Hits Keep Coming. Mike Munchak Bolts to Broncos. Steelers Promote Shaun Sarrett to Offensive Line Coach

The NFL’s 2019 off season hasn’t even officially started, yet the hits keep coming for the Pittsburgh Steelers. When the Denver Broncos passed on signing Mike Munchak as their head coach, Steelers Nation breathed a sigh of relief.

  • Yesterday, that sign became a gasp of desperation as the Broncos named Mike Munchak as their offensive line coach.

The Steelers moved swiftly to fill the position, naming offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett who had formerly served as Munchak’ s assistant. Shaun Sarrett has worked with the Steelers since 2012 as an offensive assistant.

Mike Munchack, Shaun Sarrett, Steelers offensive line coaches

Shaun Sarrett & Mike Munchack at the 2018 Pro Bowl. Photo Credit: 247 Pittsburgh

The Munchak Legacy in Pittsburgh

Mike Munchak was easily the highest regarded assistant coach on Mike Tomlin’s staff. And his record shows why.

When Mike Munchak arrived in January 2014, the Steelers offensive line seemed to be in a natural state of chaos. Whether it was because of injuries or ineffectiveness, offensive lineman shuffled in and out of the Steelers lineup from game to game, sometimes even during games themselves.

  • Mike Munchak changed that.

While the Steelers had been moving away from the “Plug and Patch” offensive line philosophy that characterized the early Tomlin era, it was Mike Munchak who ensured that those draft picks paid dividends.

A look at the development of Marcus Gilbert is telling, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizik observed shortly before Munchak’ s arrival, “…Gilbert maintained his starting role at right tackle all season but allowed 11 of the 43 sacks of Roethlisberger and 30 quarterback hurries.”

  • While is career has been hobbled by injuries, under Munchak, Marcus Gilbert grew into one of the NFL’s better right tackles.

While Maurkice Pouncey was already flourishing before Munchak arrived and David DeCastro probably would have flourished as well, Mike Munchak’ s real genius showed in his work with players like Kelvin Beachum, Chris Hubbard, B.J. Finney, Matt Feiler and especially Alejandro Villanueva, who didn’t even play offensive line in college.

Of the men mentioned above, only Beachum got a call on draft day, and then as a 7th round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but all of them have stepped in as starters on the Steelers offensive line and effectively provided protection for Ben Roethlisberger or opened holds for the likes of Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams or James Conner.

The details behind Mike Munchak’s decision to bolt to the Broncos remain unknown. One of Munchak’ s daughters and grand children live in Denver, and that is why Munchak is so strongly attracted to the Broncos head coaching job. Others have suggested he wishes to escape the Antonio Brown circus.

Regardless, Mike Munchak did a tremendous job in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers will miss him.

Don’t Sell Shaun Sarrett Short

While losing Mike Munchak is clearly a blow for the Pittsburgh Steelers coaching staff, it would be a mistake for Steelers fans to sell Shaun Sarrett short. Mike Tomlin’s decision to fire Jack Bicknell immediately after the 2013 season surprised many. The Steelers 2013 offensive line had started very poorly, but improved by season’s end.

As Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette observed at the time:

Curiously, the offensive line improved as the season wore on.
After allowing 36 sacks in the first nine games, the Steelers allowed just seven in the final seven games. And the running game that averaged just 3.4 yards in the first 11 games averaged 4.1 yards in the final five games.

Why would Mike Tomlin fire his offensive line coach after seeing such improvement? Because as the 2013 season wore on, the offensive assistant Shaun Sarrett, and not Bicknell, began giving the lineman their individual instruction.

  • If Mike Munchak proved anything during his time in Pittsburgh, it was that he was an excellent teacher.

Shaun Sarrett has been at Mike Munchak’s side as he has mentored and molding one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and it is fair to conclude that Munchak taught Sarrett a thing or two about coaching.

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Steelers Activate Eli Rogers, Place Marcus Gilbert on IR, Possibly Ending his Time in Pittsburgh

His “Questionable” listing aside, don’t expect the Steelers to have James Conner suit up against the Patriots, but Pittsburgh’s offense will welcome back a familiar face after a long absence. In a move that had been anticipated, the Steelers activated Eli Rogers.

The Steelers had until the middle of this coming week to activate Rogers or end his season by putting him on IR. With Ryan Switzer nursing an ailing ankle and James Washington still trying to build a rapport with Ben Roethlisberger, activating Eli Rogers makes sense.

