Steelers 2020 Draft Needs at Safety: Starter-Back Up Breach Looms Large

Safety, as the name implies, is a critical position in football. Unlike other positions, it is almost impossible to mask sub-standard safety play with scheming and/or double teaming.

  • The Steelers have invested heavily at safety via the draft and free agency over the last decade.

Some of those investments have borne fruit, others have rotten on the vine. During 2019 the Steelers had some stellar play at safety for the first time since Troy Polamalu retired. But that doesn’t mean they’re “safe” at safety and we’ll soon see why.

Minkah, Fitzpatrick, Minkah Fitzpatrick interception Dolphins, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

Minkah Fitzpatrick 2nd interception against the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starter

There’s one thing that the Steelers starting safeties Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick share – no one predicted their arrival in Pittsburgh. The Steelers drafted Terrell Edumnds with their first round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, shocking observers everywhere.

That was nothing compared to the shock that came 18 months later when they traded their first round picks to the Miami Dolphins for Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers don’t trade first round picks. They just don’t. The last time they did it was in the mid 60’s when most people heard the word “Beatles” they still probably thought of insects.

  • In two season Terrell Edmunds has started 31 of 32 possible games and hardly missed a snap.

While the Steelers defense isn’t as complex as it was under Dick LeBeau, it is certainly not easy for a young player to come in and play so consistently.

However, if Edmunds has quantity on his resume, quality is an open question. It is far too early to label him a bust. And Edmunds clearly has the athleticism needed to excel at the position. But he hasn’t shown the type of playmaking the Steelers need at strong safety either.

  • In contrast, Minkah Fitzpatrick has proven the trade skpetics wrong.

As Tony Defeo argued so correctly, Minkah Fitzpatrick did nothing less than save the Steelers 2019 season. Minkah had 5 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries and two touchdowns in just 14 games. Moreover, Minkah makes the rest of the secondary better.

Fitzpatrick forces opposing quarterbacks to account for him on every play, and that extra millisecond of delay helps Joe Haden and Steven Nelson be better cornerbacks, and gives T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree just a little more time to get to the quarterback. The results speak for themselves.

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Unfortunately, for the Steelers they’re depth at safety is perilously thin. Their number one backup, Jordan Dangerfield, neither got a restricted free agent tender nor did he get interest from opposing teams. Marcus Allen failed to make the initial 53 man roster, only landing their when AAF re-tread Kameron Kelly was waived due to off the field issues.

Marcus Allen might offer legitimate “upside” and Jordan Dangerfield might get by in a pinch, but you wouldn’t want either man to be starting for an extended period.

The Steelers 2020 Safety Draft Needs

The Steelers find themselves in a similar situation at safety as they do at other positions on the depth chart. They’ve got two established starters.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Terrell Edmunds still has a long way to go to justifying the faith that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert showed in him when the made him a first round pick. But there’s no realistic scenario that would see the Steelers entering this year’s draft looking to find Edmunds’ replacement.

  • Given the Steelers limited draft capital, the idea of targeting a premium pick to push Edmunds is just as imprudent.

But the Steelers depth chart is screaming to be addressed in the draft. Maybe Jordan Dangerfield or Marcus Allen can play at a Will Allen level of pressed into duty.

But nothing either man has indicates they can be counted on to do that.

There have also been whispers about either Cam Sutton and/or Justin Layne shifting to safety on a part or even full-time basis. And while that might work, it would compromise cornerback depth….

So the Steelers needs at safety going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered as Moderate-High.

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Steelers 2020 Cornerback Draft Needs: Pittsburgh in an Unusual Position

“The Steelers must improve at cornerback.” The statement was a key takeaway from the loss in Super Bowl XLV. It got repeated at the beginning of each and every off season for the rest of the decade. Here’s why:

  • It was true. Cornerback WAS an area of Steelers need going into each off season.

During 2019, Steelers fans enjoyed the best cornerback play that they’ve seen since the heyday of the 2nd Super Bowl era of the ‘00’s and perhaps beyond. But does that mean they can ignore cornerback in the 2020 NFL Draft?

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

The Steelers pride themselves on building through the draft, but two free agents, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, gave the franchise its best cornerback tandem since Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend lined up in Super Bowl XLIII.

Being true to their nature, the Cleveland Browns inexplicably cut Joe Haden in August of 2017. The Steelers snapped him up immediately, made him an instant starter, and haven’t looked back since. A quick look at the stat sheet shows why:

In his first season Joe Haden had 1 interception. In his second he had 2, but one came against the Patriots. In his third season he had 5 interceptions while defending 17 passes.

  • Playing opposite Joe Haden is Steven Nelson.

The Steelers turned heads a year ago when they made him their biggest free agency signing in franchise history. After that, you didn’t hear the name “Steven Nelson” very much on Sunday afternoons. At most positions that would be an indictment, but in Steven Nelson’s case, you didn’t hear his name because he was shutting down his side of the field.

