Dwight Stone’s Steelers Career Deserves to be Remembered for More than Just “Hands of Stone”

My first memory of the Steelers Dwight Stone came late in the 1987 season–his rookie year.

The Steelers had just secured a hard-fought 13-9 victory over a very tough Seattle Seahawks‘ team at old Three Rivers Stadium, and Dwight Stone, an undrafted free agent out of Middle Tennessee State, clasped hands with rookie running back Merril Hoge, a 10th-round pick out of Idaho State, as the two celebrated a win that kept their team’s playoff hopes alive.

I remember thinking that that scene of two youngsters and draft long-shots enjoying a victory was very endearing (although, I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know the word endearing even existed as a 15-year old).

Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

Dwight Stone’s Steelers career ran from 1987 to 1994. Photo Credit: Amazon

Today, it’s pretty common to read about draft prospects with 4.2 speed, but back when Dwight Stone made his professional football debut as a running back, that kind of 40-yard burst was not nearly as common.

In fact, as per Dwight Stone’s official Wikipedia page, the late, great head coach Chuck Noll said Stone was “the fastest player I’ve ever coached over 40 years. He has BEEP BEEP speed.”

Chuck Noll was referring to the cartoon character, the Road Runner.

  • Unfortunately for the real life Dwight Stone, his first two years as an NFL running back didn’t produce much running, as he totaled a combined 262 rushing yards on 57 carries.

However, Dwight Stone did get a lot of work as a kick-returner during his first two seasons. In fact, in a memorable 37-34 last-second Monday Night Football victory over the Oilers at the old Astrodome in Houston–a win that came at the tail-end of a very difficult 5-11 ’88 campaign–Stone returned a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown.

In 1989, perhaps due to a crowded backfield that included Tim Worley, the Steelers first pick in 1989 NFL Draft, Warren Williams the 1988 Steelers rookie of the year and Merril Hoge, who posted 705 on the ground in ’88 earlier, Dwight Stone and his world-class speed switched positions, as he tried his hand (and feet) at wide receiver.

Despite his tantalizing speed, Dwight Stone’s Steelers career as a field stretching Mike Wallace type of wide out never really materialized.

And it wasn’t just because he wasn’t lucky enough to have Ben Roethlisberger throwing him the ball — On one infamous play in Denver in 1990, Dwight Stone stepped out of bounds during a 90-yard reception that actually would have gone for a score had he been able to keep track of the sideline.

ESPN’s Chris Berman, who loved to create nicknames for players, frequently referred to Stone as “Dwight and the Family Stone,” but in my house, he was often called Dwight “Hands of” Stone thanks to his habit of dropping passes.

Which isn’t to say that Stone didn’t make his share of impact plays. He did, including:

Dwight Stone’s best seasons as a Steeler came during a three-year stretch between 1991-1993, when he caught a combined 107 passes for 1,737 yards and 10 touchdowns, to go along with a combined 241 yards on the ground.

Following the Steelers 1993 season, Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe determined that neither Jeff Graham nor Dwight Stone were Super Bowl caliber wide receivers. Jeff Graham was allowed to leave as a free agent. The Steelers kept Stone on the roster with the hope of using him as a utility back, similar to roles that Eric Metcalf and Dave Meggett played in Cleveland and New York.

  • Unfortunately, for Stone, that role never emerged as the Steelers only threw 10 passes his way and limited his carries to two.

However, Dwight Stone will always hold the distinction the distinction of scoring the last touchdown of Chuck Noll’s coaching career, when he caught a pass from quarterback Bubby Brister and raced 56 yards–a score that would earn The Emperor his final victory, a win over Bill Belichick no less, in his final game after 23 seasons.

Dwight Stone Finishes his Career with Panthers and Jets

Following the 1994 campaign, the Steelers  left Dwight Stone unprotected in the 1995 expansion draft, and the Carolina Panthers took him (along with Gerald Williams and Tim McKyer, for those of you taking notes).

  • Stone would finish out the final six years of his career as mostly a special teams contributor for both the Panthers and Jets.

According to a story published on the Panthers official team website in January of 2017, following his retirement from football after the 2000 season, Stone embarked on a career in law enforcement and spent 13 years as a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer.

“It was something I always wanted to do,” said Stone courtesy of Panthers.com. “I always wanted to go into law enforcement or the military before I even considered football. It just happened that a country boy from Florala, Alabama, was able to move and accomplish things that God knows I never thought I would see in my life.”

  • Perhaps in today’s day and age, Dwight Stone’s Steelers career might have been more prolific in a league that employs more players with his kind of skill-set.

We’ll never know the answer to that, of course, but not many undrafted free agents out of schools like Middle Tennessee State last 14 years in the NFL. For that and for what he accomplished after his playing days, Dwight Stone should feel very proud.

