Steelers Sign Jon Bostic, Bolstering Inside Linebacker Depth with Risk-Reward Free Agent Pickup

Oh, sometimes you’ve got to love being a blogger. So just yesterday morning Steel Curtain Rising published a missive on the first week of free agency in Pittsburgh with a lead paragraph that closed, “All Quiet on the South Side Front.” Things had been quite on the acquisition and departure front, and were expected to stay that way….

  • …And of course, within two hours of running the story news broke that saw the Steelers sign Jon Bostic, the inside linebacker most recently with the Indianapolis Colts.

Terms of Jon Bostic’s contract with the Steelers have not been disclosed, and his agreement with the Steelers contingent on him passing a physical while at Steelers facilities. The latter part is key, as it highlights the risk-reward nature of the move.

Steelers sign Jon Bostic, Jon Bostic, Knile Davis, steelers colts preseason 2017

Steelers sign Jon Bostic, ILB from Colts. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today, via Scout

Colbert, Tomlin/Steelers Learning from Ladarius Green Debacle?

Word is that two years ago when the Steelers acted to sign Ladarius Green on the first day of free agency, they did so without doing their medical due diligence.

If that is indeed true, that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin deserve to earn a big black demerit by their names as Ladarius Green ended up playing 6 games on a 4 year contract due to his concussion history and ankle injuries.

  • Clearly the Steelers brain trust is weary of Jon Bostic’s injury history.

Jon Bostic saw injuries ruin his 2015 season when he was with the New England Patriots. That led the Patriots to trade him to the Detroit Lions in 2016, but Bostic was forced to sit the year out on injured reserve. The Indianapolis Colts signed Bostic in 2017 and he started 14 games before, you guessed it, a knee injured landed him on injured reserve.

It is somewhat ironic that the Steelers would replace an injured player with another player who has a history of chorionic injuries. One has to figure that the Steelers are looking at Jon Bostic as someone to throw into the mix as opposed to someone arriving to be “the answer” at inside linebacker.

Jon Bostic’s “Upside”

Injury issues aside raise the risk to this move, Jon Bostic does look like the typical Steelers under-the radar free agent. Jon Bostic’s  career stat sheet doesn’t hint at hidden superstar ability, but it does show a solid player with some upside.

Steelers blogger Alex Kozora shared a video clip on Twitter that hints some of the update that Jon Bostic offers the Steelers. This is taken from the Steelers 2017 win over the Colts and Jon Bostic is wearing number 57:

Notice how Bostic immediately reads the play and closes into the line of scrimmage to set the edge even before Ben Roethlisberger complets the hand off, he avoids getting entangled by David DeCastro and shows excellent lateral movement as he shadows Le’Veon Bell.

  • While Bell does get to turn the corner, because Bostic is able to stop him from behind.

Assuming Bostic passes his physical, he immediately bolsters the Steelers inside linebacking corps. At a very minimum he’s a presence who can move in along side Vince Williams to press Tyler Matakevich and would also push any early round draft pick the Steelers would select in the 2018 NFL Draft with an eye towards replacing Ryan Shazier long-term.

Steelers Signing Bostic is Bad News for Spence, Timmons

The fact that the Steelers have moved to sign Jon Bostic so almost certainly rules out a Lawrence Timmons reunion. Timmons was Mike Tomlin’s first round draft pick, and a reported favorite of the head coach who departed to the Miami Dolphins last spring. Timmons didn’t like it there and even showed up at the Steelers training facility early in the season.

  • The Dolphins have since cut Timmons, leading to speculation he could return to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers aren’t going to spend their meager salary cap space on two inside linebackers. And that also likely means that Sean Spence’s second stint with the Steelers will be his last.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Jon Bostic.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Excellent Mike Tomlin Clock Management Skills (yep, just “went there”) Displayed in Steelers Win Over Titans

The Pittsburgh Steelers Thursday Night trashing of the Tennessee Titans offered Steelers Nation a lot to like and a lot of what the fan base has been waiting for. Among those highlights include:

  • Ben Roethlisberger in rhythm with his receivers
  • 5 sacks for the defensive line and linebacking corps
  • 4 interceptions from a secondary (albeit with a long TD given up)
  • A booming special teams field goal block
  • Another example of excellent Mike Tomlin clock management

Say what? Yep, now that you’ve had time to do your double take on the final bullet point, let’s get this out of the way, yes we went there.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin clock management

Mike Tomlin’s clock management is ALWAYS under fire from fans. But is the criticism justified? Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo Sports

The “Poor Mike Tomlin clock management” mantra has become an article of a faith that it is so ingrained that it is so rote that even Tomlin defenders repeat it just as drivers in the Northeast must automatically condemn the conditions on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Is Mike Tomlin the NFL’s best clock manager? Probably not. Are there times when the Steelers inexplicably take time outs (see the two point conversion against the Colts) or perhaps fail to get plays off before the two minute warning? Yep.

But Mike Tomlin isn’t nearly as poor as a clock manager as his reputation would suggest, and the Titans game is a perfect example of it, which we discuss below along with other examples.

Tomlin Manages the Clock to Win

Coty Sensabaugh’s interception set up the Steelers with the ball at Tennessee’s 20 yard line with 3:11 left. Lost in the sound and fury of Pittsburgh’s 40 point explosion is that the Steelers were inept on this visit to the Red Zone, which included a series of incomplete Ben Roethlisberger passes to Le’Veon Bell, a sack, a penalty on David DeCastro and a 10 yard run that set up Chris Boswell’s field goal.