  • Starting in the slot between Haden and Nelson is Mike Hilton.

Mike Hilton is classic Kevin Colbert find, winning the job as a rookie and turning in an exceptional strong performance during the 2017 season. Hilton endured a bit of a sophomore slump in 2018, but bounced back in 2019 when he batted away 11 passes, intercepted a pass, recovered a fumble, and recorded a sack and half.

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Cam Sutton is the Steelers “next man” up at cornerback, and Sutton brings an interesting, if uneven past to his fourth year in the league. The Steelers drafted him with their third round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and Sutton drew praise during preseason. Injuries forced him to start the season on injured reserve, but the Steelers activated him late in the season against Cincinnati, in the December match up where Ryan Shazier’s career ended.

  • With Artie Burns struggling, Cam Sutton was expected to push for a serious playing time, if not a starting job in 2018.

That push never materialized. Sutton played in all 15 games, but was never really a factor. Sutton bounced back and authored a strong 2019, often rotating in for Hilton on 3rd downs. Sutton defended 5 passes, had an interception and recorded a sack.

After Cam Sutton, the Steelers have Justin Layne, the cornerback they picked in 3rd round of the 2019 out of Michigan State. Justin Layne is a graduate of Cleveland’s Benedictine High School, just as Chuck Noll was.

That pedigree didn’t help Justin Layne find the field as a rookie. By all accounts he struggled in training camp and appeared in 10 games a rookie.

The Steelers 2020 Cornerback Draft Needs

If it’s a draft, the Steelers must be looking to draft a cornerback, right? For 10 years that has been the conventional wisdom, although the Steelers have only used 4 premium picks on cornerbacks. Yet, the Steelers will enter this year’s draft without clutching their rosary beads in hopes that a hot prospect at corner falls to them.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • Does that mean cornerback is a position they can ignore entirely?

That’s tempting, and the team certainly has other needs. But if Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin find themselves staring at a top corner who has fall, they need to think twice about passing because Joe Haden is turning 31 while Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton will be free agents next year.

With that said, Ben Roethlisberger is 37 and coming off of elbow surgery. So the Steelers focus should be on players who can help win this fall first, and future falls second. Given that the Steelers needs at cornerback heading into the 2020 NFL Draft should be considered Moderate-Low.

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Watt a Minute! Steelers Sign Derek Watt, T.J. Watt’s Brother

Mike Tomlin may or may not be a fan of Game of Thrones, but he does certainly seem to believe in bloodlines. The Pittsburgh Steelers have come to terms with free agent fullback Derek Watt, brother of starting outside linebacker T.J. Watt.

  • While Derek Watt cannot officially sign his deal until Wednesday afternoon, the two sides have agreed to terms.
Derek Watt, T.J. Watt,

Derek Watt and T.J. Watt at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Philip G. Pavely, USA Today via BTSC

Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that Derek Watt signed a contract worth 9.75 million dollars that runs for three years. While few expected the Steelers to use their precious salary cap space to sign a fullback, Derek Watt also was a special teams stand out for the Chargers and could fill the void left by the mildly surprising departure of Tyler Matakevich who will bolt to the Buffalo Bills once the free agent signing period officially begins.

  • Derek Watt’s position flexibility extends beyond special teams.

As Roy Countryman from Steel City Insider Points out, the Chargers under utilized Derrick Watt’s pass catching abilities and suggests he could do double duty at tight end.

Another player who might be be looking over his shoulder is Roosevelt Nix. Nix is a fullback and was captain of the Steelers special teams last year, and is due to count 1.8 million against the salary cap this year.

All in the Family

Derek Watt’s arrival in Pittsburgh gives the Steelers their second set of brothers, as Terrell Edmunds and Trey Edmunds are also on the current roster – at the moment. Trey Edmunds is officially a fullback so his roster spot is threatened by Derek Watt.

In addition, Mike Tomlin hasn’t been shy about how Devin Bush’s family lineage attracted him to the linebacker. Likewise, Benny Snell also has an uncle with NFL experience.

Steelers Free Agency Comings and Goings

As expected, the Steelers applied the franchise tag to Bud Dupree, and to make room for Dupree they waived Mark Barron, Anthony Chickillo and Johnny Holton, while resigning long snapper Kameron Canaday to a two year contract.

  • However, as is also expected, Javon Hargrave will sign with the New York Jets today.
  • Likewise, B.J. Finney will sign with the Seattle Seahawks this afternoon too.

To clear up salary cap space, the Steelers have reportedly restructured the contracts of Ben Roethlisberger, Chris Boswell, Vance McDonald, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson.

The McDonald restructure is the most interesting, as it signals he will return to the team, something which had been in doubt. That move in turn makes it more likely that Nick Vannett will be allowed to depart as a free agent.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Free Agency is Almost Here. Steelers Nation Won’t Have Artie Burns to Kick Around Anymore

In an ideal world, cornerback Artie Burns, a 2016 first-round pick out of Miami, wouldn’t be a part of the Steelers 2020 class of unrestricted free agents. All teams have fifth-year options on the contracts of rookies who were drafted in the first round, an option that must be picked up before the fourth year even starts.

