Under the Radar: Steelers Sign Anthony McFarland, 16 Others to “Futures Contracts”

What does 30 yards on 6 carries and 11 yards on 2 catches earn you today?

  • Apparently a second shot at an NFL career.

As the first week of their 2023 off season closes, the Pittsburgh Steelers have already signed 17 players to “futures” contracts and none more intriguing than Anthony McFarland. The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland out of the University of Maryland in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs Colts

Anthony McFarland lays claim to an active roster spot. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

McFarland was an enticing choice, a smaller faster back, the type of back which the Steelers had tried and failed to add in Chris Rainey in 2012 and Dri Archer in 2014. And for the next two years, McFarland followed in their footsteps.

As a rookie, McFarland appeared in 11 games and had 33 carries. He was a footnote in an offense that struggled to run the ball. That dropped to two games and 3 carries in 2021, the second of which consisted of mop up duty in a blowout loss to Cincinnati.

  • The Steelers cut him in 2022 but added him to the practice squad.

But an injury to Jaylen Warren got Anthony McFarland elevated from the practice squad for the Colts game, and an in-game injury to Najee Harris helped get McFarland on the field. And while his 41 all purpose yards on 8 touches hardly makes him a Fantasy Football star, for the first time Anthony McFarland looked like he belonged in the NFL.

Perhaps that’s fitting.

  • McFarland came out of Maryland as a sophomore, so in another generation 2022 would have been his rookie year.

NFL teams routinely sign and release players to and from futures contracts at this time of year, so there’s no assurance that McFarland will still hold a roster spot when the 2023 NFL Draft arrives, let alone with the Steelers start training camp at St. Vincents.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts 2022

Benny Snell celebrates after scoring the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: AJ Mast,. AP via The San Diego Tribune.

But the Steelers decision to resign Anthony McFarland is and under that radar signal of their commitment to running the the ball will continue in 2023.

Mike Tomlin has been infamous for rushing his running backs “until the wheels come off” (see Willie Parker, Le’Veon Bell and to a lesser extent Rashard Mendenhall), yet refused to staff deep backfields behind his starter.

That changed in 2022. When injuries felled both Harris and Warren against the Colts, Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland stepped in, providing the foundation that allowed Kenny Pickett to stage his first comeback. This is the first sign that the change will continue.

Other Futures Signings

Anthony McFarland was only 1 of 16 players to sign or resign with the Steelers. Ten of the players who’ve inked futures contracts spent all or part of the 2022 season in Pittsburgh on the practice squad:

Cody White, wide receiver
Ja’Marcus Bradley, wide receiver
Rodney Williams, tight end
Master Teague, running back
Jason Huntley, running back
Emeke Egbule, linebacker
William Dunkle, guard
Duke Dawson, defensive back
Scott Nelson, defensive back
Ryan McCollum, center

The Steelers also welcome several new faces to Pittsburgh:

Dez Fitzpatrick, wide receiver
Madre Harper, defensive back
Kenny Robinson, defensive back
Chris Wilcox, defensive back

If nothing else, with Cam Sutton, Terrell Edmunds and Damontae Kazee all headed for free agency, the Steelers are adding quantity to their defensive backfield.

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Bittersweet: Steelers Defeat Browns 28 to 14 but Miss Playoffs, Finishing ’22 9-8

With the playoffs on the line, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns 28 to 14, to close their 2022 campaign with a record of 9-8.

  • Alas, their season ended there, thanks to the Miami Dolphins win over the Jets.

Missing the playoffs is disappointing. But the game itself should encourage fans because it reveals the Steelers as a franchise that knows how to win, while the Browns are one that remains in perpetual rebuilding.

Cameron Heyward, Deshaun Watson

Cameron Heyward after sacking Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Temp Fate Early On. Twice.

Season finales against division rivals with nothing to play for other than pride can be tricky affairs. The advantage usually falls to the team fighting for a playoff spot as opposed to the spoiler.

  • But the worst thing you can do is to give the spoiler a chance to think they can win.
Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns

Najee Harris Fumbles at the goal line. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And that’s just what the Steelers did. After forcing a punt the Steelers marched straight down the field on the strength of some power rushing by Najee Harris and a heads up 32 catch and run by Diontae Johnson that put the Steelers at Cleveland’s 2.

  • There the Steelers made two critical mistakes.

First, Mike Tomlin and his staff failed to challenge a should have been touchdown run by Najee Harris, when replays showed it probably should have been a score. But Tomlin preferred to act quickly, and an attempted QB sneak by Kenny Pickett came up short. Najee Harris fumbled on the next play.

  • These are the type of turnovers that you must avoid in these situations.

Fortunately, the Steelers defense was able to stuff Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the next drive forcing a punt. Nonetheless, the Browns stuck first two series later, with a touchdown, facilitated in part by a holding call on Robert Spillane that transformed a punt into a 3rd down conversion.

The Steelers had just committed the 2nd deadly sin when playing a spoiler: Allowing them to get the upper hand and think they have a chance to win.

Wanting It More

On the ensuing drive Jaylen Warren responded with the type of play that would define the difference between the Steelers and Browns on this afternoon. Faced with a 3rd and 1 protection broke down and Myles Garrett bested Dan Moore to get his hands on Pickett.

  • Pickett threw? Tossed? Batted? the ball Warren’s way.

Warren caught the ball amidst a swarm of Cleveland Browns, well behind the line of scrimmage. Despite having at least three brown jerseys around him, Warren fought, twisted, wiggled and willed his way to a first down. Jaylen Warren simply wanted it more.

Four plays later someone on the Browns defense “forgot” to cover George Pickens and Pickens was in the end zone, tying the game. Cleveland would not lead for the rest of the afternoon.

