Regression: Stumbling Steelers Overtime Loss to Bears Confirms Troubling Tomlin Trend

Week 3 in the NFL is often times an equalizer. Football is a game of angles and inches and its not uncommon for middling teams to get caught just a little too short or do just enough to win or loss in week’s 1 and 2.

  • But in week 3, the law of averages tends to even out.

And that’s accurately describes the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers won, albeit in unimpressive fashion in weeks 1 and 2 over the Browns and Vikings. In the Steelers overtime loss to the Bears, Pittsburgh came up short in a number of cases, had several opportunities thrown their way, but ultimately revealed their identity for what it is thus far: A team with a superstar roster with woefully under performing its pedigree.

Ben Roethlisberger, Willie Young, Steelers vs Bears, Steelers overtime loss Bears Chicago

Willie Young sacks Ben Roethlisberger to end regulation in the Steelers overtime loss to the Bears. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribuen Review

Troubling Tomlin  Trend Confirms Itself

Mike Tomlin has been at the helm of the Pittsburgh Steelers for over 10 seasons. While that’s ten too many for some factions of Steelers Nation, this site has not (and still is not) inclined to join that chorus. Regardless, such a long tenure provides ample opportunity for finding meaningful tendencies.

And the tendencies relevant to the Steelers loss to the Chicago Bears are troubleing:

  • The Steelers are 5-13 in last 18 games on the road against teams with losing records
  • Since Super Bowl XLV the Steelers are 5-9 in early-season road games
  • Beny Rothlisberger doesn’t seem to be the same quarterback on the road

Leading up to the Chicago game, the Steelers said all the right things, as they always do. Mike Tomlin reminded the team that it was Mike Glennon who embarrassed the Steelers in their 2014 loss to Tampa. Cameron Heyward, Ryan Shazier and players further down the depth chart to a man, assured us that the Steelers weren’t taking the Bears lightly.

And let’s give the guys credit, there’s nothing to indicate that the Steelers looked past the Bears.

  • Which makes the Steelers 23-17 overtime loss in Chicago all the more troubling.

It is easy to find scapegoats. And the truth is that absent the Pittsburgh’s special teams snafus, from Eli Rogers muffed punt, to Chris Boswell’s blocked field goals, the Steelers probably would have stumbled to victory against the Bears.

Perhaps it’s a tautology, but great teams find ways to overcome mistakes with superior plays. Good teams overcome mistakes by taking advantage of opportunities presented to them. In their 23-17 overtime loss to the Chicago Bears, the Steelers failed to marshal superior plays, and saw a Bears team all but beg to give the team away in the second half.

That the Steelers were insufficient to the task is incontrovertible. Understanding why remains a mystery.

Steelers Offense Continues to Underperform

The word on the Steelers coming into the Bears game was that the defense had carried the team during the first two weeks. While that’s true, its also true that the when the Browns took away the deep ball, Ben Roethlisberger responded by burning them to Antonio Brown underneath. When the Vikings crowded up the middle of the field, Roethlisberger hit Martavis Bryant deep (or otherwise got his receivers to draw pass interference penalties.)

  • Through it all, the Steelers struggled to establish Le’Veon Bell on the ground.

Against the Bears, the Steelers offense sputtered, as best exemplified by their 4-11 third down conversion record. And while pass protection was generally sound, a strip sack by the Bears ended one promising scoring drive, and fighting to get into field goal range, the Steelers offensive line was unable to protect their quarterback against a three man rush.

  • Perhaps its Tomlin should have played his starters more in preseason, to establish greater cohesion.
  • Perhaps Le’Veon Bell’s holdout dulled his edge more than expected.
  • Perhaps Todd Haley is mailing it in.
  • Perhaps Father Time has Big Ben’s clock clicking towards “Life’s Work” faster than expected.

At this point, all explanations deserve full consideration.

The bottom line is that the Pittsburgh Steelers have far too much talent on offense to struggle as they have during these first 3 games of the season.

Steelers Defense Overrated?

Heading into the season, the word on the Steelers defense was that they had as good of a front seven of any other team in the league, but that the secondary remained suspect. But the Steelers defense looked good in weeks one and weeks two, getting contributions not only from the usual suspects, but from new faces such as Bud Dupree, Anthony Chickillo, Joe Haden, J.J. Wilcox, Javon Hargrave and Vince Williams.

