With Whipping of the Panthers, Are the Steelers the Contenders We Thought They Were?

To echo head coach Mike Tomlin’s post-game press conference after Pittsburgh’s 52-21 victory over the Panthers at Heinz Field on Thursday, no, the Steelers aren’t that good.

No team is that dominant. No team’s offense is so good that it keeps its punter off the field until the fourth quarter–and even then, it was only because the franchise quarterback exited with a 38-point lead.

But while Pittsburgh’s mashing of the Panthers wasn’t a performance we should come to expect week in and week out, it certainly showed what the team is capable of when clicking on all cylinders.

Ben Roethlisberger, Jesse James, Steelers vs Panthers

Ben Roethlisberger and Jesse James. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via SI.com

No, the Steelers won’t dominate like that every week — it’s the NFL, after all — but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been consistently impressive for the majority of this now five-game winning-streak. Even if you strike Thursday’s historic performance from the record — it was the most points the team had scored in a game since 1984 — the Steelers’ average margin of victory over the previous four games was 13.25 –or nearly two touchdowns.

  • But we’re not going to strike Thursday’s performance from the record, because it’s part of the narrative of the Steelers recent trend upward after a rocky start.

Some have complained about Pittsburgh’s history of starting off slow. However, based on actual facts, that’s simply not true. Starts of 2-1 are more common for Tomlin’s teams than the 1-2-1 beginning to this season. The only common denominator, perhaps, is the quality of football his teams have displayed in September.

In previous years, the Steelers were able to survive the rust that was built up by the low reps — or even no reps –accumulated by the likes of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey and Cam Heyward during the preseason. This year, they were not able to survive that. In-fact, they looked so bad and disjointed during the first month of the season, many — including yours truly — wondered if they were even a good football team, let alone one capable of competing with the best the AFC had to offer.

  • But maybe we should have had more faith in the Steelers system, in the Mike Tomlin way of doing things. After all, this five-game winning is nothing new.

Actually, Pittsburgh still has a ways to go if it wants to match the nine-game streak of two years ago and the eight-game streak from last season.

Lulls happen to most football teams during the course of a season–the Steelers lost four games in a row in the heart of the 2016 campaign. But when these lulls, these struggles, occur right out of the gate, you wonder if it’s the new reality.

  • Such was the case in September, when Ben Roethlisberger looked off, Antonio Brown looked frustrated, and the defense looked young, confused and “Why is he always open?”

But another thing about Tomlin is he’s very aware that the end of the preseason and the beginning of the regular season doesn’t end the process of finding out who your football team is. The Steelers began the regular season without Bell, a player they, like everyone else, assumed would show up for Week 1.

As you know, Le’Veon Bell had been a vital cog in the Steelers’ offensive machine, dating back to the 2013 season. For him to not be there for the first game had to be a huge curve ball to Randy Fichtner, the new offensive coordinator, as well as the entire Steeler program and way of doing things.

How could the unexpected absence of perhaps your most important skill position player not take a while to recover from?

  • It took some time and some figuring, but Fichtner and Co. adapted.

Speaking of adapting, Roethlisberger had to get used to relying on receivers not named Antonio Brown; this took some time early on, hence the frustration Brown often exhibited on the football field.  But opposing defenses weren’t going to stop double and triple-teaming Brown (they still haven’t), which meant Ben Roethlisberger had to start trusting his other targets.

He did.

  • Take Thursday night, for example, when nine different receivers caught passes.

Regarding offensive cogs, you might say James Conner, the second-year backup running back suddenly thrust into a starting role in Week 1, has morphed into that very thing. With 1,158 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns through nine games, James Conner is every bit the dual-threat running back Bell ever was–and then some.

