NFL on fire leading the Steelers to 15 straight wins only to fall flat against New England at Heinz Field in the AFC Championship. The loss stung. Critics charged it was proof that Bill Cowher “Will NEVER win The Big One.”

The atmosphere was very different after the Steelers 1984 AFC Championship loss to Maimi. The Steel Curtain had shaken off the rust and Pittsburgh was primed to be good or event great again. After the game, both Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney were unabashedly optimistic about the future in talking with Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Press.

Mike Merriweather, Edmund Nelson, John Elway, Steelers vs Broncos 1984, Mike Merriweather Steelers career

Mike Merriweather and Edmund Nelson close in on John Elway. Photo Credit: Pin Interest

Yet, the Steelers would lose 3 of the next 4 seasons, and Chuck Noll’s next, and last playoff victory with the 1989 Steelers lie 5 years away.

The Steelers had knocked on heaven’s door only to have John Elway slam it shut with another miracle comeback. But the arrow seemed to be pointing up in Pittsburgh. The Steelers had weathered dramatic roster turnover in the two years following Super Bowl XXX, defying the gravity of free agency and late drafting position.

More importantly, with Chan Gailey’s tutelage Kordell Stewart appeared to have established himself as the quarterback of the future….

Ray Sherman’s First Stint in Pittsburgh

Coincidence might create historical symmetries, but they provide perfect story telling props.

In 1990 shortly after a disappointing playoff loss the Steelers nonetheless seemed to be on the rise. But on Valentine’s Day, Chuck Noll hired Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator, a decision that doomed his final years in Pittsburgh.

The move came as a surprise, and it sent the Steelers scrambling because the promising coordinator candidates had already found jobs. However, when the Steelers hired Ray Sherman, it looked like a smart move.

Ray Sherman brought an impressive pedigree to Pittsburgh, and had done wonders in developing Brad Johnson from an obscure 9th round pick from the 1992 NFL Draft to a quality starter who would later guide the 2002 Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win.

Kordell Stewart, Bryce Fisher, Steelers vs Bills

Bryce Fisher sacks Kordell Stewart. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

  • Who better to bring Kordell Stewart along?

Well, it turns out a lot of coaches. In his first year as a starter, Kordell Stewart revealed his flaws, but like Jim McMahon, he seemed to have that innate ability to find ways to win. Stewart played fearlessly in 1997, making costly mistakes, but always bouncing back with a vengeance.

He looked like he lacked confidence. Kordell Stewart even admitted to “pressing.” The long and even medium pass all but disappeared from his game. Ray Sherman was part of the problem. As John Steigerwald observed, rollouts, play action and bootlegs vanished from the Steelers offense as Sherman tried to mold Kordell into a pocket passer.

To be fair, Sherman was handed an offense that had lost and failed to replace Yancey Thigpen and John Jackson. Just when the offensive line began to jell, he lost Justin Strzelczyk.

  • But Ray Sherman was in over his head as offensive coordinator.

Mexican blogger Carlos Ortiz charges that Ray Sherman once called a play from his Vikings days that wasn’t even in the Steelers playbook. Outside of that, his play calling was perilously predictable.

When the Steelers faced third and 6ish situations, we’d sit there and say, “Weakside pitch to Fred McAfee.” And sure enough that was the call. McAfee, God bless him, would often make it a good 4 or 5 yards before he got clobbered.

Late in the season, Bill Cowher stripped Sherman of play calling duties, and Sherman resigned shortly thereafter.

The Lesson? Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

The lesson from Ray Sherman’s first stint with the Steelers is that things aren’t always what they seem. The Steelers appeared to be a team headed up in early 1998, and Sherman appeared to be a good choice as offensive coordinator.

Neither turned out to be true.

Quite to the contrary.

Ray Sherman is by all accounts an accomplished wide receivers coach, having coached Jerry Rice, Drew Hill, Ernest Givins, Antonio Freeman, and Terrell Owens. Ray Sherman is hardly the first position coach to struggle in a coordinator’s role, but Steelers fans have every reason to expect him to succeed as interim wide receiver’s coach.

