Baltimore Beats Pittsburgh 21-14, Ravens Have Now Won 4 Straight vs Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to M&T Bank Stadium coming off their bye week with relatively strong health against a Baltimore Ravens team that had lost four straight. At the end of the day, none of those off the field aesthetics mattered at all, as the headline Baltimore beats Pittsburgh 21-14 communicates a basic reality.

  • The Baltimore Ravens improved their winning streak over the Pittsburgh Steelers for one simple reason:

Across the board, the Ravens beat the Steelers by because they had better execution of fundamentals that define winning football. That’s the stark truth of the matter.

baltimore beats pittsburgh 21-14, ben roethlisberger, steelers at M&T Bank Stadium

Ben Roethlisberger remains winless in Baltimore following the 2016 Steelers 21-14 loss. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Ravens Dominate the Line of Scrimmage

Todd Haley’s game plan became crystal clear very early on in the game: Use Le’Veon Bell to dictate the pace of the game. Given how effective Le’Veon Bell has been with the ball in his hands this fall, few should fault the logic behind Haley’s thinking, even if Baltimore did enter the game with the NFL’s number 3 rush defense.

  • But if you’re going to run the ball effectively, you must dominate at the line of scrimmage.

And the Steelers offensive line got dominated by the Raven’s front seven. The Pittsburgh’s offensive lineman may have provided decent pass protection, but they chronically failed to open lanes for Le’Veon Bell. On paper the Steelers offense is designed to take advantage of those situations.

  • If it were all just a simple fantasy football exercise, frustration upfront should give Ben Roethlisberger time to do damage downfield.

Except real football doesn’t mimic a fantasy game, and Ben Roethlisberger looked very rusty and consistently misfired in trying to hit receivers downfield. That stat sheet shows that Ben Roethlisberger only threw one interception, but the fact is he threw two or 3 passes that could easily been interceptions.

In this case the numbers don’t lie, and the picture they paint isn’t pretty for Pittsburgh:

What’s more, failed exchanges between B.J. Finney and Roethlisberger came together to make up a comedy of errors. And that’s without even considering the special teams….

Butler’s Adjustments to Steelers Defense Effective, but Insufficient

Before turning to the special teams, a review of the performance of the Steelers defense vs. the Ravens is in order, because of the context it provides.

Fans can be forgiven if they abandonded all hope when the saw Terrance West open the game with runs of 8, 6, and 5 yards. He also tacked on another 9 yard effort and then opened the second half with runs of 8 and 5 yards.

  • Yet, when it was all over, West walked away with a total of 21 rushing yards.

Kenneth Dixon didn’t do much better. Credit Keith Butler for making the in-game adjustment to effectively shut off the Raven’s rushing attack. Likewise, credit Butler’s crew for forcing the Ravens to punt as many times as the Steelers did.

  • The 2016 Steelers have forged identity of a team that struggles on the road.

During the Steelers road losses to the Eagles and the Dolphins, Keith Butler’s defense was a glaring liability on so many fronts. The same cannot be said of the Steelers loss to the Ravens (or to the Patriots for that matter.) Yes, the defense did give up a 95 yard touchdown pass which isn’t forgivable.

  • But Keith Butler’s defense went into Baltimore, and held the Raven’s defense to 13 points at home.

While no one will confuse the 2016 Ravens with the 1989 49ers, the 1993 Cowboys or the greatest show on turf, if you go into an opposing stadium and hold their offense to 13 points, you’re generally playing winning defense….

Steelers Special Teams Disaster in Baltimore

…Unless you have a total collapse elsewhere, as the Steelers did on Special teams. Since Danny Smith arrived in Pittsburgh the Steelers special teams haven’t been very special, but they’ve avoided being a liability.

  • The Steelers special teams were a liability against the Ravens.

A roughing the kicker penalty gave the Ravens a second lease on life, although the Steelers defense did damage control. The coverage units might not have given up a big run, in a game of field position every yard counts.

But Chris Moore came in untouched to block Jordan Berry’s punt, and his recovery effectively ended the game for the Steelers. That’s simply inexcusable.

It says here that the Steelers late 4th quarter surge was little more than garbage time glory against a Raven’s team with plenty of its own internal demons. Nonetheless, if you take it strictly by the numbers, without that blocked punt the Steelers score enough to win the game. The Steelers special teams broke down at a critical time in the game.

John Harbaugh has Mike Tomlin, Steelers Number

When the Baltimore Ravens beat Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in November 2011 to complete John Harbuagh’s first season-sweep of the Steelers, Dejan Kovacevic suggested the victory might have represented a changing of the guard in the AFC North.

  • At the time critics balked.

However, it is now November 2016. Ben Roethlisberger STILL has not won a game in Baltimore since 2010 and the Baltimore Ravens now own four game winning streak over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cincinnati Bengals might take exception to any “changing of the guard to Baltimore storyline” but the bottom line is that right now John Harbaugh has the number of Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

And until Mike Tomlin’s team changes that reality on the field, the Steelers will continue to be AFC also-rans. Today’s latest loss underlines just how far Mike Tomlin and the Steelers still have to travel.

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Remembering Steelers Punter Harry Newsome, Punter Extraordinaire and Former Rookie of the Year

It’s safe to say you probably don’t remember Harry Newsome, who punted for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1985-1989. I don’t blame you. After all, who remembers punters? Other than Josh Miller and Daniel Sepulveda, can you name another guy who has punted for the team over the last 15 years or so?

