“Resilient” Defines 2019 Steelers Thus Far. Could “Playoffs” Enter Pittsburgh’s Vocabulary Too?

Word is, some national football pundits weren’t too impressed by the Steelers 26-24 victory over the Colts at Heinz Field on Sunday.

Nope, not when it happened against a team that was quarterbacked by Brian Hoyer, who came in mid-game to replace an injured Jacoby Brissett, who became the starter just before the season when Andrew Luck decided to retire.

After all, unlike the Colts, the Steelers weren’t compromised by injuries, trades and other such departures that have transformed their roster into something it wasn’t as recently as last year.

  • Oh, right, the Steelers were compromised, severely, actually.

They have been for the entire season, save for the first six quarters of 2019, when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was still believed to be the saving grace of a franchise that no longer boasted Antonio Brown as its top receiver and Le’Veon Bell as its workhorse running back.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Lammons, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

JuJu Smith-Schuster out duels Chris Lammons for the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

When it was officially announced the day after a 28-26 defeat at the hands of the Seahawks at Heinz Field that Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the rest of the year with an elbow injury that would require surgery to repair, the initial reaction was that Pittsburgh, who started out 0-2 to begin with, was doomed to a double-digit loss season.

  • And people had every right to think such negative thoughts.

All one needs to do is look at how other teams with franchise-caliber quarterbacks usually fare after they go down with injuries. This is especially the case when a young and inexperienced quarterback, such as Mason Rudolph, who Pittsburgh selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, is the next man up.

Sure, being a die-hard fan of the team, you may have quickly gotten behind Mason Rudolph and even started to believe that he could pull it off, that the boys would rally around him and go on to have a magical season.

Unfortunately, 0-2 quickly turned into 0-3 after a depressing come-from-ahead road-loss to the 49ers. Two weeks later, the Steelers sat at 1-4 following a frustrating overtime loss to the rival Ravens at Heinz Field.

  • Rudolph was also lost in that game to a scary-looking concussion thanks to a helmet-to-helmet hit by safety Earl Thomas.

Devlin Hodges came on in the Baltimore game and actually looked really good. He started the following week in Los Angeles against a Chargers team that hadn’t gotten off to its most ideal start, but was surely more equipped to bounce back than Pittsburgh.

  • Not only did the Steelers win that game in-which Devlin Hodges looked efficient, if not spectacular, they did so in a rather impressive fashion.

Two weeks later, they showed some intestinal fortitude in coming back from a 14-0 deficit to defeat the Dolphins at Heinz Field on Monday Night Football. Yes, Miami came into the game with an 0-6 record, but, to reiterate, the Steelers weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders, either.

Oh, and did I mention defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who was off to the best start of his career, suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the win over the Chargers and was lost for the remainder of the season?

For the Steelers to come into this past Sunday’s game with a 3-4 record was impressive enough. But to knock off an Indianapolis team that still had enough talent to come into the day with a 5-2 record, even after Luck’s retirement, was amazing.

  • How can you not be impressed by the resilient nature of this 2019 Steelers team?

No, Mason Rudolph hasn’t set the world on fire. On his best day, he’s looked like a game-manager. On his worst? That’s the thing, he hasn’t looked all that bad even when he’s struggling.

The offense has certainly been no treat to watch. The receivers–including JuJu Smith-Schuster–have struggled to produce. The running backs keep getting injured. Vance McDonald hasn’t been able to repeat his 2018 performance. Heck, even the offensive line has struggled a bit this year, especially in the running game.

  • Yet, despite its deficiencies, the offense has still managed to be efficient enough to complement the defense.

That’s right, I actually said that. If ever there was a year for the Steelers defense to rise up and be a force, it’s 2019, and in that regard, it hasn’t disappointed.

  • 8 games into 2018, the Steelers defense has allowed just over 21 points a game.

That’s not legendary by any stretch of the imagination. But in today’s NFL, that’s certainly good enough to win. As for takeaways, my goodness, how about 22 through eight weeks?

That’s right, this Steelers defense, one that averaged about 19 takeaways a season for close to a decade, is on pace for 44 in 2019. What about the pass-rush? As lethal as ever with 29 sacks. (Side note: I mentioned how the offensive line was struggling in the run game. Maybe, but with only eight sacks allowed through eight weeks, it’s been as good as ever at protecting the quarterback–and what a year for that.)

With 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and an interception, T.J. Watt is playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. As for Bud Dupree, with six sacks, he’s having the finest year of a career that’s left a lot to be desired up to this point.

And what more can be said about the addition of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who Pittsburgh acquired in a trade with the Dolphins on September 16?

Everyone thought the Steelers may have found their difference-maker on defense when they traded up 10 spots to select inside linebacker Devin Bush in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. And he may one day be that for the defense. But there’s no doubt who is it right now, and that’s Fitzpatrick, who’s 96-yard interception return for a touchdown on Sunday was a clear turning-point in a very close game.

Unfortunately, the Steelers aren’t getting a ton of help from the Ravens, who just took on two of the NFL’s best in the Seahawks and Patriots and whipped both of them in rather impressive fashion.

The Steelers sit two games behind Baltimore in the AFC North with eight weeks to play. That doesn’t seem very promising, but what about the wildcard race, where Pittsburgh is just one game behind a Colts team it just defeated on Sunday?

There’s obviously a long way to go, and the chances of this season ending in a Super fashion….well, if you bet your life savings on that, you’d be a really rich person if it actually happened. However, not every season has to end in a championship for fans to find it truly fulfilling.

Steelers fans are currently celebrating the 30th-anniversary of that magical 1989 Steelers season, in-which Pittsburgh rebounded from an 0-2 start that included losses of 51-0 and 41-10 to the Browns and Bengals, respectively, and not only made the playoffs as the AFC’s fifth seed, but was a heartbeat away from defeating the Broncos in the divisional round and making it to the AFC title game.

