Steelers Draft Needs @ Inside Linebacker – Betwixt & Between at an Evolving Position

Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebackers “evolve.”

Pittsburgh’s first player at the position was Jack Lambert, who “evolved” from a middle linebacker to an inside linebacker. Both Mark Barron and Miles Killebrew the Steelers last two free agent signings at the position started as safeties and “evolved” into inside linebackers.

In between, Huey Richardson was drafted and listed as an inside linebacker, but in 2014 the Steelers Media Guide suddenly started listing him as a defensive end.* So this Steelers most infamous 1st round bust managed to evolve at his position 22 years after Bill Cowher traded Huey Richardson in a fire sale.

Injuries and COVID-19 infections forced the Steelers to evolve on the fly at inside linebacker multiple times in 2020. But how will that unpleasant experience impact their plans in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Devin Bush, Darren Fells, Steelers vs Texans

Devin Bush breaks up a touchdown pass intended for Darren Fells. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Chart at Inside Linebacker: The Starters

Who, other than Ben Roethlisberger, was the Steelers most indispensable player in 2020? Prior to the season, the Athletic’s Mark Kaboly argued it was Devin Bush.

  • What happens if Devin Bush goes down?

The ominous answer was that Robert Spillane would have to play. He did. And he played well. In the battle of the undefeated he Derrick Henry at the goal line play that could ONLY have reminded his position coach Jerry Olsavsky of a similar stop he made of Christian Okoye back in 1989. The next week he took one of Lamarr Jackson’s passes to the house providing Pittsburgh with a critical point differential.

Robert Spillane might not be a superstar in the making, but his play was solid enough to convince the Steelers to cut Vince Williams, the starter opposite him.

Devin Bush’s sophomore season only lasted 5 games, but that was long enough to register 2 half sacks, pat down 3 passes and log 3 quarterback hits.

Steelers Depth Cart at Inside Linebacker: The Backups

The story for the Steelers here changed dramatically for the better last week when Vince Williams announced he was rejecting other offers and returning to Pittsburgh on a reduced salary. While that may seem odd, as few if any Steelers have ever done that, Vince Williams will likely slide into the role he played earlier in his career as part-time starter.

In 14 games during 2020, Vince Williams sacked the quarterback 3 times, recovered 2 fumbles and generally laid in the wood when it needed to be laid in.

The Steelers also signed Miles Killebrew, who as mentioned above, began his career as a safety before moving to inside linebacker. Killebrew played for 5 years in Detroit, appearing in 78 games but only starting 5. He did log two interceptions at safety early in his career, and could become a “Dime Linebacker” that the Steelers have been seeking.

The Steelers also have Marcus Allen, yet another converted Safety who started two games this past season, registering 2 tackles for losses and hitting the quarterback twice while struggling against the run.

Finally, Ulysees Gilbert III the Steelers 3rd 6th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft who has only appeared in 11 games.

Steelers Draft Needs @ Inside Linebacker in 2021

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftThe Steelers are betwixed and between at inside linebacker.

On the one hand, they’re blessed with 1 up and coming starter and two starter capable players alongside him. That’s a good thing.

  • But both Spillane and Williams are upgradeable, and Pittsburgh has little proven depth behind them.

Miles Killebrew came out of the free agent bargain bin, Marcus Allens’ play there was hardly convincing and Ulysees Gilbert has done little more than get injured during his time in Pittsburgh. Given that the Steelers draft needs at Inside Linebacker must be considered Moderate-High.

*The plan was to use Richardson at inside linebacker and defensive end. He played there in his strong preseason debut, but his career imploded immediately after that. Now you’re ready if you get “Steelers Draft Busts” as a Final Jeopardy category – so get back to work.

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Sean Davis Signs with Colts: Steelers Depth Takes Hit, with Ironic, Bilingual Play on Words

Pittsburgh Steelers reserve free agent safety Sean Davis has signed with the Indianapolis Colts. Davis’ defection unites him with fellow University of Maryland alumni Frank Reich, and deals the Steelers an unsurprising, if slightly disappointing blow.

  • The move also leads us to a rather ironic, bilingual play on words.
Sean Davis, Ezekiel Elliot, Steelers vs Cowboys

Sean Davis can’t stop Ezekiel Elliot. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via The Steelers Wire.

More on the play on words in a minute. In football terms, With Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds entrenched as starters, Sean Davis had no shot at earning a spot on the first string. As staff writer Tony Defeo argued, Sean Davis could theoretically work a bit in the slot, has he did as a rookie. Perhaps he could have even carved a role for himself as the “Dime Linebacker.”

  • Those roles were hypothetical.
  • There was nothing hypothetical about his real value to the Steelers: Depth.

And that’s where the bilingual play on words comes in.

