Steelers Report Card for Raiders Loss – Arriving @ School with No Pencil Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who fears that a lack of paper and pencils might scuttle the semester, here is the Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Raiders.

Trayvon Mullen Jr. , Steelers vs Raiders

Trayvon Mullen Jr. intercepts Ben Roethlisberger early in the 1st quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
To his credit Ben Roethlisberger repeatedly took the blame for this loss. And it is true that his 40 for 27 for 295 yards and 1 touchdown and one interception hides the fact that too many of his deep throws were off. Roethlisberger is right, he does need to play better. But he has plenty of company. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 10 runs for 38 yards and 5 catches for 43 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers look pedestrian. And they are. But they’re not Harris’ fault. Outside of his 14 yard burst – which not coincidentally sparked the Steelers first touchdown drive – Harris had no room to run. Benny Snell had two carries for one yard. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 4 passes on four targets and came ooh so close to converting a third down. He also contributed with some quality blocks. Eric Ebron had zero catches on 2 passes. Zach Gentry had 14 snaps. Moving forward success on offense might require more Freiermuth and less Gentry. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson lead the team with 9 catches for 105 yards including a 41 yarder that set up a score. But he also broke off a route way too early that lead to an interception. Chase Claypool had 3 catches including a 52 yarder that set up another touchdown. Still Claypool was targeted 6 more times to no avail. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 of 7 passes thrown his way for 41 yards. Claypool and Johnson must go the extra mile to make plays for their quarterback. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
Where to start? Against the Raiders, the 2021 Steelers offensive line was the 2020, except with the good qualities stripped out. Run blocking was nonexistent and Ben Roethlisberger was hit 10 times including 2 sacks. To borrow on our opening metaphor, good line play is to quality offense as paper and pencils are to quality education. And the Steelers offensive line isn’t even showing up to school with their erasers.  Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was a one man wrecking crew breaking up passes and dropping players for losses in 3rd down doing more than you’d expect to make up for the loss of Tyson Alualu. Chris Wormley and Isaiahh Loudermilk didn’t put up a lot of stats, but the Raiders couldn’t run. Still, defensive line could have done more to make its presence felt in the pass rush. Grade: B-

Linebackers
For a while, it seemed like T.J. Watt might beat the Raiders all by himself, logging 3 tackles, a strip sack and a QB hit in a quarter of play. But then he got hurt. Melvin Ingram, Alex Highsmith, Robert Spillane and Joe Schobert all had their moments, but David Carr had too much time to throw in the first half. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Raiders, Derek Carr

T.J. Watt strip sacks Derek Carr during the Steelers 26-17 loss to the Raiders on September 19th 2021 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Secondary
As Jim Wexell pointed out, on the critical play of the game, Minkah Fitzpatrick cheated up to the line of scrimmage Troy Poalmalu style in an attempt to shut down Darren Walker. Alas, the gambit failed, and Henry Ruggs streak through the secondary. Minhak Fitzpatrick tried to recover but fell short and Ahkello Witherspoon never had a chance.

The secondary, sans Joe Haden, and sans Devin Bush, T.J. Watt and Tyson Alualu in front of them held the Raiders in check for the first half. But the unit gave up two touchdowns in the 2nd half. Grade: D

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud had a nice 15 yard punt return and 2 respectable kick returns. The Steelers kick coverage was solid, but they did give up more punt yardage than desirable. Grade: C+

Coaching
Mike Tomlin knows his team.

Many fans and journalists want to make hay of Tomlin’s decision to punt on 4th and 1 with 9 minute left. But let’s be honest, the Steelers offense simply isn’t physical enough go for that one yard with any confidence.

(For those of you with long memories, think of Bill Cowher calling a fea-flicker on 4th and 1 vs. the Jaguars during the Dark Days of September 1999.)

On defense, Keith Butler kept the Steelers in the game with smart play in the first half, but his unit gave up one long drive, followed by a quick strike and then a field goal drive in the 2nd half. As for the offense, we glimpsed the potential of what Matt Canada can do on the two touchdown drives. But until the offensive line can muster the physicality to breathe live into those schemes, the Steelers will go no where. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
Alas, it didn’t alter the outcome, but lining up for a 56 yarder at Heinz Field is never easy. Doing it when just under 4 minutes remaining and facing an 11 point deficit only adds to the fun. It was the longest kick in Heinz Field history and Chris Boswell not only made it, but he split the uprights. And for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Raiders.

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Steelers 2021 Preview: Roethlisberger’s Last Ride to be a Rough One?

The wait will soon end.

Its been 245 days since the Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns and a lot has happened since then. Some of it completely predictable, some of it surprising:

Through it all, Kevin Colbert managed once again to perform the salary cap equivalent of the Loaves and the Fishes. Thanks to COVID-19 the Steelers were facing their worst salary cap situation since 2012 and 2013, yet Colbert managed to put together a roster on paper that is far stronger than anyone had a right to expect on the lonely January night when Roethlisberger and Pouncey commiserated on the sidelines.

But the time for measuring roster moves on paper has ended and the time for judgement rendered on the gridiron is about to begin.

So what can we expect?

J.J. Watt, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Texans

J.J. Watt pressures Ben Roethlisberger in 2014. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

Roethlisberger’s Final Ride Likely a Rough One

Times like these force oneself to channel their inner Jesse Ventura and “Call it as I see it McMahon.” And the truth is that if this is Ben Roethlisberger’s last ride, it looks to be a rough one.