The Steelers elected not to do that with Burns last offseason, a telling move that put not only his fifth but his fourth year with the team in jeopardy. Thankfully for Burns, he made the Steelers final 53-man roster out of training camp, but did he do enough in 2019 to warrant an extended stay into 2020 and beyond?

Artie Burns, Chris Conley touchdown Steelers, Steelers vs Chiefs 2018

Chris Conley burns Artie Burns for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of Artie Burns’ Career with the Steelers

After the Steelers chose Burns with the 25th pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, to say the reactions were mixed would be a lie. They were overwhelmingly negative. Why? Burns was said to be raw and a poor tackler. Also, Burns played primarily man-to-man in college, while the Steelers implemented more zone coverages than any team in football in 2015. However, there were a select few who said that Burns had the potential to be the best cover corner in the 2016 draft.

And after becoming the starter midway through his rookie year, the views of those few in Burns’ corner appeared to be spot on, as he recorded three interceptions and 13 passes defensed. Burns started all 16 games in his sophomore year, and even though he appeared to struggle a bit with zone coverages, the arrow still pointed up, this despite a decline in play down the stretch and in the playoff loss to the Jaguars. Despite positive reviews out of training camp, as he battled the legendary Antonio Brown to a draw on most days, Burns play declined so much in 2018, he was benched after six games and was a non-factor in the secondary by the end of the season. Burns’ role a year ago was mainly on special teams; he barely factored into a much improved secondary, as he was on the field for only 66 defensive snaps and started just one game in place of an injured Joe Haden.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Artie Burns

Burns won’t command much of a market in free agency. After earning just under a million dollars last year, it’s safe to say the Steelers could possibly resign him at a bargain price for 2020–perhaps one of those “Show me” one-year contracts. Burns was a starter not long ago, and he appeared to hold his own in his lone start in 2019, while also contributing regularly on special teams.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Artie Burns

The Steelers did have a much-improved secondary a year ago, but the fact that Burns hardly figured into the mix on defense–I’m sure the Steelers would have liked to spell the veteran Haden from time to time–was quite telling. Also, I’m sure the Steelers are eager to see what Justin Layne, a third-round pick out of Michigan State a year ago, can do in his second season. And with veteran Cameron Sutton in the mix, Burns may spend another season as the invisible entity in Pittsburgh’s secondary.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Artie Burns

If ever a player needed a fresh start, it’s Burns. And given what the team has at the top of the depth chart at corner in both Steven Nelson and Haden, I see no need for Pittsburgh to put up much of a fight to retain the services of Artie Burns.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Bud Dupree Free Agent Profile – Should the Steelers Keep Him in Pittsburgh?

First Round Draft Picks generate attention. Their success or failure is pronounced the moment their names are announced.

  • People form opinions on First Round Draft Picks fast.

Shades of grey rarely nuance these opinions. Such is the nature of the beast. Then there is Bud Dupree, whose journey as a First Round Pick might sit in a class all of its own as his arrival at free agency shows….

Bud Dupree, Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Bud Dupree strip sacks Ryan Finley. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Capsule Profile of Bud Dupree’s Career with the Steelers

It was May 1st, the 2015 NFL Draft was in full swing and for the second time in 4 years a “Top Ten Talent” was falling towards Pittsburgh. In 2012 David DeCastro fell. In 2015, it was Bud Dupree.

  • The Steelers snatched both players immediately.
  • Everyone cheered their pick of DeCastro yet picking Bud Dupree drew a mixed response.

No one questioned Bud Dupree’s athletic talent, but everyone agreed he was “project” who needed to develop. Bud Dupree won the starting job, and when he notched 3 sacks in his first 5 games it looked like the rookie was going to prove a lot of people wrong.

  • But then Bud Dupree hit the proverbial “rookie wall” followed by a 2016 season that began with Dupree on injured reserve.

The Steelers activated him in week 10 and within a few games he was exploding for 2.5 sacks against the Bills and followed by consecutive sacks in the Steelers final two wins of 2016.

  • Bud Dupree seemed primed for big things.

Unfortunately, Dupree disappointed during his next two seasons. Sack production remained static and flipping him with T.J. Watt helped T.J. Watt, but did nothing for Dupree. Coaches leaked that Dupree was doing well in pass coverage. That might have been true, but these were also the same coaches that assured us, off the record, that Jarvis Jones’ was providing robust run support support…..

The Steelers nonetheless picked up his 5th year option, with Kevin Colbert proclaiming that Dupree was only “scratching the surface” of his talents.

