Sack Attack: Steelers Preseason Sack Spree Shatters (Recent) Precedents

Let’s begin, because it is important to remain firmly grounded: Its only preseason.

It IS only preseason, and the first game at that, which, in our current era of NFL football, means that the players who take vast majority of snaps will be lucky if they spend a day on an NFL practice squad. But of all of the statistics taken from the Steelers preseason win over the Giants, one sticks out:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers defenders sacked New York Giants quarterbacks 7 times.
TJ Watt, Josh Johnson, TJ Watt Josh Johnson, Steelers preseason Giants

TJ Watt drops Giants Josh Johnson for his second preseasons sack. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Tribune Review

Sure, “It’s only preseason,” but that IS part of the point. Consider this:

  • In the ‘14, ‘15, and ‘16 exhibition openers, Pittsburgh never registered more than one sack
  • 6 sacks – represented the Steelers cumulative sack totals in both ’14 and ’16 preseason campaigns
  • In 7 of 13 preseason games since ’14, the Steelers have either been held to one or zero sacks

These numbers only go back three years, because beyond that it gets hard to find preseason statistics. But it is a safe bet to say that the Steelers lack of pressure on the quarterback on those games was met with the ‘its only preseason’ mantra. But no matter how much you try to ratchet down the enthusiasm, the Steelers pass rush and an impressive evening.

Perhaps Steelers first round draft pick TJ Watt’s efforts are the most indicative of why. Here’s a look at Watt’s first sack:

https://twitter.com/steelers/status/896148169368543234

And now a look at his second:

Mike Tomlin, never one know to praise rookies, threw out some cold water on the way into the locker room at half time reminding everyone that “Those were probably the two easiest sacks of his career.” Fair enough.

That’s why you need to consider why they came so easily. Consider the analysis of “Heinzsight” who commented on Jim Wexell’s Steel City Insider site:

First sack, I thought was a picture perfect four man rush by all…. Heyward was the one that really made it go, collapsing a double team right into the QBs lap. But Watt also did a great job squeezing the OT back on a speed/power rush (which sounds like what Harrison was riding him to do last week). All 4 really squeezed the pocket, but you still have to work free to make the sack, and Watt did. Nothing heroic or mind blowing, but a very good rush by all.

One of Kevin Butler’s credos since replacing Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator has been “Get there with four.” And while the Steelers defense has improved its pass rush since Dick LeBeau “resigned,” they haven’t been “getting their with four.”

  • TJ Watt didn’t do anything special to get to the quarterback on either play.

And that’s the beauty of it. TJ Watt was able to get to the quarterback because Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave were doing theirs. Arthur Moats also notched 3 sacks, and while Mike Tomlin likened that to an 11th grader playing JV, Moats dominated when he was supposed to. That’s good and its characteristic of championship football.

Another notable sack came from training camp stand out Mike Hilton, who looks to be delivering the bang that his roommate from Ole Miss, Senquez Golson hasn’t been able to:

For the record, the Steelers 7th sack of the night came from Farrington Huguenin .

Yes, “Its only preseason.” But seven sacks on a night when neither James Harrison nor Bud Dupree nor Anthony Chickillo nor Ben Roethlisberger (ok, he doesn’t play defense) suited up is a statistic that demands respect now, even if the number will be long forgotten by the times the games count for real.

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Steelers 2017 Salary Cap is Offensively Lopsided. And That’s a Good Thing.

Steelers 2017 training camp starts in 34 days and perhaps the only bit of football drama that will pass between now and then is whether the franchise comes to a long-term agreement with Le’Veon Bell. But even if they don’t one thing is certain:

  • At 101 million dollars, the Steelers will field the NFL’s most expensive offense.

As Steelers Wire’s Simon Chester details, seven of the Steelers top 10 salary cap hits will come on offense. To the naked eye, spending over 60% of your salary cap on half of your team might seem like an unfavorable imbalance.

  • But its not, and in fact shows that things are, in many respects, going according to plan.
Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Dolphins playoffs, Steelers 2017 salary cap offense

Ben Roethlisberger throws to Le’Veon Bell in Steelers 2016 playoff win vs. Miami. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Zimbo

The Steelers 2017 salary cap structure follows the franchise’s rebuilding effort that has been in the works since Super Bowl XLV. Salary cap mechanics can get tricky, but you don’t need to be an accounting or math wiz to understand what’s going on here.

All of the Steelers projected starters on offense, outside of Jesse James, Roosevelt Nix, Martavis Bryant, and Alejandro Villanueva are playing on their second or third contracts. And by the time the season starts, Villanueva might have his own long term deal.

  • On defense the difference is stark.

The only projected starters playing on second contracts are James Harrison, Cameron Heyward and Mike Mitchell. William Gay, Coty Sensabaugh and Arthur Moats are also well removed from their rookie contracts, but their contracts are relatively cap friendly.

As soon as the 2011 lockout ended the Steelers giving second (or third) contracts to Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Willie Colon. Management invested heavily in keeping the core of players together who’d brought Pittsburgh into 3 Super Bowls in six years.

  • Unfortunately, the plan failed.

But, for as frustrating as 8-8 seasons might have been, the Steelers invested wisely in building their offensive line to protect Ben Roethlisberger and in populating their skill positions with weapons to complement Antonio Brown. It is safe to say that by 2014, the Steelers had enough championship caliber talent on offense to make them viable contenders.

That’s a question that Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler’s boys can only answer on the field – as spreadsheet calculations will never drive Tom Brady into the turf on third and long.

But the key to winning in the salary cap era is to get the most bang for your salary cap buck, and one of the best ways to do that is to draft players who can start delivering that bang while they’re still playing on their rookie contracts. Cam Heyward did that. Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt have done that. Sean Davis, Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave showed signs that they can do that. God, willing T.J. Watt and Cam Sutton will do that.

Their ability to keep doing that this season forms the key part of any road map that leads Lombardi Number Seven to Pittsburgh in 2017.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line: Low-Moderate

Getting “Younger and stronger” on defensive line was one of Mike Tomlin’s stated objectives when the Steelers 2008 off season began. As it was, the Steelers would continue to open with the same starting threesome for the next 3 seasons, and it wasn’t until the beginning of the 2015 season that Steelers defensive line had been completely renewed.

