Safety First? The Minkah Fitzpatrick Trade Literally Saved the Steelers Season

On the night of Monday, September 16, right after it was announced that the Steelers had traded their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, I texted this news to my uncle.

He replied, “Haha, he sucks!” When I retorted with how he was the only fan who was reacting that way — the Internet was going crazy about it in the most positive way possible — my uncle texted back, “Ryan Fitzpatrick is washed up.”

  • You see, what I forgot to mention was that I failed to type “Minkah” when texting my uncle about the big news. Therefore, you can certainly understand his confusion.

After all, coming just hours after it was announced that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was going on the Injured Reserve list and would miss the rest of the 2019 season after suffering an elbow injury that would require surgery, one might assume any major trade Pittsburgh made would involve acquiring a veteran quarterback.

No, maybe not someone like Ryan Fitzpatrick, but certainly a passer of some pedigree, a player who could possibly step in and salvage a season that had started out 0-2 and, with the loss of the franchise quarterback, seemed destined to go downhill very fast.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Kameron Kelly, Mark Barron, Steelers vs Rams

Minkah Fitzpatrick celebrates after returning a fumble for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

But the truth was, despite his lack of experience as a professional, the Steelers were quite confident Mason Rudolph, the second-year quarterback from Oklahoma State, could step in and lead the offense (whether or not this confidence was justifiable is still up for debate).

What they weren’t confident in, however, was the back-end of their defense, especially after free safety Sean Davis suffered a shoulder injury that, like Ben Roethlisberger, would require a lengthy stay on the IR.

Therefore, when Fitzpatrick, who was selected by the Dolphins with the 11th -overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, voiced his displeasure with Miami’s desire to tank the 2019 season in-order to obtain the highest 2020 draft pick possible and demanded a trade, the Steelers pounced.

That’s right, in an era when doing very un-Steeler-like things has become the new Steeler Way — and just months after trading several draft picks to the Broncos in order to move up to the 10th spot to select inside linebacker Devin Bush in the 2019 NFL Draft — Pittsburgh offered the Dolphins a deal they simply couldn’t refuse.

It was a risk, and, quite frankly, it didn’t make much sense at the time, not when it appeared the 2019 season was headed for disaster, and it looked like Pittsburgh’s 2020 first-round pick would likely be a premium one.

Why go all-in in a season that didn’t figure to finish anywhere near Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida, the site of Super Bowl LIV?

  • Because the Steelers saw a golden opportunity to add the final piece to a defense that they had been trying to rebuild for close to a decade.

While the winning didn’t start soon after Minkah Fitzpatrick’s arrival, you could definitely see a difference in the defense right away. In-fact, the Steelers recorded five takeaways in a disappointing Week 3 loss to the 49ers –Fitzpatrick’s first game as a member of the Black and Gold.

Speaking of which, after averaging about one takeaway a game before acquiring Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers’ defense has averaged over three times that many since the trade.

  • The defense has gone from averaging 445 yards given up per game without Fitzpatrick, to averaging roughly 300 given up with him in the lineup.

In seven games with the Steelers, Minkah Fitzpatrick has five interceptions, eight passes defensed, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and two defensive touchdowns. If he isn’t yet in the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year, he likely soon will be.

Cam Heyward, Todd Gurley, Cameron Heyward, Steelers vs Rams

Cam Heyward stones Todd Gurley in the 3rd quarter of the Steelers win over the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

As for Pittsburgh’s defense, it’s quickly becoming one of the most fierce and opportunistic in the NFL. After years of being considered a weakness and a second banana to the high-powered offense, the Steelers defense has now become the strength of the team and has made it a habit of compensating for the weaknesses of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s depleted unit.

What once looked like a helpless and hopeless season at 0-3 and 1-4 has turned into one where the playoffs are again the goal.

  • The Steelers are now 5-4 after having won four-straight games, and they’ve done so on the strength of their defense.

Would the Steelers have even considered trading for Fitzpatrick if not for the injuries suffered by Ben Roethlisberger and Sean Davis? Furthermore, would the Dolphins have even considered doing business with the Steelers without the very real possibility that Pittsburgh’s 2020 first-round pick would be a high one?

  • That’s impossible to say, but the only thing that’s certain is that the deal for Minkah Fitzpatrick saved the Steelers defense.

A trade for a safety saved a team’s season. Hard to believe.

 

 

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

With Stephon Tuitt on IR, What, If Anything, Does L.T. Walton Bring to the Table?

The Steelers took a lot of positives and one glaring negative away from their victory over the Chargers. On the positive side:

  • Devin Bush showed that he’s the real deal
  • The offensive line did some serious road grading
  • Benny Snell’s first extensive action made him look like a viable 3rd running back
  • And the defense went toe-to-toe with a Hall of Fame quarterback after weathering multiple injuries

About those injuries. The Steelers suffered several, but losing for the season Stephon Tuitt to a torn pectoral muscle is devastating.

  • You can’t sugar coat this. Stephon Tuitt was budding into his prime, and the injury has stopped him cold.

