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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Eli Rogers Signs 1 Year Contract with Steelers, Shoring Up Wide Receiver Depth at Training Camp

The first day of Steelers 2018 training camp came with some good news, as wide receiver Eli Rogers signed a 1 year contract with the Steelers, putting to rest any doubts over whether or where the free agent would play in 2018.

Eli Rogers did enough to impress coaches during his rookie training camp in 2015 for the Steelers to keep him on injured reserve. In 2016 he seemingly came out of nowhere to claim the starting slot wide receiver role. In 2017, Eli Rogers’ playing time took a hit thanks to the return of Martavis Bryant and the arrival of JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Eli Rogers

Eli Rogers signs 1 year contract with Steelers. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

At times during 2017, Rogers struggled to recapture his rookie year consistency, but during the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars, Eli Rogers caught all five passes that Ben Roethlisberger threw his way, and could have been considered as one of the game’s unsung heros.

That left Eli Rogers free to sign with any team. Per press reports, Rogers had workouts with the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns. Whether Rogers was simply doing his due diligence or whether this was a move by his agent to spur the Steelers to sign him, having him back in Pittsburgh is a positive.

Eli Rogers Expands Steelers Offensive Options

The Steelers resigning of Eli Rogers might appear to be little more than a “Nice to have,” type of action for Randy Fichtner and the offensive staff. After all, Eli Rogers only had 18 catches last year, or 30 less than his rookie year, scored no touchdowns, and only caught 50% of the balls thrown his way.

  • But Eli Rogers provides invaluable depth at wide receiver for the Steelers.

Two summers ago, even when accounting for Martavis Bryant’s suspension, the Steelers wide receiver depth chart appeared to be flush.

Yet Marcus Wheaton got injured in preseason, Sammie Coates development sputtered, Darrius Heyward-Bey tantalized was named starter then got hurt. That left Eli Rogers, starting opposite Antonio Brown, while Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers were functionally the number 3 and 4 wide outs.

This year 2nd round pick James Washington is expected compete for the number 3 wide out role, but even if he earns that job, the Steelers have no proven depth behind him, save for Rogers.

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Will Steelers Target Free Agent Justin Hunter for Return to Pittsburgh?

While big-dollar, high profile free agent signings dominate NFL free agency, lower paid free agents typically make up most of the moment. The Steelers have been particularly active in singing these lower-rung free agents either at or very close to the veteran minimum in recent years.

Others, such as Guy Whimper? Not so much. Then there are players like Justin Hunter, the wide receiver the Steelers inked one year ago who, although he didn’t do much in his first season in Pittsburgh, could return to the Steelers if the tea leaves are correct.

Justin Hunter, Justin Hunter touchdown, kevin Johnson, Steelers vs Texans

Justin Hunter lone 2017 touchdown catch. Photo Credit: Bob Levey, Getty Images via www.wpxi.com

Capsule Profile of Justin Hunter Steelers Career

With Antonio Brown resigned and Martavis Bryant headed back from suspension, wide receiver wasn’t perceived as a need for the Steelers heading into free agency a year ago.

Although Hunter made the Steelers roster, he only saw action in Steelers road win over the Ravens, the home loss to the Jaguars, the Lions and Packers wins, the home win against the Ravens, the Christmas win against the Texans and the season finale against the Browns.

Trough it all, Hunter got targeted 10 times, for four four catches, including one touchdown. In two games, neither Ben Roethlisberger nor Landry Jones targeted Hunter. He scored a touchdown against Houston, and his longest pass reception of the season was for 7 yards.

The Case For the Steelers Resigning Justin Hunter

That’s a pretty thin resume. Word is that Ben Roethlisberger likes Hunter and his 6’4” height. But Hunter has done little, even though Eli Rogers took most of the season to establish himself as the Steelers 4th wide receiver behind JuJu Smith-Schuster (Todd Haley chose to split Le’Veon Bell wide early and often, heck even Roosevelt Nix found himself splitting wide….)

Still, if Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell is correct, Justin Hunter improved during the course of the year and was catching incredibly well in practice by season’s end.

No one is going to throw  money at Justin Hunter, so the Steelers could easily bring him back in what would essentially be a no-risk high, reward move.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Justin Hunter

No only did Justin Hunter only have 4 catches in all of 2017, he couldn’t get any targets in the Steelers season-finale against Cleveland. Assuming Vance McDonald and Jesse James maintain their level of performance in the Steelers passing game in 2018, the 4 wide receiver slot in the Steelers offense isn’t critically important – assuming no one gets injured.

