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.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

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.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Upset! Short-Handed Steelers Beat Tom Brady, Buccaneers 20-18 as Trubisky Comes Off the Bench

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20-18 at Acrisure Stadium in a game that embodies the concept of “Upset.”

Mike Tomlin’s Steelers hadn’t simply dropped four straight games since their opening day win over the Bengals: They got progressively worse with each loss. They arrived at the stadium today absent their number 1 tight end, their All Pro safety and their top three cornerbacks.

  • Worse yet, Tom Brady, the GOAT was their opponent.

Did anyone give the Steelers a chance? I know I didn’t. Craig Wolfley, the optimists’ optimist was none too positive in his pregame comments. Mike Tomlin, however, did give Pittsburgh a chance, and he made sure his players gave themselves a chance, and that attitude carried the Steelers from the very first play to the very last.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Chase Claypool scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Upsets in Context

Special upsets occur not when a team wins a game that they “shouldn’t” win, but rather when they prevail when the consensus is that they “couldn’t” win.

I experienced my first special Steelers upset listening to Myron Cope on WTAE while on the Pennsylvania Turnpike as Chuck Noll’s 1989 Steelers, after losing their first two games 51-0 and 41-10, shocked the Minnesota Vikings, then a Super Bowl favorite, 27-14 at Three Rivers Stadium.

Eleven years later I stood in Baltimore’s Purple Goose Saloon, as Bill Cowher’s 0-3 Steelers went down to Jacksonville, having had their starting quarterback injured late in practice on Friday, and pasted the then Super Bowl favorite Jaguars 24-13. The upset over the Jaguars set the tone for an entire decade.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars

Jerome Bettis leads Steelers to first win in Jacksonville. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Chuck Noll’s ’89 Steelers defied the odds because, after watching his team lose 92-10 in their first two outings, he boldly stood in the locker room and declared “I believe in this team,” and then outlined how they were going to address their short comings by “getting back to basics.”

Bill Cowher’s ’00 Steelers rebounded because new leaders like Aaron Smith, Joey Porter and Deshea Townsend while stalwarts like Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart reasserted themselves.

  • How did Mike Tomlin’s ’22 Steelers pull off their upset today?

Time will tell if he delved into his coaching craft to find something unique or if new leaders emerged, but today we can make one definitive observation: The Steelers beat Tampa Bay because they dominated in the Red Zone.

Steelers Dominate the Red Zone

Often times, in today’s Fantasy Football fueled football discussion exaggerates the importance of the Red Zone. But make no mistake about it, there is one undeniable truth about the Red Zone and that is this:

  • Play well in the Red Zone and you give yourself a chance to win.
  • Fail in the Red Zone, and you’ll likely loose.

Much will be made about Kenny Pickett’s difficulty in scoring points, but his scramble in the Red Zone set up a 4th and 1, and Jaylen Warren’s 1 yard run on 4th is what set up Pickett’s pass to Najee Harris – the Steelers first opening drive touchdown since last year’s tie vs Detroit.

  • That set the tone for what was to follow, on both sides of the ball.

Myles Jack and Tre Norwood broke up passes in the Red Zone on the next play, forcing field goals. Larry Ogunjobi and Terrell Edmunds made tackles for losses and Cam Heyward got a sack forcing field goals the next time Tampa Bay reached the Red Zone. On the Buccaneers next trip to the Red Zone, Tom Brady & company had five shots inside the Steelers ten. All of those came up short, despite a Steelers holding penalty. Again, Tampa settled for 3.

The real Red Zone fireworks came in the fourth quarter, as Mitch Trubisky rifled a six yard bullet to Chase Claypool to give Pittsburgh a 20-12 lead.

Tom Brady of course rallied the Buccaneers, as you’d expect him to do with nearly 10 minutes left to play. But while Tampa scored a touchdown, they missed the 2 point conversion thanks to Devin Bush deflecting the pass.

Steelers vs Buccaneers, Terrell Edmunds, Malik Reed, Cameron Heyward, Leonard Fournette

Steelers stop Leonard Fournette. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Defense Delivers, Special Teams Special

Those Red Zone performances were made relevant by the outstanding work done by the defense and special teams with a significant contribution by a workman-like offense.

One should not lose sight of this simple fact: The Steelers were starting practice squad cornerbacks against Tom Brady. And they won. They won in part by forcing 5 punts, as Tampa Bay went 4-14 on third downs.

Myles Jack, Robert Spillane, Alex Highsmith and Malik Reed all batted away passes. Highsmith registered a strip sack that help scuttle a drive. Chris Wormley made a critical tackle for a loss that closed the 3rd quarter by forcing a punt.