It remains to be seen how the rest of the Steelers’ 2019 season unfolds, but you have to hand it to them for how they’ve managed to stay in the hunt and stay relevant.

 

 

 

 

 

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Key Take Away Exiting Bye Week? Steelers Remain “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s Recovery

Kinda of like “Midway” on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Steelers 2019 bye week didn’t arrive in the middle of the season, but it still provides convenient point to assess what we’ve learned about the team so far.

Heading into the season, the Steelers needed to affirmatively answer two key questions:

  • Could a post-Killer Bees Steelers offense survive or even thrive?
  • Would the Steelers defense build on the latent growth evident at the tail end of the 2018 season?

The easy responses are “No” and “Yes,” but after six games, honest answers evade both questions.

At first glance, the Steelers offense resembles a struggling, shell of its former self. Numbers don’t lie. The Steelers offense ranks near the bottom by any number of measures. Opposing defensive coordinators don’t lose sleep before playing Pittsburgh. They might fret over pressuring the quarterback, but this offense scares no one.

Sure, JuJu Smith-Schuster is frustrating fantasy owners, and James Conner isn’t running with the authority that he ran with last season. But starting 3 quarterbacks in 6 games yields a limited and unrepresentative sample. The reality remains that its far too early to write off the Steelers offense.

  • By the same token, its still too early to say dominating defense as returned to Pittsburgh.

New arrivals such as Steven Nelson, Devin Bush Jr. and Minkah Fitzpatrick have improved the unit. Keith Butler’s defense has been both harassing quarterback AND taking the ball away, and they’ve been executing those splash plays at critical moments in games (See Bud Dupree’s strip-sack vs the Bengals.)

  • All positive signs for Pittsburgh.

But can the Steelers defense sustain this? Arguably, the unit has lost its best player, Stephon Tuitt for the year. Stephon Tuitt was dominating opposing offenses and which paved the way for the Steelers to “Get there with four” when rushing the quarterback.

  • The improvement of the Steelers defense is real and appears to be sustainable, even without Tuitt.

But the same could have been said back in 2017, when the Keith Butler’s boys flirted with dominance in games against the Chiefs, Bengals and Lions only to end the season as unit that needed several Chris Boswell last minute saves in the regular season, and came up flat footed against the Jaguars in the playoffs.

To put it in Yoda speak, “Look good the Steelers defense does. But six games does not a dominating unit make.”

Key Bye Week Take Away Revolves Around Roethlisberger

So if we can’t say much with a lot of confidence about the Steelers offense and defense thus far in 2019, what is it that we can say?

  • It’s that the Steelers remain “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s recovery.

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, St. Vincents, St. Vincent's, Steelers training camp, Latrobe

Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger at St. Vincents in summer of 2019. Photo Credit: The Morning Call

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention for the last 3-4 years. While he wasn’t involved in management of the team, Art Rooney II certainly remembers what it was like to have Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, David Woodley and Bubby Brister starting at quarterback.

  • Art Rooney II has tasted life without a franchise quarterback, and he knows franchise quarterbacks are very hard to find.

That fueled decisions as far ranging as forcing Todd Haley out, to extending Ben Roethlisberger’s contract at age 37 to paying a premium to move up to draft Devin Bush Jr. in the 2019 NFL Draft. What has changed however, is Roethlisberger’s health.

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s 2019 campaign stopped after 6 quarters, and elbow surgery ended it for good.

The Steelers knew their 37 year old quarterback needed elbow surgery, yet still traded their 2020 first round draft pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Trading a 1st round draft pick cuts against the franchises DNA. But the fact is that Minkah Fitzpatrick can do a lot more to help the Steelers win a Super Bowl in 2020 than someone they might draft.

Its a plan that could payoff masterfully….

…But only if Ben Roethlisberger returns in franchise form.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Ravens – F’s for Two Key Groups

Taken from the grade book of a furious teacher who watched in dismay as his students did well enough on the test to pass only to fail because THEY FORGOT TO PUT THEIR NAME ON THEIR papers, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2019 loss to the Ravens at Heinz Field.

Mark Andrews hurdles Minkah Fitzpatrick. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Mason Rudolph was 13 of 20 for one TD and no interceptions. The coaches took the training wheels off a bit, and Rudolph did OK, but his downfield accuracy left a lot to be desired. He made a phenomenal play just as he got KOed. Devlin Hodges entered the game and played far better than anyone had the right to expect him to. Grade: B

Running Backs
James Conner ran well, but his carries were limited. Jaylen Samuels didn’t run as well, and his interception while running the Wildcat was disastrous. Sure, he didn’t call the play that never should have been called, but he did throw the pass, and it went right to the Ravens. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald had 3 catches on 3 targets including one that set up James Conner’s touchdown. Nick Vannett had one pass thrown his way. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster again showed that he is a legitimate big play wide receiver catching all 7 passes thrown his way. James Washington reappeared, making 3 catches including two of great consequence. Diontae Johnson caught 5 passes but he fumbled the ball, which mercifully went out of bounds. While it’s not fair to scapegoat JuJu Smith-Schuster, there’s no sugar coating the fact that his fumble was fatal. Grade: F

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph was only sacked once and had good time to throw. The run blocking looked to be a little better, but it is hard to be sure because the Steelers really didn’t try to establish the run. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt led the unit in tackles, Cam Heyward had a sack, a tackle for a loss, and two more QB hits. Javon Hargrave had a sack, a tackle for a loss and another QB hit. Baltimore ran the ball well coming into Pittsburgh. The defensive line slowed them down. Grade: B+

Linebackers
Devin Bush was second in the unit in tackles, and caught his first interception, even if it should have been overturned on replay it was a heads up play by the rookie. T.J. Watt added another sack and dropped 3 defenders behind the line of scrimmage. Bud Dupree had a sack in overtime. Grade: B

Secondary
Mike Hilton had a stand out game with an interception prior to the 2 minute warning. He also batted another pass away and dropped a defender behind the line of scrimmage. Kameron Kelly had an interception, and you didn’t hear the names of Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and Terrell Edmunds much. And that’s good. Grade: B

Special Teams
The Steelers special teams gave up another long run, which didn’t result in points but it does highlight their weakness. Worse yet was the Steelers kick return team who averaged 15 yards per return. Ryan Switzer had one nice punt return for 13 yards. Chris Boswell was perfect and Jordan Berry pinned the Ravens inside the 20 twice.