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Steelers Draft James Washington in Second Round, WR from Oklahoma State

Wasting little time in filling a need which they had created less than a day before, the Steelers drafted James Washington in the 2nd round, setting the wide receiver out of Oklahoma State as the replacement for Martavis Bryant, whom the Steelers had dealt to Oakland for a 3rd round pick.

James Washington

James Washington catches a pass against Pitt. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Pittsburgh-Tribune Review

Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fitchner expanded on what the Steelers saw in James Washington:

He likes to go down the yard, that’s the kind of need we were looking for, so we’re pretty excited about him. Martavis could run, obviously. But this is what this guy can do too. He runs fast but he’s also powerful, runs through arm bars.

As Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports, the Steelers plan to start James Washington alongside Antonio Brown while playing JuJu Smith-Schuster in the slot. Washington described his style of play in these terms:

My strength and being physical with the DB when the ball’s in the air. It comes down to who wants it more and I guarantee I want it more.

If Washington can deliver on that promise, Ben Roethlisberger will be a happy man.

Video Highlights of James Washington

Thanks to the magic of YouTube we have highlight reels of James Washington’s exploits while at Oklahoma:

Unlike their pick of Terrell Edmunds, the Steelers pick of James Washington is drawing praise from draft analysts. Stephen White declared that the Steelers were lucky to have picked someone like James Washington, who describes Washington as the type of receiver who “makes the tough catches look easy.” White also praised Washington as the type of receiver who can function as a deep threat or work as a possession receiver.

In four years at Oklahoma State James Washington set a record with 4,472 receiving yards by averaging 85.9 receiving yards per game.

Welcome to Steelers Nation James Washington.

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Steelers 2018 Wide Receiver Draft Needs – Time to Plan for Martavis Bryant’s Departure?

Wide receiver has been a position of strength and talented depth for quite some time for the Steelers, and after injuries significantly hindered the group in 2016, the unit was on the upswing again in 2017, complete with a second-round rookie sensation.

With the 2018 NFL Draft less then two weeks away, how high of a priority is receiver for the Steelers, and should they continue to infuse the corps with high-end talent?

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant, Antonio Brown, Steelers 2018 wide receiver draft needs

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant & Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Icon Sportswire

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Starters

The Steelers obviously have the best receiver in the NFL in Antonio Brown, a man who led the league in receiving yards a year ago with 1,533, this despite missing the final two-plus games of the regular season with a calf injury. Brown eclipsed the 100-receptions mark for a fifth-straight time in 2017 (101) and once again provided many clutch moments, authoring the kind of year that actually had him in the discussions  for league MVP by season’s end.

Pittsburgh may have also found an apprentice great receiver–and current starter alongside Brown–in JuJu Smith-Schuster, a rookie sensation in 2017 who, in addition to taking some of the starch out of the old football guard thanks to his refreshing and entertaining antics, became a much-needed complement to the always double and triple-teamed No. 84 by catching 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns.

Smith-Schuster also quickly made a name for himself as a tough and ferocious downfield blocker in the mold of the legendary Hines Ward (a talent that will always endear a receiver to Steelers fans), and even proved to be of great value on special teams by returning a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown against the Browns in Week 17.

Smith-Schuster also provided his share of clutch moments in 2017, including a 97-yard touchdown catch and run vs. the Lions on Sunday Night Football as well as a 69-yard catch and run in the waning moments of the controversial Week 15 game against the Patriots, a play that was essentially wiped out of Steeler lore moments later by the overturning of the Jesse James touchdown which cost Pittsburgh a critical victory.

As I alluded to earlier, Smith-Schuster performed so well from day one, he ascended to the top of the depth chart and was the starter alongside Brown down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Backups

Following his one-year absence due to a drug suspension, Martavis Bryant struggled to recapture his form in 2017, as the big plays he was known for during his first two seasons were mostly non-existent. Bryant caught 50 passes for 603 yards and just three touchdowns a year ago, while averaging 12.1 yards per reception.  After beginning the year as the number two receiver, Bryant was dropped behind the rookie Smith-Schuster by mid-season.

Known more for his special teams prowess at this stage of his career, veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey, 31, caught just two passes for 47 yards in 2017.

  • Rounding out the receiving corps is Justin Hunter, a former second-round pick who signed with the Steelers in 2017.

Blessed with size and speed, there was hope and excitement that having a quarterback the caliber of Ben Roethlisberger would flesh out Hunter’s talents. Unfortunately, due perhaps to not having many opportunities at the crowded and deep position, Hunter caught just four passes for 23 yards a year ago.

Steelers 2018 Wide Receiver Draft Needs

On paper, the Steelers certainly have a more than talented receiving corps, with Brown and Smith-Schuster leading the way.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

But Martavis Bryant, who was so vocal about his lack of production a season ago, he was deactivated for the Lions game, is a free agent after this season. Outside of Hines Ward and Antonio Brown, the Steelers have little history of giving wide receivers second contracts, so it appears 2018 will be Bryant’s final year in Pittsburgh.

  • Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter will also be free agents in 2019.

A more pressing concern may be who will play the slot position in 2018, what with Eli Rogers, he of the torn ACL suffered in the playoff loss to the Jaguars, has not yet being re-signed for next season.

While receiver isn’t a position of great need in 2018, it isn’t out of the question that one gets drafted early enough to make people take notice–who saw the JuJu pick coming in Round 2 a year ago?–which makes the 2018 draft need at receiver Moderate. 

 

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Steelers Eli Rogers Non-Tender Shows How Perilous NFL Life Is for UDFAs

Steelers slot receiver Eli Rogers announced on his Twitter page on Tuesday that he would be hitting the open market on Wednesday at 4 p.m. at the onset of NFL free agency.

The reason Eli Rogers, who was actually a restricted free agent at the start of the offseason, is now a total free agent,is because Pittsburgh elected to not tender him the lowest possible restricted, which would have been $1.9 million.

Eli Rogers,

Steelers made Eli Rogers an unrestricted free agent. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

Eli Rogers, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Louisville in 2015, spent his entire rookie season on the Steelers Injured Reserve list after suffering a foot injury in training camp.

  • After impressing just about everyone in his 2016 training camp, Eli Rogers made the Steelers roster as their slot receiver.

Rogers caught 48 passes for 594 yards and three touchdowns in 2016, with his role becoming more critical as the season progressed, what with injuries ravaging the receiving corps.

Things took a turn in 2017, however, when Martavis Bryant, who missed all of 2016 with a drug suspension, and JuJu Smith-Schuster joined the ranks, making for a crowded position.

With so many targets vying for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger‘s attention–especially superstar receiver Antonio Brown and dual-threat running back Le’Veon Bell–the chances of Eli Rogers repeating his 2016 performance seemed pretty slim.

And they became even slimmer when JuJu Smith-Schuster, a rookie sensation if there ever was one, burst onto the scene and took reps away from Rogers at the slot position. By season’s end, he even surpassed Bryant as the team’s number two receiver, tallying 58 receptions for 917 yards and a fairly impressive seven touchdowns.

That second part–Smith-Schuster taking playing time and targets away from the often disgruntled Martavis Bryant–may have worked out in Eli Rogers favor, as it pertained to a blueprint for the 2018 campaign.

After all, for all the talk of how physical and tough Smith-Schuster is, fact is, he has the potential to be one hell of a receiver, and if he’s good enough to be the number two guy, why mess around with Bryant, as skilled as he so obviously is?

And with Martavis Bryant far from your prototypical slot guy, that would be good news for Eli Rogers, this despite his production dipping to just 18 receptions for 149 yards and a score in 2017.

  • Furthermore, Eli Rogers was decent enough as a punt returner a year ago, averaging 7.7 yards per return, he looked primed to permanently wrest the job away from the very valuable Brown.

While I’m not sure what the Steelers plans for Eli Rogers were prior to January 14, the torn ACL he suffered that day in the 45-42 playoff loss to the Jaguars certainly didn’t help his cause.

Faced with an entire offseason of rehabilitation, Rogers doesn’t appear to be valuable enough to the team to risk paying him just under $2 million.

  • Word is Eli Rogers may still be in Pittsburgh’s plans, but undoubtedly at a much lower price.

And therein lies the plight of your average NFL UDFA.

Had Eli Rogers been a premium draft pick, the team may have been less willing to expose him to the open market so soon into his budding football career.

  • Eli Rogers is your prototypical slot receiver and may eventually excel in the role, given time to develop.

But second round picks are given second and third chances, such as 2015 second round pick, cornerback Senquez Golson, who never played a down in two-plus years due to multiple ailments, yet the Steelers carried Senquez Golson  on the roster for, well, two-plus years.

  • Receivers with potential to burn, such as Mryant Bryant, a fourth round pick with top-10 talent, are given multiple chances, even in the face of multiple drug suspensions.

In fact, recent reports of other teams showing interest in Martavis Bryant’s services were quickly squashed at the Combine by Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, who made it quite clear No. 10 was not available.

That’s right, Pittsburgh is willing to risk the chance that Martavis Bryant will again become disgruntled and ask for a trade and/or throw his teammates under the bus on social media (behavior during the 2017 season that ultimately forced head coach Mike Tomlin to deactivate him for the Lions game on October 29) in the hopes that he will finally fully develop into the Randy Moss-like receiver everyone has been waiting for since he was drafted.

  • But the Steelers aren’t willing to gamble much on Eli Rogers’ abilities or injured knee.
  • Again, that’s the life of an undrafted free agent in the NFL.

Where Eli Rogers ultimately goes from here is still unclear, but regardless of how long his football career lasts, he’ll likely never have to stop proving his worth.

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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Will Steelers Target Free Agent Justin Hunter for Return to Pittsburgh?