On the defensive front, Keith Butler had to get used to two new safeties in Sean Davis (he made the switch from strong to free) and Morgan Burnett, the veteran free agent acquisition. Burnett came to Pittsburgh last spring with the expectation that he’d be a vital moving piece in the Steelers’ secondary, someone who could fill many roles in the team’s multiple sub packages. Burnett missed a chunk of time at the beginning of the season and had to be replaced in the lineup by Terrell Edmunds, the first round pick who was clearly taken out of the oven before he was fully cooked.

Sure, the unexpected playing-time will likely benefit Terrell Edmunds in the future — maybe even the present–but that doesn’t mean the early returns weren’t going to be rough.

They were.

  • What about the continued absence of Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker? That wasn’t going to be fixed overnight.

It wasn’t.

However, Jon Bostic, Burnett’s fellow free agent acquisition at the inside linebacker spot, has slowly and quietly helped right the Steelers’ defensive ship, providing a veteran presence for a unit that clearly needed it at the tail-end of 2017 when Shazier was lost for the season with his horrific injury.

Back to 2018, and the Steelers current ascension from struggling has-been whose window had closed to dominant contender whose window is still very much open.

  • At 6-2-1, the Steelers clearly have much more work to do, and their last seven games include some of the best teams the NFL has to offer.
  • But Pittsburgh is also one of the best football teams in the NFL right now.

The Steelers are who we thought they were all along–a Super Bowl contender–it just took a while for them to figure some things out.

It appears they have.

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With Whipping of the Panthers, Are the Steelers the Contenders We Thought They Were?

To echo head coach Mike Tomlin’s post-game press conference after Pittsburgh’s 52-21 victory over the Panthers at Heinz Field on Thursday, no, the Steelers aren’t that good.

No team is that dominant. No team’s offense is so good that it keeps its punter off the field until the fourth quarter–and even then, it was only because the franchise quarterback exited with a 38-point lead.

But while Pittsburgh’s mashing of the Panthers wasn’t a performance we should come to expect week in and week out, it certainly showed what the team is capable of when clicking on all cylinders.

Ben Roethlisberger, Jesse James, Steelers vs Panthers

Ben Roethlisberger and Jesse James. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via SI.com

No, the Steelers won’t dominate like that every week — it’s the NFL, after all — but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been consistently impressive for the majority of this now five-game winning-streak. Even if you strike Thursday’s historic performance from the record — it was the most points the team had scored in a game since 1984 — the Steelers’ average margin of victory over the previous four games was 13.25 –or nearly two touchdowns.

  • But we’re not going to strike Thursday’s performance from the record, because it’s part of the narrative of the Steelers recent trend upward after a rocky start.

Some have complained about Pittsburgh’s history of starting off slow. However, based on actual facts, that’s simply not true. Starts of 2-1 are more common for Tomlin’s teams than the 1-2-1 beginning to this season. The only common denominator, perhaps, is the quality of football his teams have displayed in September.

In previous years, the Steelers were able to survive the rust that was built up by the low reps — or even no reps –accumulated by the likes of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey and Cam Heyward during the preseason. This year, they were not able to survive that. In-fact, they looked so bad and disjointed during the first month of the season, many — including yours truly — wondered if they were even a good football team, let alone one capable of competing with the best the AFC had to offer.

  • But maybe we should have had more faith in the Steelers system, in the Mike Tomlin way of doing things. After all, this five-game winning is nothing new.

Actually, Pittsburgh still has a ways to go if it wants to match the nine-game streak of two years ago and the eight-game streak from last season.

Lulls happen to most football teams during the course of a season–the Steelers lost four games in a row in the heart of the 2016 campaign. But when these lulls, these struggles, occur right out of the gate, you wonder if it’s the new reality.

  • Such was the case in September, when Ben Roethlisberger looked off, Antonio Brown looked frustrated, and the defense looked young, confused and “Why is he always open?”

But another thing about Tomlin is he’s very aware that the end of the preseason and the beginning of the regular season doesn’t end the process of finding out who your football team is. The Steelers began the regular season without Bell, a player they, like everyone else, assumed would show up for Week 1.