Bud Dupree, Baker Mayfield, Bud Dupree strip sack Baker Mayfield

Bud Dupree strip sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

In 2019, Bud Dupree exploded justifying the faith the Steelers had entrusted in him. Bud Dupree registered 11.5 quarterback sacks. Perhaps more importantly, he also forced 4 fumbles, helping change the course of several games. While some 2nd generation stats suggest that Bud Dupree’s wasn’t as dominating as his 2019 sack total suggests, he did give the Steelers their first double-digit outside linebacker sack duo for the first time since the days of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Bud Dupree

For the first time since 2010, the Steelers fielded a championship caliber defense. While Minkah Fitzpatrick and Steven Nelson certainly contributed to that, the constant stream of splash plays delivered by T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree were equally important.

Over the last decade the Steelers have invested 3 first round picks, on 2nd round pick, and called Jamese Harrison out of retirement all in an effort to field a dominating duo of outside linebackers.

The Steelers have invested in Dupree’s development, and he delivered in his first year under the direct tutelage of Keith Butler. Is now the time to roll the dice by starting either Anthony Chickillo, Ola Adeniyi or Tupac Skipper starting in his place?

Whether it is by a long-term deal or the franchise tag, the Steelers have options to keep Bud Dupree in Pittsburgh in 2020. They must make sure that happens.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Bud Dupree in 2020

1 out of 5 is not bad right? Bud Dupree flopped in his first four years in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers gave him a fifth year because they had no other choice. And they hedged by resigning Anthony Chickillo to a larger than expected contract.

  • Given all of the playmakers he Steelers field on defense, could Bud Dupree do anything but excel?

Let another team overpay Bud Dupree, just as teams routinely overpaid Steelers free agents in the 1990’s. Moreover, to resign Bud Dupree the Steelers would need to part ways with veterans such as Vance McDonald, Mark Barron, Ramon Foster and/or Anthony Chickillo, depleting depth across their roster.

Would you bet your starting tight end, several other key players and $16 million that Bud Dupree can deliver a repeat performance of 2019?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Bud Dupree

There are a lot of opinions out there as to what the Steeler should do about Bud Dupree. But there is a lot more harder, objective evidence pointing to what Pittsburgh will do.

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have all gone on record listing keeping Bud Dupree as a priority for Pittsburgh this off season.

  • The only real question is which veteran players get cut to make salary cap room for Bud Dupree.

Expect Bud Dupree to be back with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2020.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Extend Kevin Colbert’s Contract through the 2021 NFL Draft

With Super Bowl LIV in the books, the 2020 off season is a foot, and the Pittsburgh Steelers wasted little time in getting their 2nd biggest off season question answered when they extended Vice President and General Manager Kevin Colbert’s contract through the 2021 NFL Draft.

Traditionally the Steelers have announced contract extension for front office staff shortly before training camp. Last season the Steelers extended Mike Tomlin’s contract but they did not extend Kevin Colbert’s contract as Art Rooney II announced that Colbert prefers to renew on a year-by-year basis.

While most observers expected Kevin Colbert to return to the Steelers, there have been rumors that he could bolt to the Carolina Panthers, whose owner David Tepper was a former Steelers minority owner.

All of that talk is for naught, as Kevin Colbert is staying put in Pittsburgh.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

Kevin Colbert Authors 20 Years of Unparalleled Excellence in Pittsburgh

A Pittsburgh native, Kevin Colbert’s return to his home city in February 2000 came as a bit of a surprise. The Steelers had endured two tumultuous seasons, finishing 7-9 in 1998 after suffering a 5 game losing streak, followed by a 6-10 finish that saw the Steelers lose 7 of their last 8.

While failures in the draft and free agency fueled this decline, a feud between Hall of Famer Bill Cowher and then Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe provided a nasty backstory to the on the field implosion. Dan Rooney had to choose between the two, and he chose Bill Cowher.

  • The Steelers took an aggressive approach to replacing Donahoe, interviewing several up and coming names around the league, but Dan Rooney settled on Kevin Colbert.

Some commentators panned the move, questioning the decision to fly in people from around the league, only to hire the guy who’d graduated from Pittsburgh’s North Catholic – the same school that the Rooneys and Tom Donahoe had attended.

  • Since then, Kevin Colbert has authored an unparalleled record of excellence.

During Kevin Colbert’s two decades overseeing the front office Kevin Colbert the Steelers have only suffered one losing season, made the playoffs 12 times, earned 9 AFC Central or AFC North titles, won three AFC Championships and of course won Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

Kevin Colbert has done this by excelling on first round draft picks – Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns stand has is only two misses – made prudent free agent signings securing talents like James Farrior, Ryan Clark and Steven Nelson traded up to bring in stars like Troy Polamalu and Santonio Holmes, and had uncanny success with undrafted rookie free agents by finding gems such as James Harrison and Willie Parker.

With Kevin Colbert locked down for another year, Steelers Nation’s attention now turns to the biggest question of the off season – that of Ben Roethlisberger’s prognosis for recovery from his elbow injury. Per reports, Roethlisberger is scheduled to have his elbow examined in late February.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for 2019 Season – Better Late Than Never Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is horrendously late in turning in his grade sheet, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2019 season.