Welcome to the AFC North DeShaun Watson

The Deshaun Watson trade was the NFL’s biggest off season story. Watson, who sat out all of 2021 in the face of approximately 2 dozen sexual harassment civil suits was dealt to the Cleveland Browns for 3 first round draft picks, a 3 round pick and a 4th round pick.

  • Oh, and the Browns gave him a $230,000,000 contract, fully guaranteed.

As Waston was suspended for the first Steelers-Browns meeting, this was his first visit to Pittsburgh as a Brown. The Steelers defense did its damned to welcome him to the AFC North.

Levi Wallace started the welcoming party as the Browns were in their 2 minute drill to close the first half. The Steelers reached the Red Zone, yet had to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal. Not what you want, but it did give them the lead.

Alex Highsmith, Deshaun Waston, Steelers vs Browns

Alex Highsmith sacks Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, AP

The Steelers opened the second half with yet another long drive that ended with yet another field goal. Disappointing? Yes, but it set up the defensive fireworks that were to come.

The Browns did get another touchdown, thanks in no small part to a roughing the passer “make up call” penalty on a legal sack made by Cam Heyward. The touchdown, plausibly gave the Browns a chance to get back in the game.

Instead, it fired up the Steelers defense. Cleveland’s final drive saw:

  • Cam Heyward and Alex Highsmith split a sack
  • Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt split another sack a few plays later
  • Cam Heyward sack him on 4th and 25

Welcome to the AFC North Mr. Watson. We hope you give Jimmy Haslam gets his money’s worth.

Finishing the Season by Finishing Drives

While his detractors will likely refuse to see it, Matt Canada’s offense has improved as 2022 has progressed.

  • The offensive line is better.
  • Wide receivers run their routes better and clutch catches have replaced drops more often than not.
  • Running backs hit holes with authority and force piles to fall forward.
  • Canada’s jet sweeps have started to work.
  • Kenny Pickett has protected the ball and the Steelers have improved in 3rd down conversions.

Yet the Red Zone has remained a glaring liability for the Steelers.

  • That liability was on display in this season finale. Yet, in the 2nd half the Steelers changed the tune.

The Steelers got the ball at Cleveland’s 25 after Kazzee’s interception. There Canada committed to power football, rushing the ball on 4 of six plays, including Najee Harris’ touchdown.

Connor Heyward, Steelers vs Browns

Connor Heyward makes a key 3rd down conversion. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

After the Cleveland’s late touchdown the Steelers got the ball back with just over 10 minute left. On their previous possession, they’d managed precisely zero yards on three plays. This time, it wasn’t always pretty, but the Steelers offense got it done.

Connor Heyward made 3 catches, two of which converted third downs. George Pickens came up with a 17 yard catch to convert another third down. Heyward’s second 3rd down conversion gave the Steelers the ball a Cleveland’s 3.

It took the Steelers four tries, but on 1st and goal following a pass interference call, Derek Watt plowed into the end zone. Diontae Johnson didn’t get his touchdown this season, but he did give the Steelers an insurance 2 point conversion.

Was missing the playoffs after a win like this a bittersweet ending for the Steelers? You bet.

But keep in mind that when the game was on the line, the Steelers defense dominated, the Browns star quarterback fell flat on his face, while Pittsburgh closed the deal with an unsung third string tight end and a power rushing touchdown from its fullback.

The contrast between the two historic rivals couldn’t be clearer.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Panthers: Bouncing Back Edition

Taken from the Grade Book of a teacher proud to see his students bounce back after what could have been a humiliating loss, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 win over the Carolina Panthers.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Panthers

Najee Harris goes airborne. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky was a careful but efficient 17 of 22 for 179 yards. He didn’t throw a touchdown pass, but he also avoided interceptions.  The Steelers converted 12 of 16 third downs, and while some of those were runs, Tribuisky had to several key long throws and authored the NFL’s longest drive since 2001. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 86 yards on 24 carries and one touchdown. Jaylen Warren had 38 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown. Derek Watt had 2 yards on another 3rd down conversion. The Steelers running backs ran well early. When Carolina clamped down they continued to run hard. Grade: B

Tight Ends
For the first time in recent memory, Pat Freiermuth did not catch a pass. Zach Gentry did catch one for 4 yards. The tight ends helped in the run blocking. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 98 yards on 10 catches catching all 10 targets. That’s impressive, as was his ability to convert third downs, even if he seems to have to resist the urge to run backwards. Amazingly, he STILL doesn’t have a touchdown 14 games into the season. Steven Sims and  Gunner Olszewski each had a catch. Grade: B

Offensive Line
The Carolina Panthers sacked the quarterback once and hit him one other time. The Steelers ran well during the first half. During the second half as the Panthers adjusted, the Steelers didn’t run as well, but they were able to run the ball at moments in the game when they needed to run it. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was alive, recording 1.5 sacks and hitting the quarterback two other times. Larry Ogunjobi had 5 tackles including 2 for losses. Isaiahh Loudermilk had a tackle for a loss. Carolina’s running game went no where, and the line is a big reason for it. Grade: A-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt looked closer to his old self getting 1.5 sacks on critical downs, and getting to the quarterback on two other occasions. Alex Highsmith also had a sack and a forced fumble. Devin Bush had four tackles. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles, but was out of place on Terrace Marshall  that set up Carolina’s only touchdown. Grade: B

Secondary
Terrell Edmunds led the team in tackles with 5 and overall had a strong game. Overall the secondary played well, but this was more of a “bend but don’t break” game for the Steelers. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell knocked in a 50 yard field goal that essentially iced the game for the Steelers. Pressley Harvin had a solid day while Steven Sims was above the line as a returner. Kick coverage did allow a long return. Grade: B-

Coaching
Functioning at its best, Matt Canada’s offense isn’t going to make many fantasy football owners happy. Which is just fine by me. What the win over the Panthers showed was that the formula of ball control combined with touchdowns can be downright lethal.

