NFL Suspends Marcus Gilbert for Four Games. The Bright Side? Steelers Decision on Cam Sutton Just Got Easier

The big story leading into the week following the Steelers Thursday Night trashing of the Tennessee Titans was who would lose their roster spot when the Steelers activated rookie cornerback Cam Sutton from IR. Of course the story took an unexpected twist before the day ended….

Marcus Gilbert, NFL suspends Marcus Gilbert, Mike Mitchell, Steelers vs Rams

Marcus Gilbert celebrates with Mike Mitchell during the Steelers 2015 win at St. Louis. Photo Credit: Rob Cornforth, UPI

On Steel City Insider, writer Jim Wexell focused on L.J. Fort whose been cut and resigned several times and Daniel McCullers, who hasn’t been active yet. He also mentioned backup tackles Matt Feiler and Jerald Hawkins. And on his message board, most of the talk focused on the backup tackles. The fact that the Steelers added offensive tackle Jake Rogers only fueled that fire.

Yet, as the day wore on and the debate developed,  Wexell cautioned:

Jim Wexell’s works on Steelers backup tackles proved to be prophetic

Now we know why.

The NFL suspended Marcus Gilbert for 4 games for use of performance enhancers, meaning the Chris Hubbard will need to protect Ben Roethlisberger’s right side in the Steelers up coming matchups with Green Bay, Cincinnati, Baltimore and yes, New England.

Gilbert issued a statement via Twitter:

While Chris Hubbard already started 6 games this season, the Marcus Gilbert’s suspension deprives the Steelers of one of their best lineman during the stretch run. Gilbert will not appeal the suspension, an appeal which could have impacted his availability for the playoffs. Either way, the move will cost Gilbert:

There is a bright side to the story, however. With Marcus Gilbert off the roster for four weeks, the Steelers will not have to release anyone to activate Cam Sutton from the injured reserve list. The Steelers of course drafted Cam Sutton in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

Sutton spent most of 2017’s training camp out injured, but saw playing time in both the Steelers 3rd and 4th preseasons games and made the final 53 man roster, only to be put on IR. Sutton began practicing with the Steelers 3 weeks ago, and Pittsburgh must decide to activate him or leave him on IR for the rest of the season.

While expecting Cam Sutton to come in and contribute immediately is highly unrealistic, Joe Haden is out with a broken leg, leaving the Steelers shorthanded at cornerback with only William Gay and Brian Allen behind Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Burns.

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Ben Roethlisberger Strikes Out, Le’Veon Bell Romps in Steelers-Chiefs Game Ball Poll

The results of the game ball polling from the Steelers win over the Chiefs are in, and no Ph.D in advanced meta statistics are needed to interpret the results.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Cheifs, Le'Veon Bell Arrowhead

Le’Veon Bell dominated the Chiefs in the Steelers 2017 win at Arrowhead. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

As you can see, Le’Veon Bell was the run away favorite in the voting, followed by Antonio Brown.

Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers Chiefs Game Ball, Le'Veon BellReally, if you look at the quality of play of both Number 26 and Number 84 its hard to dispute the result. The fact that Ben Roethlisberger got shut out in the voting is perhaps a surprise, although your truly would like to believe that this reveals the sophistication of this site’s readership.

  • Quarterbacks often get too much credit when a team wins, and too much blame when they lose.

Ben Roethlisberger DID play a better game against the Chiefs than he has played for much of the season thus far, but the fact remains that his still below par for a franchise quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger got extremely lucky on the touchdown pass to Antonio Brown, and he must bear some responsibility for the Steelers 3rd down struggles.

  • Beyond that it was slim picking for the Steelers offense in the game ball poll.

JuJu Smith-Schuster found no love. Nor did Vance McDonald find any love. McDonald might have only made one catch, but it was his first as a Steeler, and a very important one at that. While the defense drew a number of write ins, only David DeCastro got a nod, although 5 other voters followed suit. Perhaps the entire offensive line deserved a ballot position, as the unit played its best game of the season.

Its hard to argue against a game ball for Deboo, and yours truly is NOT inclined to do so. But we will argue that Vince Williams deserved more love, as he was a one-man wrecking crew until he left the game with an injury. Its also a bit surprising that Sean Davis found no love until the very last day of the poll, and then he only pulled down one vote.

Sean Davis had a phenomenal day and, all respect intended for the late game heroics of Cameron Heyward and James Harrison in bringing Alex Smith down, his play in the end zone was arguably the most important defensive play of the game.

As always, Steel Curtain Rising thanks everyone who took out time to vote and/or submit their write-in choices.

 

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Regression: Stumbling Steelers Overtime Loss to Bears Confirms Troubling Tomlin Trend

Week 3 in the NFL is often times an equalizer. Football is a game of angles and inches and its not uncommon for middling teams to get caught just a little too short or do just enough to win or loss in week’s 1 and 2.

