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,

Photo credit: Steelers Wire

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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Sammie Coates to Miss Start of Training Camp after Knee Surgery

Steelers third-year receiver Sammie Coates will have to wait a bit longer to get the bitter taste of the 2016 season out of his mouth.

According to an unnamed source cited by ESPN, Coates will miss the start of training camp after having surgery to repair a knee injury he sustained while working out in the offseason.

Over  the first five weeks of 2016, Coates looked more than capable of filling the very large shoes of receiver Martavis Bryant, who was suspended for the entire season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

But after accumulating 421 receiving yards over the first five games–including several deep receptions–Coates suffered a fractured finger and hand laceration in a Week 5 victory over the Jets at Heinz Field.

Soon, a groin injury reared its ugly head.

The result:

Coates was a virtual non-factor the rest of the season and throughout the playoffs, as he ended the year with just 435 yards on 21 receptions.

As per Jeremy Fowler, a Steelers beat writer who covers the team for ESPN.com, Coates could start training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, but may be back as soon as the middle of August.

While it doesn’t sound like a major injury, it hasto be a frustrating setback for Coates, who, in addition to having to compete with Antonio Brown and the newly-reinstated Bryant for passes from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, will also have to contend with young slot receiver Eli Rogers and second-round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster for playing time. 

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All Eyes on Jesse James as Steelers Cut Ladarius Green

Sometimes, things just don’t work out. Such is the case with Ladarius Green and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers 2016 off season began with the retirement of Heath Miller. Faced with the task of replacing Heath Miller’s legendary dependability in the passing game, the Steelers acted swiftly by signing Ladarius Green on the first day of free agency.

Even after Martavis Bryant’s suspension, Ladarius Green promised to give the Steelers a viable weapon to compensate. Then Green sat out OTA’s due to his ankle. Then he began training camp on the PUP. Then conflicting report arose detailing Ladarius Green’s ongoing concussion symptoms.

Ladarius Green, Steelers cut Ladarius Green, Vontaze Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals

Vontaze Burfict tackles Ladarius Green in what would be his final game with the Steelers. Photo Credit: Kohl, USA Today via Steel City Insider

As fate would have it, Ladarius Green didn’t see the field until mid-season, but he made almost an immediate impact. Then he suffered another concussion against Cincinnati and his season was over. And now we know, so was his career with the Steelers.

Ladarius Green’s Career with the Steelers = “Good While It Lasted”

Ladarius Green’s Pittsburgh Steelers career consisted of 6 games, 2 starts, 18 catches for 304 yards and one touchdown. With Bryant out and Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey ailing, the Steelers offense struggled to find a receiver capable of taking heat off of Antonio Brown.

  • By the time the Steelers late season run was in full swing, it looked like Ladarius Green’s emergence might alter that equation.

18 catches for 304 yards might not sound like much, but in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts, their win over the Giants and their road victory over the Bengals, Ladarius Green proved to be a difference making, flipping the field at critical moments in all three games.

Just when it seemed like the Steelers might have found the vertical threat that neither Eli Rogers, nor Sammie Coates, nor Cobi Hamilton could provide, Ladarius Green suffered another concussion as he went over the middle to make another clutch catch on the road against the Bengals.

Fans speculated that the Steelers might part ways with their tight end. This site suggested that the Steelers day one signing of Davidy Johnson suggested the Steelers were questioning Green’s return.

  • Yet, Kevin Colbert affirmed that Ladarius Green was in the Steelers plans for 2017.

The Steelers deed of not to pick a tight end during the 2017 NFL Draft seemed to confirm their words. Clearly the calculus has changed.

Jesse James’ Baptism by Fire Begins in Earnest

With Ladarius Green gone, all eyes turn towards Jesse James who now becomes the incumbent starter at tight end.

Jesse James, Steelers Jesse James, Steelers vs. Bengals, Jesse James touchdown

Shawn Williams can’t stop Jesse James from catching a touchdown in the Steelers 2016 win over Cincinnati @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via PennLive

Jesse James was the Steelers 5th round draft pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and it says here that since picking him, Jesse James has done everything the Steelers have asked him  today. While 2016 certainly didn’t represent a breakout season for James, he did come up with clutch catches on any number of occasions, including the Steelers Christmas Comeback over the Ravens.