The question heading into the 2017 NFL Draft is whether the Steelers want to stand pat or continue that renewal process.

Stephon Tuitt, Tyrod Taylor, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Defensive line

Tyrod Taylor is road kill in Stephon Tuitt’s wake. Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via Bleacher Report

Steelers Depth Chart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starters

Two studs in the form of defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt bookend the Steelers defensive line.

During his first two years with the Steelers Cam Heyward doubters were easy to find, but in 2013 he beat out Ziggy Hood for the starting job and since then has established himself as one of the best defensive ends in the league. Cameron Heyward has 25 sacks, 18 passes defensed and a pair of forced fumbles and fumble recoveries to his name, but staistics do not do the man justice.

Week in and week out, Cameron Heyward makes the types of plays that don’t always show up on the stat sheet – unless you count the Steelers keeping more points on the board than their opponents.

Injuries to Brett Keisel thrust Stephon Tuitt into the starting line up late in the 2014 season, and no one has looked back since. With Cameron Heyward out for the second half of 2016, Stephon Tuitt stepped up as a leader of the unit, and despite Cam’s absence, the Steelers defense improved during the latter part of the season.

If you’re surprised to discover that Javon Hargrave didn’t start the entire year, so was I. He had to wait until week to get his first start, but held on to the job from that point in the season, and established himself along side Artie Burns and Sean Davis as one of the three rookies who made an immediate impact to improve the Steelers defense.

Like his fellow rookies, something clicked for Hargrave during the second half of the season, as Hargrave got his first sack and first fumble recovery in the Steelers road win over the Cleveland Browns. Hargrave got another sack in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts, and also got to Tom Brady early in the AFC Championship game loss.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Finding depth on the Steelers defensive line has been a challenge for Pittsburgh, forcing Johnny Mitchell give his starters more snaps than he would like.

  • In 2016 the Steelers defensive line took a step in the right direction, as L.T. Walton stepped up in Cam Heyward’s absence as did Ricardo Mathews.

The Steelers have taken another step in that direction by signing free agent Tyson Alualu, a former first round pick out of Jacksonville who can play either at defensive end or a nose tackle.

Tyson Alualu’s arrival might spell the end for backup nose tackle Daniel McCullers. The Shady Tree offers and imposing physical presence, standing at 6’7” 352 pounds and his snap count percentage did jump from 9.5% in 2015 to 17.4% in 2016, which is good, but given all of the injuries the Steelers suffered on the defensive line, you’d expect to see McCullers getting even more playing time.

Injuries forced practice squad player John Maxey into the action in late in 2016 and Maxley did his part to help prove Mike Tomlin’s “The Standard is the Standard.”

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Defensive Line

The Steelers quest to rebuild their defensive line took longer than expected, although part of that is due to the longevity of Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton (although whiffing on Ziggy Hood didn’t help the cause.)Steelers 2017 Draft Needs defensive line

  • Yet, even after the Steelers found three competent starters on defensive line, they struggled to back them up.

Time was that when the Steelers had to play without either Cameron Heyward or Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers run defense became a sieve and the team lost. That fact seemed to doom the Steelers chances after Cameron Heyward went on injured reserve in 2016.

However, the rest of the defensive line responded and not only survived but thrived despite Cam Heyward’s absence. That shows that the Pittsburgh Steelers have real depth on their defensive line, and the unit got deeper with the addition of Alualu Tyson.

Let’s be clear, in the contemporary NFL, the difference between an outside linebacker and a defensive end is getting blurred by the concept of “Edge Rusher” and that’s not even taking to account that the Steelers depend on their nickel package, which includes four down lineman, all the more frequently.

  • Edge Rusher” is clearly a Steelers priority, and if they find someone who falls into that category who happens to play defensive line, then the rating you’re about to read is rendered moot.

However, if we’re confining our conversation to conventional 3-4 defensive lineman then the Steelers depth chart is as solid as it has been during the Mike Tomlin era, and Steelers draft need at defensive line can be considered Low-Moderate.

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Steelers Free Agent Signings of Hunter, Davis Sensabaugh & Tyson Alualu Offer Insurance

Ever notice how a certain album produces a few hit singles, while another just sort of hits you with one nice song after another, until you look up in February and realize it was just nominated for a Grammy?

When it comes to the NFL’s annual free-agent frenzy, the Pittsburgh Steelers never have any hit singles, let alone a few. This year was no exception, as big-time name after big-time name went off the proverbial “big board,” while Pittsburgh just sat back and made its entire fan base feel unfilled. (The re-signings of backup quarterback Landry Jones and journeyman tight end David Johnson did nothing to satiate anyone’s appetite.)

Nearly a week past, before Pittsburgh made news again (kind of), by agreeing to terms with both cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and running back/return specialist Knile Davis. 

Saving the best for last, the Steelers came to terms with veteran defensive lineman Tyson Alualu on a two-year deal for $6 million.

Senquez Golson, Senquez Golson injury, cotty sensabaugh

The Steelers signed free agent Cotty Sensabaugh as insurance that Senquez Golson can’t provide. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Actually, the addition of Tyson Alualu to an already talented defensive line was seen as a sound move by Pittsburgh, a signing that could pay huge dividends this season, as Alualu will no doubt be an upgrade over the likes of Ricardo Mathews and Cam Thomas, two free-agent signings who provided depth along the defensive line to varying degrees of success in recent years.

  • With Tyson Alualu acting as the cherry on top of the cake, Pittsburgh’s current free-agent crop now doesn’t look so bad, and you kind of get an idea of what the organization’s goal was from the start.

The 2017 free-agency period wasn’t about the splash move (even if Dont’a Hightower was wined and dined before he decided to stay with the Patriots); it wasn’t even necessarily about finding a veteran who may have not been seen as very splashy, but one would have started at a position of need.

  • No, if these four signings are any indication, the Steelers were driven by providing insurance in a few key areas.

Despite losing star defensive end Cameron Heyward to a season-ending injury on November 13, Keith Butler‘s young and often struggling defense showed great improvement over the last seven games and into the playoffs. But how much better off would the unit have been had it been able to plug in a defensive lineman of Tyson Alualu’s pedigree down-the-stretch?

