Steelers Sign Mark Barron, Possibly Signaling Jon Bostic and/or Morgan Burnett’s Exits

“Be aggressive!” Appears to be the mantra free agency mantra of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2019 as they continued to bolster their defense by signing former Los Angeles Rams linebacker/safety Mark Barron.

If initial reports are correct, Mark Barron’s contract with the Steelers is for two years and 12 million dollars with a $5.75 million signing bonus.

While “Mark Barron” is far from a household name he does have some history with the Steelers, as he was responsible for hit that injured Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers 2015 win over the then St. Louis Rams. Although Barron’s hit was clearly against NFL rules, he was neither flagged nor fined for the transgression.

Mark Barron, Ben Roethlisberger, Mark Barron injures Ben Roethlisberger

New Steelers free agent Mark Barron injures Ben Roethlisberger in 2015. Photo Credit: Tom Gannam, via TimesWVA.com

As a result of the play, Mike Vick was forced to start 3 games in Ben Roethlisberger’s absence, with Landry Jones relieving Vick and rallying the team to a comeback win over Arizona.

  • The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Mark Barron with the 7th overall pick in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

Mark Barron entered the NFL as a safety, until they traded him to the Rams in mid-2014, who moved him to inside linebacker. Like some other recent free agent signings from past off seasons, Mark Barron comes to Pittsburgh with some injury history, having missed the first four games of 2018, before starting the final 12 including the Rams 3 playoff games.

This could spell bad news for Jon Bostic, who figured to be the incumbent starter following L.J. Fort’s free agent defection to the Philadelphia Eagles. The move could also signal a coming release of Morgan Burnett, whom the Steelers signed as a safety last season.

The Steelers plan was to start Morgan Burnett at safety, but injuries led to Terrell Edmunds getting the start, and Edmunds played well enough to keep the strong safety spot for the balance of the season. Morgan Burnett did work his way into the lineup, but as a dime linebacker, a move which prompted Burnett publicly request his release.

Although the Steelers have now made high-profile free agent signings at inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver, Pittsburgh is expected to target all three positions in the 2019 NFL Draft.  The moves however, frees Pittsburgh from the need to reach to fill any of the areas on their depth chart.

  • A generation ago the saying went, “When you draft for need, Troy Edwards happens.”

Today you could say, “When you draft for need, Jarvis Jones or Artie Burns happen.”

Word to the Wise: Official Word on Barron Signing Pending

A quick word to the wise:  News of the Steelers signing Mark Barron broke on Twitter on Sunday the 17th. By Monday the Post-Gazette and Tribune Review were running the story, seemingly having confirmed Adam Schefter’s report on ESPN.

  • However, as of Tuesday, March 19th at 7:30 am Eastern the Steelers had still not officially announced the signing.

While the delay is likely due to logistical issues, it is possible that the deal hit a snag. Back in 2008, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette announced that the Steelers had signed Bud McFarland. That deal never materialized. However, in that case the Tribune Review had clearly and consistently reported that no deal had been reached with Bud McFarland.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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¿Por que los Pittsburgh Steelers se quedaron sin los playoffs en 2018? (Parte II)

 

En la entrega anterior estuvimos repasando cómo las entregas de balón afectaron de manera decisiva el resultado final de la temporada 2018.

Ahora es el turno de los errores en la ejecución

Mucho se ha discutido acerca de si los Pittsburgh Steelers es un equipo mal dirigido por el staff encabezado por el Coach Tomlin, o si en cambio, lo que sepultó las aspiraciones de disputar el Super Bowl LIII fue un déficit grave en la ejecución.

Pero ¿cómo evaluar objetivamente la “ejecución”? ¿Qué aspectos del juego, a ambos lados del balón y en los equipos especiales representan objetivamente “la ejecución”?  

Según la Real Academia Española “poner en ejecución significa ejecutar, llevar a la práctica, realizar”. Entonces el paso siguiente es buscar aquellos indicadores que permitan evaluar de manera más objetiva la aptitud del equipo para conseguir el objetivo, que en este caso es ganar el partido. Como ejemplificaba en el artículo anterior, mi idea es realizar una “auditoría” a los números del equipo.

¿Fueron los Steelers el mejor equipo de la liga, como se pregonaba a mediados de año?

Claramente la respuesta es NO. Pero, ¿qué tan lejos se estuvo de eso?

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals

JuJu Smith-Schuster noto un touchdown en le finale contra los Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

¿Una ofensiva de élite?

Para comenzar analicemos el indicador más duro de ejecución: el resultado.

Todos conocemos de memoria este ítem: 9 – 6 – 1 (otra temporada ganadora para el Coach Tomlin, argumentarán sus defensores. Temporadas ganadoras sin títulos es (en palabras de Carlos Ortega) agua tibia, rugirán sus detractores)

Nueve – 6 -1 parece hablar de un equipo mediocre, y 9 – 6 – 1 sin postemporada, peor aún.

Trataré de hacer que la farragosa sucesión de números que siguen no noquee al lector a la altura del segundo párrafo…

Anailcemos a la ofensiva en su conjunto y por secciones.

  • Como conjunto, se puede decir que fue el 7° mejor equipo en puntos anotados… Muy bien!
  • Dentro de la zona roja anotó TD el 73,5% de las veces. Primero en la Liga: excelente!!
  • Convirtieron el 44,4% de los 3er downs lo que los ubica 8° en este rubro: otra vez, muy bien!

Hasta ahora no parece tan mal, o sí?

En yardas recorridas por drive se ubicaron 6° con poco más de 32 yds por serie. El objetivo del drive es anotar (a veces consumir el reloj, es cierto) asique hay que ver cuantas veces se convirtieron puntos en esos drives (ya hablamos de esto en el capítulo anterior): 37 % de las veces (ranking 18°) Y ¿cuántos puntos se anotaron? ¿predominaron los TD? ¿o los goles de campo? Puntos por drive anotador: 2.23 puntos (como si cada vez que anotaban fueran goles de campo) Pero ojo, sólo 8 equipos convirtieron más puntos por drive anotador!

James Conner, Myles Garrett, Steelers vs. Browns

James Conner y Myles Garrett. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.

Decíamos que otro objetivo de las series ofensivas, aparte de anotar, claro, es consumir el reloj y controlar el ritmo del partido, manteniendo a la ofensiva rival fuera del campo. Pues aquí no se estuvo tan bien. Pero tampoco tan mal: 2:44 minutos por drive (ranking 14°)

Finalmente se retrocedieron 1.026 yardas por infracciones (este ítem atañe tanto a la ofensiva, la defensiva y equipos especiales) siendo el 3er peor equipo, solo superados por Kansas City y Jacksonville.

Ahora algunos datos por sección ofensiva.

El tándem QB-Receptores.