  • But Titans coach Mike Mularkey was playing to win, buruing his 2nd & 3rd time outs at the 1:48 and 1:39 marks.

After the field goal and ensuing kickoff the Titans got the ball back at their 25 with 1:32 left to go in the half. Mike Hilton dropped DeMarco Murray for a 5 yard loss on the Titan’s first play. The Titans had no timeouts left, and the safe money in that situation is to let the clock continue to tick and get into the locker room as fast as you can.

  • Mike Tomlin called a time out.

Tomlin in fact aggressively used the Steelers remaining time outs, so that when all was said and done, the Titans had only bleed 14 seconds off of the clock. 1:11 is not a lot of time to work with when you get the ball at your own 33, but passes to Jesse James and Antonio Brown (with an assist from Martavis Bryant) set up a 50 yard field goal, which while no gimmie at Heinz Field, was enough.

  • At the end of the night those 3 points were little more than the chocolate jimmies on the sundae, but that hasn’t always been the case.

Against the Colts, Mike Tomlin found himself in somewhat of a similar situation. Bud Dupree sacked Jacoby Brissett for a 13 yard loss, bringing up 3rd down with 1:48 left to play. Again, after an atrocious 1st half, it would have been easy to let the Colts bleed the clock, take a knee and head into the locker room.

Tomlin instead took a time out, and with 1:39 and 2 timeouts left, Ben Roethlisberger was able to connect with Vance McDonald, JuJu Smith-Schuster as well as Brown and Bryant to set up another end of first half field goal, this one coming in a game that was decided by 3.

Looking Further Back for Examples of Tomlin’s Aggressive Clock Management

Mike Tomiln’s aggressive clock management didn’t suddenly start in 2017. Think back to opening day 2014 when the Steelers hosted the Browns on Chuck Noll Day. When the Steelers got the ball at their 20 with 1:44 remaining, Pittsburgh was holding on to a 24-3 lead.

  • The only question at that point wasn’t whether Bruce Gradkowski would play in the 2nd half, but how soon he would enter the game.

Mike Tomlin declined to take a series of knees, and Ben Roethlisberger methodically moved the ball down to the 3 yard line, where Shaun Suisham kicked a field goal. The extra 3 points seemed academic, but the Browns roared back in the 2nd half, and the Steelers ultimately won the game with a field goal at the buzzer.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell touchdown, Steelers vs Falcons

Le’Veon Bell runs for 1 of 2 touchdowns in the Steelers 2014 win over the Falcons. Photo Credit: Scott Cunningham, Getty Images via NY Daily News

You could also argue that Mike Tomlin’s clock management at the end of both halves in the Steelers 2014 win over the Atlanta Falcons was nothing short of impeccable.

In the afterglow of Super Bowl XLIII, fans tend to forget just how many come from behind, 4th quarter and/or 2 minute comebacks the 2008 Steelers needed. Their December 7th 2008 win against the Cowboys provides a perfect example.

After trailing for much of the day, the Steelers finally pulled even with the Cowboys as Ben Roethlisberger connected with Heath Miller in the End Zone with just over 2 minutes left to play.

Dallas got the ball back, ran one play that James Farrior stuffed for a 2 yard gain. Again, the safe money says let the clock run and play for overtime.

  • Instead, Mike Tomlin called a time out.

By his own account, Tomlin’s aggressive posture rattled Tony Romo as he was heard saying heading back to the huddle, “What, they called a time out?” although given that they’d just played Renegade at Heinz Field, perhaps he should have known better. If your memory is fuzzy, here’s how things unfolded, starting with Renegade:

Notice, no one was complaining about Tomlin’s clock management after that game.

Which is part of the point. As Rebecca Rollett as pointed out on Going Deep with the Steelers, clock management is something that generally only comes up after a team loses. In fact, Rollett set up to find examples of good clock management, and while she came up with a few, most were hard to find.

So while Mike Tomlin does make clock management mistakes, he does a lot better than most fans give him credit for.

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Is the Steelers 2017 Defensive Line Simply Too Talented Too Contain?

In-case you haven’t noticed, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward is having himself quite the year.

  • I’ve certainly noticed, as I’ve often caught myself Tweeting or simply saying out-loud, “What in the world has gotten into Cam Heyward?”

I almost always follow that up by saying, “He’s playing like Mean Joe Greene, circa 1972.” I always say 1972 because, according to former legends such as outside linebacker Andy Russell, it was around that time when Greene was simply unblockable.

Cameron Heyward, Marcus Mariota, Javon Hargrave, Steelers vs Titans, Steelers 2017 defensive line

Cam Heyward sacks Marcus Mariota as Javon Hargrave closes in as well. Photo Credit: Steelers.com via Steel City Underground

Back to 2017, and Heyward, who, after recording two in a 40-17 romp over the Titans at Heinz Field Thursday night, perhaps surprisingly leads the Steelers with seven sacks through 10 games.

I say surprisingly, because Cam Heyward is a 3-4 defensive end, but in-case you didn’t know, this isn’t Dick LeBeau‘s 3-4 defense any longer, where it was the job of the linemen to eat up blockers so as to allow the linebackers to roam free and make tackles.

Under third-year defensive coordinator Keith Butler, the Steelers defensive linemen have been allowed to play more of a one-gap style, which has freed them up to be disruptive and make plenty of plays of their own.

