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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Scapegoating Saxon? (Maybe, Maybe Not) Steelers Fire James Saxon, Running Backs Coach

Mike Tomlin promised changes at his year-end press conference and he is making good on his word as heads continue to roll on the South Side. The Steelers announced today that they have fired running backs coach James Saxon, marking the 2nd coaching change of this off season following Joey Porter’s dismissal last Friday.

While Joey Porter’s dismissal was not a great surprise, given his off the field issues and the lack of development of Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones before him, James Saxon’s departure is not a move many predicted.

James Saxon

Mike Tomlin has fired James Saxon. Photo Credit: 12up.com

The Steelers hired James Saxon in the spring of 2012 after Kriby Wilson left to take a job with the Minnesota Vikings (accompanied by rumors that he could not get along with Todd Haley.)

During his first season, Saxon has worked managed the three back rotation that was Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, and Jonathan Dwyer which truth be told, was starting to function well at mid-season but got untracked after Willie Colon’s season-ending injury.

In 2013, Saxon oversaw the development of Le’Veon Bell, as Bell ascended from a 2nd round pick that many questioned (although Merril Hoge didn’t) into the NFL’s best running back. Saxon also managed to coax respectable performances (the fumble against Denver notwithstanding) out of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman during the 2015 playoffs when DeAngelo Williams was hurt.

Most recently, James Saxon has helped James Conner and Jaylen Samuels make the transition from college to successful NFL running back.

Is Saxon Breathing Truth into Dick Hoak’s Parting Words?

In January 2007, Dick Hoak retired as Steelers running backs coach after serving in that capacity since 1972. When asked to reflect on his time, Dick Hoak c explained, “They say you’re hired to be fired in this business, so I guess I beat the system.”

  • One has to wonder if James Saxon making Dick Hoak’s words come true.

Mike Tomlin left little doubt that he was going to make changes to his coaching staff in the wake of the Steelers collapse from a 7-2-1 team to one that failed to make the playoffs. But to the naked eye the question must be asked, “Why fire James Saxon?

While it is true that three of the season’s pivotal plays involved fumbles by running backs, fumbles are hardly something you can blame an assistant coach for. Moreover, Jaylen Samuels came into the NFL with very little experience rushing the ball, yet he had the look of a quality number 2 NFL running back against both the Saints and the Patriots.

  • The easy conclusion is that James Saxon is a scapegoat or a fully guy.

But the easy answer isn’t always the correct one, especially when it comes to NFL assistant coaches. After ensuring a horrendous start and devastating injuries, the 2013 Steelers offensive line improved by the end of the year.

That story should serve as a word of caution that the easy conclusion might not be the right one. Fans have very little insight into what the tasks an NFL assistant coach is actually responsible for. Officially, Chan Gailey was the Steelers wide receivers coach in 1995, but his role in running the offense increased, leading the Steelers to fire Ron Erhardt after Super Bowl XXX.

Going further back, Tony Dungy joined Chuck Noll’s staff as a defensive backs assistant, yet research profiling Tony Dungy career as a Steelers assistant coach revaled that he spent much of his first year dealing with linebackers.

  • Of course we know that because the Steelers let reporters interview assistant coaches back then.

Today they do not, which means our understanding of the Steelers James Saxon firing will probably never move beyond speculation.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs the New Orleans Saints – a 31 Year Retrospective

The Steelers history against the New Orleans Saints has Pittsburgh taking a 7-8 record down to the Big Easy where the Steelers are 4-5 vs. 3-3 at Heinz Field and Three Rivers Stadium.

As the Steelers prepare for their 10th trip to New Orleans for a game that could make or break their 2018 season, here is a look at highlights of the Steelers last 31 years of history against the Saints.

Steelers history vs Saints, Antonio Brown, P.J. Williams

Antonio Brown stiff arms P.J. Williams. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports via, Tribune-Review

1987 – Steelers Playoff Potential Nothing More than a Tease

November 29th @ Three Rivers Stadium
New Orleans 20, Pittsburgh 17

The 1987 Steelers were looking to build on a 6-4 record as Pittsburgh was very much alive in the AFC Central playoff picture during that strike shortened season. The Steelers took a 14-3 lead into the locker room at half time on the strength of a Dwayne Woodruff pick six and a Walter Abercrombie touchdown.

However, Pittsburgh faltered in the 2nd half as the Saint scored 17 unanswered points, aided by 3 Mark Malone interceptions. The Saints took an intentional safety at the end of the game to bring Pittsburgh to within 4, but the Steelers could not mount a comeback.

  • The game was typical of the 1987 Steelers who teased playoff potential but ultimately fell short against a quality Saints team.

1990 – Joe Walton’s Ineptitude on Full Display in Steelers win

December 16, 1990 @ The Superdome
Pittsburgh 9, New Orleans 6

The 1990 Steelers entered the game with a 7-6 record and an an offense floundering under Joe Walton’s mismanagement. And this game shows just how badly Joe Walton had neutered the 1990 Steelers offense, as a single Gary Anderson field goal were the only points it could score for 3 quarters.

  • Bubby Brister only threw for 154 yards passing, while Merril Hoge and Tim Worley couldn’t combine to break the 100 yard rushing mark.

For its part, the Steelers defense held the Saints to two Morten Andersen second half field goals, until Gary Anderson booted two more 4th quarter field goals to give the Steelers the win.