T.J. Watt, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

T.J. Watt strip sacks Ryan Fitzpatrick. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterbacks
2019 cemented the Tomlin era as the Golden Age of 3rd String Steelers’ Quarterbacks as Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges all started games. Ben Roethlisberger played poorly in both of his appearances. Was it elbow trouble or just early season rust? We’ll never know. Mason Rudolph made uneven progress until the Cleveland game. Devlin Hodges won his first 3 starts, but fell when the training wheels came off against the Bills. Steelers’ quarterbacks played well enough to lead the team to 8 wins, but they did not key any of those wins. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Steelers planned to split carries, but few foresaw the distribution that evolved between James Conner, Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Trey Edmunds AND Kerrith Whyte. While James Conner was injured, running back by committee succeeded. But Conner proved he was the cream of the group when he returned. The running backs were hardly a “strength” but they were generally good enough. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
With You Know Who out of Pittsburgh, the tight end’s role in the passing game should have grown. It did not. Maybe it wasn’t his fault, but Vance McDonald was a non-factor in the passing game. Put charitably, his effort at blocking was suspect. Nick Vannett did what was asked of him and has legitimate “upside.” Zach Gentry did well in spot duty. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends in 2019. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
Rookie Diontae Johnson led the Steelers in both targets and catches, something no one foresaw. James Washington had a solid sophomore year, translating preseason and practice flashes into the regular season. Injuries limited JuJu Smith-Schuster to 12 games making it hard to judge his performance. Johnny Holton is excellent on special teams, but adds nothing to the passing game. Deon Cain flashed. Grade: C

Offensive Line
This unit has taken a lot of heat. Some of it is justified. The Steelers have invested heavily in their offensive line, and 2019 did not deliver a good return. Early in 2019 pass blocking was solid, while run blocking lagged. Run blocking improved, but pass protection lagged as the year progressed. Craig Wolfley argues that expecting the line to carry the entire offense absent so many playmakers is unreasonable. He’s right. Still, the Steelers needed more from their offensive line in 2019 and didn’t get it. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
How good was the 2019 Steelers’ defensive line? Try so good that it could lose Stephon Tuitt, their best player 6 games in, and still see Cam Heyward play well enough to earn mention among names such as Greene, Holmes, White, Greenwood and Smith. Oh, and Javon Hargrave likely established himself as 2020’s best defensive free agent. Sure, a picky person could argue the Steelers were a little too vulnerable to the run at times. Picky is as picky does. This unit was excellent. Grade: A

Cam Heyward, Todd Gurley, Cameron Heyward, Steelers vs Rams

Cam Heyward stones Todd Gurley in the 3rd quarter of the Steelers win over the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Linebackers
Under Keith Butler‘s tutelage, Bud Dupree finally played like a first round draft pick. Vince Williams continued his stout play at inside linebacker, while Devin Bush made an immediate impact. Mark Barron started slow, but he rebounded so strong that he limited Devin Bush’s snaps – although Bush still led the team in tackles.

In his third year in the league, T.J. Watt catapulted himself into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation with 14.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 8 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries and 8 defensed passes. Most importantly, T.J. Watt made those “splash plays” at critical moments in games. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s arrival transformed the Steelers secondary as he made 5 interceptions in his first 6 games while returning a fumble for a touchdown. Teams stopped throwing his way. That opened the door for Joe Haden to make 5 interceptions of his own. Mike Hilton rebounded from a shaky sophomore year and again looks like another Kevin Colbert Undrafted Rookie Free Agent steal. Terrell Edmunds disappointed, failing to flash any of the playmaking ability you’d expect from first rounder. 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
Chris Boswell reversed his Russian roulette routine of 2018 and returned as the Wizard of Boz in 2019. Jordan Berry started off strong only to fade, with poor punts and/or critical errors contributing to losses to the Bills and the Ravens.

While he was probably playing injured for most of the season, Ryan Switzer’s returns were mediocre, although he was sure handed. Diontae Johnson had difficulty fielding kicks early in the season, but found his legs and gave the Steelers some spark to their punt returns.

The coverage of Danny Smith’s units was spotty. They didn’t give up any touchdowns, but did give up too many “longish” returns. While they stopped one fake punt attempt, they gave up two more and badly botched one of their own. Grade: C

Coaching
Randy Fichtner is taking a lot of heat. Some is knee-jerk nonsense but critiques that his formations and play calling are too predictable have some merit.

But to draw on a chess analogy, Fichtner lost his queen on the second move of the game and had to substitute pawns for his bishop and rook for large parts of the season. Given those circumstances, fielding and offense that was just good enough to scrape up enough plays to reach 8-8 doesn’t look too bad.

  • While it happened under the radar, Keith Butler’s defense began to improve at the tail end of 2018.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

But even those who witnessed the latent leap in the late season games against the Patriots and Saints, who would have predicted such a stunning turnaround in 2019? Injections of talent at cornerback, linebacker and safety fueled the lion’s share of the change, but the unit played as a much more cohesive group.