Stephon Tuitt was in route to an All Pro Season, with 3.5 sacks, 7 QB hits and 6 tackles for losses. That’s an impressive six game stretch. In all of 2018, Tuitt had 5.5 sacks and 7 tackles for losses. But numbers as they often do, fail to capture the full picture. As “jujumojo” on Steel City Insider’s message board observed:

I honestly don’t think I have watched an individual Steeler defensive player dominate to the degree Tuitt has so far this season since probably James Harrison in his 2008-10 prime. Tuitt had simply been manhandling NFL linemen week in, week out.

Losing Stephon Tuitt represents a huge blow to the Steelers defense. But does it doom them for the rest of 2019?

With Tuitt Out, What, If Anything, Does L.T. Walton Bring to the Table?

Reading the head line, “Steelers put Stephon Tuitt on IR, Resign L.T. Walton to take his roster spot” inspires little confidence. Had the Bengals not claimed Fred Johnson off of waivers, one wonders if the Steeler would have even called Walton.

L.T. Walton, Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin embraces L.T. Walton in the Steelers October 2017 win at Baltimore. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

But, this isn’t the first time the Steelers have lost a dominating defensive lineman to a pectoral injury in mid-season. And it happened 3 years ago, and the outlook was bleaker then.

The Dallas Cowboys had just come to Pittsburgh and beaten the Steelers as Ezekiel Elliott scored not one, but two touchdowns in the space of about 1:20. Days later news broke that Cam Heyward was out for the year with a torn peck.

Cam Heyward was defense’s undisputed best player (Ryan Shazier was only just beginning to shed the “bust” label that a minority, as ignorant as it was vocal, of fans had been pinning on him.)

  • All hope seemed lost.

This site titled its article “As Cameron Heyward’s Season Ends – Steelers Nation Collectively Cries: “Game Over!” complete with video of Bill Paxton’s “Game Over! Game Over” clip from Aliens.

Yet, the exact opposite happened. Despite losing its best player, the Steelers defense not only halted their decline, it improved, tremendously. It says here that main factors fueling the turn around were:

But L.T. Walton also helped make that happen. During that final seven game stretch, L.T. Walton played in just under half of the defensive snaps.

The notion of “Stephon Tuitt injured, L.T. Walton to the rescue!” is plain silly. Tyson Alualu is the next man up. Javon Hargrave will undoubtedly see more time. Rookie Isaiah Buggs could conceivably get a helmet over L.T. Walton.

  • After all the Steelers opted not to resign Walton, who was on the Bills’ roster for a bit this summer, but was out of football.

But if L.T. Walton’s return can’t be counted on as a strength, he certainly wasn’t a liability, at least at defensive end (nose tackle is a different story, see the playoff loss to the Jaguars) when he was pressed into action in 2016 and again in 2017.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

What the Hell Happened? Blogger Reflects on Steelers News After 2 Weeks Away…

A lot can change in 2 and a half weeks in Steelers Nation. The Steelers ugly season opening loss to the Patriots came ahead of a business trip that would keep me off line and unable to write for 2 weeks. As on cue, all hell broke lose (more on that at the end.)

But, as I pointed out after James Harrison got cut during my first Christmas in the US in 17 years, sometimes not being able to blog is a blessing.

Here go my reactions in sequence.

Steelers vs Patriots,

Pouncey “forgets”to snap. Photo Credit: News.com.au

Steelers Lose to Patriots

I drank the Kool Aid. On paper, the Steelers 2019 squad was better than the 2018 squad that defeated the Patriots last December. And those Patriots had the look of a ’79 Steelers type squad to me – a dynasty enjoying its last roar before falling and fading. Plus the Steelers looked really good in preseason.

I don’t know that I expected a win, but I did expect the Steelers to fight tooth and nail and for the game to go down to the wire.

  • Instead, the Steelers looked like they hadn’t so much as done a walk through in training camp.

They really came out flat in all three phases.

But it was only week one, we were told….

Steelers Trade Dobbs

I’m a sucker for underdogs like Joshua Dobbs. I was rooting for him since the day the Steelers drafted him. Yet, based on everything I read and what little I saw, he seemed to hit a plateau during the 2019 preseason campaign, and there was no question that Mason Rudolph should back up Ben Roethlisberger.

So the Steelers trading him for a 5th round pick seemed to be a smart move, even if it did depart from the Franchise’s core philosophy of always keeping 3 quarterbacks.

Besides, an extra 5th round pick would bolster their depleted capital going into the 2020 NFL Draft….

Ben Roethlisberger Injures His Elbow

So there I was, handing out tickets to the San Francisco Giants game, blissfully unaware of anything happening as the Steelers were playing the Seahawks, on the other side of the country.

At about the 6th inning I made it up to the luxury box my company had rented. I sit down, crack open a drink, scan the TV showing NFL scores, and I see Mason Rudolph’s passing numbers!

What??????