Maybe this was a product of changing times, or simply a reaction to having two stud defensive ends on the field, after Stephon Tuitt somehow managed to slip to Pittsburgh in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

If Heyward, 28, is in the prime of his career (and, if he’s not, I can’t wait to see what that looks like), Tuitt, 24, is fast-approaching that point. There is no question he’s an absolute monster when he’s on the field, as evidenced by the four quarterback hits he recorded in Pittsburgh’s 20-17 victory over the Colts in Week 10. The only problem with Tuitt so far in 2017 has been injuries, injuries that have forced him to miss four games.

Then there’s second-year nose tackle Javon Hargrave, a 2016 third around pick out of South Carolina State. Hargrave isn’t your father’s nose tackle, he’s an athletic freak of nature that the legendary Casey Hampton never was, a player who, according to Behind the Steel Curtain editor Jeff Hartman, has been the Steelers most underrated lineman this season, so good, in-fact, he probably deserves more time on the field (Hargrave usually comes out of the game when Pittsburgh puts in its nickel or dime defense).

  • I can’t believe I’ve made it this far without mentioning Tyson Alualu, a reserve defensive end that Pittsburgh signed in the offseason.

Not only has Alualu, a former first round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars back in 2010, been an important part of the Steelers defensive line rotation, he’s started those four games Tuitt had to miss due to injuries.

Steelers 2017 Defensive line, Stephon Tuitt, Josh McCown

Stephon Tuitt stops Josh McCown from gaining yardage in Steelers win over Browns. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

So, of the Steelers top four defensive linemen–three starters and a reserve–you have two first round picks (Alualu, 2010; Heyward, 2011); a second round pick in Tuitt, who surely would have been drafted in the first round had he not suffered an injury in his final season at Notre Dame; and Hargrave, a player that may have been drafted in the first round, had he not played his college ball at tiny South Carolina State.

  • Maybe what we have here is a defensive line that’s simply too talented to stop.

It seems like every offseason, we talk in absolutes about the Steelers offensive weapons, and how they’ll simply be impossible to stop if they could ever get on the field at the same time.

The Steelers tantalizing offensive weapons have spent the vast-majority of 2017 on the field at the same time, but here we are, 10 game into the season, and–Thursday night against the Titans, aside–they’ve been anything but impossible to stop.

 

The defensive line, on the other hand, has been a thing of beauty, a force that takes one back to those glory days of the early-70’s, when Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and L.C. Greenwood joined Mean Joe Green in making life miserable for offensive linemen and quarterbacks all around the NFL.

  • I realize it’s easier to double-team linemen in a 3-4 scheme. But, for one thing, you can’t double every lineman. Secondly, you still have  to deal with the four linebackers on the field.

While Ryan Shazier has continued his Pro Bowl-level play from a year ago at inside linebacker, Vince Williams is one sack behind Heyward for the team lead.

  • As for stud outside linebackers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, a strong candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year, they’ve combined for eight sacks so far this season.

With 34 sacks, the Steelers front seven has picked up where it left off a season ago, when it recorded 31 over the final nine games.

  • The Steelers pass-rush has simply been overwhelming in 2017.

I believe it all starts up front with the talented group of defensive linemen the Steelers employ.

They say football is won in the trenches. If that is the case, the Steelers 2017 defensive line may be too dominant to lose many battles in the foreseeable future.

 

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JuJu Smith-Schuster Dominates Steelers Game Ball Voting (Again)

The votes are in for the Steelers game ball winners for Pittsburgh’s 20-17 victory over the Colts and if the results aren’t necessarily a surprise, perhaps the margin of victory is.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, steelers vs colts, steelers game ball poll winners

JuJu Smith-Schuster celebrates a 2nd half first down in the Steelers win over the Colts. Photo Credit: AP via News Sentinel

For yet another week, Steelers rookie wide reciever JuJu Smith-Schuster both led and dominated the voting, bringing down 12 votes which is 50% more than the next vote getter. steelers colts game ball winners, juju smith-schuster, ryan shazier

That’s some what of a mild surprise, as Ryan Shazier came in second, and Ryan Shazier’s game-changing interception even got a feature here by Tony Defeo, coverage which often times influences poll results. Stephon Tuitt was next drawing 6 votes.

Martavis Bryant got 4 votes, which isn’t a surprise given his 2 point and key 3rd down conversions, but Jordan Berry earned 4 votes on his own as a write in, which is impressive.

Vince Williams, who had a key tackle drew 2 votes while Sean Davis who led the team in tackles got one, as did Vance McDonald and Bud Dupree.

That is perhaps a mild surprise. Brown did not have his best game against the Colts by any measure, but he did come up with a critical 32 yard catch and run that put the Steelers into the Red Zone and allowed Chris Boswell to kick the game winning field goal.

Once again, we thank everyone who took time out to vote, and offer a speical word of thanks for those who took time to comment and those who cast write-in ballots.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Colts – Will “Just Passing” Be Enough When Playoffs Arrive?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher whose wondering if his students MO of “just passing is enough” will in fact be enough when the pass/fail portion of the course arrives, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Colts.