The 10th pick of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Jaguars, Alualu started 88 games during his seven seasons in Jacksonville. While he hasn’t quite lived up to his lofty draft-status, he is clearly a talent upgrade over the likes of Mathews and Thomas and should strengthen Pittsburgh’s defensive line rotation. And in the likely scenario that Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave or Heyward has to miss time due to injuries next season, the gap from from starter to reserve shouldn’t be as great as it was in 2016.

After the Tennessee Titans made him the 34th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, Hunter, 25, has bounced around the league.

  • Justin Hunter averaged just over 22 receptions a season, before catching 10 in 2016.

With 78 career receptions for just over 1,300 yards, Hunter has fallen well short of his lofty pre-draft potential that included a 6’4″, 200-pound frame and 4.4 speed. But if we’re going to speak of pedigree, however, fairness demands that we acknowledge that Justin Hunter has never had a quarterback with Ben Roethlisberger‘s skill-set throwing to him; maybe if he had, his potential would have been fleshed out just a bit more.

Martavis Bryant,

Martavis Bryant reviews a play on a tablet during the 2015 season. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today via stillcurtain.com

Four of Hunter’s 10 catches went for touchdowns in 2016, so maybe he could benefit from now finding himself on a roster with not only Roethlisberger but some of the NFL’s best offensive weapons in Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant.

In a worst-case scenario, if Martavis Bryant, if he doesn’t find himself back on a football field next year, and Sammie Coates can’t recover from the finger ailments that derailed what started out as a promising sophomore season in 2016, Hunter should be a much more talented alternative than the likes of Cobi Hamilton

As for Knile Davis and Coty Sensabaugh, while the Steelers would obviously be in a bad way if either had to start many games at their respective positions in 2017, they should also provide some decent insurance,

Knile Davis, for example, may never be more than competition for Fitzgerald Toussaint, but if he does win the job as the team’s third running back, this will open the door to providing his real value as a kickoff returner.

With 1,960 career return yards on his resume, Knile Davis should be a significant upgrade over Toussaint, who averaged just 21.3 yards per kickoff return last season.

Finally, Coty Sensabaugh may not have been the veteran cornerback Steelers fans were hoping for–far from it–but he did start 15 games for the Titans two years ago.

  • Besides, the Steelers secondary may not need a splashy free-agent signing to see an upgrade.

If Artie Burns and Sean Davis improve over their already rather impressive  rookie seasons, and if Senquez Golson finally sees a football field in 2017 and ultimately performs like his 2015 second round pedigree, Coty Sensabaugh will act as the best insurance policy: one you never need to cash in on.

No, the Steelers didn’t make any big-time signings, but their free-agent class seems a bit more impressive when you examine it for it what really is.

Some nice insurance.

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Steelers Sign Tyson Alualu. Has Johnny Mitchell Found the Coveted “4th Lineman” for His Rotation?

After remaining relatively inactive during the first wave of free agency, Pittsburgh as been busy this week signing three players into days with the franchise’s latest acquisition seeing the Steelers sign Tyson Alualu the free agent defensive lineman from Jacksonville to a two year contract.

  • During the 2010 NFL Draft the Jacksonville Jaguars surprised the rest of the league when they drafted Tyson Alualu with the 10th overall pick.

Since then Tyson Alualu has had a solid, but hardly spectacular career, although it should be noted that he did make several “All Rookie teams” in 2010, per reporting by Jim Wexell on Steel City Insider.

Tyson Alualu, Steelers 2017 free agents, Steelers defensive line

Steelers reserve defensive lineman Tyson Alualu in Pittsburgh after arriving as a free agent. Photo Credit: Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette

With seven seasons under his belt, Tyson Alualu provides a perfect example of a player who may not have lived up to his lofty draft status, but is very far from being a bust. He’s never missed a game due to injury, he brings the Steelers 88 games of starting experience, 17.5 sacks, and offers position flexibility with the ability to play either nose tackle or defensive end.

All of this must make for pure music in the ears of Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell

Does Johnny Mitchell Finally Have his Coveted 4th Lineman?

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell has been with the team since the fall of 1994, having replace Steve Furness as part of Bill Cowher‘s coaching purge following the 1993 season. During Johnny Mitchell’s watch and, particularly during the Kevin Colbert era, the Steelers defensive line has been a model of stability.

While each of those starters played a critical role in securing Lombardi Trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII, their impact and importance of their understudies cannot be under stated. Johnny Mitchell’s system relies heavily on rotating defensive lineman in and out throughout the game.

  • But for Mitchell’s system to be effective, the Steelers can’t suffer a drop of in quality of play when the starter has taken a breather.

For a long time, players like Chris Hoke, Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason were good enough to allow Mitchell rotate Keisel, Smith and Hampton in out as needed. In his two years in Pittsburgh, Al Woods looked he was growing into that same role but the Steelers stint in salary cap purgatory in prevented the team from keeping Al Woods in Pittsburgh in 2014.

They signed Cam Thomas instead, who was decidedly not up to the role. Daniel McCullers whom the Steelers drafted during the 2014 NFL Draft has flashed, but has yet to show he can take that role. Ricardo Mathews performed well after Cam Hewyard was lost for the season and so did L.T. Walton.

  • But the Steelers appear to have found an upgrade from both men in Tyson Alualu.

During the heyday of Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel’s tenures, Johnny Mitchell quipped – not altogether jokingly – the he would retire when this trio began their “Life’s Work.” The arrival of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and most recently Javon Hargrave has provided Mitchell with another fearsome threesome.

Tyson Alualu just might provide the type of talent and stability that Mitchell needs to get his rotation humming.

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Why Steelers Should Let Free Agent Ricardo Mathews Walk & Seek Depth in 2017 Draft

Defensive end Ricardo Mathews was the quintessential journeyman free-agent when the Steelers signed him to a one-year veteran minimum contract for $760,000 last March.

One year later, it appears as nothing’s changed. Just days away from free-agency, Mathews will soon be free to shop his services to other teams. Will he do so, or will he set up some roots in Pittsburgh, provided Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Johnny Mitchell want him back….?