When your coach defers on the toss in overtime because he’s worried about how bad his return team is, things are bad. Grade: D

Devlin Hodges, Steelers vs Ravens

Devlin Hodges passing for the Steelers in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Coaching
So, the Steelers go into a show down with a division rival, starting their backup quarterback who gets hurt three plays into the second half. Their 4th string quarterback comes on, leads a comeback, forces overtime, only for the Steelers to lose because of a fumble in OT.

  • So that’s a phenomenal reflection on the coaches. Right?

Well, yes it is, but it is also much more complicated. Mike Tomlin claims that the Steelers weren’t planning on deploying a gimmicky offense going into the game. Fine. Let’s take him at his word.

But the Steelers started the first two series using those gimmicks, and the Wildcat pass was a disaster which set up an easy 7 points for the Ravens.

  • Sure, the Steelers offense put up enough points to win given the circumstances.
  • Sure, the Steelers defense kept the team ahead in take aways and put in a strong effort.
  • Sure, the game turned on a fumble in overtime, which is decidedly NOT the coaches’ fault.

But Jaylen Samuels never should have been passing from the Steelers 12 yard line. Never. This is a case where one bad call is indeed a difference maker in a game. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He’s one of the few on that side of the ball with no premium draft or free agent pedigree. Fans and Twitter general managers regularly scheme to find ways to take him out of the lineup. But while he might not have the freakish athletic talent of some of his peers, he’s a hard hitter and he gives it all on every play.

Against the Ravens this player returned to the lineup with a vengeance, leading the team in tackles and notching a stat in just about every category save for an interception and, for that reason, Vince Williams is wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Ravens.

 

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Ravens Defeat Steelers 26-23 in OT. Ball Security Remains Pittsburgh’s Achilles Heel

The Baltimore Ravens came to Pittsburgh and defeated the Steelers in overtime to the tune of 26 to 23. After last week’s victory against the Bengals, going into the game the talk was if the Steelers could win and the Browns were to lose, Pittsburgh would find itself in a 3 way tie in the AFC North.

  • Instead, the game reaffirmed the putrid direction which Pittsburgh’s season has taken.

To win, the Steelers would need to abandon the gimmicks which carried them to victory over the Bengals. They did that. The Steelers defense would need to be excellent. The Steelers defense delivered. The team, as a whole, would need to improvise in the face of the unexpected. They did that too.

But, as it has so many times over the last two seasons, the game turned on what’s become the Steelers Achilles Heel: Ball Security.

JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Ravens, Marion Humphery

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s overtime fumble dooms Steelers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review,

Rudolph Takes the Training Wheels Off – To Mixed Effect

Let’s take Mike Tomlin at his word that the Steelers did not plan a steady diet of Jet screens and the Wildcat. Nonetheless, the Steelers tried both in the game’s first two series, and paid mightily for it as their first Jet screen ended with a 4 yard loss, and Jaylen Samuels threw an ugly interception that was headed in Ryan Switzer’s direction.

  • The Ravens quickly scored a touchdown padding their lead to 10-0 with hardly 10 minutes elapsed in the game.

Randy Fichtner decided to go conventional, and did something he hasn’t done much of, allow Mason Rudolph to air it out. Mason Rudolph delivered, hitting James Washington for a 21 yard gain, and then James Conner for 8 yards, before finding JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 35 yard touchdown pass.

  • That was a good drive for Rudolph and the Steelers offense.

However, Mason Rudolph misfired on several other drives as he tried to connect with Diontae Johnson and Johnny Holton on a number of deep routes that were wildly inaccurate.

But the Steelers defense was doing its part, as Kameron Kelly and Mike Hilton pulled down interceptions while Vince Williams, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward sacked Lamar Jackson to set up a punt and his 2nd interception.

You never want to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns after turnovers, which is what the Steelers had to do, but those efforts led to a half time score of 17-13, proving that Pittsburgh was very much in the game.

Steelers Defense, Offense Improvise to Stay Alive

Lamar Jackson’s scrambling is one reason why the Baltimore Ravens were able to put 17 points on the board so quickly. Jackson scrambled early and often and the Steelers appeared to be powerless to stop them.

I’ll leave it to the film reviewers to diagnose why, but right now I’ll credit Keith Butler‘s defense with making the adjustments necessary to neutralize Jackson’s run threat.

  • In the face of adversity, the Steelers improvised.

The gods of fate shined on the Steelers early in the second half when Devin Bush came down with an interception that really should have been overturned on replay. But what the gods of fate giveith, they taketh away.

On the Steelers third offensive play of the 2nd half, Mason Rudolph did his best Ben Roethlisberger impression by evading not one but two sacks to find James Washington for a 26 yard gain.

  • Rudolph, however got sandwiched between Matthew Judon and Earl Thomas and went down like a ragdoll.
  • Rudolph lay on the turf at Heinz Field, motionless and unconscious.

With Mason Rudolph down for the count, on came Devlin Hodges, a man who spent the NFL’s opening day browsing the want ads. Its been a long time since someone wearing number 6 has slung the ball for the Steelers, but let’s daresay that Devlin Hodges looked better than Bubby Brister did in his debut.

Hodges moved the team to the 1 on the strength of a 14 yard pass to Vance McDonald. One play later James Conner was barreling into the End Zone for Pittsburgh’s first lead of the day.

Delvin Hodges wasn’t perfect. His biggest play was probably his 21 yard scramble. He threw an ugly pass that was intercepted that got nullified by a penalty. But he put the Steelers in a position to win.