They’d preformed so well that MMQB’s Andy Beniot suggested that the Steelers might have the best defense in the league….

  • Then Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard combined for 220 yards and averaged over 6.0 yards per carry.

Note, Chicago Bears quarterback Mike Glennon completed all of one pass for 9 yards to a wide receiver. Clearly he didn’t need to do more. IT would be incorrect to say that the Chicago Bears imposed their will on the Steelers, because there were times when the Steelers defense stuffed Chicago runners as we’re accustomed to seeing them run.

  • But if the Chicago Bears couldn’t run the ball on the Steelers defense when they wanted to, they certainly ran it when they needed to.

And as a result, the Bears overcame two second half turnovers, numerous penalties, fumbles and bad snaps to last long enough to thoroughly embarrass the Steelers defense in overtime.

Keith Butler had better have a long look at this tape, because opposing offensive coordinators certainly will.

3 Games into 2017 Steelers Regressing to the Mean

The Pittsburgh Steelers began 2016 with a mix of strong and inconsistent performances, only to struggle mightily in the middle portion of their schedule. They made a stark turn round during the second half of 2016 which continued all the way to their AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

  • 3 games into the 2017 season, there’s only one thing you can say about this team.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are team well-stocked with above average talent that somehow is finding itself regressing to the mean.

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Steelers Bears “Blame Ball” Poll

Well, it was another trip to Solider Field for the Steelers, and another loss. The Pittsburgh Steelers history against the Chicago Bears shows that the franchise has struggled in the Windy City, and their 14 visit there was no exception as the Steelers lost 23-17 in overtime.

Mike Mitchell, Jordan Howard, Joe Hayden, Steelers vs Bears, Steelers vs Bears overtime

Mike Mitchell can’t stop Jordan Howard as he smokes the Steelers in overtime. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Alas, after a substandard effort like that in so many different parts of the team, we cannot in good conscious put up a “Game Ball” poll, so instead we’re launching a “Blame Ball” poll:

Which Steelers most deserve blame for the Bear's loss? (Multiple Votes allowed)

As you can see, only Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell are the only two individuals to share the dishonor of having ballot mentions.

  • However, please do not mistake that for a scapegoat of either man.

That’s because blame can be spread far and wide on this one, as this Bob Pompeani tweet summarized.

The Chicago Bears gave the Atlanta Falcons a run for their money early in the year, so perhaps this shouldn’t be considered a “Trap game.” Still, as the Tribune Review’s Joe Rutter pointed out, the Steelers have struggled mightly on the road in September, and this game proved the rule.

  • Frankly, blame for that falls squarely on the shoulders of Mike Tomlin, although both Todd Haley and Keith Butler‘s units performed piss poorly.

Danny Smith’s special teams, after being heroes in weeks 1 and 2, caused a costly mistake that resulted in a 6 point swing. Vance McDonald made a heads up play, but if Jordan Berry just lands on the ball, its a safety and the Steelers are ahead by one at game’s close.

  • And then there’s Eli Rogers muffed punt that set up Chicago’s first touchdown.

The stat sheet indicates that Ben Roethlisberger had a decent game, but he also had at least 3 passes that could have been picked off, and couldn’t get the ball to his receivers when he needed to, especially on 3rd Downs. Antonio Brown had a solid game, but that cannot be said for the rest of his wide receiving corps.

Martavis Bryant had 8 targets and only 6 catches. To be sure, some of those were not well thrown balls and/or balls that Ben Roethlisberger looked like he was forcing, but he still should have had the first bomb thrown his way, even if it was a little overthrown.

And while Le’Veon Bell didn’t necessarily have a “bad day” he’s still far, far short of the Hall of Fame level performances that characterized his play in almost every single game last year. All of that blame is not due to him, as his offensive line’s run blocking hasn’t been consistent.

  • On defense, it is hard to know where to point the finger, because the Chicago Bears ran all over the Steelers.

Ryan Shazier had a good day stastically, but it seemed like each and every defender failed to bring his man down on first contact. No matter how you slice it, the Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave, Tyson Alualu, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams, Shazier and Anthony Chickillo utterly failed to stop Chicago’s running game when it counted.