  • 5008 yds aéreas (2°)
  • Los receptores atraparon el 67% de los envíos (ranking 13°)
  • Intercepciones 17, compartiendo el 6° peor puesto con Cleveland (2,5% el porcentaje de veces que fue interceptado por intento de pese – ranking 20°-)
  • Ben Roethlisberger fue el líder pasador con 5.129 yardas y un QBR de 95,5 (ranking 13°)
  • El rating de QB de Big Ben cuando iba perdiendo fue más alto que el rating general (101.6 cuando iba perdiendo) Si va perdiendo faltando menos de 4 minutos el QBR baja a 80 y sorprendentemente cae a 67 dentro de los 2 minutos finales.

Línea ofensiva:

  • Permitió sólo 24 capturas de QB (ranking 4to mejor) o, visto de otro modo,
  • Permitió capturas el 3,4% de las veces que se intentó pase (2do mejor. Excelente!!!)

Juego terrestre:

La negativa de LeVeon Bell a retornar al equipo tuvo consecuencias innegables, aunque para sorpresa de casi todos James Conner superó largamente las expectativas. Pero alguien, en la dirección ofensiva del equipo, no tenía la misma confianza. No sé si fue MT, Coach Fitchner o el propio Ben el responsable de que durante largos momentos, el juego terrestre se mantuviera fuera y congelado.

  • El resultado? el 2do peor ataque terrestre de la Liga. Sólo 90,3 yds por tierra por juego. Ofensiva desbalanceada y predecible.

Si se analiza el juego terrestre por mitades (quiero decir, discriminado en primera y segunda mitad del partido) el promedio de yardas totales, yardas por acarreo y TD terrestres, veremos que no hay diferencias.

  • James Conner se perdió 3 partidos por lesión y aún así fue el 3er RB en cantidad de TD anotados, ganando así su lugar en el Pro Bowl por primera vez.

Si vemos el desempeño del ataque aéreo también dividido por mitades se puede ver que Big Ben lanzó casi el doble de intercepciones en la primera mitad y ¼ más de TD en ese segmento del juego. En efecto, en lo que respecta a los pases de TD Ben fue más prolífico en el 2do y 3er cuartos.

Hasta aquí las estadísticas de la ofensiva.

De 14 items trascendentes analizados, la ofensiva es top 10 en 7 (de ellos, 3 top 5)

Llegó el turno de auditar a la defensiva y los equipos especiales

¿Fue realmente la defensiva tan mala?

Por este lado las expectativas eran más modestas. Luego de la lesión de Ryan Shazier nada fue lo mismo y esta escuadra se veía herida de muerte durante el resto de la temporada 2017.

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts quemo Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

En 2018 se llevaría a cabo la reparación de la unidad con la llegada de los veteranos Jon Bostic y Morgan Burnett y del novato de primera ronda, Terrell Edmunds se intentaría emparchar (aunque sea a medias) la ausencia del Playmaker.

Veamos algunos números:

  • Permitieron 360 puntos (un mediocre 17avo lugar) y en zona roja ocuparon el mismo puesto del ranking, permitiendo 59.2 puntos.

Los números más destacados fueron en (atención que me llevé alguna sorpresa):

  • Tackleo: 107.9 (9°. Desafortunadamente no pude encontrar la estadística de yardas después de la atrapada y después del contacto pero intuyo que se ha mejorado de manera muy significativa)
  • Pases defendidos: 83 (ranking 3° y a pesar de Burns. Primera gran sorpresa!)
  • Defensa contra el pase: 10° (Segunda sorpresa!)
  • Presión sobre el QB rival: 52 sacks (1° puesto en la Liga)
  • Defensa contra el juego terrestre: 10° en Yardas por intento y en yardas por partido
  • Y aquí comienzan los problemas: recuperaciones de balón INT 15 (ranking 29°) y fumbles recuperados 7 (21°)
  • Durante las 2das mitades esta defensiva se vió más vulnerable puesto que triplicaron los TD por tierra permitidos y sólo interceptaron 2 balones contra los 6 en las primeras mitades.
  • Por otra parte mostró poca capacidad de recuperación o de sobreponerse al marcador ya que le anotaron 22 TDs mientras iban abajo en el marcador y sólo 7 mientras iban ganando.

“Illegal block in the back” o El trabajo del Coach Smith

El título se explica por sí solo…. Sigamos adelante.

Los equipos especiales mostraron claroscuros. Hubo bloqueos de patadas cruciales, hubo TD, pero el debe más importante y doloroso fue el bajón de rendimiento de quien, con derecho, de había convertido en la 5ts “B” de los Killer B’s: Chris Boswell.

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

Chris Boswell en Oakland… Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Pasó de un porcentaje de 92%para goles de campo en 2017 a 65% en 2018, con 9/10 en GC de 40 a 49 yds en 2017 y 5/10 desde la misma distancia en 2018. Inexplicable. Y catastrófico para el equipo.

Veamos algún detalle:

  • En las semanas 1 y 2 tuvo 1 GC en cada partido y los falló (el de Cleveland ganaba el partido)
  • Contra Denver fue 1-2
  • Contra Oakland fue 0-2

De jugador indiscutido (contrato multianual mediante) pasa a pelear por su puesto en el campo de entrenamiento próximo.

Switzer tampoco fue un dechado de talento al devolver patadas. Promedió 8 yds en paradas de despeje (ranking 17°) y 19.3 yds al devolver KO’s (31°)

Una estadística me llamó la atención. Es el punto, promedio, desde donde partía la ofensiva. Ese punto fue la yarda 26. (Ranking de la liga 31°)

Hasta aquí, los números que me parecieron más importantes

Pero entonces, ¿las estadísticas del equipo dan respuesta a nuestra pregunta original, sobre qué fue lo que pasó con este equipo en esta temporada?

La respuesta es, a mi entender, que no. Es más, estas estadísticas parecen describir a otro equipo.

Los números delatan algunas características o comportamientos del equipo que podrían ir en la dirección de dar una respuesta.

Por ejemplo,  el hecho de que Big Ben anote menos TD en la segunda mitad, puede ir en detrimento de la capacidad del equipo para cerrar o dar vuelta un partido.

  • Lanzar más intercepciones al comienzo del encuentro, explica o es reflejo de lo que  todos vimos: se empezaba lento.

Es sabido que las infracciones matan ofensivas o muchas veces exponen con crudeza incapacidades o falencias técnicas individuales o de conjunto. Que se haya perdido semejante número de yardas por infracciones no ha sido gratis. Con el correr de los partidos la cosa fue mejorando.

Pero mi conclusión es que las estadísticas, no explican el resultado de la temporada. El equipo en realidad debe salir con un Aprobado + si uno se fiara de los números.

Mi  impresión es que jugadas puntuales o segmentos determinados en varios de los partidos perdidos y en el empate de la semana 1 con Cleveland, sellaron el destino del equipo. Y en general estos eventos están relacionados con pérdidas de balón.

La diferencia entre ganar y perder estuvo en errores mentales, de concentración. Aún cuando el equipo se mostró más carente de ideas, se mantuvo en condiciones de dar vuelta el resultado o de llevar el partido a tiempo extra. Pero allí ocurría el error mental que sepultaba las aspiraciones.

