Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Free Agency Tracker

Franchise tags are being slapped on star players. Teams, real NFL teams not fantasy ones, are putting together blockbuster trades that they can’t even execute. Instead of talking about sacks, Red Zone performance and third down conversion, football fans fling around words like “cap value,” pro-rated, roster bonus and “dead money.”

Roosevelt Nix, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers 2018 free agent focus

Roosevelt Nix blocking for Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via The Athletic

The start of NFL Free Agency is almost upon us, and with that Steel Curtain Rising rolls out our Steelers 2018 Free Agent focus, by publishing what will be our Steelers 2018 Free Agent Tracker.

Let’s look at who the Black and Gold at risk of losing during the 2018 Free Agency signing period.

Steelers 2018 Unrestricted Free Agents

Le’Veon Bell
Arthur Moats
Chris Hubbard
Justin Hunter
Sean Spence
Stevan Ridley

Steelers 2018 Restricted Free Agents

Fitzgerald Toussaint
Chris Boswell
Anthony Chickillo
Greg Ducre
Roosevelt Nix
Steelers have resigned Roosevelt Nix to 4 year contract
Eli Rogers
Jordan Berry
Steelers have resigned Jordan Berry

Steelers 2018 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

B.J. Finney
Steelers have resigned B.J. Finney to 1 year contract
Matt Feiler
Steelers have resigned Matt Feiler

The Steelers will make plenty of moves that don’t involve the men above. The Steelers 2018 Salary Cap situation is fairly tight and that means that several roster cuts are coming, as well as some restructures. A potential extenstion of Ben Roethlisberger, which Art Rooney II has suggest may happen, could also provide short-term Steelers salary cap relief.

The Steelers 2018 secondary is likely to have a very different look, as William Gay, J.J. Wilcox and perhaps Mike Mitchell will likely become cap casualties very soon. Players like Darrius Heyward-Bey could also find himself looking for new work.

Steel Curtain Rising will be following all of the action and we will update this page as news breaks.

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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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Difference in Sunday’s Debacle? The Jacksonville Jaguars Played Playoff Football. The Pittsburgh Steelers Didn’t

The Steelers offensive superstars looked the part in Pittsburgh’s AFC Divisional Playoff match-up against the Jaguars at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 469 yards and five touchdowns. Injured receiver Antonio Brown turned in a courageous effort, pulling in seven passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns. And running back Le’Veon Bell was the dual threat he’s been his entire career, tallying 155 total yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns–one through the air; and one on the ground.

  • Yes, the Steelers high-paid offensive stars gave fans their money’s worth.

Only problem was, they didn’t give them a victory, as the Steelers fell 45-42 to end their season one week before most thought it would, and three weeks before everyone wished it would.

Why? Because, while the Steelers stars were dazzling their fans with perfect throws and breath-taking catches, the Jacksonville Jaguars were executing playoff football.

What’s that, you ask?

Part of it is winning the turnover battle.

Ben Roethlisberger, Lerentee McCray, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, Jaguars sack ben roethlisberger

The Jaguars sacked Ben Roethlisberger at critical moments. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Turnovers are a big deal during any football game–and they become absolutely vital after the calendar changes from December to January.

While the Jaguars defense collected 33 takeaways during the regular season, to Pittsburgh’s 22, they also took seven of them back for scores, while Pittsburgh put up one giant zero in that department.

Perhaps then it was no surprise that Jacksonville collected two turnovers on Sunday and turned both into touchdowns. The Steelers, meanwhile, couldn’t turn any takeaways into points, because their defense didn’t come up with a single one.

Speaking of Pittsburgh’s defense, after leading the NFL in sacks with 56 during the regular season, it barely got a hand on Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles.

The Jaguars defense that collected 55 during the regular season didn’t exactly hound Roethlisberger, who was sacked just twice in 58 attempts. But one of those sacks was of the strip variety, and the fumble was taken to the house by linebacker Telvin Smith.

  • What about third down conversions?

The Steelers were seven for 16, which isn’t exactly horrible. Jacksonville, meanwhile, was eight of 14. This doesn’t seem like a huge disparity, that is, until you consider the Steelers were battling back from a 21-point deficit.

When you have a team on the ropes, which the Steelers did after cutting their 28-7 deficit to 28-21 with back-to-back touchdowns to end the first half and begin the second, your defense needs to get off the field as quickly as possible in-order to give the football back to your red-hot offense.

But not only were the Jaguars pretty efficient on converting third downs, they had no three-and-outs the entire afternoon.