Ball Security Remains Steelers Achilles Heel

Fault the Steelers defense for allowing Baltimore to tie the game at the end of regulation, (although Javon Hargrave’s sack was crucial in forcing the Ravens to settle for 3.) But credit those same men for holding the Ravens to -4 yards on the first drive in over time, thanks to a Bud Dupree sack and stout play by Stephon Tuitt and Kameron Kelly.

  • In the end, it wasn’t enough.

On the Steelers second play of overtime, Devlin Hodges hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 10 yard gain, only to have Marlon Humphrey pop the ball lose.

As it did two weeks ago in San Francisco, as it did last year against New Orleans, Denver and Cleveland, Ball Security again doomed the Steelers.

  • When asked if he was ready to take a moral victory away from this game, Mike Tomlin abruptly declined declaring, “No I don’t.

Nor should he. Your defense can take away the ball and wreak havoc all it wants in the opponent’s backfield. Your offense can improvise and find ways to make things happen either through the air or through the ground.

  • But it matters not if you fail to protect the ball with game on the line.

The Steelers can’t, and that’s why they are 1-4.

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win over Bengals – A’s for Achievement & Innovation

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is marking himself down a full letter grade for being so late, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals on Monday Night Football.

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers Bengals Monday Night Football 2019

Diontae Johnson catches a 43 yard touchdown in the Steelers win over Cincinnati. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.

Quarterback
Mason Rudolph’s first start yielded a video game like passer rating of 124.6 as he completed 24 of 28 for two touchdowns and zero interceptions. But those numbers are a product of play calling designed to protect him. Rudolph made a few mistakes, but he also flashed some impressive play making potential. Grade: B-

Running Backs
James Conner had the best night of the season by far, running for 4.2 yards per carry on 10 carries, and catching 8 passes. What was most impressive was the grit and determination which drove Conner, evident on his touchdown catch and another Red Zone carry. Jaylen Samuels operated the Wildcat for the Steelers to great effect. It was an unconventional evening for the Steelers, but one that worked. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Zach Gentry saw his first extended NFL action, and made a tremendous block on Jaylen Samuels touchdown. His effort combined with that of the other tight ends was critical to the Steelers success. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Any game plan that only sees JuJu Smith-Schuster targeted 4 times does not, by definition, feature the wide receivers. Diontae Johnson may have benefitted from a blown coverage, but if he continues to score touchdowns on deep passes, he will force opposing defenses to take note. James Washington remains nearly invisible in the Steelers offense, which is beginning to get worrisome. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
By his own account Mason Rudolph wasn’t touched. That’s saying something given that he tends to hold on to the ball a little longer than he should. The Steelers run blocking was better, as the line was particularly effective in springing the running backs on outside runs. Still, the failure on 4th and short is disturbing. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward spoke loudly during the week about the need for everyone to step up, and he spoke even louder on the field with 2.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles for losses and 3 quarterback hits. All on an injured quad. Javon Hargrave got a sack and Stephon Tuitt hit Andy Dalton twice. An excellent night for the defensive line. Grade: A

Linebackers
Mark Barron ended the Bengals first entrance into the Red Zone by defending a pass and his interception blotted out any chance of a Bengals comeback. Devin Bush had his first sack and dropped 3 ball carriers for losses. T.J. Watt had a sack and a half, 3 quarterback hits and recovered the fumble on Bud Dupree’s strip sack that ended another Cincinnati trip to the Red Zone. The Bengals tight ends were a non-factor. Grade: A

Secondary
Mike Hilton was swatting passes like flies. Joe Haden almost had an interception. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds and Steven Nelson’s names weren’t heard much all of which were good signs. The Steelers front seven put the Bengals in several 3rd and long situations, and they only converted 5 of 17 of those, which is on the secondary. Grade: A

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots in a 29 yard field goal against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

Special Teams
The Steelers returned no kicks, and the Bengals only returned two kickoffs to little effect. Jordan Berry boomed off two punts, averaging 49.5 yards. Chris Boswell was perfect kicking including a 49 yard field goal. Grade: B+

Coaching
Keith Butler has taken a lot of grief for a long time. Much of it is understandable. The Steelers have 7 first round picks playing for them, and performance has not matched the investment of draft free agent capital.

  • But against the Bengals, the Steelers defense delivered a dominating performance.

Sure, right now Cincinnati looks like the NFL equivalent of a Junior Varsity team, but the Steelers defense should dominate under those circumstances. They dominated.

Randy Fichtner’s took a lot of heat before the game for his vanilla game plan against San Francisco, and then took heat for resorting to the Wildcat and other gimmicks to beat The Bengals.

  • Who cares?

The Steelers were playing without their fullback, without their number 1 tight end and with a first year starting quarterback in search of his first win. What was Randy Fichtner supposed to do? Alternate between the Wishbone and Run’n Shoot?

  • No. Instead, Fichtner came up with a game plan that did what it was supposed to do – score enough points to win.

Things get pretty bleak when you’re 0-3 NFL team, yet Mike Tomlin kept his players focused and did not shy away from innovating. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Six days before the Monday night game, this gentleman wasn’t even wearing a Steelers uniform. When he arrived in Pittsburgh, he informed that the Steelers had been trying to get him in the Black and Gold for some time.

Now we know why. He literally walked in off the street to start for the Steelers in this game, and he made two critical catches as well as contributing to the blocking game. For that Nick Vannett wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers Monday Night win over the Bengals.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to 49ers – A Classroom Turned Upside Down

From the grade book of a teacher who left for a 10 day professional conference only to return to find his classroom completely turned upside down, here is the Steelers Report Card for the loss to the 49ers.