While it is unknown what his role will be, Eli Rogers could provide a good number 3 target to help take heat off of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Eli Rogers

Steelers activate Eli Rogers ahead of Patriots game. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

Gilbert Goes on IR, Ending his Season, Possible Career with Steelers

Of course, to activate Eli Rogers meant the Steelers had to let someone go. The obvious candidate would be Trey Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds brother who was recently added from the practice squad. But with James Conner, Edmunds will serve as the emergency back behind Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels.

There are not too many “expendables” on the defensive side of the ball either, with Daniel McCullers or perhaps L.T. Walton being the only candidates.

  • As it turns out the elephant was sitting in the room.

The Steelers opted to put right tackle Marcus Gilbert on season-ending injured reserve to make way for Eli Rogers. Marcus Gilbert opened the season as the Steelers starter at right tackle, missed the Steelers week 3 win over Tampa Bay, returned for weeks 4, 5 and 6 but has been out since then.

Given that Marcus Gilbert also missed 7 games in 2017, and given that Gilbert is set to make close to 5 million dollars in the final year of his contract, one would have to think that the Steelers would consider moving on.

If that do, that will be a real shame, as Marcus Gilbert played a major role in the transformation of the Steelers offensive line from a unit cobbled together with a Plug and Patch approach, to one of the NFL’s best.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Broncos – Failing Because You Forget to Write Your Name Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is frustrated at watching his students flunk assignments because they’re forgetting to do things like put their names on their papers, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2018 loss to Denver at Mile High Stadium.

Terrell Edmunds, Philip Lindsay, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs. Broncos

Terrell Edmunds tackles Philip Lindsay. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger had his moments, including and impressive streak of consecutive pass completions , and hitting long touchdown pass from his own end zone. He also executed a game plan that forced him to be disciplined in getting the ball out quickly. But Ben Roethlisberger threw two interceptions. The first came got the Broncos back into the game on a drive when a touchdown very well may have sealed the outcome. The second came when the Steelers needed to score. Grade: D

Running Back
James Conner didn’t get a lot of opportunities to run the ball, but behind Roosevelt Nix’s blocking Conner looked like he might be able to put the game on ice had to coaches chosen to go that route. He also caught 4 passes on 4 targets. Nonetheless, James Conners fumbled at a critical moment which set up Denver’s go ahead touchdown. Ball security is becoming an issue for James Conners. Grade: D

Tight Ends
Jesse James had his number called 4 times and each time he delivered. Vance McDonald also had 3 catches on a day when a short passing game reigned supreme. Xavier Grimble had what should have been an excellent 23 yard run turn into a turnover instead of a touchdown in large part because he didn’t secure the ball properly. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
There was good and bad here. JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 97 yard touchdown should have been a game breaker. However, JuJu missed an earlier deep pass. Antonio Brown made one excellent toe-tapping catch only to miss another one which was more necessary. Ryan Switzer proved himself to be a valuable underneath target and showed he can take a hit. With Eli Rogers beginning to practice, James Washington needs prove he deserves a roster spot. Grade: C

Offensive Line
Denver has a fierce pass rush, yet Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked twice and neither were game-changing plays. The Steelers run blocking looked to be good enough, but honestly establishing the running game was never an priority of the coaching staff. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward’s sack of Case Keenum could have been a game turning play, and the duo’s numbers in terms of tackles for losses and QB hits show that they were aggressive. Still, the Steelers defensive line misses Stephon Tuitt, and if Phillip Lindsay 7.9 rushing average isn’t on the defensive line, it starts with them. Grade: B-

Linebackers
Vince Williams had a sack but it was L.J. Fort who actually tied Jon Bostic for the lead in tackles, but a blown Bostic coverage allowed Denver to make their first advanced into the Red Zone. T.J. Watt had one tackle. The stat sheet shows that Philip Lindsay had a lot of 2 yard runs. He also had two 8 yard runs, a 9, a 12, a 14, an 18 and a 32 yard run. A lot of that’s on the linebackers. Grade: D

Secondary
Terrell Edmunds showed off his athleticism by running down Philip Lindsay on a couple of long runs, which is good but in at least one of those cases Edmunds was compensating for a bad angle on the part of Sean Davis. Joe Haden had one of his most difficult days as a Steeler, giving up a long pass to Matt LaCosse and getting burned by Emmanuel Sanders. Mike Hilton’s trade mark has been timing blitzes perfectly, but he got flagged for a neutral zone infraction. Grade: D

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers fake field goal

Chris Boswell prepares to throw it to Alejandro Villanueva. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Special Teams
The return games were non-elements for both teams. Jordan Berry had a sound day kicking and Chis Boswell made all of his kicks – save for the one that got blocked, which is inexcusiable given Denver’s tape on that front.