Ricardo Mathews, Ricardo Mathews free agent

Ricardo Mathews lines up in the 2016 Steelers road win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of Ricardo Mathews Steelers Career

Mathews was a seventh round pick by the Colts in the 2010 NFL Draft; after making the team out of training camp, he initially set up roots in Indianapolis, where he remained for four years. Mathews started six games as a member of the Colts, recording five sacks and 67 tackles.

In 2014, Mathews elected to sign with the Texans as a free-agent, but was waived and never appeared in any regular season games for Houston. However, Mathews found a home with the Chargers that same year and remained in San Diego through the 2015 season, before signing that aforementioned one-year deal with the Steelers.

The Steelers brought Ricardo Mathews to Pittsburgh to replace/upgrade the position previously held by Cam Thomas, who’d also come from the San Diego Chargers.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mathews 

Teams covet depth for a reason, and when star defensive end Cameron Heyward played in only seven games in 2016 due to multiple injuries, you saw why depth is so important.

In Ricardo Mathews, 29, the Steelers had a veteran player who started seven games for the Chargers the year before; they were forced to lean on that experience, as he started five games a year ago. While he only recorded eight tackles and one sack during the season, Mathews appeared in all 16 games in 2016 and played a bigger role than anyone could have anticipated.

During the Steelers embarrassing October loss against the Miami Dolphins where, Jay Ajayi ran like Walter Peyton in his prime, it appeared that the Dolphins had been targeting Ricardo Mathews.

Yet, the Steelers run defense improved during the final nine games of 2016 and that only happens if Ricardo Mathews is pulling his weight.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ricardo Mathews 

While Ricardo Mathews did play a fairly big role in 2016, he obviously didn’t make the splash plays that fellow defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt, rookie Javon Hargrave and Came Heyward are capable of. That was to be expected, of course. After all, if a journeyman defensive lineman was capable of making the same types of splash plays as superstars and promising rookies, he wouldn’t be a journeyman defensive lineman.

I believe Rotoworld summed up Mathews’ pedigree quite nicely, even before his arrival in Pittsburgh:

“A career reserve, Mathews played 525 ineffective snaps for the Chargers last season. He’s just a body for the Steelers, one who faces an uphill climb to crack the 53-man roster.”

A year later, can anyone suggest that Ricardo Mathews is anything more? Sure, he was an upgrade over Cam Thomas but so what? Keith Willis or Kevin Henry could probably come out of retirement and offer an improvement over Cam Thomas.

  • OK, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but its probably not to suggest that a health Brett Keisel could pull himself up off the couch to contribute more than Cam Thomas did.

L.T. Walton and Johnny Maxey showed they can play giving the Steelers cheaper and younger alternatives to Ricardo Mathews.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ricardo Mathews 

While Mathews did crack the 53-man roster a year ago and proved to be more than just a body for the Steelers, fact is, he’ll be 30 by the start of training camp. And in-addition to fighting the likes of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave for playing time, youngsters Daniel McCullers, L.T. Walton and Johnny Maxey are also in the mix.

While it would be nice to have a player with Ricardo Mathews’ experience on the roster in-case of injury, L.T. Walton and Daniel McCullers have now gained enough experience that they should be ready to step in and provide reasonable depth at a moment’s notice.

The Steelers would be wise to let Ricardo Mathews explore the free agent market, while looking to add defensive line depth through the draft.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2016 Season

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his students make some impressive strides during the past year, but nonetheless sees that they’re still not ready to weather the pass-fail nature of a full NFL playoff run, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2016 Season.

Le'Veon Bell, Ben Roetlisberger, Steelers vs Bills, Steelers regular season rushing record

Le’Veon Bell in his record setting performance vs. the Bills. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
By any measure, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played a fine season in 2016. Statistically speaking, Ben Roethlisberger’s quarterback rating was a one point above what it had been a year ago. But Big Ben’s 2016 campaign is not without fault. Ben Roethlisberger ‘s struggles on the road have become alarming, and his play in the later two rounds of the playoffs, while not bad, fell well short of outstanding. To be fair, Roethlisberger spent most of the season playing with a depleted wide receiver crops. Landry Jones played respectably in relief of Roethlisberger, and impressed with his overtime win. Grade: B+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2016 season

Running Backs
While this conversation doesn’t begin and end with Le’Veon Bell, it perhaps should. In playing just 13 games, Le’Veon Bell affirmed his status as one of the game’s best two way threats, broke both the Steelers single game regular season and playoff rushing record and teased at reviving the concept of “franchise running back.” DeAngelo Williams played well in relief of Bell, although he did miss most of the second half of the season due to injury. Fitzgerald Toussaint Only got 14 carries, but looked respectable. Roosevelt Nix role in paving the way for Bell is under appreciated outside of Pittsburgh. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
This was an interesting year for Steelers tight ends. When he finally got on the field, Ladarius Green showed that he had “field flipping” capability, even if his advertised the straight away speed was slower than advertised. Unfortunately, Green only made it into 6 games. In his absence, the sum of Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, and David Johnson performance in a “tight end by committee” situation was greater than the whole of its parts. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
How good is Antonio Brown? How about this? You take away any hint of a legitimate number 2 wide receiver, as well as a must respect dependable tight end and he still makes over 100 catches and brings in two more touchdowns than he did a year ago. Oh, yeah, and he consummated one of the most dramatic comebacks in franchise history on Christmas with a truly incredible play.

Unfortunately, Antonio Brown didn’t get a lot of help from his fellow wide outs. “Disappointment” is the only way to classify Sammie Coates second season. Coates was supposed to make us forget about Martavis Bryant, but instead reminded us of Limas Sweed.

Eli Rogers performed extremely well, although his fumble in the AFC Championship hurt the team. Ditto Cobi Hamilton. The former practice squad barnstormer came up with several clutch catches during the year, and Demarcus Ayers did the same when he finally saw action late in the year.