With that said, the Steelers surly can find another veteran wide receiver and/or rookie who can match Justin Hunter’s production and who offers more “Upside.”

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Justin Hunter

Practice makes perfect. You win championships by doing things ordinary things extraordinarily. Football games are won on Sunday through preparations made Wednesday through Friday. Each one of those statements is true.

  • Yet excellence on the practice field doesn’t always translate into excellence on Sunday afternoons.

Going into the Steelers 2015 playoff game against the Broncos, the Steelers PR staff did its best to puff Sammie Coates progress. And while Sammie Coates did play well in the playoff game, the rest of his Steelers resume is defined by the plays he didn’t make.

After the 2013 and 2015 seasons, respectively, Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell talked up the prospects of Justin Brown and Xavier Grimble based on what these two gentleman had shown in their practice squad apprenticeships.

Brown made the team in and got playing time early in the year, but the Steelers cut Justin Brown in December. Xavier Grimble has solid, serviceable 3rd tight end for the Steelers.

At the end of the day, there’s no real risk in the Steelers resigning Justin Hunter to a veteran minimum contract, and if the press reports of his performance in practice are a guide, Pittsburgh will do just that.

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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Steelers & Eli Rogers Face Interesting Restricted Free Agent Decision

Undrafted rookie free agents are the NFL’s answer to Hollywood Redshirts. They’re brought into fill out training camp rosters with a promise of a chance to prove themselves. Earning a spot on the practice squad represents a major victory.

  • Even the scant few lucky enough to land on the 53 man roster end up playing on rookie minimum contracts and face a faint chance of getting a 2nd NFL contract.

Even though Eli Rogers is another Kevin Colbert undrafted rookie free agent success story, last year he earned 4% of what Antonio Brown cleared. Now that Eli Rogers is a restricted free agent, he gets his first shot at NFL riches, and today we look at whether should or will get them.

Eli Rogers, Ryan Shazier, Todd Haley

Steelers, Eli Rogers face interesting free agency decision. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

Capsule Profile of Eli Rogers’ Steelers Career

The Steelers signed Eli Rogers as part of their 2015 undrafted rookie free agent class. With a depth chart that featured Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates, Rogers chances of making the team appeared slim.

  • Yet by late August, USA Today Steelers Wire editor Neal Coolong was singing Roger’s praises, and even comparing his preseason performance vs Philadelphia to that of a young Antonio Brown.

Unfortunately, Rogers got injured and spent his rookie season in injured reserve.

A year later, however, Eli Rogers vindicated Coolong’s praise and won the Steelers slot receiver job at the opening of the season. By the end of the season, Rogers was the Steelers defacto number 2 wide out, and had grabbed 48 passes, to put him at third behind Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.

In 2017 Eli Rogers found his role in the offense diminished, but that was more due to the emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster and the return of Martavis Bryant. While Eli Rogers’ catch percentage dropped in 2017, his performance perked up at the end of the season, and during the playoff loss to the Jaguars he was a perfect 5-5.

The Case for the Steelers Tendering Eli Rogers

Assuming the Martavis Bryant trade rumors prove to be false, the Steelers top three wide receiver slots appear to be set going into 2018. But the number 4 slot remains wide open.

  • Darrius Heyward-Bey isn’t a reliable option, and Justin Hunter may look good in practice, but he’s done little on the field.

In two seasons, Eli Rogers has shown himself to be a reasonably reliable target for Ben Roethlisberger at receiver who can provide solid depth. Ensuring that Roger’s returns via with a restricted free agent offer would likely lock down the position for the Steelers, would certainly free them to focus on other needs in the 2018 NFL Draft.

The Case Against the Steelers Tendering Eli Rogers

A restricted free agent tender for Eli Rogers around 1.8 million dollars. That’s a pretty hefty sum for a 4th wide out and about a half million more than Darrius Heyward-Bey made in 2017. There’s also the question of injury.

  • Eli Rogers injured his ACL late in the playoff debacle against the Jaguars.

While he could certainly be ready for the season opener, there are no guarantees. There’s also the simple reality because of his injury, another team is unlikely to make a run at Eli Rogers should the Steelers leave him unprotected.