Martavis Bryant, Steelers vs Colts, Martavis Bryant 2 point conversion

Martavis Bryant scores critical 2 point conversion in Steelers win over Colts. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Nine games into 2017 it’s a fair question to ask if what we’re seeing from Ben Roethlisberger will be what we get. Under Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger is playing his best November and December football, but will that be good enough in January? Ben Roethlisberger had a poor first half that included an interception and zero 3rd down conversions. He played well in the second half with two touchdowns and several key completions on the game winning drive. Grade: B-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Back
Le’Veon Bell is another player who may be in “What you see is what you get territory.” To be fair to Bell, he didn’t have a lot of room to run often times, and there were times when he made something out of nothing. But its hard to watch him and think he’s not a notch below his 2016 performance. James Conner had one carry for 10 yards. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald got wide open in the end zone and made the game tying touchdown. He also had another catch. Still, McDonald missed his block on an end-around and that cost the team. The run blocking was below par, and the tight ends deserve some responsibly. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
For the second straight week, JuJu Smith-Schuster was the Steelers top receiver making an Brown-like catch downfield, scoring a touchdown and leading the team with just under 100 yards receiving. Antonio Brown had an off day, he wasn’t targeted much in the 2nd half, but had a drop that would have put the Steelers in the Red Zone and also drew a costly offensive pass interference penalty. Still, Brown came up big late in the game, and his catch and run was a difference maker. Eli Rogers had one catch for 2 yards, but it converted a third down when the Steelers needed him to. Grade: B-

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pierre Desir, Steelers vs Colts

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2nd quarter catch over Pierre Desir was Antonio Brownesque. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Offensive Line
The Colts came into the game with one of the NFL’s worst rushing defenses, but you wouldn’t have known it given their 4 tackles for a loss and otherwise proficient run stuffing of Le’Veon Bell. Likewise, the Colts sacked Roethlisberger once and hit him 4 times. While those numbers are not high by Roethlisberger historical standards, its clear that the 2017 edition of Big Ben needs all the help he can get. He didn’t get enough of it, early on at least. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Let it be said that in his absence, the Steelers defensive line played some of its best football of the season (particularly at the goal line.) And upon Stephon Tuitt’s return, the defensive line got better. Ok, perhaps this wasn’t an overall A+ performance as it had been against the Lions as Frank Gore ran reasonably well in the 1st half, but the Steelers shut him down in the second. Stephon Tuitt led the unit with three tackles, including 3 for losses, four QB hits and a sack at a critical moment. Cam Heyward had two tackles and was a force even if the stat sheet doesn’t show it. Javon Hargrave had a pass defensed. Grade: B+

Linebackers
Bud Dupree sacked Jacoby Brissett early made four tackles including 3 for losses, and Vince Williams brought him down in the 4th quarter. T.J. Watt had a quiet day with 3 tackles. Ryan Shazier made the play of the game, as Shazier’s interception which set up the Steelers tying touchdown. The Steelers didn’t get much pressure on Brissett early, and it showed. They harassed him the entire second half, and that was a difference maker. Grade: B+

Secondary
The Steelers lost Mike Mitchell and more ominously Joe Haden. And they gave up 2 touchdown passes of 60+. When you do that on the road, you normally lose. Its true that the Steelers coverage improved as the game progressed, but those early stumbles could have been fatal. Sean Davis had a spectacular afternoon, and he brings the grade for the entire unit up. Grade: C

Special Teams
The Steelers committed 4 straight penalties on special teams which set up the Colts first touchdown. Jesse James and Alejandro Villanueva lost containment and the Steelers saw their second blocked place kick of the season. Chris Boswell missed a field goal, although he kicked the game winner and Jordan Berry boomed off several punts, which raises the grade for the unit. Barley. Grade: D

Coaching
Todd Haley’s play calling came with some head scratchers, including the end around and a very strange lateral run with Le’Veon Bell that went nowhere. Still, the Steelers offense outscored the Colts 17 to 7 in the second half, which amounted to a night and day difference from the first 30 minutes.

Keith Butler’s defense put in another strong day. Given how poorly Pittsburgh’s offense performed during the first half, the Steelers were lucky not to be down by more than 7. Still, the Colts scored two touchdowns and made it look easy. Those types of plays cannot continue.

Mike Tomiln, Steelers vs Colts

Mike Tomlin departs the field after the Steelers win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

The pivotal moment in Pittsburgh’s victory came after the Steelers second touchdown. An extra point would have left the Steelers behind by one, a two point conversion would have tied the game. The Steelers struggled to get the right personnel and play on to the field to the tune of a timeout and a penalty.

Nonetheless, the Steelers still made the 2 point conversation, and that proved to be an important difference, as it forced the Colts to play to win rather than simply burning up the clock. Word is that Mike Tomlin over ruled his lieutenants and made the call himself, and as a result, while the Steelers once again fell short of excellence, finished the game Above the Line. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
He’s been a disappointment and a distraction thus far this season. He possibly was at fault for or at least contributed to the first interception. But he came up big when the Steelers needed a two point conversion, and his 3rd down conversion inside the two minute warning got the Steelers to mid field, and for that Martavis Bryant is the Unsung Hero for the Steelers win over the Colts.

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Ryan Shazier’s Interception Against the Colts Came at Critical Moment in Steelers Win Over Indy

When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Ryan Shazier with the 15th pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, one of the first things head coach Mike Tomlin said about the young lad out of Ohio State was that he was “splash-play capable” (or whatever “Tomlinism” the coach used at that moment).