Steven Sims saw his first regular season action and responded by ripping off a 24 yard punt return and opening the 2nd half with an 89 yard kickoff return. And if the Steelers inability to turn that long return into a touchdown is frustrating, Chris Boswell delivered when called upon, tacking on 3 points in a game that was ultimately decided by two.

Mitch, Chase Connect to Close the Game

If you’d told me that the Steelers could hold a 2 point lead with 4:38 left in the 4th quarter, I’d have told you it was possible, but improbable. If you told me the Steelers held that lead despite Kenny Pickett leaving with a concussion I’d have rolled my eyes.

But if you’d told me that the Steelers would lose 13 yards on a bad snap after on their second play from scrimmage while defending that lead but still would win, I’d have said you were bat shit crazy.

Yet that is what happened, thanks to exceptional plays by Mitch Tribuisky and Chase Claypool, who teamed up on 3rd and 15 and 3rd and 11 to kill the clock.

Road from Here

After the game, Mike Tomlin, while praising his players was quick to remind everyone, “…where we are is more than one good day, one good plan, one good winning performance in terms of working our way back to respectability.”

Tomlin strikes exactly the right tone. After all, this still is a team that 2-4 so the Steelers locker room would do well to embrace Tomlin’s words.

But man, it does feel good beat Tom Brady.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers Report Card for the Upset Over the Bengals – Call It As You See It Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher whose summer assessment of his student’s strengths and weaknesses appears to be on target, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2022 overtime upset win over the Bengals at Paycor Stadium.

Ja'Marr Chase, Arthur Maulet, Steelers vs Bengals

Steelers upend Ja’Marr Chase at the goal line. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, via Steelers.com

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky first start brought good, bad and ugly. The Ugly: The Steelers were 4-15 on third down and they punted 8 times, including FIVE three and outs. The Bad: Pittsburgh only had 113 yards in regulation and only scored one touchdown. The Good: Trubisky avoided turnovers and kept himself upright. More importantly, he put the offense in scoring position not once but twice in over time. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
You know your running game has issues when a wide receiver has more yards on the ground that RB 1 and RB 2. Combined. Najee Harris had one nice run, but otherwise had no where to go. Jaylen Warren had 7 yards on 3 carries…. It may not be their “fault” but the running game was “Below the line.” Grade: D

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry both set up touchdowns with long gains in the first half, with Freiermuth making not one but two key catches that set up the game winner in OT. Surely the tight ends shoulder some responsibility for the run blocking fiasco, but they delivered Trubisky looked their way. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had what was perhaps his best catch as a Steeler and one that should have set up the game winner in overtime. Chase Claypool did his damage with 4 catches and 3 runs. George Pickens had 1 catch for 3 yards. The receivers did their part. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
Mitch Trubisky was sacked once, hit 5 other times and had to scramble 3 times. Not great, but a slight improvement over last year. The run blocking was atrocious. Pittsburgh was positively pathetic when trying to pound it in at the goal line. Nor did they get any push upfront at any point in the game. This. Must. Improve. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward’s opening sack was a tone setter for the entire game. His fumble recovery set up another score. Larry Ogunjobi had four tackles and a QB hit. Tyson Alualu and Chris Wormley had two. Joe Mixon was in check all day and just as Joe Burrow was under pressure. Grade: A

Linebackers
Alex Highsmith had 3 sacks while T.J. Watt had a sack, an interception and batted down two passes. Robert Spillane had a sack, and Devin Bush played aggressively. Myles Jack had a key pass defense and led the linebackers with 10 tackles. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick dominated the Bengals. His pick six forced them to play catch-up from the get go. He led the team in tackles and, even after a bogus penalty in the end zone, he broke up a would-be touchdown on the next play. Cam Sutton and Ahkello Witherspoon both had interceptions while Levi Wallace had a key pass break up. Terrell Edmunds quietly put in a good game stuffing out a number of runners before they could reach the second level. Grade: A

Special Teams
Gunner Olszewski made his single returnable punt count by setting up a score with a 20 yards return. Pressley Harvin averaged over 48 yards on his 8 punts. Punt return coverage was strong. Minkah Fitzpatrick’s extra point block was the game’s second most important play after his pick six. Chris Boswell did miss a field goal in OT, and that brings this grade down, but he didn’t blink on his second chance. Grade: A-

Coaching
The Steelers defense came out swinging with a sack and an pick six on successive plays. They kept that up for the next 72 minutes. But Splash plays were nothing new compared to last year.