  • That’s right, ZERO three and outs for the Jacksonville Jaguars against the Steelers. Zip.

What about fourth downs?

The Steelers were four of six in that category, but the fact that they had to attempt so many is indicative of a team that was playing from behind the entire afternoon.

Jacksonville had the lead right from the beginning.

Why?

Because it converted on its only fourth down attempt of the day, when running back Leonard Fournette dived through the tackle attempt of Sean Spence and into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown on the game’s opening series.

  • The Steelers two failed fourth down conversions came when the yard to gain was less than one.
  • The Jaguars simply out-executed Pittsburgh in every important measurable that a head coach holds near and dear to his heart.

Maybe that’s why they rushed 35 times, to Pittsburgh’s 18.

  • Why pass 55 times, when you’re averaging 4.7 yards per carry on the ground?

Like Steelers cornerback Joe Haden said afterwards, Pittsburgh’s porous defense couldn’t really get aggressive on second and third down, because Jacksonville was continuously winning on first down (were you as sick as I  was of seeing second-and-five or six after just about every run by Fournette and T.J. Yeldon?)

The Steelers out-gained the Jaguars 545  to 378, and in many ways, they were the more spectacular offense.

  • But statistics are nice, winning is even nicer.

The Jaguars did just about everything a team needs to do in-order to advance in the playoffs.

And that’s why Jacksonville is packing for the AFC Championship game, and the Steelers are packing for the offseason.

 

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Report Card For Steelers 28-24 Week 17 Victory Over Browns

Quarterback

Starting just the fifth game of his career–and doing so in 10-degree weather–backup Landry Jones had a rather nice game filling in for the inactive Ben Roethlisberger. On the day, Jones completed 23 of 27 passes for 239 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a fumble. It may have actually been a better day for Jones, had backup center B.J. Finney, starting in place of the inactive Maurkice Pouncey, not suffered a thigh injury in the first half. In his place, emergency center Chris Hubbard had a devil of a time getting accurate snaps back to Jones, which contributed heavily to limiting the offense’s–and Jones’–effectiveness in the second half. Grade: B-

Running backs

Despite being without the resting Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers running game was pretty effective, particularly recently-signed veteran Stevan Ridley, who got the start and tallied 80 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Fullback Roosevelt Nix was stuffed on a fourth and goal early in the game, but he more than made up for it with some effective blocks, which freed Ridley on several of his early runs. Grade: B

Wide Receivers

What more can you say about rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster? The kid is simply magical and has emerged as a key cog in the Steelers passing-game. Without the injured Antonio Brown for the second-straight week, Smith-Schuster had a Brown-esque day, catching nine passes for 143 yards and a score. As for Martavis Bryant, while not as strong a day as Smith-Schuster, he still managed to be productive, catching six passes for 65 yards. Veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey opened the scoring by racing 29 yards for a touchdown on a reverse on the game’s first offensive series. Grade: A

Tight Ends

Jesse James and Vance McDonald were mostly quiet, tallying just three passes for 14 yards between them. But that may have been a product of compensating for an offensive line that was missing two starters in David DeCastro and Pouncey, along with the backup center in Finney, who missed the entire second half with a thigh injury. James and McDonald were effective in both protecting Jones on passing downs and in opening holes for a rushing attack that posted 124 yards on the day. Grade: C

Offensive Line

Missing its top two talents in Pouncey and DeCastro, the Steelers offensive line still managed to do a decent job in both protecting Jones and in opening holes for the running backs. Matt Feiler started the first game of his career at right guard and was highlighted on one or two occasions effectively pulling in a manner that probably made the Pro Bowler DeCastro proud. Unfortunately, starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva was beaten badly for a sack that led to a Jones’ fumble, and then there were those snapping snafus by Hubbard, the emergency center. Hubbard rolled three snaps back to Jones and was errant on another that the backup quarterback had to chase down to prevent a turnover. Grade: C

Defensive Line

Starting in-place of Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu recorded two sacks, while Stephon Tuitt was his usual disruptive self, contributing 1.5 tackles for loss. The Browns running backs were only credited with 41 yards, but quarterback DeShone Kizer rushed for 61 yards, picking up several first downs on third and long. Grade: C+

Linebackers 

Rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt recorded eight tackles (including two for losses), a sack, a pass defensed and two quarterback hits. Sean Spence tallied six tackles at inside linebacker, while Vince Williams and L.J. Fort combined for two of the team’s six sacks on the day. Bud Dupree had a quiet day at the left outside linebacker spot, while Anthony Chickillo was credited with just one tackle in spot duty. Grade: B