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Steelers Wide Receivers Coach Daryl Drake Dead at Age 62

The Pittsburgh Steelers are reeling after the death of wide receivers coach Daryl Drake, who died Sunday morning at age 62. As of Sunday night, the team had not released any details about Daryl Drake’s death, but they did cancel practices on both Sunday and Monday.

Steelers President Art Rooney II issued the following statement:

We are at a loss for words following Darryl Drake’s passing this morning. Darryl had such an impact on the players he coached and everyone he worked with throughout his entire career. He was a passionate coach and had a tremendous spirit toward life, his family, his faith and the game of football.

Our prayers and thoughts are with his wife, Sheila, his three daughters, his grandchildren and entire family during this difficult time.

Of Daryl Drake, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “He was an amazing husband, father and grandfather, and it is difficult to put into words the grief our entire team is going through right now.”

Daryl Drake obituary, Daryl Drake, Diontae Spencer

Diontae Spencer and Daryl Drake at practice. Photo Credit: Diontae Spencer’s Twitter feed.

Steelers, NFL Assistant Coaches Make Impact in Anonymity

NFL position coaches, as Dick Hoak, reminded everyone on the day he retired, “Are hired to be fired.” Hoak of course beat the system, serving on Chuck Noll’s staff starting in 1972 and Bill Cowher’s stafff starting in 1992 and retiring in January 2006.

But even so, the name “Dick Hoak” likely meant little to all but hard core fans, never mind that Hoak had mentored the likes of Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Merril Hoge, Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker.

  • Occasionally an assistant will break out of that mold. Mike Munchak’s tenure in Pittsburgh offers a perfect example.

But Mike Munchack is an exception, not the rule. Randy Fitchner had been on Mike Tomlin’s staff since 2007, yet when he first appeared talking to Ben Roethlisberger on the Steelers sidelines in mid-2018, I had to do a double take before I realized who he was.

  • Such was the case with Daryl Drake, who joined the Steelers in 2018.

Although Drake was charged with filling the shoes of a legend, Richard Mann he maintained a relatively low profile during his stint in Pittsburgh. No one, not even the most bombastic blogger, looked at Antonio Brown’s tantrums and asked, “Would this have happened had Richard Mann was still here?”

  • Sometimes anonymity has its benefits.

Which isn’t to say that Daryl Drake’s coaching didn’t have an impact on the Steelers roster. JuJu Smith-Schuster had a breakout year under Drakes tutelage. While that’s highly probably that JuJu’s sophomore season would have gone similarly regardless of who is position coach was, it is not certain.

Remember “Young Money?” Remember how the trio generally under performed in 2012 which lead (depending on who you believe) Mike Tomlin to bring in Mann to replace Scottie Montgomery.

If nothing else, Daryl Drake leaves this world after watching two of his pupils, James Washington and Johnny Holton log stand out performances in the Steelers preseason win over Tampa Bay.

Daryl Drake is survived by his wife, daughters Shanice, Felisha and Marian, and two grandchildren.

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Tomorrow, Steelers Rookie Devin Bush Steps into a Intense Spotlight

Steelers’ rookie first-round pick Devin Bush was the star of a training camp highlight over the weekend, when he got the best of fellow rookie Benny Snell Jr. in a backs on backers drill.

If you watch the video linked to the first paragraph, you’ll see that Devin Bush took Benny Snell, a fourth-round pick who earned a reputation at Kentucky as a hard-nosed running back who liked to run downhill, and drove him about five yards backwards before depositing him on his, well, backside.

  • Naturally, Devin Bush drew praise and cheers from the many onlookers at the team’s annual Friday Night Lights practice at Latrobe Memorial Stadium.

As a long-time observer of the team, I saw what Devin Bush did and the first thing I thought was that he needed to win just about every backs on backers battle he could against a rookie running back.

Devin Bush,

Steelers rookie Devin Bush on the fields of St. Vincents. Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo! Sports

Sure, Devin Bush, an inside linebacker from Michigan, is a rookie in his own right, and he’s out there learning just like every other player at his first NFL training camp. But it’s a little different for Devin Bush.