On the flip side, the Chris Boswell to Alejandro Villanueva field goal was the first successful fake field goal in memory for the Steelers and the Steelers special teams effectively added made up for their earlier error. Grade: C

Coaching
Not that he, or more importantly Art Rooney II pay much attention, but Steelers coaches haven’t felt much social media heat during their five game winning streak. That ended with the loss to the Broncos.

  • As if Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner are somehow responsible for turnovers.

On offense it is easy to second guess Randy Fichtner’s short-passing game plan, but the truth is that he kept Ben Roethlisberger clean, the Steelers moved the chains and led in time of possession. None of that mattered much thanks to two end zone turnovers.

  • While the turnovers were the key to the game, they do obscure an afternoon that was rougher for Keith Butler’s defense than most commentators are acknowledging.

While the defense didn’t revert to its September form, it gave up several long plays and struggled against the run. Moreover, as Mike Tomlin indicated in his press conference, the Steelers defense could have altered the dynamic with a turnover, but none was forth coming.

Individual turnovers are never a coach’s fault, ball security is becoming an issue with a few of the offense’s key players and Mike Tomlin needs to see if this can be addressed systemically. This loss is hardly devastating, but Mike Tomlin must ensure that a snowball effect does not ensue. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
Von Miller is easily the NFL’s most dynamic defensive player today. He’s got a Troy Polamaluesqe ability to make game-changing plays at critical moments. Being asked to start your first game against him cannot be easily. But that’s what the Steelers asked Chukwuma Okorafor to do, Okorafor delivered and for that he win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers latest loss to the Broncos at Mile High.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Panthers – Straight A’s Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is breaking protocol by issuing his grades before his analysis, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 52-21 win over the Carolina Panthers.

T.J. Watt, Cam Newton, Vince Williams pick six, Steelers vs Panthers

T.J. Watt wrapping Cam Newton in end zone. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger posted a perfect quarterback rating, by going 22 of 25 for 328 and five touchdown passes. Ben Roethlisberger did it all, long passes, short passes third down conversions and everything in between. Joshua Dobbs was 1 for 2 in mop up duty. Grade: A+

Running Backs
James Conner didn’t break the 100 yard mark, but the Steelers didn’t need him to. As it was, he average 5 yards a carry and added another touchdown. Stevan Ridley saw his most extensive non-garbage time action and managed 26 yards, while Jaylen Samuels only got 7 yards on the ground, but did score a touchdown through the air. Roosevelt Nix caught 2 passes for 17 yards. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Jesse James takes heat for his blocking, but he delivered a critical block on Conner’s touchdown run, and scored a late touchdown of his own. Vance McDonald made another tough catch in the end zone and caught 3 other passes. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster both scored on long touchdown bombs but both men also made other clutch catches. Ryan Switzer came up with two drive-sustaining catches while Darrius Heyward-Bey nabbed his first catch of the season. Grade: A

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was only hit twice and sacked only once. For most of the night, Ben had time to write his dairy in the pocket. The Steelers weren’t quite as effective running the ball as they have been, but they didn’t need to be.

The play of the Steelers offensive line is nothing short of incredible, and David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey’s defense of Ben Roethlisberger after Eric Reid’s hit shows just how seriously this unit takes its job.. Grade: A+

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave actually led the defensive line in tackles, as the Steelers remained in their base defense extensively. The real leader of the unit was Cam Heyward, who exploded for 2 sacks, dropped two runners behind the line of scrimmage and made two other hits on Cam Newton. Stephon Tuitt had two tackles. Grade: A

Linebackers
Jon Bostic led the team in tackles and arguably should have gotten ½ of a sack. Vince Williams had a banner night, bringing home a pick six and registering a sack. Bud Dupree continues to be a disruptive force in the backfield, as he recorded another sack and had two more tackles for losses. L.J. Fort spot duty stint was enough to earn him a tackle for a loss. Grade: A

Vince Williams, Vince Williams pick six Cam Newton, Steelers vs Panthers

Vince Williams struts after his pick-six of Cam Newton. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Secondary
The Steelers secondary didn’t produce a lot of “Splash Plays” other than Terrell Edmunds almost interception. However, Carolina was a dreadful 4-11 on third downs and the Steelers front seven only registers 5 sacks if receivers are covered. Coty Sensabaugh appears to be settling in as a competent corner while Joe Haden has been invisible – in a positive sense. Morgan Burnett, Sean Davis and Mike Hilton all had strong nights. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 5 for 5 on extra points, and made a 50 yarder into the open end of Heinz Field. Ryan Switzer had one nice punt return and, for the first time in recent memory, neither the Steelers coverage nor return units gave up a penalty.