If the Panthers did move the ball a little too easily at times against Teryl Austin’s defense, the Steelers completely neutralized the Panther’s rushing attack forcing them to try to beat them with Sam Darnold, at task which Darnold wasn’t up to.

  • Finally, there’s Mike Tomlin.

The loss to the Ravens could have crushed his team. At the very least it appeared to expose the run defense as their soft underbelly. Yet Mike Tomlin opened the game by daring Carolina to run on him and challenging his defense to stop them.

Steven Sims, Steelers vs Panthers

Thanks to George Pickens’ block, Steven Sims runs for 22 yards on 3rd and 1. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Panthers tried. The Steelers stopped them. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
His 38 yard reception converted a third down and set up a touchdown. But it was his block that sprung Steven Sims free on a risky 3rd and 1 call that kept another TD drive makes George Pickens the Unsung Hero of the Steelers 2022 win over the Carolina Panthers.

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Strength of Will: Steelers Beat Panthers 24-16, Dominating both Lines of Scrimmage

On Sunday Argentina won its first World Cup since 1986 while Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Carolina Panthers 24-16, appearing intent on avoiding the fate of the ‘86 Steelers.

Cosmetically, the win improved Pittsburgh 6-8; their ’86 brethren finished 6-10, so the ’22 Steelers still have work to do to avoid reliving some infamous history.

  • But the way the Steelers beat de-clawed the Panthers offers hope that they can do it.

And the reasons for the Steelers success in Carolina are no mystery. Pittsburgh won because, as Mike Tomlin explained, “ We wanted to win the line of scrimmage on both sides. I thought we were effective in doing so.”

T.J. Watt, Larry Ogunjobi, Steelers vs Panthers

T.J. Watt and Larry Ogunjobi. Combine to make a critical stop. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Tomlin Drops the Gauntlet

You’ve got to admire Mike Tomlin. The man never lets fear drive his decisions. The Atlanta Falcons ran well against the Steelers in the 2nd half. Last week, the Baltimore Ravens, playing their third string quarterback, imposed their will.

It was embarrassing. More than one commentator described the Steelers failure to stop the Raven’s run on 3rd and 3 with the game on the line as “season defining.”

The Carolina Panthers haven’t done a lot of things well this season, but establishing a physical running attack certainly has been one of them. Mike Tomlin knew Carolina’s first objective would be to establish the run.

  • Yet, when Pittsburgh won the toss, the Steelers deferred, daring the Panthers to run against them.

Carolina tried. D’Onta Foreman took the first carry, hoping to power run off of the left tackle. Larry Ogunjobi dropped him for a 1 yard loss.

While Sam Darnold did lead the Panthers to a touchdown in their next drive, their next 3 drives of the first half netted 2, negative 9 and 6 yards. This was truly an impressive performance from a Steelers front 7 that had been manhandled during the previous 6 quarters.

The Beauty of 7 Instead of 3

Few may wish to admit it, but Matt Canada’s offense has improved over the last 2 month. As Kenny Pickett has grown more comfortable, the Steelers have protected and possessed the ball.

But that improvement hasn’t extended to the Red Zone.

Whether its been Chris Boswell or Matthew Wright the field goal has been Pittsburgh’s most potent weapon, which leads to a very weak offense.

As they have in previous weeks, Steelers started out feeding the ball to Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. Both men ran effectively. When it was needed, Mitch Trubisky, starting in place of the concussed Kenny Pickett, hit Diontae Johnson and George Pickens to convert.

The difference was that when the Steelers reached the Red Zone, they remained committed to the run and, more importantly, they were successful. That led to two touchdowns, giving the Steelers a 14-7 lead at the half.

The dividends getting 7 twice instead of settling for three on either or both occasions would be clear 12 minutes into the 2nd half.

Diontae Johnson, Keith Taylor, Steelers vs Panthers

Diontae Johnson makes a stop against Keith Taylor. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Momentum – Revisited

Football writers, yours truly included, LOVE to talk about momentum. Particularly “momentum” changes such as blocked kicks, pick sixes, long runs and/or deep passes at unexpected times.

  • Those all make for games that are almost as exciting to write about as they are to watch.

Yet, there’s an underappreciated side of momentum that isn’t as exciting but is just as important. And that’s when a team executes a methodical game plan that sustains a drive. The Steelers did that to open the 2nd half, running 21 play 91 yard drive, where they converted 5 third downs with all hands in the pile.

  • Derek Watt converted another 3rd and short
  • Steven Sims converted a 3rd and 1 with a risky end around that went 22 yards
  • Diontae Johnson resisted his urge to run backwards and coverted a 3rd 10 with a 12 yard grab
  • Johnson also converted a 3rd and 6 with an 8 yard grab – although the Steelers lost 15 on his penalty

By the time Mitch Trubisky found the end zone on his second try, a mere 3 minutes and 17 seconds remained in the 3rd quarter and the Steelers had a two touchdown lead.

Defense Goes in Bend But Don’t Break Mode

A 14 point lead with 18 minutes left to play would a minor speed bump for a team like the Bengals, Chiefs or Bills. But the Panthers aren’t the type of team. In truth, the Steelers defense should have effectively ended the game when Cam Heyward sacked Sam Darnold to end the third quarter.

  • But thanks to Marcus Allen’s idiotic jawboning, the Panthers got another chance.

They advanced to Pittsburgh’s ten, before Heyward and Terrell Edmunds stuff out a Darnold draw. The Panthers again reached the Steelers 2, but Alex Highsmith forced a fumble followed by a T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward sack that forced another field goal.