The Steelers salary cap space is meager, and they’re already going to enter the season carrying Ryan Shazier’s $8,718,000 5th year option, which amounts to dead money. The Steelers need to stretch their salary cap dollars, and tendering Eli Rogers might just be pushing things too far.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Eli Rogers

In the past, after three years, if the Steelers and even an inkling of future interest in a player they’d offer him a restricted free agent tender. Even Daniel McCullers got one last year. About the only exception was Stevenson Sylvester, who didn’t get a tender, but came back at the veteran minimum.

The X-Factor here is Eli Rogers’ injury, and that could swing the balance against the Steelers offering him a tender, but the smart money says one way or another, Eli Rogers will be a Pittsburgh Steeler in 2018.

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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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Season Review – Time to Take Mike Tomlin to Task

The tone to the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 season review stands in stark contrast to its last several predecessors. The Pittsburgh Steelers measure success in Lombardi Trophies and each of the last 3 seasons has ended with the franchise closer to the Super Bowl than the year before.

  • You could even argue that the 6-2 close after a 2-6 start in 2013 counted as progress.

No 2017 post-mortem assessment makes that argument and none should. While Steel Curtain Rising has been and remains a Mike Tomlin supporter, that doesn’t change the fact that the Steelers head coach has some explaining to do.

Let’s look back at how Tomlin and the 2017 Steelers got to this juncture.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2017 season review, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin yells during the Jaguars loss. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Going All in to Get Through an Open Window

The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers went on a roller coaster ride that saw them swoon deeply only to rebound all the way to the AFC Championship game. Yet once, there Tom Brady decimated the Steelers defense, while the offense struggled in kind.

In truth, Ben Roethlisberger was only acknowledging the proverbial elephant in the room. Everyone knew “Life’s Work” was approaching Roethlisberger, Ben simply uttered it aloud.

The Steelers brain trust took heed, drafting T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton and James Conners with their first four picks, addressing 3 of the 4 most glaring needs exposed in the AFC Championship.

  • The Steelers entered free agency interested in signing a corner and went into the draft looking to pick up a tight end.

Neither avenue bore fruit. But in a flurry of late-August activity, the Steelers signed Joe Haden when he became available, traded for Vance McDonald and J.J. Wilcox. Pittsburgh was far outside its comfort zone.

Perhaps it was simply because talent unexpectedly became available. Perhaps it’s because Art Rooney II is a little bit more of a risk taker than his father was. Or perhaps it was because the Steelers brain trust felt 2017 equaled “Now or Never” territory.

It doesn’t matter. The Pittsburgh Steelers went “All In” on their 2017 roster.

Steelers 2017 Defense Defies Expectations Only to Dip into Decline

The story on the Steelers 2017 season was supposed to read like this:

  • With the Four Killer Bees finally united, the Steelers offense would blow opposing teams out of the water while the defense kept the opposing team a score or so behind.

Or something like that.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, A.J. Bouye

Antonio Brown scores 4th down 4th quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Except it never happened. When the 2017 regular season kicked off and Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant finally took the field together, the Steelers offense sputtered rather than soared.

  • Yet the Steelers took a 6-2 record into their bye week.

And they did so because of their defense. Keith Butler’s defense only gave up an average of 14 points during the first 11 weeks of the season – a figure which includes the 5 interception disaster against the Jaguars.

  • Both inside and outside of Pittsburgh, commentators were collocating “shutdown” with “Steelers 2017 defense”

The during the first half of the win over Kansas City and the second half of the win over Cincinnati the Steelers defense was “Scary Good.” The Lions piled up gobs of yards in a fantasy owner’s delight, but inside the Steelers Red Zone, Detroit took 17 shots and came up with zero points.

And then of course Ryan Shazier got injured, transforming the middle of the Steelers defense to a sieve. On paper Sean Spence, Tyler Matakevich, L.J. Fort and Arthur Moats provided respectable depth at inside linebacker, paper promises which never materialized on the field.

Fortunately, by that point in the regular season, the Steelers offense had found its rhythm.

Roethlisberger Stumbles then Roars to Life

Ben Roethlisberger did not play well at the beginning of 2017. Sure, Martavis Bryant also looked lost, but it says here that Antonio Brown made Ben Roethlisberger look like a lot better quarterback than he really early in the season. Le’Veon Bell also took several weeks to find his stride, and Vance McDonald also took time to acclimate to the new offense.