He’s not just a rookie first-round draft choice. He’s a rookie first-round draft choice that general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin deemed valuable enough to trade up 10 spots to select–and part with a first-round pick (2019), second-round pick (2019) and third-round pick (2020) in the process.

That’s a huge departure for a Steelers front office whose draft day philosophy is usually to stand pat and let the chips fall where they may. But the Steelers couldn’t wait and hope that Bush fell to them (that would have been a minor miracle, anyway), not this year, not with what he could possibly mean to their defense.

  • In that context, my thought process regarding Devin Bush’s dominance of Snell Jr. wasn’t really surprising. And that’s because my expectations for him are high.

And that brings me to what Bush is just days away from facing: a stadium full of Steelers fans who will have the same expectations of Bush that I do when Pittsburgh takes on the Buccaneers this Friday night at Heinz Field in the first preseason game of 2019.

Sure, it’s only an exhibition, and for most of the veterans, it will be a glorified practice and a way to get some more work in (that is, if they even play at all). As for the other rookies and younger players–many of whom are already on the brink of having to get on with their life’s work–yes, the pressure will be on. It will be do or die, perhaps the one and only time they’ll be able to leave a strong and lasting impression on their bosses.

  • Devin Bush is facing no such pressure. His spot on the roster is a lock, not only for this season but the next few.

However, this does not mean Devin Bush won’t be feeling the pressure to perform and to perform well, staring this Friday. You see, about 120,000 eyes will be trained on his every move for every second that he’s in the game. Why?

  • Devin Bush is seen by many as a minor savior for the Steelers.

If he is truly the real deal–if his speed, explosiveness, athleticism, play-making ability, leadership and high football IQ can make a seamless transition from the college ranks to the professional level–Pittsburgh’s defense may have its replacement for Ryan Shazier, who was lost near the end of the 2017 campaign with a spinal injury that he’s still not fully recovered from.

Ryan Shazier was everything to the Steelers defense, which is why the team drafted in him out of Ohio State in 2014. Shazier battled the injury bug over the course of his four-years as the center of the Steelers defense, but when he was healthy, there was no question he was central to its every move.

You saw that in the very wild wildcard victory over the Bengals following the 2015 season, when Shazier spent the entire game wreaking havoc on the Bengals offense before rescuing the Steelers season in the final seconds with a forced fumble just one play after backup quarterback Landry Jones nearly threw it all away with an interception.

Shazier was the guy who did all the heavy lifting for Keith Butler’s unit. The entire defensive game-plan was schemed around him and his ability to pursue, to make things happen just about anywhere on the field.

  • After Ryan Shazier was lost in the final month of the 2017 season, Pittsburgh’s defense was never quite the same and had no real replacement at inside linebacker.

But how could anyone come off the bench and replace a talent like Ryan Shazier? And if there wasn’t anyone on the bench, there surely wasn’t anyone on the street who could, even though the Steelers tried by signing Sean Spence right before the playoffs.

It was to no avail, as Spence, a third-round pick in 2012 who spent his first incarnation as a Steeler trying to rehab from a devastating knee injury, wasn’t anything close to what the Shazier-lacking defense needed him to be.

The Steelers defense, a unit that’s spent the better part of this decade trying to recapture the magic from the previous decade, had its moments in 2018. But it didn’t have that explosive play-maker in the middle to bring everything together.

  • Jon Bostic was a nice veteran signing, but that’s all he was. He certainly didn’t have the ability to be a difference-maker in the middle of the defense.

As for Vince Williams, a sixth-round pick in 2013, despite being a self-made man who has gotten every single ounce that he can out of his abilities, he wasn’t the same without Shazier by his side.

The Steelers’ had a lot of young and promising talent on defense as they entered the 2019 offseason, but they didn’t have someone who could bring it all together.

Now, maybe they do.

We’ll soon begin to find out, starting this Friday night. Yes, it might only be preseason, but not since Ben Roethlisberger started his first regular season game for an injured Tommy Maddox back in 2004 have expectations for a Steelers rookie been this high.