  • But in week 3, the law of averages tends to even out.

And that’s accurately describes the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers won, albeit in unimpressive fashion in weeks 1 and 2 over the Browns and Vikings. In the Steelers overtime loss to the Bears, Pittsburgh came up short in a number of cases, had several opportunities thrown their way, but ultimately revealed their identity for what it is thus far: A team with a superstar roster with woefully under performing its pedigree.

Ben Roethlisberger, Willie Young, Steelers vs Bears, Steelers overtime loss Bears Chicago

Willie Young sacks Ben Roethlisberger to end regulation in the Steelers overtime loss to the Bears. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribuen Review

Troubling Tomlin  Trend Confirms Itself

Mike Tomlin has been at the helm of the Pittsburgh Steelers for over 10 seasons. While that’s ten too many for some factions of Steelers Nation, this site has not (and still is not) inclined to join that chorus. Regardless, such a long tenure provides ample opportunity for finding meaningful tendencies.

And the tendencies relevant to the Steelers loss to the Chicago Bears are troubleing:

  • The Steelers are 5-13 in last 18 games on the road against teams with losing records
  • Since Super Bowl XLV the Steelers are 5-9 in early-season road games
  • Beny Rothlisberger doesn’t seem to be the same quarterback on the road

Leading up to the Chicago game, the Steelers said all the right things, as they always do. Mike Tomlin reminded the team that it was Mike Glennon who embarrassed the Steelers in their 2014 loss to Tampa. Cameron Heyward, Ryan Shazier and players further down the depth chart to a man, assured us that the Steelers weren’t taking the Bears lightly.

And let’s give the guys credit, there’s nothing to indicate that the Steelers looked past the Bears.

  • Which makes the Steelers 23-17 overtime loss in Chicago all the more troubling.

It is easy to find scapegoats. And the truth is that absent the Pittsburgh’s special teams snafus, from Eli Rogers muffed punt, to Chris Boswell’s blocked field goals, the Steelers probably would have stumbled to victory against the Bears.

Perhaps it’s a tautology, but great teams find ways to overcome mistakes with superior plays. Good teams overcome mistakes by taking advantage of opportunities presented to them. In their 23-17 overtime loss to the Chicago Bears, the Steelers failed to marshal superior plays, and saw a Bears team all but beg to give the team away in the second half.

That the Steelers were insufficient to the task is incontrovertible. Understanding why remains a mystery.

Steelers Offense Continues to Underperform

The word on the Steelers coming into the Bears game was that the defense had carried the team during the first two weeks. While that’s true, its also true that the when the Browns took away the deep ball, Ben Roethlisberger responded by burning them to Antonio Brown underneath. When the Vikings crowded up the middle of the field, Roethlisberger hit Martavis Bryant deep (or otherwise got his receivers to draw pass interference penalties.)

  • Through it all, the Steelers struggled to establish Le’Veon Bell on the ground.

Against the Bears, the Steelers offense sputtered, as best exemplified by their 4-11 third down conversion record. And while pass protection was generally sound, a strip sack by the Bears ended one promising scoring drive, and fighting to get into field goal range, the Steelers offensive line was unable to protect their quarterback against a three man rush.

  • Perhaps its Tomlin should have played his starters more in preseason, to establish greater cohesion.
  • Perhaps Le’Veon Bell’s holdout dulled his edge more than expected.
  • Perhaps Todd Haley is mailing it in.
  • Perhaps Father Time has Big Ben’s clock clicking towards “Life’s Work” faster than expected.

At this point, all explanations deserve full consideration.

The bottom line is that the Pittsburgh Steelers have far too much talent on offense to struggle as they have during these first 3 games of the season.

Steelers Defense Overrated?

Heading into the season, the word on the Steelers defense was that they had as good of a front seven of any other team in the league, but that the secondary remained suspect. But the Steelers defense looked good in weeks one and weeks two, getting contributions not only from the usual suspects, but from new faces such as Bud Dupree, Anthony Chickillo, Joe Haden, J.J. Wilcox, Javon Hargrave and Vince Williams.

They’d preformed so well that MMQB’s Andy Beniot suggested that the Steelers might have the best defense in the league….

  • Then Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard combined for 220 yards and averaged over 6.0 yards per carry.

Note, Chicago Bears quarterback Mike Glennon completed all of one pass for 9 yards to a wide receiver. Clearly he didn’t need to do more. IT would be incorrect to say that the Chicago Bears imposed their will on the Steelers, because there were times when the Steelers defense stuffed Chicago runners as we’re accustomed to seeing them run.

  • But if the Chicago Bears couldn’t run the ball on the Steelers defense when they wanted to, they certainly ran it when they needed to.