  • The offense finally turned things around in the 2nd half against the Colts.

The Steelers offense didn’t suddenly transform itself into the NFL equivalent of Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons, but Pittsburgh’s points scored average jumped by 9.2 points season’s final eight games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster emerged as a superstar, and even with him and Bryant missing games, the Steelers offense keept humming. With the Shazierless defense faltering, it seemed like that might be enough for the playoffs. It wasn’t.

Taking Mike Tomlin to Task

We’ll never know how a healthy Haden and Shazier would altered the Steelers 2017 playoff fortunes. And that’s a shame, because this unit flashed greatness at midseason.

  • But no one will remember that thanks to the playoff debacle against the Jaguars.

In 2016 the Steelers were eliminated in AFC Championship, in 2017 year they were eliminated in the AFC Divisional round. That’s a clear regression, but consider the context makes Pittsburgh’s backwards step all the more poignant:

  • Last year the Steelers didn’t have a first round bye
  • Cam Heyward was on IR and Tyson Alualu wasn’t on the roster
  • Ross Cockrell and William Gay were number 2 and number 3 corners
  • Vance McDonald was in San Francisco and Jesse James was the Steelers starter at tight end
  • Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers and Sammie Coates were the Steelers #2, #3 and #4 receivers
  • Instead of T.J. Watt, James Harrison was dropping into coverage
  • Le’Veon Bell got hurt a half dozen plays into the game
  • The 2016 Steelers got eliminated in one of the toughest places to play, in 2017 they played at Heinz Field

Even without Ryan Shazier the Steelers defense, position-by-position is more talented than the 2016 edition. Yet you’d never know it by watching them against the Jaguars.

After the game fans began calling for the heads of Keith Butler, Carnell Lake and Joey Porter. When no defensive staff changes occurred, word leaked that Mike Tomlin had taken control of the defense. If that’s true, then let’s credit Tomlin for not forcing his lieutenants to take the fall.

  • But extolling Tomlin’s character does nothing to erase the inept, confused and bewildered that defined the defense throughout the Jaguars game.
Ryan Shazier, Ryan Shazier injury, Steelers 2017 season review

Losing Ryan Shazier dealt a dramatic blow to the 2017 Steelers defense. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA TODAY via BTSC

We don’t know the circumstances or context of Mike Tomlin’s role in running the defense. Perhaps it has been this way since Dick LeBeau departed. Or perhaps stepped in as a leader, and took a more active role when Shazier went down. The latter makes sense, because the Steelers defense clearly looked like a group of players who had to many voices whispering in their ear holes.

  • If that’s the case, then this is an issue Butler and Tomlin can solve during the off season.

But regardless, this doesn’t touch another root issue that doomed the Steelers defense down the stretch – the lack of apparent development by Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave following strong closes to their rookie years.

If there’s a lesson out of Michael MacCambridge’s biography on Chuck Noll, His Life’s Work, that applies to 2018, its that very little of what truly drives the Steelers makes it into public light.

  • So its possible that the tone and tenor of season-ending conversations evolved far differently than we imagine.

But based on what we know publicly Mike Tomlin owes Art Rooney II some serious answers to some tough questions. Presumptively, Tomlin’s responses satisfy Art Rooney II. Let’s hope his players can back his words up on the field.

 

 

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Time for Steelers, Mike Tomlin to Flip “Standard is the Standard” Script on Patriots

The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots face off today at Heinz Field with home field advantage in the playoffs at stake, and success or failure in this contest will likely hinge on how well the Steelers can live up to Mike Tomlin’s “Standard.”

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

“The Standard is the Standard; Injuries will not be an excuse,” is a credo Mike Tomlin has preached since arriving in Pittsburgh. His philosophy is simple, if you’re good enough to make an NFL roster, you’re in the top half of 1% of the world’s football players, so winning performance is possible.

  • That sounds hokey, but a big part of the Steelers success is driven by Tomlin’s players buying into “The Standard.”

The Steelers 2016 season offers a perfect example as Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, Ricardo Mathews (who isn’t even in football this year) and L.T. Walton helped author a 180 degree defensive turn round after Cam Heyward’s injury.

  • Yet, the Mike Tomlin’s Steelers have fallen woefully short of “The Standard” against the New England Patriots.