Se perdió por 5.66 puntos promedio por partido. Pero esta cifra es engañosa, también, hasta cierto punto, porque está llevada hacia arriba por la derrota contra Ravens que fue la diferencia en puntos más abultada (12 puntos) Si se quita este partido la diferencia en puntos en partidos perdidos sería de 4 puntos. Por poco más que un gol de campo…

  • Nunca el equipo fue arrasado en el campo de juego.

En definitiva, la diferencia se puede decir que estuvo en los detalles, en determinados momentos de los partidos, en la falta de esa energía o talento extra que tienen los equipos campeones.

En favor de los detractores de Tomlin, tal vez ese plus le corresponda a la influencia del Head Coach para identificar en el momento adecuado qué es lo que le está faltando al equipo.

  • Ese talento extra nunca llegó. Ni del Head Coach, ni de parte de los jugadores.

Esta no es, ni pretende ser, la visión definitiva. Es, en tal caso, mi interpretación de una temporada que finalizó de manera muy extraña, decepcionante, por los resultados y por los sucesos que se ventilaron luego de la semana 17.

El Dr. de Acero

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2018 Steelers Season Review – A Perfect Storm Ruins A Promising Year in Pittsburgh

The NFL divisional playoffs were played over last weekend, and unlike the previous 4 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers are not only didn’t play, they never even had a chance to get there, despite holding a 7-2-1 record at mid-season.

  • Our Steelers 2018 season review explores why and how a perfect storm ruined a once promising season in Pittsburgh.

Truthfully, our Steelers-Patriots preview has already told the story of the 2018 Steelers as a team that started September morbidly cold, got super heated in October, only to find room temperature as winter arrived. That’s accurate, but doesn’t tell us much about why things played out that way. Today, we dig a deeper.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

Counting on a Bell that Never Tolled

Full disclosure: I endorsed the Steelers second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell. I was wrong. Franchising Le’Veon Bell was a mistake on two levels:

Travis Kelce, Jon Bostic, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Travis Kelce catches as Jon Bostic & Sean Davis look on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

First, because Le’Veon Bell never played, the Steelers had 14.5 million salary cap dollars committed to player who wasn’t delivering value. That commitment forced the Steelers to go bargain hunting on defense, leading to the signings of Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett.

Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett were upgrades from Sean Spence and Mike Mitchell, but even at their best the duo was never going to return defense to the level it was teasing in mid-2017 before injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier.

  • For a while, it looked like James Conner was going to make Le’Veon Bell “Mr. Irrelevant.”

But, Bell’s hold out meant that an injury to James Conner would downgrade the Steelers from a Super Bowl contender to a team that might make the playoffs.

And of course James Conner did get injured, leading to a rather ironic situation discussed below.

Learning the Right Lesson at the Wrong Time

For several years, the Steelers have failed to field sufficient depth at running back. During the Mike Tomlin era, the Steelers have (almost) never reached December with their top two running backs healthy. Despite that, they’ve neglected the third running back slot.

  • Randy Fichtner took a lot of criticism for passing so much, but people forget that the season started very differently.

In fact, early on Mike Tomlin seemed poised to ride James Conner until the wheels fell off, just had he’d done with Willie Parker, Le’Veon Bell and, to a lesser degree, Rashard Mendenhall.

But as you can see, James Conner’s touch count dropped dramatically, starting with the Panthers game. Before that he was averaging 23.6 touches per game, after that his touch count dipped to an average of 16.2.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

And that 31% decrease occurred just as it became clear that Le’Veon Bell would sit out the season.

Keep in mind that turnovers forced Pittsburgh to play from behind in Jacksonville and at Denver, and that certainly contributed to the decrease, but on 247 Sports Pittsburgh, Jim Wexell has suggested numerous times that the Steelers were trying to avoid running Conner into the ground.

  • This was the right thing to do because Jaylen Samuels was an unknown commodity.

But, it though Ben Roethlisberger‘s interception % was below that of 2017 and below his career average, throwing the ball so much ultimately led to more interceptions, and turnovers or the lack thereof doomed the Steelers.

Keeping Ben Out in Oakland

By Mike Tomlin’s own admission, Ben Roethlisberger could have returned to the game at Oakland 1 series earlier. Having taken Mike Tomlin to task for this decision at the time and the Steelers 2018 Report Card, there is no reason for repetition.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Joshua Dobbs Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

  • Indeed, the counter argument that no one considers is that Tomlin was concerned about his 125 million dollar quarterback puncturing a lung.

Did anyone really want to see the Steelers close out the season with Joshua Dobbs under center? But we don’t live in a hypothetical world. The reality is that Ben delivered as soon as he returned to the game, and suffered no further injury. There’s no reason to think one more series would have changed things.

Tomlin gambled, and lost and it cost the Steelers a whole lot more than one game.

Zebras Put Steelers on Endangered Species List

I don’t like complaining about officiating. Complaining about officiating is what the sore loser Seattle Seahawks did following Super Bowl XL. When a bad call goes against you, it’s on you to deal with it.

Yet, I’ve actively followed the Steelers for 31 years, and I have never seen Pittsburgh suffer from so many chronic bad calls. Consider:

Take away any one of those, and the Steelers could very well be playing this weekend. Yes, championship teams find ways to overcome bad calls. (See the 2005 Steelers following Troy Polamalu’s overturned interception in the divisional playoff win over the Colts.)

The 2018 Steelers clearly lacked what it took to overcome those bad calls, but they had far too many to overcome.

Of Turnovers and Ball Security

What do James Conner, Xaiver Grimble, Stevan Ridley and JuJu Smith-Schuster have in common? They all fumbled at critical moments costing the Steelers wins when they needed them. While Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions came either in the Red Zone or at critical moments in games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Saints, JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble doomed the Steelers. Photo Credit: Butch Dill, AP via Tribune Review

Joe Haden would have made a Red Zone interception himself against the Chargers, but Sean Davis leveled him, and the ball, bounced right into Keenan Allen‘s hands with an uncanniness not seen this side of the 1991 Steelers loss to the Browns at Cleveland Stadium.

  • Like Greg Lloyd and James Harrison before him, T.J. Watt not only sacked quarterbacks but stripped the ball while doing it.
  • Yet all too often, the ball failed to bounce the Steelers way.

On the season, the Steelers turned the ball over 26 times and only secured 15 turnovers. You simply can’t win a lot of games like that.

It’s the Talent Stupid

There are no shortage of professional commentators, let alone fans, who’ve spent the balance of 2019 berating Mike Tomlin for failing to deliver with a “super talented team.” 2018 Steelers did underachieve.

  • But is ti accurate or even fair to describe the 2018 Steelers roster as “Super talented?”

On offense, James Conner almost canceled out the loss of Le’Veon Bell, but Bell’s ball security suggests he wouldn’t have fumbled those two balls. Vance McDonald made greater impact in 2018 than in 2017, improving the tight end position.