While big-dollar, high profile free agent signings dominate NFL free agency, lower paid free agents typically make up most of the moment. The Steelers have been particularly active in singing these lower-rung free agents either at or very close to the veteran minimum in recent years.

Others, such as Guy Whimper? Not so much. Then there are players like Justin Hunter, the wide receiver the Steelers inked one year ago who, although he didn’t do much in his first season in Pittsburgh, could return to the Steelers if the tea leaves are correct.

Justin Hunter, Justin Hunter touchdown, kevin Johnson, Steelers vs Texans

Justin Hunter lone 2017 touchdown catch. Photo Credit: Bob Levey, Getty Images via www.wpxi.com

Capsule Profile of Justin Hunter Steelers Career

With Antonio Brown resigned and Martavis Bryant headed back from suspension, wide receiver wasn’t perceived as a need for the Steelers heading into free agency a year ago.

Although Hunter made the Steelers roster, he only saw action in Steelers road win over the Ravens, the home loss to the Jaguars, the Lions and Packers wins, the home win against the Ravens, the Christmas win against the Texans and the season finale against the Browns.

Trough it all, Hunter got targeted 10 times, for four four catches, including one touchdown. In two games, neither Ben Roethlisberger nor Landry Jones targeted Hunter. He scored a touchdown against Houston, and his longest pass reception of the season was for 7 yards.

The Case For the Steelers Resigning Justin Hunter

That’s a pretty thin resume. Word is that Ben Roethlisberger likes Hunter and his 6’4” height. But Hunter has done little, even though Eli Rogers took most of the season to establish himself as the Steelers 4th wide receiver behind JuJu Smith-Schuster (Todd Haley chose to split Le’Veon Bell wide early and often, heck even Roosevelt Nix found himself splitting wide….)

Still, if Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell is correct, Justin Hunter improved during the course of the year and was catching incredibly well in practice by season’s end.

No one is going to throw  money at Justin Hunter, so the Steelers could easily bring him back in what would essentially be a no-risk high, reward move.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Justin Hunter

No only did Justin Hunter only have 4 catches in all of 2017, he couldn’t get any targets in the Steelers season-finale against Cleveland. Assuming Vance McDonald and Jesse James maintain their level of performance in the Steelers passing game in 2018, the 4 wide receiver slot in the Steelers offense isn’t critically important – assuming no one gets injured.

With that said, the Steelers surly can find another veteran wide receiver and/or rookie who can match Justin Hunter’s production and who offers more “Upside.”

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Justin Hunter

Practice makes perfect. You win championships by doing things ordinary things extraordinarily. Football games are won on Sunday through preparations made Wednesday through Friday. Each one of those statements is true.

  • Yet excellence on the practice field doesn’t always translate into excellence on Sunday afternoons.

Going into the Steelers 2015 playoff game against the Broncos, the Steelers PR staff did its best to puff Sammie Coates progress. And while Sammie Coates did play well in the playoff game, the rest of his Steelers resume is defined by the plays he didn’t make.

After the 2013 and 2015 seasons, respectively, Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell talked up the prospects of Justin Brown and Xavier Grimble based on what these two gentleman had shown in their practice squad apprenticeships.

Brown made the team in and got playing time early in the year, but the Steelers cut Justin Brown in December. Xavier Grimble has solid, serviceable 3rd tight end for the Steelers.

At the end of the day, there’s no real risk in the Steelers resigning Justin Hunter to a veteran minimum contract, and if the press reports of his performance in practice are a guide, Pittsburgh will do just that.

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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Steelers Wide Reciever Coach Richard Mann Retires. Is Hines Ward a Wise Replacement?

In a move that has been anticipated for at least two years, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann has announced his retirement. And while Richard Mann might not have the profile of other position coaches, make no mistake about it, his presence will be missed.

Richard Mann, Steelers wide receivers coach richard mann

Former Steelers WR coach Richard Mann offers instruction. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

Go back to 2012 and the days when “Young Money” aka Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown were all the rage in Steelers Nation.

Together the threesome was supposed to form the most fearsome wide receiver trio the NFL has seen this side of Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Jake Reed. It made for excellent copy during the off season and training camp.

  • Then the games that counted started.

While the Steelers offense had a fairly strong start to 2012, the unit fell off the rails during the second half of the season. While an injury to Ben Roethlisberger took its toll, the value of “Young Money” was measured in pennies rather than dollars. The whole was less than the sum of its parts.

  • After the season, Wide Receiver’s coach Scotty Montgomery, returned to coach at Duke, despite no position being associated with his hiring.

As The Watch Tower detailed at the time, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette issued dueling stories by Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac offering starkly contrasting interpretations of events. Dulac’s story suggested the move was Montgomery’s and one made only with great reluctance. Bouchette’s suggested Tomlin had pushed Montgomery out, and reported that, absent Hines Ward, chaos had enveloped wide receivers room.

  • Mike Tomlin responded by coaxing Aliquippa native Richard Mann out of retirement.