Secondary

The Steelers were gashed for two big plays in the second quarter, one from 54 yards out, and one from 56 yards away, that contributed to the Browns first two touchdowns. Playing with Joe Haden, the secondary used the same personnel it will in the postseason, yet Kizer managed to pass for 314 yards and may have led Cleveland to its first victory of the year, had receiver Corey Coleman been able to hold on to a fourth down pass that would have set the Browns up inside Pittsburgh’s 10-yard line with less than two minutes remaining. But the secondary was opportunistic late in the game, as veteran William Gay punched the ball from the grasps of running back Duke Johnson Jr. on a screen pass early in the fourth quarter that had gone for 30 yards on third and long. And later in the final period, safety Sean Davis came up with an interception of Kizer that snuffed out another drive in a close game that would come down to the final minutes. Grade: C

Special Teams 

With the Browns punting from their own end zone in the second quarter, reserve inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich came up with another timely special teams play, as he deflected a punt, causing it to settle at the Cleveland 28. Three plays later, the Steelers scored their second touchdown of the day to go up 14-0. Matavevich wasn’t the only special teams hero on the day. Right after the Browns tied the score at 21 early in the second half, Smith-Schuster returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for what turned out to be the game-winning score. Jordan Berry managed to down two his four punts inside the 20, while Chris Boswell converted on all four of his extra points. Grade: A

Coaching

On a day where head coach Mike Tomlin and his coordinators had to be conflicted on how to approach things, what with the Patriots needing only to defeat the Jets in-order to sew up the AFC’s top seed, it’s hard to complain about the overall performance. Yes, the defense looked exposed at  times, but  then again, it looked exposed at  times one year earlier, when Pittsburgh had to come from behind to defeat the Browns in the 2016 regular season-finale at Heinz Field. However, this didn’t continue on into the playoffs, as Pittsburgh’s defense was quite stout in recording two victories. Who knows how much of the normal game-plan was in play

Photo credit: Bostonherald.com

Sunday on both sides of the ball. And as Dupree said after the game, the defense was sort of freelancing in-order to break the team’s single-season record for sacks (it did with 56). Grade: B

Unsung hero

How about the thousands of fans who braved the 10-degree temperatures to come out and see a game that was essentially meaningless? Happy New Year!

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Steelers Report Card for Patriots Loss – A Truly Valiant Effort Comes Up Short

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who has just watched his students make a valiant effort only to fall short – an all perhaps because of an idiotic administrative error – here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Patriots, JuJu Smith-Schuster 69 yard pass Patriots, Eric Rowe

JuJu Smith-Schuster romps for 69 yards. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger faced the loss of his biggest weapon and managed to keep moving the chains and keep the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands. Roethlisberger was in “the zone” as he has been for several games, even taking it upon himself to run for several key gains. Ben was sharp in the Red Zone, hitting two touchdown passes. However, at the very end of the game Ben Roethlisberger made a mistake in trying to thread the needle (even if the referees ignored blatant pass interference.) An easy mistake to make, given the circumstances, but a costly one nonetheless and the Report Card grades on performance an results, so the interception brings his mark down. Grade: B-

Running Back
Le’Veon Bell had over 150 yards from scrimmage over 100 on the ground. While the Patriots front 7 isn’t exactly 2017’s Monsters of the Midway, they knew it was coming and (most of the time) couldn’t stop him. James Conner came in and had 3 carries and looked strong before falling injured. Fitgerald Touissant had one carry for 3 yards. Roosevelt Nix was excellent as a lead blocker. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
The number one receiver was out, New England was focusing on the run and the Steelers tight ends had had a banner day against the Ravens so naturally you’d figure…. 6 targets. Xavier Grimble was 1-1 for 8 yards. Jesse James actually only caught 2 of the 5 passes thrown his way, including his non-touchdown. However, Le’Veon Bell doesn’t break 100 yards unless the blocking is good. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Before he left the game injured, Antonio Brown succeeded in becoming the first NFL wide out to catch 100 passes in 5 straight seasons. Perhaps its only fitting then that three plays before the injury, Martavis Bryant caught his best pass of the season, a lunging 39 yarder. Bryant wasn’t done, catching a one handed touchdown where he was being blatantly interfered with. Eli Rogers caught 1 pass for 18 yards, but he took it home for a touchdown. The real star of the show was JuJu Smith-Schuster, who went 6 for 6 on target and took a sideline route in overtime 69 yards. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Patriots got more contact on Ben Roethlisberger than we’re accustomed to seeing, but the quarterback had time to throw on an afternoon when his best receiver was out. The line excelled in run blocking, making holes for Le’Veon Bell on a day when the defense knew the run was coming. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward helped set the “Yes, we’re playing to win” tone with his sack of Tom Brady. Stephon Tuitt didn’t sack Brady but did pressure him, as did Javon Hargrave. The Patriots did have some success running the ball, as Dion Lewis managed 5.2 yards per carry with a long run of 12. That brings the grade down. Grade: B