  • That’s not the call I want to make, but the one my eyes tell me I have to make.

Why?

First let’s consider what caused the Steeler once promising 2020 season to end in an unmitigated disaster:

  • Ben Roethlisberger inability to throw the long ball caught up with him.
  • The running game disappeared
  • Injuries ravaged the defense, neutering a dominant group

Word is that Ben Roethlisberger has recovered his long ball, but given his limited action in preseason we’ll simply have to wait to see if that comes true. The Steelers dumped Randy Fichtner and replaced him with Matt Canada, which should help. As for the defense and injuries, well let’s get to that.

When salary cap Armageddon loomed, the chief concerns for the Steelers were:

Can they preserve their pass rush?
Can they field a competitive secondary?
Can they rebuild the offensive line?

Let’s see where the Steelers stand on the eve of the 2021 season.

Pass Rush

So the Steelers lost Bud Dupree, but still have Alex Highsmith, resigned T.J. Watt and added Melvin Ingram. So, on paper that’s perhaps a net positive. However, Stephon Tuitt, who accounted for 11 sacks is beginning the season on injured reserve. And Tyson Alualu is also injured.

The Steelers should field a strong pass rush this year, but its doubtful they can field a better one.

Secondary

After years of being a liability, the Steelers secondary was finally a strength during the 2019 and 2020. Yet going into the 2021 off season, everyone expected a salary cap casualty to come out of the defensive backfield.

  • But few expected that casualty to be Steven Nelson instead of Joe Haden.

The Steelers plan was to go with Haden, Cameron Sutton, and James Pierre with Joe Haden and Antoine Brooks pushing as the 4th corner. Justin Layne got arrested and Brook got hurt. The Steelers sallied on during preseason, mixing and matching various configurations of their cornerbacks. Their final decision? They traded yet another draft pick for Ahkello Witherspoon.

Offensive Line

Let’s say this. No one can accuse the Steelers of standing pat on the offensive line. When the Steelers open against the Bills, Kelvin Dotson will be the only player working in the same place he was last season against the Giants.

  • But does change equal improvement?

That’s the bigger question. What isn’t a question is that this is another situation that did not evolve according to plan. Mike Tomlin’s idea was to start is experienced tackles Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor on the right and left sides. But Banner got hurt and left tackle proved to be too much for Okorafor.

Dan Moore’s performance has elicited nothing but positive commentary since he was drafted in the third round, but rookies starting a left tackle in the NFL are rare.

As it stands, on opening day the Steelers will start 2 rookies on offensive line, one sophomore who literally looks like a “rising sophomore,” a veteran who was unemployed in late June and veteran who is back at right tackle after not being able to cut it on the left side.

It might work. But would you bet your 401(k) balance on it?

Wimp Out Disclaimer

After writing 753 of gloom and doom its now time for the “Wimp Out Disclaimer.”

The red and yellow flag flying above the Steelers offensive line, secondary and pass rush are real but so has Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s reaction to them. When it became clear that Banner’s injury issues weren’t going away and Okorafor struggled, the Steelers started working Dan Moore into the line up.

The first thought here was that Mike Tomlin was planning to use Moore the way he used Kelvin Beachum in 2013, roating him in on both sides to push both starters. But Tomlin didn’t do that. He made the change immediately.

You can see a similar pattern elsewhere, from signing Melvin Ingram, to trading for Joe Schobert, to trading for Witherspoon.

The fact that the Steelers brass felt they needed to make these moves is worrisome, but their willingness to act decisively is encouraging.

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Haskins Can’t Handle It & 3 Other Thoughts on Steelers Preseason Loss to Panthers

“It was a junior varsity performance,” concluded Mike Tomlin following the Steelers 34-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers which wrapped up Pittsburgh’s 2021 preseason campaign with a 3-1 mark.
Who can argue?

Going into the game Tomlin had several players for whom he “thought it would be a great platform for them to display varsity skill.”

  • Display those they did not.

Here are four quick takes on this preseason loss.

Dwayne Haskins, Steelers vs Panthers Preseason

Dwyane Haskins had a rough night, to say the least. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

1. Haskins Humiliated? Not Quite. Humbled? You Bet

By all accounts, Dwayne Haskins has authored a very strong summer from the moment training camp began in July. Prior to the Panther’s game, he did nothing but impress in preseason. In comparison to Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins showed himself to be the far more dynamic player, and he exhibited more poise and comfort than Rudolph.

  • But of course, that’s that way it was supposed to be.

As a former 15th pick overall, Dwayne Haskins was sort of like the kid who gets held back in kindergarten and then is the best in his class the following year. So Haskins earned the right to start.

  • Haskins squandered it.

No, Haskins didn’t have a full complement of starters. Neither did he get a lot of help from his offensive line and from his running backs. But Haskins looked overwhelmed. Against the Cowboys, Eagles and Lions, the offense directed by Haskins has been a virtual touchdown scoring machine.

  • Against the Panthers the Steelers didn’t convert a 3rd down until late in the 3rd quarter.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell went as far as to suggest that Haskins performance caused “us to wonder whether it might be more prudent to cut him.”

Frankly, that’s going a bit too far. Haskins did not look good, but the Steelers shouldn’t abandon their reclamation project.