  • Special team’s shining moment came on Roosevelt Nix’s forced fumble and Anthony Chickillo’s recovery.

The Steelers were already up 45 to 14 at that point, but it was a heads up play by both men, and it symbolized the entire night for the Steelers. Grade: A

Coaching
The last time the Steelers played at night, it looked to be lights out in Pittsburgh, but the win over the Panthers illustrated the dramatic difference the team has experienced since then.

Mike Tomlin, Joshua Dobbs, Alejandro Villaneuva, Steelers vs Panthers

Mike Tomlin huddling with Joshua Dobbs and Alejandro Villanueva. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

  • It is now time to give the Haley haters their day.

Under Randy Fichtner, the Steelers offense is firing on all cylinders in ways it never did under Todd Haley. The Steelers offense was multi-faceted against the Panthers, burning Carolina for long touchdowns, converting third downs, orchestrating long, clock-consuming drives all while mounting a balanced attack.

The Steelers defense was also excellent. Perhaps had, the game evolved differently, the Panthers rushing success could have been the defense’s undoing. But that is an academic question, because Keith Butler‘s boys limited the long ball and harassed Cam Newton through the night.

Mike Tomlin deserves credit for preparing his team on a short week and for making an effort to keep everyone fresh throughout the game. As Tomlin conceded, the difference between the Steelers and the Panthers probably isn’t as dramatic as the score board would suggest, but they dominated Carolina in all three phases. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
There is no shortage of candidates for this award but we’ll focus on one whose stat line says he ‘only” made one tackle. One tackle, behind the line of scrimmage. This player corralled and wrapped up Cam Newton in the end zone, which forced a pick six. Later this player clobbered Cam Newton in a strip sack with a hit that shook up Carolina’s signal caller, and for that T.J. Watt wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Panthers at Heinz Field.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Browns, Focus in the Face of Tragedy Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher impressed with his students ability to focus in the face of horrific hometown terrorist tragedy, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Browns.

Antonio Brown, James Conners, JuJu Smith-Schuster

Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner celebrate a touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger took some time to get warmed up, and threw a couple of questionable passes, but he showed poise in the pocket when the game was on the line in the 3rd quarter and never blinked. For the day Roethlisberger was 24-26-257-2-1. Grade: B+

Running Backs
James Conner continues to exceed even the most optimistic expectations riding on him going into the season. James Conner had 212 yards from scrimmage, running for 146 on the ground and 66 in the air, scoring two touchdown. Stevan Ridley caught two passes and fumbled one away, leading to Jaylen Samuels to get the garbage time duty, where he looked good. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald led the group with 3 catches for 47 yards with Jesse James catching 2 passes for 9 yards. Grade: Bsteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2018season

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown might not have had the eye popping fantasy stats that we’re accustomed two, but he did his damage on 6 catches for 74 yards on two touchdowns. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 4 catches for 33 yards, while Justin Hunter stepped into the 3rd receiver role with 2 catches for 15 yards. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked once and hit one other time. James Conner had holes you could drive truck through. This offensive line is protecting its quarterback on passing plays and road grading on running plays. Grade: A+

Defensive Line
Nick Chubb actually hit the Steelers for a few nice long runs, but the Steelers defense and the game situation neutralized him with 10 Cleveland rushers going down behind the line of scrimmage. Stephon Tuitt had a phenomenal day making a game-sealing sack and dominating throughout. Javon Hargrave helped bring a rusher down behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: A

Linebackers
T.J. Watt continued to dominate the Browns with 2 and a half tackles behind the line of scrimmage in addition to a sack. Bud Dupree didn’t get a sack, but harassed Baker Mayfield all day and drew a holding penalty for a safety. Jon Bostic and Vince Williams kept things quiet up the middle, while L.J. Fort and Anthony Chickillo did well in spot duty. Grade: A

Secondary
Joe Haden nabbed an interception which the Steelers turned into a touchdown, and defensed another critical pass. Mike Hilton continues to be one of the NFL’s most underrated nickel backs defensing a pass and helping bring down a running back in the backfield. Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett and Sean Davis all had solid afternoons. Grade: A

Special Teams
“We screwed up.” Those are Mike Tomlin’s words, and he is right. The Steelers turned over the ball on a free kick, setting the Browns touchdown which pulled the score to within 4 in the third quarter. Had the Cleveland Browns had of the wisdom and maturity required to win football games, the Steelers would have been in big trouble.