Cam Heyward sacks Tom Brady, Cam Heyward, Cameron Heyward, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots, Javon Hargrave

Cam Heyward sacks Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

Linebackers
Bud Dupree had a the team’s second sack on Tom Brady although he was finishing off work started by others. While the unit continued to struggle against the run, Sean Spence looked getter than he had on the week before, and Vince Williams had what could have been the game-turning play, nabbing the first pick for the Steelers against Tom Brady since 2005. Overall, it was a quiet night for the linebackers who still struggle against the run. Grade: B

Secondary
Artie Burns bounced back and had a strong game, although he did get flagged once, and that hurt. Mike Hilton continues to be a force, breaking up a touchdown and forcing a Brady throw away. Sean Davis actually did a passable job in covering Ron Gronkowski – at least until that crucial Patriots touchdown drive where Davis’ confidence seemed to melt. And of course he dropped an interception that would have ended the game. That brings the grade down for everyone. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell as 1 for one as he didn’t have a chance for any heroics. Jordan Berry punted the ball well, both in terms of distance and direction. The Steelers kick return efforts were respectable, but not consistent. The Steelers kick coverage was solid but punt coverage allowed one long return. Grade: B

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

Mike Tomlin during the Steelers loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Coaching
If you have said in January the Steelers will go into a game against the Patriots without Shazier, Haden lose Brown early in the game and start Cam Sutton and only lose by 3 no one would have believed you.

  • So the Steelers coaching staff deserves credit for making this game so competitive.

Yet the key variable in grading isn’t competitiveness, but in winning the competitions and here the Steelers coaches are open to criticism. Todd Haley lost arguable the best wide receiver in football, and managed to not only keep the offense scoring, but to do so in a way that kept the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands.

  • Still, the Steelers couldn’t kill the clock late in the 4th quarter when 2 first downs probably end the game.

One defense, the Steelers knew they were playing a weak hand coming into the game, and while Tom Brady ultimately prevailed, he didn’t have the kind of field day he did back during the AFC Champioship game.

  • Nonetheless, when Brady to Gronk got going, Keith Butler didn’t attempt an adjustment, and that hurt the team.

Finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin. He has led this time through a lot of adversity this season, and to be honest the Steelers didn’t blink when they lost Antonio Brown, and other members of the team immediately stepped up. And while the result might have been disappointing, Tomlin WAS right to go for the touchdown at the end. This is Tomlin being Tomlin a coach who (rarely) lives in his fears, and when the game is on the line, Tomlin isn’t going to shy away from risk.

Still, the Steelers were caught in a fire drill situation, and didn’t quite know how to act. Coaches need to prepare for these situation too, and the Steelers preparation wasn’t quite there. Grade: C+

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers were missing another key, high profile, high salary player, but no one was talking about the impact of his absence either before, during or after the game.

In fact, with Antonio Brown out, the Steelers needed to run the ball better than they have all season long, and they did so, particularly at key moments, and often times this was helped but Chris Hubbard pulling and leading the way for Le’Veon Bell and that’s why Chris Hubbard wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers loss to the Patriots at Heinz 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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Steelers Report Card for Ravens Win – Missing Shazier, but Winning Nonetheless

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is simultaneously inspired and worried at his class’ performance with the star pupil absent, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the AFC North Clinching win over the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field.

T.J. Watt strip sack flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, T.J. Watt, Joe Flacco

T.J. Watt’s strip sack of Joe Flacco secured the win for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterback
How’s this for numbers: 66 passes, 44 completions, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and 506 yards. Those were Ben Roethlisberger’s passing stats on a night when he became the first NFL quarterback to pass for 500 yards in 3 games. And this is the QB who took a supposed back seat to Brady and Manning? While the Steelers offense, including its passing game struggled in the third quarter, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 19 4th quarter points. Grade: A