The Bears won despite completing only one pass to wide receivers, so perhaps the Steelers secondary can avoid blame, but we’ll leave that for you the readers to decide.

As always, write in votes are not only allowed, but encouraged. Thanks in advance for taking time out to vote, and please check back for our full analysis of the Steelers latest loss to the Bears in Chicago.

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Steelers Report Card for Vikings Win – The Yin & Yang of Under and Over Achievement

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher struggling to understand the yin-yangish overachievement-underachievement dynamic of his new class here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2017 home opening win over the Minnesota Vikings.

Steelers vs Vikings, Tyler Matekevich, Steelers stop fake punt,

Tyler Matakevich stops a fake punt attempt to Blake Bell during the Steelers win over the Vikings. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger struggled to find rhythm early as evidenced by the Steelers 4 first half punts, although he did throw two touchdown passes and made a vertical strike downfield. On the day, Ben Roethlisberger 23 of 35 for 243 no interceptions and no sacks. He threw a few questionable passes, but none had any negative consequences. Grade: Bsteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Back
Tony Defeo authored this site’s admonishment not to fret over Le’Veon Bell’s hold out, and we stand by that. But Bell’s ineffectiveness as both a running and a pass catcher makes it hard to not think that a little more bit of practice in July and August would have made for a little more of “perfect” in August. Le’Veon Bell improved against the Browns and appeared to run stronger as the game continued but he’s nowhere near his ’16 level. James Conner had one carry for 9 yards. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Xavier Grimble had one pass thrown to him that was caught but negated by a penalty. Jesse James got the starting nod, and was in sync with Roethlisberger early on catching four balls on 5 targets. However, Jesse James appeared to struggle as a blocker at times. He must improve there. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
Has Mike Zimmer unlocked the key to shutting down Antonio Brown? That’s probably going to far, but it did take several quarters for Antonio Brown to get in a grove, although he did draw a key pass interference penalty. As did Martavis Bryant, who made the Vikings pay for progress towards shutting Brown down with a touchdown and a 51 yard field flipping play that set up another. JuJu Smith-Schuster made 3 catches, threw a key block, although he had 3 penalties called on him. Eli Rogers helped keep drives alive in the second half. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
While they might not be the Purple People Eaters, the Vikings have a strong front seven and the Steelers offensive line did an adequate job of giving Ben Roethlisberger protection, although pass protection did break down on a number of occasions. Two weeks into the season, their run blocking is remains below par. The Steelers have invested the salary cap space in their offensive line to get road grading quality run blocking, and that is not happening. Grade: C-

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers 2017 home opener, Case Keenum

Cam Heyward pressures Case Keenum in the Steelers 2017 home opening win over the Vikings. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Defensive Line
Can you imagine how good the defensive line would have been last year had Cam Heyward not gotten hurt. Against the Vikings, Heyward acted as a one man wrecking crew. His stats might appear modest, but he disrupted and/or stopped cold everything Minnesota tried to do. His counterparts also also had quiet days on the stat sheet, but don’t be fooled, this unit played well. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt didn’t have a sack, but did end a drive with a batted down pass. In contrast, Bud Dupree had also batted down a pass and did register a sack, as did Vince Williams later in the game. T.J. Watt couldn’t finish the game due to a groin injury, but Anthony Chickillo stepped in and the Steelers didn’t miss a beat. Ryan Shazier led the linebackers in tackles, and defensed a pass. Grade: B+

Secondary
Artie Burns made a heads up play behind the line of scrimmage, showing just how fast he’s developing. Mike Hilton led the team in tackles and got a lick in on the quarterback. Sean Davis was second on the team in tackles, but has been figured as the one who lost containment on the Minnesota’s long run. You didn’t hear Joe Hayden’s name much and that’s good for a corner often. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Specials teams isn’t the difference maker it once was. The extra point has become so rote that the NFL had to change the rules. They’re doing the same on kick returns. But if that’s the case, the truth is that a big special teams play can dramatically shift the momentum of a game.

A week ago Tyler Matakevich caused a big special teams play with a blocked punt, and against the Vikings he prevented another by stopping a fake punt.