Carolina did get another field goal, hoping to set up for an on-sides kick, but as Pittsburgh fans know all too well, if you settle for field goals instead of touchdowns too often, you lose.

Take Away – Tomlin’s Team Will Fight to the End

At 6-8, the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers remain a team that plays well against bad teams, which is part of rebuilding. But losses like the one the Steelers suffered last week at the hands of the Ravens can often break a team.

But the physical nature of the Steelers win in Carolina shows that Mike Tomlin managed to use the loss as a vehicle for strengthen his team’s will instead of breaking it.

 

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Going Old School: Backfield Depth Fuels Steelers 24-17 MNF Win Over Colts, Pickett’s 1st Comeback

IF the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football were to be titled as a Friends Episode, potential names for it might be:

  • The One that Special Teams Almost Sabotaged
  • The One that the Steelers Won. But Almost Lost
  • The One where Fans Went to Bed Thinking the Steelers Lost, But Woke Up to A Win
  • The One where Kenny Pickett Led His First Comeback

All would make good choices. Hopefully, history will prove that Pickett’s first comeback to be the most relevant story line to come out of this game. But for my money the most appropriate Friendish title would be, “The One Where Backfield Depth Delivered Victory.”

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers vs Colts 2022 MNF

Benny Snell rips off a long one. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Return to Old School @ Running Back – For a Night

Generation X Steelers fans who grew up outside of the ‘Burgh often learned of Sunday’s results while reading Monday morning papers. Instead of watching highlights, we’d have to gleam our excitement for reading stats in box scores and then letting our imagination do the rest.*

When it came to running backs, you’d read names like Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie week in and week out. Then, as the 80’s progressed those names were replaced by Hoge, Williams, Carter, Worley, and Foster.

That changed in the Cowher Era and continued into the Tomlin Era to the point where depth-chart neglect saw several Tomlin Teams hobbled by an injury to a single running back.

But Mike Tomlin and Matt Canada altered course in 2022, opting for a depth chart that was 3 backs deep – with another on the practice squad.

  • The change delivered handsome dividends against the Colts.
Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs Colts

Anthony McFarland lays claim to an active roster spot. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers entered the game without Jaylen Warren. Najee Harris got the nod to start the game. His average might not be impressive, but he ran well. But even before Harris got hurt, the Steelers worked in Anthony McFarland.

When Harris went out with an injury, Tomlin turned to Benny Snell and McFarland.

The results speak for themselves. Splitting carries the duo:

  • Converted 2 critical 3rd downs on scoring drives
  • Scampered for a 14-yard run on the opening scoring drive
  • Hauled in a 12-yard reception on the field goal drive before half time
  • Opened the 1st half 2 minute drill with a 16 yard run
  • Ripped off a 13-yard run on the final/go ahead TD drive
  • Scored the go ahead touchdown

Where there times when both men were stopped in key situations for little or no gain? Yes. Can we say that “Benny Snell Football” with an assist from Anthony McFarland took over the game? No.

But, with Najee Harris out, would the Steelers have seen similar production from the 2020 equivalents of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Stevan Ridley?

I rest my case.

*This was actually quite fun, although I don’t expect you to believe me anymore than I believed my parents assurances that 1950’s Flash Gordon Serials were actually entertaining.

Special Teams Skirts with Sabotage

Almost nothing went right for the Indianapolis Colts in the first half. After Matthew Wright banged in a 25 yarder before half time, it appeared that the first thirty minutes would be a total loss for Jeff Saturday’s crew.

  • Then Isaiah Rodgers exploded for a 45 yard kickoff return.

Matt Ryan went to work, and brought his team to the Steelers 3 yard line with veteran savvy. Indy, it appeared would get on the board before the half. Isaiahh Loudermilk had other ideas, and blocked the kick.

  • Danny Smith’s special teams had atoned and absolved itself for its earlier mistake, so all good right?

Ah, No. Dallis Flowers took the opening kickoff of the 2nd half and streaked through the Steelers defenders, returning it 89 yards. Four plays later Johnathan Taylor was scoring a touchdown, getting the Colts back in the game.

Defending the Defense

Given their star power on defense, is it fair to expect that the Steelers would have and should have dominated the Colts offense? Yes.

The fact that they continued to give up long gains and only did so-so against Jonathan Taylor offer reasons for concern. The fact that T.J. Watt, three games back from injury, is only playing OK but not dominating is also a concern.

But the defense made several critical plays:

  • James Pierre intercepted Ryan’s second pass
  • Terrell Edmunds ended the next series with a sack
  • Chris Wormley made a heads up fumble recovery, reversing a would-be touchdown run
  • Arthur Maulet came up with a sack in the 4th quarter
  • Alex Highsmith sacked Ryan on the last drive, forcing a fumble

The Steelers defensive performance had its flaws, as it did against the Bengals, but it also made plays to keep the team in the game as it did against Cincinnati.

Kenny Pickett provided the difference.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers vs Colts, Kenny Pickett's first comebac

Kenny Pickett makes his first NFL comeback win. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Pickett’s First Comeback

As acknowledged above, this game will rightfully be remembered as Kenny Pickett’s first comeback.

There are few things more demoralizing in football than leading for an entire game, only to see that lead slip away as the 4th quarter arrives. Yet that’s just the situation Kenny Pickett found himself in. And he met the challenge head on.

He completed five straight passes. OK, there was an ugly, yard losing one to Zach Gentry. But he made a critical throw on third down to George Pickens and he delivered a catchable touchdown strike to Diontae Johnson that got dropped. If Pickett’s throw to Johnson was slightly overthrown, he bought time with his legs and delivered a perfect ball to George Pickens on the 2-point conversion.