The Spanish equivalents for American football terms represent a strange breed. Some, such as “Esquinero” for cornerback are quite literal. Others, like “Ala cerrada” for tight end are less obvious. “Ala” is wing in Spanish and “cerrada” means closed. Then there’s quarterback, which is termed “Mariscal de Campo” in Spanish.
The literal translation of Mariscal de campo” is Field Marshal.

There’s one case where you could argue that Spanish term expresses the concept behind the role of quarterback more precisely than the English one.

  • So at this point you’re saying:  “Ok, that’s interesting. But what the hell does it have to do with Sean Davis?”

Well, Sean Davis plays safety. The Spanish term for an American football safety is “Profundo.” And the literal meaning for “Profundo” is depth. And that’s where the irony comes in. Sean Davis’ free agent defection to the Colts tells the Steelers story thus far this off season: Free agency is ravaging this team’s depth.

While the franchise has question marks on the offensive line, tight end and running back, on paper the team is setting itself up to field a quality starting lineup. But outside of quarterback, wide receiver, arguably defensive line, and perhaps running back, the Steelers have no depth. None.

The answer to all of the above is “Marcus Allen.” And that’s not a good place to be.

Marcus Allen, Steelers vs Buccaneers preseason

Marcus Allen makes a tackle in the Steelers 2019 preseason game against Tampa. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Credit Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan, through Ben Roethlisberger’s restructuring, and the use of “Voidable years” for players like Cam Sutton and JuJu Smith-Schuster, for helping the Steelers avoid Salary Cap Armageddon.

Things could look a lot worse. And while the Steelers can shore themselves up a bit in the 2021 NFL Draft, in a lot of areas on the depth chart the franchise will be walking a tightrope without a net.

  • The last time that really happened was 2013, and we know how that year turned out….

Sean Davis was never going to be a show stopper for the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers. But he could have provided depth at a critical position. However, that is not to be.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Zach Banner Stays, Tyson Alualu Leaves, Vince Williams a Cap Casualty

On the first day of “legal tampering” the Steelers opened free agency by signing Cam Sutton. Cam Sutton was their most important “signable” free agent. On day two Pittsburgh addressed the man who was arguably their 2nd most important “signable” priority by resigning offensive guard Zach Banner to a two year contract.

  • All of the news was neither good, nor entirely expected.

Tyson Alualu got a 2 year contract to return to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team that had drafted him in 2010. As mentioned in Alualu’s free agent profile, Alualu delivered excellent “bang for the salary cap buck” for Pittsburgh and was the unsung hero on the Ste

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

elers defensive line in 2020. Moreover, if reports are correct, the deal he got in Jacksonville is only slightly larger than the one he could have expected in Pittsburgh, showing just how cash strapped the Steelers are.

  • The Steelers also made another move, this one while not a surprise, it was disappointing.

To create salary cap space, the Steelers decided to part ways with eight year veteran Vince Williams, presumptively clearing the way for newly resigned Robert Spillane to assume duties as a full-time starter at inside linebacker. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are far more qualified than this scribe to make this “bang for the buck” calculation, but Vince Williams will be missed. More to come on this front.

Finally, Mike Hilton appears to be signing with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Banner and Another Two Year Deal…

Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that Zach Banner’s new deal is for $9.5 million and includes a $3.25 million signing bonus. Unlike Cam Sutton, the amount of money that Banner got wasn’t a suprise, given Banner’s more limited resume and his recent ACL tear.

  • Like Cam Sutton’s deal, Zach Banner’s is also for two years….

Again, this is slightly out of character for the Steelers, who typically give 2nd year contracts that last for 3 years, or more. Moreover, veterans like David DeCastro, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson are all heading into the final year of their contracts, leading to speculation that the Steelers Brain Trust has penciled in 2021 as the final year it will make a run with this core of veterans, including Ben Roethlisberger.

It is too early to tell, but at this point we can say “Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence….”

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Need Depth at ILB. Does Free Agent Avery Williamson Fit the Bill?

In season trades once were like unicorn sightings for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They just didn’t happen. Then came Levi Brown in 2013. Well sort of, because Brown got injured in warm ups and never played a down. This was followed by Minkah Fitzpatrick and Nick Vannett.

  • Both of whom arrived, and suited up as starters.

The trend continued in 2020, when injuries cost the Steelers the services of Devin Bush, prompting Kevin Colbert to send a 5th round pick to the New York Jets to acquired the services of Avery Williamson. Colbert was taking out an insurance policy, an insurance policy he would cash by December as injuries forced Williamson into the lineup. Did Williamson do enough to punch his return ticket to Pittsburgh? Let’s find out.