It didn’t take too long to find out that Ben Roethlisberger had left the game injured and that the Steelers had suffered yet another loss.

Well, we always knew that Ben Roethlisberger could suffer a season-ending injury, and now it has happened.

Steelers Trade 1st Round Pick for Minkah Fitizpatrick

I’m sitting there at a trade show, and I see a tweet from the Mexican Steelers WhatsApp group saying the Steelers have traded their 2020 1st round draft pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick.

  • This has to be wrong, because the Pittsburgh Steelers NEVER trade their first round draft pick. Right?

Well, it wasn’t wrong, it was right.

This one leaves me with mixed feelings. The Steelers philosophy of building through the draft is one that has served the franchise well. Just look at those 6 Lombardi’s and its overall outstanding record since 1969. Sure, Bobby Beathard built two and a half Super Bowl championship teams by trading draft picks for proven players.

  • But that’s not the Steelers Way.

Seeing the Steelers trade away a 1st round draft pick at the beginning of week three is kind of like trying to pen a love letter to your wife with your left hand. It just feels WRONG.

  • But this isn’t a one-sided story.

No disrespect to Joe Haden, but Minkah Fitzpatrick already looks like he could be the secondary’s most dynamic playmaker, and the secondary has not had a dynamic playmaker since Troy Polamalu in 2013.

Sean Davis’ injury is also a factor. With Sean Davis out, the Steelers were looking at the prospect of Kameron Kelly starting the rest of the year at free safety. Even if the rest of the Steelers defense starts living up to its pedigree, that could be enough to sink the unit by itself.

Steelers history junkies can look at how the Steelers defense cratered in 1988 when Cornell Gowdy manned the strong safety spot between Donnie Shell’s retirement and Carnell Lake’s arrival via the 1989 draft.

The Steelers do not play for draft position, and that philosophy has served them well. Bill Austin supposedly screwed the team by not losing enough in 1968 therefore depriving Pittsburgh of a shot at drafting O.J. Simpson. Chuck Noll had to settle for Joe Greene instead.

How did that turn out?

Beyond affirming the franchise’s commitment to winning, the Steelers also get Minkah Fitzpatrick at a very salary cap friendly contract for 2 years plus the 5th year option.

Steelers Trade for Nick Vannett

Just to keep things interesting, the Steelers then went and traded away one of those 5th round picks for tight end Nick Vannett.

  • Sometimes living in your hopes can animate your worst fears.

The Steelers gambled going into 2019 that 1. Vance McDonald’s relative health in 2018 would continue. 2. That Xavier Grimble was ready to be a true number 2 tight end.

We’re only 3 weeks into the season, and Vance McDonald has already missed action in multiple games. Xavier Grimble is probably a serviceable number 3 tight end, but he looked in over his head as a legit number 2, and certainly doesn’t seem capable of being a number 1. Besides, he’s hurt.

  • Really, the situation was no different than it was at safety with Sean Davis injured.

The Steelers made a move they had to make, but it came at the expense of yet another draft pick.

One Constant Remains

A lot can change in two weeks in Steelers Nation, but one constant remains: When I am unable to write, big things happen. Here’s a quick summary:

  • The Cowher-Donahoe feud came to a head in 2000 on my first trip to Argentina. Dan Rooney sided with The Chin
  • As the Rooneys themselves, agonized between Russ Grimm and Mike Tomlin, I was on vacation in Chile
  • Super Bowl week in 2009 found me in Tandil deep in the province of Buenos Aires
  • Super Bowl week in 2011 found me in Brazil where I missed Super Bowl XLV
  • When Bruce Arians got the ax in 2012 I was in New York City on vacation (Rumor has it I tried to write something only to get “caught” by my wife….)
  • When the Steelers decided to resign Antonio Brown in 2011 I was off on a weekend get away in Colonia Uruguay
  •  Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor retired on my first important business trip for a new job in 2015
  • Dan Rooney died the day I returned form another trip in 2017
  • James Harrison got cut and signed with the Patriots during the first Christmas I celebrated in the US in 17 years

Yes, a lot has changed in the last two weeks. But somethings remain the same.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers Report Card for 2019 Opening Loss to Patriots – No Practice Makes for Imperfect

Taken from the grade book of a teacher dismayed that his pupils STILL haven’t learned that practice makes perfect, here is the Steelers Report Card for the latest loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

Donte Moncreif, Donte Moncrief Steelers debut, steelers vs patriots

Donte Moncrief’s Steelers debut definitely left a lot to be desired. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
No sugar coating here: Ben Roethlisberger looked every bit the quarterback who had thrown 13 passes in the preseason. He was out of synch with receivers. This was brutally evident on several long balls, but he also tried to force a slant route that should have been a pick six. Ben Roethlisberger was far from the only culprit this night, but he says “He needs to play better.” Agreed. Grade: F