Chris Boswell did make all 5 of his kicks, while Jordan Berry looked good punting, and Ryan Switzer had a few nice punt returns. But the free kick is inexcusable. Grade: D

Coaching
The Steelers offense started slowly, but Randy Fichtner clearly made the necessary adjustments. While the play of the men at the skill positions deserves praise, the stealer performance of the Steelers offensive line is what makes this unit tick.

  • While we are a long, long way from any hardware being handed out, it is already possible to suggest this best offensive line the Pittsburgh Steelers have enjoyed in franchise history.

On defense, Keith Butler’s unit continues to evolve. While this is a bit of a tautology, the success of the Steelers defense rises and falls with the pass rush, and the Pittsburgh clearly pressured the passer.

Historically, Mike Tomlin teams have done well coming out of the bye, but they were 1-4 in recent years following the break. On top of that, the team went on a roller coaster ride during September and October.

  • More gravely, the city of Pittsburgh had endured an act of domestic terrorism at the Squirrel Hill Synagogue less than 24 hours before.

In other words, opportunities for distraction abounded, yet the Steelers succumb to none of them, and that reflects well on Mike Tomlin and the locker room he has built. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
You didn’t hear his name all day, at least until he fumbled away the faux interception. Yet he started the entire game, and when you don’t hear a cornerback’s name under those circumstances, that is usually a good thing and for that Coty Sensabaugh is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over the Browns.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Falcons – Is Defense Finally Finding Its Way without Star Pupil Shazier?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders if the rest of the class is finally compensating for the loss of its star pupil, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Falcons at Heinz Field.

Cam Heyward, Jon Bostic, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Heyward & Jon Bostic put Matt Ryan under duress. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger had an efficient day, posting his lowest yardage and passes thrown totals. It was certainly his most complete performance, as the Steelers converted 9 of 12 third downs and Big Ben tossed 3 touchdown passes. Still, Ben Roethlisberger took time to get warmed up and took points off the board with a costly end zone interception. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Back
James Conner delivered just as many were questioning the Steelers confidence in him and fans were warming to welcoming Le’Veon Bell back. James Conner dominated with 110 rushing yards and 75 yards receiving, while scoring 2 touchdowns. James Conner fumbled, which is worrisome. Roosevelt Nix saw little action, but he road graded Conner into the end zone. Stevan Ridley got 8 yards on 5 carries. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble’s combined 4 catches for 48 yards might not be that impressive, but Vance McDonald’s blocking helped James Conner author his dominating opening drive. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown finally managed to get aligned with Ben Roethlisberger, and the duo clipped the Falcons for 2 touchdowns and 101 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster made a leaping catch to haul in Pittsburgh’s 2nd touchdown. Ryan Switzer caught 1 pass for 5 yards. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Mike Tomlin argued that the Steelers “Big Men” decided this game by winning their 1-1 matchups. That would include an offense live that didn’t give up a sack, only allowed its quarterback to be touched once and only saw one running back dropped behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: A

David DeCastro, James Conner, Steelers vs Falcons

David DeCastro obliterates a hapless Falcons defender. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward led the unit with 3 tackles, 1.5 tackles for losses and a sack and a half. Javon Hargrave also had ½ of a sack, while Stephon Tuitt had two tackles. Falcons running backs only gained 52 yards on the ground, and that starts with the line. Grade: A

Linebackers
After lurking in the background for the last few weeks, T.J. Watt was a man on fire, sacking Matt Ryan 3 times, forcing a fumble, dropping 5 Falcon runners behind the line of scrimmage and leading the Steelers in tackles. Bud Dupree helped drop two runners behind the line of scrimmage and helped pressure Ryan. Anthony Chickillo also helped drop two runners for a loss. Jon Bostic also had a piece of a sack and drop for a loss.

Tyler Matakevich had six tackles while splitting time with L.J. Fort, who book ended the defense’s splash plays with a sack of Matt Ryan on the first series and a fumble recovery for a touchdown in the 4th quarter. Grade: A

Secondary
Despite the 1-3 record the Atlanta brought to Pittsburgh, the Falcon’s passing attack had been prolific. That looked to spell disaster for the Steelers-sieve like secondary.

  • Instead it was a disaster for Matt Ryan.