Heck, at least when it comes to Pittsburgh, there’s no correlation between the Steelers enjoying quality punting and successful seasons (yes, remember Steelers Nation, Mitch Berger owns a Super Bowl ring for Super Bowl XLIII.)

If placekickers are the redheaded stepchildren of professional football, punters are the dishwashers. Oh, it’s not that washing dishes is a horrible job or anything, but nobody goes to a restaurant to see a dishwasher; they go to eat food off of the dishes.

  • Chances are, if a person sees the dishwasher, it’s because they are helping him or her wash dishes as punishment for failure to pay a tab.

Which bring us back to Harry Newsome. If you’re looking for information on him, that might he difficult to find. Even his Wikipedia page is short and includes a disclaimer about lack of references and sources. 

But I can assure you, Newsome was a really good punter during his time in Pittsburgh.

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The t-shirt says it all….

In-fact, in 1985, the year the Steelers drafted him in the eighth round out of Wake Forest, Newsome won the Joe Greene Great Performance Award, an annual honor handed out to the team’s rookie of the year. Yes, along side the names of Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Louis Lipps and Carnell Lake as Steelers rookie of the year award winners, you’ll also see Harry Newsome’s.

Of course, given that ’85 would also mark the Steelers first losing season in 14 years and usher in a period of turmoil for the franchise, perhaps it was an indictment of head coach Chuck Noll’s post-Super Bowl struggles with regards to the draft that a punter was his top rookie.

Newsome was around to be named the rookie of the year after beating out Craig Colquitt, who was the team’s punter for seven seasons and played in Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV.

Newsome averaged 39.6 yards per punt in ’85 and got better from there.

The only true “where are they now” kind of story I could find on Newsome is courtesy of a Bleacher Report article written in 2009. 

Sadly, the name of the article is Year of Hell, and it focuses on the record-setting six blocked punts Newsome endured in 1988, the year the Steelers finished 5-11 (after which Chuck Noll FINALLY relented and hired a full time special teams coach.)

As the author pointed out in the story, Noll had little time for special teams during his career (all one has to do is watch highlights of those famous ’70s Super Bowls to see one special teams mistake after another–especially by kicker Roy Gerela and punter Bobby Walden–to know that was true), and in ’88, Newsome had to deal with four, count’em, four long-snappers.

“A good time of snapping the ball, handling the punt, then getting it away was 6.7 to 6.8 seconds,” related Newsome in ’09:

The handle  time of the punter himself should be somewhere between 1.2 to 1.3 seconds. I spent my time in Pittsburgh always trying to hurry my punts because the ball took so long to get to me. I even went from a three step punter to two steps. It didn’t help because the extra tenths of seconds on the snap, along with protection problems, left us often exposed. It would amp up the opponents even more knowing this.

As a bit of a cruel paradox, while Newsome was setting the Steelers record for punts blocked in ’88, he was also one of the few bright spots on the team, as he led the league with an average of 45.4 yards per punt.

In-fact, in Week 15, when the 4-10 Steelers traveled to face the 4-10 Chargers, the NBC announcer opened up the broadcast by saying (and I’m paraphrasing here), “The two best punters in the league are set to square-off this afternoon…..” You see, San Diego’s punter, Ralf Mojsiejenko, was hot on Newsome’s tail but ultimately finished with an average of 44.1 for the season.

Newsome would go on to play one more season in Pittsburgh, before leaving as a Plan B Free Agent after the 1989 Steelers storybook season. During his five years with the Steelers, Newsome averaged a respectable 41.4 yards per punt.

But he also had an incredible 12 punts blocked, and when he suffered two more during his four seasons with the Vikings, the sum-total of 14 tied him with Herman Weaver for an NFL record that still stands to this day.

In researching that aforementioned Bleacher Report article, I was mildly surprised to find out Newsome, who was a great athlete in his youth, was Pittsburgh’s emergency quarterback in-addition to the holder on field goals. This came in handy in 1986, when, following a botched field goal snap, Newsome threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Preston Gothard in a game against the Bears.

There’s another surprising Harry Newsome factoid:  Newsome had the longest punt in the history of Three Rivers Stadium when he booted one 84 yards in December of 1992 as a member of the Vikings.

In a lot of ways, a punter’s legacy is defined by the team he plays for. Harry Newsome’s career in Pittsburgh is a forgotten one, largely because of the struggles of the Steelers in the mid-to-late ’80s.

But not everything is blocked from memory (pardon the pun).

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Steelers Nation Salutes Shaun Suisham’s Clutch Kicks that Defined his Steelers Career

87.9 career field goal accuracy… 173 out of 173 on PAT’s… a 93.8% field goal accuracy rate in 2013… those are just a handful of Shaun Suisham place kicking statistics and even if they are impressive, they don’t do him justice.

  • Shaun Suisham’s clutch kicks defined his Steelers career.

Making the mundane kicks in automatic fashion doesn’t mean much if you miss the big one with the game on the line. Sound harsh? Gary Anderson offers the perfect example. Google “Gary Anderson Overtime field goal” and you’ll see that 6 of the first 10 results reference his last minute miss in the 1998 NFC Championship game.

When the Steelers cut Jeff Reed and signed Shaun Suisham in the a commenter on Behind the Steel Curtain cautioned that a Redskins fan warned him, “He’ll break your heart.” Yet, another Redskins fans reassured me, arguing that “…sometimes kickers bounce around a bit before settling down.”

Shaun Suisham settled down in Pittsburgh, and now that his Steelers career appears to be over, we remember Shaun Suisham’s clutch kicks.