While Chris Boswell was perfect as a punter, and Jordan Berry was solid, the coverage units did allow longer than you’d like returns (although they did down a punt at the Vikings on). Eli Rogers likewise attempted to field a punt he needed to fair catch, and JuJu Smith-Schuster returned one kick he probably should have downed. Grade: B-

Mike Tomlin,

Steelers head coach Mike Tomiln. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

Coaching
While it is true that Keith Butler’s defense really hasn’t been tested by a marquee offense yet, that doesn’t change the fact that his unit still had a strong outing. It true that Minnesota did have one touchdown drive that looked easier than it should, but the Steelers defense got off the field on third down, harassed the quarterback and shut down the run.

  • If Todd Haley’s game plan was easier to understand in week two, his unit’s execution remains uneven.

Early in the game, the Steelers offense couldn’t sustain drives and seemingly needed two long pass interference plays to set up touchdowns. In the second half, the Steelers found more rhythm but had to settle for four field goals. Le’Veon Bell and the offensive line do not appear to be on the same page.

In his post-game press conference, Mike Tomlin seemed to acknowledge that the Steelers remain a work in progress, something which he has been saying since the summer. You can argue that this shouldn’t be the case for a team that finished one game short of the Super Bowl, but credit the coach for understanding where his team is, and ensuring that his player execute sufficiently well to win. Grade: C+

Unsung Hero Award
For ten years Steelers Nation got accustomed to seeing number 94 as one of those defenders who would always appear in same camera frame as the ball. That number of course belonged to Lawrence Timmons who acted as a force for stability and consistency during his tenure in Pittsburgh.

  • Timmons has of course moved on, and now there’s a new number 94.

Tyson Alualu now wears number 94 and it was plenty visible on Sunday afternoon, as Alualu played well enough Stephon Tuitt’s absence wasn’t really felt. Mike Tomlin preaches that “The Standard is the Standard” and that the “Next Man Up” should be capable of a winning performance. Tyson Alualu breathed life into his coach’s credo, and that’s why he’s the Unsung Hero of the Steelers win over the Vikings.

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“Pases de Pantalla Chotos a Bryant” – Steelers Football Meets Argentine Lunfardo

It is said that you really reach fluency in a second language when you feel comfortable enough to joke around in it. I can attest to that reality. After 4 or 5 years of living in Argentina, that I was able to call (and this was before caller ID reached universal status) and greeting them with “Hola, gallego“* and delight in their utter inability to figure out who I was.

The Steelers struggles against the Browns gave me the chance to turn the paradigm on its head:

  • Does an imported foreign institution finally gain cultural currency when the locals can apply slang terminology to it?

A few days after the Steelers narrow win over the Browns, I WhatsApped my friend, and sometime site writer, Gustavo Vallegos, El Dr. de Acero, asking what another friend, who is a notoriously harsh critic of the team at times, had thought of the game. HE hadn’t heard from our friend, but offered his own criticism:

“lo que me preocupaba, cuando empiece el partido con estos pases de pantalla a Bryant chotos con no avanzaba ni dos yardas….” 

For those of you who don’t read Spanish, what Gustavo is talking about is the Ben Roethlisberger to Martavis Bryant bubble screen passes, and the entire Todd Haley horizontal offense the Steelers tried to mount, instead of trying to pound the ball with Le’Veon Bell or hit Bryant and Antonio Brown downfield.

But the key word there is “choto….”

Martavis Bryant, Martavis Bryant bubble screen, Steelers vs Browns

Martavis Bryant, catching one of the bubble screens thrown to him in the Steelers win over the Browns. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

Choto” is a very Argentine word, and is likely exclusive to the dialect of Spanish spoken in the Rio de la Plata. What does Choto mean….

…Well, this is a family friendly site, so any translation needs to be made with care. “Choto” means to, hum, let’s say a certain piece of the male anatomy that’s short, and one that comes up short at shall we say in opportune times. “Gallego,”* which in certain contexts can be highly disrespectful also has much more affectionate, and playful uses.

  • There’s no such lighter side to labeling something or someone as “choto.”

And that’s the beauty of this anecdote. There’s no real English translation of “choto,” there’s no single English word or expression that carries the exact cultural or linguistic weight. Yet, “choto,” very much describes the play of the Steelers offense, save for Antonio Brown and Jesse James, on Sunday against the Browns.

With all that said, I realize this could quite well be the linguistic equivalent of a “You had to be there” type of moment. If so fair enough. But if you can’t quite fully grasp the linguistic side of it there’s something else that you should be able to hang your hat on….