And as a result, the Bears overcame two second half turnovers, numerous penalties, fumbles and bad snaps to last long enough to thoroughly embarrass the Steelers defense in overtime.

Keith Butler had better have a long look at this tape, because opposing offensive coordinators certainly will.

3 Games into 2017 Steelers Regressing to the Mean

The Pittsburgh Steelers began 2016 with a mix of strong and inconsistent performances, only to struggle mightily in the middle portion of their schedule. They made a stark turn round during the second half of 2016 which continued all the way to their AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

  • 3 games into the 2017 season, there’s only one thing you can say about this team.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are team well-stocked with above average talent that somehow is finding itself regressing to the mean.

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Steelers Bears “Blame Ball” Poll

Well, it was another trip to Solider Field for the Steelers, and another loss. The Pittsburgh Steelers history against the Chicago Bears shows that the franchise has struggled in the Windy City, and their 14 visit there was no exception as the Steelers lost 23-17 in overtime.

Mike Mitchell, Jordan Howard, Joe Hayden, Steelers vs Bears, Steelers vs Bears overtime

Mike Mitchell can’t stop Jordan Howard as he smokes the Steelers in overtime. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Alas, after a substandard effort like that in so many different parts of the team, we cannot in good conscious put up a “Game Ball” poll, so instead we’re launching a “Blame Ball” poll:

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 09-18-2017 17:55:27
end_date 09-30-2017 23:59:59
Poll Results:
Which Steelers most deserve blame for the Bear's loss? (Multiple Votes allowed)

As you can see, only Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell are the only two individuals to share the dishonor of having ballot mentions.

  • However, please do not mistake that for a scapegoat of either man.

That’s because blame can be spread far and wide on this one, as this Bob Pompeani tweet summarized.

The Chicago Bears gave the Atlanta Falcons a run for their money early in the year, so perhaps this shouldn’t be considered a “Trap game.” Still, as the Tribune Review’s Joe Rutter pointed out, the Steelers have struggled mightly on the road in September, and this game proved the rule.

  • Frankly, blame for that falls squarely on the shoulders of Mike Tomlin, although both Todd Haley and Keith Butler‘s units performed piss poorly.

Danny Smith’s special teams, after being heroes in weeks 1 and 2, caused a costly mistake that resulted in a 6 point swing. Vance McDonald made a heads up play, but if Jordan Berry just lands on the ball, its a safety and the Steelers are ahead by one at game’s close.

  • And then there’s Eli Rogers muffed punt that set up Chicago’s first touchdown.

The stat sheet indicates that Ben Roethlisberger had a decent game, but he also had at least 3 passes that could have been picked off, and couldn’t get the ball to his receivers when he needed to, especially on 3rd Downs. Antonio Brown had a solid game, but that cannot be said for the rest of his wide receiving corps.

Martavis Bryant had 8 targets and only 6 catches. To be sure, some of those were not well thrown balls and/or balls that Ben Roethlisberger looked like he was forcing, but he still should have had the first bomb thrown his way, even if it was a little overthrown.

And while Le’Veon Bell didn’t necessarily have a “bad day” he’s still far, far short of the Hall of Fame level performances that characterized his play in almost every single game last year. All of that blame is not due to him, as his offensive line’s run blocking hasn’t been consistent.

  • On defense, it is hard to know where to point the finger, because the Chicago Bears ran all over the Steelers.

Ryan Shazier had a good day stastically, but it seemed like each and every defender failed to bring his man down on first contact. No matter how you slice it, the Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave, Tyson Alualu, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams, Shazier and Anthony Chickillo utterly failed to stop Chicago’s running game when it counted.

The Bears won despite completing only one pass to wide receivers, so perhaps the Steelers secondary can avoid blame, but we’ll leave that for you the readers to decide.

As always, write in votes are not only allowed, but encouraged. Thanks in advance for taking time out to vote, and please check back for our full analysis of the Steelers latest loss to the Bears in Chicago.

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4 Lessons Learned & Random Thoughts on Steelers Growth Since Vikings Loss in London

When the Pittsburgh Steelers kickoff for their 2017 home opener against the Minnesota Vikings this afternoon, 1450 days will have passed since these two franchises last squared off. Normally you don’t think of intra-conference games marking milestones, but this one does.

Because if the Steelers post Super Bowl XLV rebuilding project began with the Tebowing in the playoffs against Denver in January 2011, the rebuilding effort scratched rock bottom on September 29th, as the Vikings dropped the 2013 Steelers to 0-4.

  • To put this into perspective, the previous Steelers head coach to start 0-4 was Bill Austin, in 1968.