That’s all one blogger needs to accept Ed Bouchette’s interpretation of what transpired in 2012. The Steelers don’t allow assistant coaches much contact with the media, but when Richard Mann spoke about 3rd round pick Markus Wheaton during the 2013 NFL Draft, the man positively exuded an aura of “Been there, done that.”

  • And you’d expect that from a man whose been around long enough to coach for the Baltimore Colts, the original Cleveland Browns, and the Baltimore Ravens.

Mann also coached with the New York Jets, Washington Redskins, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he first met Mike Tomlin, and the two forged a bond evident in the words the Steelers head coached used to praise Mann upon his retirement:

I had the pleasure of working with him 15 years ago at a different capacity. My appreciation for him really kind of started there. I was a younger assistant position coach, defensive backs. He was a more senior veteran wide receiver coach. Obviously, by the nature of the positions, we worked cooperatively together in training camp. I learned a lot from watching him coach his guys on the grass and off the grass. I was appreciative of him allowing me to do that. Often times in training camp like settings, we would watch the same video of our guys together. I could hear him make coaching points to his guys about what was happening on the video. He could hear me make coaching points with my guys about what was happening on the same video. It was just a unique learning environment

He’s always been a teacher and not resistant to sharing that expertise with others and that is why I’ve always gravitated towards him. Very accomplished coach. Maybe a lot of opportunities were not afforded to him because of the generation in which he rose through the ranks. I’m cognizant of that. I am appreciative of that. I realize some of the opportunities I have been afforded in my career is because of efforts and accomplishments of men like Richard Mann. I am appreciative on a lot of levels. Probably can’t eloquently describe that level of appreciation, but he is a special man and a special coach. One that has impacted me in a lot of ways.

Richard Mann made an immediate impact when he joined the Steelers staff. People forget, but Antonio Brown’s play dropped off late in the season to the point where their were wispers about whether the Steelers had erred in giving him a long-term deal.

No one says that anymore.

Mann of course, has had a role in mentoring players such as Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster. He will be missed.

Ward a Wise Choice to Replace Mann?

Former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward is a candidate to replace Richard Mann. Ward has coached with the Steelers during training camp, and returned for a few stints during the regular season, and was present on the sideline during a number of games.

  • Hines Ward is a fan favorite and a franchise legend, but it’s a fair question to ask whether he’s a wise choice to replace Mann.

Former players returning as assistants always arrive with a sentimental cheer and such was the case each time Jerry Olsavsky, Carnell Lake and Joey Porter joined Mike Tomlin’s staff. And so it was with Joe Greene’s return to Chuck Noll’s staff in 1987 and Mike Mularkey’s return to Bill Cowher’s staff in 1996 (well maybe not on Mularkey.)

  • But, a wise fan will remember that Gerald Williams was the best defensive lineman during Joe Greene’s tenure.

If you don’t remember Gerald Williams, you’ve certainly heard his name, right? Well, you probably haven’t. Gerald Williams was a good player, but not a great player for the Steelers. True, Greene didn’t have a lot to work with (remember Donald Evans and Kenny Davidson, no? you’re lucky then) but he reportedly did lobby hard for the Steelers to pick Aaron Jones, who never amount to much more than a marginal starter.

Its perhaps a little harsh to judge position coaches by the development of their players – remember, Chuck Noll’s “Don’t over coach the kid” admonition to Dick Hoak about Franco Harris. But if William Gay and Keenan Lewis did improve under Carnell Lake, Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas were clearly mistakes.

Dupree, after an OK start to the season, disappeared from the pass rush down the stretch, although were assured that he was “going into coverage a lot and doing well against the run.” Fair enough, but let’s remind everyone that “they” said the same thing about Jarvis Jones up until the day Mike Tomlin benched Jones in favor of Harrison.

Perhaps Hines Ward will serve as an exception, but thus far no other team is breaking down the door to offer Lake, Olsavsky or Porter opportunities to climb the coaching ladder.

So word to the wise about welcoming Hines Ward back.

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Can the Steelers Win without Antonio Brown? We May Soon Find Out. Brown “Questionable” vs Bengals

The Pittsburgh Steelers offense of 2017 has seen its share of ups and downs.

We need not rehash what Steelers Nation suffered through since September in too great of detail. Everyone, including the team itself, expected the Steelers 2017 offense to dominate and it hasn’t and it didn’t, at least not until the Titans and Packers games.

Yet through it all there’s been one constant the Steelers offense has been able to count on: Antonio Brown.

Antonio Brown, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Bengals, Antonio Bryant questionable

Antonio Brown talks with Mike Tomlin at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

Antonio Brown has been playing lights out all season for the Steelers. Yes, for a couple of three games his targets and his catches dropped, but even if JuJu Smith-Schuster did grab headlines against the Lions and Colts, Brown still made critical catches.