"Avery

Capsule Profile of Avery Williamson’s Career with the Steelers

Avery Williamson was a fifth-round pick by the Titans in the 2014 NFL Draft and became a starter at inside linebacker almost immediately. After recording 376 tackles in four seasons, Williamson hit the free-agent market in 2018 and signed with the Jets. Williamson remained with the struggling franchise for two-plus seasons before Pittsburgh came calling last year. Thanks in part to a season-ending ACL tear suffered by Devin Bush, the Steelers traded a fifth-round pick to New York last November in exchange for Williamson’s services. Williamson started four games for the Steelers near the end of the season while filling in for both Bush and Robert Spillane.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Avery Williamson in 2021

He’s a veteran presence and a good leader and locker room guy. He’s also been a consistent starter for the vast majority of his career, and there’s something to be said for that kind of durability in the NFL.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Avery Williamson in 2021

There’s really nothing that wows you about Williamson’s game, which may be okay depending on his salary demands. Having been in the league for quite a bit, Williamson, 28, is an unrestricted free agent. The last contract he signed with New York totaled $22.5 million for three years.

He’s obviously not going to get that kind of money at this stage of his career, but it’s doubtful the cap-strapped Steelers — a team that may have to move on from several of its own homegrown players — will want to pay a veteran like Williamson even a fraction of that.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Avery Williamson in 2021

With Robert Spillane, a relative unknown well into the 2020 season, stepping up and performing rather well in Bush’s absence, it looks like he’s created an opportunity for himself in 2021. If Bush is back at 100 percent, the Steelers will need a thumper like Vince Williams to play alongside him.

  • Will that be Williams?

With the Steelers’ financial situation so uncertain, that doesn’t seem likely, meaning Williams could be a cap casualty. If Williams, a long-time fixture in Pittsburgh, winds up a cap casualty with one year to go on his contract, there’s no chance that Williamson will return.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus: Bring Back Marcus Allen? Why Not?

On March 5th,2018 Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell made it his mission to “Bring back Marcus Allen.”

Ah, yes, of course Wexell was trying to unmake the Steelers status as victims of circumstance when they missed on drafting USC’s Marcus Allen by two slots in the 1982 NFL Draft and instead had to settle for Baylor’s Walter Abercrombie. Right?

  • Well, no, not even close.

Wexell was doing a pre-draft profile on the a multi-talented Penn State safety named Marcus Allen, whom he thought would be a good fit for the Steelers. Pittsburgh indeed drafted Marcus Allen, who is now and Exclusive Rights free agent, and today we look at his future.

Marcus Allen, Steelers vs Buccaneers preseason

Marcus Allen makes a tackle in the Steelers 2019 preseason game against Tampa. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Capsule Profile of Marcus Allen Career with the Steelers

The Steelers indeed drafted Marcus Allen in the 5th round of the 2018 NFL Draft. And the truth is that the notebook on him remained pretty thin for his first two years. He made the final roster but only saw appearances in two games, logging a total of 20 plays, and giving up completions on two of 3 passes he was charged with covering.

Allen failed to make the final roster in 2019, but returned to the practice squad, getting activated for 1 game where he played on special teams. In 2020, the Steelers moved him from safety to inside linebacker. This allowed him to get in on a full 20% of the defensive snaps, thanks to injuries to Devin Bush, Robert Spillane and Vince Williams.

  • The truth is Allen looked mismatched at inside linebacker.

He struggled against the run, and still gave up 8 of 10 passes that he was charged with covering. It would be unfair to scapegoat Allen for the defensive disaster that was the loss to the Bengals, but he certainly contributed.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Marcus Allen in 2021

The truth is that the Steelers neither have depth at inside linebacker nor do they have it at safety and the team clearly is looking to transition to hybrid linebacker-safety type players. (See Morgan Burnett’s displeasure at having to play such a role.)

As an exclusive rights free agent, the Steelers can have Marcus Allen back at essentially the same salary cap charge as an undrafted rookie free agent. Allen also is experienced on special teams.

Who would you rather have as a role player at inside linebacker, safety and special teams? A guy with 3 years of experience under his belt or an inexperienced rookie?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Marcus Allen in 2021

The Steelers have seen Marcus Allen for 3 years at multiple positions and he’s not delivered much at either. In fact, it took injuries to both starting inside linebackers AND the number one backup to get Marcus Allen his first sustained snaps with the defense, and opposing offensive coordinators were only too happy to oblige.

  • Sure, Marcus Allen’s salary cap charge is negligible, but you get what you pay for.

The Steelers have seen enough to know there’s nothing to indicate that Marcus Allen is the next Lee Flowers – another 5th round Safety who sat on the bench in obscurity for 2-3 years before emerging as a serviceable starter.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Marcus Allen

Expect this one to be a non-event. The Steelers will give Marcus Allen and exclusive rights free agent tender and allow draft picks and/or rookie free agents to push him during training camp and, assuming it is played, preseason. This is a no-risk move for the Steelers.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus 2021: Robert Spillane – He’ll Be Back. Count On It.