The world won’t be watching as Devin Bush makes his debut this Friday, just Steeler Nation, but how he performs could make a world of difference for the team’s immediate future.

 

 

 

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Mason Rudolph vs Joshua Dobbs and vs a Bit of Steelers History…

The early word out of Latrobe is that 2nd year quarterback Mason Rudolph looks good. Rudolph spent the 2019 off season working with Adam Dedeaux on his throwing mechanics and footwork.

Per Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, Mason Rudolph is throwing the ball with greater velocity, carrying himself with greater confidence, and showing more poise in the pocket. That’s good news for Mason Rudolph who enters his second summer at St. Vincents fighting Joshua Dobbs for the right to be Ben Roethlisberger’s backup.

Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs, Steelers developing quarterbacks

Mason Rudoph and Joshua Dobbs square off @ St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It is also interesting because Mason Rudolph is just fighting Joshua Dobbs, he’s also fighting a bit of Steelers history:

  • Pittsburgh just doesn’t have a good record of “developing quarterbacks.”

No, we’re not talking about the likes of Johnny Unitas, Earl Morrall, Len Dawson, and Bill Nelsen whom the Steelers pushed away only to see them return to punish Pittsburgh. Those were personnel mistakes. But the Steelers simply lack a strong record for grooming quarterbacks from the bullpen.

Before the salary cap, NFL coaches nurtured quarterbacks like fine wine. Often times they’d draft quarterbacks with an eye towards developing them for a few years rather than start them as rookies.

Super Bowl winners Roger Staubach, Joe Theismann, Jeff Hostetler, and Mark Rypien all did lengthy apprenticeships on the bench before earning status as full time starters.

  • Together, Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger have more Super Bowl rings than the aforementioned quartet combined, but both men started as rookies.

Ben Roethlisberger got a baptism by fire as a rookie, and led the Steelers to Super Bowl XL a year later. Bradshaw’s ascension to Super Bowl caliber quarterback started with the first game of his rookie year. The process resembled a traumatic midwifing rather than methodical maturation.

  • When the Steelers have tried to go the draft and develop route, things haven’t panned out as planned.

The Steelers picked Mark Malone with the 1st pick in the 1980 draft, and Malone had 3 years to learn at the feet of Terry Bradshaw and Cliff Stoudt. Mark Malone led the 1984 Steelers to the AFC Championship in his first year as a starter, but it was all downhill after that.

During the 1987 season, when Mark Malone was in route to posting a 46.4 passer rating (no, that’s not a typo that’s forty six point four), Chuck Noll defended his decision to keep Bubby Brister on the bench explaining, “He needs to develop.”

Bubby Brister posted a 65.3 passer rating when he became the starter in 1988 and a year later he helped the 1989 Steelers “Shock the World!” by winning a playoff game after losing their first two games by a score of 92-10.

  • But alas, Bubby Brister never matured into anything other than a serviceable starter.

(And this is from someone who told a taunt that the Cowboys were going to “Win the Aikman Derby” on a Boy Scout camping trip in late 1988, “We don’t need Troy Aikman. We have Bubby Brister.”)

Neil O’Donnell spent his rookie year behind Bubby Brister and Rick Strom. As Bob Labriola observed in his early 1991 off season roster analysis in the Steelers Digest, “If all goes well a year from now O’Donnell will have done nothing more than watched and learned while holding a clipboard.”

Of course an injury to Brister in a week 7 game against the Giants trust O’Donnell into the starting lineup where he stayed, save for two games at the end of the ’91 season, until Super Bowl XXX.

By that time Kordell Stewart had gotten himself into the mix as “Slash” and remained there until late 1996 when Bill Cowher formally elevated him to backup status. That didn’t last long as Stewart was the full time starter by opening day 1997.

In between O’Donnell and Stewart, there was Jim Miller, another quarterback the Steelers had drafted to develop. Jim Miller got 1994 and 1995 to mature, but his stint as a starter lasted all of one game.