This improvement is both impressive and promising with an eye towards the future. However the Report Card grades on performance and results, and the Steelers didn’t have a Super Bowl caliber wide receiving corps this year. Grade: C+

Limas Sweed, Evan Oglesby, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers Ravens AFC Championship, Limas Sweed drop

Limas Sweeds drops the ball during the 2008 Steeler AFC Championship game against Baltimore. Photo Credit: Keith Spakocic, AP via NY Daily News

Offensive Line
After years of plug and patch the Steelers cemented their 4th lineman to a long term deal when they inked David DeCastro to his new contract. The Steelers 2016 offensive line did an excellent job in what is its most important task at this point in the Tomlin era – to protect Ben Roethlisberger. And the synergy between Le’Veon Bell waiting for holes to open and the line opening them was something special to behold. Still, there were times when the line struggled to open running lanes, namely on the road vs. Baltimore and of course at the goal line in the AFC Championship and their grade must reflect that. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
Let’s begin by ordering some crow with a side of humble pie. When Cameron Heyward went on injured reserve, this site declared, “Game Over.” Fortunately, that’s not what happened. Instead, led by Stephon Tuitt, everyone on the defensive line stepped up their play a notch. Nine games into the season, the Steelers defensive line looked incapable of stopping anyone. By the season’s end, the Steelers were holding feature backs to negative yardage for entire halves.

The Steelers defensive line didn’t put up a lot of sexy statistics, but they delivered time and time again by making the types of plays that don’t show up on stat sheets, but win games. Grade: B

James Harrison, Art Rooney II

Art Rooney II and James Harrison share a post-game handsake. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Linebackers
In 2016 the Steelers linebackers returned to their status as the strength of the defense. This resurgence was fueled by strong second halves by Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier, who seemed to make splash play after splash play. Bud Dupree got a late start to 2016 thanks to an injury, but Dupree came in second on the team in sacks despite only playing in 7 games and starting in four.

  • James Harrison of course came off the bench to start the Steelers final 7 games, and the improvement of the Steelers defense with Harrison in the lineup full time is by no means coincidental.

If Harrison did provide a spark to the pass rush, and made smothering tackles in run defense, his days of covering receivers downfield should be at an end.

Vince Williams, Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats all provided valuable support as backups, but the unit was clearly better when all four starters played together. And that’s not something that’s been true of the linebacking corps for a long time. While this group made a lot of progress in 2016, their struggles in the AFC Championship game show they still have another leap yet to make. Grade: B+

Secondary
The secondary was the Steelers weak link in 2015 and arguably has been a weak link for some time before. Management gambled and essentially re-wrote the depth chart, taking a huge gamble in the process. Artie Burns and Sean Davis were both at the center of this gamble. While Sean Davis was the more consistent player who was playing like an absolute stud by year’s end, Artie Burns also made impressive strides as they year went on.

Ross Cockrell likewise vindicated the faith that the coaches and front office showed in making him a starter, and Mike Mitchell didn’t provide as many splash plays as he did in 2016, but provided veteran leadership and stability. William Gay offered steady play, but it is fair to ask whether he’s losing a step.

The Steelers secondary was no longer a liability in 2016, but they remain powerless to prevent Tom Brady from having his way with them, and until that changes they must continue to improve. Grade: C+

Special Teams
Special teams coach Danny Smith is everyone’s favorite scapegoat in Steelers Nation. While the Steelers special teams did leave a lot to be desired at times, all of the blame doesn’t necessarily fall on Danny Smith’s shoulders.

Chris Boswell provided another solid year of place kicking. Whether it was kicking field goals in the snow at Buffalo or in windy Cincinnati or on the road in Kansas City, Boswell was Mr. reliable and arguably the MVP on two of those 3 contests. His counterpart Jordan Berry had a solid year, but failed to do anything to stand out.

  • The Steelers kicking and kick coverage units were the bigger area of concern.

While the NFL is trying to eliminate kick returns, the Steelers kick returners routinely trade 15 yard returns for 25 yard touchbacks. And while the Steelers avoided getting burned by a punt or a kickoff returned for a touchdown returned long return this season, there were too many close calls.

  • On the positive side, the Steelers special teams defended several on-sides kick attempts; however, 2007 remains the last time the Steelers executed an on sides kick of their own.
  • The Steelers also got caught on two fake punts.

In all fairness, the Steelers special teams rose to the occasion in the playoffs against the Chiefs, but overall their play during the course of the season was too inconsistent, and rarely “special.” Grade: C-

Coaching
One of the things that frequently gets lost in the shuffle is that Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley had far fewer weapons to work with in 2016 than he had at his disposal in 2015. Nonetheless, the Steelers offense still finished in the top ten in terms of both scoring and yards.

Todd Haley drew fire for not relying on Le’Veon Bell enough against Miami in the regular season and the perhaps for trying to rely too heavily on him in the first matchup against the Ravens.

  • But the Steelers offensive found the right balance during the second half of the season.

On defense, Keith Butler’s second full season did not start well, as the Steelers struggled at times, and at the season’s mid-point, Butler’s defense was drawing unfavorable comparisons to Tony Dungy’s 1988 Steelers defensive squad, which set franchise records for futility.

  • But during the second half of the season, the Steelers defense began playing a new tune.

And if the inserting of James Harrison and Bud Dupree helped improve performance, the absence of Cam Heyward can hardly be considered a plus. The bigger change was that Butler got his players to focus on doing their job and, equally importantly, he got production out of his 3 rookies. By the season’s end the Steelers defense was one of the best at sacking the quarterback, and also improved in creating turnovers.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers locker room

Mike Tomlin addresses the Steelers. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

By his own admission, Mike Tomlin won’t be considered a success until his team raises Lombardi Number 7. Fair enough. It is also fair to criticize Tomlin for the team’s lackluster performance in Philadelphia and also for the loss at Miami.

Those are the types of losses that can sink a season. But Mike Tomlin kept his team from riding the emotional rollercoaster, and they went on a 9 game winning streak, with the team seemingly getting stronger with each win.

Trying to stack two Super Bowl eras on top of each other is very hard to do, and the Steelers still have a ways to go before they accomplish that goal. But the Steelers took another step closer in 2016. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
Losing a player like Heath Miller is never easy, and it becomes all the more difficult if the high profile free agent you sign to replace him only manages to play 6 games.