Serious fans have always known their team’s rosters inside an out. This has always been true, but its truer in the digital age. Still, there are names that appear on a roster that prompt a “WHO?” from even the most fanatical followers.

  • Steelers fans with long memories will recall running back Rodney Carter.

Rodney Carter exploded out of nowhere to spark the 1988 Steelers upset win over the Denver Broncos with a 100 yard, 2 touchdown game. He even completed a pass. When asked about Carter’s surprise role in the game, Chuck Noll joked that the idea came via a letter from a fan. Carter went on to be an unsung hero of the 1989 Steelers. Bob Labriola once described him in the Steelers Digest as the player who “made a career of ‘Going out and getting open.’”

Two years ago Devlin Hodges fit that bill, and this season that honor feel to Robert Spillane who is now and Exclusive Rights Free Agent. Today we look at his chances of staying in Pittsburgh.

Robert Spillane, Austin Hooper, Steelers vs Browns

Robert Spillane after tackling Austin Hooper. Photo Credit: Cleveland.com via the Bradford Era

Capsule Profile of Robert Spillane’s Steelers Career

After making the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted rookie free agent, Robert Spalaine joined the Steelers in February of 2019. He got a visit from The Turk on cutdown day but returned to the practice squad a day later. The Steelers cut him in late September, but brought him back in early October and was promoted to the active roster in November, seeing action in 8 games on special teams.

  • Going into 2020, inside linebacker was seen as the one position the Steelers could ill afford and injury at.

In the Steelers win over the Tennessee Titans, seeming disaster struck as Devin Bush tore his ACL. Spillane  stepped up, delivering a devastating goal line tackle recording 5 on the day.

The following week, Spillane opened the road game against the Ravens with a 33 yard pick six of Lamar Jackson, a pivotal play in a game that went down to the wire.

Spillane registered sacks in the Steelers wins over Cincinnati and in their loss to Washington, before getting injured for the rest of the regular season. He returned for the Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff disaster against the Browns.

The Case for Steelers Resigning Robert Spillane in 2021

Robert Spillane is an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, meaning he’s not going anywhere unless the Steelers decide otherwise. That also means he’s cheap, incredibly cheap and the Steelers need every penny of salary cap space they can scrounge.

Robert Spillane might not quite have proven himself as “Starter Capable” but if he hasn’t, he’s certainly close. Clearly, he’s a competent backup.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Robert Spillane in 2021

The aim of this section is to lay out the strongest possible case against bringing a player back. When it comes to Robert Spillane that simply is not possible.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Robert Spillane in 2021

This is a no brainer. Not only will the Steelers bring back Robert Spillane, he played well enough that he could Vince Williams a salary cap casualty. Should Williams stay, Spillane would provide depth at a critical position for the Steelers.

One way or another Robert Spillane will be wearing Black and Gold for the Steelers in 2021.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Tracker – Pittsburgh Navigates Rough Waters

2013’s Steelers Free Agent Focus article started with a quote and a clip from the Dark Knight Rises. The Steelers were coming off of an 8-8 finish, their first no-winning effort of the Tomlin years, and Kevin Colbert had committed to change. Moreover, the Steelers were in salary cap purgatory, forcing them to attempt addition by subtraction.

  • While the context is different this year, the Steelers salary cap situation is actually worse.

So perhaps a stroll down memory lane is in order:

There’s a storm coming Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches.

The final number of the 2021 NFL salary cap remains undefined. Its floor is 180 million and some suspect it could go up by 2 or 3 million more. The Steelers need every penny they get, having planned for a salary cap of a about 220 million.

Thanks to Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald’s retirements, Cam Heyward‘s contract restructure, Ben Roethlisberger’s new contract that gives the Steelers an additonal 15 million dollars in salary cap space this year, the Steelers might not need to cut players just to get into compliance.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Steelers 2021 Free Agents

JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner in September 22, at Levi Stadium. Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

So fortunately, life will not imitate art here: They’ll be no literal blowing up of the Steelers roster to mimic the cinematic destruction of Heinz Field.

  • But the Steelers have a horrendously long list of free agents, and must say good bye to far too many of them for comfort.

Free agency is almost here and staff writer Tony Defeo and I are doing profiles of each player.

Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus Profiles

Bud Dupree, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
– Signs with Tennessee Titans, 3/15/2021
J.C. Hassenauer, Center, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Hassenauer to 1 year deal, 3/09/21
Robert Spillane, Inside Linebacker, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Robert Spillane to one year deal, 3/12/21
Ray-Ray McCloud, Wide Receiver/Returner, Restricted Free Agent
– Steelers sign McCloud to 1 year deal, 3/11/21
Ola Adeniyi, Outside Linebacker, Restricted Free Agent
– Steelers decline to offer RFA tender to Adeniyi
Marcus Allen, Safety/Inside Linebacker, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Marcus Allen to 1 year deal, 3/09/21
James Conner, Running Back, Unrestricted Free Agent
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Reciever, Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers resign JuJu for 1 year contract, 3/19/21
Cam Sutton, Cornerback Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers Resign Cam Sutton, 3/15/21
Alejandro Villanueva, Offensive Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Zach Banner, Offensive Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers resign Zach Banner to 2 year deal, 3/17/2021
Matt Feiler, Offensive Guard/Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Jordan Dangerfield, Safety/special teams, Unrestricted Free Agent
Sean Davis, Safety, Unrestricted Free Agent
Jayrone Elliot, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
Tyson Alualu, Nose Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Signs 2 year deal with Steelers, 3/27/21
Avery Williamson, Inside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback, Unrestricted Free Agent
Mike Hilton, Cornerback, Unrestricted Free Agent
– Signs contract with Bengals, 3/18/21
Chris Wromley, Defensive Tackle, Unrestricted free agent
– Signs 2 year contract with Steelers, 3/22/21
Cassius Marsh, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted free agent
– Signs 1 year contract with Steelers, 3/24/21

Here is the list of Steelers free agents we’ve yet to profile:

2021 Unrestricted Free Agents

Jerald Hawkins, Offensive Tackle
Danny Isidora, Guard
Jordan Berry, Punter

With his back against the wall, Kevin Colbert did a respectable job at managing the Steelers free agency situation and put together a decent opening day roster. However, injuries would ravage that roster where it could least afford them, leading to a 2-6.

That 2-6 start however led to a 6-2 finish, which set the franchise up for its second, albeit failed Super Bowl run of the Roethlisberger era. But many of those personnel moves set the team up for its late season comeback.

Can Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, and Mike Tomlin do something along those lines that allows the Steelers to contend for a Super Bowl in 2021?

The odds are against it, but try they will, and we will cover it as they do.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers 2020 Season Final Report Card: Summer Started Too Soon Edition

Taken from the grade book of an again tardy teacher whose summer has started too soon, here is the Steelers Final Report Card for the 2020 season.

Ben Roethisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers loss browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey after the wild card loss to the Browns. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via USA Today for the win.

Quarterback
At age 38 and coming off of elbow surgery Ben Roethlisberger performed better than anyone had the right to expect. His passer rating was a hair above his career average and he threw only 10 interceptions. Sacks were at a career low. Yet the long ball troubled him all year and defenses exploited his one-dimensional game late in the season, when it counted the most. In the final analysis, Ben Roethlisberger was “Good, but…” which makes his grade obvious. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Back
The 2020 Steelers were league bottom feeders in rushing, put up historic lows for the franchise and couldn’t “get ONE yard when they needed it,” so obviously the running backs must have been terrible, right? Actually, that’s not right. James Conner proved that with good blocking, he can be a good but not great running back. Conner also confirmed he can be counted on in the short passing game. Benny Snell showed he can be a good number 2 running back. Anthony McFarland never grew beyond rookie flashes. Jaylen Samuels saw spot duty and did OK. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron made some nice catches and was an asset in the Red Zone. However, as Steel City Insider’s DI Davis documented, he was an absolute liability as a blocker. Nor did he gain much after the catch. Vance McDonald delivered when called upon but saw his role decline. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster authored the type of season that everyone expected of him after 2018. He made combat catch after combat catch and was easily the Steelers most reliable target. Diontae Johnson had a strong year and showed why he can be special. Still, his drops hurt the team. Badly. Chase Claypool authored and impressive year for a rookie and the Notre Dame grad has a bright future ahead of him. James Washington was the unit’s forgotten man, but he delivered when called on. Grade: B+

James Washington, Steelers vs Browns

James Washington catches a touchdown against the Browns. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Offensive Line
How times have changed. As recently as 2018, these spots started with “one of the best offensive lines in football.” Today? Not so much. Let’s give the line credit for solid pass blocking. Even if Ben got rid of the ball quickly, he had good pass protection. Run blocking was a different story. It was “Above the line” early in the year, but the line’s performance changed as the leaves on the trees changed, and then ultimately fell. The high snap to open the playoffs was a mortal mistake. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led this unit in tackles and overall performance, even if Stephon Tuitt had 11 sacks. Overall the defensive line’s play was solid throughout the year. Grade: B

Linebackers
With T.J. Watt, Vince Williams, Devin Bush and Bud Dupree the Steelers fielded a foursome on par with the 2008 defense and those of the Blitzburgh defenses in the 1990s. Ultimately, injuries took their toll on this unit, even if Robert Spillane and Avery Williamson did well given the circumstances. Grade: B