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell dominated Baltimore in the first meeting but found much tougher sledding in the second, as the Ravens limited him to just 48 yards on the ground. But Bell’s blessing as a running back is his ability to be a dual threat, and on that front Bell soared paste the Ravens for 77 yards and more importantly 2 touchdowns. James Conner got some action, rushing for 6 yards while Roosevelt Nix scored a critical touchdown for the Steelers. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Wide Receivers
The NFL may have seen a better QB-WR tandem before, but there’s none more potent in today’s NFL than Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. In the 4th quarter alone, Ben and Brown hooked up on throws of 22, 34 and 57 yards – and those are only the long ones. Martavis Bryant caught 6 passes for 33 yards including some key possession downs, and Eli Rogers also did his part catch 3 passes for 33 yards. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Steelers struggled to run against the Ravens, but Ravens defense is pretty decent. ESPN’s stat sheet shows that Baltimore sacked Ben Roethlisberger 3 times – a low number by the standards of this rivalry – and also hit him 8 times. While there was more contact with Pittsburgh’s quarterback than has been the norm this season, Ben Roethlisberger had time to throw when it was critical late in the game. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The Baltimore Ravens averaged just under six yards a carry rushing against the Steelers and no Steelers defensive lineman, other than Stephon Tuitt, got to Joe Flacco. Any means of compensating for Ryan Shazier’s absence includes the entire Steelers defensive line stepping up and that didn’t happen against the Ravens, although Cam Heyward gave the rest of his teammates a piece of his mind at the end of the 3rd quarter and it appeared to do at least some good. Grade: C-

Linebackers
The Steelers linebacking crops struggled absent their leader. Vince Williams led the unit in tackles, but his compatriots Arthur Moats, L.J. Fort and Sean Spence struggled to stop Ravens rushers from making gains at the second level. Nor were the linebackers particularly effective in coverage. James Harrison saw time but didn’t make his typical impact against the Ravens, and Bud Dupree was a non-factor. T.J. Watt made some plays early on, and sealed the game with his strip-sack of Joe Flacco, which raises the grade of the unit. Grade: D

Secondary
Sean Davis started the game with an interception which on an ideal night would have been “tone setting” for the entire unit. He finished it by helping break up a key 3rd down pass. In between he contributed some of the worst safety play the Steelers have seen since Travis Davis tenure in ’99. Artie Burns did have one nice pass break up, but committed two costly penalties. Coty Sensabaugh looks primed to keep Tom Brady fantasy owners happy. Coverage improved in the 4th quarter to keep the Steelers in the game, but going forward this is not going to be enough. Grade: D

Special Teams
Any discussion of the Steelers special teams performance must begin with Martavis Bryant’s near disaster in fielding a ball that rolled just short of the goal line. The play evoked images of Barry Foster’s lapse in 1990. Mike Tomlin’s response said it all:

Then there was the issue of the Steelers kick coverage team that was having a solid night until it allowed Michael Campanaro to return a kick 40 yards after the Steelers had just pulled within 2, which set up the Raven’s final touchdown.

Jordan Berry boomed off several impressive punts, and of course Chris Boswell went 4/4 on field goals, including a 52 yarder and a 46 yarder – neither are gimmies at Heinz – which ultimately was the difference maker. Boswell’s performance pulls the group’s grade up, but only by a smidge. Grade: D

Coaching
Devising a game plan to replace your best player on defense on the heels of a Monday Night game no less, isn’t easy, but that’s the task that fell on Keith Butler this week. To be sure, there were errors execution, sloppy tackling and some inanely stupid penalties that no scheme or amount of chalkboard planning could have compensated for.

But if the Steelers ARE clearly struggling to replace Ryan Shazier in the middle of the field, the defense did stop the Ravens cold on 3 of four 4th quarter series.

  • That at least lends some hope that Steelers coaches find something that worked schematically during tape review.

The Steelers offense offers a more interesting tale. Todd Haley’s offense had an excellent first quarter, a solid second quarter only to disappear in the third quarter. The fourth quarter performance of the Steelers offense against the Ravens is nothing short of watching a legend in the making.

Mike Tomlin had the toughest task of all. He needed to channel forces of #Shalieve50 while keeping his players focused enough to realize that emotion alone wouldn’t carry the day. Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, Johnny Mitchell, Carnell Lake, Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter clearly have some work to do on the defense, but they did earned their pay checks this week. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
On a night when Antonio Brown performed like an incarnate angel and a massed over 200 yards receiving the stat line of 14 for 149 went almost unnoticed. It shouldn’t.

  • As 12 of those 14 catches came on scoring drives, and the Steelers needed everyone one of them on this might.