  • Antonio Brown has played so well this year that he’s being talked about as a serious candidate for league MVP.

That’s all good news, but as the Steelers prepare to travel to face the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday Night Football they may need to find away to remove a thorn from the tiger’s paw.

  • That’s right. Antonio Brown has missed two days of practice and is listed as questionable on the Steelers injury report heading into the Bengals game.

The Standard is the Standard. Injuries will not be an excuse. We’ve heard that before, and to Mike Tomlin’s credit, his players embrace that mentality. Fine. But the reality is that Road Roethlisberger isn’t the same quarterback as Heinz Field Big Ben, and Antonio Brown is a Hall of Fame talent that has helped make Ben Roethlisberger a better quarterback in those situations.

  • If the Steelers defense were playing at the level it had been broaching prior to Joe Haden’s injury, the Steelers offense would have a larger margin for error.

But Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Burns are both struggling, and the smart money on the Steelers has said that their playoff hopes have rested more on the offense’s ability to outscore the opponents if/until Joe Haden can reclaim his starting spot.

An Antonio Brownless Steelers team on the Bengals will certainly put that idea to the test.

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Does Ben Roethlisberger Target Antonio Brown Too Often? The Numbers Paint an Interesting Picture

Does Ben Roethlisberger target Antonio Brown too often?

Early in the Steelers 2017 season, the answer appeared to be an unequivocal “Yes.” Ben to Brown seemed to be the only thing working, and that seemed to be holding the offense back. In the Steelers win over the Vikings, Tony Defeo noted that Roethlisberger appeared to be ignoring receivers in an attempt to force the ball to Brown.

Martavis Bryant’s outbursts, even if uncalled for, also appeared to at least indirectly lend credence to the “Ben’s too intent on forcing it to Brown story line” even if rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster was the target of his Instagram tirade.

While the Steelers offense has improve during the second quarter of the season, Ben to Brown remains its most potent combination, but do the numbers suggest that Ben is trying too hard to get the ball to Brown? Let’s take a look.

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats, Antonio Brown targets

Does Ben Roethlisberger try too hard to force the ball to Antonio Brown? Find out below. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

Ben Roethlisberger’s Pass Distribution History

Eight games gives you a good base of data to see what types of trends are developing during a football season. Sometimes a trend can rapidly reverse itself (think the Steelers anemic sack production during the first half of 2016 vs. the second half of 2016), but 8 games give you an idea of where things are heading.

Here’s how Ben Roethlisberger’s pass distribution has gone during the first 8 games of 2017:

Ben Roethlisberger targets 2017, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats 2017, Antonio Brown targets 2017, Le'Veon Bell targets 2017, JuJu Smith-Schuster targets 2017, Jesse James targets 2017, Martavis Bryant targets 2017

Ben Roethlisberger’s top 5 targets 8 games into 2017

Well, now the data really seems to make the case doesn’t it? Not only is Anotnio Brown Ben Roethlisberger’s top pass target, but he’s more than doubling the targets of the next guy below him, Le’Veon Bell. What’s more at 26% the combined total targets of his next two wide receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant, still fall 8 percentage points of Antonio Brown’s 34.1%.

  • That data also suggest that there’s a justification of Ben’s forcing the ball to Brown (if in fact he’s forcing it)

Antonio Brown’s catches account for just shy of 40% of the Steelers receiving yards. The only player who remotely seems to have an argument that he should be the ball more is JuJu Smith-Schuster.

But before closing this case, perhaps its wise to take a look at how pass distribution broke down in 2016. Given the rash of injuries the Steelers experienced at wide receiver, and given the relative inexperience of the rest of the depth chart, its quite probable that Ben Roethlisberger targeted Antonio Brown even more, right?

Let’s see what the data tells us:

Ben Roethlisberger targets 2016, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats 2016, Antonio Brown targets 2016, Le'Veon Bell Targets 2016, Jesse James Targets 2016, Eli Rogers Targets 2016, Sammie Coates Targets 2016

Ben Roethlisberger’s top 5 targets in 2016

The data in fact tells us something else. Ben Roethlisberger targeted Antonio Brown far less in 2016 and Brown accounted for a much smaller slice of the Steelers receiving yards. This suggest that Brown was double and triple teamed a lot.

  • But Brown’s catch percentage also suggests that Roethlisberger’s passes to him were more accurate.

The Steelers 2016 season was abnormal in terms of injuries to the wide receiver corps. Let’s see what data from 2015 tells us which was more of a typical year.

Ben Roethlisberger targets 2015, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats 2016, Antonio Brown targets 2015, Markus Wheaton Targets 2015, Martavis Bryant Targets 2015, DeAngelo Williams Targets 2015, Heath Miller targets 2015

Ben Roethlisberger’s top 5 targets in 2015

In 2015 we can see that Ben Roethlisberger targeted Antonio Brown 32.7% of the time, or just over 1% less than he’s targeting Antonio Brown in 2017 thus far. We can also see that Brown is still making the most of is catches, as he accounted for 38% of the Steelers receiving yards, or about 1.5% less than he’s accounted for in 2017 thus far.