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Willie Snead, Justin Layne, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Layne lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have had as many highlight or as many interceptions had he had in 2019, but he was still one of the best defensive backs in the league. Terrell Edmunds quietly authored another strong year as did Steven Nelson. Joe Haden was solid, although he did get burned a few times. Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton answered the call. Per Pro Football Focus ratings, the Steelers only allowed a “45.9 passer rating on throws over 10 yards downfield.” The secondary did its job. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed 1 field goal all year and made all but 4 extra points, which ranks him a little low. Matthew Wright did an impressive job as a stand-in kicker. Dustin Colquitt couldn’t get it done as a punter, but Jordan Berry did a respectable job. Overall, the Steelers kick and punt return coverage was strong, even if it did wane a bit as the year progressed.

  • Ray-Ray McCloud was an asset to the team early in the season, both as a kick returner and a punt returner.
  • However, following his fumble against Washington he was never the same.

Regardless of whatever else ailed them in 2020, special teams was a strong spot for the Steelers. Grade: B

Mike Tomlin, f bomb

Mike Tomlin reacts to live mic F-bomb. Photo Credit: Twitter


Coaching
Let’s credit Randy Fichtner for fielding an offense that was tailored to his players’ strengths and unlike anything we’d seen in the Roethlisberger era before. He also showed some willingness to innovate, early on at least.

  • However, as defenses adapted, the Steelers offense failed to adapt in kind.

Some of that is execution (see the opening play in the loss to Cincinnati), but ultimately the unit could not cope. For the 2nd straight season the running game faded and then failed when the Steelers needed it the most.

Keith Butler (or was it Mike Tomlin? ) began the year by fielding a shut down defense. Sure, the unit gave up a few too many long plays for comfort, but they also had the killer instinct to slam the door shut on teams when the got into the Red Zone on more than one occasion.

  • Injuries ultimately doomed this defense.

Finally, let’s start by giving Mike Tomlin credit for weathering the most unusual years in NFL history to lead his team to an 11-0 start. Yes, the Steelers did see another December collapse and fairly or unfairly, that mark remains on Tomlin’s resume. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
“You Shall Not Run!” That was the credo that the Steelers defense lived during September and October. The Steelers defense took the running game away from opponents and allowed its playmakers to do their damage. If the T.J.’s, the Minkahs and the Heywards collectively formed the football equivalent of Gandalf the Grey, then the staff bringing it all together was Tyson Alualu. He didn’t rack up a lot of stats, but his steady presence at nose tackle are what enabled the rest of the defense to fly and for that he wins the Steelers Unsung Hero Award for the 2020 season.

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Steelers 2020 Season Summary: Start Strong, Stumble Late, as Super Bowl Slips from Reach

It has been a week, but the pain from the abrupt end to the Steelers 2020 season remains fresh. And so it should. Since losing Super Bowl XLV, going “One and Done” has been the most frequent playoff outcome for Mike Tomlin’s Steelers. But as the poignant Roethlisberger-Pouency post-game photo suggests, this Steelers early-exit playoff has an air of finality absent from the others.

  • And you know the frustrating part?

The Pittsburgh Steelers we saw in September and October, the team that manhandled the Browns, knocked the Titans out of the undefeated category, went toe-to-toe with the Ravens and ultimately started 11-0 was no mirage.

The accomplishments of that September-October team were just as real and just as enjoyable as the unraveling that Steelers Nation suffered in December was painful. Yes, this is one case where two seemingly contradictory things can be true. Let’s look at how and why.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool can’t come down with the ball. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Steelers Strong Start on Offense No Optical Illusion

Let’s start by attacking one of the key takeaways circulating both inside and outside of Steelers Nation: Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t “lost it.”

In fact, he came out playing far, far better football than anyone had the right to expect of a 38-year-old quarterback coming off elbow surgery. By the time of Steelers November 22nd win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ben Roethlisberger had logged 7 out of 10 games with a 100-plus passer rating, two of the others were 98.7 and 89.7. He’d thrown 5 interceptions and been sacked just 8 times.

  • You don’t sustain that level of play through 10 NFL games by stringing together a series of “On Any Given Sunday” performances.

Benny Snell, Darnay Holmes, Steelers vs Giants

Benny Snell smokes Darnay Holmes in the Steelers win over the Giants. Photo Credit: AP via the Tribune Review

One thing that alluded Ben Roethlisberger during this 10-game stretch was the long ball. Early on, it seemed like it might just be a question of timing. But as the leaves changed color, drawing a pass interference penalty on deep targets to JuJu Smith-Schuster or Chase Claypool seemed to be as important as actually completing the pass.

The fact that the Steelers were able to get to double digit wins despite those limitations underlines how well they were playing other aspects of the game, not how weak they were.

So then, what happened as Thanksgiving gave way to Christmas?