2. Nothing Sexy about Sexton

One of the benefits of the Steelers-Panthers preseason rivalry is that it provides excellent fodder for story lines. Eleven summers ago a small, CFL vet whose speed earned him the name “Joystick” caught the coaches eye’s with a return for a touchdown in preseason. So Mike Tomlin gave him another chance, and he delivered again.

  • Yet he was still on outside looking in going into the preseason finale again.

Stefan Logan got a final chance and he took it to the house, earning himself a roster spot in the process.

  • Matthew Sexton entered the game against the Panthers with a similar opportunity.

But he botched it, badly by muffing two punts. Not even 24 hours have elapsed since the game ended, and Sexton’s butter fingers have earned him a spot on the waiver wire and all but ensure that Ray-Ray McCloud, who had a respectable night receiving, will keep his spot as the Steelers 5th wide out and 1st return man.

3. Can’t Keep Up with the Joneses

Unlike the regular season, during training camp reporters are allow to report on basically everything they see. As camp progresses, you’ll often start hearing a new name mentioned again and again.

  • Jaimr Jones was that player this year.

You started hearing his name in practice. In the Hall of Fame game he had started making noise with a tackle for a loss and a few QB hits. Then he started adding on sacks in preseason games.

He continued the process against the Panthers, leading the team in tackles, getting a sack and logging a few more QB hits for good measure.

That effort has likely earned himself a roster spot, perhaps at the expense of 6th round draft pick Quincy Roche.

4. Enough to Tell with Snell?

If there was any one player on the roster of figured to benefit for the departure of James Conner and the arrival of Najee Harris, it was Benny Snell. Mike Tomlin likes Benny Snell, and while Snell certainly didn’t give the Steelers any reason to second guess drafting a running back in the first round, he has shown himself to be at least a competent number 2 rusher.

  • Except Snell has been hurt for most of the summer.

And Kalen Ballage has gotten the carries and as recently as last week it looked like he could be pushing Snell off of the roster. Snell got his first work and while 8 carries for 28 yard is hardly gang busters, he didn’t have the best blocking to work with.

Snell certainly didn’t give the Steelers any reason to cut him.

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6 “Its Only Preseason, BUT…” Observations from the Steelers 26-20 win over the Lions

The Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed in their third preseason outing of the summer at Heinz Field where they triumphed over the Detroit Lions 26-20. Although “its only preseason” the contest was not nearly as close as the final score suggests.

Here are 6 quick, “Its Only Preseason But” observations.

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers vs Lions Preseason

Pat Freiermuth catches 1 of 2 TDs. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

1. Meet the New Ben, Same as the Old Ben?

All eyes were on Ben Roethlisberger as he took the field for the first time following the Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic disaster in the playoffs against Cleveland. Since then Ben Roethlisberger agreed to take a 5 million dollar pay cut to return while admitting that his arm did not hold up well during the course of 2020.

  • So how did he do?

Pretty well. On the plus side Ben showed his old mobility in the pocket, dodging around to buy time and hitting receivers down the field. Likewise, his arm strength looks just fine, as he rifled off two touchdown passes in the Red Zone.

  • Throwing down field as more of a mixed bag.

He was right on the money in trying to hook up with Eric Ebron, but Ebron couldn’t hold on.

However, his pass to Diontae Johnson looked to be a little underthrown. Johnson noted, and slowed to adjust his route. Roethlisberger himself admitted that he put too much air into that ball. That’s good, but make no mistake, the Buffalo Bills will destroy the Steelers on that type of play when the regular season starts.

2. Too Early to Worry about the Run Defense?

The Lions top four rushers had long runs of 12, 13, 10 and 9 yards. OK, one of those was a scramble by David Blough and we are talking about an offense that didn’t get on the board until the first minute of the fourth quarter.

Sometimes these preseason tendencies are little more meaningful than an April batting average; sometimes they signal season-long problems.

3. Welcome to Pittsburgh Paty Freiermuth

Sometimes preseason stars are just that – preseason stars. Anyone even remember Matthew Thomas? Neither did I. Had to look up his name. This might jog your memory:

This same Matthew Thomas whom Jim Wexell reported that coaches had hopes could come in an earn playing time by the time the leaves began to fall. The same Matthew Thomas the Steelers cut on December 3rd of that year. The same Matthew Thomas Baltimore signed in January only to cut in August.

  • Then there are players who prove they are the real deal.

And here we introduce Pat Freiermuth. A lot of people questioned the Steelers decision to draft Pat Freiermuth, a tight end out of Penn State, in the 2nd round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

No one’s asking that question this morning, when Freiermuth caught not one, but two touchdown in the end zone. Both times he had double coverage, both times Ben Roethlisberger found Freiermuth. Both times he made it look easy.

4. Kalen Ballage Secures Backup Slot

Najee Harris and Anthony McFarland both put in strong nights. But if the Mike Tomlin era has taught us ANYTHING its that the Steelers need a running back depth chart that’s at least 3 players deep.

(How might 2014, 2015 and/or 2018 turned out if the equivalent of a Mewelde Moore and/or Gary Russell had been on the roster. We’ll never know. And that’s the point.)

Kalen Ballage looks like he can be that player. Ballage was one of Kevin Colbert’s unheralded free agent signings and brought a pedestrian resume to Pittsburgh. But he’s looked strong in preseason. Benny Snell, who began the summer as running back number 3, remains out with injury.

And while Jaylen Samuels looked strong against the Eagles, he didn’t play as well against the Lions.