That data from 2015 also helps us appreciate that an aging Heath Miller was still more productive than Jesse James in either his 2nd or 3rd year, although James is proving to be a fairly reliable target.

We can also see how much more dynamic Le’Veon Bell is as a pass catcher than DeAngelo Williams, although Williams did well when thrown the ball.

To complete the picture, let’s go back to 2014 to view Ben Roethlisberger’s ball distribution in the 1st year that the Steelers 4 Killer Bees played together:

Ben Roethlisberger targets 2014, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats 2014, Antonio Brown Targets 2014, Markus Wheaton targets 2014, Martavis Bryant Targets 2014, Le'Veon Bell Targets 2014, Heath Miller targets 2014

Ben Roethlisbergers top 5 targets in 2014

2014 marks the first year (in this survey) that Brown’s target percentage from dipped below 30% (we should note that Landry Jones and Mike Vick threw a portion of those passes in ’15 and ’16.) It looks like it was Le’Veon Bell and Heath Miller who took those targets away from Bryant, although Markus Wheaton’s 14.1% is a healthier targeting percentage than any of the Steelers other receivers.

Conclusion: Ben Roethlisberger Isn’t Targeting Antonio Brown Too Often

There are a lot of different takeaways from this data. Le’Veon Bell seems to be almost as reliable of a pass catcher as he was two years ago, although his yards after catch appear to be down. That could be due to the absence of Heath Miller’s and Matt Spaeth’s blocking, however.

Martavis Bryant, for all of his big play capability, he’s never been much more than a 50/50 catch to catch what’s thrown his way. Sammie Coates was clearly a dud down the stretch in 2016.

  • But the data also shows that Ben Roethlisberger isn’t trying too hard to force the ball to Antonio Brown.

Indeed, if we really are seeing Father Time begin to exact his toll on Ben Roethlisberger’s abilities, then we can know for certain than Ben Roethlisberger is very lucky to have Antonio Brown on his team.

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Mike Tomlin Benches Martavis Bryant – It Says Here Tomlin Made Right Move

As you undoubtedly know by now, Mike Tomlin has benched Martavis Bryant for the Steelers upcoming road game against the Detroit Lions. The move came two weeks after someone tied to Bryant leaked that he’d made a request to be traded, and after a social media outbust where Bryant had seemingly contradicted his claim of happiness in Pittsburgh while taking a shot at rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Mike Tomlin, Martavis Bryant, Mike Tomlin benches Martavis Bryant

Mike Tomlin benched Martavis Bryant following his latest social media outburst. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

When asked whether Martavis Bryant’s latest tantrum would alter the Steelers stance toward trading him, Mike Tomlin minced few words:

I have no desire to sit up here with a catcher’s mitt and field questions about Martavis and his social-media habits, to be quite honest with you. We invested a lot in Martavis since we drafted him. He is not available via trade. We have invested a lot. We have covered a lot of ground. It’s obvious that we still have more ground to cover with him because we are having a conversation about him that’s not football-related. He’s done a lot in the period of time that he’s been here in terms of improving, not only as a player but a man. We still have a ways to go. He was out of bounds with some of his actions in terms of what he said on social media. It will be dealt with appropriately so…
…I’ll visit with him at some point. When I do, I’ll rain down my judgment and we’ll move forward.

Mike Tomlin’s judgment contains no grey area – Martavis Bryant got demoted to the scout team in favor of Justin Hunter and will not dress for the Lions game.

It says here that Mike Tomlin made the right move.

Martavis Bryant Must Grow Up

Martavis Bryant’s struggles and apparent success with substance abuse are well known. It’s been commonly observed that “Martavis Bryant has both said and done all the right things” since his return. Hardened Steelers beat reporters have opined that they’ve sensed a sincerity in Bryant this time around that they didn’t sense in 2015.

  • Here’s to hoping that Bryant has definitively mastered the proverbial monkey on his back for good.

But doesn’t mean that Martavis Bryant doesn’t have more growing up to do. During his suspension Bryant tussled occasionally on social media. Then came his exchange during the 2017 NFL Draft when he jibed Sammie Coates that the Steelers had drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster to replace Coates and not Bryant.

  • Those incidents didn’t and shouldn’t have caused panic.

But they did indicate that Martavis Bryant was prone to social media tantrums, and that’s a tendency that can get you into trouble here in 2017.

Having an agent leak that a play has wants a trade while the player publically proclaims his happiness is nothing new in the NFL, let alone in Pittsburgh. A week ago Bryant seemed to be following just that script.

  • But going off on a teammate, and a rookie no less, who is arguably out performing you is something else.