2010 – Baptism by Fire in Buffalo

So it wasn’t Shaun Suisham’s first week on the job, but it was the first game Suisham was asked to kick a field goal in. The Steelers struggled in this game, despite some excellent power rushing by Rashard Mendenhall. But outside of an early Mendenhall touchdown, Shaun Suisham was the Steelers offense, kicking field goals of 45, 46 and 48 yards.

The game went into overtime, where the Bills came thissss close to winning it:

James Farrior sacked Ryan Fitzpatrick two plays later, setting up Ben Roethlisberger for a 12 play drive that ultimately stalled at the Bills’22.

But Shaun Suisham made it from 41 yards way, giving him his first clutch kick for the Steelers as Pittsburgh defeated Buffalo.

2011 – The Escape from Indianapolis

Even at the time, before it was clear that the Colts would finish 2-14 to win the #SuckForLuck derby, this game felt more like an escape than a win. Even though Kerry Collins got knocked out of the game, even though Troy Polamalu fumble return for a touchdown with 5:13 remaining, Curtis Painter played lights out on the final drive tying it with 2:09 remaining.

Mewelde Moore an Ben Roethlisberger moved the ball to the Colt’s 18 yard line with 0:08 remaining and, despite taking a hit from Jacob Lacey, Suisham knocked it in from 38 yards away.

2012 – Out Foxing Philly

The Steelers held the lead until 6:33 in the 4th quarter, when Mike Vick led the Eagles on a 17 play, 8:18 drive, before Vick connected with Brent Celek to put Philly ahead with 6:38 left.

Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall, Antonio Brown, and Isacc Redman responded with a 14 play, 6:33 drive that took the Steelers to the Eagles 16 yard line, where, from 34 yards out Suisham knocked it through the uprights as time expired and Pittsburgh defeated Philadelphia.

2012 – Killing Off Kansas City’s Last Gasp

People forget that the 2012 Steelers actually looked strong at mid-season with three impressive victories over the Bengals, Redskins, and defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. Those laid the ground work for what looked to be a cake-walk like Monday Night Football matchup vs. the 1-7 Kansas City Chiefs….

…But things didn’t quite work out that way, as the Chiefs gave the Steelers a run for their money, keeping it a tied 10-10 game until Ben Roethlisberger got knocked out early in the third quarter. Byron Leftwich managed field goal in relief, but the Chiefs tied it as regulation ended.

  • The Chiefs won the toss, but Lawrence Timmons intercepted Matt Cassel’s first pass in over time, returning it to Kansas City’s 5.

Timmons interception set up Shaun Suisham’s chip shot 23 yard field goal and the Steelers victory.

2012 – Allowing Charlie Batch to Take a Final Bow

By this point in the 2012 season the Steelers were down to Charlie Batch as their starter, and no one gave the Steelers a chance given Batch’s 3 interception performance the week before at Cleveland.

True to the script, the Ravens led through the entire first half. The Steelers tied it on a Jonathan Dwyer touchdown early in the 3rd quarter, but the Ravens bounced back to take the lead again as the third quarter ended. Charlie Batch connected with Heath Miller to tie the score at 20-20 with 7:24 remaining.

The Steelers defense forced a punt, and Charlie Batch, playing his last 15 plays of football he had left in him, led the Steelers down the field as precious seconds ticked off the clock, until finally reaching the Ravens 24 yard line with 0:03 seconds left to play.

From 42 yards out, Suisham split the uprights, given Charlie Batch a win for his final NFL start.

2013 – Beating Baltimore, Saving the Season

The Steelers led this one all the way until the two minute warning when Joe Flacco connected with Dallas Clark to tie it up. The Steelers responded with an Emmanuel Sanders kick return for a touchdown that was called back. Nonetheless, 44 yards of his return stood, and energized the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell worked to position the Steelers at the 24.

Once again, from 42 yards out, with the Steelers season hanging in the balance, Suisham made as the Steelers defeated the Ravens 16-13 to improve to 2-4.

2014 – Cutting Off Cleveland’s Comeback Cold

This was Chuck Noll Day and the Steelers came out gang busters jumping to a 27-3 first half lead….

  • …Only to see Cleveland fight back in the second half, scoring 24 unanswered points, tying the game with 11:20 left to go.

The Browns got the ball back with just under 2 minutes remaining, but a Cameron Heyward sack and two stealer plays by William Gay forced a Cleveland punt. Ben Roethlisberger and Marcus Wheaton led the Steelers down the field reaching the Browns 24 yards line with 5 seconds left to play.

For the 7th, and apparently last time, Shaun Suisham made his last clutch kick for the Steelers, kicking a 41 yarder as time expired.

2010 – 2014 Shaun Suisham Clutch Kicker & Class Act

Shaun Suisham kicked for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2010 to 2014. During that time he made a bunch of clutch kicks. Whenever a game was on the line and the Steelers were inside of 45 yards, Mike Tomlin never hesitated to send out Suisham, whether on the road or at Heinz Field.

  • That’s priceless peace of mind for a head coach

Through it all, Suisham remained humble, and Chris Boswell‘s farewell tweet punctuates that point:

Let that sink in. When the Steelers signed Chris Boswell, and Boswell began making clutch kicks of his own, Suisham continued to offer his support and mentorship to a player who had had to know could cost him his job, even if his recovery from the ACL injury hadn’t taken a “catastrophic” turn for the worst.

  • That is truly the definition of class.

Steel Curtain Rising thanks Shuan Suisham for his clutch kicking and for being a class act. Steelers Nation wishes you well in whatever is next to come!