As you know, Le’Veon Bell had been a vital cog in the Steelers’ offensive machine, dating back to the 2013 season. For him to not be there for the first game had to be a huge curve ball to Randy Fichtner, the new offensive coordinator, as well as the entire Steeler program and way of doing things.

How could the unexpected absence of perhaps your most important skill position player not take a while to recover from?

  • It took some time and some figuring, but Fichtner and Co. adapted.

Speaking of adapting, Roethlisberger had to get used to relying on receivers not named Antonio Brown; this took some time early on, hence the frustration Brown often exhibited on the football field.  But opposing defenses weren’t going to stop double and triple-teaming Brown (they still haven’t), which meant Ben Roethlisberger had to start trusting his other targets.

He did.

  • Take Thursday night, for example, when nine different receivers caught passes.

Regarding offensive cogs, you might say James Conner, the second-year backup running back suddenly thrust into a starting role in Week 1, has morphed into that very thing. With 1,158 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns through nine games, James Conner is every bit the dual-threat running back Bell ever was–and then some.

On the defensive front, Keith Butler had to get used to two new safeties in Sean Davis (he made the switch from strong to free) and Morgan Burnett, the veteran free agent acquisition. Burnett came to Pittsburgh last spring with the expectation that he’d be a vital moving piece in the Steelers’ secondary, someone who could fill many roles in the team’s multiple sub packages. Burnett missed a chunk of time at the beginning of the season and had to be replaced in the lineup by Terrell Edmunds, the first round pick who was clearly taken out of the oven before he was fully cooked.

Sure, the unexpected playing-time will likely benefit Terrell Edmunds in the future — maybe even the present–but that doesn’t mean the early returns weren’t going to be rough.

They were.

  • What about the continued absence of Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker? That wasn’t going to be fixed overnight.

It wasn’t.

However, Jon Bostic, Burnett’s fellow free agent acquisition at the inside linebacker spot, has slowly and quietly helped right the Steelers’ defensive ship, providing a veteran presence for a unit that clearly needed it at the tail-end of 2017 when Shazier was lost for the season with his horrific injury.

Back to 2018, and the Steelers current ascension from struggling has-been whose window had closed to dominant contender whose window is still very much open.

  • At 6-2-1, the Steelers clearly have much more work to do, and their last seven games include some of the best teams the NFL has to offer.
  • But Pittsburgh is also one of the best football teams in the NFL right now.

The Steelers are who we thought they were all along–a Super Bowl contender–it just took a while for them to figure some things out.

It appears they have.

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The Steelers’ Offensive Line Is Playing In The Zone Right Now

Through the first four games of the 2018 regular season, it was factual to say that the Steelers highly-touted and highly-decorated offensive line wasn’t performing up to its usual standards.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was often under the proverbial gun and faced more pressure than he probably had become accustomed to in recent years, once the big guys up front became one of the most formidable units in all of football.

Steelers 2018 Offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouency

The Steelers offensive line is keeping Ben Roethlisberger clean. Photo Credit: MyDaytonDailyNews

One month into the season, Roethlisberger had already been sacked nine times, a number that put him on pace for 36 for the year. While such a sack total still wouldn’t have approached the ridiculous number of times Roethlisberger was taken to the turf in the days before the likes of Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro came on the scene, it certainly would have far-surpassed the average of 22.75 sacks No. 7 had absorbed per year since 2014.

  • And then there was the ground game, which seemed to go on sabbatical in the three weeks after second-year running back James Conner rushed for 135 yards in a Week 1 tie with the Browns.

After his magnificent performance in Cleveland, Conner combined for a mere 97 rushing yards on 32 carries against the Chiefs, Buccaneers and Ravens, respectively. Sure, you can say the Steelers faced large deficits in two of those games–they fell behind by a combined score of 35-0 in the first quarter of home losses to Kansas City and Baltimore–which necessitated a heavy dose of passing. But the fact of the matter was, Pittsburgh’s hogs got whipped at the line of scrimmage more often than not during that three-week period.