Let’s be clear, the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s New England Patriots have dominated Tomlin’s Steelers because they’ve been the better football team. As much as Steelers fans detest it, that’s the harsh “no ifs ands or butts” reality. But its hard to look at recent Steelers-Patriot history and not see that injuries have dominated the back stories:

Even before losing Le’Veon in the playoffs, the Steelers were already entering the game with Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates as their number 2, 3 and 4 wide receivers behind Antonio Brown.

Of course Martavis Bryant is back and the rest of the Steelers wide receiving corps is healthy going into the Patriots game (assuming JuJu Smith-Schuster plays) Le’Veon Bell (knock on wood) remains healthy. But it’s the Steelers defense that is ailing.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell went as far as to compare the trio charged with replacing Ryan Shazier, L.J. Fort, Tyler Matakevich and Sean Spence, to last year’s Hamliton, Rogers Coates troika. And at this point, Joe Haden’s status is unknown, meaning that rookie Cameron Sutton might make his first NFL start against Tom Brady.

  • So be it. Part of success or failure in NFL football lies in the ability to either overcome weaknesses or exploiting opportunities created injuries.

The New England Patriots, in fact, began the rivalry by doing just that when Drew Bledsoe stepped in for an injured Tom Brady in the 2001 AFC Championship game and decimated the Steelers secondary completing his first 4 passes including a touchdown that put the Patriots ahead 14 to 3.

The Steelers-Patriots 2017 regular season match up at Heinz Field gives Mike Tomlin and company a chance to flip that script.

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Does Ben Roethlisberger Target Antonio Brown Too Often? The Numbers Paint an Interesting Picture

Does Ben Roethlisberger target Antonio Brown too often?

Early in the Steelers 2017 season, the answer appeared to be an unequivocal “Yes.” Ben to Brown seemed to be the only thing working, and that seemed to be holding the offense back. In the Steelers win over the Vikings, Tony Defeo noted that Roethlisberger appeared to be ignoring receivers in an attempt to force the ball to Brown.

Martavis Bryant’s outbursts, even if uncalled for, also appeared to at least indirectly lend credence to the “Ben’s too intent on forcing it to Brown story line” even if rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster was the target of his Instagram tirade.

While the Steelers offense has improve during the second quarter of the season, Ben to Brown remains its most potent combination, but do the numbers suggest that Ben is trying too hard to get the ball to Brown? Let’s take a look.

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats, Antonio Brown targets

Does Ben Roethlisberger try too hard to force the ball to Antonio Brown? Find out below. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

Ben Roethlisberger’s Pass Distribution History

Eight games gives you a good base of data to see what types of trends are developing during a football season. Sometimes a trend can rapidly reverse itself (think the Steelers anemic sack production during the first half of 2016 vs. the second half of 2016), but 8 games give you an idea of where things are heading.

Here’s how Ben Roethlisberger’s pass distribution has gone during the first 8 games of 2017:

Ben Roethlisberger targets 2017, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats 2017, Antonio Brown targets 2017, Le'Veon Bell targets 2017, JuJu Smith-Schuster targets 2017, Jesse James targets 2017, Martavis Bryant targets 2017

Ben Roethlisberger’s top 5 targets 8 games into 2017

Well, now the data really seems to make the case doesn’t it? Not only is Anotnio Brown Ben Roethlisberger’s top pass target, but he’s more than doubling the targets of the next guy below him, Le’Veon Bell. What’s more at 26% the combined total targets of his next two wide receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant, still fall 8 percentage points of Antonio Brown’s 34.1%.

  • That data also suggest that there’s a justification of Ben’s forcing the ball to Brown (if in fact he’s forcing it)

Antonio Brown’s catches account for just shy of 40% of the Steelers receiving yards. The only player who remotely seems to have an argument that he should be the ball more is JuJu Smith-Schuster.

But before closing this case, perhaps its wise to take a look at how pass distribution broke down in 2016. Given the rash of injuries the Steelers experienced at wide receiver, and given the relative inexperience of the rest of the depth chart, its quite probable that Ben Roethlisberger targeted Antonio Brown even more, right?