 

Steelers Fans Buenos Aires, #SteelersWorldWide, Steelers Nation Argentina, Steelers Argentina

Steelers fans gather in Buenos Aires for #SteelersWorldWide Photo

The Steelers Nation’s colony in Argentina might be small, but the porteños are making Steelers football their own!

*Taken literally a “gallego” as an immigrant or a descendant of an immigrant from the province of Galacia, in Spain; colloquially saying “Hola gallego” is sort of like saying  “What’s up hoss?” albeit it comes with an affectionate barb, because the stereotype of a gallego is someone who is always a half step-behind the times.

And if you want to follow an Argentine who does really know something about Steelers football, follow:

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Steelers Report Card for Road Win over Browns – “Above the Line, But Below Par”

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who couldn’t watch the game live on Sunday, and then spent much of Monday stranded in Montevideo, Uruguay thanks to storms over the Rio de la Plata, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2017 road opener against the Browns.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers 2017 season opener, Joe Schobert

Antonio Brown 4th quarter jump ball catch sealed the game 2017 opener for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger’s 24 of 36 for 263 yards with two touchdowns and one interception to give him a solid statistical start on his first action of the 2017 season. And to be fair, there are a couple of three occasions where Ben Roethlisberger threaded the needle in ways that only he can do. But if his only interception came on a ball that was tipped, he also threw at least two if not three passes that should have been intercepted but were not. While Big Ben had a good day against the Browns, he did look like a starting quarterback who’d only played one series in August. Grade: Bsteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
In a preemptive attempt to help his running backs, Mike Tomlin argued that penalties prevented the Steelers from establishing their running game. There’s some truth to that. It’s also true on the offensive line’s run blocking was left wanting on more than one occasion. But much of 3 quarters, Le’Veon Bell looked nothing like a back who has earned the right about being forced to play for 12 million dollars. To his credit, Bell delivered when his efforts were most needed late in the game. But he had a subpar afternoon, by any standard. James Conner also struggled. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Vance who? The Steelers turned heads in late August by trading for Vance McDonald, with Mike Tomlin citing the need for a “Varsity” tight end. Vance McDonald dropped the one pass thrown his way, and was clearly upstaged in the passing game by Jesse James, who caught two touchdown passes in addition to four others for 41 yards. ON the flip side, there did appear to be some issues with James blocking. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
5 summers ago a young wide receiver who was burning through Steelers records faster than he was burning defensive backs asked the Steelers to make him the NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver. Kevin Colbert said no thanks, and gave his contract to a man that they would later make the NFL’s NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver.

Against the Cleveland Browns, Antonio Brown again vindicated the faith the Steelers have shown in him. On an afternoon where the vaunted Steelers offense sputtering, Antonio Brown kicked into high gear, and was almost single handedly responsible setting up the Steelers first two scores as he was for killing to clock in overtime.

  • And let the record reflect that Antonio Brown bailed Ben Roethlisberger out late in the game in a ball that begged to be intercepted.

Martavis Bryant’s ballyhooed return to the gridiron consisted of 2 catches for 14 yards and a couple of drops. It might not be Bryant’s fault, but he never threatened to stretch the field. Eli Rogers caught two passes for 11 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had zero catches but multiple holding penalties. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Steelers have invested a lot in their offensive line and the unit it proved itself both in terms of pass protection and road grading run blocking during the latter half of 2016. The team doubled down by extending Alejandro Villanueva’s contract this summer. In terms of pass blocking, the unit did well, as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once, only hit another time, and needed very little fancy footwork to keep plays alive. The same cannot be said for the run blocking. While the sample size was small, Bell and Connor had difficulty finding day light. Fortunately, the Steelers were able to run the ball when they needed to kill the clock, but it shouldn’t have taken 4 quarters. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
How good was the Steelers defensive line against Cleveland? Well, I watched the game on tape delay furiously fast forwarding between downs, and didn’t even realize that Stephon Tuitt was out of the lineup until the 4th quarter. While Tuitt made his presence known in just two plays, Tyson Alualu, Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward more than made up for his absence, with Heyward and Hargrave registering sacks, Alualu leading the group with five tackles, and all three men registering tackles for losses. At the end of the day, Cleveland rushed the ball 25 times and barley got more than 50 yards. Grade: A