Pickens didn’t author a heroic 4th quarter comeback the way Ben Roethlisberger used to – with an effective running game to lean on he was more like an orchestrator than a field general – but Pickett rose to the occasion.

Hopefully, this will be the first of many times we can say that.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Eagles: Fire & Fight Isn’t Enough Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher hoping fire and fight he saw in a losing effort isn’t fools gold, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2022 loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia.

Steven Simms, Steelers vs Eagles

Steven Simms returns a kick. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett’s road got rougher in his fourth start to the tune of 6 sacks and 11 total hits. Pickett protected the ball, until he didn’t in the 4th quarter. He did some nice things, used the middle of the field more, but the Steelers 1-12 third down conversion rate in 1 touchdown says it all. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Both Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren showed some fire and heart, but half of Harris’ 32 yards came on 1 run, while Warren had 6 carries for 50 yards. Harris added 6 catches for 26 yards while Warren had 3 for 25 yards. Derek Watt caught 2 passes including the only touchdown. The running backs weren’t a weak link, neither were they a strength. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth led the Steelers with catches, but the fact that he clocked in at 4 should tell you what you need to know about the Steelers offense. Zach Gentry caught one pass for 3 yards. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool had four catches and one pass for a touchdown. Diontae Johnson had 5 catches for 35 yards and probably should have drawn a pass interference penalty. George Pickens had three targets, he couldn’t come into bounds on one, got a ticky-tacky penalty on another and didn’t bring in a final catch. The Steelers needed more. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The slow, but steady progress the Steelers offensive line had been making came to a crashing halt in Philadelphia. Early on the Steelers running backs had no room to run, something that didn’t change until the draw plays started. Pass protection got worse as the game wore on. Even at its best it would have been rough sledding against the Eagles. The line was at it worst. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The line came up big late in the 2nd half when Carlos Davis and Cam Heyward logged sacks to force a Philly punt. But the line could not pressure Jalen Hurts for the rest of the afternoon, and gave up some rushing yardage late in the game when the Steelers still had a theoretical chance to win. Grade: C-

Linebackers
A quiet day for the unit Robert Spillane and Myles Jack led in tackles with Alex Highsmith rendered a non-factor. Grade: D

Secondary
The Stat sheet says that Terrell Edmunds and Cam Sutton defensed passes. Ahkello Witherspoon, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Edmunds got burned 3 times by A.J. Brown. James Pierre did well in relief, but that’s just window dressing. Grade: F

Special Teams
Replacement kicker Nick Sciba was perfect on his kicks, but his kickoffs left a lot to be desired. Pressley Harvin had a solid day punting and Steven Simms had a solid day returning. Return coverage was sound.

Gunner Olszewski made a gutsy play that showed a lot of spirit and the Steelers converted a fake punt thanks to Marcus Allen. Grade: B

Coaching
Ooh, this one was ugly.

But if you look at the 3 bombs the Steelers secondary gave up in the first half, Teryl Austin’s defensive backs were in the right places, they just didn’t make plays. Still, the inability to mount any semblance of a pass rush was part of what allowed Jalen Hurts make it look easy.

  • On offense the Steelers were a mess.

For yet another week, the unit only scored one touchdown, and if you credit Matt Canada’s creativity on the play, you also have to question why it was necessary, coming on 4th down by virtue of a penalty.

Malik Reed, Jalen Hurts, Steelers vs Eagles

Malik Reed disrupts a pass, saves a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

It would be insincere to suggest that, absent the penalties, the Steelers offense could have given the Eagles a run for the money. That’s probably not true. But penalties continue to short-circuit drives week-in-and-week-out.

Credit Mike Tomlin for keeping his guys burning with fire and fight until the better end, but that fire and fight didn’t make them competitive in this game, nor does it him on this Report Card. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Standing in as a replacement player for a generational talent is unforgiving. And for the most part, this player has been quiet, but against the Eagles Malik Reed had a sack and pressured and got a hand on a ball that would have been another touchdown, and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 10th consecutive loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia.

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Hurts So Good: Steelers Lose to Eagles 35-13 as Jalen Hurts Scorches Secondary

The Pittsburgh Steelers lost 35-13 to the Philadelphia Eagles, extending their losing streak in the City of Brotherly Love to 10 games and 57 years.

When asked about his latest loss, Mike Tomlin cited Pittsburgh’s penchant for penalties, explaining that at times it was “Steelers vs. Steelers.” While conceding with respect Jalen Hurts 4 touchdown performance, Tomlin added “They were making those plays and we did not.”

  • Yes, they did. And then some.

You can slice and dice the loss to the Eagles in a number of ways, but it all boils down to one painful reality: The Eagles are an elite football team; the Steelers are not.

Still, with the Steelers sitting at a 2-6 record going into the bye week, it is fair to ask, “Are there positives Pittsburgh can pull out of this game?” Perhaps, but only if you keep the proper perspective.

Kenny Pickett, Haason Reddick, Steelers vs Eagles

Haason Reddick hits Kenny Pickett. Photo Credit: John Geibeiler, Eagles.com

Varsity Offense Shames Steelers Defense

Three weeks ago the Steelers traveled to Buffalo and Josh Allen and the Bills hung 38 points on the Steelers defense in a game that was over by half time.

The Steelers defense answered by making Tom Brady look mortal, and then hung with Miami by effectively neutralizing Tua Tagovailoa, Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill’s fast-track offense for 3 quarters. The defense the Steelers a chance to win against Miami.

A.J. Brown, Ahkello Witherspoon, Steelers vs Eagles

A.J. Brown scores a touchdown over Ahkello Witherspoon. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

So it was fair to ask, “Could the Steelers T.J. Wattless defense carry the team while Kenny Pickett and the offense found its footing?”