Dante Pettis, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs 49ers

Dante Pettis scores as Bud Dupree is helpless to stop him. Photo Credit: Lachlan Cunningham, Getty Images, Via SF Gate

Quarterback
Those who’ve suggested rushing the Roethlisberger era to an end to begin rebuilding sooner rather later experienced reality therapy yesterday. To be clear, Mason Rudolph does not deserve to be a scapegoat. But even if his passing number were on par with Ben Roethlisberger and Neil O’Donnell’s debuts, Rudolph looked like a 3rd rounder making his first start rather than that of a franchise quarterback. Mason Rudolph did some nice things, made some ugly mistakes but ultimately couldn’t spark the team to a win. Grade: C

Running Backs
James Conner ran for 43 yards on 13 carries and looked OK as a rusher at times. He didn’t have a lot of help from the offensive line. Worse yet, he had yet another fumble in a critical moment, which is at least the third time that has happened in less than 16 full starts. Benny Snell had 6 yards on 3 carries and Jaylen Samuels ran some pass routes but didn’t see a ball thrown his way. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald had one catch on 2 carries and then left the game injured. Xavier Grimble had 1 catch for 3 yards in his place, and his presence in the blocking game was about as pronounced as his role in the passing game. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster took one to the house showing the he does indeed retain his big play capability. But he was largely a non-factor outside of that play. Diontae Johnson looked good in his first start, but dropped at least one pass he should have caught. James Washington had two catches for 14 yards and is looking like a preseason-practice hero who doesn’t deliver on game day. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph only got sacked twice, but had to scramble 4 times and at other times had to throw it away. The 49ers also recorded 5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Championship caliber offensive line play can elevate average running and passing games. But the Steelers aren’t getting anywhere near championship caliber play from their offensive line. Grade: D

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line harassed Jimmy Garoppolo, but the 49ers almost ran at will, particularly when they needed to. That’s not 100% their responsibility, but the line is where stout run defense starts. Grade: C-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had an interception, fumble recovery, two passes defensed and two quarterback hits. Nice to see a premium pick delivering. Devin Bush had two fumble recoveries and led the team in tackles, but his inexperience continues to show. Bud Dupree got good pressure and helped force an interception. Mark Barron has yet to justify the free agency dollars the Steelers invested in him. The 49ers moved the ball in the 2nd half when they needed to, and the Steelers linebackers could not come up with a play to stop them. Grade: C

Secondary
Whether the Steelers decision to mortgage their future by trading for Minkah Fitzpatrick is unknown here today. But one thing is clear, he is easily the most dynamic member of the secondary. His interception off of a Joe Haden deflection was exactly the type of playmaking the Steelers secondary has been starved of for a long time. Terrell Edmunds was second in tackles, but has yet to make a splash play. Steven Nelson’s name hasn’t been heard much. The Steelers needed another play from the secondary in the 2nd half. They didn’t get it. Grade: C

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made both of his field goals and both extra points. Jordan Berry averaged 52.3 yards punting. All good. However, the kick return team allowed 25 yards per return, and the punt return team allowed 10 yards per return. Given the Steelers limitations on offense, this team cannot afford to sacrifice this type of field position. Grade: C-

Coaching
The Steelers coaches tried to establish the run to give Mason Rudolph a break. It didn’t work. The Steelers offensive line is doing a passable job in protecting the quarterback, but its run blocking leaves a lot to be desired.

Randy Fitchner made changes to the Steelers wide receiving corps, and there was some marginal improvement, but the wide outs are struggling to create separation. Why was Jaylen Samuels not used in the running game?

On defense the Steelers got opportunistic, which not something that can be said of recent Steelers defenses. However, the offense could not take advantage of those turnovers. Neither could the defense step up and make a stop when the team needed it.

  • Which is becoming a recurring theme.

Mike Tomlin, Randy Fitchner and Keith Butler have some work to do. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
If there is any unequivocal bright spot in this dismal Steelers 2019 season it is this man. Against the 49ers he added another sack, made a tackle behind the line of scrimmage and harassed the passer all day, and for that Stephon Tuitt wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the 49ers.

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Report Card for Steelers 18-6 Preseason Win Over Titans

The Pittsburgh Steelers improved their 2019 preseason record to 3-0 as staff writer Tony Defeo issues his Report Card.

Devin Bush, Terrell Edmunds, Dion James, Steelers vs Titans preseason

Devin Bush and Terrell Edmunds sandwich Dion James. Photo Credit: Christopher Hanewine, USA Today, via Steel City Insider

Quarterbacks
Since the third preseason game is the one where starters play the most, Ben Roethlisberger started and played three series. It’s hard to say if Roethlisberger was rusty or just looking to get the night over with, considering most of his passes were of the very short variety.

On the night, Roethlisberger was 8 of 13 for 63 yards and a 17-yard touchdown strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster on his third and final series. Mason Rudolph entered the game late in the first quarter, and on his initial throw of the game, he connected with college buddy James Washington on a 41-yard touchdown pass. It wasn’t necessarily a stellar night for Rudolph, as he completed six of nine passes for 75 yards, a touchdown and an interception on what appeared to be some miscommunication between he and Washington. Joshua Dobbs entered the game in the second half and played the rest of the way, completing four of nine passes for 79 yards and an interception. However, his night wasn’t as bad as his stat-line indicated, and he could have used some help from rookie tight end Zach Gentry on the interception. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Running behind his full starting offensive line for the first time this preseason, James Conner looked like the player he was last year before injuries derailed him; Conner carried five times for 41 yards, while pulling in two passes for 15 yards. Even with the rookie Benny Snell Jr. out with an injury, it was a quiet night for Jaylen Samuels, who carried just four times for 16 yards and caught two passes for an additional 11. Trey Edmunds, the brother of Terrell, carried six times for 12 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
For the first time this preseason, JuJu Smith-Schuster looked like his old self. Whether that was the result of playing with his franchise quarterback or the result of getting his first extended action is a question that can’t be answered. But he did catch four passes for 37 yards and a touchdown. It was a relatively quiet night for Washington, aside from the touchdown, which was his only catch. Young hopeful, Trey Griffey reeled in one pass for 23 yards, while veteran hopeful, Johnny Holton only had two catches for 12 yards and didn’t help his cause on two sideline passes–one in-which the cornerback pulled him down out of bounds before he could get both feet in; and one in-which he was called for offensive pass interference–that could have made his night a little better. Brandon Reilly, a youngster Pittsburgh claimed off the waiver wire in July, had a decent night, pulling in two passes for 41 yards. Diontae Spencer, the punt return guru, didn’t do much in that regard, nor in the passing game, but he did gain 29 yards on an end-around. Grade: B