  • But while we’re stating facts, it is worth noting that the Steelers’ offensive line was a bit compromised due to injury over the first month of the season.

Veteran left guard Ramon Foster missed the vast-majority of training camp with a sprained knee and surely wasn’t at full-speed at the start of the regular season. Meanwhile, right tackle Marcus Gilbert and right guard David DeCastro, two of the highest ranked players at their respective positions, missed a combined three games due to injuries.

Like every other portion of the Steelers’ 53-man roster, I guess the offensive linemen–as formidable as they may have been–couldn’t escape the bumps, bruises and lackluster play that was thematic of the first four weeks of the 2018 regular season.

But as we sit here today, those first four weeks seem like a distant memory for the 3-2-1 Steelers, especially for an offensive line that has seemingly taken its play and its reputation to a whole new level.

  • How’s the pass protection been?

In the past two games–both impressive and important victories over the Falcons and Bengals, respectively–Roethlisberger has dropped back to pass a combined 75 times without being sacked once.

  • Forget sacks, he’s barely been touched, while passing for a total of 619 yards and five touchdowns.

How about that ground game?

James Conner has combined for 221 rushing yards and four touchdowns the past two weeks, averaging over 5.5 yards per carry in the process.

If you wish, you can talk about the Falcons’ defense and how it was decimated by injuries prior to its arrival at Heinz Field on October 7. But you can’t say the same thing about a Bengals’ defense that arrived at Paul Brown Stadium this past Sunday equipped with a front-seven that included Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Vontaze Burfict.

  • The Steelers’ offensive line didn’t just dominate the decimated the past two weeks. It dominated the dominant.

The Steelers’ offensive line is, again, highly-decorated, highly-touted and, as Pouncey showed when he pulled all the way from the center position over to the right edge to throw the key block on Conner’s 26-yard run against the Bengals on Sunday, highly-capable.

The Steelers’ offensive line is also in the zone. If it can stay there for the remainder of the 2018 season, Pittsburgh’s offense–and the entire team–will be pretty hard to dominate.

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Steelers Report Card From Their 2nd Preseason Game Against The Packers

Things were ugly Thursday night, as the Steelers fell  to the Packers, 51-34, at Lambeau Field in their second game of the 2018 preseason. Therefore, you shouldn’t expect a high GPA.

Quarterbacks

Mason Rudolph made his first start against the Packers and was immediately victimized by a pick-six on his very first pass of the night. Rudolph played the rest of the first half and recovered a bit, completing five of 12 passes for 47 yards and a four-yard touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Joshua Dobbs took over in the second half, and he, too, proceeded to throw a pick-six on his very first pass. Dobbs did fare a bit better, completing 12 of 18 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns to go along with that interception, while also contributing 27 rushing yards. Grade: C

Running Backs

James Conner, he of the leaner and meaner physique, looked impressive in his limited amount of work, carrying five times for 57 yard–including a 26-yard touchdown. Rookie Jaylen Samuels had a nice night, as he posted 38 yards and a score on nine carries, while veteran backup Fitzgerald Toussaint continued to play decent this preseason, tallying 26 yards on seven carries. Grade: B

Wide Receivers

This just in: The Steelers know how  to identify and cultivate receivers. Latest example appears to be second-round pick James Washington, who pulled in five catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns. Washington showed off one facet of his skill-set by getting deep on a 57-yard pass from Dobbs; and he showed off his ability to make the combat catch on a 19-yard touchdown in-which he was able to out-physical a Green Bay defensive back and come away with the football. It was a quick night for Smith-Schuster, but he continues to be a touchdown-machine, pulling in his lone reception for a four-yard score in the first half. Damoun Patterson continued his impressive preseason, catching three passes for 35 yards–including a 29-yarder. Grade: B+