  • The 1990 Steelers went 9-7 yet only one two games against teams that finished with winning records. This was one of them.

1993 – Rod Woodson’s Career Day

October 17th 1993 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 37, New Orleans 14

The 1993 Steelers started 0-2 leading many to question whether Cowher Power’s 1992 debut had been a mirage. But Pittsburgh won its three games, leading up to a showdown with the then undefeated Saints.

Rod Woodson intercepted Wade Wilson’s opening pass and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown. Two series later Rod Woodson picked off Wilson again. On Pittsburgh’s next procession, Neil O’Donnell hit Barry Foster for a 20 yard touchdown pass, and the Steelers were leading 14-0 in less than 8 minutes.

  • And Pittsburgh was just warming up.

By half time the Steelers were up 24-0, and the Saints hadn’t even managed a first down. Carnell Lake intercepted Wade Wilson’s first pass of the second half, which made way for two more Gary Anderson field goals, followed by an Eric Green touchdown.

Wade Wilson had arrived in Pittsburgh as the NFL’s number 3 passer, only to have the Steelers intercept him three times and limit him to 6 completions on the day as Donald Evans, Levon Kirkland, Joel Steed and Kevin Greene sacked him 5 times.

  • While the 1993 Steelers would ultimately underachieve, this game revealed that their championship potential was real.

2002 – Poor Defense Dooms Tommy Gun’s First Start

October 6th, 2002 @ The Superdome
New Orleans 32, Pittsburgh 29

The 2002 Steelers had started 0-2 and only won in week three thanks to a blocked field goal plus Bill Cowher’s decision to bench Kordell Stewart late in the game for Tommy Maddox.

But the Steelers defense gave up 13 points early in the game before Tommy Maddox and Plaxico Burress connected to get Pittsburgh on the board before the half. The Steelers mounted a spirited effort in the 2nd half with Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward and Terance Mathis scoring touchdowns, the but Saints scored 13 points to keep ahead of the Steelers.

  • The game confirmed, if there had been any doubt, that the once vaunted Steelers secondary was a shell of its former self.

2006 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees I

November 12th, 2006 @ The Superdome
Pittsburgh 38, New Orleans 31

The 2006 Steelers took a Super Bowl Hangover induced 2-6 record to New Orleans to face the 6-2 Saints. Fireworks ensued as the Saints and Steelers fought to a 24 to 17 half time score. The Steelers fought back in the second half, scoring as Ben Roethlisberger connected for a touchdown to Cedric Wilson in the air as Willie Parker ran for two more on the ground.

Deuce McAllister put the Saints within striking distance of a comeback with a fumble returned for a touchdown with 8:31 remaining in the 4th quarter. But the Steelers defense burned nearly 4 minutes off of the clock, and closed the game as Tyrone Carter and Ryan Clark teamed up to end a Saints comeback effort with a forced fumble and recovery.

  • The game marked the 6-2 rebound of the 2006 Steelers that would ultimately allow Bill Cowher to retire during a non-losing season.

2010 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees II

October 31st, 2010 @ The Superdome
New Orleans 20, Pittsburgh 10

If the first battle between Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees was a shootout, their second meeting took on the character of a slug fest.

Both teams were scoreless during the entire 1st quarter, and when they both got on the board in the 2nd quarter it was only with field goals. In the second half New Orleans put 10 points on the board, but the Steelers moved to within three on a Rashard Mendenhall touchdown.

However, the Steelers defense couldn’t hold on, as Drew Brees connected with Lance Moore at just over the two minute mark to give the Saints a 10 point lead. Ben Roethlisberger attempted to rally the Steelers and got them to mid field but Leigh Torrence intercepted him as he attempted to hit Mike Wallace.

  • Lot’s of commentators suggested that this loss spelled gloom and doom for the 2010 Steelers, but the tam of course finished in Super Bowl XLV.

2014 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees III

November 30th, 2014 @ Heinz Field
New Orleans 35, Pittsburgh 32

Don’t let the close score fool you. The Saints marched into Heinz Field and blew out the Steelers, with Pittsburgh only getting in theoretical striking distance of pulling ahead thanks to a 2 point conversion pass to Lance Moore, of all players, as time expired.

  • The story of this game was Ben Roethlisberger.

The offensive line gave him time, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown served as reliable targets, but Ben Roethlisberger’s passes were too often off target. Roethlisberger threw two picks, but that number could have easily been double.

Drew Brees only threw for 257 yards, but he threw 5 touchdowns, as an unknown Kenny Stills lit up the Steelers defense for 162 yards.

  • This was Brett Keisel’s last game, Troy Polamalu’s final regular season game, Ike Taylor’s penultimate game and the final time the trio was to play with James Harrison.
  • This late November loss to the Saints seemed to signal that Pittsburgh was nothing more than average, but the 2014 Steelers rebounded for 4 straight wins

The Steelers history vs the New Orleans Saints offers a mixed bag, with both some impressive wins and tough losses. But none of the outcomes had season-defining implications. Today’s contest could be quite different in that respect.