5. T.J. Who? Well, No, Quite

Neither Melvin Ingram nor Alex Highsmith put up any gaudy stats against the Lions, but both men were around the ball. While no one is going to suggest that their performance gives the Steelers cause to stall in their contract negotiations with T.J. Watt, it looks like the Steelers have 3 viable outside linebackers.

6. Glad You’re Still Here JuJu

One of the surprises of the 2021 off season was the return of JuJu Smith-Schuster. JuJu Smith-Schuster might have only had 5 catches against the Lions, but if you looked at his tape, you’d never have known he was playing in preseason.

  • Just as you won’t have known he was playing from hopelessly behind against the Browns last January.

In terms of pure talent, Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson probably lead the Steelers wide receivers depth chart. But when it comes to heart and want to, JuJu and James Washington lead the way.

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“Yes, Its ‘Only Preseason'” but Ben Roethlisberger Does Need to Play vs Lions

The Steelers will host the Detroit Lions this Saturday night for their third preseason game. Assuming he follows tradition, Steelers head coach will use this game as his tune up for the regular season. Translation: The Steelers starters will play.

  • Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger replacement, Steelers 2021 NFL Draft

    Ben Roethlisberger on September 15th 2021. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images

    “Starters” likely includes Ben Roethlisberger.

That’s a smart move by Mike Tomlin, although others disagree. This sentiment is common, but a single quote from Mark Kaboly sums up the mentality. In stating his case that Dwayne Haskins deserves time again opposing 1st string QBs, Kaboly argues:

Why not give him a shot against the Lions? Roethlisberger doesn’t need to play in a preseason game. Give Haskins a full first half against a team that will be playing its second preseason game. [Emphasis added]

It is funny. “Practice makes perfect” is one of the first things you drill into a kid’s head the moment he or she starts training for something, be it a football, some other sport, dancing, karate or learning to play a musical instrument. We tell our kids that because it is true.

But that truth is too often betrayed by the mentality that, once you reach a certain level or age, you no longer need to practice. Really? In a previous life I hosted scores of technology focused webcasts. As the pandemic has shown Zoom, Teams and GoTo Meeting are wonderful tools, but things happen.

And you know what? When “Things happened” during those webcasts the presenters that had practiced still gave good webcasts. The ones that hadn’t? Not so much.

  • But we don’t need to stick to the abstract with the Steelers.

Recent history offers a guide. Rewind to the Steelers 2019 opening day debacle against the Patriots. Writing in Steel City Insider, Craig Wolfley offered:

Patriots ball, first drive it’s third-and-10. Brady rears back and fires the ball over the middle, and one-hopped it to Julian Edelman, incomplete. Yes, I’m thinking, Brady had under 25 live snaps or so in preseason games. He’s a little bit off. Brady needs to ramp up to game speed. Little did I realize Brady would need a very short ramp.

Wolf was right. Brady needed little ramp to reach Super Bowl form that night. Roethlisberger was “rusty,” put generously, the entire night. But contrast to Brady, Roethlisberger had only thrown 13 passes in the 2019 preseason. In other words, Ben had ½ the work that Brady did.

  • Anyone think now or think then that Ben was the superior quarterback? Mean either.

“But wait! That’s not a fair comparison because Ben was only a few passes away from needing major elbow surgery!” you protest. Yes. I concede. You’re right.

And that brings me to my next point.

Steelers Need to See What They Have in Big Ben

Mark Kaboly followed his article on the QB competition between Haskins and Mason Rudolph with a feature on the 90 passes Ben Roethlisberger threw in a day of practice. Kaboly’s article is excellent. He delivers readers the type of “Fly on the Wall” view of Steelers practice viewed through the lens of an experienced beat writer.

Kaboly’s article yields 2 clear take aways:

1. Mike Tomlin is clearly trying to preserve wear-and-tear on Ben Roethlisberger
2. Ben Roethlisberger is throwing a lot of interceptions

Kaboly isn’t the only beat writer to share this observation about interceptions. Jim Wexell has mentioned interception several times this summer already and admits he’s “concerned.” Now stir in the fact that the Steelers have a new offensive coordinator, a new running back, and a new offensive line.

Even under normal circumstances, this group needs to maximize time working together in “live fire” conditions. Coaches need to see if this unit can function cohesively as a team.

  • Intra squad scrimmages are nice, but there’s no substitute for the crucible of live competition.

And should that crucible reveal Ben Roethlisberger as the weak links in the chain, then there’s no benefit to waiting until September to find out.

 

 

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Soft in the Middle No More? Steelers Trade for Joe Schobert

Sensing weakness, Kevin Colbert has traded for Jaguars inside linebacker Joe Schobert in exachage for a 6th round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The importance of this development should not be underestimated. A quick look at history drives this point home.

Joe Schobert. Steelers vs Browns, Mason Rudolph

Joe Schobert sacks Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: John Kuntz, Cleveland.com

The Importance of the Center of the Steelers Defense

Before he left Pittsburgh, former defensive coordinator Tim Lewis told Jim Wexell that the strength of the Steelers 3-4 defense runs through its center. Meaning, that when the nose tackle, inside linebacking and safety must be stout for the rest of the unit to excel.

The first trio solidified the Steelers as contenders in the 1990’s, while the second trio dominated as Champions in the 00’s.

The game has evolved in the last decade to the point where the Steelers are in their “base” defense less and less. But that doesn’t make the center of the unit less important. When Ryan Shazier went down in 2017 with Mike Mitchell already faltering and Javon Hargrave hurt for the playoffs things went south fast (see the Jaguars game).