Tight Ends

It was another uneventful night for the tight ends, although Jesse James did set up a score with a 21-yard catch (his only one of the night). Injuries continue to be a problem for Vance McDonald, as he sat out Thursday’s game with yet another ailment. Grade: Incomplete

Offensive Linemen

Rudolph was sacked three times, but that may have been more on him and less on the line, albeit one that was missing some key starters. Missing key starters or not, the Steelers did rush for 157 yards, while averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Grade: B-

Defensive Linemen

Javon Hargrave had a decent night, as did big Dan McCullers, as he plays for his football life this summer. However, the defensive line, minus Cam Heyward, didn’t generate all that much pressure on the Packers’ stable of four quarterbacks. And it’s hard to give a great evaluation of any unit that’s part of a defense that allowed 37 points on the night and had trouble getting off the field on third down. Grade: C-

Linebackers

What can you say about the inside linebacker unit? It’s very early, but it doesn’t look like Jon Bostic is going to adequately close the massive hole that was left in the middle by the tragic loss of Ryan Shazier late last season. Tyler Matakevich didn’t do a lot to make one feel better about the unit, either. L.J. Fort did have a fine night, posting five tackles and a sack, and unknown rookie Matthew Thomas also drew some praise. As for the outside linebacker position, Bud Dupree did record a sack, and the Packers were held to 77 yards rushing. Grade: C-

Secondary

The unit was missing Joe Haden, Mike Hilton and Sean Davis, and I don’t know if that had a lot to do with so many missed tackles, bad angles and futile pursuits of Packer ball carriers, but it obviously didn’t help much. The young Terrell Edmunds did continue to play well, even if he was pretty much helpless on a touchdown pass from future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers to stud tight end Jimmy Graham. As for the veteran side of things, Morgan Burnett returned to Green Bay to take on his former team and acquitted himself quite well, even recording a sack in the process. But those missed tackles and bad angles…just so many. Grade: D

Special Teams

Edmunds did set up Pittsburgh’s second touchdown by forcing and then recovering a fumble on a kickoff. The low-light for Danny Smith’s unit may have been Jordan Berry’s punting, as the veteran continues to draw criticism this summer–including from his head coach in the post-game presser. As for the return game, Quadree Henderson’s main path to a roster spot is that avenue, and again, Thursday night, that avenue was closed. Grade: C-

Coaching

Missing several key starters–including the Killer B’s–it remains to be seen if Pittsburgh’s biggest offensive weaknesses from 2017–red zone efficiency and situational play-calling–have been rectified in 2018. As for the defense, yes, that unit was also missing several key starters. But Mike Tomlin and Keith

Photo credit: Packers Wire USA Today.

Butler appear to have a huge problem on their hands finding some combination of defensive backs and inside linebackers to protect the middle of the field. Thursday night, they seemed light years away from finding a solution. Grade: C-

 

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Steelers Pick Up Fifth-Year Option On Bud Dupree

Looks like Steelers fans will have Bud Dupree to kick around for another two years–unless he wins them over instead.

Bud Dupree, Bobbie Massie, Steelers vs Bears

Bud Dupree tries to get past Bobby Massie. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

As reported by several outlets on Monday, the Steelers have exercised the fifth-year option on Dupree, the team’s first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, keeping the young outside linebacker in the fold through the 2019 season.

After recording four sacks as a rookie, Dupree spent the first nine games of the 2016 season on Injured Reserve, following offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia. Upon his activation late in the season, Dupree displayed great explosiveness down-the-stretch, posting 4.5 sacks over the final seven games.

There was great excitement for Dupree heading into 2017, and even though he had a career-high six sacks, he managed to fall out of favor with fans, many of whom quickly labeled him a bust.

  • Fortunately for Dupree, his bosses don’t agree with that assessment.