With that in mind, let’s look at how the Steelers have changed, and remained the same, since then.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers London

Le’Veon Bell scores his first touchdown in the Steelers loss to Vikings in London. Photo Credit: Daily Mail Online

1. Sort of Failing at Left Tackle is Like Being Sort of Pregnant

By the fall of 2013 the Steelers had relegated their “Plug ‘n Patch” approach to offensive line building to history. Indeed on that day they started Ramon Foster, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert just as they will this afternoon (and they would have started Maurkice Pouency had he not been hurt.)

  • They also started Mike Adams at left guard.

Mike Adams didn’t represent any sort of Jonathan Scottesque attempt to get by on the cheap at left tackle. No, the Steelers invested a 2nd round pick in Mike Adams and made it very clear from the get go that they wanted him to win the starting job. He couldn’t do that as a rookie (and surprise, they turned again to Max Starks), but they gave him the job 2013.

  • The move was an epic fail, and the London loss to the Vikings was its supernova.

Adams struggled all day, and first and only time in his career, Ben Roethlisberger played like he had happy feet. The Vikings ended the game by sacking Roethlisberger, and while Adams didn’t directly allow the sack, he clearly didn’t win his battle at the line of scrimmage which helped collapse the pocket, paving the way for a sack.

The Vikings game in London marked Mike Adams final start at left tackle and Kelvin Beachum’s assent to the role.

2. Le’Veon Lived Up to the Hype, Jarvis Didn’t….

While neither he nor Mike Tomlin uttered the word “Rebuilding,” after the 2012 Steelers 8-8 finish Kevin Colbert as much as admitted changes were needed. Ergo, two key building blocks would come early in the Steelers 2013 Draft Class. One worked out, the other didn’t.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Ed Bouchette isn’t one to exaggerate, but even he seemed to be drinking a little Koolaid a big when he declared in July 2013 that Le’Veon Bell’s preseason debut “…will be one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

  • Le’Veon Bell’s debut didn’t come until London thanks to his Lisfranc injury.

While Le’Veon Bell’s statistics were rather pedestrian on that afternoon, he did score two touchdowns, and flashed some of the ability that the Steelers offense has come to depend upon.

On the flip side, Jarvis Jones, who’d boldly requested number 95, was making his third start at outside linebacker for the Steelers. Jones had one tackle on the day and by any measure must be considered Kevin Colbert’s only true first round bust.

3. How Long Does It Take to Rebuild Defense? Four Years

One striking observation is that there’s been very little turnover in the Steelers offense since that fateful London day. Sure, Health Miller retired and the entire tight end depth chart has turned over (thanks to David Johnson’s waiver). But the line remains intact and that was the first game that the Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown played together, and the trio has powered the offense since.

  • On defense you find an entirely different story.

Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were still manning both safety spots. Ike Taylor was still starting at corner, and Cortez Allen, the unit’s rising star, returned to the line up to get burned on a 70 yard touchdown. Aside from William Gay, who was back after a one year hiatus in Pittsburgh West, the entire Steelers secondary has turned over since the London Loss.

Looking at the linebackers, Vince Williams was making his first NFL start, and if the rookie looked woefully unable to fill Larry Foote’s shoes, no one can argue he hasn’t grown into the role. But Vince Williams is the only Steelers linebacker left from the London Game (remember, James Harrison was in Cincinnati.)

If the Viking’s victory in London marked the Vince Williams first start, it also marked Ziggy Hood’s last one, as Mike Tomlin would name Cam Heyward starter after this game. The other starters that day were Steve McLendon, who was just taking over from Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel. 1450 days later, the story remains the same on defensive line. Cam Heyward remains, everyone else is playing elsewhere or has begun “Life’s Work.”

4. Assistant Coaches Do Matter – See Mike Munchak’s Influence

People forget this, but Mike Adams wasn’t the only Steelers offensive lineman under fire 1450 days ago. Just one week earlier, in the Steelers loss to the Bears, Steelers coaches had rotated Kelvin Beachum on at both tackles.

While the Steelers offensive line improved during the course of 2013, Mike Tomlin quickly fired Jack Bicknell at season’s end and replaced him with Mike Munchak, and no one argues that the Steelers offensive line is far better for Munchak’s influence.

Young Money had been all the rage prior to 2013, but the promise of those young receivers was largely unrealized, as even Antonio Brown’s play was a little uneven by the end of 2012. Mike Tomlin responded by replacing Scottie Montgomery with Richard Mann, who has clearly transformed the Steelers wide receiving corps.

As Dick Hoak reminded everyone on the day he retired (after nearly 3 and half decades of serving as a Steelers assistant coach) NFL assistant coaches are “Hired to be fired.” He’s right. Often times assistant coaches act as the fall guys when either head coaches fail or draft picks flounder as busts.

But the additions of Richard Mann and Mike Munchak show that good assistant coaches can and do make a difference in the NFL.

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Steelers sign Alejandro Villaneuva to 4-year deal

You can make that one training camp holdout for the Steelers as they began preparations for the 2017 regular season.