  • In 2020 history repeated itself.

A lot of things went wrong for the Steelers down the stretch in 2020. Everyone focuses on Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles and while that’s understandable, the defense was struggling just as badly.

By the time of the road loss to the Bengals, the Steelers were down to Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen at inside linebacker, their 4th and 5th string inside linebackers.

  • The Steelers added quantity at inside linebacker in the off season.

But quality took a hit when Vince Williams retired. And there’ve been signs that the plan to go with Robert Spillane, Marcus Allen, rookie Buddy Johnson and “veteran” Ulysees Gilbert III was faltering. As Mark Kabloy in observed in The Athletic that the Steelers have drilled the inside linebackers on covering back and tight ends extensively in camp, concluding, “If it is drilled that much, the Steelers must realize it’s an issue.”

Apparently, the experiment has been replicated enough to convince Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert that the answer lay outside of the Steelers locker room.

The Skinny on Joe Schobert

The Cleveland Browns drafted Joe Schobert in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He led the league in tackles and earned Pro Bowl honors in 2017. He transformed that resume into a handsome payday in 2020 when he signed a 5 year, $53.7 million dollar contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Last year for the Jaguars he started 16 games, had 3 interceptions including a pick six, forced 2 fumbles and registered 2.5 sacks.

  • With that production a 6th round pick seems like a pittance to bring him to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers are well acquainted with Schobert. He’s suited up against them 8 times for both the Browns and the Jaguars and made Pittsburgh pay, pulling down 2 interceptions, batting away 6 passes, recovered 2 fumbles, recorded a sack while making 64 tackles.

Jim Wexell reminds us that prior to last year’s game against the Jaguars, Mike Tomlin admitted, “He’s gotten after us in the past. He beat us last year, quite frankly, in Cleveland. He was a significant component of that.”

Schobert did a number of the Steelers in infamous Body Bag game in November 2019, as the above photo of him sacking Mason Rudolph can attest. One has to wonder why the Jaguars were so ready to part with such a player so easily.

Schobert Instead of Watt?

In terms of salary cap ramifications, Joe Schobert will make $7 million this season, according to Spotrac.com and he has he has three years and 29.75 million remaining for 2022-24. While that’s not an exorbitant amount of money to pay for a veteran inside linebacker, the Steelers have limited salary cap space, and are still trying to resign T.J. Watt.

One has to wonder if the addition of Schobert today doesn’t signal a franchise tag for Watt next spring. Let’s hope not.

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5 Non-Offensive Line Questions Steelers Must Answer @ Training Camp 2021

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin training camp today as players have begun working out with their first padded practices coming in a week.

Again, as they did a year ago, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Steelers will not be able to hold training camp at St. Vincents, instead splitting activities between their facility on the South Side and Heinz Field.

  • Unless you’ve been under a rock, the offensive line is the main story line this summer.

With the retirement of Maurkice Pouncey and the departure of David DeCastro, the Steelers will feature an almost completely re-made offensive line. While the offensive line was a liability last season, at least in the running game, cohesion is critical there and any hopes for better season lie with an improve offensive line.

But the development of the offensive line, while critical, is hardly the only pressing issue the Pittsburgh must resolve. Here are 5 others.

Devin Bush,

Steelers Devin Bush on the fields of St. Vincents 2 years ago. Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo! Sports

1. Who Will Provide Depth at Inside Linebacker?

The news that Devin Bush is back and ready to practice was tempered by the surprise retirement of Vince Williams. The Steelers cut Williams and then welcomed him back on a smaller contract.

  • That move seemed to give the Steelers needed depth on the inside.

Robert Spillane did well enough to earn a starting slot along side Devin Bush, and Williams seemed to be the perfect veteran backup. Instead, he will start “Life’s Work.”

That leaves converted safety Marcus Allen, veteran journeyman Miles Killebrew, 4th round pick Buddy Johnson and Ulysees Gilbert (remember him?) as the primary contenders to replace him. Killebrew is the immediate favorite.

But the Steelers contingency plans to shore up the center of their defense just got more complicated.

2. Can Pittsburgh Escape a Tight Spot @ Tight End?

With Eric Ebron the Steelers are in a “What you see is what you get” position. Ebron is an asset in the Red Zone. He can be an effective receiver – when he catches the ball. As for blocking? Well you or I might be able to do a better job. OR at least make more effort.

With a shaky offensive line, the Steelers need a presence at tight end that can block effectively. They also need someone who can catch underneath passes once wide receivers have stretched the field.

The Steelers drafted Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth in the 2nd round and on paper he should meet that need. Kevin Radar showed himself to be a solid blocker in limited action during 2020. Zach Gentry is at the point in his NFL career where he needs to start replacing potential with production.

3. Can the Steelers Square Their Depth Chart at Cornerback?

In 2020 fielding a competitive defense means fielding 3 starting caliber cornerbacks. The Steelers said good bye to two starters this off season. Cam Sutton has been an under the radar type player for the Steelers for the last two, if not three seasons.

  • The Steelers are betting that he can make the next step.

It says here that the Steelers bet will likely payoff. What about the third and 4th cornerback slots? The Steelers brought in James Pierre last season and thought enough of him to move him ahead of Justin Layne for the playoffs. The decision to part ways with Steven Nelson was as much a vote of confidence in Pierre as it was anything else.