  • Finally, there’s Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers served as a punching bag throughout the 2019 off season as the national media took the side of You Know Who as well as Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers looked strong in preseason, only to fall flat in the opener, and then lose their franchise quarterback in week two. His replacement would get injured himself in week four, forcing Tomlin to turn to his 4th string quarterback.

  • The franchise could have folded at any number of points in the process.

Instead, Mike Tomlin focused his team on producing winning performances. Through it all, he never blinked. He never shied away from personnel decisions or from taking the calculated risks he is known for.

While Mike Tomlin would agree he doesn’t deserve “Coach of the Year” honors, 2019 might have been his best performance. Grade: A

Front Office
Kevin Colbert made three aggressive free agent signings, two of which bore fruit. When he shipped You Know Who off to Oakland, it looked like he got robbed. Now the Steelers look like stealers. Colbert continued by making a bold draft-day trade followed by a bolder in-season trade accompanied by another trade that addressed a critical need. Kevin Colbert then took Pittsburgh on practice squad poaching run that secured potential.

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Along the way, the front office made upwards of 60 roster moves during the season. Like the players on the field and the coaches on the sideline, the Front Office refused to throw in the towel when things got tough. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
Great players author highlight reels, generate press clippings and hear their names mentioned. But sometimes silence serves as a sign that a player is excelling at his craft. Such was the case of Steven Nelson in 2019. You didn’t hear the free agent corner’s name simply because he was shutting down his side of the field. For that, Steven Nelson wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2019 season.

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Tre’Davious White’s Interception Ended the 2019 Steelers and Devlin Hodge’s Cinderella Season

Duck Season was in full bloom (or whatever is supposed to happen when ducks are in season) when the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Bills for an epic Sunday Night Football Match-up at Heinz Field on December 15.

When I refer to duck, of course, I am talking about Steelers rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges, who was set to make his fourth start against Buffalo. I was tailgating with some friends that night at Heinz Field, and believe me when I tell you, people were believing in the youngster affectionately known as Duck. There were Duck hats. There were Duck t-shirts. There were Duck signs. There were those things people blow into when they want to make righteous duck sounds–including Duck, himself, when he got his nickname by winning a national duck calling contest back in 2009.

  • It was a pretty cool scene, and why not?

After all, here were the Steelers, a team that started 2019 by losing its most precious resource–quarterback Ben Roethlisberger–to a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2. The moment that news broke, nobody gave them a chance to do anything, other than lose 10-plus games. Yet, Pittsburgh entered this important Week 15 contest with an 8-5 record and the inside track on the fifth seed. Buffalo was 9-4, but if Pittsburgh won out, it would enter the playoffs as the top wildcard entrant.

Tre'Davious White, Tre'Davious White interception, Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Bills

Tre’Davious White’s interception was the turning point of the Steelers 2019 season. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via DraftKings.com

Neither team came into the night with a stellar offense–especially the Steelers, who, again, were pretty compromised due to injury.

  • As for both defenses, however? They were unquestionably the reasons for their teams’ seasons.

Experts and fans, alike, predicted the Sunday night showdown would be a defensive struggle, and the game did not disappoint in that regard.

The offensive play on both sides was pretty ugly, as the two teams spent the majority of the game exchanging punts, sacks, three and outs and turnovers.

One Steelers turnover near the end of the first half was especially damning. Shortly after cornerback Steven Nelson intercepted a pass by Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen and returned it to the Buffalo 20, Pittsburgh had a first and goal from the 10-yard line. Trailing 7-3, if the Steelers could score a touchdown on this possession, they not only would have the momentum, but they would get the football to start the second half. Unfortunately, on a first down play out of the wildcat formation, rookie receiver Diontae Johnson fumbled a bumbling hand-off from running back James Conner, and the Bills recovered.

Fortunately for the Steelers, they were able to save face by taking the second half kickoff and marching downfield for the go-ahead touchdown on an 11-yard pass from Devlin Hodges to James Conner.

  • Fast-forward to late in the third quarter. There were the Steelers with a 10-7 lead and possession of the football.

Yes, the offensive play was ugly up to that point. Yes, they squandered a huge scoring opportunity with that fumble near the end of the first half. But this was pretty much par for the course for their 2019 season. Do just enough on offense to claim the lead and allow a defense that had become quite proficient at getting after the quarterback and taking the football away to close out the game.

Not only did the Steelers have the football and a 10-7 lead near the end of the third quarter, they were putting together a pretty impressive drive that had already covered five plays and 25 yards. After a five-yard run by Conner, the Steelers had a first and 10 at the Buffalo 43. Any points on this drive would be huge, and if Pittsburgh could somehow extend its lead to double-digits, that could have been curtains for the Bills.

  • Instead of perhaps continuing to run the football, Hodges dropped back and tried to hit Johnson on an out pattern.

Unfortunately, the timing was a bit off, and Bills’ all-everything cornerback Tre’Davious White stepped in front of Johnson and intercepted Hodges’ pass at the Bills 33 before returning it all the way down to the Steelers 18. It was White’s second interception of the night and far more damaging than the first one way back in the opening quarter.