Tight Ends
It was another lost night for this unit. Vance McDonald, who fumbled on his lone reception a week earlier, dropped an early pass and wound up with zero on the night. The rookie Gentry had one catch for 15 yards, but could have had another had he reeled in the relatively high pass by Dobbs that resulted in his interception. Xavier Grimble continues to play uninspired football in his quest to replace Jesse James as the number two tight end. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Much to no one’s surprise, the highly decorated unit dominated when all five starters — Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Matt Feiler — were in the lineup. Roethlisberger didn’t get touched, and, to reiterate, Conner looked spectacular. Grade: A

Defensive Line

As he’s sometimes wont to do when clicking on all cylinders, Stephon Tuitt looked like a man among boys, posting two sacks and the game’s first points when one of those resulted in a safety. Cam Heyward contributed four tackles and a sack, and even Dan McCullers played extensively and recorded four tackles. Grade: A-

Linebackers
Another impressive night for the unit as a whole. As for the outside linebackers, T.J. Watt had two tackles, while roster hopeful, Tuzar Skipper added four of his own along with yet another sack. Over to the inside linebackers. Vince Williams had two tackles and a sack. Rookie Ulysees Gilbert III didn’t jump off the screen, but he was still quite active, adding five more tackles to his preseason resume. It was a quiet night for Devin Bush, but he again looked like he belonged, while long-shot Robert Spillane stated his case with five tackles and a sack. Grade: A

Secondary
No Joe Haden again, but Steven Nelson continued to look like a more than solid free-agent addition as the other starting cornerback. It was another really good showing for Artie Burns, while rookie Justin Layne appeared to improve from his pro debut two weeks earlier. As for the safeties, Kameron Kelly had yet another active night with four tackles, while starting free safety Sean Davis added two before exiting with an ankle injury. Grade: B

Special Teams
The kickers were once again perfect, as Chris Boswell connected on an extra point, while Matthew Wright added a 31-yard field goal in the second half.

  • Incumbent punter Jordan Berry posted 200 yards on four boots, while challenger Ian Berryman added 90 yards on two.

Ryan Switzer was the surprise kick-returner on the evening, averaging 19 yards on three returns, while also returning one punt for 20 yards. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero

Brandon Reilly for his totally unexpected contributions.

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Steelers Report Card Following Pittsburgh’s 17-7 Preseason Win vs. Chiefs

The Pittsburgh Steelers extended their 2019 preseason winning streak to 2-0 with a 17-7 win over the Kansas City Chiefs at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Staff writer Tony Defeo delivers his Report Card where he pulls no punches as he “calls it as he sees it.”

mason rudolph, steelers vs chiefs preseason, Darron Lee

Mason Rudolph evades Darron Lee. Photo Credit: Barry Reger, AP, PennLive.com

Quarterback
For the second-straight game, Ben Roethlisberger did not dress. Mason Rudolphstarted and played the majority of the first half. Like a week earlier, Rudolph looked much more confident and comfortable in Randy Fichtner’s offense. On the night, he completed 10 of 15 passes for 77 yards. His night could have been even better, had he not been victimized by some drops and fumbles.

Joshua Dobbs entered the game late in the second quarter and, much like last week, he found James Washington downfield on a 43-yard pass. Late in the first half, just one play after hitting Eli Rogers on a pretty 25-yard pass, Dobbs was intercepted in the end zone on a high throw that was intended for rookie Diontae Johnson. As for Devlin Hodges, the rookie from Samford entered the game early in the fourth quarter and completed just two of four passes. However, one of those passes was a pretty 24-yard touchdown to the rookie Johnson. Grade: B+

Running BacksSteelers, Report Card, grades,
James Conner got the start, and put in a workman like performance, with six carries for 28 yards. Second-year man Jaylen Samuels looked really good, as he tallied four carries for 26 yards and a 14-yard touchdown. As for Benny Snell Jr., the rookie from Kentucky carried seven times for 16 yards. But even though it was another quiet night, he did look decent on blitz pick ups. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet night for JuJu Smith-Schuster, who started the game but didn’t have any receptions. As for Washington, the second-year man continued to shine, tallying four receptions for 78 yards. Donte Moncrief, the veteran free agent pick-up fumbled the only pass that he caught on the night.

After missing the Buccaneers game with an injury, the rookie Dionte Johnson had a bit of a coming-out party, catching three passes for 46 yards and a touchdown. Johnson would have had another score, but it was called back on a very questionable offensive pass interference penalty. Eli Rogers kept his hat in the ring in the competition for the slot receiver role, with two catches for 31 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Veteran Vance McDonald started and had just five yards on one reception that he fumbled out of bounds. Xavier Grimble didn’t do much to inspire hope that he can be the number two tight end, catching one pass for 13 yards and showing the old alligator arms while dropping another. Rookie Kevin Rader had two receptions for 20 yards, but he also committed a holding penalty. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Most of the starters played and put in a good night’s work. As for the work put in at right tackle by Chukwuma Okorafor, the second-year man from Western Michigan continued to struggle in his bid to win the swing-tackle job, and he was beaten badly on the Chiefs’ lone sack on the night. Grade: B

Defensive Line
There were no standout performers on the defensive line, but Stephon Tuitt started his first game of the preseason, while Javon Hargrave started his second. Rookie Isaiah Buggs recorded two tackles, while Daniel McCullers, the veteran whose job he could possibly take, did nothing noteworthy. Grade: C