As for Justin Layne, he appears to have escaped legal trouble for his latest off the field incident, but one wonders if he can find the maturity he needs if he hasn’t already. If that’s the case then the Steelers need someone to emerge from the tangle of bodies below this group, be it Shakur Brown, DeMarkus Acy or Stephen Denmark.

4. Who Can Emerge as Defensive Lineman Number 4?

Officially the Steelers remain a 3-4 team, but each season sees the Steelers play in their base defense less and less. Hence, Cam Heyward is listed as a defensive tackle, even though he typically has a linebacker to his left and a defensive lineman to his right.

  • The Steelers caught a break when they got Tyson Alualu back.

But Alualu is 34. Ideally Carlos Davis, Isaiah Buggs, Henry Mondeaux or even rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk, would supplant him as the starter and allow Alualu to become the 4th man in Karl Dunbar’s rotation.

Regardless, the Steelers need to find a 4th man this summer.

5. Who Will Be QB Number 3?

Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph

Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph on the sidelines at Heinz Field in 2019. Photo Credit: AP via

IF the Steelers are to have ANY chance of making a run at a Super Bowl this season, Ben Roethlisberger quite simply must get more comfortable with the “bionics” of his new arm and thereby improve on his deep and intermediate passes.

  • It really is that simple.

Armed with a new contract, Mason Rudolph will be the Steelers backup quarterback this season. The big question this summer is whether Dwayne Haskins and prove he was worth the flyer the Steelers took on him or whether he becomes a footnote in Steelers history.

This is important, because of Haskins can show himself to be worthy of a roster spot, then he has the physical tools to challenge Mason Rudolph next summer (regardless of whether Roethlisberger retires.)

Haskins was just in the news. Again. At this point there’s nothing to suggest Haskins did anything illegal, but he’s making headlines for the wrong reasons. Again. Something tells me Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are happy they hedged their bets here.

 

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One World Defines David DeCastro’s Steelers Career: Attitude

With David DeCastro’s Steelers career coming to an end it is time to assess his legacy. That can be tricky with offensive lineman, who don’t generate statistics to compile and compare. But that doesn’t matter with David DeCastro, because DeCastro defined himself with his attitude.

Every great player authors signature plays. Think:

Offensive lineman author signature plays too, but these by definition come in a supporting role. Alan Faneca’s block that swung Willie Parker’s 75 yard run in Super Bowl XL comes to mind. But each of those has something common: They all they shifted the outcome of playoff games at critical junctures.

David DeCastro’s signature play is unique because it came during the regular season and actually cost the Steelers 15 yards during a 2 minute drill!

David DeCastro, Eric Reid, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Panthers

David DeCastro gets in Eric Reid’s face during the Steelers 2018 win over the Panthers. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.

IT came on a balmy Sunday night during September 2014 in Carolina. The Steelers had opened the season with a nail biter win over the Browns and then gotten ripped apart by the Ravens. The Carolina Panthers were coming off of a 12-4 season and were seen as NFC contenders.

As half-time approached, the Steelers hung to a slim 6-3 lead thanks to two Shaun Suisham field goals. Ben Roethlisberger was running the two-minute drill and the Steelers were sniffing the Red Zone. Roethlisberger hit Justin Brown for a 4 yard gain.

Luke Kuechly tackled him. He stripped the ball from Brown after the whistle and held him down as he tried to get up. Then, when both got to their feet, Luke Kuechly pushed Brown, as if to remind him who was the biggest boy on the block.

  • David DeCastro saw it from across the field and was having NONE of it.

He crossed the distance and unloaded on Kuechly. The linebacker remained on his feet, but DeCastro had put him in his place. All this happened right in front of the official, who flagged DeCastro for 15 yards and essentially ended any chance of a touchdown. (Suisham did make a 45 yarder for a 9-6 half time lead.)

You call a 15 yarder at the 28 with 33 second to play a costly penalty? Fine, I’ll call it addition by subtraction.

  • It may have been the most important play authored by the offensive line during the Tomlin era.

Offensive line is one spot on the depth chart that transcends measurables. Sure, offensive lineman must be big. They need strength, a lot of strength. Agility is essential. But more than anything else, they need attitude. And they need a little streak of nasty. Because at their core, successful offensive lineman impose their will.

  • David DeCastro embodied it all on that one play.

Justin Brown was first year player and roster bubble baby who’d worked himself up from the practice squad. The Steelers cut him before the season’s end. Most fans didn’t who he was then let alone remember him today.

None of that mattered to David DeCastro. He made it clear to Kuechly, the Partners and the rest of the NFL that these Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t going to be intimated, they were going to be the intimidators.

  • To be generous, the Steelers offensive line had been a mess up until that point in the Tomlin era.

During those early years, the team’s strategy on offensive line was “Plug and Patch.” They’d sign guys and then cut them in the middle of their contract. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin began moving away from that in 2010 by picking Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert in 2011 and DeCastro in 2014.

  • But DeCastro’s shove of Kuechly marks the moment when the offensive line turned a corner.

The late, legendary scribe Ivan Cole labeled the offensive line’s performance against the Panthers as “scary good.” Scary good it was. The game marked the last time that the Steelers had two 100 yard rushers in the same game, as Le’Veon Bell ran for 141 yards and LeGarrette Blount ran for 118 – in mop up time.

Sure, Bell and Blount had runs of 81 and 50 yards, but that’s the point: The offensive line was in full road grading mode that night, open holes that you could drive trucks through.