Pittsburgh’s defense held strong and limited Buffalo to three points. However, following a quick three and out by the Steelers, the Bills drove 70 yards on six plays and took the lead on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Allen to tight end Tyler Kroft midway through the fourth quarter.

  • The Steelers offense–especially Hodges–never quite recovered.

Pittsburgh had a couple of opportunities late in the game to tie the score, but Hodges was intercepted on successive drives to close out the night.

The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers were never quite the same after that loss to the Bills, and they dropped their final two games–scoring just 10 points each time–to finish the season 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

  • It’s amazing what momentum and belief can do for a team.

Up until that fateful Sunday Night matchup at Heinz Field, the 2019 Steelers had been authoring a storybook Cinderella season much like the 1989 Steelers had done 30 autumns earlier. 

Sure, it was quite apparent that opposing defenses had figured Hodges out by the time Buffalo came to town, but one wonders if the team would have been able to do enough to sneak into the playoffs had that Bills game not gotten away at the end.

We’ll never know, of course, thanks to Tre’Davious White who made the interception that transformed the Steelers Cinderella season into a Pumpkin. 

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Steelers Report Card for Season Ending Loss to Ravens

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who can’t help but be disappointed over how his class performed on their final exams, here is the Steelers Report Card for the season-ending loss to the Ravens.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell’s rushing was one of the true bright spots for the Steelers against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP via PennLive.com

Quarterback
On the plus side, for the first time in 2 games, Devlin Hodges didn’t throw any interception. However, his fumble inside of the two minute warning of the first half was just as bad. Overall, Hodges was 9 of 25 on the day. And while he did suffer some drops, this type of quarterbacking play doesn’t even qualify as “game management.” Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Benny Snell was the lone bright spot for the Steelers, churning out 91 yards on 18 carries while scorning the Steelers only touchdown. Kerrith Whyte had 3 carries for 1 yard while Jaylen Samuels had 1 catch for 16 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught both passes for that were thrown his way including a 12 yarder that converted a third down. Run blocking was solid, which the tight ends contributed to. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the group with 4 catches for 54 yards. James Washington, who has been solid all season, had zero catches on 3 targets some of which were catchable balls. No other wide out got a target. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Devlin Hodges was sacked twice and hit 6 times although he was under pressure for much of the afternoon. Run blocking was solid. The offensive line didn’t appear to be a liability against the Ravens, but it certainly wasn’t a strength. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave, in what will likely be his final game as a Steeler, led the line with 5 passes. Cam Heyward was next with a sack, a batted pass and 2 quarterback hits. Tyson Alualu had four tackles. Gus Edwards ran the ball pretty well, as did RGIII. This isn’t all on the line, but run stopping starts with them. Grade: C

Linebackers
Devin Bush led the team with 12 tackles, Vince Williams was the next best linebacker with 7, followed by T.J. Watt who had 5, a half sack and a batted pass and 2 QB hits. More importantly, T.J. Watt also forced a fumble which could have been a real difference maker. Bud Dupree had a sack and two QB hits. Linebacking was solid, but the Ravens rushing attack was strong. Grade: B-

Secondary
RGIII completed 11 of 21 passes, or just barely above 50%, and the Ravens were 7 of 16 on third downs. Steven Nelson batted away two passes, Joe Haden batted away another while ending the game with an interception. Mike Hilton had a half sack, shared another tackle behind the line of scrimmage and added another QB hit. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds looked strong in run support. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, RGIII, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree bring down RGIII. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Special Teams
On the plus side, Diontae Johnson logged two solid punt returns….

  • But Jordan Berry’s fumble was awful, and exactly the type of a mistake that the Steelers could not afford.

Sure, the Steelers chances of scoring 9 points in those last 4 minutes were slim, but that doesn’t change the fact that the touchdown killed chances of a comeback.

Kerrith Whyte also muffed the kick return on the following play, which set up a safety. Oh, and the Steelers gave up a fake punt. Grade: D

Coaching
There’s really not a lot to say.

On offense the Steelers game plan seemed to be to try to grind it out on the ground and only pass when necessary. The Steelers executed the first part of that reasonably well, the second part not so much.

  • On defense, the fact that the Ravens backups rushed the ball so well so well is indeed alarming.

But while the Steelers run defense certainly made any fantasy football owner who started Gus Edwards happy, the fact is that the Ravens never once went the length of the field and all of their non-turnover aided scores were field goals.

While Keith Butler’s boys will not and should be let off the hook for giving up an easy touchdown after Hodges fumble return, overall the defense played well enough to win.

It would be easy to come down on Mike Tomlin for ending the season with 3 losses, the third of which looked worst of all. But even the best head coach can only outwit of the law of averages for so long. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
Conditions were awful and his opportunities were limited. But Chris Boswell went out and made both of his kicks and he did in workman like fashion, as he has done all season long, and for that he is win the Unsung Hero Award for 2019’s season-ending loss to the Ravens in Baltimore.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Bills – 2 Letter Grade Markdown for Tardiness Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who is marking himself down two full letter grades for being so late, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Sunday Night Football loss to the Bills.