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Steelers 2018 Thanksgiving Honors: JuJu Smith-Schuster

Thanksgiving 2018 has arrived, that that means it is time to dish out our 2018 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors is a tradition Steel Curtain Rising started in 2009. At the time the Steelers were in the middle what would become a 5 game losing streak, and I thought it appropriate of single out an up and comer who was providing Steelers Nation with a reason to give thanks (that year it was Rashard Mendenhall.)

  • The tradition has continued each year since then.

In general, younger players who were just starting to make their impact felt have gotten this award, but in 2010 special teams coach Al Everest, Emmanuel Sanders and Maurkice Pouncey split the award, got it, the Steelers backups got it in 2015 and in 2017 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors were bestowed upon Ben Roethlisberger.

  • This year, we’re sticking with tradition and recognizing and up and comer and our 2018 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors to JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Before fully turning out attention to JuJu, let’s acknowledge that this year the decision was difficult. Fellow up and comers, T.J. Watt or Mike Hilton’s names could have easily headlined this article. So could Joe Haden. Several other candidates quickly come to mind.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster burns A.J. Bouye. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

But this year our JuJu Smith-Schuster wins Steelers 2018 Thanksgiving honors because we are truly seeing a dynamic player come of age right before our eyes.

This hardly comes as a surprise. Just as Joe Greene’s first day of training camp prompted a couple of veterans to speed up plans to being their “Life’s Work,” as soon as the Steelers drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates got into a spat on Twitter. Neither player remains in Pittsburgh.

As a rookie, JuJu Smith-Schuster authored several head-turning plays

This year JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t yet matched that level of drama, although his opening touchdown against Carolina was dramatic, but what’s most impressive JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2018 campaign is his dependability.

But it takes two to tango and every team needs more than one quality wide receiver. The Steelers have struggled to find someone work in tandem with Antonio Brown. But JuJu Smith-Schuster is ending that struggle as we speak because JuJu Smith-Schuster is proving he can be the type of receiver that you can depend on to come up with a catch when you need it the most.

One the first drive, Ben Roethlisberger went to him 3 straight times, and each time JuJu Smith-Schuster delivered. On the second drive, with one, incredibly difficult catch, he put the Steelers into scoring position again.

The Steelers 2018 offense might not have Daenerys Targaryen and her Dragons-like quality that the four Killer Bees were supposed to bring to 2017 Steelers offense. But the Steelers 2018 offense is proving itself to be a unit that can make the plays that are necessary for a win, and JuJu Smith-Schuster’s development is a big part of that.

And that gives Steelers Nation something to be Thankful for this Thanksgiving.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

Today makes the 17 consecutive Thanksgiving that I have “celebrated” in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Thanksgiving is such a wonderful holiday, because it is not commercialized (black Friday deals be damned) and is universally celebrated with the simple gesture of giving thanks.

Hopefully you’ll be celebrating this Thanksgiving with friends and family whether you’re staying close to your house, visiting someone in another state or traveling back “home.”

  • And it is our sincere hope all of you can be thankful for many other more important things than football.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation.

Click here to read past Steelers Thanksgiving Honors articles.

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60 Minute Men. Steelers Comeback, Beat Jaguars 20-16 at Buzzer

The Pittsburgh Steelers rebounded for dramatic 20-16 comeback victory over the Jaguars at Jacksonville’s at TIAA Bank Field.

In doing so, the men in Black and Gold extended their winning streak to 6 games, secured a conference win, and perhaps doomed the post-season chances of a re-emerging rival.

But Mike Tomlin’s Steelers also affirmed another, more important truth behind the game: Victory comes to those who play for 60 minutes.

Ben Roethlisberger dives for the game winner vs. the Jaguars. Photo Credit, Gary McCullough, AP via PennLive

Steelers Defense Bends, Badly But Balks at Breaking; Ben Just Bad

The Jacksonville Jaguars had bested the Steelers twice last year by employing a simple formula:

All week, the question on everyone’s minds was, “Can the Jaguars pull it off a third straight time?”

For a while, it looked like they might. Ben Roethlisberger played terribly for the vast majority of the game, and was particularly ineffective in the first half. Four of Pittsburgh’s 1st half possessions a ended in Jordan Berry punts. Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions ended two others.

  • Before the Steelers final drive of the 1st half netted 35 garbage yards, Pittsburgh’s offense totaled 42 yards.

For the Jacksonville Jaguars, it was more of a mixed bag. The Jaguars made it clear that they were going to feed the ball to Leonard Fournette. But in the early going Keith Butler’s defense also signaled that they were going to contest every yard.

That worked, for a while, but as the first half wore on, Forunette and Carlos Hyde started ripping off double digit runs and it was Déjà vu all over again for the Steelers defense.

  • With one large exception.

The Jaguars advanced relatively deep into Pittsburgh territory 3 times in the first half, but each time the Steelers defense steeled up and refused to allow touchdowns. Bud Dupree and L.J. Fort came up with big stops, and Javon Hargrave sacked Blake Bortles on third down.

So instead of being down 21-0, the Steelers defense kept the difference to 9 going into the half.

Establishing the Run

Running the ball might be out of fashion in today’s NFL, and that’s a shame, because something special happens when a team rushes the ball successfully.

As Mike Tomlin explained, when an offense starts to rush well, piles move forward a little more; players start missing tackles, running backs routinely eek out 2-3 extra yards in the open field. The defense erodes.

  • Bill Cowher described it as “Imposing your will.”