  • From that point on until the 2019 season the Steelers offensive line wasn’t just a team strength but one of the NFL’s best.

David DeCastro was one of the foundations of that group and attitude was the difference maker that DeCastro brought to the table.

 

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Troy Polamalu Picking Dick LeBeau as His Hall of Fame Presenter = Pittsburgh Perfection

Legendary Steelers safety, Troy Polamalu, took to Twitter on Tuesday to announce that he has selected another legend, his former defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, to present him at his Hall of Fame induction this August in Canton, Ohio.

  • Of course, Polamalu chose LeBeau.

I wish I would have been smart enough to see this coming, but it just goes to show you how stupid I am for not spotting the obvious this whole time.

Polamalu is the first inductee out of a group of Steelers’ defenders that helped the organization win its fifth and sixth Lombardi trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. But Dick LeBeau was going to be the presenter regardless of who made it into Canton first.

Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu, Hall of Fame, Larry Foote

Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu in December 2012. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today.

In fact, even though most are long-shots to join Polamalu, if any or all of the players that took LeBeau’s 3-4 zone-blitz defense and made it famous were to get that call for football immortality — including James Harrison, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Ike Taylor — there’s no doubt that every single one of them would pick LeBeau to be their presenter. Heck, by the time he got through doing all that presenting, LeBeau would have enough training for a second career as a motivational speaker.

It’s amazing how much universal love there is for Dick LeBeau, who was already a popular figure with his players during his first stint as the Steelers defensive coordinator in the mid-’90s under head coach Bill Cowher.

  • The late Kevin Greene, a big and tough football player if there ever was one, wasn’t shy about expressing his love for LeBeau.
Kevin Greene, Stan Humpheries, 1993 Steelers free agents, 1993 Steelers free agency

Kevin Greene sacks Stan Humphries in 1993. Photo Credit: AP, via al.com

But it was during LeBeau’s second stint as the Steelers defensive coordinator from 2004-2014 when the love affair between him and his players really became a sight to behold.

It became a tradition around the holidays for LeBeau to read the classic, “The Night Before Christmas” to his players–and those big, tough football players sat there and listened like little kids!

The next time you hear a former player say anything bad about LeBeau, it will be the first time. And if word ever got back to the likes of Harrison and Brett Keisel, I’d hate to be that former player.

Speaking of Harrison, perhaps the biggest, baddest defender LeBeau ever coached, he once broke down in tears on national television while talking about his former defensive coordinator. This was back in 2013, months after Harrison was released by Pittsburgh and then signed with the Bengals. No player ever forgets LeBeau, the man they affectionately called Coach Dad during his second stay in Pittsburgh.

In the lead-up to the 2005 regular-season finale against the team that he spent his playing days with–the Detroit Lions–every single one of his defenders bought and wore a No. 44 throwback Lions jersey in LeBeau’s honor.

The kind of connection LeBeau often developed with his much-younger players was rare then and it’s rare now. I guess that’s because LeBeau treated his players like men and genuinely cared about them. He didn’t command respect through words and a presence; he earned it through his actions and the ability to teach them.

In typical Troy Polamalu fashion, he couldn’t have been more humble when he revealed the name of his presenter, Tweeting, “Can you please tell them that all I did was follow you…#eachoneteachone

Sure, LeBeau was a great leader, but in my opinion, it wasn’t because he got people to follow him; he was a great leader because he got his players to believe in the same defensive philosophies that he did.

Maybe it’s fitting that this kind, gentle man once described his zone-blitz scheme as “Tweaking someone’s nose while you go behind them and kick them in the tail.”

The zone-blitz scheme was all about deception, but it was still a rough and tough defense, one that allowed his players to wreak havoc on opponents week in and week out.

I’ll leave you with one more quote about LeBeau courtesy of a 2006 ESPN.com article and courtesy of another player who deeply admired him, Kimo von Oelhoffen:

“Probably the best man, and not just one of the best coaches, I’ve ever met in my life. The things I’ve learned from him about football and about life, I’ll cherish forever, really. Every minute you’re around him, believe me, is a minute where you’ve benefited in some way.”

 

 

 

 

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Steelers 2016 Draft Grades – Disappointments Add Up to a (generous) C-

With nine new players, numerous Pro Day visits, thousands of words of prediction and analysis and countless hours of video, the 2021 Draft is complete.

  • And now we can finally assign draft grades.

We can now finally grade the Steelers 2016 Draft class. Wait, what? Why pray tell, would a Steelers site grade the 2016 draft now?

Tyreek Hill touchdown Steelers, Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Steelers vs Chiefs

Tyreek Hill scores as Sean Davis and Artie Burns “watch.” Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

We’ve always harked back to Chuck Noll’s philosophy of waiting 5 years to grade a draft. And while its fun to say “If it was enough for Chuck Noll is good enough for me,” that rings hollow this year. Because after the Steelers 2016 Draft class was announced, I boldly declared:

The Steelers 2016 Draft Class, like the Steelers 2015 and 2014 draft classes will be judged by one criteria: Did the players selected by Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin add enough value to allow Ben Roethlisberger to lead the Steelers to a 7th Super Bowl.

Well, Ok now, the Steelers clearly haven’t brought home another Lombardi ergo, there’s nothing new we can learn from the 2016 draft, right?

  • Actually, far from it.

The Steelers 2016 Draft class reinforces a timeless lesson: Time and patience are required to grade a draft class. In that sense, the Steelers 2016 draft is reminiscent of the 1989 Steelers draft: Both looked pretty damn good the following January.