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Steelers Release Shaun Suisham, Chris Boswell Inherits Kicking Job

The chances of Shaun Suisham, the Steelers placekicker for four-plus years, bouncing back well enough to regain his spot atop the roster in 2016 were probably fairly slim to begin with….

shaun suisham, steelers, steelers vs. ravens, steelers ravens heinz field 2013

Shaun Suisham in 2013 after kicking a game winner vs. Baltimore; Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

…The veteran kicker suffered a season-ending ACL tear while making a tackle on a kickoff during the Hall of Fame Game last August and was lost for all of 2015. In his absence–after failed experiments with both Garrett Hartley and Josh Scobee–virtual known Chris Boswell exploded onto the scene and proved to be a younger and cheaper version, as he converted on 29 of 32 attempts down-the-stretch for the playoff-bound Steelers.

Factoring in age (Suisham, 34, is nine years older than Boswell), along with money (Suisham had two years to go on a four-year extension he signed in 2014), and it was going to take an awful lot for the veteran to pry his old job back from the understudy.

  • It also didn’t help No. 6’s case that he was still unable to kick almost a year after his injury.

And unfortunately for Suisham, who appears to be one of the nicest and classiest players around, he suffered a recent setback on his injured knee which proved to be the final nail in the coffin, as the Steelers announced his release on Friday on their official team website.

Much like Boswell last fall, there was nothing much to be excited about with Suisham, when he arrived in Pittsburgh back in 2010 after the ceremonious release of veteran kicker Jeff Reed.

  • But Suisham proved to be consistent, making 14 of 15 field goals down-the-stretch.

In four-plus years in Pittsburgh, Suisham’s consistency remained, as he posted an 87.9 percent conversion rate on field-goal attempts–including a robust 91.5 percent over his final three seasons.

Suisham never missed an extra-point during his time with the Steelers (his career in Pittsburgh came before the extra-point was moved to 33-yards away), and he was a remarkable 30 of 30 between 40-49 yards away from 2012-2014.

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Steelers Cut Chris Boswell, Hand Kicking Job to Shaun Suisham

When Steelers place kicker Shaun Suisham became a US citizen a few months ago, he vowed a fight to defend his roster spot. Based on an announcement the Steelers made this morning, Suisham has won the battle without so much as making a single kick.

The most shocking move out of Pittsburgh this off seasons sees the Steelers cut Chris Boswell and anoint Siusham as their place kicker for the 2016 season. While he did not speak to the press, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin announced the decision in a prepared statement:

First, let’s tip our cap to Chris Boswell. He’s a rookie who stepped into a pressure cooker. He didn’t blink. Obviously, Chris delivered for us as we expected. We acknowledge that. He was continually above the line and he made the critical kicks that were necessary to win games a number of times. We thank him for his efforts, but this decision was about Shaun Suisham’s ability to deliver in similar form and fashion. Shaun simply has a larger body of work on tape and obviously we’re excited to move forward with him as our place kicker.

A torn ACL in the Hall of Fame Game sidelined Shuishm for the year, forcing the Steelers to turn to Garrett Hartley who himself was lost to injury, followed by Josh Scobee whose ineffectiveness led the Steelers to look to Chris Boswell. Rookie Chris Boswell rose to the occasion, kicking game winners in the Steelers victories against the Oakland Raiders and in the playoffs against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Chris Boswell was not available for comment, but through his agent he expressed gratitude toward the Steelers organization and Mike Tomlin for giving him a chance to prove himself in the NFL.

Cutting Chris Boswell a Ripple Effect of Heath Miller’s Retirement?

When the Steelers 2016 off season began, many speculated that Shaun Suisham would be a salary cap casualty, given that Boswell had done so well over the course of the season. Shaun Suisham signed a 4 contract in 2014 and carries a salary cap value of $3,503,000 whereas Chis Boswell would have only counted $525,000.

Yet the Steelers were on the record indicating that they planned for Suisham and Boswell to duel it out the kicking job at St. Vincents. In February When pressed by reporters as to whether NFL salary cap rules regarding waving injured players had tied the Steelers hands when it came to Suisham, Kevin Colbert indicated that while such moves involve an extra complication, they can be done. But Colbert concluded “we should have a great, competitive situation at kicker this summer.”

However, Heath Miller’s sudden retirement has created approximately 4 million dollars in additional salary cap room for the Steelers – room that allows them to comfortably keep Suisham on the roster, and the Steelers cutting Chris Boswell makes it seem like that was their desire all along.

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager did not formally address the press, but reporters caught up with him as he was making his way into the office from his car. Reporters pressed Colbert as to why the Steelers cutting Chris Boswell at this point in the off season..

He declined several times to offer a comment, until Colbert finally cocked his head back and responded with a sly grin, “What better day to announce a move like this than April 1st?”

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Steelers Long Snapper Greg Warren Resigns as 2016 Free Agency Begins

The Pittsburgh Steelers only have a handful of remaining veterans who own rings from Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII, and speculation has mounted as to how many of those might be back for 2016. The team erased all doubt when it came to one of them, as the Steelers long snapper Greg Warren resigned with the team, inking a one year extension that keeps him in Pittsburgh for an 11th season.

  • This is the fourth year the Steelers have signed Greg Warren to a 1 year contract, per Chris Adamanski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

The Steelers originally signed Greg Warren as an undrafted rookie free agent in the spring of 2005 where he replaced Mike Schneck who’d held down the long snapping duties since 1999. Only linebacker James Harrison has been with the Steelers longer than Greg Warren, and Warren’s tenure matches that of Ben Roethlisberger and is one year less than that of Heath Miller’s.