  • The offensive line’s performance was at least as strong as it had been in 2017.

But at wide receiver the story is different. Antonio Brown started the season slowly. JuJu Smith-Schuster exploded in 2018, and gave the Steelers a better number 2 wide out than Martavis Bryant had given them in 2017.

But James Washington didn’t give them a better number 3 option at wide receiver than JuJu had done a year ago. And while Ryan Switzer was a decent number 4 wide receiver, Eli Rogers gave them a better option in 2017.

  • So the talent level of the Steelers 2018 was strong, but slightly lower than it had been a year ago.

On defense, the 2018 Steelers defense improved from the post-Shazier 2017 defense, but was nowhere near the level the defense was approaching in the middle of 2017.

Take this a step further as “MuleFunk” did over on the 247 Pittsburgh’s message board, and compare the 2018 Steelers defense to the 2008 Steelers defense that led Pittsburgh to victory in Super Bowl XLIII. How many of this year’s players could start on the ’08 defense?

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

You’d start Joe Haden over Deshea Townsend, I’d argue you start Cam Heyward over Brett Keisel and probably T.J. Watt over LaMarr Woodley. Neither of those moves is a slam dunk, but you wouldn’t even think to ask the question with any other player on the Steelers 2018 defense.

To the contrary, if Dr. Brown were to show up with his DeLorean, I’d unhesitatingly go back to 2008, snatch Lawrence Timmons off the bench, and start him at either inside linebacker slot in the 2018 Steelers defense.

Finally, while it may not solely be a question of talent, Chris Boswell went from “Mr. Automatic” to “Mr. Cross your Finger and Clutch Your Rosary Beads.” That alone cost the Steelers one game, arguable another and complicated other wins.

Conclusion – A Cloudy Future for Pittsburgh

In the end, a team is its record and the Pittsburgh Steelers took a step back in 2018. But if the Steelers took a step back in 2018, could they take a step forward the way they did after disappointing campaigns in 2003 and 2007?

However, that was before the situation with Antonio Brown became public, and issue which clouds any attempt to predict Pittsburgh’s immediate future.

 

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Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card – Under Achieving or Just Average? Neither Was Good Enough

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigned to the reality that his once thought to be special class is really just average, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin following the Steelers loss at Oakland. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP via Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing, something no Pittsburgh Steeler has done since Jim Finks in 1955. That’s good. But it came at a cost of 16 interceptions. That’s bad, but is interception rate was 2.4, which was better than last year and better than his career average. The problem is that Ben’s picks at inopportune times, and that lowers grade below where other statistics might suggest it should be. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Le’Veon who? James Conner took over the starting running back role and performed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. When Conner got hurt, Jaylen Samuels proved he is at least a viable number 2 NFL running back. Despite a nice run or two, Stevan Ridley failed to show he was a viable number 3 NFL running back.

  • The key knock against the running backs revolves around ball security.

Fumbles by running backs proved to be critical turning points in 3 games in which the Steelers needed wins and didn’t get them. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald might not be Pittsburgh’s version of Gronk, but he’s an offensive weapon who can do damage anywhere on the field. Jesse James role in the passing game declined as the season wore on, but he proved himself to be a reliable target, and his block has improved. Xavier Grimble did have a critical fumble, but is a serviceable number 3 NFL tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Due to either injury or attitude, Antonio Brown started slowly in 2018, but by season’s end he was in championship form (on the field….) JuJu Smith-Schuster made a tremendous 2nd year leap, revealing himself as a budding super star. James Washington struggled to find his footing, but flashed tremendous potential, whereas Justin Hunter never justified his roster spot. Ryan Switzer proved to be a decent 4th wide out while Eli Rogers gave this offense a boost. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
This is a hard grade to offer, because for much of the season Ben Roethlisberger had “diary-writing quality” pass protection. Nonetheless, defenses managed to get to Ben late in the season, and in Oakland when the Steelers had a rookie runner, the run blocking just wasn’t there. To call this unit “inconsistent” would be grossly unfair, but their performance fell short of the level of excellence needed. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 8 sacks with Stephon Tuitt following with 5.5 sacks and he increased his QB hit number from 2017. Both men improved their tackle totals. Javon Hargrave had a strong third year with 6.5 sacks. Tyson Alualu, Daniel McCullers and L.T. Walton functioned as role players. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt exploded in his second year leading the Steelers with 13 sacks and six forced fumbles. The move to the weak side helped Bud Dupree although his sack total was 5.5, down from 2017, but his pressures, tackles and pass deflections were up. Anthony Chickillo proved he is a viable NFL 3rd OLB. On the inside Jon Bostic clearly upgraded the position from where it was at the end of 2017, but his coverage ability remains suspect. L.J. Fort fared much better in coverage but is far from being an impact player. Vince Williams had another solid year.

Overall the Steelers 2018 linebackers were OK but, outside of T.J. Watt, lack anything resembling a difference maker. Grade: C

T.J. Watt, Matt Ryan, T.J. Watt Matt Ryan strip sack, Steelers vs Falcons

T.J. Watt strip sacks Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: AP, via Sharon Herald

Secondary
In some ways, the whole of the Steelers secondary was less than the sum of its parts. Joe Haden is the group’s clear leader. In contrast, Artie Burns regressed, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly developed into a competent NFL cornerback. Mike Hilton gives the Steelers a solid presence at nickel back. Sean Davis’ move to free safety proved to be fruitful, as he helped eliminate the long gains that plagued the unit a year ago. Terrell Edmunds took some time to find his footing as you’d expect for a rookie, but played well in the strong safety spot, as did Morgan Burnett.

While the Steelers secondary made progress in 2018, performance and results drive grades and the chronic 4th quarter touchdowns given up by this unit reveals that the Steelers secondary wasn’t good enough. Grade: D

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer gave the Steelers the first consistency they’ve enjoyed in the return game for quite some time and he ranked 13th league wide in punt returns. However, the Steelers gave up an average of 14.4 yards on punt returns which is terrible, although the Steelers kick coverage ranked near the top of the NFL.

Jordan Berry takes a lot of flack, and he did struggle at the beginning of the year, but his punting was solid if not spectacular by season’s end. Fans who object to this should remember that quality punting has never correlated with championships for the Steelers.

  • The key player here is Chris Boswell, who struggled all year. Arguably, missed kicks cost the Steelers 2 games.

Factor in the Steelers leading the league in special teams penalties, and the picture is pretty bleak. Yes, Danny Smith’s men did block two field goals, executed a fake field goal, and partially blocked a punt, which pulls the grade up a bit. Grade: D

Coaching
Randy Fichtner took over the Steelers offense and we saw some immediate improvements, particularly in Red Zone conversions. The Steelers also converted slightly more 3rd downs, although their ranking was down. Given that the Steelers played most of the season without a legit 3rd wide receiver those accomplishments speak even better of Fichtner.

  • However, Randy Fichtner’s offense still had issues.