Delvin Hodges, Shaq Lawson, Steelers vs Bills

Devlin Hodges tries to evade Shaq Lawson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Until Sunday night Devlin Hodges had soared above all expectations. Against the Bills the Duck fell to earth. Devlin Hodges threw a career high 38 passes against the Bills and in the process showed why his best role at this point is as a game manager. He threw four interceptions with each one being uglier than the first. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner return for his first action since getting a few carries against Cleveland and showed that he’s clearly the best rusher the Steelers have. Conner gained 42 yards on 8 carries and caught 4 passes for 9 yards, including the only touchdown. Kerrith Whyte 1 carry for 5 yards, Benny Snell had 2 for 1 yard and Jaylen Samuels had 2 for a loss. The running backs weren’t used enough, but that’s hardly their fault. Grade: B

Tight Ends
With Vance McDonald in the concussion protocol, Nick Vannett stepped into the starting role to catch 5 of 6 passes thrown to him for an economical 40 yards. Zach Gentry saw his first action in several weeks, and caught the only pass thrown to him. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
James Washington continued to show he is the class of the unit, catching 5 passes for 83 yards. He had 6 more passes thrown his way, but some of those were uncatchable. Diontae Johnson caught 5 of 7 passes thrown his way, but was not a factor. Tevin Jones had two passes thrown his way, including an end zone interception which he didn’t contest. Johnny Holton caught 2 passes for negative 2 yards. The Steelers needed more form their wide outs. Grade: C-

James Washington, Micah Hyde, Steelers vs Bills

James Washington catches a pass in front of Micah Hyde. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Offensive Line
Devlin Hodges was sacked 4 times and hit another 7 times and was generally under duress all night. The Steelers knew the Bills were going to applying pressure yet, the line failed to meet the challenge. In this site’s post-game write up, the line took a lot of heat for the 9 tackles for losses. But 4 of them were the sacks, and in the estimate of Steel City Insider’s “Heinzsight,” on the rest of the losses came on screens or Wildcat attempts. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the defensive line with 9 tackles and batted away a pass at a critical moment. Tyson Alualu had four tackles, a batted pass and forced a fumble that could have been a game-changer. Solid numbers, but the Bills ran the ball reasonably well, and there wasn’t much pressure on Josh Allen. Grade: C

Linebackers
Vince Williams led the unit in tackles splitting a sack with T.J. Watt who also batted away a pass. Bud Dupree had a quiet evening, while Devin Bush had 4 tackles including two for losses. Overall the linebacking was solid, but the Steelers could have used more splash from the unit. Grade: B-

Secondary
Steven Nelson had an interception which should have been a game changer. However, that must be balanced by the fact that John Brown made critical catch after critical catch. Terrell Edmunds led the team in tackles. Joe Haden blew his assignment on one of the Bills touchdowns. Grade: B-

Josh Brown, Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson can’t prevent Josh Brown from catching a pass for a first down. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Special Teams
Jordan Berry shanked his first punt of the season at the worst possible time. The Steelers gave up a 12 yard punt return, although Diontae Johnson had two solid returns, and Kerrith Whyte did a respectable job on kick returns. Chris Boswell was perfect kicking. Grade: D

Coaching
This was hardly a flawless game from Keith Butler’s defense. But the Bills only went the length of the field twice, and the Steelers defense did an excellent job in forcing a Red Zone turnover into a field goal situation.

  • The defense also secured two turn overs, both of which could have been game changers – had the offense capitalized.

Ah, yes, the offense. Randy Fichtner has taken a lot of heat in some quarters this season for his play calling. To a large extent, this site has refrained from joining the chorus because:

A. The Steelers have been winning
B. The Steelers have been fielding practice squad players at the skill positions

However, Randy Fichnter deserves the criticism he’s getting following the Bills game, and then some. As Ed Bouchette pointed out in The Athletic, after T.J. Watt’s forced fumble, the Steelers held a 10-7 lead, and lined up in the shotgun and called 3 straight pass plays, the second two of which ended in sacks.

The lopsided run pass ratio has come into focus, but as Jim Wexell pointed out, before the score was tied the ratio stood at 22-14. Point taken, but the Steelers didn’t seem committed to establish the run, which is perplexing, given how well James Conner was running.

  • Mike Tomlin has kept his team focused while walking on a tight rope.

His balancing act failed against the Bills costing them a victory in a game that the Steelers could and should have won. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers offensive line has been a disappointment this season, but offensive lineman have made some great individual, “Heads Up” plays. For the second straight week, an offensive lineman showed some extra hustle at a critical moment by ending a 49 yard interception return by Tre’Davious White at the 18. And for that, for the second straight week Matt Feiler wins the unsung hero award.

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