James Harrison has yet to decide if he will return for a final season, and the Steelers have not signaled whether they will welcome him back, although Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider has reported that the Steelers want to give priority developing Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones. Heath Miller has also been rumored to be an impending cap casualty, but that is not likely to happen.

The Case Steelers Resigning Greg Warren

While it’s a done deal, the case against the Steelers resigning Greg Warren would flow like this: football is a young man’s game and at age 35, Greg Warren more than qualifies for NFL senior citizen status.

  • On top of that, the only thing that Greg Warren does for the Steelers is snap on punts and place kicks.

As injuries to Maurkice Pouncey, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Kelvin Beachum and DeAngelo Williams illustrates, winning in the modern NFL is as much a game of attrition as it is anything else. Locking up a roster spot to someone who is nothing more than a long snapper is a waste, and the slot should go to someone who offers greater position flexibility….

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Greg Warren

Chuck Noll in fact, doggedly held that same philosophy on long snapping, believing it was a waste of a roster spot. But in a muddy game at Cleveland Stadium during the Steelers disastrous 1988 season, Hall of Fame center Mike Webster once snapped the ball over Harry Newsome’s that ended up causing Pittsburgh a 50 yard loss.

Chuck Noll wised up, and relented to signing a long snapper.

The case for the Steelers resigning Greg Warren comes down to one very simple question:

  • When was the last time you saw a bad snap impact the outcome of a Steelers game?

The answer would probably be the time that James Harrison snapped the ball over Mitch Berger’s head in the 2008 Steelers loss to the Giants.

And Harrison was snapping because Greg Warren had torn his ACL in that game. Greg Warren has one job to do for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He does that job very well, and the Steelers are smart to keep him around for as long as he can keep doing it.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Coaching Report Card + Special Teams and Unsung Hero Award

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders if Mike Tomlin might be entering a new phase of his coaching tenure here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Coaching and Special Teams Report Card.

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Grading the Steelers 2015 Special Teams

2015 brought a decidedly mixed bag for the Steelers special teams. On the positive side, Chris Boswell was an unqualified success and in many ways the rookie saved the Steelers season. Antonio Brown showed he could still do damage as a punt returner. Danny Smith’s special teams also created a number of fumbles on kick returns, which is much needed.

  • There’s a flip side to the Steelers 2015 special teams, and it isn’t nearly as attractive.

Outside of Antonio Brown, the Steelers have no one to return kicks, with Markus Wheaton Jacoby Jones and Dri Archer both proving to be abject failures (at least Wheaton was a failure as a punt returner – he was OK returning kickoffs.) And while the Steelers special teams spared themselves from glaring disasters, a couple of scary returns were brought back on penalties. Likewise, Josh Scoobe was a disaster as a place kicker, and contributed to two of the Steelers losses.

On balance the Steelers special teams were slightly above average in 2015 – given the injuries to the offense, the Steelers needed more from the unit. Grade: C+

Grading the Steelers Coaches for 2015

Any discussion of the Steelers coaches in 2015 must begin with the defense, where Keith Butler embarked on a new era, tasked with succeeding the legacy of Dick LeBeau – no easy feat. Butler proved to be more than up to the task. The Steelers 2015 defense might have given up more yards in 2015 than it did in 2014, but it gave up fewer points, improved in sacks and takeaways – all with only minor adjustments for talent.

  • A closer look is perhaps warranted at the role of Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake.

The Steelers banked heavily on the development of Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas, and both men were disappointments. The responsibility for this doesn’t of course only lie on Lake’s shoulders, but he is their position coach, and by all accounts, Lake pushed hard for the Steelers to draft Thomas. He’s also spoken glowingly of Antwon Blake, who while he might get scapegoated far too often for the unit’s troubles, clearly was not the secondary’s strong link.

Moving over to offense, it is now clear with 20/20 hindsight that one of Art Rooney II’s best moves was to force Bruce Arians out. Mike Tomlin reacted by bringing in Todd Haley, and Ben Roethlisberger has grown and matured as a result of it. Yes, Roethlisberger’s late season “stupid interceptions” are a cause for concern, but that is something that can be corrected.

  • The naysayers might argue, “Ah, but Haley had all the weapons at his disposal.”

Yes, and any coach needs to have good players first – and having them is no guarantee of success. Don’t believe me? Look at the difference in performance between the Steelers 1991 and 1992 offenses. The 1991 was a muddling and bumbling at best under Joe Walton; under Ron Erhardt in 1992 the same talent performed much, much better.

  • Todd Haley started 3 quarterbacks, lost his all pro running back and center, lost wide receivers to injuries and suspensions and still fielded one of the NFL’s most lethal units.

And finally, there’s Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. Art Rooney II showed his faith in Tomlin by extending his contract in training camp. Many in Steelers Nation questioned the move, clinging to the “He’s still only won with Bill Cowher’s players.” Yeah, whatever.

This is Tomlin’s team or Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s team. And Mike Tomlin has done pretty damm good with the group of player’s he’s assembled. It is one thing to mouth the words, “The Standard is the Standard” and/or “Next Man Up.” It is another thing to believe it, and yet another to get your locker room to accept it.