Word to the Wise on Mason Rudolph – Pray for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

Does this history somehow spell doom for Mason Rudolph? No, not at all. As Mike Tomlin would remind us, “Mason Rudolph is writing his own story.” But history offers an important lesson nontheless.

Just as it was for O’Donnell in 1991, the plan in 2004 was for Ben Roethlisberger to watch and learn behind Tommy Maddox. At 12:11 in the 3rd quarter of a week two contest against the Baltimore Ravens, Gary Baxter changed everything by knocking Maddox out of the game.

  • Ben Roethlisberger took the field, and the Steelers haven’t looked back since.

God willing, several years lie between Mason Rudoph and his first meaningful NFL snap. But its good to know he is making strides towards being ready just in case.

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Too Bad Mike Tomlin Can’t Run the Oklahoma Drill at St. Vincents

Tomorrow the Steelers put the pads on at St. Vincents. Football in shorts will have ended. The sorting between the men and the boys will begin. As Peter King remarked two years ago, Mike Tomlin is one of the last NFL coaches to practice full speed hitting in training camp.

  • It says here that is a wise move.

As Jack Lambert remarked, “I believe the game is designed to reward the ones who hit the hardest. If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t play.”

Steelers training camp hitting

Unlike other teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers STILL hit in training camp. Photo Credit: MMQB

And conditioning yourself to hit doesn’t come through simulation. So its good that the Steelers will do some hitting in Latrobe.

  • But it would be better if Mike Tomlin could run the Oklahoma Drill.

The NFL, in an attempt to reduce head trauma banned the Oklahoma Drill along with a number of other traditional hitting drills. The blunt truth is, this is a wise move. After the tragedies of Mike Webster, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long and Adrian Robinson, Steelers Nation needs no reminder of the existential threat that CTE poses to football.

  • But that doesn’t change the reality that something is lost even as player safety gains.

Advocates of the ban point to the fact that Oklahoma Drill doesn’t really help develop any skill, and therefore exposes players to unnecessary head trauma. They have a point. But, as much as it pains me to quote him, so did Bill Belichick when he explained that these Oklahoma Drill did answer these important questions: “Who is a man? Who’s tough? Who’s going to hit somebody?”

  • The Oklahoma Drill pits a defender against an offensive player and sometimes a ball carrier in a test of wills.

They line up 3 yards off the ball and the offensive lineman and the defender tussle until the defender is knocked to the ground, or the ball carrier is tackled or disrupted from his one yard corridor. Chuck Noll used to start training camp with the Oklahoma Drill.

  • Rookie Joe Greene famously tossed Ray Mansfield like a rag doll and anhililated every other offensive lineman in his first Oklahoma Drill.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have regressed each of their past two seasons. The team, along with Ben Roethlisberger, served as a veritable punching bag during the 2019 off season. What better way for Mike Tomlin to set the tone than by asking for volunteers to run say a half dozen Oklahoma Drills?

How about letting Matt Feiler and Chukwuma Okorafor start their competition for the starting right tackle slot by squaring off against Cam Heyward in an Oklahoma Drill? Why not acquaint Mark Barron and Benny Snell Jr. with what it means to be a Steelers by making the former fight through David DeCastro  to get to the latter?

Joe Greene’s famous Oklahoma Drill exhibition came on his very first snap of training camp practice. Dick Hoak says that veteran defensive lineman who were watching Greene openly talked about packing their bags. Andy Russell pinpoints this as the key moment when Pittsburgh pivoted from being a perennial loser, to transforming into the best football team the story has or ever will see.

There are a lot of things Mike Tomlin can do to transform this Pittsburgh Steelers squad into a champion this summer at St. Vincents. Sadly, however the Oklahoma Drill won’t be one of the tools at his disposal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hilton Signs, Watt on PUP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Sharpening Players While Keeping Them Fresh and Healthy

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Establish a Number 2 Wide Receiver

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

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

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

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

3. Find a True Number 3 Running Back

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

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

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

4. Sort Out Secondary Depth

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

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

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

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

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

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Early Steelers 2019 Training Camp News: A Primer on Separating Facts from False Flags

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin arriving at St. Vincents in Latrobe today bringing the tumultuous 2019 off season to an end. And while Steelers Nation will be treated to interviews and photos of players and coaches, they’ll have to wait a bit before real news surfaces.