Nonetheless, when reviewing the Steelers depth chart at tight end most fans and analysts have tended to couch their critiques of the Steelers Depth Chart at tight end with comments like, “Jesse James had a good second season. But….”

  • Very soon, Steelers Nation will see if Jesse James can erase those “buts.”

Behind James, the Steelers have David Johnson who’ll work in as a number 2 tight end, and Xavier Grimble playing as the number 3. Undrafted rookie free agent Scott Orndoff is also expected to push for a roster spot.

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Does Steelers 2017 Draft Class Display Kevin Colbert’s Confidence or Cockiness?

NFL teams don’t draft in a vacuum. Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys in 1989 and Chuck Noll’s Steelers in 1969 serve as exceptions, but only expansion teams get a blank slate.

The choices those men make tell us a lot about how they see their respective teams. The Steelers 2017 Draft Class certainly qualifies.

Steelers 2017 Draft Class, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin

Kevin Colbert & Mike Tomlin during the 2017 NFL Draft

Let’s look at the context in which Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin assembled the Steelers 2017 Draft class.

After going 8-8 and out of the playoffs for two straight years, the Steelers made the playoffs in 2014, only to get booted by the Ravens at Heinz Field. A year later the Steelers discipline lifted them over the Bengals on the road, and then saw a short-handed team fall just shy of beating Denver on the road. In 2016 the Steelers won their first two playoff games, only to get shredded by New England in the AFC Championship.

Diagnosing what ailed the Steelers in New England is quite simple:

  • The Steelers couldn’t pressure Tom Brady
  • Tom Brady used the time Pittsburgh gave to him to decimate the Steelers secondary
  • Pittsburgh lacked a receiving target capable of taking heat off of Antonio Brown
  • When Le’Veon Bell went down, the Steelers struggled to run the ball effectively

With those bitter memories in mind, let’s review the Steelers 2017 Draft Class in the order they were picked:

1. TJ Watt, Outside Linebacker, Wisconsin
2. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Receiver, USC
3 a. Cam Sutton, Cornerback, Tennessee
3 b. James Conner, Running Back, Pitt
4. Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback, Tennesse
5. Brian Allen, Cornerback, Utah
6. Colin Holba, Long Snapper, Louisville
7. Keion Adams, Outside Linebacker, Western Michigan

In the 2017 NFL Draft the Steelers immediately applied their premium picks towards addressing each of those pain points the Patriots so gleefully exploited. The Steelers thinking is clear:

  • James Harrison isn’t going to outrace father time forever, so they draft in TJ Watt
  • Neither Martavis Bryant nor Sammie Coates have proven their reliability, so they draft JuJu Smith-Schuster
  • The Steelers need a 3rd corner and DBs capable of manning up, hence Cam Sutton
  • Pittsburgh’s chronic inability to keep two starter-capable running backs healthy easily explains the Jimmy Conners pick.

After that, things got fuzzy fast.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Gerry Dulac, never a journalist wont to hyperbole offered this on Twitter:

Dulac could have added 5th round pick Nathaniel Adibi whom Bill Cowher allegedly insisted on drafting over Marcus Turner. Of the fivesome, only two played in the NFL, and only Matt Kranchick played a down for the Steelers (1 catch for 6 yards, but it was a heck of a catch….)

In rapid fire, the Steelers drafted quarterback Joshua Dobbs, cornerback Brian Allen, long snapper (yes, you’d hopped the “LS” on you saw on ESPN’s draft crawl as a typo, didn’t you?)
Colin Holba and finally Keion Adams.

On the surface it appears, the Steelers devoted the top half of the draft addressing their most urgent needs, and then Colbert and Tomlin spent the rest on luxury picks. With the benefit of a few days of perspective, let’s see if that’s the case.

Does Steelers 2017 Draft Class Indicate Colbert’s Confidence, or Cockiness?

The Joshua Dobbs pick was the first one that Steel Curtain Rising took issue with.