Linebackers
Rookie sensation Devin Bush was held out of the Chiefs’ game for unspecified reasons, but the linebackers continued to shine, especially the outside linebackers. Starting his first game of the preseason, Bud Dupree may have had the best night of his career–preseason or otherwise–as he recorded three quarterback hits, two sacks and a pass defensed. He was a handful all night, as was T.J. Watt, who seemed to be in the backfield often and recorded two quarterback hits. As for Tuzar Skipper, the undrafted rookie continued to push for a spot on the roster by posting a sack and recovering a fumble. Mark Barron started again at inside linebacker and looked decent in pass coverage. Tyler Matakevich also started and led the defense in tackles with seven. He didn’t look so hot in pass coverage, as he had a hard time keeping up with Chiefs tight end Deon Yelder on a 25-yard catch and run. Rookie Ulysees Gilbert III had another active night, posting four tackles. Grade: A

Secondary
Joe Haden did not start. Veteran free-agent pick-up Steven Nelson did and looked decent in coverage. Surprisingly, so did fourth-year man Artie Burns, who started at corner, opposite Nelson. Burns had one pass defensed and forced a fumble while making a tackle in run support. Mike Hilton didn’t dazzle in pass coverage, but he was his usual disruptive self while blitzing. Cam Sutton recorded two tackles–including one for loss–but was victimized in coverage on Kansas City’s lone touchdown. As for the safeties, Sean Davis got his first start of the preseason, posting two tackles and recovering a fumble. Jordan Dangerfield posted two tackles, while Kam Kelly had one. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell didn’t have any field goal attempts on the night, but he did convert on both of his extra point tries. Matthew Wright connected on his lone field goal try from 46 yards away.

Jordan Berry averaged 45.7 yards on three punts, while Ian Berryman averaged 36 on two, downing one inside the 20.

It was a quiet night for kick-returner Johnny Holton, who averaged 36 yards on two returns. The rookie Johnson nearly fumbled while fielding his first punt and only tallied 11 yards on three returns. As for Diontae Spencer, he again looked like a real find, returning two for 49 yards–including one for 38. Grade: B

Unsung Hero
It’s hard not to go with Artie Burns for the night he turned in.

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Is Terrell Edmunds the Forgotten Component To Steelers 2019 Defense?

Usually, when a former first-round pick is coming into his second season, the expectations are fairly high.

The player and his coaches are often bombarded with questions about his progress that offseason, and whether or not he’ll make that all-important first to second year leap.

With the completion of Steelers OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and mandatory mini-camp, one might assume Terrell Edmunds, the second-year strong safety out of Virginia Tech who the Steelers selected (many say, reached for) in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, has been receiving the media coverage befitting his profile and draft pedigree.

  • But, believe it or not, there hasn’t been a whole lot of hype surrounding  Terrell Edmunds second season as a member of the Steelers defense.

 

Terrell Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds first interception, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Terrell Edmunds returns his first interception at Tampa Bay. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Maybe that’s due to all the drama surrounding Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell early in the offseason and their subsequent departures from the organization. Maybe its because the national media decided to dump on Ben Roethlisberger (after all, if Josh Harris says Big Ben is bad, who are we to argue?)

Maybe it’s due to all of the hype surrounding inside linebacker Devin Bush, the Steelers’ latest first-round selection and one they traded away multiple draft choices in order to move up into the top 10 to take.

Maybe it’s because other players like T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden and even the much-maligned Bud Dupree are all deemed far more important to the resurgence of a defense that has been a question mark since 2010 and the glory days of Dick LeBeau.

However, last I checked, strong safety, a position that helps make up the back-end of a defense, is extremely important. And despite starting 15 games last year in the wake of the rash of injuries veteran safety Morgan Burnett battled through after signing on as a pretty important free-agent in the offseason, Terrell Edmunds didn’t exactly give anyone much confidence that he was close to becoming a special player.

Perhaps that’s unfair of me. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert selected Edmunds under the premise that he’d be able to contribute right away, but as a sort of Swiss Army Knife in the secondary where he would play multiple positions–including dime linebacker, where he would utilize his speed and athleticism to make up for the absence of Ryan Shazier, who suffered a horrific spinal injury the season before.

But, again, due to Burnett’s injury woes, Terrell Edmunds saw the majority of his playing-time at strong safety. Was there improvement from the start of the season to the end? Not noticeably. In-fact, the consensus seemed to be that Edmunds looked lost and out of position a good bit of the time. Whether that was due to inexperience or lack of ability remains to be seen.

The Steelers certainly hope it’s the former, because while Terrell Edmunds hasn’t been discussed much by the media and fans this offseason, it’s safe to assume the organization is certainly expecting a huge leap from him in 2019.

“The game has slowed down for him,” slot corner Mike Hilton said in a TribLive article by Joe Rutter last month that was almost as much about Edmunds’ “like” of a negative Tweet from Antonio Brown about Ben Roethlisberger than it was on improving on the field in Year 2. “He’s being more vocal, he’s making more plays. He’s a guy that’s really trying to up his game. He knows that, in the back end, a lot is going to be on his shoulders.”

Those are encouraging words from Mike Hilton. Strong safety is an important position on any defense, but especially a Steelers defense that was once built around the legendary Troy Polamalu.

  • Obviously, I’m not trying to compare Terrelll Edmunds to Troy Polamalu. Nor am I saying he has to play up to that level.

However, a noticeable improvement in his play from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign could go a long way towards making the Steelers defense better in 2019.

There may not be much hype surrounding Terrell Edmunds as he prepares for 2019, but that doesn’t mean he’s not being counted on to become a better football player.

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Grading the Steelers 2014 Draft Class: Overall Grade B+

The picks are in. Coaches have held their press conferences. New players have done their photo ops. The latest installment of the NFL draft is history. Now it is time to grade the Steelers draft class.