Let’s see what the data tells us:

Ben Roethlisberger targets 2016, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats 2016, Antonio Brown targets 2016, Le'Veon Bell Targets 2016, Jesse James Targets 2016, Eli Rogers Targets 2016, Sammie Coates Targets 2016

Ben Roethlisberger’s top 5 targets in 2016

The data in fact tells us something else. Ben Roethlisberger targeted Antonio Brown far less in 2016 and Brown accounted for a much smaller slice of the Steelers receiving yards. This suggest that Brown was double and triple teamed a lot.

  • But Brown’s catch percentage also suggests that Roethlisberger’s passes to him were more accurate.

The Steelers 2016 season was abnormal in terms of injuries to the wide receiver corps. Let’s see what data from 2015 tells us which was more of a typical year.

Ben Roethlisberger targets 2015, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats 2016, Antonio Brown targets 2015, Markus Wheaton Targets 2015, Martavis Bryant Targets 2015, DeAngelo Williams Targets 2015, Heath Miller targets 2015

Ben Roethlisberger’s top 5 targets in 2015

In 2015 we can see that Ben Roethlisberger targeted Antonio Brown 32.7% of the time, or just over 1% less than he’s targeting Antonio Brown in 2017 thus far. We can also see that Brown is still making the most of is catches, as he accounted for 38% of the Steelers receiving yards, or about 1.5% less than he’s accounted for in 2017 thus far.

That data from 2015 also helps us appreciate that an aging Heath Miller was still more productive than Jesse James in either his 2nd or 3rd year, although James is proving to be a fairly reliable target.

We can also see how much more dynamic Le’Veon Bell is as a pass catcher than DeAngelo Williams, although Williams did well when thrown the ball.

To complete the picture, let’s go back to 2014 to view Ben Roethlisberger’s ball distribution in the 1st year that the Steelers 4 Killer Bees played together:

Ben Roethlisberger targets 2014, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats 2014, Antonio Brown Targets 2014, Markus Wheaton targets 2014, Martavis Bryant Targets 2014, Le'Veon Bell Targets 2014, Heath Miller targets 2014

Ben Roethlisbergers top 5 targets in 2014

2014 marks the first year (in this survey) that Brown’s target percentage from dipped below 30% (we should note that Landry Jones and Mike Vick threw a portion of those passes in ’15 and ’16.) It looks like it was Le’Veon Bell and Heath Miller who took those targets away from Bryant, although Markus Wheaton’s 14.1% is a healthier targeting percentage than any of the Steelers other receivers.

Conclusion: Ben Roethlisberger Isn’t Targeting Antonio Brown Too Often

There are a lot of different takeaways from this data. Le’Veon Bell seems to be almost as reliable of a pass catcher as he was two years ago, although his yards after catch appear to be down. That could be due to the absence of Heath Miller’s and Matt Spaeth’s blocking, however.

Martavis Bryant, for all of his big play capability, he’s never been much more than a 50/50 catch to catch what’s thrown his way. Sammie Coates was clearly a dud down the stretch in 2016.

  • But the data also shows that Ben Roethlisberger isn’t trying too hard to force the ball to Antonio Brown.

Indeed, if we really are seeing Father Time begin to exact his toll on Ben Roethlisberger’s abilities, then we can know for certain than Ben Roethlisberger is very lucky to have Antonio Brown on his team.

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Mike Tomlin Benches Martavis Bryant – It Says Here Tomlin Made Right Move

As you undoubtedly know by now, Mike Tomlin has benched Martavis Bryant for the Steelers upcoming road game against the Detroit Lions. The move came two weeks after someone tied to Bryant leaked that he’d made a request to be traded, and after a social media outbust where Bryant had seemingly contradicted his claim of happiness in Pittsburgh while taking a shot at rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Mike Tomlin, Martavis Bryant, Mike Tomlin benches Martavis Bryant

Mike Tomlin benched Martavis Bryant following his latest social media outburst. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

When asked whether Martavis Bryant’s latest tantrum would alter the Steelers stance toward trading him, Mike Tomlin minced few words:

I have no desire to sit up here with a catcher’s mitt and field questions about Martavis and his social-media habits, to be quite honest with you. We invested a lot in Martavis since we drafted him. He is not available via trade. We have invested a lot. We have covered a lot of ground. It’s obvious that we still have more ground to cover with him because we are having a conversation about him that’s not football-related. He’s done a lot in the period of time that he’s been here in terms of improving, not only as a player but a man. We still have a ways to go. He was out of bounds with some of his actions in terms of what he said on social media. It will be dealt with appropriately so…
…I’ll visit with him at some point. When I do, I’ll rain down my judgment and we’ll move forward.