  • The run defense delivered the difference.

Joe Mixon embarrassed the Steelers defense last year. Twice. Sunday, aside from one long run, Teryl Austin and Brian Flores’ boys neutralized him.

  • The offense told a different story.

For 2 years debate has raged over “What a Matt Canada offense will really look like.” Well, now Canada has his quarterback, but against the Bengals it was more of the same:  Weak offensive line play, three-and-outs, lots of Chris Boswell field goals with just enough late fireworks to keep it interesting.

Canada might not have the personnel upfront and Tribuisky might not be a long-term signal caller, but he needs to find a way to make it work now.

Mike Tomlin welcomed many new faces to the fold this off season on all sides of the ball. Had you not known that you’d have thought this was a group of veterans who’d been together for 6 or 7 years based on their resiliency alone. Grade: B

Arthur Maulet, Joe Burrow, Steelers vs Bengals 2022

Arthur Maulet strip sacks Joe Burrow in overtime. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, via Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
This player embodies the principle that the Steelers care about what you can do, not where you come from. He arrived in Pittsburgh as a veteran minimum player during an off season where the Steelers were navigating salary cap Armageddon. He did enough to earn a second contract, and in Cincinnati his strip sack was enough to give Chris Boswell a second chance to win it in overtime. And for that Arthur Maulet wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2022 opening day overtime win over the Bengals.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

The Case for the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers start the post-Ben Roethlisberger era this Sunday as they open the 2022 season against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium. The Steelers have a new quarterback, a new general manager and when they return to Pittsburgh, they’ll be playing at Acrisure Stadium instead of Heinz Field.

  • So Steel Curtain Rising is responding to all this change by reviving a tradition perfected by a lost friend.

If you’re fortunate enough to have known the late, great Ivan Cole you will remember that he previewed every season with an article titled “The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 20xx.”

There, Ivan would make the strongest case possible for the Steelers Super Bowl chances, with the caveat that he was only laying out a best case scenario and not making a prediction.

So today I honor my departed friend with my own best-case scenario.

T.J. Watt, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt contains Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Steelers Strong @ Skill Positions

For the last 16 or 17 years Bob Labriola’s preseason analysis has hinged on one key fact – The Steelers had a chance at a Lombardi because they had franchise quarterback.

  • Now that Roethlisberger has retired, does doom the Steelers?

No, far from it. If a year ago, Ben Roethlisberger gave the Steelers a certain floor (see his six 4th quarter comebacks), he also gave them a bit of a ceiling. He was clearly a bad fit for Matt Canada’s offense (Ben was at his best, almost his old self, calling his own plays; the rest of the time? Not so much), and even with the addition of Najee Harris, his inability to throw deep limited the offense.

Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

That alone should improve first half scoring. In other words, while Trubisky cannot be expected to mount 4th quarter comebacks the way Ben did, they may not be as necessary.

And should Trubisky falter, Kenny Pickett has looked as good as anyone had a right to expect him to look so far. Which brings us to Mason Rudolph. Booing fans may beg to differ, but a third string quarterback with 17 starts under his belt is something most NFL coaches would envy.

So this is the deepest quarterback room the Steelers have had since 2012… when they finished 8-8. OK. But I’d argue that the 2022 Steelers are far deeper at the skill positions.

Najee Harris gave the Steelers their first 1,000 yard rusher in 4 years despite working behind a terrible offensive line. Benny Snell Jr. may not be RB number 1 material, but he is a solid backup. Jaylen Warren impressed enough in presason to be the “next man up” if the depth chart is correct.

At wide receiver the Steelers are led by Diontae Johnson, a promising young player whose impressive body of work is underpinned by his integrity, worth ethic and maturity. In other words someone who can provide a perfect example for rookie George Pickens as well as Chase Claypool, a veteran struggling to mature.

Myles Boykin and Gunner Olszewski provide solid depth from two men who can play specials teams, and this group only figures to get stronger with Calvin Austin’s return.

At tight end Pat Freiermuth appears poised to grow into a “Go To Guy” in clutch situations, while Zach Gentry has a chance to prove that drafting a guy as “a project” isn’t necessarily a dirty word. If new comer Conner Heyward works out, the Steelers could have their deepest tight end room since 2010.

Which brings us to the Offensive Line….

A Lot Is Riding on the Offensive Line

Let’s call a horse a horse: The Steelers can be stronger at quarterback, running back, wide out and tight end, but if their offensive line fails to improve all is for naught.

And let’s not sugar coat this: Based on the preseason, the Steelers offensive line is picking up right where they left off in 2021.