And “Imposing their will” has been a key ingredient to the Steelers success in this second Super Bowl era, whether that involved pounding the ball with Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell or James Conner.

There are few things better than seeing the Steelers impose their will on an opposing defense, and few things are worse than seeing a running back impose his will on Pittsburgh. And as the second half began, it appeared that the Jaguars were about to impose their will on the Steelers.

And to be sure Fournette got 8 yards on his first two carries, but a penalty pushed the Jaguars back, and then T.J. Watt ended the first drive with a strip sack of Blake Brotles.

But it looked like that stop might be just a footnote in the box score, as the Jaguars took advantage of another Roethlisberger interception by ramming the ball down the Steelers throats on an 80 yard touchdown drive.

That put the Jaguars up 16-0 and, on a day when its offense could do nothing right, it appeared to be the dagger in the Steelers heart. Ironically, it was the turning point of the game.

Steelers Defense Energized Instead of Eroded

It took only two plays for Ben Roethlisberger to hit Antonio Brown for a 78 touchdown to put the Steelers on the board. And, for all the credit the Steelers offense would earn for the fourth quarter comeback, the Steelers defense were perhaps the real stars of the rebound. As Steelers Wire founder Neal Coolong explains:

The Steelers offense stalled after the Roethlisberger to Brown strike, failing on the 2 point conversion and then punting and turning over on downs on its next two drives. It wasn’t an issue, because instead of eroding the will of the Steelers defense, Leonard Fournette’s 1st half energized Keith Butler’s boys into 2nd half shut down mode:

Then the Steelers offense finally came alive, as Ben Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown, James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster to move down the field, setting up Vance McDonald to make another tough touchdown catch.

Vince Williams, Blake Borteles, Steelers vs Jaguars

Vince Williams lowers boom of Blake Bortles. Photo Credit: Reinhold Matay, USA TODAY Sports

The Jaguars got the ball back. Everyone in the stadium knew they were going to run, and everyone knew Fournette was going to run it.

  • Forunette got four yards on his first carry, only to have the Steelers stuff out his next two carries forcing a punt.

The Steelers got the ball back with 1:42 left and one time out. A picture perfect fade pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster got the Steelers well into Chris Boswell field goal range, but Mike Tomlin opted to go for the win. Another 25 yard pass to Antonio Brown got the Steelers to the two.

It would take the Steelers 4 tries, but Ben Roethlisberger ran it in with 5 seconds left to go. For good measure, T.J. Watt strip-sacked Blake Bortles again to seal the Steelers win.

Lessons Learned, Lessons to Live By

Steelers fans, and probably the Steelers players themselves undoubtedly wanted a dominating revenge win over the Jaguars. With a last second win, Pittsburgh failed to deliver. But the Steelers leave Jacksonville with a W, and they learned some important lessons in the process.

The Steelers defense is capable of going toe-to-toe with an elite NFL rusher and adjusting along the way as Christopher Carter’s stats highlight:

The Steelers also showed they’re capable of winning a game even when Ben Roethlisberger is not at his best – at least for most of the afternoon. But perhaps most importantly, the this group of Pittsburgh Steelers demonstrated that they have the discipline, the attitude and the resilience to fight to the very last minute.

And against the Jaguars, that made all the difference.

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Why Steelers Beat Browns with Bell – Le’Veon Bell’s Ball Security Is Under Appreciated

The Pittsburgh Steelers would be 1-0 today if Le’Veon Bell had shown up and reported for work as expected. The reason is that, if the Steelers missed anything from Le’Veon Bell on Sunday, it was Le’Veon Bell’s ball security skills.

Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. It IS a strange thing to read from a writer who has already done the cyberspace equivalent of taking pen to paper to argue that James Conner shouldn’t be scapegoated for the Steelers 21-21 opening day tie against the Browns.

But if you read on, you’ll see that my argument isn’t any sort of hypocritical double-speak or some writer’s equivalent of buyer’s remorse, but rather simple numbers. And numbers don’t lie.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell ball security, Le'Veon Bell fumble

Le’Veon Bell’s ball security is highly under appreciated. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

Steelers History Shows Highlight Reels Only Tip of Iceberg

When we talk about the all-time great players, we tend to focus on highlight-worthy qualities.

For example, when you watch any film of Steelers Hall of Fame middle linebacker, Jack Lambert, it’s usually of Lambert crashing into a running back, yelling at an official or leveling a wide-receiver who made the mistake of trying to catch a pass in his area.

As it pertained to the leveling of that wide-receiver and Jack Lambert’s area, the reason No. 58 was often in position to wreak havoc was because when he dropped back into pass coverage, there were very few linebackers of his era (or any era) who had the athleticism and football-awareness to get the depth necessary to put himself in the position to get those kill-shots he was so famous for.

  • As it pertains to this era, when it comes to Steelers’ superstar running back, Le’Veon Bell, his all-around skill-set may be unequaled.

Whether it’s his patience right before choosing a hole on running plays or his aptitude for being an extremely skilled receiver out of the backfield, few can match Le’Veon Bell’s abilities. Including ones we don’t often focus on…

Le’Veon Bell’s Ball Security Skills Highly Underrated

Like the rest of us, Le’Veon Bell is fully-aware of his greatness which, unfortunately, has led to the current hold out with the Steelers–his training camp absence  has spilled-over into the regular season.