Those stats didn’t come from one player, but rather a duo. Tomorrow morning Tony Defeo will sing their praises here, but for now we’ll simply recognize the efforts of Jesse James and Vance McDonald as the Unsung Heroes of the Steelers AFC North Clinching win over the Ravens.

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How Steelers 39-38 Win Over Ravens Illustrates the Power & Peril of #Shalieve50

The Pittsburgh Steelers 39-38 win over the Baltimore Ravens clinched the franchise’s second consecutive AFC North Championship. Winning in such dramatic fashion without Ryan Shazier, must be regarded as a positive because Ryan Shazier was a leader of the Steelers defense.

  • Yet the Steelers path to victory also revealed the double-edge sword that accompanies rallying around a fallen comrade.

The true test of leadership is the ability of the rest of the team to excel in a leader’s absence. But it’s also often observed that efforts of those left behind are doomed “poor for the leader’s absence.” Both of those things were evident in Steelers win over the Ravens at Heinz Field, and together they form a new “Elephant” in Mike Tomlin’s room.

Ben Roethlisberger, Terrell Suggs, David DeCastro, Steelers vs. Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger scrambles as Terrell Suggs closes in. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

Soaring on the Wings of #Shalieve50

Ryan Shazier might have been in the hospital at UPMC but his teammates certainly made sure everyone at Heinz Field felt his presence on Sunday against the Ravens. Cameron Heyward and James Harrison carried his jersey out of the tunnel during introductions. Several players wore Number 50 shirts under their pads. #Shalieve50 signs littered the stadium.

  • So it was only fitting that 8 plays into the game, Sean Davis would intercept a pass at the goal line and return it 35 yards.

It only took 7 plays and a couple of Ben Roethlisberger hook ups with Martavis Bryant, Jesse James and Le’Veon Bell to move into the Red Zone, and from there Ben Roethlisberger connected with Le’Veon Bell who was in the end zone with the help of 3 missed tackles by the Ravens.

The Steelers defense forced a punt, and then it was Ben Roethlisberger to Vance McDonald and Antonio Brown on the ground with help from Le’Veon Bell and James Conner on the ground. By the beginning of the second quarter, the Steelers were knocking on heaven’s door again. Bell ran it in from the 1, and the Steelers were up 14 to 0.

The entire Steelers roster was feeling the full force of #Shalieve50 and it was a beautiful moment to be a part of Steelers Nation….

2nd Quarter – Shakiness of Going Shazierless Sets In

The phenomenon of a team rallying around an injured teammate is very real. Last year Cam Heyward’s injury seemed to doom the Steelers 2016 season. But the defense staged a 180, and Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line was very much a part of the change.

  • But the rallying effect has its limits, as emotion can rarely completely compensate for a loss of talent.

And so it was for the Steelers defense in the second quarter. Credit John Harbaugh, Joe Flacco and the rest of the Ravens. To borrow a Tomlinism, they refused to blink.

Steelers vs Ravens, Mike Mitchell, Barry Reeger

Mike Mitchell struggles to stop Alex Collins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Rather than panic and try to play quick catch up, the Ravens attacked the Steelers defense where it was most vulnerable, running Alex Collins up the middle gouged the Steelers for a couple of decent runs before Chris Moore got ahead of Coty Sensbaugh and behind Sean Davis for 30 yard touchdown pass.

  • The Steelers only managed a 52 yard Chris Boswell field goal in response before the Ravens were back at it again.

First it was Alex Collins taking a short screen for 37 yards as Arthur Moats, Sean Davis and Vince Williams inexplicable failed to either tackle him or push him out of bounds. After that, came an expertly executed pass fake that saw NBC’s camera, as well as the entire Steelers defense lose track of Alex Collins.

  • By the time the Steelers figured out Collins had the ball, he was already closing in on the pylon.

The Steelers answered with another field goal to end the first half, which has been their MO this season. The Ravens had clearly regained their footing. Pittsburgh, in contrast, was wobbling.

3rd Quarter Impact of Ryan Shazier’s Absence Painfully Evident

If the Ryan Shazierless Steelers defense had begun to wobble in the 2nd quarter, the ground slipped completely out from under Pittsburgh’s in the 3rd period.

The Baltimore Ravens began the 2nd playing from behind and within 14 minutes they transformed a 6 point deficit into a 11 point advantage! In between Pittsburgh’s defense self-destructed in perhaps every way possible, from inane personal fouls, to a costly if questionable Artie Burns pass interference play in the end zone.