1989 Steelers broke a four year playoff drought, shocked the world with an upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome, and came within a dropped pass and a bad snap from the AFC Championship game.

  • Steelers 1989 draft class was a huge factor in making that happen.

Yet, as time passed, it became clear that the Steelers 1989 draft had far more Fool’s Gold than did did gems. 2016 is similar. The 2016 season ended with a bitter AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, but the 3 Steelers defensive rookies who started that game had played a huge role in getting them there.

  • The “Upside” of those rookies appeared to be limitless.

But appearances can be deceiving. As our grades reveal:

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

First Round: Artie Burns the Burn Out

When the Steelers called Artie Burns‘ name on draft night, the skeptics spoke up. Pitttsburgh desperately needed a cornerback and the top corners had gone off the board in a hurry. William Jackson the player Pittsburgh wanted, went one pick before the Steelers turn to draft.

  • Artie Burns looked and felt like a reach.

As a rookie, Artie Burns defied his critics. He won he starting job from William Gay at mid season, made 3 interceptions and deflected 13 passes. Was he perfect? No. But Burns certainly contributed to the Steelers late season defensive turn around.

  • Unfortunately, Artie Burns burned out after that.

Artie Burns struggled in 2017. Rumors circulated that Cam Sutton might replace him. 2018 saw Burns benched, and he got burned in his lone reapperance in the Steelers win over the Patriots. In 2019 he was purely a backup, although he played well in his start against the Chargers.

Most fans will write Artie Burns off as a bust, but he wasn’t a total loss. Grade: Disappointment

Second Round: Sean Davis Doesn’t Deliver on Rookie Promise

This site has written a lot about Sean Davis recently, reflecting on his career arc both in Tony Defeo’s free agent profile and the piece about his free agent signing with the Colts.

Sean Davis’ rookie of the year honors were well deserved. HE played well, like the rest of the defense, during the first half of 2017, then struggled with everyone else. He moved to free safety in 2018 and did fairly well, and lost his 2019 to injury.

He served as a backup and special teams player during his return in 2020. Might not have been his fault, but Davis never delivered on the promise of his rookie year. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Third Round: Javon Hargrave – The Grave Digger Finds Gold

Former Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell was spare with his praise, but he didn’t hold back when the Steelers took Javon Hargrave in 2016.

And Hargrave delivered. He won the starting job in 2016 as a rookie and neither he nor the Steelers looked back since then. Injuries limited his effectiveness in 2017, but the only question about Hargrave during the rest of his time in Pittsburgh was “Why doesn’t he play more?” Grade: Grand Slam

Fourth Round: Injuries Hobble Jerald Hawkins’ Career before It Starts

Jerald Hawkins was one of first lineman the Steelers had drafted in quite some time. Unfortunately, his rookie season was lost to injury. He saw some action in 2018 but got injured during OTAs in 2018 was lost for the entire season.

The Steelers traded him prior to the 2019 season, but brought him back for 2020 in a bit of waiver wire shopping where Hawkins served as the Steelers 3 tight end. Grade: Disappointment

5th Round: Travis Feeney. Who?

Travis Feeney didn’t make the Steelers 2016 roster and Pittsburgh lost him in a bit of practice squad poaching in December of that year when the New Orleans Saints signed him. Per Pro Football Reference, he never played a down of NFL football, as the Saints cut him the following June. Grade: Bust

7th Round A: Demarcus Ayers Remarkable Start All for Naught

Hollywood doesn’t script better than this. As a 7th round pick On his second week off of practice squad, in the 4th quarter of his first professional game, Demarcus Ayers:

  • Drew a 35 yard pass interference play that moved the Steelers into the Red Zone
  • Threw a key block 2 plays later that set up a touchdown
  • Made a 9 yard catch and got out of bounds with 0:57 left to play

Oh, and did we mention the AFC North was on the line? On Christmas? And against the Ravens?

Ayers went 3-3 targets/catches in against the Dolphins and Chiefs in the playoffs, but he failed to make the 53 man roster the next summer. He famously balked at rejoining the Steelers practice squad, spent a few weeks on the Patriot’s practice squad, was on the Bears 2018 off season roster and then out of football.

  • Could Demarcus Ayers have carved a niche role for himself by staying in Pittsburgh?

Alas, we’ll never know. Neither will he. Grade: Disappointment.

7th Round B: Tyler Matakevich – “Dirty Red” Excels on Special Teams

Tyler Matakevich was supposed to be one of those linebackers like Jerry Olsavsky who lacked measurables but was going to made up for it in preparation, effort and heart.

  • During four years in Pittsburgh Matakevich proved himself to be an excellent special teams player.

However, he never grew into a supporting role at inside linebacker. Coaches gave him a clear, first shot at winning the starting job at St. Vincents in the summer of 2018, but by time the season arrived “Dirty Red” found himself behind both Jon Bostic and L.J. Fort. Grade: Quality Value Pickup

Overall Final Grade for the Steelers 2016 Draft Class

The Steelers 2016 Draft Class delivered 3 Disappointments, 2 Serviceable Pickups, 1 Bust and one Grand Slam. So the Steelers got some value out of this draft class, but the value delivered by their premium picks diminished rapidly. Javon Hargrave keeps this grade in striking distance of respectable, and the final grade might be a bit generous given the stakes. Grade: C-

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