This is bad.

It is even worse when you factor in the Steelers spending 72 million to sign Mason Cole and James Daniels and resign Chukwuma Okorafor. Tony Defeo has counseled patience towards the offensive line, but is that just a Pittsburgh pipe dream?

On a Steel City Insider podcast, Craig Wolfley assured Steelers fans that the line can improve. OK. Wolfey sees the world with Black and Gold tinted sun glasses you say? Well that’s true. But Duke Manyweather, who trains NFL lineman in the off season, reminded Steelers fans:

A little history is helpful here: The Steelers offensive lines in 2008 and 2010 started out as weak spots and struggled mightily at times, but both units improved during the course of the season.

Difference on the Defensive Front 7? Known Unknowns

In 2021 the Pittsburgh Steelers fielded the franchise’s worst run defense since the 1940’s. Honestly, one has to wonder why opposing coaches even bothered to throw. It was obvious that even an average running back could, would and did gouge the Steelers run defense for double digit gains at will.

  • Why did that happen?

In a word, because Stephon Tuitt was injured, Vince Williams retired, Tyson Alualu’s season lasted 6 quarters and Devin Bush wasn’t the same prior to tearing his ACL. But except for Bush, the Steelers couldn’t have anticipated any of this prior to the season.

  • The Steelers used the past off season to plan accordingly.

Larry Ogunjobi gives the Steelers a quality option on the defensive line, and Myles Jack should help stabilize the center of the defense behind the line. Likewise, the Steelers made frequent use of their 3 safety package during the preseason which should strengthen the run defense.

True, Damontae Kazee being out to start the season is a setback, but the 3 safety package’s existence suggests that Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin and Brain Flores are actively addressing this liability.

At outside linebacker T.J. Watt is flashing signs of being a generational talent, while Alex Highsmith looks to improve. Depth is thin behind them, but Malik Reed’s arrival should help. But the Steelers need both starters to remain healthy.

Secondary = Primary Intrigue

The secondary is of the most intriguing depth charts on this 2022 Steelers squad. In 2021 Cam Sutton emerged a true leader and a legitimate starting NFL cornerback. Last year, just before the season, the Steelers raised eyebrows when they traded for cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon.

Those eyebrows remained raised when Witherspoon sat on the bench for 8 of the Steelers 9 first games. He only started getting serious snaps in week 12, but managed to finish the season with 3 interceptions and 9 passes defensed. The Steelers resigned him along with Levi Wallace, a cornerback who had a lot of success against the Black and Gold.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Willie Snead, Justin Tucker, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Tucker lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com

At safety Damontae Kazee was looking like he could turn into one of those trademark Steelers under-the-rader free agency signings and, if his stay on injured reserve as indeed short-lived, he still could be.

If it is, he will join Terrell Edmunds, a player who returned to Pittsburgh after finding lukewarm interest on the free agent market. IT says here that Edmunds misfortune is Pittsburgh’s good luck. While Edmunds may never be a superstar, he’s improved each year, and should be a stabilizing force in the secondary.

Many, including this author, questioned the wisdom of the Steelers trading their first round pick for Minkah back in 2019, but since then he’s made game changing play after game changing play.

Special Teams to Be Special?

Anyone who doubts the importance of special teams need only remember how the Steelers struggled in 2018 when the kicking game faltered.

In Chris Boswell the Steelers return one of the best kickers in the NFL. Statistics say that the Ravens Justin Tucker is the NFL’s best, and his resume speaks for itself. But Boswell kicks in a tougher venue, and the man his ice water flowing throw his veins.

  • If the game comes down to Boswell’s foot I wouldn’t bet against him.

A year ago the Steelers drafted Pressley Harvin in the 7th round, and fans spent the season wondering why Mike Tomlin kept him around. However, if he can translate his preseason punting exploits into the regular season, we’ll know why.

If he can hold onto the ball, Gunner Olszewski should give the Steelers a viable threat in the return game, and Steve Simms also looked good as a returner in preseason.Ivan Cole

Tomlin Adds Experienced Coaches to the Mix

While Mike Tomlin is a well-known commodity, this will be the first time he’ll start a season without a franchise quarterback. Tomlin will also welcome a number of new assistant coaches either to the team or to new roles within the team.

Teryl Austin will take over as defensive coordinator, Brian Flores arrives as linebackers coach and work as a senior defensive assistant. Pat Meyer joins the team as offensive line coach. Alfredo Roberts, Grady Brown and Frishman Jackson round out the new faces at position coaches, taking over the tight end, defensive backs and wide receiver rooms.