As a consequence, second-year running back James Conner was moved up the depth chart and started the Steelers’ Week 1 contest against the Browns last Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio.

  • For three-plus quarters, Steeler fans may have been saying “Le’Veon who?” as Conner displayed very Bell-like attributes, while tallying close to 200 total yards from scrimmage.

Sadly, midway through the fourth quarter, and with Pittsburgh holding what seemed to be a safe 21-7 lead, James Conner ignited a Browns’ comeback by fumbling at the Steelers’ 17-yard line, a play that led to a one-yard touchdown.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

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

The Browns ultimately tied the game at 21, a score that held all the way through to the end of overtime. As I wrote on this very site earlier in the week, while James Conner’s gaffe was critical, there were other  Steeler transgressions (such as Ben Roethlisberger’s in ability to sync with Antonio Brown and Big Ben’s 5 turnovers) that contributed greatly to the Week 1 sports equivalent to kissing your sister.

Having said that, however, one has to wonder if Le’Veon Bell’s presence on the field would have prevented a Brown’s comeback, and that’s because Le’Veon Bell’s presence likely would have included much better ball security. Why?

  • Because Bell’s superior skills aren’t just limited to patience, receiver-like hands and, oh yes, his ability to pick up blitzes (he may be the best in the business at that last one).

Of all of Le’Veon Bell’s awesome attributes,  perhaps the most underrated is his ability to hold onto the football, this despite  having an insane workload through five seasons in the NFL.

  • Including regular season and postseason games, Bell has 1,635 career touches (1,310 carries and 325 receptions), yet he’s only fumbled eight times.
  • That means Le’Veon Bell has a fumble percentage of 0.5%

“So What????” you scream, “Running Backs are supposed to hold on to the damn ball in the first place! And now you want to pat this greedy brat on the head for just doing the bare minimum expected of any NFL running back?”

Yeah, I get it. Simply holding on to the ball does seem like a rather mundane accomplishment to praise. So let’s look at how Le’Veon Bell’s fumble percentage compares to that of other great Steelers running backs:

Steelers Running backs fumble percentages, Le'Veon Bell, Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis

Regular season fumble percentages of Steelers running backs

Looks a little more impressive now, doesn’t it? Not does Le’Veon Bell lead the pack, he leads it by a mile.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and John Henry Johnson, the Steelers 3 Hall of Fame running backs, all have fumble percentages well in excess of Bell’s. Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Parker fumbled the ball 1.1% and 1.3% of the time, or more than twice as often as Bell.

  • Merril Hoge and Barry Foster, fumbled the ball almost four times as often as Le’Veon Bell.
  • Dick Hoak, aka “Mr. Steeler”fumbled the ball 2.4% of the time or almost five times as often as Le’Veon Bell

Frank Pollard and Rocky Bleier fumbled the ball 2.8% and 3% of the time, or nearly 6 times as often as Le’Veon Bell.

In fairness, seven of Le’Veon Bell’s fumbles came over the previous two seasons, which clocks him in at 0.9%  but since we’re being fair, he also had a combined 742 touches. And that’s still far below the 2% fumble rate which is the average of the subgroup ahead.

  • No matter how you break things down, Bell takes extremely good care of the football.

Does this mean James Conner doesn’t take care of the football? Not at all. It just means he hasn’t logged enough reps to earn such a reputation at this point of his career.

  • Le’Veon Bell obviously has.

People talk about discipline in football and think they can point to certain behaviors away from the field as a sign that a player lacks it — Le’Veon Bell often frustrates Steeler fans with some of his “moves” away from the gridiron.

But what requires more discipline and attention to detail than being able to hold onto the football when multiple defenders are trying to wrest it from you 35 times a game?

Le’Veon Bell does many things well on the football field, and if he was in the lineup last Sunday, chances are, the Steelers would be 1-0.

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Le’Veon Bell’s Holdout Leaves Steelers Running Back Depth Chart in Familiar, Precarious Position

Le’Veon Bell’s absence and refusal to sign his franchise tender has been discussed to death in Steelers Nation. But there’s one story element that has largely been ignored: Le’Veon Bell’s holdout leaves the Steelers running back depth chart in both a familiar and precarious position.

Last week, while heading down to La Boca for the Buenos Aires edition of the #SteelersWorldWide photo, Agustin Esposito asked me, “¿No te parece con Nix, Conner, Ridley, Samuels, Nix y Bell y los Steelers estan quedando con demasiados corredores?”

James Conner, Steelers vs Bengals, Jesse James, Leveon Bell's holdout

James Conner 4th quarter run in 2017 Steelers win over Bengals. (Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Fansided.

Since most of you don’t speak Spanish, Agus was asking if by keeping James Conner, Stevan Ridley, Jaylen Samuels Roosevelt Nix and Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers weren’t carrying too many running backs.

  • My response was no, the Steelers weren’t keeping too many running backs.

The answer surprised Agus and he asked me to explain. And I pointed out to the Steelers of starting Ben Tate, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Dri Archer and Jordan Todman in all too recent playoff games.

  • The Steelers locker room is rallying around James Conners, who has had a strong preseason.

Maurkice Pouncey even argued that were it not for his injury history, former Pitt Panther James Conners would have been a first round pick. I don’t follow college ball, but Pouncey went to a major NCAA program, so he has the credentials to speak on the subject.