Running Backs
With the way the game evolved neither James Conner nor Jaylen Samuels had much of a chance to get going. Both made some catches, but these were not factors. And the run blocking wasn’t there. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Word has been that to protect his health, the Steelers were going to keep Vance McDonald on ice. Well, they certainly did that. Vance McDonald didn’t get into the action until garbage time where he caught 2 passes for 40 yards, Xavier Grimble was invisible and Zach Banner didn’t get work as a third tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster first game as the Steelers official number 1 WR drew mixed results. JuJu managed to make some nice catches, but didn’t approach being a game changer. In contrast, Donte Moncrief led the team in targets and looked terrible. James Washington could have had a game-breaking play, yet lost his balance. Ryan Switzer caught 6 of 6 balls thrown to him, but that merely highlights how well covered the rest of the WRs were. Grade: F

Offensive Line
Credit the offensive line for giving Ben Roethlisberger time to throw. There were several times when Ben had too much time no one was open. However, the offensive line’s run blocking was atrocious. 3 times in the first half the Steelers faced 3rd and 1 or 4th and one and failed to convert. Making those conversions could have at least altered the dynamics of the game. Instead, the Steelers lost the battle of scrimmage. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Patriots had some success running the ball early in the game that put them in 3rd and short situations, which they converted. That’s not all on the defensive line, but it starts there. The Steelers couldn’t get pressure on Brady consistently, and if you give Brady time he will burn you. And Brady burned the Steelers. Yet again. Grade: F

Linebackers
Bud Dupree had a sack. Vince Williams, Mark Barron and Devin Bush split time inside. The linebackers got some pressure on Brady on a few odd occasions, but that was too little too late. Brady decimated the Steelers with the short passing game and while that’s not all on the linebackers, they shoulder some of the blame. Grade: D

Secondary
Any one want to question Sean Davis’ value? Kameron Kelly got his first start and looked every bit the like an AAF retread. Terrell Edmunds made a few nice plays but nothing to indicate he’s about to make the 2nd year leap. Steven Nelson’s name wasn’t heard much, which is good. Joe Haden did not appear to make any egregious mistakes. But Tom Brady passed for 341 yards and six touchdowns while converting 7 third downs. The totals could have been double had the Patriots passed more. Grade: F

Special Teams
On the positive side, Chris Boswell made his one attempt and Jordan Berry boomed off several long punts. Ryan Switzer returned no punts and was average as a kick returner. But the Patriots returned two punts for 35 yards. That was hardly a decisive factor, but it does show just how much things went wrong. Grade: C-

Coaching
At half time Mike Tomlin told NBC that lack of execution was the issue. He was right. To wit, if the Steelers can force a 3 and out after kicking a field goal and then score a touchdown to open the second half, they’re very much in the game.

  • But that doesn’t get the coaching staff off of the hook.

The New England Patriots were in championship form. The Pittsburgh Steelers looked like they were still playing preseason. Judging by the tone of coverage of reporters who’ve been watching the team daily for the last two months, Pittsburgh’s piss poor performance surprised them as much as it did the fans.

Yet here we are again in early September, and the Steelers aren’t simply failing to execute, failing to adjust, they’re also not playing with any confidence or poise.

  • Could that have been solved by more reps for the starters in preseason?
  • Is it something else?
  • Is it just a fluke?

It matters not. The Pittsburgh Steelers were woefully unprepared for Prime Time. And that’s on Mike Tomlin. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
If there was one brightish spot for the Steelers, it came in the form of T.J. Watt who got in Tom Brady’s face and was easily the most impactful and consistent defender and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

All In: Steelers Resign Joe Haden. Its Both a Risk and the Right Move

The Pittsburgh Steelers closed the 2019 off season by extending cornerback Joe Haden’s contract by 3 years. The new deal is for 32 dollars and includes a 16.2 signing bonus.

  • It says here that the Steelers resigning Joe Haden is the right move, but one that carries some risk.

Before explaining why, let’s fess up and eat a slice of humble pie. When Cleveland unexpectedly released Joe Haden this time two years ago, yours truly published a missive titled “Steelers Sign Joe Haden. Is 2nd Time Charm for Pittsburgh & a Retread Cleveland Cornerback?.” The Steelers had struggled to find quality quarterbacks and had made a series of attempts at rehabilitating other team’s cast offs.

Those efforts included trading with Cleveland to get Justin Gilbert a year earlier, a move that ultimately failed.
This is one time when a blogger is pleased as punch to be wrong.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

The Steelers immediately inserted Joe Haden into the starting line up, and Joe Haden became an immediate leader of the group. People forget, but Ben Roethlisberger struggled during the first half of 2017, as the Steelers defense carried the team to a 7-2 record.

  • Joe Haden’s presence made that possible.

Joe Haden gave the Steelers what they have craved since Ike Taylor began to fade – a quality cornerback. But he also became a leader both on and off the field. Indeed, while most outsiders peg the demise of the Steelers defense to Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion suffered in Cincinnati, the Steelers defense had actually begun to slip when Joe Haden got injured against the Colts.

  • Perhaps most importantly, Joe Haden gave the Steelers secondary, and in fact the entire defense something it has lacked – playmakers.