Yes, Mike Tomlin teams might still have legitimate issues with “Trap Games” but he’s proven himself to be an excellent head coach. Tomlin himself will tell you that any season that doesn’t end in a Super Bowl Championship is a failure. Fair enough. But 2015 probably represented his best coaching job. Grade: A

Steelers Unsung Hero of 2015

Everyone knows that Ben Roethlisberger took a lot of punishment during the early part of Mike Tomiln’s tenure as head coach. Debates raged over how much of that was due to “Ben being Ben.” Some of it undoubtedly was. But the Steelers, for whatever reason, employed a “Plug and Patch” approach to offensive line building, and it showed.

Roethlisberger, Brown, Wheaton, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant, Heath Miller, and DeAngelo Williams put together a lot of ESPN highlight material in 2015.

  • But none of their fireworks would have been possible without the quality offensive line play week in and week out.

Mike Munchak lost 40% of his offensive line, yet the unit improved from 2014 to 2015. One can only imagine how much more might have been accomplished had Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum stayed healthy.

As it was, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Cody Wallace, Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva acted as a rock of stability for the Steelers offense, and for that the Steelers offensive line wins the Unsung Hero award for the 2015 season.

Part I of the Steelers 2015 Report Card graded the offense.
Part II of the Steelers 2015 Report Card graded the defense.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for AFC Wild Card Win Over Bengals

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who remains incredibly proud that his star pupils  mastered the critical life lesson of never quitting, not even at the bitter end, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the AFC Wild Card win over the Cincinnati Bengals.steelers, report card, grades, Cincinnati Bengals, wild card, afc, playoffs

This will be remembered as the game where Ben Roethlisberger took the field with a separated shoulder and went so far as to adjust his throwing motion to lead his team down the field with about 1:23 remaining. An so it should.

  • Roethlisberger’s performance was nothing short of heroic.

Still, Ben Roethlisberger played 3 quarters prior to his injury, and while he left the Steelers with a 15 point lead, the offense only scored one touchdown. In 3 series, Landry Jones helped reinforce the case for bringing back Bruce Gradkowski, and unfortunately Jones brings the grade for the quarterbacks down.  Grade:  B+

Running Backs
If, prior to the season someone had said, “The Pittsburgh Steelers will play on the road in the Wild Card vs. an AFC North team, and their backfield will account for 183 all purpose yards,” you surely would have thought that Le’Veon Bell recaptured his 2014 form and entered the playoffs in full health. If you’d know Bell would be injured, you’d have thought “DeAngelo Williams had something left in the tank, and maybe Dri Archer made a sophomore leap.” If that someone had said that those rushing numbers had been authored by Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman you never would known they were smoking crack.

  • But believe it now.

Toussaint and Todman ran with power and authority on a night when torrential rains slowed the Steelers aerial assault. Toussaint also proved he’s a viable target out of the backfield. Clearly these men earned their stripes as Steelers. Grade:  A

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown lead the Steelers with seven catches on 119 yards and played an excellent game before being taken out by an illegal hit to the head from Vontaze Burfict. The week opened with Ben Roethlisberger challenging Martavis Bryant, and Bryant answered the call. Bryant’s stat line of 29 of 5 on six targets for one TD might not look like much, but his end zone catch revealed incredible concentration. Bryant also looked freakishly good on a 40 yard reverse. Markus Wheaton had 23 yards on 2 catches but he also committed a costly fumble. Grade:  A-

Tight Ends
It was a surprisingly quiet night for Heath Miller, who’d owned the Bengals in the Steelers previous two meetings, who had 2 catches for 9 yards on 3 targets in this Wild Card victory. When Miller is involved so little in the passing game that’s usually an indication that he’s been kept back to block. Neither of the Steelers other two tight ends were targeted. Grade:  B

Offensive Line
While Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman deserve every bit of credit and attention their performance earned them, the Steelers offensive line opened up some gaping holes for their running backs and they blocked Bryant’s reverse perfectly. The Steelers did give up four sacks, which isn’t good but overall protection of the quarterback was solid. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Looking at the stat sheet, one is tempted to say “The Bengals should have run more,” but if you take out Jeremy Hill’s 38 yard run, the Steelers completely stuffed Cincinnati’s running game. Stephon Tuitt led the Steelers defensive lineman with 4 tackles, followed by Cameron Heyward who had a sack, and Steve McLendon registered one tackle. Cam Thomas also had two tackles while notching a key fumble. This was a strong night for the defensive line.  Grade:  A-

Next time the Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin pass over a player who might fill a “need” to take draft someone they think can be special, remember the game that Ryan Shazier had. Shazier led the Steelers with 13 tackles, 2 of which went for losses, 2 passes defensed and one hit of A.J. McCarron. But that doesn’t do him credit. Ryan Shazier forced one Bengals fumble (and was robbed of a touchdown) that ended a probable scoring drive. And of course he forced the fumble in with 1:30 left to play that gave the Steelers one final chance.

Jarvis Jones forced the fumble that set up the Steelers third field goal, while Arthur Moats led the Steelers outside linebackers with 5 tackles, followed by James Harrison who had four plus a sack. Lawrence Timmons had four tackles as well and played well. Grade: A

The much maligned Antwon Blake came down with an interception that got the ball back after Wheaton’s fumble, and set up the Steelers first field goal. William Gay gave up his first touchdown of the season, but led defensive backs with 5 tackles. Ross Cockrell recovered the final fumble of the game. The Steelers secondary’s play wasn’t flawless, but they held A.J. Green in check and got the Bengals off the field on third downs for most of the night. They also secured turnovers when they had to. Grade:  B+

Special Teams
Markus Wheaton doesn’t look like he “has it” as a kick returner, but he only fielded one return.  Antonio Brown did not make much noise as a kick returner. The Steelers coverage units were shaky, allowing Cincinnati both long kick and punt returns, to wit a 24 yard punt return helped set up the Bengals go ahead touchdown.