Maybe that’s why it was no surprise that Ryan Shazier made splash play after splash play in the very exciting and memorable wild card victory over the Bengals following the 2015 season–including a miraculous forced fumble in the final two minutes, which came just one play after it appeared backup quarterback Landry Jones threw the season away to villain linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

Ryan Shazier, Jack Doyle, Steelers vs Colts, Ryan Shazier interception Colts

Ryan Shazier’s interception against the Colts was a clutch play that came at a critical moment. Photo Credit: Joseph C. Garza, CNIH Indiana

Which brings us to the 2017 campaign, specifically this past Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis, where the Steelers were struggling mightily against a 3-6 Colts squad that came into the day having only beaten one team that had beaten other teams (the Colts other two victories came against the winless Browns and the at-the-time winless 49ers).

  • Trailing 17-9 early in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh was essentially one Colts score away from dropping yet another road game in-which it was a very heavy favorite.

With the offense struggling once again, the Steelers defense not only needed to shut Jacoby Brissett and the rest of Indianapolis’ offense down, it needed to come up with a huge splash play that put the offense in premium field position.

  • No. 50 did just that.

With the Colts facing a third and eight from their own 13, a quick pass from Brissett bounced off  the hands of tight end Jack Doyle, before Shazier, in a Troy Polamalu-like display of otherworldly hand-and-eye coordination, quickly corralled it before being tackled at the 10.

If you were skeptical that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant et. al. would fail to parlay this gift into a touchdown, I don’t blame you. Fortunately, with the help of Vance McDonald they cashed-in to the tune of the maximum eight points and a tie game, before going on to win, 20-17, on a last-second field goal by Chris Boswell

Speaking of the legendary Polamalu, after he and the rest of Dick LeBeau‘s defense got old in the early-2010’s, there was a very noticeable lack of splash plays, the kind that could ultimately change the course of a game (how many times had No. 43 done so in his prime)?

It’s hard to win in the NFL without an opportunistic defense, and it’s even harder when you don’t have a player who can often come up with a clutch interception, fumble recovery or just a timely hit that forces one.

  • Ryan Shazier has a knack for doing all three, and he has done all three at crucial moments in recent Steelers history.

After a rather-impressive rebuilding of the defense under new coordinator Keith Butler, the unit is full of young, fast defenders who are capable of making a splash play at any time.

But Ryan Shazier, with his unique blend of speed and explosiveness, is often the one who makes the biggest splashes of them all.

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Steelers Defeat Colts 20-17, Reshooting Old Scene to Forge New Ending to Old Story

Under Mike Tomlin’s tenure, at least since 2012, the Pittsburgh Steelers have developed a nasty habit of losing to sub .500 teams on the road. It’s a tendency that has hurt Pittsburgh time and time again when playoff pecking order is defined..

In the Steelers 20-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh simultaneously relived part of the old story, while forging a new ending.

Ryan Shazier, Mike Hilton, Jack Doyle, Steelers vs Colts

Ryan Shazier’s interception was a game changer in the Steelers 20-17 win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Steelers End Bye Week 30 Minutes Late

While Mike Tomlin’s teams are 6-4 coming out of their bye, 3 of those 4 losses have come in the last three years. The hope was that, after proving their mettle and tough contests against the Chiefs, Bengals and Lions, this time things would be different.

  • Unfortunately, for 30 minutes it appeared things would be the same, but only worse.

Everything that could go wrong went wrong for the Steelers in the first half against the Colts. Indeed, it only took two plays for Ben Roethlisberger to throw an interception instead of connecting with Martavis Bryant deep.

That pick might not have been Ben’s fault, as it looked like Martavis Bryant under ran his route. Regardless, Roethlisberger struggled for the entire first half, posting a 33.0 passer rating as the Steelers failed to convert a third down. The offensive line struggled to open holes for Le’Veon Bell, and allowed defenders to pressure Ben more than usual.

Ben Roethlisberger, Hassan Ridgeway, Steelers vs Colts

Hassan Ridgeway sacks Ben Roethlisberger during the first quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Just how bad were the Steelers in the 1st half? Their third series perfectly illustrates the point:

  • A penalty on a punt return pushed Pittsburgh back to its ten
  • After getting 2 first downs and moving to their 43, Ben Roethlisberger got sacked losing 8 yards
  • Two plays yielded 4 yards, bringing up a punt from the Steelers 39
  • 3 straight penalties pushed the Steelers all the way back to their 19
  • 5 plays later Artie Burns was getting burned for a 60 yard touchdown

The Steelers staged a bit of a mini-rally second half’s end on a defensive series that saw Stephon Tuitt stop Frank Gore for a loss, and Bud Dupree sack Jacoby Brissett for a 13 yard loss. The Steelers got the ball back, and did well enough to position Chris Boswell for a 41 yard field goal.

While they authored a strong end to a weak two quarters of football, the Steelers were lucky to only be down by a touchdown at the half, especially when you take into consideration that the Steelers had lost Mike Mitchell and Joe Haden to injury in the first 30 minutes.

Steelers, Stumble then Turn New Page in the Second Half

Any warm and fuzzy feeling the Steelers might have enjoyed at the close of the second half was quickly extinguished 4 plays into the second half as Chester Rogers got ahead of Coty Sensabaugh a 61 yard touchdown pass, giving them a 17 to 3 lead.

  • It was a scene that Steelers Nation has seen too many times in previous years, but also a situation that the 2017 Steelers had put themselves in.

And, as they had done several times already this season, the Steelers refused to blink. Pittsburgh and Ben Roethlisberger found JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 44 gain that got them to the 20. Six plays later, the Ben again connected with JuJu Smith-Schuster in the end zone.

The Colts quickly countered by blocking Chris Boswell’s extra point, but Jesse James atoned for blowing his blocking assignment by making the tackle

It would be the Colts last charge of the game.