But the Steelers transition away from the Heath Miller era at tight end was largely successful, and Jesse James was a big reason for that. James’ blocking improved as the season wore on, and he found himself making several critical catches for the team during December and January, and for that Jesse James wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2016 season.

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Struggling for Answers: Steelers Report Card for (latest) AFC Championship Loss to Patriots

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who watched his students soar through the second semester and on through the first 2 preliminary exams only to come crashing down to earth during the 3rd prequalification exam, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the latest AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Rogers, Steelers report card patriots AFC Championship, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship

The Steelers simply lacked answer in their AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
For the record, Ben Roethlisberger threw 47 times and connected on 31 of them, for one touchdown and one interception. Given the injury to Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger was forced to take a lot on to his shoulders, and the force of his leadership was clearly evident on the field. Likewise, at one point Roethlisberger 13 consecutive passes.

  • Yet there were two other plays early in the game where the wide receiver was forced to play defensive back.

It is true that Ben Roethlisberger didn’t get much help from his receivers as he had at least two drops in the end zone. There were other catchable balls that receivers failed to land. While that’s not his fault, the game called for Ben Roethlisberger go the extra mile, and deliver passes that made his wide outs look better than they were. Ben didn’t quite reach that level, and it was what would have been required of Roethlisberger for a win. Grade: B-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers vs patriots,

Running Backs
Injuries limited Le’Veon Bell to 6 carries meaning he never got a chance to get revving. The Steelers plan had been to ride Bell as far as he would take them, and that wasn’t very far in the playoffs. DeAngelo Williams stepped in and ripped off some impressive runs early, but was ineffective after that, although he didn’t have help from the line in the Red Zone. DeAngelo Williams did score the team’s first touchdown and he caught all 7 passes thrown his way, which raises his mark. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
David Johnson had 1 catch for one yard, while Jesse James had another strong playoff performance bring in 5 passes for 48 yards and almost scoring a touchdown. He also did well in the blocking game. While there’s not much to fault the Steelers tight ends, the group also didn’t do anything to stand out when the outcome remained in doubt. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
The Patriots did their best to bottle up Antonio Brown and kept him under 100 yards. Still, Brown caught 7 of 9 balls thrown his way, and showed off some excellent cornerbacks on one of the incomplitions that came his way. Moreover, Brown played with the passion and demeanor of a champion.

  • Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of his counterparts.

Sammie Coates had a horrible game, dropping the first pass the Steelers threw in a play that could have set the tone for the entire game. Coates also dropped another catchable pass in the end zone. Eli Rogers caught 7 of 9 passes, but his fumble essentially put the game out of reach for the Steelers. Inexcusable in a playoff game. Cobi Hamilton too had a case of the butter fingers, and negated his own touchdown pass by stepping out of bounds. A rookie mistake, and a costly one. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
On the positive side, the Steelers offensive line kept Ben Roethlisberger spotless for almost the entire game. However, the offensive line’s run blocking, especially at the goal line at the end of the first half, left a lot to be desired. The Steelers could have sent a resounding message by punching it in before the second half, instead the offense traveled backwards.

Victory in this game would have meant the line giving a little something extra. Something the line didn’t have. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave dropped Tom Brady on New England’s second 3rd down in what could have been a tone setter, but that was the high water mark of the defensive line’s achievement. The Steelers did contain LeGarrette Blount, but the Patriots overpowered them on Blount’s rugby-like 18 yard maul. The Steelers didn’t blitz much, which left it to the line to get pressure Stephon Tuitt hit Brady once, but that was it. L.T. Walton and Hargrave all had tackles for losses, but the line ultimately didn’t deliver. Grade: C-

Linebackers
For the record, Lawrence Timmons led the team in tackles with 14 and dropped two people behind the line of scrimmage. Ryan Shazier was next with 7, followed by Bud Dupree with 5, James Harrison with 4 and Jarvis Jones with 3.

  • None of those numbers mask the fact that this was a rough day for the Steelers linebackers.

The unit didn’t pressure Brady and couldn’t defend his short passes. The Steelers needed more from what is the strongest unit of their depth chart and didn’t get it. Grade: F

Robert Golden, Chis Hogan 1st touchdown Steelers AFC Championship, Chris Hogan, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship

Chris Hogan scores a touchdown as Robert Golden, well, watches. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Secondary
Sean Davis had a garbage time sack and a hit on Tom Brady. Artie Burns had 6 tackles including a very physical one which sent his man back several yards. But the real number for the Steelers secondary in this game is zero. As in zero passes defensed, zero interceptions, zero sacks, zero forced fumbles. The simple fact is that Tom Brady picked apart the Steelers pass defense, and he made it look easy.

Some of that is just Brady being good, but at other times this unit seemed to go out of its way to help him. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed an extra point, and while that didn’t have any impact on the game’s outcome, it confirmed that this was not an evening where the Steelers would get any breaks. On the positive side, Antonio Brown had one punt return for 1 yards. Sammie Coates also looked competent as a kick returner, although Justin Gilbert did not. The Patriots only returned one kick for 18 yards. Jordan Berry’s punting average of 38 yards looks OK, but is 10 yards below his counter parts. Special teams wasn’t a liability for the Steelers in this loss, but it didn’t provide anything extra. Grade: C

Coaching
If the Steelers first series of the game offers any indication, Todd Haley’s base game plan was to alternate between feeding the ball to Le’Veon Bell on and trying to make the Patriots pay for focusing on stopping him by throwing downfield.

  • That type of strategy only works if Bell doesn’t get hurt and receivers don’t drop passes that they should catch.

The Steelers of course couldn’t overcome Bell’s loss, but those lie in errors of execution as opposed to being rudderless without Bell.

On defense, Keith Butler had the unenviable task of breaking some horrendous defensive history against Tom Brady on the second biggest stage that the NFL has to offer. Ever since the game ended there’s been a firestorm over why Butler and Mike Tomlin didn’t shift to the man-coverage approach that worked during the 2011 upset of the Patriots.