The answer revealed against the Eagles, and was a resounding, “No.”

  • Three times Jayen Hurts looked to A.J. Brown from 30 yards or more than out.
  • And three times Ahkello Witherspoon, Minkah Fitzpatrick and/or Terrell Edmunds was there.
  • And three times Jaylen Hurts placed the ball perfectly.
  • And three times Brown played the ball perfectly as the Steelers defenders didn’t.
  • And three times the Eagles torched the Steelers for deep touchdowns – all in the first half.

To requote Mike Tomlin, “They were making those plays and we did not.” Yes, the Steelers defense did do some nice things. Cam Heyward, Malik Reed and Carlos Davis came up with sacks which helped scuttle a few drives.

But the Steelers defense only really got to Hurts one other time. Terrell Edmunds broke up another would be touchdown pass and James Pierre helped contain Brown. But that was really just window dressing.

Eagles running back Miles Sanders also caught them with their pants down late in the game, when, theoretically, a score and a stop could have put Pittsburgh back in the game. The Steelers defense couldn’t deliver.

It was not to be.

When a team scores 4 touchdowns on you without sniffing the Red Zone, you’re getting burned plain and simple.

Canada’s Offense Continues to Sputter

Kenny Pickett had a rough day. The Eagles pass rush got better as the game wore on as Pickett was sacked six times, including a strip sack. Overall he was hit 11 times.

  • Eight weeks into 2022, it is hard to say what the Steelers offensive philosophy is.

Their 9 minute time of possession advantage would seem to suggest that its ball control, but for a ball control offense to work, you must to score. And the Steelers only managed to score 13 points, their lone touchdown coming on a trick play: A Chase Claypool pass to Derek Watt.

The Steelers did try to air it out more, but as George Pickens experience showed, they just couldn’t come down with the ball in bounds. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren both logged a few nice runs today, but unless they were running draw plays, they got bottled up at the line of scrimmage.

  • And whenever the Steelers started generating some momentum, penalties would push them back.

Scoring 13 points against an elite defense is better than being limited to 3 points as they were against the Bills, but clearly this unit isn’t getting it done.

Fire + Fight = Hope for the Future? Well See

One has to dig hard to find reasons for hope after a loss like this.

  • If they are there, they’re to be found in the fight the Steelers showed from start to finish.

If the Steelers 1 and 12 is as abysmal as it is – and it is – they were also 4-4 on fourth down attempts, including a fake punt that saw Marcus Allen gain 4 yards. Two of those 4th down conversions came on the Steelers lone 2nd half scoring drive.

Chase Claypool, Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren all fought and earned extra yards late in the game when hope was spare.

Gunner Olszewski also showed similar moxie when he tried to pick up a downed punt. One might question the wisdom of such a risky play, but you’ve got to admire his spirit. Likewise, working as both a returner and a receiver Steven Sims showed the he could perhaps develop into a weapon.

  • Can Mike Tomlin focus that fight and rebound out of the bye week with a few wins?

Time will tell. But for now the Steelers are 2-6, and the loss to the Eagles shows just how deep the hole is that they must dig themselves out of.

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Steelers Report Card for the Loss to the Dolphins: Misery in Miami Edition

From the grade book of a tardy teacher who nonetheless sees signs of progress in his students miserable performance here is the Steelers Report Card for the Sunday Night Football loss to the Miami Dolphins.

George Pickens, Noah Igbinoghene, Steelers vs Dolphins

George Pickens with another Lynn Swann like catch. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

Quarterback
In his second full start, Kenny Pickett did some nice things, leading a touchdown drive and putting the team in position to win late in the game, twice. Still, third down conversion was abysmal and the interceptions lethal.  Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris is improving, but still isn’t delivering the production on first and second downs that the team needs. Jaylen Warren converted another third down and was an asset in his passing game. Running back were OK. But the Steelers offense needs more. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth was a bright spot on offense, catching 8 of 9 balls thrown to him for 75 yards. Zach Gentry caught both passes thrown his way but lost yards on one first down attempt. Worse yet a non-block on another questionable call led to another first down that lost yardage. These errors weren’t that consequential, but they are examples of how small mistakes are killing this offense. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Rookie George Pickens led the group with six catches on six tries with an incredible touchdown. Diontae Johnson had 5 catches on 10 targets but a miscommunication contributed to the last interception. Chase Claypool had 5 catches on 8 yards. Grade: C

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was sacked twice and hit six more times. Running backs had a little more room to run, and the team converted on four down twice. The offensive line IS improving. But still has a ways to go. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi both came up big in short yardage situations again, and had the game ended differently, those could have been the plays of the game. Still, Raheem Mostert had some success running the ball and Tagovailoa went untouched the entire night. Grade: B-

Linebackers
Myles Jack was all over the field and is emerging as a true team leader. This unit contributed as much as any to the 2nd half shut out. Still, no one got to Tagoviloa save for one hit by Malik Reed. Grade: B

Secondary
Yes, Levi Wallace, Terrell Edmunds and Cam Sutton let interceptions slip through their fingers. Any one of those could have been the difference in this game. Still, the unit contained Tyreek Hill while Miami went 4-14 on third downs, as the Steelers defense pitched a 2nd half shutout without a pass rush. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect on his kicks, Gunner Olszewski had one nice punt return and kept the ball in his hands. Punt coverage was strong, kick coverage OK. Pressley Harvin was wildly inconsistent. His short punts alone were hardly a difference maker, but serve as yet another example of how the team can position itself to win by eliminating small mistakes. Grade: B-

Alex Highsmith, Tua Tagovailoa, Steelers vs Dolphins

Alex Highsmith just can’t quite get to Tua Tagovailoa. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Coaching
Matt Canada is taking a lot of heat in Steelers Nation this week.