Mike Tomlin’s judgment contains no grey area – Martavis Bryant got demoted to the scout team in favor of Justin Hunter and will not dress for the Lions game.

It says here that Mike Tomlin made the right move.

Martavis Bryant Must Grow Up

Martavis Bryant’s struggles and apparent success with substance abuse are well known. It’s been commonly observed that “Martavis Bryant has both said and done all the right things” since his return. Hardened Steelers beat reporters have opined that they’ve sensed a sincerity in Bryant this time around that they didn’t sense in 2015.

  • Here’s to hoping that Bryant has definitively mastered the proverbial monkey on his back for good.

But doesn’t mean that Martavis Bryant doesn’t have more growing up to do. During his suspension Bryant tussled occasionally on social media. Then came his exchange during the 2017 NFL Draft when he jibed Sammie Coates that the Steelers had drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster to replace Coates and not Bryant.

  • Those incidents didn’t and shouldn’t have caused panic.

But they did indicate that Martavis Bryant was prone to social media tantrums, and that’s a tendency that can get you into trouble here in 2017.

Having an agent leak that a play has wants a trade while the player publically proclaims his happiness is nothing new in the NFL, let alone in Pittsburgh. A week ago Bryant seemed to be following just that script.

  • But going off on a teammate, and a rookie no less, who is arguably out performing you is something else.

After a rocky start, the Steelers are standing at 5-2 with a chance to make it 6-2 going into the bye. Most importantly, they’re tied for 1st in the AFC. That should be the story of the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers going into week 8, not Martavis Bryant.

Martavis Bryant Must Shut Up and Put Up

The mind boggling element to the on-going Martavis Bryant saga is that Martavis Bryant is his own worst enemy on and off the field. Ron Cook has observed that there are two Martavis Bryants, on one the South Side and one away from the South Side.

  • Remember folks that Heinz Field is situation on Pittsburgh’s North Side.

A year ago, after doing and admirable job in the regular season, the AFC Championship made it painfully obvious that, both individually and collectively Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers, weren’t Super Bowl caliber number 2 wide receivers alongside Antonio Brown.

Ben Roethlisberger has had a chance to throw to Bryant seven games into 2017 and, outside of the win over the Vikings, Bryant’s most notable plays have been the one’s he’s failed to make. Against Chicago he slowed down on a route but still got his hands on what likely would have been a touchdown. Against the Bengals he lost the ball and missed what would have been another touchdown.

  • The Steelers have tried hitting Bryant on short routes, but he hasn’t come close to breaking one.

At this point the Steelers offense best offensive play call remains a hand off to Le’Veon Bell. Martavis Bryant might not be happy with his role in the Steelers offense, but he has no one to blame for himself for it.

Does Bryant think that, based on his play, any NFL General Manager is going to offer the Steelers anything other than a conditional 7th round 2021 compensatory pick in exchange for Bryant’s services?

The Steelers knew of Martavis Bryant’s substance abuse issues, but gave him a chance anyway. They’ve stood by him not once, but twice after failed drug tests, because they saw and still believe in his potential.

  • Martavis Bryant’s antics suggest that he doesn’t quite appreciate what that means.

Mike Tomlin benching Martavis Bryant for a game will give him a chance to give it the consideration it deserves. Hopefully when he returns Martavis Bryant let his play between the lines on Sundays do the talking for him.

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Steelers Activate Sammie Coates from PUP – Now, Can Coates Fit in Pittsburgh?

The Steelers activated Sammie Coates from the PUP this week, allowing him to practice with the team during training camp for the first time this summer. Suffice it’s been a long strange trip for Sammie Coates.

It was just two years ago that the Steelers turned heads during the 2015 NFL Draft when the drafted Sammie Coates in the 3rd round. Using such a high value pick on a wide receiver struck the fan base as odd, given that they had Darrius Heyward-Bey, Martavis Bryant had shown as a rookie Markus Wheaton had bounced back from injury marred rookies season and Antonio Brown was, well, Antonio Brown.