The Steelers struggled, and failed, to add to leads. And as the season wore on, it became pass heavy to a fault. Injuries dictated some of this, but more passes led to more interceptions.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is probably the 2nd least popular man in Pittsburgh now. And to some degree that is understandable, as 4th quarter leads evaporated in November and December faster than an ice sickle in July.

  • But how much of that is Keith Butler’s fault?

It is hard to say, but film analysis by “Heinzsight” over on 247 Sports Pittsburgh concludes that on many of the critical plays that doomed Pittsburgh, Steelers linebackers and defensive backs were in the right places but failed to make plays (think Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds vs. Seth Roberts.)

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

  • If Keith Butler is the 2nd most unpopular man in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin paces him by a mile.
  • I haven’t jumped on the #FireTomlin bandwagon yet and will not start today.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

Mike Tomlin didn’t fumble those balls, throw those picks, let those interceptions bounce off of his hands or miss those kicks that cost the Steelers so dearly. I’m also in the camp that says Mike Tomlin’s ability to pacify Antonio Brown for as long as he has, speaks well of his coaching abilities. (Scoffing? Fair enough. But Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin two disciplinarian’s disciplinarian struggled with their Diva wide receivers.)

  • His one clear coaching mistake was holding Ben Roethlisberger out of the game in Oakland, and it cost the team the playoffs.

And given that the Steelers play against the Saints suggests that this team could have actually made a Super Bowl run, that decision amounts to a huge miscalculation on Mike Tomlin’s part, because draft picks come and go, but Lombardi’s stay forever. Grade: D

Front Office
This is the first, and perhaps last time the Front Office has appeared on a Steelers Report Card. But they are here because of the ripple effects of one calculated risk they took on using the second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell.

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

Mike Tomlin & Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Yahoo! sports

Integrity demands I acknowledge that I supported this move, arguing it was perhaps what both sides needed.

The error didn’t come in franchising Bell, but in failing to adequately prepare for his failure to show up. When James Conner got hurt, the decision to keep Justin Hunter on the roster instead of trying to sign 2018’s equivalent of Mewelde Moore perhaps did as much damage to the Steelers Super Bowl hopes as Tomlin’s blunder in the Black Hole. Grade: D

Unsung Hero
There could be several candidate here for this slot, but we’re going to settle for someone who truly embodied the “Next Man Up” philosophy, and did so in relative anonymity. Once again injuries derailed Marcus Gilbert’s season, but this year Chris Hubbard was in Cleveland. Not that you would have noticed, because Matt Feiler, stepped in and the Steelers offensive line never missed a beat and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2018 season.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Bengals: How to Deal with a Disruptive Star Pupil Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pondering over how to deal with a star pupil who has an attitude problem, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals.

T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 31 of 45 for one touchdown and one interception. Ben apparently thought the interception should have gone back due to an uncalled off sides penalty, but at this point he should know better than to count on getting correct calls. Ben Roethlisberger was out of sorts until mid-way through the 3rd quarter. Grade: C-

Running Backs
James Conner looked sharp in his first game back since the injury against the Chargers, but he only got 14 carries as the offense never was able to establish the run. Jaylen Samuels got little on his lone carry, but did catch 7 of 8 passes thrown his way. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught 3 passes including a two that converted 3rd downs. Xavier Grimble had 1 catch that helped move the Steelers into scoring position prior to the half. Jesse James had one target he failed to catch, but threw some nice blocks. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Absent Antonio Brown the Steelers wide outs struggled to find their footing, as JuJu Smith-Schuster dropped a pass early that he should have caught. James Washington had one nice 45 yard catch showing his maturity, but he was hardly a game breaker. Ryan Switzer had one catch for 2 yards. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Bengals, for all their flaws, have a good defensive line. But the Steelers have played them before, yet struggled to protect their quarterback or open the lanes for running backs as needed. Instead of winning the battle of scrimmage, the Steelers offense essentially fought to a draw. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 2 sacks and dropped two players behind the line of scrimmage, while Stephon Tuitt had a half sack and defensed a pass. Javon Hargrave had 4 tackles. The defense delivered the plays needed to win the game and it started with the line. Although Joe Mixon’s strong performance drops this group’s grade a big. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a strip sack and forced another fumble. L.J. Fort led the team in tackles. Bud Dupree had a quarterback hit while Anthony Chickillo split a sack with Stephon Tuitt. Overall a strong performance by the linebackers, but this group too shoulders some blame for the long Joe Mixon run that got the Bengals back into the game. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Stephon Tuitt & Anthony Chickllo sack Jeff Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.come

Secondary
Morgan Burnett led the secondary in tackles, deflected a pass, and dropped a Bengals runner behind the line of scrimmage. Terrell Edmunds led the secondary in tackles and Jordan Dangerfield held his own in Sean Davis’ absence, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly had another strong game. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Matt McCrane made both of his field goals, including 39 and 47 yarders – no gimmes at Heinz Field in December, let alone for a rookie. Ryan Switzer had some decent returns, but this unit continues to give up penalties, which has been a chronic weakness all season not to mention in previous seasons. That brings the grade down. Grade: C+

Coaching
Whatever his fate is Keith Butler’s did a fine job against the Bengals. The Steelers defense limited the Bengals to two field goals, which is all the more impressive considering how anemic the Steelers offense was for the vast majority of the game.

Sure, the Steelers defense could have secured a turnover, but the fact that they forced two fumbles and didn’t recover either reinforces reality that the ball really hasn’t bounced the Steelers way this season.

  • On paper, the Steelers offense should have dominated a weak Bengals defense, but they were without their best player.

Still, it is Randy Fichtner’s job to devise a game plan his players can execute to exploit the weaknesses of the opponent. Even without Antonio Brown, the Steelers offense has more talent than the Bengals defense, yet the offense sputtered for much of the afternoon.

Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers players watch Browns vs Ravens, Tyler Matakevich, Marcus Allen

Steelers Players watch Browns after Bengals win. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

  • Finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin.

Mike Tomlin clearly had a locker room disruption to deal with during the week and while he made the right decision in benching Antonio Brown, the fact that Brown showed up expecting to play after missing the bulk of practice indicates that Tomlin could have handled it differently.

So instead of beating up on an opponent who should have wanted nothing more to do than to get into the bus and head west on I-70, the Steelers ended up taking the game to the wire. No, there are no style points added to this win, but the victory inspired zero confidence that the Steelers could have been a threat in the playoffs had they gotten help. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
He’s been back for less than a month, but he quickly inserted himself into this offense and gave it what it has been lacking all season long – a true 3rd down wide receiver. Ben Roethlisberger looked to him a number of times and when he did, Eli Rogers delivered, winning him the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Bengals.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Bengals: How to Deal when Your Star Pupil is Disruptive

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pondering over how to deal with a star pupil who has an attitude problem, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals.