The Steelers secondary didn’t post a lot of flashy statistics, but they contained the Falcons passing attack, and forced them off the field on third downs. Mike Hilton showed his versatility as a pass rusher, and Terrell Edmunds made key stops. While Matt Ryan was often under duress, there were also times when he had time to throw, but failed to find anyone open. Grade: B+

Special Teams
The Steelers coverage units were strong and Ryan Switzer had a nice 23 yard return. Jordan Berry punted well. The key special teams play was of course Roosevelt Nix’s punt block, which sealed the game for the Steelers. Chris Boswell missed another extra point, but made his next five. Grade: A-

Roosevelt Nix, Roosevelt Nix blocked punt, Steelers vs Falcons

Roosevelt Nix blocks Matt Bosher’s punt. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Coaching
Is this the same Steelers team that we saw in September?

While Randy Fichtner’s offense has produced points in fits and starts this season, the Falcons game was the first time the Steelers offense played consistently for an entire game. Sure, the passing game had its hiccups, but constancy in the running game more than compensated.

  • Many will say that Keith Butler’s defense had its best afternoon since losing Ryan Shaizer.

That would be the wrong conclusion, because the Steelers defense played its best game since Joe Haden got hurt last year against the Colts. For the first time since that afternoon, it actually felt like the Steelers defense was executing its game plan as opposed to reacting to an offense.

  • September was a bad month for the Steelers offense, defense, and special teams.

The loss to the Ravens had the potential to be particularly deflating, because the Steelers looked inferior throughout the night. However, if that was the perception outside of Pittsburgh, it was not shared on the South Side.

Not only did Mike Tomlin keep negativity from taking root, he had the Steelers out there playing with confidence for the first time all season, and it was confidence that allowed the Steelers to take control of the ball game. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award

In the words of Jim Wexell, Julio Jones arrived at Heinz Field “on pace to become the first 2,000-yard receiver in NFL history” and he left Pittsburgh “on pace to become a 1,805-yard receiver.”

  • And that is because Joe Haden shut him down until garbage time arrived.

Joe Haden didn’t record any “Splash Plays.” Instead, he simply took the Falcons most potent offensive weapon out of the game, and for that Joe Haden wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over Atlanta.

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Achilles Heel? Jesse James Healthy but Steelers Could be in Tight Spot @ Tight End

Ah, gotta watch those June Achilles tears. On the Jesse James return to practice following his injury in Pittsburgh’s preseason win over Tennessee, but tight end could be a tight spot for the Steelers this season, and if it is it will have all started with a June Achilles injury.

Jesse James, Steelers 2018 tight ends

Jesse James after catching a high Ben Roethlisberger pass vs. Titans. Photo credit: Yahoo! Sports

Pittsburgh’s problems at the position of began during spring practice, when reserve tight end Jake McGee torn his Achilles tendon during OTAs. The Steelers had carried McGee on their practice squad during 2018 and coaches expected McGee to push Xavier Grimble for a roster spot.

The Steelers situation at tight end grew more complicated arrived at St. Vincents when Vance McDonald injured his foot after after only one day of practice. Vance McDonald has not practiced since that fateful day in July, although Mike Tomlin has publicly listed McDonald as “Day-to-day.”

The Steelers of course acquired McDonald last season in a trade, only to see him sit on the sidelines injured, although he rebounded for strong game in the playoff loss to the Jaguars.

That left Xavier Grimble and Jesse James, but Grimble injured his wrist/thumb on a blocking sled on August 18th and had to have surgery. Grimble has been characterized as “Week-to-week.” If McDonald’s absence is any guide, perhaps month-to-month would be for fitting for Grimble.

Let’s hope that not the case, but as good Reimagined Battlestar Galactica fans know, “All this has happened before and [hopefully] will [not] again.”

June Misfortunes Can Set the Tone for an Entire Season

The advent of the digital age has magnified everything. Trivial, bit-sized bites of Steelers news that once would have merited 2-3 inches of newspaper column wedged in somewhere deep in the back pages of the Pittsburgh Press or Post-Gazette now serve as feature-length click generating stories (sometimes for good reason, sometimes not.)

  • In that spirit, news from OTAs and minicamp often gets taken too seriously.
  • But sometimes what events from June can end up dictating the entire narrative of the season.

Take the case of Willie Colon. In 2010 Willie Colon, the Steelers starting right tackle, tore his Achilles tendon in late June. This came after Steelers 5th round draft pick Chris Scott had already broken his leg. Those two injuries initiated a torrent of offensive line injuries that lasted the entire year.