James Conner ran very well in his limited opportunities in 2017, and he authored a very strong preseason. And if Conners comes out and rips off a 100 yard game against the Browns and then again against the Chiefs, momentum will build in the Steelers Nation for Kevin Colbert to simply lift the tag and let Le’Veon Bell walk (which he won’t do.)

  • But what if James Conner gets hurt?

Stevan Ridley brings the Steelers solid experience, and his resume is that of a respectable number 2 NFL running back. But could he carry the load over the long or even medium term? Jaylen Sanders started the summer slow, but finished preseason as one of the player whom Mike Tomlin termed as “leaning into the tape.”

That probably earned Sanders a spot in the roster, although the suspicion here is that had Bell reported on Labor Day, Jaylen Sanders very well might have joined Olasunkanmi Adeniyi on IR. Sanders will be on the roster and likely get a helmet on game day against the Browns.

Which is good. Expect the rookie’s pass catching skills to be in demand with Vance McDonald out, and an injured Xavier Grimble starting opposite Jesse James in the number 2 tight end spot.

Pro offenses have evolved, and the Steelers roster composition has evolved with it. The days of carrying 5 running backs and a fullback are probably over. Moreover, when Ben Roethlisberger is your quarterback, investing so much salary cap and roster space in your running back depth chart makes even less sense.

  • But carrying only 3 running backs plus a fullback is cutting things a little too close.

As observed here last month, the Steelers have struggled to keep their top two running backs healthy for an entire season during the Mike Tomlin era. In 2008, the Steelers lost Willie Parker for a spell, then lose Rashard Mendenhall. Fortunately they had Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell to shoulder the load.

In 2010 Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman remained healthy for the entire season, with Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer only seeing spot duty carrying the ball.

  • Both of those season ended with the Steelers going to the Super Bowl.

That remains Pittsburgh’s goal this year, but even if James Conner performs above expectations, Le’Veon Bell’s holdout greatly reduces the Steelers ability to adsorb an injury at running back.

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Running Back by Committee? First Let’s Try Steelers Keeping RB1 & RB2 Healthy for a Full Season

The Steelers failure to reach a long-term deal with Le’Veon Bell has prompted many fans to call for Pittsburgh to lift the franchise tag, let Le’Veon Bell walk and rely on running back by committee.

Sounds feasible on paper. (Actually it doesn’t.) But even if it, there’s a problem:

  • During Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers have struggled to keep their 1st and 2nd string running backs healthy.

The tendency took root in 2007 and has continued almost unabated since then. In 2007, Mike Tomlin vowed to run Willie Parker until “the wheels fell off.” The wheels fell off in week 16, forcing the Steelers to start Najeh Davenport in the playoffs with Verron Haynes coming off the couch as a backup.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers running back injuries

Le’Veon Bell injured in the 2014 season finale vs. Bengals. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP, via SportsNet.ca

In 2008 the Steelers planned to use both Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall. A week 3 Willie Parker injury led to Mendenhall’s first start in week 4, where Baltimore broke his collar bone. Fortunately, the Steelers had solid running back depth with Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell filling the void until Parker’s return.

  • The Steelers kept their top two running backs relatively healthy in 2009 and 2010, with Willie Parker only missing a handful of games in ’09.

The Steelers streak continued in 2011 until Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the season finale against Cleveland, as Isaac Redman started in the playoff Tebowing in Denver (for the record, Redman rushed for 121 yards on 17 carries.)

In 2012 the Steelers employed a variant of running back by committee, rotating carries and starts between Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall. Injuries contributed to this situation, but Mike Tomlin also wanted one of the trio to establish himself as the starter. None of them did.

  • The Steelers unhealthy running back syndrom returned with a vengeance in 2013.

Rookie Le’Veon Bell injured his Lisfranc in Latrobe, leaving Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Felix Jones as the running back committee. Problem? LaRod Stephens-Howling’s Steeler career ended after 8 touches and Isaac Redman was already playing with injures that would end his career before Halloween.

In 2014 the Steelers made a wise disciplinary move in cutting LeGarrette Blount, but that forced them to sign Ben Tate after Le’Veon Bell’s pre-playoff injury. In 2015 injuries and suspension limited Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams to 5 join appearances, and DeAngelo Williams season finale injury at Cleveland forced Pittsburgh to start Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman in the playoffs.

Any plans the Steelers had to spell Le’Veon Bell with DeAngelo Williams in 2016 went out the window when Williams injured his knee in week 6, limiting the tandem to 4 games together.

And of course last season the Steelers only opted to give James Conner a handful of carries, but an injury against New England in week 14 forced the Steelers to sign Stevan Ridley two weeks before the playoffs.

Calk it up to fate or chalk it up to mistake, but Mike Tomlin cannot seem to kept his top two running backs healthy, which doesn’t bode well for a shift to running back by committee. Or does it?

Counterpoint: Could Running Back by Committee Be the Cure?

In On Writing, Stephen King advises authors against plotting out stories in favor of putting characters in situations and then following them to their conclusion. King’s lesson is relevant to sports blogging, because sometimes your conclusions can morph into something else as you write.

  • This is one of those times.