The best example of that came last season during the win over the New England Patriots, when Joe Haden made a leaping catch to intercept Tom Brady in the Red Zone. That’s exactly the type of defensive spark the Steelers have needed in games like that, but been unable to find.

Opportunity Costs and Risks

Every long-term contact signing contains risks and carries opportunity costs. Joe Haden is 30 years old, and cornerback is a young man’s game. Ike Taylor was 31 years old when he signed is 3rd contract from the Steelers, and while Ike delivered two solid years of play, he began to slip in 2013 and by 2014 he was done.

  • Likewise, the decision to sign Joe Haden means that the Steelers will not be able to extend the contracts of Sean Davis or Javon Hargrave who are both 25.

While Sean Davis is injured, and still must deliver, Javon Hargrave played exceptionally well down the stretch in 2018 and figures to the type of season that will allow him to cash in as a free agent.

But given the fact that the Steelers have had far better luck at replacing quality defensive lineman than then have had with replacing quality NFL cornerbacks, it is a wise risk to take.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Report Card for Steelers 18-6 Preseason Win Over Titans

The Pittsburgh Steelers improved their 2019 preseason record to 3-0 as staff writer Tony Defeo issues his Report Card.

Devin Bush, Terrell Edmunds, Dion James, Steelers vs Titans preseason

Devin Bush and Terrell Edmunds sandwich Dion James. Photo Credit: Christopher Hanewine, USA Today, via Steel City Insider

Quarterbacks
Since the third preseason game is the one where starters play the most, Ben Roethlisberger started and played three series. It’s hard to say if Roethlisberger was rusty or just looking to get the night over with, considering most of his passes were of the very short variety.

On the night, Roethlisberger was 8 of 13 for 63 yards and a 17-yard touchdown strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster on his third and final series. Mason Rudolph entered the game late in the first quarter, and on his initial throw of the game, he connected with college buddy James Washington on a 41-yard touchdown pass. It wasn’t necessarily a stellar night for Rudolph, as he completed six of nine passes for 75 yards, a touchdown and an interception on what appeared to be some miscommunication between he and Washington. Joshua Dobbs entered the game in the second half and played the rest of the way, completing four of nine passes for 79 yards and an interception. However, his night wasn’t as bad as his stat-line indicated, and he could have used some help from rookie tight end Zach Gentry on the interception. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Running behind his full starting offensive line for the first time this preseason, James Conner looked like the player he was last year before injuries derailed him; Conner carried five times for 41 yards, while pulling in two passes for 15 yards. Even with the rookie Benny Snell Jr. out with an injury, it was a quiet night for Jaylen Samuels, who carried just four times for 16 yards and caught two passes for an additional 11. Trey Edmunds, the brother of Terrell, carried six times for 12 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
For the first time this preseason, JuJu Smith-Schuster looked like his old self. Whether that was the result of playing with his franchise quarterback or the result of getting his first extended action is a question that can’t be answered. But he did catch four passes for 37 yards and a touchdown. It was a relatively quiet night for Washington, aside from the touchdown, which was his only catch. Young hopeful, Trey Griffey reeled in one pass for 23 yards, while veteran hopeful, Johnny Holton only had two catches for 12 yards and didn’t help his cause on two sideline passes–one in-which the cornerback pulled him down out of bounds before he could get both feet in; and one in-which he was called for offensive pass interference–that could have made his night a little better. Brandon Reilly, a youngster Pittsburgh claimed off the waiver wire in July, had a decent night, pulling in two passes for 41 yards. Diontae Spencer, the punt return guru, didn’t do much in that regard, nor in the passing game, but he did gain 29 yards on an end-around. Grade: B

Tight Ends
It was another lost night for this unit. Vance McDonald, who fumbled on his lone reception a week earlier, dropped an early pass and wound up with zero on the night. The rookie Gentry had one catch for 15 yards, but could have had another had he reeled in the relatively high pass by Dobbs that resulted in his interception. Xavier Grimble continues to play uninspired football in his quest to replace Jesse James as the number two tight end. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Much to no one’s surprise, the highly decorated unit dominated when all five starters — Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Matt Feiler — were in the lineup. Roethlisberger didn’t get touched, and, to reiterate, Conner looked spectacular. Grade: A

Defensive Line

As he’s sometimes wont to do when clicking on all cylinders, Stephon Tuitt looked like a man among boys, posting two sacks and the game’s first points when one of those resulted in a safety. Cam Heyward contributed four tackles and a sack, and even Dan McCullers played extensively and recorded four tackles. Grade: A-

Linebackers
Another impressive night for the unit as a whole. As for the outside linebackers, T.J. Watt had two tackles, while roster hopeful, Tuzar Skipper added four of his own along with yet another sack. Over to the inside linebackers. Vince Williams had two tackles and a sack. Rookie Ulysees Gilbert III didn’t jump off the screen, but he was still quite active, adding five more tackles to his preseason resume. It was a quiet night for Devin Bush, but he again looked like he belonged, while long-shot Robert Spillane stated his case with five tackles and a sack. Grade: A

Secondary
No Joe Haden again, but Steven Nelson continued to look like a more than solid free-agent addition as the other starting cornerback. It was another really good showing for Artie Burns, while rookie Justin Layne appeared to improve from his pro debut two weeks earlier. As for the safeties, Kameron Kelly had yet another active night with four tackles, while starting free safety Sean Davis added two before exiting with an ankle injury. Grade: B

Special Teams
The kickers were once again perfect, as Chris Boswell connected on an extra point, while Matthew Wright added a 31-yard field goal in the second half.