During the Steelers 2010 win over Tampa Bay, the Steelers were force to substitute so many offensive lineman that Mike Tomlin remarked jokingly (or perhaps not so jokingly) that coaches didn’t even know who was in and who was out of the game.

The Steelers lost Max Starks in week 7 against Cincinnati, and in the next week against New England, Ben Roethlisberger suffered 5 sacks as the Patriots collapsed the Steelers offensive line at will. Roethlisberger’s sack rate nearly doubled with Jonathan Scott starting at left tackle.

  • Offensive line injuries continued literally through to the taild end of the season.

After the Steelers playoff win against the Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger lauded Flozell Adams for wanting to come off of a gurney to return to the game, and Pittsburgh of course was forced to start Doug Legursky at center in Super Bowl XLV due to injuries to Maurkice Pouncey.

Will the same thing happen to the 2018 Steelers at tight end? Hopefully not, but with less than two weeks to go before the regular season, tight end appears to be the Steelers Achilles heel.

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Steelers Sign Ryan Malleck and Bryce Harris to Replace Jake McGree and Jerald Hawkins

Steelers OTAs have been costly as both reserve offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins and backup tight end Jake McGee were lost to season ending injuries. Kevin Colbert moved swiftly to fill the void by signing offensive tackle Bryce Harris and tight end Ryan Malleck.

  • It is of minor note that the Steelers turned to NFL veterans to replace Jerald Hawkins and Jake McGree’s places.

While the Steelers would have been expected to sign replacements, Kevin Colbert could have just as easily filled both spots with undrafted rookie free agents. However, Bryce Harris has been bouncing around the NFC South since 2012, when he made the New Orleans roster as an undrafted rookie free agent.

  • Per Pro Football Reference, Bryce Harris has appeared in 37 games with both the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints, and is even listed as having started 4 games.

Ryan Malleck returns to Pittsburgh after spending 3 months on the Steelers 2017 off season roster from February to May. After getting cut by the Steelers, Malleck spent time with the Ravens, and earned a spot on the Houston Texas active roster, where he saw action in two games, including catching one pass against the Steelers in Pittsburgh’s Christmas night win over the Texans.

Ryan Malleck, steelers sign ryan malleck, steelers vs texans

Ryan Malleck catches his lone NFL pass vs. Steelers. Photo Credit: Michael Wyke, AP via PennLive

The Steelers penciled in Jerald Hawkins as their 3rd/swing offensive tackle and heir apparent to Chris Hubbard. Third round draft pick Chukwuma Okorafor will get first shot at that job, but the Steelers have given Mike Munchak a bit of an insurance policy should Chukwuma Okorafor falter.

Jake McGee spent 2017 on the Steelers practice squad, where he drew rave reviews from Steelers 24/7 reporter Jim Wexell. The Steelers had expected Jake McGee to give Xavier Grimble a run at the third tight end position behind Vance McDonald and Jesse James.

The Steelers have another week of OTA’s remaining, followed by mandatory mini-camp. After that, the real off season begins until convening for training camp in July at St. Vincents in Latrobe.

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Steelers Jerald Hawkins Tears Quad in OTA’s, Could Miss Season

Sometimes, life is simply unfair. An so it is for the Steelers Jerald Hawkins who tore a quad in non-contact drills during Steelers OTA’s and the offensive tackle could miss the 2018 season if reports of ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler are correct.

  • IF this report turns out to be true, it would be the second bit of bad luck for Hawkins.

The Steelers drafted Jerald Hawkins in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. By all accounts, Hawkins was having a strong training camp and looked solid in preseason. And the door was open for Hawkins to earn a real shot at playing time, with Kelvin Beachum having departed in free agency, and the Steelers having little proven depth behind Alejandro Villanueva at left tackle.

Jerald Hawkins, Steelers 2016 4th round draft pick

Steelers 2016 4th round draft pick Jerald Hawkins

But in an otherwise sterling outing for the Steelers against the New Orleans Saints in preseason, Hawkins got injured and spent his rookie season on IR.

Hawkins had a more difficult time during his second summer in Latrobe, and never mounted serious challenge to unseat Chris Hubbard as the Steelers swing tackle behind Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert. However, as the season wore on, Hawkins saw spot duty as an extra tight end in the Steelers “Big Boy Package.”

The Steelers saw enough in Hawkins to let Chris Hubbard depart in free agency, although it is doubtful that Pittsburgh’s salary cap situation would have allowed them to make a serious play to keep Hubbard in the Steel City.