  • What to make of all this?

Well, if Mike Tomlin has struggled when he’s tried to identify, recruit and/or promote up and coming young coaching talent (think Scottie Montgomery, Jack Bicknell or Carnell Lake), he’s repeatedly he’s demonstrated ability to bring in experienced veteran value adding coaches to his staff (think Richard Mann, Mike Munchak and yes, Todd Haley.)

Tomlin’s hires for senior positions all boast extensive resumes in both the NFL and/or college and should serve as able mentors for a maturing team.

Steelers fans in northern Virginia.

Ivan Cole, right, middle, with Bill Steinbach and Rebecca Rollett

Will Underdog Status Once Again Suit the Steelers?

We close this tribute to Ivan Cole, by quoting from his “The Case for the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers,” which he wrapped up with:

I want to end like I began. I am not saying what I think will happen this season, just a best case scenario of what can happen in a fully realistic way, and in many respects, validated by history.

Like Ivan, I’m not making predictions. Nor am I ignorant to the fact that the Steelers are playing in the AFC North, home to two potential Super Bowl-NFL MPA favorite tandems in the form of Bengals with Joe Burrow and the Ravens with Lamar Jackson.

Must pundits outside of Pittsburgh are predicting a rough year, not only forecasting Mike Tomlin’s first losing effort but a 5 or 6 win season.

But if Ivan were he he’d say, “So be it. Let Iron sharpen Iron. And besides, the Steelers play best with their back to the wall. So let’s live in our hopes and not in our fears!”

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Subtraction & Addition: Steelers 2022 Roster and Practice Squad @ a Glance

The Pittsburgh Steelers made final cuts reducing their roster to 53 members, but had to do some addition to complement their subtraction.

To shore up the thin depth behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers traded a 6th round pick from the 2023 NFL Draft to the Denver Broncos for outside linebacker Malik Reed and Denver’s 7th round 2023 pick.
They also traded a conditional 7th round pick to the Miami Dolphins for offensive lineman Jesse Davis, strengthening what is the weakest area on the depth chart going into the season.

Mike Tomlin

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

Some Surprising Cuts

To get to 53 men the Steelers made a number of surprising cuts Joe Haeg, John Leglue, Buddy Johnson, Marcus Allen, Anthony McFarland, and Justin Layne all got visits from The Turk. As expected, Marcus Allen returned to the 53 man roster after the Steelers put safety Damontae Kazee on the short-term injured reserve list. Anthony McFarland and John Leglue have returned via the practice squad.

Still, considering how versatile he was last season and how frequently he was called into action, Joe Haeg’s departure is a minor surprise as is their decision to part ways so quickly with Buddy Johnson. What’s most surprising about Justin Layne’s dismissal isn’t that the Steelers said goodbye, but rather that he was picked up off of waivers by the New York Giants.

First Look at the Steelers 2022 Roster

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky
Kenny Pickett
Mason Rudolph
– No surprise for those who understand franchise philosophy.

Running Back
Najee Harris
Benny Snell
Jaylen Warren
Derek Watt
– Tomlin’s decision to revert to a backfield that’s 3 deep is a bit disappointing

Wide Receiver
Diontae Johnson
Chase Claypool
George Pickens
Calvin Austin
Gunner Olszewski
Miles Boykin
Steven Sims
– Sims beats out Tyler Vaughns for the last slot, Boykin’s experience and special teams ability helps him.

Tight End
Pat Freiermuth
Zach Gentry
Connor Heyward
– Excited to see Connor Heyward, but sad to see Kevin Radar go.

Offensive Line
Kendrick Green
Kevin Dotson
Mason Cole
James Daniels
Chukwuma Okorafor
Jesse Davis
J.C. Hassenauer
– Will “New” = “Improved”?

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward
Tyson Alualu
Larry Ogunjobi
Chris Wormley
Isaiahh Loudermilk
Montravius Adams
DeMarvin Leal
– Hopefully Alualu’s health holds

Outside Linebacker
T.J. Watt
Alex Highsmith
Derrek Tuszka
Malik Reed
– Clutch those rosary beads and ask for intercession for Watt and Highsmith’s health

Inside Linebacker
Devin Bush
Myles Jack
Robert Spillane
Mark Robinson
Marcus Allen
– Make or break year for Devin Bush

Cornerback
Cam Sutton
Ahkello Witherspoon
Levi Wallace
James Pierre
Arthur Maulet
– Steelers have invested heavily here. Time to for it to payoff

Safety
Minkah Fitzpatrick
Terrell Edmunds
Tre Norwood
Miles Killebrew
– Losing Kazee is a blow. But let’s hope Norwood can shirk the sophmore slump.