Mike Tomlin has seen his running backs suffer injuries early in the season (Parker and Mendenhall in ’08, Bell and Redman in ’13, Bell in ’15 and Williams in ’16.) But the most devastating running back injuries have occurred late in the season (Mendenhall in ’11, Bell in ’14, Williams in ’15, Bell in the 2016 AFC Championship).

Both the laws of attrition and laws of probability would suggest that running back by committee could mitigate these dangers.

Moral of the Story? Better Running Back Depth In Order

In the final analysis, I’m not ready to join the chorus calling for the Steelers to rescind the franchise tag and part ways with Bell. This tweet sheds a little light on my thinking:

That isn’t to say that the Chuck Noll’s offenses struggled to run the ball with Frank Pollard, Earnest Jackson and Walter Abercrombie. They didn’t. Nor could Mark Malone and David Woodley provide the type of air support that Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown provide today.

  • But Le’Veon Bell offers more to the Steelers 2018 offense than would a modern day equivalent of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie.

And James Conners, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels have yet to prove they’re modern day equivalents of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie. But perhaps they can provide the type of quality and quantity of depth at running back behind Le’Veon Bell that the franchise hasn’t enjoyed since 2008….

…You remember, the season that ended at Super Bowl XLIII.

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Steelers 2018 Running Back Draft Needs -Time to Seek Le’Veon Bell’s Replacement?

You wouldn’t think running back would be a top priority for the Steelers heading into the 2018 draft, what with star and all-world/dual-threat running back Le’Veon Bell on the roster, he of the 2,000 yards from scrimmage capabilities and multiple All-Pro/Pro Bowl decorations.

  • But for the second year in a row, Bell and the Steelers are at an impasse regarding his salary requirements.

Sure, Bell can only play in Pittsburgh in 2018, thanks to being franchise tagged for a second straight year (after earning $12 million in 2017, Bell is scheduled to make $14.5 million in 2018), but his reported demands for a deal that averages $17 million per season means the odds of him being around in 2019 seem remote at best.

Le'Veon Bell, Brandon Carr, Steelers vs Ravens,

Le’Veon Bell turns corner on Brandon Carr en route to a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Starters

Like previous years when he wasn’t out of the lineup due to health issues or because of a suspension, Bell was the workhorse of the Steelers backfield in 2017, starting 15 of a possible 16 games and accounting for nearly 75 percent of the team’s 437 rushing attempts. Le’Veon Bell also tallied another 655 yards out of the backfield on a career-high 85 receptions.

  • With 1,946 yards from scrimmage, it was Bell’s most productive season since 2014, when he had 2,215 total yards.

But in terms of effectiveness, some would say Bell’s 2017 campaign left a lot to be desired, as his 1,291 rushing yards were just 23 more than he had the previous year when he tallied 1,268 on 60 less carries. Bell also averaged 4.0 yards per attempt (his lowest since 2013), and his longest run from scrimmage was just 27 yards.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Backups

With Bell leading the way, the Steelers depth at running back doesn’t look half bad.

  • James Conner was everyone’s favorite heart warming story last season when the Steelers drafted him in the third round out of the University of Pittsburgh.

On the heels of his very public battle with cancer that was discovered in late-2015 while rehabbing from a torn MCL that wiped out all but one game of his junior season, you wanted to see James Conner do well. And in the limited exposure he did see on offense, James Conner showed great promise, totally 144 yards on 32 carries. Unfortunately, Conner’s rookie season came to an end in Week 15 when he suffered yet another MCL injury.

  • To make up for the absence of Conner, Pittsburgh signed veteran Stevan Ridley, who was riding the couch in late-December after not being able to catch on with anyone.

In limited action down-the-stretch in relief of a resting Bell, Stevan Ridley looked decent enough, tallying 108 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. It looks like Ridley, 29, will be providing veteran depth again next season, as he and the Steelers agreed to terms on a one-year deal.

Speaking of one-year deals, the Steelers will also have Fitzgerald Toussaint back again in 2018, after he and the team reached an agreement on a one-year contract that will pay him $790,000. With just 125 yards on 38 carries as a Steeler, Toussaint is perhaps best known for being thrust into the spotlight during the 2015 postseason, one that came to a crashing halt shortly after Toussaint fumbled in the fourth quarter against the Broncos in the divisional round.

Steelers 2018 Running Back Draft Needs 

The Steelers depth at running back may not look so bad with Le’Veon Bell leading the way, but is there a future starter in the mix?

Yes, James Conner does possess great potential, but he also has two surgically repaired MCLs on his resume, and I don’t have to tell you how important healthy knees are for a running back–or how quickly damaged ones can end a career.

Ridley and Toussaint may be competent backups, but that’s just about it.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Sure, Stevan Ridley had a great season in 2012, when he rushed for over 1,200 yards as a member of the Patriots, but in running back years, 2012 was a lifetime ago, and 29 is when “Life’s Work” starts beckoning most backs.

  • As for Fitzgerald Toussaint, if he possessed any potential to be anything other than a number 3 running back, , he would have showed it by now.

This brings us back to Le’Veon Bell.

While I’m inclined to blame the less-effective 2017 season on the Bell’s off season groin surgery as well as his decision to hold out all of training camp, I’m not so inclined to say Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers will be able to reach an agreement on a lucrative deal both sides will be happy with.