Failure on Fundamentals Unravels Offense

You can trace the demise of the Steelers offense to two things:

  • The implosion of the running game
  • The sudden inability of the wide receivers and tight ends to hold on to passes

Comparing the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 and 2020 offenses is like comparing apples and oranges with one exception: Both seasons saw the run blocking begin “Above the line” only to see it falter by the middle of the year.

James Conner had robust rushing averages in all but 2 of the Steelers games in September and October, and Benny Snell logged a near-dominant performance in the season opener. Yet the running game sputtered in November. To take one example, Conner and Snell combined for 23 yards against Dallas. At the time it looked like an aberration. Unfortunately, it signaled things to come.

For a while, the inability to run didn’t seem to matter, just as Ben’s inability to throw the deep ball didn’t matter. The Steelers kept winning. Some were ugly wins, but wins were wins.

But something in their sloppy win over the Ravens foreshadowed things to come:

  • Receivers started dropping passes.

    Von Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals

    Von Bell rocks JuJu Smith-Schuster’s noodle. Photo Credit: Cincinnati.com

Diontae Johnson and Eric Ebron were the prime culprits, but it became a chronic problem. One that opposing defenses were only happy to exploit by bumping and blanketing receivers at the line of scrimmage. It took 3 months, but the one-dimensional nature of the Steelers offense had finally caught up with it.

Seriously it really that simple. Take the loss to Washington. If receivers can hold on to catchable passes and/or if the offense can get ONE yard on two different occasions, the Steelers win that game, despite all of the other errors.

  • Ben Roethlisberger responded as he always has: By trying to take the team on his back.

But there was a problem. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell mused, Ben Roethlisberger almost seemed to need to “Come to ‘an agreement’ with his new arm.” This lack of “agreement” was evident in his play against the Bills, against the Bengals, in the first half against the Colts and in the 1st quarter in the playoffs against the Browns.

  • When attempting anything beyond a short pass, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t seem to know if he could trust his arm.

Whether Ben Roethlisberger can ever “get the new bionics straight” (another Wexell term) at this late stage in his career is a different question for a different time. The bottom line is this: When supported by a competent running game, Ben Roethlisberger was cable of playing Super Bowl-caliber football.

But when the running game went AOWL , Big Ben simply couldn’t do it on his own, and a season that started with such promise was squandered.

Injuries Ravage Steelers 2020 Defense

While some can and will quibble with the above analysis of the offense, the post-mortem on the Steelers defense is  straightforward:

At full health, the 2020 Steelers defense was on par with franchise greats such as the 2008 team, any of the Blitzburgh teams, and yes, teams of the 1970’s.

As Matt C. Steel has pointed out: “With [Devin] Bush, the Steelers were well on their way to leading the NFL in most sacks and turnovers, and fewest yards and – most importantly – points allowed.””Indeed, Robert Spillane’s pick six to start the first game against Baltimore made it seem as if this defense had enough depth that it could plug-n-play and rumble along. Then Tyson Alualu went out, and the middle got a little soft. Then Spillane himself fell injured. Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams and Joe Haden missed time due to COVID-19 and other injuries.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Cowobys

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the ball, saves touchdown. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

  • Then Bud Dupree tore his ACL at the tail end of the Ravens game.

By the time of the debacle against Cincinnati, T.J. Watt was the only linebacker from opening day still standing. Marcus Allen, a converted safety, was playing inside linebacker.

While it’s true that the defense, even when at full health, gave up a few too many long runs for comfort. But it is also true that time and time again, players like Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick also came up with big plays in critical situations – a hallmark of a great defense.

The Road from Here

Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger face an off season defined by difficult choices.

  • Does Ben Roethlisberger want to come back for “One final shot?”
  • Would the Steelers want him to?
  • Could the Steelers bring Ben back, given that they’re facing potential salary cap Armageddon?
  • Or would it be better for all parties to begin the rebuild a year ahead of schedule?

There are pros and cons to each option above and while the salary cap is the one item out of both the Steelers and Roethlisberger’s control, its final value remains unknown.

  • To put it in Yoda speak, “The Road from here, very hard to see clearly it is.”

But regardless of how that future takes shape, 2020 will forever be the season where the Steelers started strong, then stumbled late and ultimately saw a Super Bowl slip further out of reach.

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Steelers Report Card for Wild Card Loss to Browns: F for the Final Exam Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher sorely disappointed to see his students fall completely flat on their faces in the final exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Wild Card Loss to the Browns.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and James Conner after Maurkice Pouency’s high snap. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via The Altoona Times.