  • Staff writer Tony Defeo likened this period to breaking through traffic congestion while still needing to drive quite a distance before reaching home.

Nonetheless, they’ll be lots of juicy headlines to feast on, and here’s a primer for separating the real news from the false flags.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

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

Contract Action vs Contract Talk

The Steelers have opened camp in the past by announcing contract extensions for Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert. Both are due for new deals, but there’s been speculation about whether Art Rooney II will break from tradition this summer.

  • One way or another, fans will have some indication of Art Rooney’s inclinations very soon.

Likewise, with Ben Roethlisberger locked up, Joe Haden, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave are candidates for extensions, but in recent summers the Steelers have trended towards resigning veterans closer to the end of camp rather than the beginning. Talk you hear on this front over the next several days will likely be just that, “talk.”

Watch Out for Those PUP List Surprises

Every year a certain number of players begin camp on the PUP list. Often times this is simply proactive roster management. But at other times it is a red flag. And there are always surprises in the opening PUP announcements.

Casey Hampton began training camp in 2008 on the PUP, but was in fine form when the season started. Maurkice Pouncey has started camp on the PUP and played in full health throughout the season.

In 2015 Bruce Gradkowski’s name appeared on the PUP much to everyone’s surprise given that he’d played as recently as the playoff loss to the Ravens. Bruce Gradkowski got well enough to get activated and play in one preseason game and then his NFL career was done. Senquez Golson began 2015 on the PUP and literally has never played an NFL down.

Ladarius Green and Mike Adams were also surprise PUP additions. Adams never played for the Steelers again and Ladarius Green saw some mid season action before getting reinjured and has been out of football since.

Keep an eye on the PUP list.

Take Run Test Results with a Gain of Salt

Since Bill Cowher’s days as head coach, the Steelers have begun training camp with an annual run test where players must complete a set number of sprints within a certain time determined by their position.

  • Beyond gauging conditioning, it is often seen as the first test of a player’s mettle.
  • Yet, readers should take the results with a grain of salt.

rod woodson, carnell lake, st. vincents

Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake at St Vincents. via Steelers.com

The 1994 Steelers infamously finished the season 3 yards short of a go ahead touchdown in the AFC Championship loss to the San Diego Chargers. When the group assembled in Latrobe the next summer, every player successfully completed Bill Cowher’s run test. At the time, if memory serves, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola remarked that the results indicated the focus and commitment of the players.

  • Now that 1995 squad did of course reach Super Bowl XXX, but that was only after starting 3-4.

Injuries to Neil O’Donnell, Rod Woodson, John Jackson and John L. Williams had a lot to do with that. But a player’s only meeting that resulted in Greg Lloyd threatening to break any player who brought a phone or a pager (remember those??) to a team meeting was necessary to spark a turn around.

A little later in the Cowher era, the summer of 1999 started with 1996 first round draft pick Jamain Stephens failing the run test.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe cut him on the spot.

At the time the move was hailed as sending a strong signal on the heels of a 7-9 1998 season that ended with a 5 game losing streak. Signal it might have been, but the 1999 team finished 6-10 with Lee Flowers openly accusing unnamed teammates for quitting.

  • Enjoy the run test, but don’t read too much into the results.

On the flip side, Steelers fans can give thanks that no one will be arriving at St. Vincents via helicopter this sumer….

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Extending Mike Tomlin’s Contract in 2019 – Exploring the Pros & Cons

As the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare start St. Vincents this week in Latrobe all eyes are on Art Rooney II and his pending decision to extend or not extend Mike Tomlin’s contract.

The Steelers longstanding policy has been to extend the contract of their head coach 2 years prior to the expiration of his current deal. Dan Rooney began the practice with Bill Cowher in the 1990’s and Art Rooney II continued it in 2017 just months after his father passed away.

  • However, both seasons have ended in disappointment since Mike Tomlin’s last contract extension, leading to speculation that change may be in the air.