This isn’t to say it’s paramount the Steelers target and draft a running back with their first or even second pick. However, if general manager Kevin Colbert decides to play his “Best Player Available” card and–much like 2008, when Rashard Mendenhall slipped all the way to the 23rd pick of the first round–a running back with a first round grade is sitting there at 28, he may be too tempting to pass up.

No, it’s not critical that Pittsburgh drafts a running back in the first round, but all things considered, the need must be rated Moderate-High.

 

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The Pro’s and Con’s of the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

Every NFL personnel decision carries its own pro’s and con’s, and each choice a team makes comes with its own opportunity costs, especially in the salary cap era.

  • But the pro’s and con’s of the Steelers resigning Le’Veon Bell are perhaps a little more complex than others.

In fact, it’s entirely possible that the Pittsburgh Steelers have never faced a bigger, more consequential free agent decision than one that the now face with Le’Veon Bell. What will the Steelers do? What should they do? How will Bell react if the Steelers try to franchise him? Let’s take a look.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell 1st touchdown, Le'Veon Bell touchdown, pro's and con's of Steelers resigning Le'Veon Bell

Le’Veon Bell score his first touchdown in London, 2013. Photo Credit: Jamie McDonald, Getty Images, via CBS Local

Capsule Profile of Le’Veon Bell’s Steelers Career

Have the Steelers made a more ballyhood second round pick? Merril Hoge anointed Le’Veon Bell the best running back the draft as soon as Pittsburgh picked him. Later, Ed Bouchette labeled Le’Veon Bell’s first preseason game as “one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

To keep that in context, Bouchette had watched the preseason debuts of Steelers first round running backs Greg Hawthorne, Walter Abercrombie, Tim Worley and Rashard Mendenhall. This was hardly his first rodeo with a highly hyped rookie. Yet, Bouchette seemed to be going a little too far over the top.

  • Five years later, it is clear everyone should have listened more to Hoge and Bouchette and snickered less.

What’s all the more amazing even if this is true, it has NOT been all smooth sailing since then.

Le’Veon Bell suffered a lisfranc injury in the summer of 2013. Injuries kept Le’Veon Bell from 2014 post-season. Both 2015 and 2016 began with substance abuse suspensions, and he missed most of the rest of 2015 with another injury.

  • Then, in 2016 Bell dominated the NFL at a level the league has not seen in a generation.

In 2017 Le’Veon Bell logged his first injury and suspension free season, and while his production dipped, he clearly remains the NFL’s best running back.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

Just how important is Le’Veon Bell to the Pittsburgh Steelers offense? Number don’t lie:

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell statistics, Le'Veon Bell rushing averages, Le'Veon Bell touches, Le'Veon Bell receptions

Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense.

No disrespect to Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, but the Steelers offense really does revolve around Le’Veon’Bell. In contrast to 2016, in 2017 Ben Roethlisberger had weapons like Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald at his disposal, Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense still increased.

The number crunchers can make all of the arguments that they want about running backs, their declining productivity and lack of durability, but all of those meta statistics, while valid to a certain extent, miss a fundamental point:

  • Le’Veon Bell is a championship caliber player.

This is a man who broke the Steelers regular season in 2016 and then a few weeks later broke the post-season record in his first playoff experience, accomplishing something that John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis, Steelers 3 Hall of Fame running backs, never did.

Player like this do not come along often. When you find one, you keep him.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

By all accounts, the Steelers gave Le’Veon Bell an offer that would have paid him considerably more than the next highest paid running back and guaranteed close to 30 to 32 million dollars over its first 3 years.

  • Bell balked, leaving the Steelers (and his agent) at the altar.

Art Rooney II wants Le’Veon Bell to retire as a Steeler, but would he really go so far as to sweeten the pot beyond what the Steelers were offering a year ago? That’s simply not sound football sense.

Bell’s yards-per-carry dropped from 4.9 to just over 4.0 from 2016 to 2017. His longest run was only 27 yards, calling into question his ability to go the length of the field. He’s a year older and has another 400 touches – and hits – on his frame.

The Steelers could franchise Le’Veon Bell again, but that would wreak havoc with their salary cap, and there’s a real risk that Bell might sit out the season, acting as a martyr for his fellow running backs.

  • Aside from his injury history, Bell is one bong hit away from another suspension.

While James Conner isn’t, and shouldn’t be considered as a replacement, the Steelers could likely replace Bell with some combination of Conners, Stevan Ridley, a moderately priced free agent and a draft pick.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell

This is a tough call because the Steelers are to some degree into uncharted territory. Rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly franchise running backs appear to be a thing of the past in the NFL. This site has suggested that Le’Veon Bell might change that, and Bell demands he be paid like a franchise running back.

  • Yet, Bell’s decline in production from 2016 to 2017 undercuts his own argument.

Even if that’s true, Le’Veon Bell remains a championship caliber player by any measure. The types of plays he delivers game-in and game-out, are not the type of plays you can simply make up with a “Moneyball” type approach to building your running backs depth chart. The tweet below offers only one example of that:

https://twitter.com/big_griffsfunny/status/962287853064527872

Franching Le’Veon Bell for another year might a wise option in the abstract, but that would complicate the already tight salary cap position the Steelers already face.

One way or another, it seems like Le’Veon Bell will be with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018, but this is one time when yours truly doesn’t envy the decision that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have to make.

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

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