Quarterback
To borrow from Jim Wexell’s number crunching, after his 3rd interception, Ben Roethlisberger went 38-51-3-1 for 435 yards. The problem is that those 3 interceptions led to 3 Browns touchdowns on top of the 1 gifted to them at the game’s start. And his 4th interception killed any chance of a comeback. Big Ben simply didn’t get it done. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
52 yards total rushing reads as damning epitaph to a historically bad rushing year. But really, when you start the game down 28-0 before the 1st quarter is over you don’t exactly lean on your running game even if you have Jerome Bettis in your backfield. Benny Snell looked good on his two carries. Derrik Watt actually got a carry and converted a 1st down. His second time he had no room to run. James Conner played his heart out and willed himself to that final 2 point conversion. Still, he like Roethlisberger failed to jump on the errant snap and that cost the team dearly. Grade: D

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron caught 7 passes, at least four of which created and/or converted 1st downs. Vance McDonald, after a strong performance late in the season, only saw the ball thrown his way twice. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
James Washington played his heart out catching 5 of six balls thrown his way, going 4 for 4 on the Steelers first score. Chase Claypool 5 catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns might seem pedestrian, but he historical expectations for a Steelers rookie wide out in the playoffs. Diontae Johnson showed that he can be special with his 11 catches for 117 yards. But he dropped a high, but catchable pass that led to Ben Roethlisberger’s 2nd interception which set up 21-0. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked and was only hit 4 times. To the extent that the running game was a factor, the running backs had some room to run. Yet, the line got ZERO push on the second 3rd and 1 hand off to Derek Watt. A conversion certainly would have helped. The bottom line is the opening snap sailed way over Roethlisberger’s head and things snowballed thereafter. It was exactly the wrong error at the absolute worst time. Grade: F

Sheldrick Redwine, Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron, Steelers wild card Browns

Jan 10, 2021; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cleveland Browns strong safety Sheldrick Redwine (29) returns an interception against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first quarter of an AFC Wild Card playoff game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Line
Baker Mayfield wasn’t hit the entire night and the only reason why Browns running backs didn’t put up dominating numbers is that Cleveland didn’t run more. Given that Cam Heyward was going up against an offensive lineman who hadn’t even met his head coach, one would expect more. Grade: F

Linebackers
T.J. Watt made a couple of nice plays at scrimmage but failed to pressure the passer. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles but got burned by Jarvis Landry – something which might not have been his fault. The Browns got to the 2nd level and then some throughout the night and the linebackers were part of the problem. Grade: F

Secondary
The Steelers offense gave Baker Mayfield a short field to start the game – to say the least – an Mayfield treated it like the Turkey Shoot in the Marianas (Google it.) Terrell Edmunds deflected a pass. As did Cam Sutton and James Pierre. But really that’s window dressing. But Browns recievers and running backs ran through the Steelers secondary with reckless abandon almost all night. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made his one field goal attempt and connected on his two PATs. Jordan Berry punted well enough, but his 59 punt was a touch back when the Steelers needed to pin the Browns down. The Browns averaged 27 yards on kick returns and had an 8 yard punt return. Hardly devastating numbers, but below the line none the less. Ray-Ray McCloud put up decent return numbers, but they were nothing special. A big special teams play at any number of points could have shifted the momentum. The Steelers needed that and didn’t get it. Grade: C-

Jarvis Landry, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns wild card

Jarvis Landry puts the Browns up 14-0. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Coaching
Let’s address the 3 main issues with the coaching right off of the bat.

First, the decision to punt on 4th and 1 at the Steelers 46 looks weak in hindsight. But consider:

  • The Steelers offense had just logged 3 straight scoring drives
  • Pittsburgh had cut the margin to 12 points with a full quarter to play
  • The Steelers defense had forced 3 straight Browns punts

The bottom line is this: If your defense can’t get a stop under those conditions, you don’t deserve to win.

Mike Tomlin’s decisions to go for 2 point conversions cost the team 2 points – hardly a definitive difference. Word is that Mike Tomlin, and not Keith Butler, called the defensive plays. Perhaps there are play calls that one can quibble about, but the play calling genius of Dick LeBeau, Bud Carson and George Perles combined couldn’t have compensated for some of those execution errors.

As for Randy Fichtner, after his offense stopped turning over the ball they put up some impressive numbers. This is fact, albeit one that won’t even warrant a footnote in Steelers history.

It says here that Mike Tomlin didn’t cause the high snap, nor did he throw the interceptions, drop passes, take bad angles or miss tackles. But when disaster struck at the beginning, the Steelers offense stumbled for a full quarter. The defense stumbled for an entire half, then regained their footing, only to lose it when it was need the most.

The head coach might not be at “fault” for the errors that dug his team such a deep hole, but he and his staff certainly failed to provide solutions to get them out. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He caught 13 for 157 yards including a touchdown. He made tough catches and played until the bitter end. It was (likely) the finale of his Steelers career, and JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t leave a single play on the field and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Wild Card loss to the Browns.

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