Here we take a look at the Pros and Cons of extending Mike Tomlin’s contact in 2019.

Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin contract

Art Rooney II has a decision to make on Mike Tomlin’s contract. Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via 93.7 the Fan

The Cons of Extending Mike Tomlin’s Contract in 2019

For many, there is no debate. Much of Steelers Nation, perhaps even a majority, has wanted Mike Tomlin gone and wants no part of seeing him stay around. This site isn’t inclined to join that chorus but the arguments against extending Mike Tomlin are legitimate.

Two years ago, when the Steelers last extended Mike Tomlin’s contract, the team had indeed suffered a brutal AFC Championship loss to New England, but it looked like it was on the verge of completing an end-to-end rebuild around Ben Roethlisberger without dipping below .500.

  • Anyone who thinks that it is “easy” to rebuild a team around a young franchise quarterback should look at Don Shula and Dan Marino’s experience in the 80’s and ‘90’s.

Yet, the Steelers have taken steps backwards in each of the following two seasons, and they’ve done it against a background filled with a lot of distractions. Are those distractions Mike Tomlin’s fault? Well, in many cases, the truth probably is “No.”

Mike Tomlin didn’t make the decision to franchise Le’Veon Bell on his own. Its entirely possible that Mike Tomlin wanted to cut James Harrison in the summer of 2017 but wasn’t not allowed to. (The fact that James Harrison was a candidate to be cut is a matter of record, the rest is my speculation.)

While Mike Tomlin does deserve criticism for enabling Antonio Brown, it isn’t much of a stretch to argue that Tomlin kept Brown’s Diva tendencies in check far better than Bill Parcells or Tom Coughlin did with their Diva wide outs. The bottom line is, Brown was a distraction early last season, then his issues were largely forgotten and only resurfaced at the end.

  • Regardless, deciding to extend Mike Tomlin could be seen as sending a signal that the team’s current direction is acceptable.

Does anyone think the trend lines this team has established over the last two seasons are acceptable?

The Pros of Extending Mike Tomlin’s Contract in 2019

There are also strong arguments in favor of extending Mike Tomlin’s contract. For whatever his faults are as a head coach, and Tomlin has faults just as Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher did, Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season.

There is only one other NFL head coach whose record is head and shoulders above Mike Tomlin’s. Contemporaries with similar records, such as John Harbaugh, Sean Peyton and Pete Carroll have arguably struggled more than Tomlin has to rebuild around a franchise QB.

Results don’t lie. After knocking on heaven’s door in 2016 the Steelers have taken steps backward.

  • But will refusing to extend Mike Tomlin right this trend?
  • Sure, it could send a message that everyone needs to shape up. But it could also have the opposite effect.

Opting not to extend Mike Tomlin’s contract now would instantly create another distraction. That subplot would play out on social media and the “content aggregation sites” starting with the first training camp scuffle and lasting all the way until the final decision to go for it on fourth or not in the last meaningful game of the season.

In contrast, and to the extent that locker room and off the field distractions have impacted results on the field, extending Mike Tomlin’s contract could be a remedy.

Extending Mike Tomlin’s contract now would send a clear signal to everyone on the roster, “Mike Tomlin is our coach. He’s staying put. Listen to him if you want to do the same.”

Awaiting Art Rooney’s Decision

Art Rooney II has a decision to make. This past off season he’s shown an ability to pivot the Steelers standard operating procedure. The Steelers were ready to use the transition tag on Le’Veon Bell by all accounts, yet had a change of heart. And at each opportunity they doubled down in their quest to improve weaknesses at inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver.

  • Will he also make a similar pivot with regard to his head coach’s job security?

For my money, I don’t think he should. The list of NFL owners who’ve tried and failed to fire their way to a Lombardi is long. That’s because good NFL coaches are hard to find. Mike Tomlin’s record shows he’s one of them.

Ultimately Art Rooney’s decision doesn’t come down so much as to whether he thinks Mike Tomlin contributed to the problems of the last two season, but whether he’s confident that Mike Tomlin can be part of the solution.

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