Specialists
Chris Boswell (K)
Pressley Harvin (P)
Christian Kuntz (LS)
– You didn’t remember Kuntz’s name did you? That means he’s doing his job.

Steelers 2022 Practice Squad

Anthony McFarland, Running Back
John Leglue, Offensive Line
Carlos Davis, Nose Tackle
Cody White, Wide Receiver
Hamilcar Rashed, Outside Linebacker
William Dunkle, Offensive line
Ryan McCollum, Offensive line
Elijah Riley, Safety

During COVID-19 the NFL expanded practice squads to 16 and has kept that size, so the Steelers should be adding new players soon.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers Resign Minkah Fitzpatrick to 4 Year Extension, Proving that Yes, Sometimes Social Media Rumors Are True

The Pittsburgh Steelers have resigned Minkah Fitzpatrick to a 4 year extension worth a reported 73.6 million dollars with 36 of it guaranteed. The deal makes him the NFL’s highest paid safety and proves, once again, that Minkah Fitzpatrick shows that sometimes its worth paying attention to social media.

  • Ah, how’s that you say?
Luke Wilson, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick denies Luke Wilson a touchdown. Photo Credit: Shawn Hubbard, Ravens.com

Let me explain. Part of being an intelligent football fan in the digital age is being wise enough to ignore much if not most of what you see on social media. For quick reference think back a few months to those reports that “The Steelers have a deal in place to land Aaron Rodgers should he ask out of Green Bay.”

A lot of people on Twitter believed that. Bless their hearts, they really did.

Many also bought the Tweets and Facebook posts that explained why Russell Wilson was destined for the Steel City. And of course there were fans who got frustrated when the Steelers didn’t offer 5 first round draft picks for Deshaun Watson, as reports assured us they were ready to do.

Which isn’t to say that those reports are always wrong. A tweet from someone I trust led your truly to write up an article detailing the Steelers signing of Tyrann Mathieu. Thank God I double checked, because it will be Terrell Edmunds and not Mathieu lining up along side Minkah this year.

  • But Minkah has been different.

During September 2019, I was hurriedly getting ready to work my company’s booth at Oracle Open World when I saw on WhatApp that the Steelers were trading for Minkah Fitzpatrick. I thought nothing of it, because everyone “knows” the Steelers never trade their first round pick.

  • They especially wouldn’t trade him less than 24 hours after losing Ben Roethlisberger for the season.

No, I figured it was some over enthusiastic, gullible fan who’d been duped by social media and forgot about it. But then I found out it was real.

The same thoughts occurred to me today when I saw the news. I figured it had to be false, because the Steelers never make those moves now, always right before the season.

But sign Minkah they have. The question is why now?

Omar Khan Effect?

The Pittsburgh Steelers pioneered the practice of resigning free agents who are in the final year of their deals. And they often made those signings in the spring, well before training camp. Greg Lloyd and Dermontti Dawson inked deals during this timeframe.

  • James Harrison similarly got an extension in the spring as have a few others.

But by in large, as the Kevin Colbert era progressed, the Steelers have waited until the end of the summer to resign their players. Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt all inked deals just before the beginning of the season. Heck Troy Polamalu signed his contract at the airport as the Steelers were leaving for Baltimore for the 2011 opener. (The Steelers unlike other clubs don’t negotiate contracts during the season.)

The Steelers were expected to do the same with Minkah. Hold off through training camp and preseason as insurance against injury and ink a deal before the season’s start.

  • But instead, they’ve signed him.

Whether this is a tactical shift by new General Manager Omar Khan or a one-off move, this is the right thing to do. Yes, there is a risk that Fitzpatrick could get injured during drills at St. Vincents or during preseason. But there’s also a greater chance that he could get injured in the season opener.

This way Minkah will be with the team, fully participating in drills and in preseason, if you’re a curmudgeon like me who still believes “practice makes perfect,” that’s a good thing.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Hedging: Steelers Decline Devin Bush’s 5th Year Option – What Does & Doesn’t Mean

The ink on the draft cards for the Steelers 2022 Draft class was hardly dry when the franchise displayed a bit of buyer’s remorse by opting not to pick up Devin Bush’s 5th year option.

The Steelers of course traded their own 2019 first round pick, their 2nd round pick from ’19 and their 2020 third round pick to move up to pick Devin Bush in the 2019 NFL Draft. Devin Bush started as a rookie, winning rookie of the year honors, while authoring several splash, game-changing plays.