  • The Steelers 2014 Draft Class that is.

Instant draft grades are as understandable as they are ridiculous. The NFL Draft IS the day when teams alternatively forge Super Bowl rosters or cement status as pretenders instead of contenders. The desire to evaluate such a momentous in real time is logical.

  • But it can’t be done. Like wine, NFL draft classes need time to mature or sour.

Just how long is a matter of opinion. Certainly you can start drawing a lot of meaningful conclusions after 4 or even 3 years. But Chuck Noll always used to say it took five years, and if that was good enough for the Emperor, who am I to argue? With that, we gladly grade the Steelers 2014 Draft Class.

Ryan Shazier, Tyson Alualu, Matthew Stafford, Alualu Stafford Sack, Steelers vs Lions

Ryan Shazier gloats over Matthew Stafford after Tyson Alualu’s 4th down sack. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers 2014 1st Round Pick – Ryan Shazier

If ever you sought an argument against drafting for need, look no further than Ryan Shazier. By the time the 2014 NFL Draft rolled around, the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker wasn’t exactly strong, but it was solid. Certainly, the Steelers had more glaring needs (like cornerback.)

And they were right. Ryan Shazier’s overall career statistics (7 sacks, 7 interceptions, 7 forced fumbles) might look pedestrian, but what those numbers don’t show is the timeliness with which Shazier made those plays.

Whether it was forcing a fumble in the playoffs against the Bengals, grabbing an interception against the Colts or making another play at the right time, Ryan Shazier was broaching Troy Polamaluesque lay making ability before suffering the spinal contusion that has most likely ended his career. Grade: Grand Slam

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Steelers 2014 2nd Round Pick – Stephon Tuitt

When the Steelers picked Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round fate appeared to have stacked the deck against the rookie. The Steelers had a long history of drafting defensive lineman in the 2nd round that blossomed into busts, and they hadn’t had much luck of late in drafting players from Notre Dame.

  • But Stephon Tuitt proved that past performance doesn’t dictate future results.

Tuitt broke into the starting lineup as a rookie because of Brett Keisel’s injury and began making an immediate impact. He built on that in his “sophomore” year, was limited a bit in his next two years by injury, yet had his best year yet in 2018. Grade: Grand Slam.

Steelers 2014 3rd Round Pick – Dri Archer

What a double whammy. This is one that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomiln wanted back two times over. In the 2013 NFL Draft the Steelers traded away their 2014 3rd round pick to move up to draft Shamarko Thomas, in part because they expected to get a 3rd round compensatory pick in 2014.

  • They got that pick and promptly used it to draft Dri Archer, the fastest man in the NFL 2014 Draft.

The Steelers thought to use Dri Archer as a utility back while working him in as a wide receiver. They also wanted him to return kicks. It quickly became clear he could do none of the above. Dri Archer was so bad that when Le’Veon Bell suffered an injury before the playoffs, the Steelers had to go out and sign Ben Tate off of the couch. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2014 4th Round Pick – Martavis Bryant

Martavis Bryant is an interesting pick to grade. Clearly he is one player who never lived up to his potential, yet as a 4th round pick, with all of his issues, Martavis Bryant delivered decent value.

  • As both a rookie and in his second year, Martavis Bryant made some game-breaking plays.

After coming back from his suspension, Martavis Bryant didn’t make many game breaking plays but started making critical 3rd down catches late in the season. And, while this shouldn’t impact a draft grade, strictly speaking, the Steelers actually got a 3rd round pick for Martavis Bryant, and one that they used to draft Mason Rudolph, a potential starter.

Not bad value for a 4th rounder that you essentially took a flyer on. Grade: Quality Value Pick.

Steelers 2014 5th Round Pick – Wesley Johnson

The Steelers drafted Wesley Johnson in the 5th round of the 2014 NFL Draft, and the young man made the roster, which was no small accomplishment for an offensive line which was already becoming deep. Unfortunately, injuries force the Steelers to cut Johnson with an eye towards putting him on the practice squad.

  • The New York Jets had other ideas and claimed him off of waivers.

Since then, Wesley Johnson has appeared in 53 NFL games and started 24. Not bad for a 5th rounder. Grade: Farm Team

Steelers 2014 6th Round Pick – Jordan Zumwalt

Sometimes injuries end NFL careers before they get started. Such is the case with Jordan Zumwalt. The Steelers put him in injured reserve during preseason of his rookie year. They designated him injured/waived in 2015, but took him back when no one else claimed him. They gave him another shot in 2016, but ended up cutting him.

It is hardly fair to label someone like that a Bust, but the Steelers didn’t get any value out of this pick. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2014 6th Round Pick – Daniel McCullers

At first glance, a guy as big as Daniel McCullers shouldn’t be able to fail on the football field. Yet Daniel McCullers saw a decent amount of action as a rookie, and then saw his snap count dwindle year after year.

The Steelers surprised by resigning Daniel McCullers in 2018, and then again in 2019. Still, it is hard to label Daniel McCullers NFL career as anything other than what it has been. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2014 7th Round Pick — Rob Blanchflower

Labeling a 7th round draft picks as a “bust” is a bit harsh. Yet the career paths of Brett Keisel and Kelvin Beachum serve as a reminder 7th round picks can become good players. Rob Blanchflower earned a spot on the Steelers practice squad in 2014, and got invited back to camp in 2015 but got cut at the end of summer. Grade: Bust

Overall Grade for the Steelers 2014 Draft

In 2014 the Steelers had the 15th draft position, tying 2007 for the best draft positioning Pittsburgh has had since 2004, when they picked Ben Roethlisberger. Just like 2007, the Steelers made excellent picks in the first two rounds, and made a solid pick in the 5th round, albeit one that other teams are benefiting.

Their 4th round pick had issues, but delivered value. And their 6th round pick is still in the league. Overall Grade: B+

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