  • Incumbent punter Jordan Berry posted 200 yards on four boots, while challenger Ian Berryman added 90 yards on two.

Ryan Switzer was the surprise kick-returner on the evening, averaging 19 yards on three returns, while also returning one punt for 20 yards. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero

Brandon Reilly for his totally unexpected contributions.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

4 Challenges the Steelers Must Master this Summer at St. Vincents

Training camp has started and for the next few weeks St. Vincents, in Latrobe will occupy the center of the universe for Steelers Nation. Over the next 24 hours, we’ll be treated to images of players moving into camp, interviews with veteran stars and rookie hopefuls and a press conference from Mike Tomlin where he promises to “Build a foundation.”

A foundation is indeed necessary if the men in Black and Gold are to reverse their two year slide from AFC Championship appearance in ‘16, to one-and-done in ’17 to watching Cleveland come up “choto” to keep them out of the playoffs in ’18 (“Choto” is a bit of Argentine porteño slang, either Google it or check here and here to see choto used in a Steelers football context.)

With that in mind, here are 3 key challenges the Steelers must master during training camp and preseason.

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, St. Vincents, St. Vincent's, Steelers training camp, Latrobe

Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger set their sights high. Photo Credit: The Morning Call

1. Sharpening Players While Keeping Them Fresh and Healthy

Training camp is a time where teams build cohesion. But cohesion means little if guys get hurt during the process. NFL coaches must strike a fine balance.

Ben Roethlisberger is 37 years old. He knows the playbook. He’s well versed in the nuances of running the two minute drill. Mason Rudolph and Joshua Dobbs can use all the reps they can get, whereas Ben Roethlisberger knows how to throw a fade route.

Ben Roethlisberger’s training camp practice has reps have been limited and he’s seen precious little action in preseason for the past several summers. He’s also remained healthy and upright for the past two seasons.

  • But Roethlisberger has also been rusty at the start of the last two seasons.

He was far worse in early 2017 than in 2018, but last year it still took him several games to hit his stride. The Steelers cannot afford that, especially given the fact that JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief, James Washington and Vance McDonald will have to find someway to make up for the loss of You Know Who.

This summer at St. Vincents the Steelers must position themselves to start fast and finish strong.

2. Establish a Number 2 Wide Receiver

JuJu Smith-Schuster is a legitimate number 1 wide receiver. You don’t make the catches he’s made over the last two years if you don’t have true talent. But every true number 1 needs a number 2 to take heat off of him.

Just look at how You Know Who was limited down the stretch in ’16 when the Steelers were essentially starting practice squad guys at the number 3 and 4 wide receiver slots.

If James Washington can transfer what coaches and journalists say they see on the practice fields to game situations then the Steelers will be OK. If not, then they had better hope that Donte Moncrief does indeed benefit from having Ben Roethlisberger throw to him.

Otherwise, the Steelers fall from contender status will continue this autumn.

3. Find a True Number 3 Running Back

Yep. We are beating that horse again, although the horse is very much on its legs. The combination of injures and lack of backfield depth has been a chronic weakness throughout the Mike Tomlin era. Some situations were unavoidable.

However, the Steelers have gambled with not staffing a competent number 3 running back for the past several seasons, and it has hurt them every time. Counting on James Conner to stay healthy and Jaylen Samuels to both stay healthy and build on his rookie year is too big a role of the dice.

The Steelers NEED Bennie Snell Jr., Trey Edmunds or someone else to prove they can be a legit number 3 NFL running back. Otherwise, the prospect of needing to make another December call Stevan Ridley could be come very real.

4. Sort Out Secondary Depth

Assuming good health, which is never a safe assumption in the NFL, it says here the Steelers have four competent starters to field in the secondary with Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Terrell Edmunds and Sean Davis. Mike Hilton might not be a superstar, but he’s a 3rd corner you can win with.

  • After that, the Steelers have quantity, but no proven quality.

The Steelers need to develop that depth this summer. Morgan Burnett forced his way out of Pittsburgh after last season and most fans shrugged their shoulders. Yet, it was Burnett who knocked away Tom Brady’s final pass, and had he returned he’d have given the Steelers a strong option as a third safety.

Right now the backup safeties s are Marcus Allen and Jordan Dangerfield. Everyone seems to be down on Allen, even though his slate is blank. Maybe he can prove the doubters wrong.