While star running back Le’Veon Bell has yet to sign his $12.1 million franchise tag and hasn’t reported to training camp, several outlets–but most reliably their official website–are reporting the Steelers signed starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva to a new four-year contract-extension as players reported to camp on Thursday.

Villanueva, a decorated military veteran who served several tours in Afghanistan, played his college ball at Army, where he tried his hand at several positions–including left tackle, defensive end and tight end–before entering the NFL as an undrafted free-agent in 2014.

He signed with the Eagles, who wanted him to play defensive end.

After failing to make Philadelphia’s active roster, Villanueva made his way to the Steelers practice squad in 2014, and that’s where he remained for the rest of the year, while he added weight to his 6’9″ frame and learned the left tackle position under legendary offensive line coach Mike Munchak.

Villanueva made the Steelers active roster as a reserve offensive lineman in 2015 and got his big career break later in the year, when starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum suffered a season-ending ACL tear in a Week 6 victory over the Cardinals at Heinz Field.

Villanueva started the final 10 games of the 2015 season and all 16 in 2016.

As an exclusive-rights free-agent, Villanueva, 28, had no real leverage but to show up and play in 2017. But as training camp approached, there were rumors that Villanueva would hold out in pursuit of a new deal.

However, with Thursday being the official date for players to report to St. Vincent in Latrobe, Pa., the new agreement for Villanueva means he will get to continue to improve on his craft.

As per usual, the Steelers didn’t disclose any financial terms for Villanueva’s deal, but Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com, citing an unnamed source, is reporting the contract is worth $24 million. 

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs at Offensive Line

The Steelers offensive line building strategy has seen a sea change during the Mike Tomlin era, perhaps like no other spot on the depth chart.

  • During the first part of the Tomlin era, the Steelers used a “Plug and Patch” approach to building their offensive line.

Whether it was because the Steelers drank their own “Weapons vs. Protection” Koolaid for real or because they won Super Bowl XLIII and went to another with a makeshift offensive line, or because Bruce Arians wasn’t interested in line building as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reported in 2013, the Steelers ignored the offensive line in Mike Tomlin’s first several drafts.

That changed as Ben Roethlisberger started taking more hits, and the question we look at here today is whether the Steelers should continue to focus on the offensive line in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Maurkice Pouncey, B.J. Finney, David DeCastro, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers offensive line, Steelers offensive line draft needs 2017

Maurkice Pouncey flanked by David DeCastro and B.J. Finney on Le’Veon Bell’s record breaking day in Buffalo. Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via lastwordonfootball.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Offensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starters

The Maurkice Pouncey anchors the Steelers offensive line having been voted to the Pro Bowl by his peers in each of his non-injury seasons. Marcus Gilbert holds down the right end of the Steelers offensive line, followed by David DeCastro, with Ramon Foster and Alejandro Villanueva playing to Pouency’s left.

While it is fair to say that the Steelers offensive line got off to a slow start in early 2016, the unit gelled as the season progressed. Ben Roethlisberger took fewer sacks than he has in any season and Le’Veon Bell tured out single game performances in both the regular season and playoffs that neither Willie Parker, nor Franco Harris, nor Jerome Bettis could accomplish.

That only happens of the Steelers offensive line is playing well.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Offensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind their starting front five the Steelers have  and B.J. Finney who can back up at guard and center. Next they have Chris Hubbard who can play both guard and offensive tackle. Ryan Harris retired, leaving 2016’s 4th round draft pick Jerald Hawkins and Brain Mihalik as the primary backups at offensive tackle.

Both Chris Hubbard and BJ Finney saw action in during 2016, and both men played well, although Finney is stronger at guard than he is at center.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Offensive Line

The Steelers offensive line is as talented and as deep as it has been at any time in during the Mike Tomlin era. The Steelers starters and depth at guard are both strong. Depth at center isn’t quite as strong, but BJ Finney has shown he’s at least serviceable there, and he also possesses the proverbial “Upside.”Steelers 2017 Draft Needs offensive line

  • Depth remains more of a concern at offensive tackle.

Chris Hubbard started four games at tackle and also served as a third tight end as part of the Steelers “Big Boy Package.” In a perfect world Jerald Hawkins would give the Steelers 2 viable backups at offensive tackle, but Hawkins is an untested commodity.

Fate has had a nasty way of reminding Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert that the old saying “You can never have too many good offensive lineman” during more than one season in recent memory. And that leads one to the temptation to rate offensive line a higher priority, but the Steelers essential need at offensive line is to build depth, and therefore Steelers 2017 draft need at must be considered Moderate/Low.

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Steelers Restricted Free Agent Tender to Chris Hubbard is a Low Risk No Brainer

When talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers group of upcoming free-agents, reserve offensive lineman Chris Hubbard probably doesn’t enter into most discussions among fans and the media.