T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 31 of 45 for one touchdown and one interception. Ben apparently thought the interception should have gone back due to an uncalled off sides penalty, but at this point he should know better than to count on getting correct calls. Ben Roethlisberger was out of sorts until mid-way through the 3rd quarter. Grade: C-

Running Backs
James Conner looked sharp in his first game back since the injury against the Chargers, but he only got 14 carries as the offense never was able to establish the run. Jaylen Samuels got little on his lone carry, but did catch 7 of 8 passes thrown his way. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught 3 passes including a two that converted 3rd downs. Xavier Grimble had 1 catch that helped move the Steelers into scoring position prior to the half. Jesse James had one target he failed to catch, but threw some nice blocks. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Absent Antonio Brown the Steelers wide outs struggled to find their footing, as JuJu Smith-Schuster dropped a pass early that he should have caught. James Washington had one nice 45 yard catch showing his maturity, but he was hardly a game breaker. Ryan Switzer had one catch for 2 yards. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Bengals, for all their flaws, have a good defensive line. But the Steelers have played them before, yet struggled to protect their quarterback or open the lanes for running backs as needed. Instead of winning the battle of scrimmage, the Steelers offense essentially fought to a draw. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 2 sacks and dropped two players behind the line of scrimmage, while Stephon Tuitt had a half sack and defensed a pass. Javon Hargrave had 4 tackles. The defense delivered the plays needed to win the game and it started with the line. Although Joe Mixon’s strong performance drops this group’s grade a big. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a strip sack and forced another fumble. L.J. Fort led the team in tackles. Bud Dupree had a quarterback hit while Anthony Chickillo split a sack with Stephon Tuitt. Overall a strong performance by the linebackers, but this group too shoulders some blame for the long Joe Mixon run that got the Bengals back into the game. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Stephon Tuitt & Anthony Chickllo sack Jeff Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.come

Secondary
Morgan Burnett led the secondary in tackles, deflected a pass, and dropped a Bengals runner behind the line of scrimmage. Terrell Edmunds led the secondary in tackles and Jordan Dangerfield held his own in Sean Davis’ absence, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly had another strong game. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Matt McCrane made both of his field goals, including 39 and 47 yarders – no gimmes at Heinz Field in December, let alone for a rookie. Ryan Switzer had some decent returns, but this unit continues to give up penalties, which has been a chronic weakness all season not to mention in previous seasons. That brings the grade down. Grade: C+

Coaching
Whatever his fate is Keith Butler’s did a fine job against the Bengals. The Steelers defense limited the Bengals to two field goals, which is all the more impressive considering how anemic the Steelers offense was for the vast majority of the game.

Sure, the Steelers defense could have secured a turnover, but the fact that they forced two fumbles and didn’t recover either reinforces reality that the ball really hasn’t bounced the Steelers way this season.

  • On paper, the Steelers offense should have dominated a weak Bengals defense, but they were without their best player.

Still, it is Randy Fichtner’s job to devise a game plan his players can execute to exploit the weaknesses of the opponent. Even without Antonio Brown, the Steelers offense has more talent than the Bengals defense, yet the offense sputtered for much of the afternoon.

Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers players watch Browns vs Ravens, Tyler Matakevich, Marcus Allen

Steelers Players watch Browns after Bengals win. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

  • Finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin.

Mike Tomlin clearly had a locker room disruption to deal with during the week and while he made the right decision in benching Antonio Brown, the fact that Brown showed up expecting to play after missing the bulk of practice indicates that Tomlin could have handled it differently.

So instead of beating up on an opponent who should have wanted nothing more to do than to get into the bus and head west on I-70, the Steelers ended up taking the game to the wire. No, there are no style points added to this win, but the victory inspired zero confidence that the Steelers could have been a threat in the playoffs had they gotten help. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
He’s been back for less than a month, but he quickly inserted himself into this offense and gave it what it has been lacking all season long – a true 3rd down wide receiver. Ben Roethlisberger looked to him a number of times and when he did, Eli Rogers delivered, winning him the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Bengals.

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Steelers Sputter to 16-13 Win Over Bengals with Antonio Brown Blow Up as Backdrop

As the Steelers sputtered to an uninspiring 16-13 win over the lame duck Cincinnati Bengals, the post-game analysis seemed to write itself. The headline “Steelers Sloppy Win over Bengals Proves Pittsburgh Doesn’t Deserve Playoffs” appeared ready to spontaneously spring to life. On offense the Steelers lacked big game focus and, at times, it even appeared that the Bengals defense wanted it more.

  • And perhaps some truth remains in those words.

But as fate would have it, an internet access outage on 31st prevented me from writing, or following much of the post game chatter. And that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, once again reinforcing the lesson that sometimes a bloggers best friend is an inability to provide instant reactions.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals

JuJu Smith-Schuster scores the Steelers lone touchdown in 2018 season finale over Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

The Brown Situation

As it turns out there was more than meets the eye. 24 hours after kickoff, Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette confirmed something that Jim Wexell (and probably others) appeared to be hinting at: Discipline, not injury was what kept Antonio Brown from playing against the Bengals.

While exact details vary, Antonio Brown got into a heated argument with one of his teammates on Wednesday, some say it was Ben Roethlisberger although Roethlisberger is denying this, threw a football at a player, and sat out practice for the rest of the week.

  • Mike Tomlin promptly benched Antonio Brown.

The Steelers offense struggled in his absence. JuJu Smith-Schuster, fresh off winning the team MVP award, didn’t appear to be ready to carry the load as the team’s number one wide receiver. James Washington made another, nice 55 yard catch but made little other noise. Vance McDonald and Jaylen Samuels had a few nice grabs, but nothing game-changing.

  • James Conner ran well, but never really seemed to get into a groove.

Not surprisingly, the Steelers struggled on 3rd down, making it harder to commit to the ground attack as the game wore on. The Steelers offense appeared to be out of sorts for most of the game. Maurkice Pouncey, the undisputed leader of the offensive line, give up two penalties on one drive. The line itself appeared to be off its game as Ben Roethlisberger’s lone sack masks the 7 hits he took.

  • One player admitted that the situation impacted his desire to play the game.

Mike Tomlin’s critics will no doubt pounce on that as further ammunition that he’s lost control.

I’m not ready to go there. Antonio Brown’s antics appeared to be a distraction early in the season, yet Tomlin appears to have kept them in check for most of the year. Critical fans should remember that even disciplinarian coaches such as Bill Parcells have struggled with diva wide receivers.

While I’m not ready to completely excuse Mike Tomlin and his staff for the offense’s lackluster performance, the Brown Blow Up explains a lot.

Don’t Blame it on The Butler This Time

Right now Steelers Nation appears to be divided into two camps. One that thinks Mike Tomlin (and the rest of his staff) must go, and another than thinks that at the very least Keith Butler must get the ax. While the Steelers defense has issues, I’m not convinced that Keith Butler is the root of their problems.

Against a second string Cincinnati Bengals offense and fighting against the drag of an offense that punted 5 times including three 3 and outs, Keith Butler’s defense limited the Bengals offense to two field goals.

  • That’s about what you can expect under these circumstances.