After a rocky start, the Steelers are standing at 5-2 with a chance to make it 6-2 going into the bye. Most importantly, they’re tied for 1st in the AFC. That should be the story of the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers going into week 8, not Martavis Bryant.

Martavis Bryant Must Shut Up and Put Up

The mind boggling element to the on-going Martavis Bryant saga is that Martavis Bryant is his own worst enemy on and off the field. Ron Cook has observed that there are two Martavis Bryants, on one the South Side and one away from the South Side.

  • Remember folks that Heinz Field is situation on Pittsburgh’s North Side.

A year ago, after doing and admirable job in the regular season, the AFC Championship made it painfully obvious that, both individually and collectively Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers, weren’t Super Bowl caliber number 2 wide receivers alongside Antonio Brown.

Ben Roethlisberger has had a chance to throw to Bryant seven games into 2017 and, outside of the win over the Vikings, Bryant’s most notable plays have been the one’s he’s failed to make. Against Chicago he slowed down on a route but still got his hands on what likely would have been a touchdown. Against the Bengals he lost the ball and missed what would have been another touchdown.

  • The Steelers have tried hitting Bryant on short routes, but he hasn’t come close to breaking one.

At this point the Steelers offense best offensive play call remains a hand off to Le’Veon Bell. Martavis Bryant might not be happy with his role in the Steelers offense, but he has no one to blame for himself for it.

Does Bryant think that, based on his play, any NFL General Manager is going to offer the Steelers anything other than a conditional 7th round 2021 compensatory pick in exchange for Bryant’s services?

The Steelers knew of Martavis Bryant’s substance abuse issues, but gave him a chance anyway. They’ve stood by him not once, but twice after failed drug tests, because they saw and still believe in his potential.

  • Martavis Bryant’s antics suggest that he doesn’t quite appreciate what that means.

Mike Tomlin benching Martavis Bryant for a game will give him a chance to give it the consideration it deserves. Hopefully when he returns Martavis Bryant let his play between the lines on Sundays do the talking for him.

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Steelers Activate Sammie Coates from PUP – Now, Can Coates Fit in Pittsburgh?

The Steelers activated Sammie Coates from the PUP this week, allowing him to practice with the team during training camp for the first time this summer. Suffice it’s been a long strange trip for Sammie Coates.

It was just two years ago that the Steelers turned heads during the 2015 NFL Draft when the drafted Sammie Coates in the 3rd round. Using such a high value pick on a wide receiver struck the fan base as odd, given that they had Darrius Heyward-Bey, Martavis Bryant had shown as a rookie Markus Wheaton had bounced back from injury marred rookies season and Antonio Brown was, well, Antonio Brown.

Sammie Coates, Darqueze Dennard, Steelers vs Bengals

Darqueze Dennard’s no match for Sammie Coates in the Steelers 2016 win over Cincinnati. Photo Credit: AP, via Al.com

Nonetheless, during the first half of the season, Sammie Coates was best known for a failed fourth down hookup with Mike Vick during the Steelers 2015 loss to the Ravens. You didn’t see much after that to the point that when reporters touted Sammie Coates potential heading into the Steelers AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Broncos, this site begged to differ, arguing that DHB was the man to watch.

  • Fortunately, I was wrong, Sammie Coates lived up to the hype come up with two strong catches in the playoff loss.

When news of Martavis Bryant’s next suspension broke, all eyes turned to Sammie Coates. While no one went so far as to say that Coates could make fans forget about Martavis Bryant, many did expect him to emerge as Ben Roethlisberger’s number 2 target.

  • Just past the quarterpost of the 2016 season, it looked like Coates was about to become that man.

In what looked to be his breakout game against the Jets, Coates caught 6 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns. He also injured his hand in that game, and then things got strange. First there were conflicting reports over how many stitches Coates needed. Then there was talk of broken fingers. Nonetheless, Mike Tomlin continued to play him on specials teams. Beat writers started to suggest that injuries weren’t the only issues dogging Coates.

  • Regardless of the reason, Sammie Coates only caught two more passes for 14 yards during the rest of the season.

With and Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers and an injured Darrius Heyward-Bey the only downfield options opposite Antonio Brown, Todd Haley and Mike Tomlin were forced to lean heavily on Le’Veon Bell. That strategy served the Steelers well until the AFC Championship game, which not ironically saw the Steelers first possession end on a bomb that Sammie Coates dropped that, had he caught it, could have dramatically altered the dynamic of the game.

Sammie Coates knee surgery couldn’t have come at a worse time. Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and JuJu Smith-Schuster are roster locks, and one would have to figure that either Justin Hunter and/or Eli Rogers is guaranteed to make the team.

  • That leaves Coates vying for one roster spot with Hunter/Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Hamilton, and Ayers.

It says here that Sammie Coates is far more talented than any of those players. But it’s also true that all of them were far more productive down the stretch last season than Coates, injuries or no. His performance in the Steelers final three preseason games will show whether Sammie Coates really fits in Pittsburgh.

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