Sammie Coates, Darqueze Dennard, Steelers vs Bengals

Darqueze Dennard’s no match for Sammie Coates in the Steelers 2016 win over Cincinnati. Photo Credit: AP, via Al.com

Nonetheless, during the first half of the season, Sammie Coates was best known for a failed fourth down hookup with Mike Vick during the Steelers 2015 loss to the Ravens. You didn’t see much after that to the point that when reporters touted Sammie Coates potential heading into the Steelers AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Broncos, this site begged to differ, arguing that DHB was the man to watch.

  • Fortunately, I was wrong, Sammie Coates lived up to the hype come up with two strong catches in the playoff loss.

When news of Martavis Bryant’s next suspension broke, all eyes turned to Sammie Coates. While no one went so far as to say that Coates could make fans forget about Martavis Bryant, many did expect him to emerge as Ben Roethlisberger’s number 2 target.

  • Just past the quarterpost of the 2016 season, it looked like Coates was about to become that man.

In what looked to be his breakout game against the Jets, Coates caught 6 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns. He also injured his hand in that game, and then things got strange. First there were conflicting reports over how many stitches Coates needed. Then there was talk of broken fingers. Nonetheless, Mike Tomlin continued to play him on specials teams. Beat writers started to suggest that injuries weren’t the only issues dogging Coates.

  • Regardless of the reason, Sammie Coates only caught two more passes for 14 yards during the rest of the season.

With and Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers and an injured Darrius Heyward-Bey the only downfield options opposite Antonio Brown, Todd Haley and Mike Tomlin were forced to lean heavily on Le’Veon Bell. That strategy served the Steelers well until the AFC Championship game, which not ironically saw the Steelers first possession end on a bomb that Sammie Coates dropped that, had he caught it, could have dramatically altered the dynamic of the game.

Sammie Coates knee surgery couldn’t have come at a worse time. Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and JuJu Smith-Schuster are roster locks, and one would have to figure that either Justin Hunter and/or Eli Rogers is guaranteed to make the team.

  • That leaves Coates vying for one roster spot with Hunter/Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Hamilton, and Ayers.

It says here that Sammie Coates is far more talented than any of those players. But it’s also true that all of them were far more productive down the stretch last season than Coates, injuries or no. His performance in the Steelers final three preseason games will show whether Sammie Coates really fits in Pittsburgh.

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Steelers Start 2017 Preseason on a Positive Note with 20-12 Win over Giants

The Steelers opened their 2017 preseason schedule with a trip to MetLife Stadium Friday night to take on the Giants.

As is usually the case in these initial preseason affairs, mistakes were plentiful, but then so were the positive plays, as Pittsburgh outlasted New York, 20-12, to open with a 1-0 record in exhibition play.

Quarterback Joshua Dobbs, the team’s fourth round pick out of Tennessee in the 2017 NFL Draft, got the start in-place of backup Landry Jones, who usually takes center stage in these situations, but was sidelined with an oblique injury.

Dobbs certainly looked like a rookie in the first quarter, when he threw two interceptions that led directly to a couple of Giants field goals and a 6-0 deficit.

However, following cornerback Mike Hilton’s recovery of a Donte Deayon muffed punt late in the second quarter, Dobbs connected with receiver Cobi Hamilton on a 28-yard touchdown pass with just seven seconds remaining in the first half to give Pittsburgh a 10-9 lead at the break.

In the second half, following the Giants’ fourth field goal of the game, the Steelers scored 10 unanswered points–including a 15-yard scamper by reserve running back Terrell Watson–to open the preseason with a very satisfying eight-point victory.

That’s the box score; what about some individual efforts?

How about the debut of rookie first round pick T.J. Watt, who recorded sacks on back-to-back plays in the first quarter and also had a quarterback pressure later in the first half?

Then there’s veteran outside linebacker Arthur Moats, who bested the rookie with six tackles, three sacks and an interception early in the second half that led to a Chris Boswell field goal.

As for Dobbs, he completed eight of 15 passes for 100 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He also had a second touchdown to Xavier Grimble called back due to a penalty.

Hamilton also played a pivotal role in the game, catching two passes for 72 yards and touchdown, as he stepped up and threw his hat in the ring for one of the final receiver spots, what with Sammie Coates still nursing an injury and rookie second round pick,

JuJu Smith-Schuster, leaving the game early with what appeared to be a concussion.

Next up for the Steelers is a 4 p.m. tilt with the NFC Champion Falcons at Heinz Field on Sunday, August 20.

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