As Steelers Defense Corrals the Colts, Offense Takes Advantage

Big special teams plays super charge teams and often rapidly shift momentum. But momentum shifts never shifts automatically. The Steelers defense ensured the Colts could not reach a gallop by corralling Frank Gore and turning up the pressure on Jacoby Brissett.

The Steelers defense limited the Colts first possession after the blocked extra point to a punt, and on their next try, Ryan Shazier showed incredible concentration by breaking off his blitz to drop into coverage where deflected and then intercepted a pass.

Armed with excellent field position at the Colts ten, the offensive line give Ben Roethlisberger rock-solid protection, as he connected with Vance McDonald. A series of miscues cost the Steelers a time out and a delay of game penalty, but neither could stop Ben Roethlisberger from connecting with Martavis Bryant for the 2 point conversion.

Vince Williams, Jacoby Brissett, Vince Williams sacks Jacoby Brissett, Steelers vs Colts

Vince Williams’ 4th quarter sack of Jacoby Brissett fuels a key stop for the Steelers defense. Photo Credit: Jacoby Brissett

The Steelers defense followed by tightening the screws on the Colts as:

  • They forced an incompletion on first down
  • Vince Williams sacked Jacoby Brissett on 2nd down
  • Stephon Tuitt sacked Brissett on 3rd down

The Steelers offense had a chance to get ahead on a drive that included a nice 10 yard run by James Conner but, if there is a motto that’s developing for the Steelers 2017 season, its “Never keep simple what you can complicate.”

Chris Boswell saw a 41 yard field goal bounce off the uprights and the game remained tied with 6:17 remaining to play.

Steelers Reshoot Old Scene to Craft New Ending

The Colts got the ball at their 27 and only needed to get into Adam Vinatieri field goal range, but the Steelers defense forced a punt.

  • If the Steelers offense sprang to life during the second half, one thing remained missing: Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown.

The Steelers entire second half resurgence came despite the absence of a single Ben Roethlisberger Antonio Brown connection. Two critical 3rd down conversions first by Eli Rogers and then by Martavis Bryant set the stage for that connection.

At 1st and 10 from the 50, Ben Roethlisberger dropped back and found no one open. The Colts defense swarmed. Ben shuffled. A defender grabbed his jersey but Ben bought time with his legs and found Antonio Brown who scampered 50 yards to put the Steelers into field goal range.

It’s a scene Steelers Nation has seen many times before, and one that Roethlisberger and Brown reenacted to write a new ending to an old story. Boswell’s field goal split the uprights as time expired and the Steelers defeated the Colts and advanced to 7-2.

Another Battle Won, But Work to Be Done

The Steelers have won another battle, but 9 games into the season, its clear that Pittsburgh didn’t exit is bye week having found the cure to its offensive woes. Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley still have a lot of work to do if the Steelers are going to make a serious run at Lombardi Number 7.

But a win is a win.

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Vote Now Steelers Nation! Steelers Colts Game Ball Winner Poll

Whew! Another slow start. Another half of putrid football from Pittsburgh. Another nail biter. Another win. That’s the story on the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts.

Bud Dupree, Jacoby Brissett, Sean Davis, Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Colts

Bud Dupree sacks Jacoby Brisett in the 2nd quarter of the Steelers win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

As we do after every Steelers win, we invite you the citizens of Steelers Nation to vote game ball winners. Here’s a look at the ballot:

[yop_poll id=”59″]

For the second straight week, JuJu Smith-Schuster gets the top spot on the ballot, thanks to his near 100 yard game, and his touchdown in the Red Zone. After JuJu Smith-Schuster, we’re giving the nod to Vance McDonald, who caught the Steelers second touchdown.

Ben Roethlisberger, who played an atrocious first half, came back to really the Steelers by throwing two scoring strikes, both in the Red Zone, followed by a successful two point conversion. Roethlisberger also rallied the troops late in the second half, to both burn up the clock and put the Steelers in position for Chris Boswell to kick the game winning field goal.

  • Ben Roethlisberger had help however.

Martavis Bryant had a key 3rd down conversion, that got the Steelers to midfield (where Bryant got out of bounds.) That was followed by a 32 yard strike to Antonio Brown, who made his only catch of the second half count, getting the Steelers into field goal range. Martavis Bryant also caught the 2 point conversion, which was critical.

  • Ryan Shazier earns the top slot on the defensive side of the ballot.

Shazier was all over the field, and showed tremendous one the field presence in breaking off his blitz to not only move into coverage, but to secure an intercpetion following a dead ball. That play came inside the Lion’s 15, and set up the Steelers second touchdown. Shazier also had 2 other defensed passes.

After Shazier, the next three defensive candidates are Vince Williams, Bud Dupree, and Stephon Tuitt, each of whom had a sack, each of which came at a critical moment. Sean Davis led the team in tackles, and had a key pressure late in the first half.

Write In Votes Both Allowed and Encouraged

Remember, this poll is about what you the readers see. So write in are not only allowed but encouraged. If you think that Le’Veon Bell deserves a vote, write his name in. Ditto Boswell. Better yet, cast your write in vote, and leave a comment aruging your case.

Thanks in advance to all for voting. Please make sure to check back to for our full analysis of the Steelers win over the Colts.