Dobbs, by all accounts is a solid pickup in the 4th round, but at the time the Steelers still had more pressing needs at inside linebacker and perhaps tight end. However, their subsequent decision to release Zach Mettenberger explains a lot.

The Steelers had 20 weeks to workout Mettenberger work, and they clearly they saw enough. If they don’t think he’ll be ready to challenge Landry Jones for the right to backup Ben Roethlisberger in 2017, its best to invest salary cap dollars in someone who will do it in 2018.

  • Looking at the other picks, however, it is hard not to recall Art Rooney Jr.’s reflections on the late 1970’s.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were of course a drafting juggernaut during the first half of the 70’s, only to see the quality of their drafts drop off a cliff as the decade closed. It’s easy to chalk that decline up to lousy draft position, but the 49er’s of the 80’s and the Patriots of his century have shown winning championships and quality drafting can go hand-in-hand.

  • Tension between Rooney Jr. and Noll, and moving the draft into spring hurt the Steelers.

But the Steelers also hurt themselves. With their roster laden with Super Bowl veterans, they got away from taking the best player on the board, an instead tried to identify and then draft players who fell for one reason or another. Looking at the latter picks of the Steelers 2017 Draft Class, it’s tempting to wonder if Colbert and Tomlin aren’t succumbing to the same temptation.

Cornerback Brian Allen, Carnell Lake assured us, would have been drafted higher had he played defense for more than two seasons in college. Colin Holba was one of the few “draftable long snappers” in this draft, so the Steelers took him. And those who roll their eyes at the concept of a “draftable long snapper” Bill Belichick drafted a long snapper with a fifth round pick in 2014 and won a Super Bowl. Keion Adams is a guy who has “really developed over the last few years.”

  • Fair enough. But these Steelers lack the pedigree of their 70’s predecessors and their Patriots contemporaries.

No one can argue that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin didn’t address the Steelers most pressing needs with their first four picks of the 2017 NFL Draft. Colbert and Tomlin draft choices also represent a tacit endorsement of Vince Williams, Ladarius Green and Jesse James.

In a word, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin with the confidence that indicates that the Pittsburgh Steelers really are only a couple of three players away from winning the Super Bowl. So be it.

  • Regular readers know that Steel Curtain Rising doesn’t do post-day draft grades.

The Steelers 2017 Draft Class will be graded by the same criteria used to grade their 2016 draft class – whether this group of players helps Ben Roethlisberger bring home Lombardi Number Seven before he begins his “Life’s Work.”

If that happens, then Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert will get an “A” for this draft, regardless of whether any of their Day 3 picks ever play a down in the NFL.

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Bryant & Coates Beware: Steelers Draft JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2nd Round of 2017 NFL Draft

Day two of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Steelers draft JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round, and Pittsburgh’s pick of the USC wide receiver helps prove that reality does really unfold at its own pace in the draft.

The Pittsburgh Steelers needed a cornerback (or a safety) and figured to get one after several prime candidates were left on the board following their pick of TJ Watt in the 1st round. However, no less than one dozen defensive backs were taken, or just under half of the 2nd round selections to that point, before the Steelers turn to pick at the 30th slot.

Steelers draft Juju Smith-Schuster 2nd round, Juju Smith-Schuster

Steelers 2nd round draft pick Juju Smith-Schuster in action for USC. Photo Credit: AP, via PennLive.com

Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley explained the Pittsburgh’s pick of Smith-Schuster in the following terms:

He is a good-sized receiver. He was very productive out there at USC. He is a really do-it-all guy. He can play inside, outside. If you had to say what he excelled at, I’d say his ability to catch the ball in combative situations, 50/50 balls as we call them, and he usually comes down with them. He’s a really exciting guy and we are excited to get him here to work on.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell detailed, as soon as reporters started asking Todd Haley if the Steelers picking JuJu Smith-Schuster amounted to an insurance policy on Bryant and Coates, Haley refuted the question, and then the Steelers PR team promptly terminated the interview….

Looking at his highlight reel, there’s reason to conclude that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert did draft on his own merits:

Highlight reels can be deceiving, but JuJu Smith-Schuster stands at 6-1 1/2, weighs in at 215-pounder and brings the Steelers 4.54 speed after catching 70 passes for 914 yards and 10 touchdowns last season for the USC Trojans.