No, the Steelers defense wasn’t perfect as it gave up a 51 yard run to Joe Mixon which let the Bengals right back into the game. But the Steelers defense held in the Red Zone, and held on again after the Steelers took the lead.

Along the way, T.J. Watt had yet another strip sack and another forced fumble. Cam Heyward had 2 sacks, while Stephon Tuitt and Anthony Chickillo split another sack. Morgan Burnett and Tuitt came up with pass deflections at critical moments in the game, while Coty Sensabaugh added two more deflections to his total.

Steelers Win Over Bengals Fitting End to Season

The Steelers closed out 2018 with the win that they needed, but the Cleveland Browns couldn’t quite deliver the help necessary to push Pittsburgh into the playoffs. So be it.

  • You are your record, and at 9-6-1 the 2018 Steelers are a portrait of a slightly above average NFL team.

What exactly that means going forward is a question I will address in the coming days, but for now I’ll simply say that a close win over Cincinnati combined with a close loss by Cleveland to Baltimore provides a fitting end to a frustrating season.

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Bye Bye Boz? Steelers Place Chris Boswell on IR, Sign Matt McCrane

In a stunning development 2 days before their 2018 season finale, the Pittsburgh Steelers placed place kicker Chris Boswell on the injured reserve list and signed Matt McCrane has his replacement.

  • Chris Boswell has had a rough campaign in 2018.

During the Steelers home opening loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Chris Boswell missed two extra points and a field goal in a game ultimately decided by 5 points. Against the Oakland Raiders, Chris Boswell missed two field goals in a game ultimately decided by six points.

  • Early on the Steelers stuck by Boswell, but after the Oakland loss, Mike Tomlin opted to hold tryouts for replacement kickers.

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

The Steelers have put Chris Boswell on IR. Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Chris Boswell won the try out, and although he missed a 32 yard field goal in the middle of the 3rd quarter, Mike Tomlin unhesitatingly sent him out to kick a 48 yard insurance field goal late in the fourth quarter of the Steelers win over the Patriots. Against the Saints, Boswell kicked field goals of 49 and 30 yards and made both extra point attempts.

As recently as yesterday, he’d told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler the following:

However, over on 247Sports.com, Jim Wexell is reporting that Chris Boswell entered the game against the Saints with a groin injury. That is certainly possible, but his name has not appeared on the injury report this week or the week before.

The McCrane Record

In the word of Behind the Steel Curtain editor Jeff Hartman: “McCrane has played in four games this season, and his stat line looks like a kicker who would be available in the waning weeks of the regular season.”

4 Games / 5 FG Made / 9 FG Attempts / 8-for-8 in Extra Points

With the way the Steelers luck has run this season, the Cleveland Browns will surprise everyone with a decisive upset win over the Baltimore Ravens, only to have the Steelers Bengals game come down to a last second field goal attempt by McCrane…

Other Steelers Injury Notes

Sean Davis returned to practice for the Steelers reducing the likelihood that Jordan Dangerfield or Morgan Burnett will play in his place. Antonio Brown also missed practice, leaving his status in doubt. If Antonio Brown misses the game James Washington will likely start alongside JuJu Smith-Schuster.

While losing Brown would be a blow, Eli Rogers return and Vance McDonald‘s presence should give Ben Roethlisberger plenty of targets.

Vince Williams also missed practice, and meaning that L.J. Fort will likely start along side Jon Bostic.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Saints: The Teacher is Truant Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is guilty of some Christmas season-laced truancy, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the loss to New Orleans Saints.

Antonio Brown, Xavier Grimble, Steelers vs Saints

Antonio Brown was on fire against the Saints. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Commentators lauded Ben Roethlisberger’s performance against the Saints. We will not be quite as kind here. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger 3 three touchdowns and avoided any interceptions. He did it facing more pressure than he has most of the year, and in a very tough place to play. But several of Ben’s passes were high early in the game, and he began the Steelers final drive with 3 incompletion. Given all else that transpired, the Steelers needed an A or A+ performance from Big Ben and didn’t quite get one. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Jaylen Samuels didn’t get many opportunities to run with the ball, but he ran well, and made himself a force in passing game if through nothing other than his touchdown. Stevan Ridley had one strong run and then of course fumbled on 3rd and 2. That hurt, and it brings the group’s grade down. Grade: D

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald gouged the Saints on a 49 yard reception and was the only Steelers tight end to have a ball thrown his way. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown played like a man possessed and was clearly in playoff from. So was JuJu Smith-Schuster for that matter. Ryan Switzer caught 3 passes for 18 yards. Eli Rogers came down the two point conversion. This game evolved as you’d expect it to, Ben Roethlisberger hitting his top two targets time and time again. While the receivers had a strong day, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble was costly, and brings the group’s grade down. Grade: D

Offensive Line
The New Orleans Saints sacked Ben Roethlisberger 3 times and hit him on 7 other occasions. That’s a high number, but there’s a reason why New Orleans is a Super Bowl favorite. All things considered, the line provided decent protection to Ben Roethlisberger, but the Saints go through to Ben on the fourth quarter drive that ended with the fake punt, and that brings their grade down. Grade: C-

Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams, Steelers vs Saints, Mark Ingram

Stephon Tuitt & Vince Williams smother Mark Ingram. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
The new Orleans Saints have a decent rushing attack, yet the Steelers neutralized that into a non-factor. Cam Heyward had a pass defensed, and Stephon Tuitt had a sack, a tackle for a loss, two QB hits (and a tipped pass that wasn’t called….) Grade: B+

Linebackers
Vince Williams led the linebackers in tackles and was followed by Jon Bostic. But the real star of the unit was T.J. Watt who came up with a sack that forced a punt, a pass deflection, a QB hit and a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: B

Secondary
Sean Davis came down with the Steelers 2nd Red Zone interception in as many weeks and deflected 2 passes. Mike Hilton led the team in tackles and was followed by Joe Haden. Morgan Burnett also added another pass deflection to his resume. When the secondary did a lot of things right, they gave up a 3rd and 20 in the 4th quarter and Haden and Hilton also missed tackles allowing Alvin Kamara to gain 31 yards and get into field goal position at the end of the first half. Those three extra points proved to be costly. Grade: B-

Sean Davis, Coty Sensabaugh,

Sean Davis intercepts Drew Brees in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made all of his kicks, including a 48 yarder. Jordan Berry had a 49 yard punting average and did not have a punt returned.

  • The special teams shining moment was a L.J. Fort’s blocked punt, which could have been a game-changer.

For all the good that play did, the Steelers tried and failed to convert a fake punt. As the upback Roosevelt Nix got 4 of the 5 yards he needed. Which wasn’t enough. Grade: C

Coaching
Critics will second guess Randy Fichtner for going conservative in the 4th quarter after the Steelers took the lead, but if Stevan Ridley holds on to the ball, perhaps that becomes an academic question.

In a playoff like situation, Randy Fichtner had the ball in the hands of his best players on offense and, by any measure, they were above the line.