Steelers vs Ravens, Sean Spence, Patrick Richard

Sean Spence is too late to stop Patrick Ricard’s touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reed, PennLive.com

Time will tell if Sean Spence was available in early December for a good reason, but against the Ravens he clearly looked like someone who’d been out of football since October. He failed to get off his blocks, missed tackles and was a half-step behind the Ravens running backs who were tearing through the second level.

  • The Steelers offense didn’t do the team any favors in the 3rd quarter either.

While it is hard to pin point the reason why, but for 15 minutes the Steelers offense reverted to the ineffectiveness that plagued Pittsburgh for much of the first half of the season.

4th Quarter – a Resilient Roethlisberger and a Brilliant Brown at Their Best

While Steelers did manage to begin the 4th quarter with a Chris Boswell field goal, when they got the ball back  with 10:29 left to go, they still faced an 8 point or two score deficit.

  • Which is hardly enough to make Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown break a sweat.

It took the duo less than 75 seconds to get the Steelers to the one, where Ben Roethlisberger connected with Roosevelt Nix to pull Pittsburgh within two.

And then, almost as if on cue, Sean Davis and Artie Burns committed penalties, paving the Ravens return to the end zone. So with six minutes left, the Steelers had another 9 point deficit to beat.

Steelers vs Ravens, Antonio Brown, Tony Jefferson

Antonio Brown stiff arms Tony Jefferson in the 4th Quarter. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

And again, Ben Roethlsiberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Eli Rogers were up to the task, driving 68 yards in just over 3 minutes to narrowing the score to a difference of two with 3:29 left to play. For once, the Steelers defense found its footing as Joe Flacco failed to convert a 3rd and 3 thanks to some smart work by Arthur Moats and Sean Davis.

From there Ben Roethlisberger, with help from Jesse James, did what he’s done time and time again this season:

  • Put Pittsburgh in a position to win in a race against the clock.

Leaving Joe Flacco and the Ravens 42 seconds on the clock is a dangerous thing to do, but Flacco misfired on two deep passes before connecting with Mike Wallace for 15. With one more shot, Flacco faded back, not noticing that T.J. Watt had switched sides strong side to make a strip sack that ended which game.

The Steelers were AFC North Champions

A New Elephant Arrives in Mike Tomlin’s Room…

Two weeks ago Mike Tomlin defied conventional wisdom and called out the New England Patriots, and the Steelers have lived on edge since Tomlin acknowledged “The Elephant in the Room.“

To steal an idea for Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, the past two weeks have exposed a new Elephant in Mike Tomlin’s room: Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco have carved up the Joe Hadenless and Ryan Shazierless Steelers defenses with relative ease, and neither is the caliber of quarterback that Tom Brady is.

  • Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler need to find some way to slow Brady down to give the Steelers offense a chance to keep pace.

That’s a pretty big elephant to manage inside a “room” that gives Pittsburgh zero margin for error. Unless Joe Haden defies expectations and can play, Tomlin and Butler need to corral the proverbial elephant with the pro football equivalent of spit, duct tape and bubble gum.

But if Tomlin and Butler can pull it off, then the spirit of #Shalieve50 combined with the resiliency of the 2017 Steelers just might carry the day.

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James Harrison vs Ravens – Baltimore Brings Out Best in Deebo. Mike Tomlin Must Play Him

James Harrison vs Ravens – Baltimore Brings Out Best in Deebo. Mike Tomlin Must Play Him

The Steelers Monday Night win against the Bengals may have been sobering and costly, but expect the Baltimore Ravens to show zero sympathy for Pittsburgh. While the Steelers have stayed a top the AFC North all season long, the Ravens have quietly been pulling themselves out of mediocrity.

  • Baltimore’s won 4 of their last five, including two 40 point performances and one shut out.

At the final gun of the Bengals game, the Steelers were without 3 starters on defense (Ryan Shazier, Mike MitchellJoe Haden)  and minus two starting backups ( Tyler Matakevich & Coty Sensabaugh) due to injury or under performance. Seany Spence’s return should give the Steelers some depth, if not stability at linebacker, but if ever there was a defense in need of an octane boost its this one.

James Harrison, Joe Flacco, Jason Worilds, Steelers vs Ravens, James Harrison sacks Baltimore

James Harrison closes in in Joe Flacco in the Steelers 2014 playoff game against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via Concord Monitor

Fortunately, Mike Tomlin has that option available to him and its as simple as this:

  • Play James Harrison as extensively as the Steelers defensive coverage needs will allow.

James Harrison should play against the Ravens, because James Harrison always brings his A+ game against Baltimore.