T.J. Watt, T.J. Watt rookie debut, Steelers vs Browns, DeShone Kizer

T.J. Watt had two sacks & an interception in his rookie debut. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Linebackers
All T.J. Watt did in in his professional debut was lead the Steelers defense in tackles, register two sacks, and atone for a foolish personal foul by intercepting a pass…. Ryan Shazier was close behind, with 7 tackles and a quarterback hit. Starting in place of Bud Dupree, Anthony Chickillo got two sacks, hit the quarterback two other times, and dropped two Cleveland ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. Vince Williams had 5 tackles. The Steelers linebacking stat sheet is helped by the work of the defensive line, but the only thing that forces the minus on this grade is the penalties. Grade: A

Secondary
Joe Haden had a homecoming an then some, winning his first home opener in 7 years, while recording a sack and defending a pass. William Gay was all over the field and looked sharp, although his personal foul was costly (and perhaps unavoidable, he did not intend to lead with the head). Artie Burns and Sean Davis’ names weren’t heard much, which can be good. While the Steelers secondary had a good game, it must also be noted that there were times when Cleveland’s receivers had them beat, only to see DeShone Kizer overthrow the ball. Stiffer tests await. Grade: B

Tyler matakevich, Britton Colquitt, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers punt block browns

Tyler Matakevic blocks Britton Colquitt’s punt setting up a Steelers touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Special Teams
Sometimes measurables just don’t add up and the Steelers 1st quarter blocked punt explains why you keep a player like Tyler Matakevich on your 53 man roster. Matakevich blocked punt and Anthony Chickillo’s recovery got the Steelers on the board to start the day, and forced the Browns to play catch up from the very get go.

Eli Rogers saw his first duty as a punt returner, and he posted a respectable 10 yard average. The Steelers kick coverage was strong, although you don’t like to see an opponents punt return average 11 yards and break a 24 yarder. Chris Boswell was a perfect 3-3 on PAT’s while Jordan Berry had a strong day punting. Grade: A-

Coaching
Suffice to say, the Steelers offense failed to live up to the all of the pomp and circumstance that accompanied the return of the Steelers four Killer Bees. The unit stumbled for most of the afternoon hobbled by dropped passes, penalties and missed opportunities. But Steelers offensive sputters weren’t solely a question of failed execution.

In abstract terms, the Steelers coaches can be faulted for leaning too heavily on Le’Veon Bell during the latter half of 2016 (in practical terms, they didn’t have much of a choice). It seems like Todd Haley started 2017 determined to overcompensate.

  • The Steelers showed little desire in even attempting to establish the running game.

Yes, the line and Le’Veon Bell were not having a good afternoon, but they weren’t given much of a chance to warm up, let alone impose their will. Nor did Haley seem inclined to go with the vertical passing game, as his repeated bubble screens would indicate.

  • The Steelers offense was good enough to secure a W, but they left far too many plays on the field.

Keith Butler’s defense was its own worst enemy. Butler’s Boys gave DeShone Kizer a rude awakening to the NFL, stuff the run, and went 3-12 on third downs. The only issue is the defensive penalties, which set directly up one touchdown and facilitated another.

As Tony Defeo has rightly pointed out on BTSC, the Mike Tomlin’s Steelers avoided another embarrassing loss to an inferior team. But as Steel City Insider’s Jon Ledyard correctly argues, the Steelers have far too much talent on offense to allow a Browns team to need clock killing heroics to close the 4th quarter.

  • Mike Tomlin chose to rest a good number of his offensive stars for large stretches of the preseason.

Certainly, this is not the first summer Tomlin has taken that route. But regardless, the Steelers offense looked quite rusty against the Browns, although to their credit the units did effectively close both halves. The Steelers performance against the Browns was above the line, but still below par.  Grade: C+

Unsung Hero
This man has taken a lot of heat from fans in recent years, including barbs from this site. But Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith saw a weakness in the Browns punt formation, he trained his team to exploit it those men executed it to perfection and they scored the points that ended up being the difference in the game. And for that Danny Smith is the Unsung Hero for the win over the Browns.

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Steelers Activate Sammie Coates from PUP – Now, Can Coates Fit in Pittsburgh?