Keith Butler can and will take heat for giving up yet another late 4th quarter score. This is something that has been all too common this season. However Butler’s defense held the Saints in check, which is not an easy task. And while the Steelers defense wasn’t able to overcome some very bad calls, they went toe-to-toe with the Saints and no one would have imagined that possible back in September.

  • Mike Tomlin will take heat for calling a fake punt, but he won’t hear of that in these parts.

Mike Tomlin made the right decision. It was a risk reward call, and one that is all the more understandable because punting to Drew Brees at that point would have given him the ability to completely kill the clock.

Ben Roethlisberger, Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Saints, Coin Toss

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.come

In calling the fake punt, Mike Tomlin wanted to ensure that his offense would touch the ball again during the game. He got his wish.

  • Beyond that, this Steeler team has been shaky and inconsistent during this season.

After a big win over the Patriots, one could rightly ask, “Which Steelers team will show up?” There’s no question that the Steelers team that took the field wsa one that not only came to play, but played to win and that was critical. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
He doesn’t get a lot of ink. He doesn’t make a lot of splash plays. You don’t see him much on ESPN highlights. But against the Saints, other than for his two defensed passes, you didn’t hear his name much. And for a cornerback facing Drew Brees that is a good thing. And for that Coty Sensabaugh wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Saints.

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Better Late Than Never Edition: Steelers 28 to 31 Loss to Saints Comes Down to Ball Security

The Steelers traveled to New Orleans for a make or break game and dropped a 31-28 decision to the Saints despite playing one of their best games this season. Consider:

  • Ben Roethlisberger threw 3 touchdown passes
  • Jaylen Samuels proved his rushing success against the Patriots was no fluke
  • Sean Davis netted another Red Zone interception
  • Danny Smith’s special teams blocked a field goal

Yet, at the end of the day, it was not enough. It was not enough because the difference between victory and defeat, as it has so many times this season, came down to ball security.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Saints, JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble doomed the Steelers. Photo Credit: Butch Dill, AP via Tribune Review

A Word on the Pass Interference Penalties

I avoid complaining about the officiating and bad calls like the plague. It is not because these issues don’t impact the outcomes of games – they do. But bad calls are part of the game, and good teams, or at least championship teams, find ways to overcome them.

  • IT says here that the first pass interference penalty on Joe Haden was bogus and beyond ticky-tacky
  • IT says here that Stephon Tuitt tipped the second ball
  • IT also says here that if he didn’t tip the ball, then the pass interference call was still bogus
  • If the Steelers get either one of those calls, they win

That final bullet point isn’t theoretical conjecture – both pass interference calls came on 4th downs. But both calls went for the Saints and the Steelers failed to overcome them, and that’s where this post-game analysis will focus. But first….

Great Efforts Despite the Loss

It is no secret that the New Orleans Saints are favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this season. And the Pittsburgh Steelers played like a team which could have been playing to deny the Big Easy their second Lombardi.

Antonio Brown was in championship form. His 14 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns do not do justice to the decisiveness of his on the field presence. I have little doubt that had the Steelers not fumbled on their final drive, Brown could have found his way to the end zone on the next play.

JuJu Smith-Schuster also did his damage with 11 catches for 115 yards and proved yet again that the Steelers have a rising star on their hands. Eli Rogers only had one catch, but it was for a two point conversion.

On defense, T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt came up with sacks to force punts in critical situations. Coty Sensabaugh, Cam Heyward, Morgan Burnett Sean Davis and Anthony Chickillo all deflected passes – a skill that too often has been in short supply in Pittsburgh. Chris Boswell hit two field goals and made his other two PATs.

Those were all championship-level efforts. But alas, the result likely ended the championship aspirations of the Steelers.

A Word about the Steelers Defense

New Orleans has one of the hottest offenses in the NFL. The Saints have topped 40 points six times this season and broken the half-century mark once. Giving up 31 points to the Saints at home, especially when the zebras are not calling things your way, carries little shame.

  • But one of the less discussed aspects of the game was the Saints final drive of the 1st half.

After the Steelers tied the score 40 seconds remained. Instead of sitting on the ball Sean Peyton remained aggressive, and the Steelers gave up a couple of short passes, before allowing Alvin Kamara to beat Vince Williams over the middle as Joe Haden and Mike Hilton over pursued, opening the door to a 31 yard gain which allowed Wil Lutz to knock in a 43 yard field goal.

  • The Steelers have run similar sub-2 minute drives to close out first halves several times over the last two seasons.
  • This time the Saints turned the tables and those extra 3 points gave them their margin.

And two plays after the 2nd phantom pass interference call went against Joe Haden, the Steelers defense also gave up a 3rd and 20 conversion, which is a play you simply can’t let the offense have when defending a 4 point lead with 1:41 left to go.

Even so, those defensive breakdowns wouldn’t have mattered, things had broken a little differently for the offense.

Ball Security Dooms Steelers Against the Saints

“It’s like the Xavier Grimble goal line fumble ushered in a wave of unstoppable bad bounces.” – Tony Defeo

Immediately after the game, site writer Tony Defeo emailed that to me, which immediately crystalized my thoughts on the game. The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers have opened themselves to criticism on many fronts. They’ve also had some incredibly bad luck. And they’ve suffered from some incredibly incompetent officiating.

  • Even the lone serious injury they’ve suffered, that of James Conner, came at the position where they could least afford it.

(OK, losing Joe Haden would have been devastating.) But all of that would count for naught if the Steelers could have mastered one basic football fundamental: Protect the ball at all costs.

According to TeamRankings.com, the Pittsburgh Steelers have lost an average of 0.6 fumbles a game which ranks them at 23rd worst. But what that ranking doesn’t measure is how costly those fumbles have been.

In week 1, James Conner fumbled at the Steelers 18, which the Browns returned to Pittsburgh’s 2, and promptly scoring to get back in the game. Later in the season, Xavier Grimble committed his infamous goal line fumble, whipping a touchdown off the board in a game the Steelres would ultimately lose by 7.

  • Against the Saints, Stevan Ridley fumbled with 10:21 left to play.

The Steelers defense held the Saints, and L.J. Fort added the cherry on top by blocking the ensuing field goal attempt. But Ridley had fumbled at New Orleans 34 yard line, when the Steelers were broaching field goal territory. The Steelers could have used those 3 points or more.

With just 0:41 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, JuJu Smith Schuster had touched the ball 173 times in his fledgling NFL career. And not even once did he put the ball on the ground.

  • But of course he did just that as he was trying to get extra yards.

Only a fool would scapegoat JuJu Smith-Schuster for this error, as JuJu is one player who should give hope to Steelers fans when they look to the future.

But it doesn’t change the fact that JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble cost the Steelers a chance to pull off a comeback and likely cost them a chance at the playoffs and an opportunity to make a run at Lombardi Number 7.

That is an ugly lump of coal to find in your stocking on Christmas Morning, but that’s nonetheless what happened.

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