When your offense is near the bottom of every major statistical category and scoring a second touchdown would be considered an “improvement” that comes with the territory. Still, how much is really on the play calling and not the execution? Canada didn’t commit those penalties that preceded Pickett’s interception – nor did he throw that pick.

This isn’t to defend Canada per se, but it should dispel the idea that summarily firing him would provide Pittsburgh with a panacea.

One defense Teryl Austin and Brian Flores quickly adjusted to Miami’s offense and forced them to settle for 3 points 3 times, before shutting them out completely in the second half.

You are your record. The Steelers are 2-5. That’s not good. So be it. Mike Tomlin’s players contested every blade of grass to the bitter end. Will they keep that up down the stretch? IF they do, will effort translate into victories? I don’t know.

But for now, they’re fighting. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
People have been down on him for a while. Some of it is warranted, some of it perhaps not. Against the Dolphins he batted a pass away, made a tackle for a loss, and a logged touchdown saving stop on a bootleg and for that Devin Bush wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Sunday Night Football loss to the Dolphins.

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Growing Pains: Steelers 16-10 Loss to Dolphins, 2-5 Record Obscures Painful Progress

Frustrating. Disappointing. Unfortunate. These words come to mind after the Pittsburgh Steelers 16-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday Night Football.

Mike Tomlin labeled it a hard-fought defensive battle that slipped through their fingers, thanks to 4 dropped interceptions by Pittsburgh vs 3 that the Dolphins caught.

Fair enough. Indeed, at the game’s end the descriptor “Two interceptions too far” was tempting. But another explainer works better: Growing Pains.

There’s no sugar coating this. 2-6 sucks in the NFL. Pittsburgh is feeling the pain, but there were signs  that this pain signals future gain.

Kenny Pickett, Jaelan Phillips

Jalean Phillips tries to bring Kenny Pickett down. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Defense Bends, But Doesn’t Break, Pushes Back

This one started ugly. Miami won the toss and Tua Tagovailoa carved the Steelers up with laser like efficiency and the Dolphins scored with clockwork precision. Clearly, the Steelers could hope to slow him down, let alone stop him as the Dolphins raced right back down to the Red Zone as soon as they got the ball back.

  • However, The Steelers defense bent, but it didn’t break.

Larry Ogunjobi snuffed out a run, Devin Bush stopped Tua Tagovailoa on a scramble, Minkah Fitzpatrick deflected a pass in the Red Zone and the Dolphins settled for 3. But it didn’t seem to matter. Kenny Pickett threw an interception two plays later, and 3 plays later Miami was again knocking on Pittsburgh’s door at the 23.

  • The Steelers defense forced Tua Tagovailoa into 3 misfires, and Miami was kicking again.
Devin Bush, Steelers vs Dolphins

Devin Bush deflects a pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The real turn for the defense came in the Dolphins 1st possession of the third quarter. ON 3rd and 2 at the Steelers 14, Cam Heyward slammed Chase Edmonds back like a rag doll for a 1 yard loss. Mike McDaniel opted to go for it on 4th and 3 and Myles Jack stoned Edmonds for no gain.

  • The Steelers defense wasn’t in “bend but don’t break” mold – it was pushing back.

The defense affirmed that after Jevon Holland intercepted Kenny Pickett with 3:06 left. The math was simple: A Miami first down wins the game. But the defense forced a quick three and out.

  • Can you ask more from the defense?

Yes, you can. Cam Sutton and Levi Wallace dropped interceptions that could have prevented two of the Dolphins field goals. Wallace and Terrell Edmunds dropped picks that could have given the Steelers a shorter field.

The defense couldn’t deliver victory, but they contested every single blade of grass during the game’s last fifty three minutes and forty five seconds and they did so with playoff-level intensity.

Yeah, Canada’s Offense Is Bad, but Still….

Matt Canada is the most hated man in Steelers Nation today. Even Ed Bouchette, who witnessed the darkest days of Joe Walton, Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride, asserts he’s never seen a worse Steelers offense.

While tempted to disagree, I’ll lean back on Chuck Noll’s wisdom that, “When you lose, everything they say about you is true.” Measured by many metrics Matt Canada’s offense is either the worst or among the worst in the NFL.

So be it. There were still positive take aways from the Dolphins game:

No, no one will confuse this offensive line with those of Mike Munchak. But the unit is making progress under Pat Myer’s tutelage. This all is encouraging, but transforming these incremental improvement into points and victories depends on one man: Kenny Pickett

Pickett’s Charge

Evaluating quarterbacks in for the NFL is perilous. For every Peyton Manning there are two Ryan Leafs. Why is this? Well, perhaps because you can’t measure a quarterback’s greatest asset, his mental toughness.

An NFL quarterback needs to project where 11 guys will move in a single instant. He must know where a half dozen of his players will go once the ball is in motion. He’s got to process that information and fire off a piece of pigskin at over 55 miles per hour with NASA like precision hitting moving a window that’s the size of a lunch box. Oh, and he needs to do all of this in about 2 seconds with 4 or 5 300 pound guys trying to kill him.

Suffice to say, quarterbacks make mistakes. Even the best ones.

  • The critical question is: How does a quarterback respond when he makes a mistake?

You can’t test for that at the combine, nor does college necessarily offer a representative sample. Kenny Pickett shook off his first interception, intended for Chase Claypool, and led two scoring drives in the first half.

  • He didn’t do much in the second half – until the game was on the line.

Then he moved the team to the 15 yard line, where he converted a 3rd down only to have penalties push him back 15 yards. Then he threw an interception. It would have been easy to fold then, but the defense got the ball back.