Anyone Still Wonder Why Steelers Drafted Chukwuma Okorafor?

With all five starters playing on their second NFL contracts, and B.J. Finney and Matt Feiler having proven themselves as compotent backups, the Steelers offensive line was not considered a prime need heading into the 2018 NFL Draft.

  • Yet, as the old adage goes, you can never have enough good offensive lineman.

The Steelers have learned that lesson the hard way more than once in the Mike Tomlin era, but it appears it is a lesson Pittsburgh’s brain trust has taken to heart. In spite of, a need to upgrade their defense and despite having drafted James Washington and Mason Rudolph in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, the Steelers opted to draft Chukwuma Okorafor, and offensive tackle out of West Michigan with their second 3rd round pick.

In reporting on the Jerald Hawkins injury, 24/7 Sports Jim Wexell shared the observation by Marcus Gilbert that Chukwuma Okorafor is “….learning real fast. He’s probably the most ready rookie that we’ve had, talent-wise.”

Let’s hope that Chukwuma Okorafor remains a quick learner.

OTA Injuries Rare, But Not Unheard Of

OTA’s are, as Mike Tomlin loves to remind us, “Football in shorts.” Guys wear helmets but no pads and are not supposed to make contact. Yet injuries occur.

In May of 1998, Chad Scott was coming off his rookie year and while attempt to defend a Mike Tomczak pass, landed on Three Rivers Stadium’s Tartan Turf and tore his ACL, costing him the season and forcing Carnell Lake to play cornerback in his final season in Pittsburgh.

Two years ago news of Senquez Golson’s MRI caused a stir, although it was not on Golson’s previously injured shoulder, only a “lower body soft tissue injury.” No one ever linked that to the Lisfranc injury that ended the Steelers 2015 2nd round draft pick’s sophomore season, but it certainly served as a harbinger for things to come.

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Steelers Pick Offensive Tackle Chukwuma Okorafor In 3rd Round of 2018 NFL Draft

The overhaul of the Steelers once maligned offensive line might seem like it took place just yesterday, what with the unit currently regarded as one of the best in the NFL, complete with three Pro Bowlers in 2017.

But, believe it or not, the drafting of right guard David DeCastro in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft–the third of four first or second round picks spent on offensive linemen between 2010-2012–was over a half-decade ago.

Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers 2018 3rd round pick

Steelers 2018 3rd round pick Chukwuma Okorafor, offensive tackle from Western Michigan. Photo Credit: Carlos Osorio, AP

Therefore, it made perfect sense that finding quality depth along the offensive line, a player who could perhaps be groomed to assume a starter’s role in the not so distant future, was high on the Steelers draft wish list heading into the third round, Friday night.

  • Sure enough, with their second of two third round picks (92nd, overall), the Steelers selected offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor out of Western Michigan.
  • At 6-6 and 320 pounds, Chukwuma Okorafor certainly has  the size NFL teams want in their offensive tackles.

As for his resume, according to his NFL.com draft profile, Okorafor’s family immigrated to the United States from Botswana in 2010. What that means is football was a totally foreign sport to the youngster.

But apparently Okorafor was a quick-study from the start, as he was a highly sought-after high school recruit who ultimately signed with Western Michigan.

  • Okorafor was a starting right tackle in his sophomore year of 2015 before making the switch to left tackle in his junior season.

Despite his late introduction to American football, Chukwuma Okorafor comes to the NFL as a highly-decorated college player, earning First Team All-Mac honors in both his junior and senior seasons.

  • Rated as a top-5 to 10 prospect by most publications, Okorafor obviously is a decent value pick late in the third round.

His highlight clip would seem to support that notion.

While the Steelers may have drafted Chukwuma Okorafor with an eye towards the future, as alluded to earlier, they are certainly in need of some immediate quality depth after the departure of super-utility lineman Chris Hubbard, who started 10 games in-place of injured/suspended right tackle Marcus Gilbert a year ago, and performed so well, he earned a lucrative free agent deal with the Browns.

Under the tutelage of highly-acclaimed offensive line coach Mike Munchak, Okorafor will have the best in the business teaching him the finer points of his position.

The average age of the Steelers highly-accomplished offensive line will be just under 30 years by the start of the 2018 campaign, and in the world of professional football, it doesn’t take long for a unit to go from a strength to a weakness, with age being one of the biggest culprits.

Therefore, the selection of Chukwuma Okorafor in the third round of the 2018 NFLDraft could prove to be very timely in the long run.

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