  • These negatives are real, and must not be repeated in Denver.

But the Steelers special teams grade for the Wild Card game must be balanced out by the efforts of Chris Boswell. Kicking in the AFC North in January is not easy, but Boswell was 4-4, kicking field goals of 39, 30, 34, and 35 yards in a driving rain and sleet and that was the perfection that Pittsburgh needed. Grade: B-

Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley both have a pair. The Steelers offensive backfield had a total of 22 carries entering the Wild Card game vs. Cincinnati, yet Tomlin and Haley rushed the duo 28 times and threw to  Toussaint four more.

  • And the game plan worked.

One can quibble about why the Steelers had to settle for field goals on two trips inside the Red Zone, but harsh weather did slow the Steelers offense. Cincinnati has a good defense, and the Steelers offensive came in with a good game plan for attacking it and the coaches had their players prepared to execute it.

Keith Butler’s defense did what they need to succeed – pressure the quarterback and secure turnovers. McCarron looked lost for most of the night, and while you can’t let the defense off the hook for allowing those 16 4th quarter points, the Steelers offense helped Bengals plenty by turning over the ball so quickly.

For all of the flack Mike Tomlin has taken over his time management, the fact is that the Steelers still had 3 timeouts left with 1:36 left to play, forcing Cincinnati to run a play.

  • But that wouldn’t have mattered had the Steelers mindset and composure been different.

Ryan Shazier’s forced fumble of Jeremy Hill stands right up there with Rod Woodson’s forced fumble of Lorenzo White in the 1989 Wild Card upset at Houston, or Troy Polamalu’s interception of Joe Flacco in the 2008 AFC Championship game. All three were championship-caliber plays that combined athleticism, determination, focus and yes, a little luck, to change the course of the game.

If any sideline had the right to outrage after Roethlisberger’s final pass it was the Steelers, who’d just seen their team MVP KOed on an illegal it. Yet it was the Bengals who launched a raucous while Pittsburgh kept its cool and that cost Cincinnati dearly. Grade:  A

Unsung Hero Award
Look at his stat line on ESPN, and you’ll see 3 tackles, 2 solos, and one for a loss. He’s the last of the linebackers in terms of stats, but perhaps that’s more of a reflection on how well his peers played as opposed to being a measure of his efforts. The fact is that while he didn’t record any Splash plays, Bud Dupree helpled set the tone by stuffing  Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill and he of kept AJ McCarron running for much of the first half, and for that Bud Dupree win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers Wild Card win vs. the Cincinnati Bengals.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Seattle Seahawks

Taken from the grade book of a teacher whose students have entered the “Pass-Fail” portion of the course and sadly, those students failed the first of six final units, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the loss to Seattle.

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Ben Roethlisberger threw for record yards on the road in a venue that represents one of the toughest places to play. He, along with Landry Jones, also threw for just under 500 yards. That’s an impressive total, but the Steelers the most important number in all of those stats is 4 interceptions. OK, the final one by Jones may not have been a legit interception, and Ben’s two picks were simple slip ups rather than overt errors. But still, the quarterback needs to protect the ball, and Roethlisberger and Jones didn’t do that. Grade: C-

Running Backs
DeAngelo Williams ran only ran for 29 yards on 8 carries. In perfect 20/20 hindsight one might ask why he was not given enough carries to make a difference. However, Williams did make a difference in the air, making 7 catches for 88 yards as he made Seattle pay multiple times on simple check down plays. Roosevelt Nix had one catch for six yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers 
Richard Sherman blanketed Antonio Brown for much of the game, and for the first time in a long time, Brown looked mortal, although he still made some solid catches. Nonetheless, he got tripped up on Roethlisberger’s second interception, and the Seahawks took full advantage. Seattle’s coverage of Brown opened opportunities for Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant. Markus Wheaton took full advantage and, with his 9 catch 201 yard performance, for the first time in a long time reminded people of why the Steelers saw Markus Wheaton as a replacement for Mike Wallace. Bryant made some impressive plays, but he’s better remembered for the catches he didn’t make. OK. Not all were perfectly thrown balls, but if Bryant makes a couple of three of those catches, this is a different ball game. Wheaton’s stellar game brings this grade up a bit. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
How might this game have evolved differently had Heath Miller stayed healthy the entire game? No one will ever know, but he published Seattle heavily in the middle in just one quarter of action. Jesse James had one catch in Millers absence, but he looked smart during the game. Matt Spaeth and Will Johnson also had catches. Grade: B

Offensive Line
One of the biggest changes in this game was how control at the line of scrimmage shifted from the first half to the second half. Ben Roethlisberger faced little or no pressure during the first half, but that changed for the worse in the second half. Alejandro Villanueva missed his block on a sack early in the 2nd half to set the tone for the entire unit. Seattle was credited with four QB hits and 2 sacks. These are hardly daunting numbers, but the Seahawks got pressure when they needed to. David DeCastro made two tackles on interception returns. Grade: D

Defensive Line
On the negative side, Seattle’s Thomas Rawls ran the ball efficiently, and while he hardly took over the game, the Steelers run defense couldn’t force Seattle to be one dimensional. On the positive side, Russell Wilson did not do much damage with his feet. The Steelers defensive line contributed one of two sacks on Wilson, and Stephon Tuitt put in a solid game and Steve McLendon defensed a pass. Grade: B-