But that’s the thing about backup offensive linemen in the National Football League:

  • You never know when you’re going to need them.

Such was the case for the Steelers and Hubbard early last season, when starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert and veteran backup swing tackle Ryan Harris were both lost in a 43-14 Sunday night victory over the Chiefs at Heinz Field.

Chris Hubbard, Chris Hubbard restricted free agent, Chis Hubbard tight end

Chris Hubbard lines up as a tight end in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Chris Hubbard’s Steelers Career

Chris Hubbard, a 2013 undrafted rookie free-agent out of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), bounced back and forth between the team’s practice squad and active roster during 2013, 2014 and 2015 before finally finding a permanent job among the final 53 in 2016.

Its a bit ironic when you look back, as Mike Golic Jr. and Nik Embernate aka “Embernasty” got all the headlines when the Steelers 2013 undrafted rookie free agent class was announced, but four years later, it was Chris Hubbard who was suiting up for the AFC Championship game.

A versatile lineman who can play guard, center and tackle, Hubbard proved his worth against Kansas City in that aforementioned Week 4 match-up, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had perhaps his best game of the season, passing for 300 yards and five touchdowns.

With Marcus Gilbert and Ryan Harris both ruled out against the Jets seven days later, Chris Hubbard got his first career start at right tackle. The result: a more than satisfactory performance in a 31-13 Steelers victory over the Jets at Heinz Field.

  • A week later, Chris Hubbard struggled quite a bit in a 30-15 loss at Miami, as Pittsburgh also lost Ben Roethlisberger with a torn meniscus.

Chris Hubbard started two more games at right tackle before Marcus Gilbert finally returned from his ankle injury, and the young lineman would  remain the backup tackle the rest of the year, as Ryan Harris, who suffered a shin injury against the Chiefs, ultimately had to be placed on Injured Reserve.

Chris Hubbard also saw extensive spot-duty as a third tight end in the Steelers “Big Boy” package, helping David Johnson and Jesse James open holes for Le’Veon Bell.

Pro’s & Con’s of Steelers Decision to RFA Tender to Chris Hubbard

As the Steelers approach free-agency, Hubbard is of the restricted free agent, meaning the Steelers retain the right of first refusal should any other team offer Chris Hubbard a contract.

  • Will there be any offers for Hubbard, 25? Probably not. Should have tendered him a right of first refusal option (as they have) anyway?

If you were to say linemen of Hubbard’s pedigree are a dime a dozen, you would be correct. If you also were to say that Jerald Hawkins, Pittsburgh’s fourth round pick out of LSU in 2016, is someone the team probably is counting on to make strides in 2017, you are also surely correct.

  • Fact is, the Steelers seem set at both tackle positions for the near-future.

Marcus Gilbert is signed through 2019, while left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who only has two years of NFL experience and is an exclusive-rights free-agent, meaning he simply must take whatever offer Pittsburgh gives him.

A year ago Chris Hubbard was a “nice to have” type player to have on your depth chart, now he’s one play away from protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside.

Obviously, the Steelers could fill the backup tackle void with just about anyone, but why not with a player who has been in their system for some time now and also has had and will continue to have the privilege of being coached my Mike Munchak, perhaps the best in the business at what he does and certainly the most respected assistant coach on Pittsburgh’s staff.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Chis Hubbard

When you see the improvements of the likes of Marcus Gilbert and more notably Alejandro Villanueva in recent years, Chris Hubbard is certainly in good hands, and if any offensive line coach can get max out of his abilities, it’s Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak.

  • The Steelers have already offered Chris Hubbard a right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard.

Exact figures for 2017’s right of first refusal offers are suggested to be in the 1.85 million dollar range. So its doubtful that another team will try to sign Chris Hubbard away.

Its says here the Steelers made the right move in protecting Chris Hubbard. The Steelers have invested heavily in his development, and the truth is Chris Hubbard will be on someone’s roster in 2017. He he might as well be on the Steelers’ because you just never know when his services will be needed.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Ryan Harris Retires, Steelers Depth at Offensive Tackle Just Became a Higher Priority

In a move that counts as disappointing, if not terribly surprising, Pittsburgh Steelers reserve offensive tackle Ryan Harris has announced his retirement.

https://twitter.com/salaams_from_68/status/837819366309769217

Ryan Harris’ ride with the Steelers was, in a word, short.

The Steelers signed Ryan Harris last year in free agency after losing Kelvin Beachum to the Jacksonville Jaguars to provide depth and/or competition to Alejandro Villanueva for the left tackle spot. Harris had been drafted by the Denver Broncos in 2007, played there for four years, spent 2 in Houston, one in Kansas City only to return to Denver in time for their Super Bowl run.