  • You’ll find no such second guessing here.
Mike Tomlin, James Harrison, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC championship game

Mike Tomlin and James Harrison leave the field after the Steelers latest AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. Photo credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

The Steelers had the NFL’s most experienced defense in 2011. In 2016 they had one of the younger NFL defenses. Trying to learn a new scheme in the heat of the playoffs simple wouldn’t have worked. If Tomlin’s post game comments are any guide, he and his staff considered and ruled out the option. A wise move even in 20/20 hindsight.

  • Which doesn’t let the Steelers coaches off the hook.

Mike Tomlin is right that the gravest errors were execution errors – it is hard to imagine that whatever play was called on Chris Hogan’s first touchdown play envisioned EVERY Steelers push rusher getting COMPLETELY blocked AND allowing Hogan to have HALF of the end zone to himself.

But regardless whether its execution, game planning or preparation, Mike Tomlin and his staff are now 1-6 against Tom Brady with no sign that they’ve got any viable answer to offer against the NFL’s best quarterback. Until Mike Tomlin finds those answers, the Pittsburgh Steelers will remain also rans. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Determining the Unsung Hero for this game is hard, because so few Steelers did anything to stand out. We’ll give our nod to Antonio Brown. While mistakes and struggles defined the night for Steelers other Steelers receivers, Antonio Brown like Ben Roethlisberger gave it his all, with tough catches, impressive runs after the catch and excellent improvisational defensive back skills on one bad pass. For that Antonio Brown is the Steelers Unsung Hero for the latest AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

 

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3 Factors that Fueled Steelers 3rd AFC Championship Loss to Patriots

The Steelers 9-game winning streak skidded to a thundering halt at Gillette Stadium with Pittsburgh’s 36-17 loss to the New England Patriots. The AFC Championship loss to the Patriots of course ends the 2016 Steelers season, their Super Bowl hopes and perhaps the last best hope of keeping Bill Belichick from breaking Chuck Noll’s Super Bowl record.

  • Steelers Nation is not a pleasant place after a thorough clock cleaning at the hands of their conference rivals.

Ironically enough, 3 root causes fueled the Steelers 3rd AFC Championship loss to the Patriots: A failure to get pressure on Tom Brady, a lack of a playoff-caliber number 2 wide receiver, and a failure to control the line of scrimmage when it counted.

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Logan Ryan breaks up a pass for Cobi Hamilton in the end zone in the Steelers AFC Champonship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Tom Brady Dictates Tempo, as Patriots Dance Around Steelers

At 39, Tom Brady remains the best quarterback in the NFL, a status he seized 15 years ago in part by leading the AFC Championship upset against the Steelers at Heinz Field (with all due respect to Drew Bledsoe’s excellent relief efforts.)

  • But if Tom Brady is the greatest of this era, and in the conversation for the greatest of all time, he remains vulnerable.

Tom Brady gets rid of the ball quickly, but if you succeed in getting pressure on him, you can make him look human. New York Giants did it in two Super Bowls. The Denver Broncos did it last year in the AFC Championship. Houston even managed to hang with Brady for a few quarters by following the same formula. In the leadup to the game, the Steelers talked the talk of doing the same.

How well did the Steelers walk the walk?

  • Javon Hargrave forced a 3 and out by sacking Brady with the Patriots holding an 3-0 lead early in the 1st quarter.
  • Sean Davis sacked Brady late in the 3rd quarter when the Patriots held a 33-9 lead

In between, you’d be hard pressed to find a Steeler who breathed on Brady, much less touched him. (For the record, Stephon Tuitt is listed as getting a “QB hit.) It doesn’t take a football genius to predict the results.

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Sacks were spare in the Steelers latest AFC loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The New England Patriots converted 11 of 17 third downs, Tom Brady threw for almost 400 yards, and Chris Hogan – a former lacrosse player – caught 9 passes for 180 yards. In his post-game video commentary, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette remarked that Bill Belichick observed that the Steelers chose to only 3 rush three defenders most of the night.

If video tape analysis confirms that, then Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler should be questioned as to why they didn’t try to send James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons after Brady more often. When you lose as badly as the Steeler lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, coaches open themselves to such “What iffing.”

  • But even when the Steelers went after Brady, things fell apart.

On Tom Brady’s first touchdown pass to Chris Hogan, the Steelers sent the house. Yet, the Patriots’ line completely picked Pittsburgh’s blitz so perfectly, that even at age 58, Mark Malone could have left the broadcast booth and made that throw. (And yes, it helped that there wasn’t a Steeler within 10 yards of Hogan.)

And that was the story of the night. The Steelers couldn’t and wouldn’t get pressure on Brady. Instead Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler trusted their young secondary to make plays in coverage, and Tom Brady scorched the Steelers secondary.

  • Pittsburgh started off the 2016 season on pace to break the 1988 Steelers defense’s record for ineptitude in pressuring the passer.

They revved up their sack production well enough to earn themselves a spot in the AFC Championship, but unfortunately on the biggest day of the season, the Steelers defense reverted to its early season form.

Wanted: A Playoff Caliber Number 2 Wide Out in Pittsburgh

A little over a year ago, as the Steelers headed to Denver for the divisional playoff game, word was that Sammie Coates was the player to watch in the quest to compensate for Antonio Brown’s absence. Coates played well enough that day, that many coaches had him penciled in as Martavis Bryant’s replacement as soon as news of Byrant’s suspension broke.

  • Who was the target of Ben Roethlisberger’s first pass a bomb down the sidelines on 3rd and 1 the Steelers first series?

Sammie Coates of course.

IF Coates catches that ball, then he puts the Patriots on notice that the Steelers now have a multidimensional, vertical passing game, and he forces them to respect it. Instead, Coates dropped the ball and the Steelers punted.

Coates’ drop isn’t much of a surprise for those following his multiple broken fingers story and/or his latent loss of Ben Roethlisberger’s confidence which writers like Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell have alluded to. It’s telling, however, that the Steelers passing game focused so much on Coates, whom the Steelers targeted 5 times.