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Will Ben Roethlisberger Rebound? A Look at Ben Roethlisberger’s 2nd Half of Season Performance

The Pittsburgh Steelers end their bye week and commence the last half of their 2017 season today against the Indianapolis Colts. The Pittsburgh Steelers carry a 6-2 mark out of the season’s mid point, the same record they had in in 2008 and 2010, seasons which ended at Super Bowl XLIII and Super Bowl XLV respectively.

  • And the news gets better. As Mike Frazer of Behind the Steel Curtain points out, Mike Tomlin second half of the season winning percentage is .663.

Past performance doesn’t guarantee future returns, and Tomlin’s Steelers did see second half of the season implosions in 2009 and 2012. But Tomlin is only part of the equation. If there’s been one negative story line of 2017 it has been the sub-par play of Ben Roethlisberger.

That brings the focus firmly onto number 7, opening the question: How has Ben Roethlisberger typically performed during the second half of the season?

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger 2017

Is there hope for a Ben Roethlisberger rebound in the 2nd half of the season? Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via SI.com

Overview of Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance in the 2nd Half of the Season

By any number of measures, Ben Roethlisberger’s play this year has been far below his best.

Looking beyond the numbers, there’s no arguing that Roethlisberger has been helped by having an the best receiver in the NFL in the form of Antonio Brown and the best running back in form of Le’Veon Bell. And while Martavis Bryant has disappointed, JuJu Smith-Schuster has impressed.

Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette laid it out succinctly this week:

Forget the party line about Ben morphing into a steady “point guard” who’s having a stellar season “between the ears,” as he put it Wednesday. His numbers between the lines are pedestrian. He is missing more throws than usual.
Forget about Sports Illustrated’s Peter King ranking Ben 10th on his list of midseason MVP candidates, too. You can only be an MVP candidate if you’re having a great season. Ben is not.

Starkey goes on to argue that “I’m not sure I’d bet big on Ben returning to elite form, but there’s a decent chance…” justifying his faith in the fact that Ben Roethlisberger can still make all of the throws he needs to make.

Faith is one thing, but what do the number say? Let’s take a look:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger stats, Ben Roethlisberger performance 2nd half season

Ben Roethlisberger has typically played better in the first half of the season

First, these numbers depict just how far below par Ben Roethlisberger has been this season. He key vitals are well below his career averages in ever category, save for sacks per drop backs and of course winning percentage.

  • And, at first glance, the Roethlisberger first half of the season, second half of the season splits are a downer.

Sure, his winning percentges is up and his sacks have historically dropped during the later 8 games of the season. But he’s thrown fewer touchdowns and his passer rating is down a full five points.

That seems like very discouraging news. And it is, until you take a deeper look.

A Deeper Look at Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance in the 2nd Half of the Season

Like any player, Ben has seen ups and downs as his career has progress, has seen shifts in his supporting cast, and has had to work in 3 systems directed by 3 different offensive coordinators.

When you look at the breakdown of Ben Roethlisberger’s performance in the 2nd half of the season vs. his performance in the 1st half of the season by offensive coordinator, things get interesting:

Ben Roethlisberger stats, Ben Roethlisberger performance 2nd half season, Ben Roethlisberger stats 2nd half season, Ben Roethlisberger stats november, Ben Roethlisberger stats december

With Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger is playing better than ever in 2nd halves of seasons.

First, its important to acknowledge that no matter whether Ken Whisenhunt, Bruce Arians or Todd Haley is calling the plays, the overall trend confirms itself, for the most part.

  • But there are important differences, differences that fuel hope for a 2nd half of the season Roethlisberger resurgence.

While playing under Ken Whisenhunt and with Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El, Santonio Holmes and young Heath Miller , Roethlisberger saw his biggest drop between halves of seasons. His completion percentage dropped almost 5 points, the threw 20% fewer touchdowns while throwing more interceptions. He also took more sacks, and his passer rating dropped a full 10 points and change.

  • When you consider how young Rothlisberger was, the drop off under Ken Whisenhunt isn’t that surprising.

When Bruce Arians took over, the overall trend continued, with some indicators improving while others deteriorated. Ben Roethlisberger’s sack percentage stabilized over the course of the season, but defenders still sacked Ben Roethlisberger on 9.4% of his drop backs.

He threw fewer interceptions, fortunately, but his touchdown percentage dropped by a third. His winning percentage also dropped, but that is probably skewed a little bit by the 2009 Steelers notorious 5 game losing streak.

Overall, Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating dropped a little over 5 points from one half of the season to next under Bruce Arians, which was half of the drop off he saw under Ken Whisenhunt.

The drop off in touchdowns is perhaps the most surprising, given that unlike Wisenhunt’s tenure, Roethlisberger only had Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer to lead his running game which by any measure marks a sharp drop off from Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker. So without the strong running game to lean on, one would figure Ben would be throwing for the end zone more under Arians.

But perhaps he did and failed, and perhaps that’s why the winning percentage took a hit.

  • Under Todd Haley, the differences between Ben Roethlsiberger’s first half of the season performance and his 2nd half encores get really interesting.

First, with Todd Haley Ben Roethlisberger’s second half season winning percentage improves above his career average. Second, Haley is the only Steelers offensive coordinator to get Ben Roethlsiberger to throw more touchdowns in the second half of the season as opposed to the first. Haley has also managed to reduce Ben Roethlisberger’s sacks in the second half of the season relative to the first.

  • And while Ben has thrown more interceptions in the second half of the season under Haley, his completion percentage and passer rating only drop by 2 points or less.