Lawrence Timmons led the unit with 7 tackles and one tackle for a loss. He got flagged for uncessary roughness as Russell Wilson was going out of bounds, but that was a bogus call. Vince Williams was just behind Timmons in tackles with 7. Arthur Moats followed him with 4 tackles. Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones had a tackle a piece, and Dupree got to Wilson once. The duo also teamed to force an intentional grounding call. James Harrison did not show up on ESPN’s stat sheet, but he did lose a sack on Wilson. While the linebackers didn’t appear to be a glaring weakness, Jimmy Graham had a strong day, the Steelers were vulnerable in the middle of the field for which the linebackers must take some responsibility, and the Steelers didn’t generate much of a pass rush. Grade: C-

Five touchdowns through the air for the second time in a season. One passed defense, but a defensive lineman. Missed tackles. No turnovers. The Steelers secondary has had a “bend but don’t break” character through much of the season and has had an uncanny ability to produce turnovers in the Red Zone.

  • The Seattle Seahawks broke the Steelers secondary.

Russell Wilson and company simply made it look too easy. All of this does not fall on the Steelers secondary, but it most of it does. If the Steelers are to have any hopes of making the playoffs, let alone advancing there, Carnell Lake and Keith Butler are going to need to coax better play out of this until, or otherwise ensure they continue to produce turnovers. Grade: F

Special Teams
For the first time Jacoby Jones looked like he belonged, giving the Steelers respectable kick return and punt return games. Shamarko Thomas was flagged for making contacts on a fair catch in what amounted to a ticky-tacky penalty. Chris Boswell was 3-3. The Steelers kick return unit did give up a 54 yard return, while the Steelers defense forced a punt on that drive, that’s not the type of return you like to see. Grade: B-

Lost in all of the sound and fury over Mike Tomlin’s decision the fake field goal and the real field goal is one salient fact. The Steelers committed one pre-snap penalty the entire game, and that was an intentional delay of game call. That’s an indication of solid preparation, especially considering the difficulty of playing in Seattle.

A word on the coaching decisions. If Landry Jones gets just a little more air on the ball, Alejandro Villanueva has a chance to catch it and Tomlin looks like a genius. Tomlin, having taken a risk once and been burned played it safe at the end of the game. Those risk-reward are dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t.

  • Beyond that, Mike Tomlin didn’t drop some of those catchable balls, nor did he miss some of those makeable tackles.

There are more worrisome are things to discuss. Why was Seattle able to mount an effective pass rush in the second half? And why was Russell Wilson increasingly effective as the game wore on? Given the later fact, why didn’t the Steelers attempt to rush the ball a little more to perhaps change the tempo? Perhaps Keith Butler should have rushed more aggressively and at the expense of containing Wilson, because in hindsight the Steelers secondary wasn’t up to stopping him via coverage.

We’ll never know the answer to this question, but these are questions people ask (or should ask) of the coaches when at team loses the way the Steelers lost. Grade: D

Unsung Hero
Chris Boswell’s final field goal made it a two point game. If the Steelers defense can hold on 3rd and 9 at Seattle’s 20 instead of giving up an 80 yard touchdown pass then Boswell probably has a shot at winning it in regulation.

The Steelers have one man to thank for that almost reality. This man blocked an extra point, and stopped Seattle’s two point conversion attempt cold. That’s a 3 points taken off the board by one defender. He also had 3 tackles and sacked Wilson once, and for that Cam Heyward is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers loss to the Seahawks.

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Vote Steelers Game Ball Winners for Pittsburgh’s Victory over Oakland

The time has arrived. The Pittsburgh Steelers willed themselves to a 38-35 victory over the Oakland Raiders at Heinz Field in a back and forth game that saw many Steelers step up but, at the same time, saw Pittsburgh stumble badly at times.

As always, you, citizens of Steelers Nation, get to vote Steelers game ball winners for the Pittsburgh’s win over their historic rivals.

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As in week’s past, there is no shortage of Steelers game ball winner candidates. Ben Roethlisberger earns a nod. Although it was hardly Ben Roethlisberger’s best game, he did throw for 2 touchdowns and three hundred yards.

Antonio Brown is a no brainer, even with his costly fumble that allowed Oakland back in the game, his 17 catch 284 yard performance was nothing short of phenomenal, and his 57 yard catch at the end of the game was critical in setting up Chris Boswell’s game tying field goal.

  • Likewise, DeAngelo Williams is also a no brainer for his 170 yard performance, including a critical 9 yard scamper late in the 4th quarter.

Martavis Bryant earns a ballot slot, although his performance was shaky, but played his touchdown catch perfect, and the Steelers needed those points. Does Martavis Bryant deserve a game ball? You decide Steelers Nation.

Landry Jones earns a slot, for his 4 completions in relief of Ben Roethlisberger. Heath Miller only caught 3 passes, but he made those count. Is that enough to earn Heath Miller a game ball? You decide.

  • The Steelers special teams, or more specifically, the Steelers coverage units get the nod.

On defense, Ross Cockrell would seem to be the only sure-fire game ball winner, but Antwon Blake and Cameron Heyward also get ballot slots. Rookie Bud Dupree earns a mention on the ballot thanks to his blocked punt, and while Jarvis Jones, Vince Williams, and Anthony Chickillo didn’t make the ballot, no one here would quibble if their names appeared as write in candidates, as their fumble recoveries helped tremendously.

Likewise, Lawrence Timmons and Mike Mitchell probably deserve some write-in love, but that’s for you to decide.

Vote now Steelers Nation, and decide the Steelers game ball winners for Pittsburgh’s last second victory over the Oakland Raiders.

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