Ryan Harris, Ryan Harris retirement, Steelers vs Eagles

Ryan Harris pressed into duty at right tackle in the 2016 Steelers loss to the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Fortunately, the Steelers never got a chance to see how good of a job Ryan Harris could do protecting Ben Roethlisberger‘s blindside as Alejandro Villanueva won the starting job in training camp.

Ryan Harris did see duty in all four of the Steelers first four games in 2016, and got pressed into starting service with Marcus Gilbert got injured during the Kansas City Chiefs game.

That stint as the Steelers starting right tackle didn’t last long, however, as Ryan Harris would suffer a leg hematoma and was done for the year.

Impact of Ryan Harris’ Retirement on Steelers Free Agency & Draft Plans

Given the serious nature of Ryan Harris leg injury, the Steelers certainly knew Ryan Harris’ retirement was a possibility, if not a probability and the move explains the Steelers decision to offer a 1.85 million dollar right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard.

  • Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva are set as the Steelers starting tackles, with Chris Hubbard as their the swing tackle backup.

This would have likely been the case regardless of Ryan Harris’ decision to retire. The Steelers are also counting on Jerald Hawkins, their 4th round pick from the 2016 NFL Draft, to return and compete for a roster spot. It is unlikely the Steelers would invest salary cap dollars into a backup offensive tackle via the free agent market, but the absence of Ryan Harris could boost the need or desire to draft an offensive tackle in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Ryan Harris Steelers Experience Had Quality, if it Lacked Quantity

While he only suited up for four games with the Steelers, that was long enough for Harris become emersed in “the Steelers way.” As Ryan Harris told Steelers Digest’s Teresa Varley:

It’s amazing to see the Rooney family multiple times a day or a week. The fact that Mr. (Dan) Rooney knows my name is incredible, especially being a fan of the game for so long. Just everything, from the medical staff, to the coaches, to everyone involved, this is a championship organization and you feel it immediately when you get here.

The culture of the Steelers and the type of character we have here makes it fuller.

That’s an incredible statement, given that Ryan Harris played in the NFL for four teams over 9 years, and his time in Pittsburgh counts for just over 3% of the games he played.

Steelers Nation thanks Ryan Harris, and wishes his well in his retirement.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Struggling for Answers: Steelers Report Card for (latest) AFC Championship Loss to Patriots

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who watched his students soar through the second semester and on through the first 2 preliminary exams only to come crashing down to earth during the 3rd prequalification exam, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the latest AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Rogers, Steelers report card patriots AFC Championship, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship

The Steelers simply lacked answer in their AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
For the record, Ben Roethlisberger threw 47 times and connected on 31 of them, for one touchdown and one interception. Given the injury to Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger was forced to take a lot on to his shoulders, and the force of his leadership was clearly evident on the field. Likewise, at one point Roethlisberger 13 consecutive passes.

  • Yet there were two other plays early in the game where the wide receiver was forced to play defensive back.

It is true that Ben Roethlisberger didn’t get much help from his receivers as he had at least two drops in the end zone. There were other catchable balls that receivers failed to land. While that’s not his fault, the game called for Ben Roethlisberger go the extra mile, and deliver passes that made his wide outs look better than they were. Ben didn’t quite reach that level, and it was what would have been required of Roethlisberger for a win. Grade: B-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers vs patriots,

Running Backs
Injuries limited Le’Veon Bell to 6 carries meaning he never got a chance to get revving. The Steelers plan had been to ride Bell as far as he would take them, and that wasn’t very far in the playoffs. DeAngelo Williams stepped in and ripped off some impressive runs early, but was ineffective after that, although he didn’t have help from the line in the Red Zone. DeAngelo Williams did score the team’s first touchdown and he caught all 7 passes thrown his way, which raises his mark. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
David Johnson had 1 catch for one yard, while Jesse James had another strong playoff performance bring in 5 passes for 48 yards and almost scoring a touchdown. He also did well in the blocking game. While there’s not much to fault the Steelers tight ends, the group also didn’t do anything to stand out when the outcome remained in doubt. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
The Patriots did their best to bottle up Antonio Brown and kept him under 100 yards. Still, Brown caught 7 of 9 balls thrown his way, and showed off some excellent cornerbacks on one of the incomplitions that came his way. Moreover, Brown played with the passion and demeanor of a champion.

  • Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of his counterparts.

Sammie Coates had a horrible game, dropping the first pass the Steelers threw in a play that could have set the tone for the entire game. Coates also dropped another catchable pass in the end zone. Eli Rogers caught 7 of 9 passes, but his fumble essentially put the game out of reach for the Steelers. Inexcusable in a playoff game. Cobi Hamilton too had a case of the butter fingers, and negated his own touchdown pass by stepping out of bounds. A rookie mistake, and a costly one. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
On the positive side, the Steelers offensive line kept Ben Roethlisberger spotless for almost the entire game. However, the offensive line’s run blocking, especially at the goal line at the end of the first half, left a lot to be desired. The Steelers could have sent a resounding message by punching it in before the second half, instead the offense traveled backwards.