Over at cornerback Cam Sutton and Brian Allen need to turn potential into production and/or Artie Burns has to salvage something of a once promising start. Otherwise, might see Justin Layne get a baptism by fire….

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Early Steelers 2019 Training Camp News: A Primer on Separating Facts from False Flags

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin arriving at St. Vincents in Latrobe today bringing the tumultuous 2019 off season to an end. And while Steelers Nation will be treated to interviews and photos of players and coaches, they’ll have to wait a bit before real news surfaces.

  • Staff writer Tony Defeo likened this period to breaking through traffic congestion while still needing to drive quite a distance before reaching home.

Nonetheless, they’ll be lots of juicy headlines to feast on, and here’s a primer for separating the real news from the false flags.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Contract Action vs Contract Talk

The Steelers have opened camp in the past by announcing contract extensions for Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert. Both are due for new deals, but there’s been speculation about whether Art Rooney II will break from tradition this summer.

  • One way or another, fans will have some indication of Art Rooney’s inclinations very soon.

Likewise, with Ben Roethlisberger locked up, Joe Haden, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave are candidates for extensions, but in recent summers the Steelers have trended towards resigning veterans closer to the end of camp rather than the beginning. Talk you hear on this front over the next several days will likely be just that, “talk.”

Watch Out for Those PUP List Surprises

Every year a certain number of players begin camp on the PUP list. Often times this is simply proactive roster management. But at other times it is a red flag. And there are always surprises in the opening PUP announcements.

Casey Hampton began training camp in 2008 on the PUP, but was in fine form when the season started. Maurkice Pouncey has started camp on the PUP and played in full health throughout the season.

In 2015 Bruce Gradkowski’s name appeared on the PUP much to everyone’s surprise given that he’d played as recently as the playoff loss to the Ravens. Bruce Gradkowski got well enough to get activated and play in one preseason game and then his NFL career was done. Senquez Golson began 2015 on the PUP and literally has never played an NFL down.

Ladarius Green and Mike Adams were also surprise PUP additions. Adams never played for the Steelers again and Ladarius Green saw some mid season action before getting reinjured and has been out of football since.

Keep an eye on the PUP list.

Take Run Test Results with a Gain of Salt

Since Bill Cowher’s days as head coach, the Steelers have begun training camp with an annual run test where players must complete a set number of sprints within a certain time determined by their position.

  • Beyond gauging conditioning, it is often seen as the first test of a player’s mettle.
  • Yet, readers should take the results with a grain of salt.

rod woodson, carnell lake, st. vincents

Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake at St Vincents. via Steelers.com

The 1994 Steelers infamously finished the season 3 yards short of a go ahead touchdown in the AFC Championship loss to the San Diego Chargers. When the group assembled in Latrobe the next summer, every player successfully completed Bill Cowher’s run test. At the time, if memory serves, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola remarked that the results indicated the focus and commitment of the players.

  • Now that 1995 squad did of course reach Super Bowl XXX, but that was only after starting 3-4.

Injuries to Neil O’Donnell, Rod Woodson, John Jackson and John L. Williams had a lot to do with that. But a player’s only meeting that resulted in Greg Lloyd threatening to break any player who brought a phone or a pager (remember those??) to a team meeting was necessary to spark a turn around.

A little later in the Cowher era, the summer of 1999 started with 1996 first round draft pick Jamain Stephens failing the run test.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe cut him on the spot.

At the time the move was hailed as sending a strong signal on the heels of a 7-9 1998 season that ended with a 5 game losing streak. Signal it might have been, but the 1999 team finished 6-10 with Lee Flowers openly accusing unnamed teammates for quitting.

  • Enjoy the run test, but don’t read too much into the results.

On the flip side, Steelers fans can give thanks that no one will be arriving at St. Vincents via helicopter this sumer….

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers 2019 NFL Draft Needs @ Safety

The 2019 NFL Draft is fast-approaching, which means we’re coming up on the one year anniversary of when the Steelers shocked the football world by making Terrell Edmunds their first-round pick. Will the Steelers shock the world again by taking another safety with a premium pick? Furthermore, should they? Let’s dive in!

Terrell Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds first interception, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Terrell Edmunds returns his first interception at Tampa Bay. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

It was baptism by fire for Terrell Edmunds a year ago, thanks to early-season injuries that kept Morgan Burnett, the highly-thought of Packers veteran the Steelers signed as a free agent, out of the lineup. Terrell Edmunds started 15 games at strong safety, and while he didn’t wow you with production and splash plays, he certainly gained valuable experience that should help him going into his sophomore year.

As for Sean Davis, after spending his first two seasons at strong safety, the departure of Mike Mitchell allowed Davis to move to free safety, which seemed to be a much better fit for his skill-set. 2018 was far from a Pro Bowl season for Sean Davis, but, at 25, he did seem to find the best position for his grow and development as a professional moving into his fourth season.

Moreover, Sean Davis had a key role in helping the Steelers limit the long plays that had plagued them in 2017. 