Bush returned to start 17 games in 2021, but he was not the same. Not only was he not an impact player, his tackle count plummeted, which is especially surprising, given the historically bad run defense the Steelers suffered.

Devin Bush, Tyler Boyd, Steelers vs Bengals

Devin Bush forces Tyler Boyd to fumble. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

What the Decision on Bush Means and Doesn’t Mean

The Tribune Review’s Tim Benz went so far as to declare in a headline: “Praise of Kevin Colbert’s success with Steelers meets acknowledgment of Devin Bush’s failure.” That’s going a little too far.

Let’s be clear:

  • This unequivocally confirms that the Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin have serious concerns about Devin Bush.

The Steelers, like any NFL franchise, expect to offer their first round draft picks second contracts. Since the 2010 NFL CBA mandated 4 year contracts with a 5-year option for first round draft picks, the Steelers have picked up the option on Cam Heyward, David DeCastro, Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt.

And the Steelers not been facing salary cap Armageddon, they probably would have found a way to sign Dupree to a second contract. As it was, they franchised him.

But not franchising Devin Bush, the Steelers put him into the company of Jarvis Jones, Artie Burns, and Terrell Edmunds, all of whom did not get their options picked up.

  • While that’s not good, it isn’t as damning as it sounds.

Really, the Steelers put Bush in the same company as Terrell Edmunds. The 2020 CBA changed the 5th year option, making it fully guaranteed upon signing. Prior to that, it was only guaranteed for injury (much to Ryan Shazier’s benefit.)

Had the Steelers optioned Devin Bush on Monday, Art Rooney II essentially would have been giving him a post-dated check for 10.9 million dollars. Art II clearly isn’t ready to do that. But that doesn’t mean they’ve given up on him.

The conventional wisdom was that Terrell Edmunds was as good as gone when the Steelers declined his option, but Terrell Edmunds is back, albeit on a one year prove it deal.

If Bush rebounds in 2022, the Steelers could still franchise him at the cost of about 18 million dollars. So the Steelers aren’t giving up on Bush’s development, but rather hedging their bets. It could turn out to an expensive hedge indeed.

Steelers Sign Kazee Veteran Safety

The Pittsburgh Steelers made a signing the day after the draft that has to count as a bit of a surprise. They came to terms with Damontae Kazee. Kazee entered the NFL in 2017 as a fifth round pick of the Atlanta Falcons, playing as the primary starter in his second and third seasons before a torn ACL ended his 4 season after four games.

The Dallas Cowboys signed him, and he started 15 games for them in 2021, making 2 interceptions and forcing 2 fumbles. Still he was unsigned at the draft and only got a one year contract from the Steelers, presumably at or near the veteran minimum.

The Steelers have taken a “wait and see” approach to safety this off season, declining to getting into a bidding war for Tyrann Mathieu, letting Terrell Edmunds test the market, and only signing Karl Joseph weeks into free agency.

Of course the Steelers are expected to seek a long term deal with Minkah Fitzpatrick this off season. They also have Tre Norwood as a safety.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

All in the Family! Steelers Draft Connor Heyward, Tight End, Michigan State, in 6th Round

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin loves blood lines. He added T.J. Watt in 2017 and Terrell Edmunds in 2018. By 2020 their brothers Derek Watt and Trey Edmunds were both playing for the Steelers.

Now he has a shot at doing it again, as the Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted Connor Heyward, a tight end out of Michigan State, younger brother of Cam Heyward and son of the late, great University of Pittsburgh star Craig “Iron Head” Heyward.

Connor Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers 6th round pick 2022

Connor Heyward, the Steelers 6th round 2022 draft pick. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

When asked if he consulted Cam Heyward as a reference for Conner, Steelers tight end coach Alfredo Roberts replied, with good cheer, “I don’t mess with Cam” multiple times. When asked about the importance of bloodlines, Roberts rebuffed the idea a little, explaining, “Connor holds his own. Getting drafted into the NFL is a big deal.”

Roberts said the Steelers were attracted the Heyward because of his ability to make plays down the field or at the line of scrimmage clarifying that Heyward has “the want to and the savviness to do some other things that are really attractive to us.”

When asked of Heyward’s versatility made him similar to Derek Watt, Roberts agreed that the two player’s skill sets are similar, but cautioned that Watt is more of a “pure fullback” whereas “Connor gives you a different flex and tight end responsibilities.”