Even in the face of such a litany of high-profile performances, its easy to write of James Harrison’s record against the Ravens as sentimental and perhaps a by-product of yesteryear. But while James Harrison may get emotional charged up to play the Ravens, the call to play him more is supported by data.

See for yourself:

James Harrison vs Ravens, James Harrison sacks ravens, James Harrison vs AFC North

James Harrison vs Ravens – Deebo Brings is “A” Game. Always.

Numbers don’t lie.

James Harrison has an uncanny ability to “turn it up” against the Ravens, much the same way that Franco Harris could find a something extra for the playoffs. In fully 66% percent of his games, or two out of every 3, James Harrison has sacked a Baltimore Ravens quarterback.

Out of James Harrison’s 82.5 (and counting) career sacks, 19 or just under a quarter of them have come against the Baltimore Ravens. During his career, James Harrison has had 6 multi-sack games against the Ravens, with two of those coming since his “retirement.”

  • Playing good football goes beyond simply bringing down the quarterback .

But again, James Harrison’s numbers against the Ravens stand out. He averages 2.9 tackles per game against the Ravens, as opposed to 2.1 against the rest of NFL. His lone interception against Baltimore even exceeds is regular season average.

James Harrison, Joe Flacco, James Harrison strip sack Joe Flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers Ravens 2008 Heinz Field

James Harrison’s strip sack of rookie Joe Flacco in 2008 proved to be critical for Pittsburgh. Photo Credit: BaltimoreRavens.com

None of this is to suggest that T.J. Watt should ride the bench against the Ravens. T.J. Watt is having a strong year and has shown he can do damage in a number of ways. In just about every game he’s play, T.J. Watt has made a heads up, “Wow, and he’s only a rookie” type play. He’s clearly a player on the rise and a wise first round draft pick.

T.J. Watt brings and athleticism to the position that James Harrison probably could bring even in his prime. And T.J. Watt is an asset in coverage. The blunt truth is that at this point in his career, James Harrison is a liability in coverage.

  • So let’s say that Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Joey Porter are wise enough to know when to send James Harrison in and went to hold him out.

Although James Harrison signed a 2 year contract with the Steelers this spring, he’s 39 years old, and T.J. Watt and Anthony Chickillo’s emergence only bring Harrison closer to his “Life’s Work.” Ditto Bud Dupree (ok, maybe not….)

But James Harrison brings his best against Baltimore. Playing James Harrison against the Ravens at Heinz Field wouldn’t simply give him a chance to out with a bang, it would also improve the Steelers chances of winning.

#JustDoIt Mike Tomlin 

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Steelers Resign Sean Spence in Wake of Shazier, Matakevich Injuries

Injuries to Ryan Shazier and Tyler Matakevich have forced the Pittsburgh Steelers to resign Sean Spence.

The Steelers arrived a Paul Brown Stadium for their 23-20 Monday Night Football win over the Cincinnati Bengals with four healthy inside linebackers but left with only two.

In a move that has been rumored for over a day saw Pittsburgh Steelers resign Sean Spence, the inside linebacker whom they drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, kept on injured reserve during both the 2012 and 2013 campaign and who split time as a starter with Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams during 2014 and 2015.

Sean Spence, Steelers vs Texans, Steelers resign Sean Spence

Sean Spence after securing a key fumble recovery in the Steelers 2014 win over the Houston Texans. Photo Credit: SteelersWire

When he finally returned to full health, Sean Spence did everything the Pittsburgh Steelers asked of him, as he started 13 games over two seasons, where he record 2 sacks, over 60 tackles and a key fumble recovery in a game against the Houston Texans.

  • Facing a crowded inside linebacking depth chart, Sean Spence rejoined Dick LeBeau during the 2016 off season.

However, despite the his familiarity with the Dick LeBeau’s system, Spence only managed to start six games for the Titans, although he appeared in 15 contests where he recorded 3 more sacks, defensed 3 passes and forced a fumble.

During the 2017 off season, Dale Lolley mentioned that the Steelers might be intersted in bringing Spence back as a backup, but Spence instead signed with the Indianapolis Colts. However, Spence only saw action in 3 games with the Colts and found himself on the waiver wire back in October.

It is unknown whether Sean Spence will have a chance to start in place of L.J. Fort or, should his health allow Tyler Matakevich, but his presence does free the Steelers from the need of having to prep Arthur Moats, who has inside linebacking experience, to do emergency duty there.

While the fact that Sean Spence was still available in early December should raise a yellow caution flag, the Steelers know him well and Sean Spence knows Keith Butler and Jerry Olsavsky.

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