Victory in this game would have meant the line giving a little something extra. Something the line didn’t have. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave dropped Tom Brady on New England’s second 3rd down in what could have been a tone setter, but that was the high water mark of the defensive line’s achievement. The Steelers did contain LeGarrette Blount, but the Patriots overpowered them on Blount’s rugby-like 18 yard maul. The Steelers didn’t blitz much, which left it to the line to get pressure Stephon Tuitt hit Brady once, but that was it. L.T. Walton and Hargrave all had tackles for losses, but the line ultimately didn’t deliver. Grade: C-

Linebackers
For the record, Lawrence Timmons led the team in tackles with 14 and dropped two people behind the line of scrimmage. Ryan Shazier was next with 7, followed by Bud Dupree with 5, James Harrison with 4 and Jarvis Jones with 3.

  • None of those numbers mask the fact that this was a rough day for the Steelers linebackers.

The unit didn’t pressure Brady and couldn’t defend his short passes. The Steelers needed more from what is the strongest unit of their depth chart and didn’t get it. Grade: F

Robert Golden, Chis Hogan 1st touchdown Steelers AFC Championship, Chris Hogan, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship

Chris Hogan scores a touchdown as Robert Golden, well, watches. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Secondary
Sean Davis had a garbage time sack and a hit on Tom Brady. Artie Burns had 6 tackles including a very physical one which sent his man back several yards. But the real number for the Steelers secondary in this game is zero. As in zero passes defensed, zero interceptions, zero sacks, zero forced fumbles. The simple fact is that Tom Brady picked apart the Steelers pass defense, and he made it look easy.

Some of that is just Brady being good, but at other times this unit seemed to go out of its way to help him. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed an extra point, and while that didn’t have any impact on the game’s outcome, it confirmed that this was not an evening where the Steelers would get any breaks. On the positive side, Antonio Brown had one punt return for 1 yards. Sammie Coates also looked competent as a kick returner, although Justin Gilbert did not. The Patriots only returned one kick for 18 yards. Jordan Berry’s punting average of 38 yards looks OK, but is 10 yards below his counter parts. Special teams wasn’t a liability for the Steelers in this loss, but it didn’t provide anything extra. Grade: C

Coaching
If the Steelers first series of the game offers any indication, Todd Haley’s base game plan was to alternate between feeding the ball to Le’Veon Bell on and trying to make the Patriots pay for focusing on stopping him by throwing downfield.

  • That type of strategy only works if Bell doesn’t get hurt and receivers don’t drop passes that they should catch.

The Steelers of course couldn’t overcome Bell’s loss, but those lie in errors of execution as opposed to being rudderless without Bell.

On defense, Keith Butler had the unenviable task of breaking some horrendous defensive history against Tom Brady on the second biggest stage that the NFL has to offer. Ever since the game ended there’s been a firestorm over why Butler and Mike Tomlin didn’t shift to the man-coverage approach that worked during the 2011 upset of the Patriots.

  • You’ll find no such second guessing here.
Mike Tomlin, James Harrison, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC championship game

Mike Tomlin and James Harrison leave the field after the Steelers latest AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. Photo credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

The Steelers had the NFL’s most experienced defense in 2011. In 2016 they had one of the younger NFL defenses. Trying to learn a new scheme in the heat of the playoffs simple wouldn’t have worked. If Tomlin’s post game comments are any guide, he and his staff considered and ruled out the option. A wise move even in 20/20 hindsight.

  • Which doesn’t let the Steelers coaches off the hook.

Mike Tomlin is right that the gravest errors were execution errors – it is hard to imagine that whatever play was called on Chris Hogan’s first touchdown play envisioned EVERY Steelers push rusher getting COMPLETELY blocked AND allowing Hogan to have HALF of the end zone to himself.

But regardless whether its execution, game planning or preparation, Mike Tomlin and his staff are now 1-6 against Tom Brady with no sign that they’ve got any viable answer to offer against the NFL’s best quarterback. Until Mike Tomlin finds those answers, the Pittsburgh Steelers will remain also rans. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Determining the Unsung Hero for this game is hard, because so few Steelers did anything to stand out. We’ll give our nod to Antonio Brown. While mistakes and struggles defined the night for Steelers other Steelers receivers, Antonio Brown like Ben Roethlisberger gave it his all, with tough catches, impressive runs after the catch and excellent improvisational defensive back skills on one bad pass. For that Antonio Brown is the Steelers Unsung Hero for the latest AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

 

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