Following the pick, Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates exchanged pleasantries on Twitter as to whose roster spot the Steelers may have jeopardized by the exchange. Mike Tomlin’s response was clear:

It would seem that Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates were intent on showing the world just why the Steelers felt they needed to draft a wide receiver so high.

On paper at least, the move gives Ben Roethlisberger another tallish target to throw to, and someone who can potentially help take the heat off of Antonio Brown in ways that Eli Rogers or Cobi Hamilton can’t, and that Darrius Heyward-Bey hasn’t proved he do consistently.

Clearly the Steelers can carry Brown, Bryant, Coates, Smith-Schuster or their roster, with room for 1 or 2 more wide outs, but it is also safe to say that every Steelers wide receiver not named “Brown” should be looking over his shoulder.

Competition brings out the best in athletes, so with that we say “Welcome to Steelers Nation” to JuJu Smith-Schuster.

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Reinstated Martavis Bryant Can Transform Steelers Offense — If He Stays Clean…

The NFL gave the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 offense a potential octane boost by conditionally reinstating Martavis Bryant who’d sat out the 2016 season serving a suspension for repeated violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policies.

While the Steelers January 2016 AFC Divisional Playoff loss to Denver certainly disappointed, Martavis Bryant had been a clear bright spot for Pittsburgh, and Steelers fans were left salivating at the prospect of a Death Star-like offensive attack for 2016.

  • Unfortunately, rebel spies sabotaged those plans before they even got started through a torrent of injuries and suspensions.

Absent Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Markus Wheaton and Ladarius Green for much of the year, and with Sammie Coates’ development stunted by injuries and/or maturity issues, the Steelers offense in 2016 too often consisted of force-feeding the ball to Le’Veon Bell.

Martavis Bryant’s return can change all of that in a hurry. But this comes with a catch….

Martavis Bryant, Steelers vs Cardinals, Martavis Bryant Touchdown, NFL Reinstates Martavis Bryant

Martavis Bryant transforms a simple kill the clock possession pass into an 88 yard touchdown vs. the Cardinals. Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

Martavis Bryant’s Impact IF He Stays Clean

It says here that a healthy Martavis Bryant boosts the Steelers 2017 offense more than Ladarius Green and/or Sammie Coates can. Sammie Coates and Ladarius Green have flashed potential as field flippers – Martavis Bryant is a game flipper.

Just look at his final pass catch in the Cardinals game, and you’ll know what I mean.

  • But of course, for Martavis Bryant must stay clean if he’s to make game-changing plays for the Steelers.

And that of course has been an issue in the past. We now know why Martavis Bryant was drafted in the 4th round and why Mike Tomlin kept him on the bench for the first part of his rookie season. Yet he continued to violate the NFL’s substance abuse policies and sat out the first four weeks of 2015.

  • After that, Martavis Bryant said all of the right things both publicly and to his teammates, including apparently lying to Ben Roethlisberger about his continued use of marijuana.

Now comes the obligatory acknowledgement about how both social and, in some states at least, legal attitudes towards marijuana are quickly changing. Perhaps in a decade or so images of players taking hits from bongs won’t be seen any differently than pictures of John Stallworth or Dwight White smoking cigarettes were in the 70’s.

Let’s chuck in another obligatory acknowledgement that the NFL is guilty of some real hypocrisy regarding his marijuana polices and its free use of painkillers.

Fair enough. As political discussions are verboten here on Steel Curtain Rising, we’ll leave it to others to debate the pro’s and con’s of de-criminalizing, legalizing and/or normalizing pot usage.

But that discussion is also irrelevant for two reasons:

  1. Agree or disagree with the laws and league rules or not, both still remain in force.
  2. Martavis Bryant clearly has a substance abuse issue with marijuana

Some may quibble with the second point above, but as Rebecca Rollett of Going Deep with the Steelers observed:

If there is a substance your employer has forbidden you to use, whether it is marijuana, celery salt, or Dapper Dan’s pomade, and, knowing you can lose your job if you don’t stop, you use it anyhow, you are an addict.