  • The Steelers knew they needed someone to stretch the field and divert attention from Antonio Brown.
Eli Rogers, Kyle Van Noy, Eli Rogers fumble AFC Championship game, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship, steelers 3rd afc championship loss patriots

Eli Rogers fumbles late in the 3rd quarter in Steelers AFC Championship loss to Patriots. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

During the Steelers 9-game winning streak, Todd Haley has relied on reserve receivers Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton to take heat off of Antonio Brown. And the development of both of those men played a pivotal role in the Steelers late season rally.

  • But ultimately, neither man is ready to be a number 2 wide receiver on a Super Bowl team.

Cobi Hamilton had a number of drops and negated his own touchdown by stepping out of bounds. Eli Rogers made some nice catches, but fumbled the ball away deep in Pittsburgh territory, when New England held a 27 to 9 lead late in the third quarter.

Jesse James played a strong game at tight end, his failure to get into the end zone notwithstanding. He might not be a true number 1 NFL tight end, but he was not a liability on the field. The same could not be said for other Steelers pass catchers not named Antonio Brown or DeAngelo Williams.

On a night when Le’Veon Bell was lost early the Steelers were going to need their passing game to pick up the slack. They weren’t up to the task.

Failure to Control the Line of Scrimmage When It Counted

On the face of it, the Steelers offensive did a stealer job against the Patriots, while the Steelers defensive line did its part against the running game. The Patriots failed to sack Ben Roethlisberger, and only hit him once per ESPN’s statistics. Fair enough. The Steelers line protected its quarterback.

But did anyone else notice the Patriots ability to completely collapse the Steelers offensive line in the Red Zone before the first half ended? DeAngelo Williams lost yards on two consecutive carries. It’s one thing try to ram it in and fail; it is quite another to get smothered in the process.

Jamesy Harrison, LeGarrette Blount, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship, steelers 3rd afc championship loss patriots

Jamesy Harrison tackles LeGarrette Blount in Steelers AFC Championship loss to Patriots. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Officially speaking the Steelers run defense “shut LeGarrett Blount down” by holding him to below 50 total yards and keeping his average below 3.

  • But Blount literally needed only 1 carry to break the back of the Steelers defense.

On 1st and 10 at the Steelers 19, LeGarrett Blount ran 18 yards rugby-maul style to the Pittsburgh’s 1 with seemingly the entire Steelers defense hanging on. One play later, and Blount was in the end zone, and the Steelers were staring down an 18-point deficit.

James Harrison argued that the Patriots didn’t dominate the Steelers physically; for the most part that’s true. But these two series provide poignant examples of how the Patriots made critical plays when it counted.

Conclusion? These Steelers Simply Aren’t Ready

Is this a harsh assessment of the Steelers performance? You bet it is. The New England Patriots were yet again superior to the Pittsburgh Steelers in another AFC Championship game. That’s a bitter pill to swallow after 9 straight wins.

  • But even a brutal loss such as this one shouldn’t overshadow the gains the Steelers have made.

All hope looked to be lost when the Dallas Cowboys scored two touchdowns inside the 2-minute warning to give the Steelers their 4th straight loss. Cameron Heyward going on IR prompted this site to declare an Aliens style “Game over!” yet the defense improved during the latter half of the season. And the Steelers spent large portions of the season playing two men who, a year ago would have been charitably projected as their 5th and 6th string wide receivers.

  • At the end of the day, it was good enough to get the Steelers to the AFC Championship, but not through the AFC Championship.

In a city that measures success in Lombardis, the 2016 Steelers weren’t quite ready for a Super Bowl run. Mike Tomlin is wise to remind everyone that the Steelers will arrive at Latrobe next summer starting from zero, just like everyone else in the NFL.

Yes, they will again indeed start at zero next July. But if the Steelers internalize the lessons they learned this season, they will give themselves and excellent chance of not only returning but also winning the AFC Championship and the game that comes after it….

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Steelers Need Ben Roethlisberger to Bring “A Game” vs Patriots in AFC Championship

The Steelers AFC Championship show down against the Patriots has drawn a lot of analysis from the pundits.

In addition, Keith Butler has confirmed that the Patriots have always “…tried to find our rookies” – in other words this is no time for Sean Davis, Javon Hargrave or Artie Burns to have stage fright set in.

The Steelers must do all of these things to beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship. But together they won’t be enough unless something else happens:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger Patriots AFC Championship,

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger must bring his “A Game” for Pittsburgh to prevail over Patriots in the AFC Championship. Photo Credit: The Big Lead

While that should be self-evident, the truth is that Ben Roethlisberger has been at his best during the Steelers 2016 playoff run.

Big Ben certainly started strong against the Dolphins, but his interception late in the 2nd quarter could have allowed Miami back into the game. His 4th quarter interception came in garbage time, but nonetheless represented a bad decision by Ben.

The Steelers struggled in the Red Zone. Kansas City has one of the NFL’s best run defenses and the truth is that several of their defenders stepped up to make some pretty impressive plays against the Steelers. But according to Jon Ledyard’s analysis on Steel City Insider, Ben Roethlisberger muffed two throws that he should have made, and erred in checking out of a running play on his only interception of the game.

Ben Roethlisberger Must Thread a Fine Needle in the AFC Championship

Throughout his career, Ben Roethlisberger has shown himself to be a big game quarterback. Michael Wilbon once said that if his life depended on the outcome of a game, he’d rather had Roethlisberger than any other NFL signal caller under center.

  • But Ben Roethlisberger also sometimes tries to do too much by himself.

You could see it in the 2007 playoff loss to the Jaguars, perhaps in Super Bowl XLV (never saw the game, never will) and arguably in the third quarter of the Christmas show down with the Ravens. And therein lies a special challenge for Ben Roethlisberger in the AFC Championship.

Eli Rogers isn’t Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey isn’t Markus Wheaton and, if Cobi Hamilton IS out performing Sammie Coates, Hamilton still lacks Coates athleticism.

And while Jesse James has quietly developed into a legitimate receiving threat and Ladarius Green may suit up, the Ben Roethlisberger is still going to need to do his part to make all of the wide receivers not named Antonio Brown look a little better than they are.

  • Yet, he must accomplish that without trying to do too much.

It is a delicate balance to strike, but if Ben Roethlisberger strikes that balance, then the Pittsburgh Steelers should head to Super Bowl LI.

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