Pickett didn’t fold. Instead he moved the team nearly 80 yards to the Dolphins 25, where a miscommunication with Diontae Johnson led to another interception.

I’ll let the X’s and O’s experts critique the technical parts of Pickett’s performance, but my take away is that those two drives suggest he has the mental toughness needed to be an NFL quarterback.

If that’s the case, these growing pains will result in something positive.

Let’s Keep It Real

Rolling your eyes and saying “The Steelers are 2-5 and this guy’s trying to push the positive…?” I am, but I’m also realistic. If you’re 2-5 in the NFL you, put eloquently, suck.

  • And guess what? Next up is the Eagles.

Not only are the Eagles the NFL’s last undefeated team, they’re playing in Philadelphia a city that the Steelers haven’t won in since 1965, when a man on the moon was more science fiction than fact, and in Pittsburgh the phrase “Nixon sucks” referred to Steelers coach Mike Nixon because Richard had assured us we didn’t have him to kick around anymore.

Nixon, however did earn one of his two victories at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field, thereby accomplishing something that neither Bill Austin, Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher nor Mike Tomlin have been able to do.

While the positives I saw against the Dolphins are real, expect things to get worse before they get better.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Buccaneers – 2nd String Upsets Tom Brady Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who is ecstatic that his students refused to be defined by low expectations of others, here is the Steelers Report Card for the upset win over Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Alex Highsmith, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Alex Highsmith strip sacks Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, HJ News.com

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett stepped and did something that no Steelers quarterback had done in 13 games – lead an opening drive for a touchdown. And if the rest of Pickett’s afternoon was workman like, he did keep drives moving and the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands. Mitch Trubisky came off of the bench and played decisively, leading a scoring drive and killing the clock with 3 critical 3rd down conversions. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris only had 42 yards plus to catches for 7 yards, but he ran hard, forced piles to fall forward and transformed some would-be losses into positive gains. Jaylen Warren only had 2 carries for 2 yards – but one of them was on 4th and 1. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
Zach Gentry had 1 catch for 4 yards, but it was Connor Heyward who made the most of his elevated role, who had two catches but set up the Steelers 4th quarter touchdown with a 45 yard catch and run. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 5 catches for 28 yards and two runs for 8. George Pickens had 3 catches for 27 yards and one run for one yard. Chase Claypool had what should be a breakout game, catching 7 of 7 passes, including 2 that converted 3rd downs on the final possession, the second of which would have made Lynn Swann proud. Claypool also had 1 run for 8 yards. Grade: A

Offensive Line
Steelers quarterbacks were only sacked twice and hit two other times. Moreover, the offensive line did manage to move people on critical downs. Grade: B

Defensive Line
This is where the magic started. Cam Heyward led the unit with 3 tackles, one for a loss, a sack and two QB hits. Chris Wormley had a key tackle for a loss on third down. Larry Ogunjobi had a tackle for a loss in the Red Zone and two QB hit. Leonard Fournette has given Pittsburgh nighmares before, but the Steelers held him in check. Grade: A

Linebackers
Miles Jack, Malik Reed, Robert Spillane and Alex Highsmith were all credit with passes defensed. Devin Bush wasn’t, but his was perhaps the most important play of the game as it negaited a 2 point conversion. Highsmith had a sack, and Reed had an uncredited hit on Tom Brady. Grade: A

Secondary
Perhaps one benefit to four starters being out of the lineup was that Terrell Edmunds contributions got to shine. As the only active starter, Edmunds kept everyone coordinated while, leading the team in tackles, including for a loss. Edmunds provided a critical source of stability, as he has done since arriving in Pittsburgh. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect kicking, although his 55 yarder was close. Pressley Harvin punted the ball smartly, including knocking off several long ones when the Steelers were deep in their own territory.

The reals star of special teams was Steven Sims, who in his first regular season action logged a 24 yard punt return and a 89 yard kickoff return to start the second half. Grade: A

Steven Sims, Steelers vs Bucanneers

Steve Simms breaks open a punt return. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Coaching
Matt Canada has taken a lot of grief and some of it has been justified. And while his offense only put up 20 point – while failing to convert a gift-wrapped Red Zone situation following Simms return, it opened the game with a touchdown, scored another touchdown on its penultimate drive converted 3 third downs burning 4:38 seconds off the clock.

  • Canada wasn’t perfect, but his offense delivered when it had to.

The Steelers defense entered this game with a pre-cooked excuse for failure. The defense has struggled mightily in T.J. Watt’s absence, and it was now missing four of its top 5 defensive backs.

Yet Teryl Austin and Brian Flores saw that circumstance as a challenge, not an excuse. The duo designed a game plan that got just enough pressure on Tom Brady to make him uncomfortable, while keeping his receivers covered. Most importantly, they got the players to buy and execute to perfection.

  • It all starts at the top.

The Steelers have gotten worse with each loss. Mike Tomlin acknowledged that, but resisted any urge to make a knee jerk reaction and rejected calls to change for the sake of change. Instead, Tomlin leaned into a systemic approach to improvement, while getting his players to believe in themselves. That attitude was evident from start to finish. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
As a teenager in DC, I remember listening to the Monday Night Football on the radio during the 1987 season when Washington’s all-scab team beat a Dallas Cowboys team filled with veterans. To this day, fans in the DC area still boast about the night “Our scabs beat the Dallas starters!”

  • Yet, how many people can name more than one of those “scabs?”

Steelers Nation will long remember the day the Steelers 2nd string secondary upset Tom Brady, and while they may not remember their names in the future, we will shout out James Pierre, Tre Norwood, Arthur Maulet, Josh Jackson, Quincy Wilson and Elijah Riley as the Unsung Heroes of the upset over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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