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

Thanks to being displeased with his role of an all-everything safety who was expected to move around the secondary and even play the dime linebacker role, Morgan Burnett requested and was ultimately granted his release from the Steelers this spring.

  • Fact is, after selecting Terrell Edmunds in the first round last year, the handwriting was on the wall for Morgan Burnett in terms of a long-term starting role.

But with Morgan Burnett gone, what does that do to Pittsburgh’s depth chart at the safety position? Veteran Jordan Dangerfield is probably the top backup at the moment, but he’s also quite inexperienced as far as 28-year old safeties go and is more of a special teams player than anything.

There was hope that Marcus Allen, a fifth-round pick out of Penn State a year ago, would be able to flourish in the modern football world of specialization, where safeties are asked to play dime linebacker and the slot (this was also the impetus for drafting Terrell Edmunds in the first round). And while that hope may still be there, it certainly isn’t based on anything the youngster did in 2018, as he appeared in just two games.

Rounding out the depth chart at safety appears to be Brian Allen, a fifth-round pick in 2017 who spent his first two seasons as a cornerback.

The Steelers 2019 Safety Draft Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL DraftIt’s quite obvious the Steelers safety position is lacking in quality depth. Pittsburgh does appear to have starters at the top of the depth chart.

  • But is that enough?

Again, this is an era of specialization, particularly on defense where the backups are not only expected to play many reps, they’re expected to assume many hybrid roles. Besides all of that, Sean Davis is entering the final year of his rookie deal. Therefore, the Steelers draft need at safety can best be categorized as Moderate.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

How To Fix The Broken Pittsburgh Steelers? I Believe They’re Already “Fixed”

Since the end of the 2019 season, the questions involving the “broken” Pittsburgh Steelers have been abundant. How can they get back to the old “Steeler Way?” How can Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin fix this broken situation, this national embarrassment?

  • Call me crazy, but I believe the broken Pittsburgh Steelers have already been “fixed.”

At least when it comes to their sources of bad PR.

I look in my pretend pocket, and I find two receipts. One documenting the trade of receiver Antonio Brown to the Raiders in exchange for a third and a fifth-round draft pick. The other one is for the transaction that allowed running back Le’Veon Bell to simply waltz into free agency and get the multi-year contract he always wanted–or at least get a multi-year contract with the Jets.

James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Browns

JuJu Smith-Schuster watches as James Conner scores. Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker, USA Today, via SB Nation

The way I see it, Brown and Bell–often dubbed the “Toxic Twins” by both the media and the fans–were the headline acts of the circus that had been the Steelers the past few seasons.

They were the players that gave use Facebook Live, bad rap songs, drug suspensions, off-the-field issues involving flying furniture and speeding tickets, Gatorade bucket tosses and camp holdouts.

Brown and Bell were responsible for a great percentage of the non-football related questions — those so-called “distractions”–their teammates had to answer the past few years.

  • So many people wanted Brown and Bell gone, and now they are.

They are no longer going to be a problem for the Steelers. They are no longer going to be creating negative headlines (and even if they do–and even if they’re about the Steelers–they’ll be doing so in other locker rooms).

  • What more can the owner, the general manager and head coach do to “fix” this problem, other than extract the problem children?

I’ll tell you what they can do, they can draft people of higher character, something that has become a reality over the past few seasons. By selecting players like Sean Davis, Javon Hargrave, T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Terrell Edmunds and James Washington in recent years, Pittsburgh is clearly trying to organically change the culture of its locker room.

This new draft philosophy is something that’s not unique to Pittsburgh, either.

Mostly gone are the days when a team like the Rams would trade its franchise running back — Jerome Bettis — in order to make room to draft another running back — Lawrence Phillips — who was accused of the heinous crime of physically assaulting a woman.

Today, if there’s even a whiff of poor character coming from a prospect’s draft camp, that player’s stock is likely to plummet to the point where he may not even be selected.

No, this recent phenomenon of targeting great players with great character is not unique to the Steelers, but they have clearly hopped on board in a very noticeable way.

Again, what more can be done? Do you want the people of authority to take a more disciplined, hard-line approach to running the team? Do you want Mike Tomlin, who has always been known as a coach who likes to treat his men like men, to become someone he isn’t?

Or do you trust that these young men of great character will grow into veteran players who know what it takes to be responsible professionals, people who won’t embarrass the organization on a local or national level?

Or, maybe, when talking about the “broken” Pittsburgh Steelers, you’re really referring to a lack of Super Bowl titles for the past decade. “If the Steelers were just a little more disciplined, they’d win it all,” is a popular sentiment among the faithful looking for reasons for their team’s failure to win that One for the Other Thumb.

  • If you think getting rid of two All-Pro players will help that situation, then I guess we’re all about 10 months away from finding out.

The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers are no longer a broken organization, in my opinion–at least, as it pertains to having players in their locker room who will bring them bad publicity.

Are they now fixed to the point where they’ll be able to win a title without two very talented problem children?

That, of course, remains to be seen.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.