The interesting thing is that Rebecca made that observation in October 2015, right after Bryant’s first suspension ended. In commenting about Le’Veon Bell’s claim to have given up pot Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell observed:

I believed him then because I’ve detected a change in him.
Yeah, I know, you’re thinking, “What do you know about that subject?” But I sense a crispness (as opposed to a crispiness) in Bell that I hadn’t before, and I remember thinking how dopey he was when I interviewed him at his NFL Combine out of college.
No, this guy is sharp. Martavis Bryant? I don’t know if that guy can ever become sharp, but I hadn’t detected any change in him, at least like I did in Bell.

Breaking the cycle of addition is difficult. If you don’t have experience with it yourself, you’ve certainly crossed paths with someone who struggled to quit smoking or quit drinking or even to give up coffee.

  • The NFL wouldn’t have reinstated Martavis Bryant had he not show progress in his struggle.

Let’s hope he continues to come out on the winning side for the sake of Martavis Bryant’s physical and mental well-being in and of itself. And by the way, if Martavis Bryant remains physical and mental health remains strong, big things can happen in Pittsburgh in 2017.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Wide Receiver – Moderate High

My quickly things change. A year ago, even when taking Maratvis Bryant’s latest suspension into account, the Pittsburgh Steelers depth chart looked to be flush at wide receiver.

As fate would have it, Ben Roethlisberger spent the majority of the season having his number 5 and number 6 wide receivers playing for his number 2 and number 3 receivers. While the Steelers have made some free agent moves to shore up their wide receiving corps those having done much to impact the priority status of wide receiver in the impending 2017 NFL Draft.

Steelers 2017 draft needs wide receiver, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant

Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant high five in 2015. Photo Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack, AP Photo via New Pittsburgh Courier

Steelers Depth Chart @ Wide Receiver Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

The subheading you see is no misprint, because as it stands the Steelers only have one proven starter at wide receiver and his name is Antonio Brown.

  • Next time someone tries to tell you a six round pick is a wasted pick, remind them of Antonio Brown.

The Steelers of course took Brown in the 6th round of the 2010 NFL Draft and haven’t looked back. Brown was proverbial one of two dogs fighting for the same bone as a rookie, but he came down with the biggest catch in the Divisional Playoff win over the Ravens and again a week later in the AFC Championship win over the Jets.

  • Since then Antonio Brown has established himself as nothing less than the best wide receiver in the NFL.

You can look up all sorts of numbers to justify this claim, but Antonio Brown’s game winner against Baltimore on Christmas Day reveals his greatness in ways numbers could never do justice to.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Wide Receiver Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

The problem is that the Steelers entered the 2016 playoffs without a viable number 2 wide receiver alongside Brown. Sammie Coates was supposed to occupy that role and looked he might, but then he got hurt. So did Markus Wheaton, who is now in Chicago. Darrius Heyward-Bey got promoted to starter at midseason, and then he got hurt.

All three men played well at critical stretches during the regular season, and they also had their moments in the post season, but ultimately they weren’t quite ready for the bright lights of the AFC Championship matchup against New England.

  • During the off season the Steelers signed Justin Hunter a journeyman wide receiver who has had a solid career, but has never lived up to his status as a 34 overall pick.

The Steelers also have the lingering question about Martavis Bryant. Bryant has served his suspension and applied for reinstatement, but the NFL has not yet cleared him to play for 2017.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Wide Receiver

If the Steelers knew that Martavis Bryant would be back AND would keep himself clean and if they Steelers were comfortable that Sammie Coates struggles were solely due to injury, then the priority status of wide receiver for 2017 would probably fall into the category of a luxury pick.Steelers 2016 Draft Needs wide receiver

  • But the Steelers can’t be sure of either of those two things.

And while Eli Rogers made impressive strides, he is still considered more of a slot receiver. The Darrius Heyward-Bey career revival story is a heartening one, but he has yet to produce consistently as a first-line wide receiver.

It is true that Steelers wide receivers, outside of Louis Lipps, Santonio Holmes and Troy Edwards, don’t typically produce much as rookies, but the Steelers need to think beyond the short term and therefore the Steelers 2017 draft need at wide receiver must be considered Moderate-High.

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