“We’re excited about where Bud can be in these next two years,” said team general manager Kevin Colbert on Monday, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “We had no hesitation in making that move when we did it.”

Head coach Mike Tomlin doubled down on Colbert’s sentiments:

“We’re comfortable he’s going to meet the challenge.”

  • The main reason for the criticism levied against Dupree a year ago had to do with his failure to generate a consistent pass rush.

However, these aren’t your dad’s (Coach Dad’s) Steelers outside linebackers anymore, as they’re now required to drop back into pass coverage more than ever.

In-fact, despite the fans’ disenchantment with Dupree, the Steelers defense managed to set a franchise record for sacks a season ago with 56.

Many wondered if Pittsburgh would look to upgrade at outside linebacker and find Dupree’s replacement with a premium pick in this Thursday’s NFL Draft.

But while you can’t rule anything out with the Steelers picking so late in the first round (28th to be exact), it certainly seems less likely now that Bud Dupree will be with the team for at least two more seasons.

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Kudos to Kevin Colbert for Bringing in Two Free Agents Who Can Start for Steelers

I don’t know much about the NFL’s salary cap, and chances are, neither do you.

I do know the Steelers need help at both inside linebacker and safety–or at least they did–and I was wondering how they were going to find two competent pieces in free agency.

And if they did that, would they have enough money to pay star running back Le’Veon Bell $14.5 million in 2018 (unless the two sides can reach an agreement, which seems remote at this point).

Turns out, Pittsburgh was able to address both inside linebacker and safety last week, thanks to the signing of veteran linebacker Jon Bostic on Sunday, followed by the signing of veteran safety Morgan Burnett on Tuesday.

Morgan Burnett, Alejandro Villanueva, Steelers vs Packers

Morgan Burnett late in the Steelers 2017 win over the Packers. Photo Credit: Evan Seigle, via Packers.com

According to several pieces I’ve read as well as the site, spotrac.com, Burnett’s salary will eat up just  under $2.5 million in cap space this season. Considering the Morgan Burnett’s contract is worth a reported $14.3 million over three years, that’s kind of amazing–or at least means the money is back-loaded and will account for over $5 million in cap space in 2020 (the final season of Morgan Burnett’s deal).

Morgan Burnett is a consistent veteran and was one of the best pieces on the Packers’ defense the past several seasons, so much credit has to go to the Steelers for being able to bring him to town.

As for Jon Bostic, considering his contract is for $4 million over two seasons, no extensive research is needed to know he won’t eat up much cap space this year or next.

  • But who really cares about cap space, prorated bonuses and contacts? I know I prefer to focus on football.

I do know both Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett are capable of starting for the Steelers in 2018 and, at least on paper, will make the defense stronger than it was when it was getting manhandled by the Jaguars in 45-42 loss in the divisional round of the playoffs on January 14 at Heinz Field.

They just have to make fans forget how easily the likes of Jacksonville running back Leonard Fournette tore through the defense with ease at Heinz Field in the regular season and then again in the playoffs (don’t look now, but the Jacksonville Jaguars playoff record in Pittsburgh is 2-0).

If Burnett can be a steadying back-end presence in the secondary and that always crucial last line of defense in 2018, he will be an instant upgrade over Mike Mitchell, who all too often wasn’t either of those things in 2017.

Massaging the salary cap is never an easy thing for the Steelers this time of year, but they managed to bring relief to their aching defense, and do so without wrecking the future–or so it would seem.

Maybe Burnett’s $5 million cap hit will hurt the Steelers in 2020. But, then again, maybe quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be getting on with his life’s work by then (hopefully, with at least one more Super Bowl on his career resume), and the organization will find salary cap relief organically.

  • But I’m not worried about that right now.

I just feel like giving props to the Steelers front office–namely Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan–for finding a way to get the right pieces for its defense (at least on paper) and doing so at a reasonable price.

Not an easy thing, and this is why they make the big bucks.

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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