Connor Heyward Video Highlights

Here is a sampling of some of the work that Connor Heyward put on tape while with the Spartans

What really comes home with these videos is that Connor Heyward is indeed versatile, able to line up as a tight end, work as a fullback or set up like a true H-Back. As a 6th round pick, Connor Heyward is in no way guaranteed a roster spot.

Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry roster spots are set, so assuming both stay healthy, the battle for the 3rd tight end spot will be between Kevin Rader and Heyward.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Connor Heyward.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix

The big day has arrived. The 2022 NFL Draft is here.

A generation from now, will we remember Kevin Colbert’s final draft as the night the Pittsburgh Steelers found their franchise quarterback? Will this be the evening where he tried to go out with a bang and flopped instead? Or will we recall how Kevin Colbert convinced Mike Tomlin not to force things and instead drafted a future Hall of Famer at another position?

Those questions will take years to answer.

As of now, the pundits and tea leaf readers argue that the Steelers brain trust is sold on picking Malik Willis, Kenny Pickett, Matt Corral or Desmond Ridder should one be on the board when the clock strikes 20.

steelers press conference,

That may be the case. Mike Tomlin has never been coy about pre-draft crushes. His love for Lawrence Timmons, Maurkice Pouncey, Jarvis Jones (ugh), and Najee Harris was well-known long before their names reached commissioner’s desk.

Would picking Pickett, Willis, Corral or Ridder at 20 and/or trading up to get him violate rule number 3 on the Steelers Road Map for Return to the Super Bowl i.e. don’t force finding a franchise quarterback?

  • Honestly, says the guy who thought picking Ben Roethlisberger was a mistake, I don’t know.

But I can opine on what the Steelers needs are in this draft.

Over the past few weeks, with Tony Defeo’s help, we’ve broken down the Steelers needs at each position. Using the Steelers Draft Needs, we’ve clustered their needs into four tiers.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

Wide Receiver and Defensive Line clock in at High-Moderate. In other words, a guy Pittsburgh picks there could very well end up starting.

Below that we have a log jam, with Quarterback, Running Back, Inside Linebacker, Outside Linebacker and Cornerback all coming in at Moderate High. In other words, the Steelers aren’t looking for a 2021 starter here, but that could change fast.

Next, we have Offensive Tackle and Safety. The Steelers should be OK here, but could go looking for a future starter.

Finally, we have Tight End and Center/Guard aka “interior lineman,” where the Steelers really are looking for depth.

So how to sort out the pecking order, given that we’ve got apparent ties at several positions?

That’s the Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix comes in.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix

Here is how I see the Steelers needs playing out:

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix

Defensive line gets the nod over wide receiver simply because the Steelers two starters there are younger. But that’s close, as the Steelers do have some depth on defensive line with upside on defensive line (Isaiahh Loudermilk), whereas the cupboard is empty at wide out.

The same rational holds at running back over receiver. The Steelers need more at running back than Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland, but they’re superior to any backup wide outs.

The fact that the Steelers have Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph and only one Najee Harris is why running back is edges out quarterback. Quarterback comes in over outside linebacker because that’s a more important position, but frankly that’s close because the drop off in proven talent behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith is steep.

Likewise, the Steelers have appear to have 3 starter caliber cornerbacks, plus James Pierre, but they have more bodies at inside linebacker, even if there are long term questions about Devin Bush and no “starter in waiting” behind him and Myles Jack.

Inside linebacker is a higher priority over Offensive Tackle because the Steelers have two starters under team control for at least 3 years, and Joe Haeg can provide depth. But again, this is close.

Tackle edges out safety because both Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds are far more proven commodities than any of the tackles, and Tre Norwood has far more “upside” than Haeg.

  • Safety edges out interior line, because the Steelers four players for 2 positions.

Center-Guard comes out as a higher priority than tight end simply because Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry are better, more known commodities than any of the interior lineman.

No, Steelers Mustn’t Draft for Need

With that said, the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix is anything but a call for Pittsburgh to pick based on need. When you draft for need, Artie Burns happens.

In other words, if the Steelers can grab a play making outside linebacker who could push Alex Highsmith to the bench, by all means they should grab him. Nor should they pass on picking the next Heath Miller let alone a Gronk clone just because Gentry looked good last year.

No, the Draft Needs Matrix seeks to show where the Steelers roster needs the most help and whom they should pick if all other things are equal.

  • Which of course they never are, because success in the NFL draft is a mix of science, art and luck.

The 2022 NFL Draft will be no different, and to the young men who will hear their names called in next three days, we congratulate them on their chance to live the dream that each of us had from the first moment we touched a Nerf football and barked out a snap count!

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.