It would be interesting to see who Ben Roethlisberger 1st half vs. 2nd half season splits compare with other elite quarterbacks, and particularly those such as Tom Brady who play in cold weather, as a modest drop off is almost a given when you account for the wind, cold and snow of the AFC North in November and December.

The bottom line is, that while Ben Roethlisberger has seen his play decline through November and December throughout his career, he’s been better in the 2nd halves of season under Todd Haley than he was under Bruce Arians or Ken Wisenhunt.

So take heart Steelers Nation, the numbers suggest that Ben Roethlisberger is capable of a 2nd half of the season rebound.

 

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The Ladarius Green Deep Threat: Can Steelers Take Heat Off of Antonio Brown?

Thanks to the season-long suspension of Martavis Bryant, the Steelers don’t have a serious number two receiving threat to take the heat off of Antonio Brown.

Oh, it seemed like they did during the first five games, when second-year man Sammie Coates was catching deep pass after deep pass (and even some shorter ones) and looked to be a viable alternative to the troubled Martavis Bryant, who has all the talent in the world but, by the end of 2016, will have missed 20 of a possible 48 career games due to suspensions alone.

Ladarius Green deep threat, Ladarius Green, Steelers vs. Colts, Steelers Colts Thanksgiving 2016

Ladarius Green catches a pass in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo credit: ESPN.com

But like a lot of other aspects of the team, Sammie Coates, who suffered a deep gash on his hand as well as a broken finger (or two) against the Jets a week earlier, began to take a turn in the wrong direction versus Miami in Week 6 and really hasn’t been the same since.

Eli Rogers, the second-year Steelers undrafted rookie free agent out of Louisville, has backed up his training camp and preseason praise by steadily improving as a slot receiver as the year has progressed. As for the likes of Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey, well, they haven’t been able to pick up the slack left behind by the absence of Martavis Bryant the the struggles of Sammie Coates because they haven’t been around.

Markus Wheaton was finally placed on Injured Reserve after battling a shoulder injury since training camp, while Heyward-Bey has been out since suffering a foot injury against the Ravens on November 6.

  • In other words, those rumors you heard about the Steelers having a deep and talented receiving corps were false.
  • Don’t get me wrong, it might be deep and talented, but it’s also injured, inexperienced and troubled.

Either way you look at it, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t have the plethora of weapons many thought he would.

I know what you’re going to say. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger has the best running back in the league in Le’Veon Bell to go along with maybe the best receiver. But just ask Antonio Brown how tough the sledding has been this season, with regards to beating double and triple coverage week in and week out.

Enter Ladarius Green…

Speaking of rumors, let’s address those rumors you heard about Ladarius Green, the super-talented understudy to Antonio Gates in San Diego, who came to the Steelers as a free-agent in March with the intent of redefining the tight end position in the wake of Heath Miller‘s retirement, they seemed mostly false for close to a year.

  • Sure, you may have believed the Ladarius Green deep threat hype in March, April, May and June.

But when training camp rolled around in late-July, and Ladarius Green, who had offseason ankle surgery before evening signing with Pittsburgh, was still sidelined while recovering from the procedure (or post-concussion headaches, depending on what you believed), skepticism may have started to creep in.

And when Ladarius Green was placed on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list before the start of the season, thus ensuring that he would miss at least the first six games, well, if you were like a lot of other Steelers fans out there, you may have been of the opinion that the Steelers didn’t do their homework and signed damaged goods–and it would have been hard to blame you.

  • Turns out, Ladarius Green missed the first eight games of the season, before finally making his debut in the Steelers loss to the Cowboys in Week 10 at Heinz Field.

While he did catch three passes for 30 yards against the Cowboys, fact is, Ladarius Green looked kind of lumbersome. That look carried over to Cleveland one week later, when he failed to catch a single pass.

  • This was the guy with the 6’6″, 240 lb frame who had the speed of a receiver?

But just when Steelers Nation may have been ready to write Ladarius Green off as a waste of a free-agent signing, there was Ben Roethlisberger this past Thanksgiving night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, back-peddling to avoid a hard-charging Colts pass rush on third and 13, before unleashing a deep throw off of his back foot.

Who was this pass intended for? How about Ladarius Green, who had a step or two on the guy covering him and pulled the pass in 35 yards later, thus preserving the drive and setting up a touchdown and a 21-7 advantage.

Late in the game, with the Steelers still holding that 21-7 lead and looking for a knockout blow, Ben Roethlisberger again hooked up with Ladarius Green on another long pass–this time for 32 yards.

The Roethlisberger-Green duo didn’t deliver the knockout blow, but they did land the body shot that set up the uppercut (the third touchdown catch by Antonio Brown) that put the Colts down for good.

  • So, what am I saying with all of this?

Maybe that there’s some teeth behind the Ladarius Green deep threat. Maybe he isn’t such a wasted free-agent signing after all. Sure, he’s late to the party, but it’s not time to go home just yet. There are five games remaining in the 2016 campaign, and Pittsburgh (6-5) is in a dogfight with those Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North title.

  • Maybe Sammie Coates will never rebound from his current struggles, and maybe the Steelers receiving corps will be compromised for the rest of the year.

However, perhaps Ladarius Green deep threat, can provide the second receiving option that takes the heat off of Antonio Brown and gives Ben Roethlisberger a huge and fast target to spread the field vertically with.

Will Ladarius Green redefine the tight end position for Pittsburgh? Who knows? But maybe he’ll help redefine the rest of the 2016 campaign  for the Steelers and help elevate their offense to the Super Bowl unit everyone thought it was supposed to be.

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