The Steelers activated Sammie Coates from the PUP this week, allowing him to practice with the team during training camp for the first time this summer. Suffice it’s been a long strange trip for Sammie Coates.

It was just two years ago that the Steelers turned heads during the 2015 NFL Draft when the drafted Sammie Coates in the 3rd round. Using such a high value pick on a wide receiver struck the fan base as odd, given that they had Darrius Heyward-Bey, Martavis Bryant had shown as a rookie Markus Wheaton had bounced back from injury marred rookies season and Antonio Brown was, well, Antonio Brown.

Sammie Coates, Darqueze Dennard, Steelers vs Bengals

Darqueze Dennard’s no match for Sammie Coates in the Steelers 2016 win over Cincinnati. Photo Credit: AP, via Al.com

Nonetheless, during the first half of the season, Sammie Coates was best known for a failed fourth down hookup with Mike Vick during the Steelers 2015 loss to the Ravens. You didn’t see much after that to the point that when reporters touted Sammie Coates potential heading into the Steelers AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Broncos, this site begged to differ, arguing that DHB was the man to watch.

  • Fortunately, I was wrong, Sammie Coates lived up to the hype come up with two strong catches in the playoff loss.

When news of Martavis Bryant’s next suspension broke, all eyes turned to Sammie Coates. While no one went so far as to say that Coates could make fans forget about Martavis Bryant, many did expect him to emerge as Ben Roethlisberger’s number 2 target.

  • Just past the quarterpost of the 2016 season, it looked like Coates was about to become that man.

In what looked to be his breakout game against the Jets, Coates caught 6 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns. He also injured his hand in that game, and then things got strange. First there were conflicting reports over how many stitches Coates needed. Then there was talk of broken fingers. Nonetheless, Mike Tomlin continued to play him on specials teams. Beat writers started to suggest that injuries weren’t the only issues dogging Coates.

  • Regardless of the reason, Sammie Coates only caught two more passes for 14 yards during the rest of the season.

With and Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers and an injured Darrius Heyward-Bey the only downfield options opposite Antonio Brown, Todd Haley and Mike Tomlin were forced to lean heavily on Le’Veon Bell. That strategy served the Steelers well until the AFC Championship game, which not ironically saw the Steelers first possession end on a bomb that Sammie Coates dropped that, had he caught it, could have dramatically altered the dynamic of the game.

Sammie Coates knee surgery couldn’t have come at a worse time. Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and JuJu Smith-Schuster are roster locks, and one would have to figure that either Justin Hunter and/or Eli Rogers is guaranteed to make the team.

  • That leaves Coates vying for one roster spot with Hunter/Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Hamilton, and Ayers.

It says here that Sammie Coates is far more talented than any of those players. But it’s also true that all of them were far more productive down the stretch last season than Coates, injuries or no. His performance in the Steelers final three preseason games will show whether Sammie Coates really fits in Pittsburgh.

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Bryant & Coates Beware: Steelers Draft JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2nd Round of 2017 NFL Draft

Day two of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Steelers draft JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round, and Pittsburgh’s pick of the USC wide receiver helps prove that reality does really unfold at its own pace in the draft.

The Pittsburgh Steelers needed a cornerback (or a safety) and figured to get one after several prime candidates were left on the board following their pick of TJ Watt in the 1st round. However, no less than one dozen defensive backs were taken, or just under half of the 2nd round selections to that point, before the Steelers turn to pick at the 30th slot.

Steelers draft Juju Smith-Schuster 2nd round, Juju Smith-Schuster

Steelers 2nd round draft pick Juju Smith-Schuster in action for USC. Photo Credit: AP, via PennLive.com

Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley explained the Pittsburgh’s pick of Smith-Schuster in the following terms:

He is a good-sized receiver. He was very productive out there at USC. He is a really do-it-all guy. He can play inside, outside. If you had to say what he excelled at, I’d say his ability to catch the ball in combative situations, 50/50 balls as we call them, and he usually comes down with them. He’s a really exciting guy and we are excited to get him here to work on.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell detailed, as soon as reporters started asking Todd Haley if the Steelers picking JuJu Smith-Schuster amounted to an insurance policy on Bryant and Coates, Haley refuted the question, and then the Steelers PR team promptly terminated the interview….

Looking at his highlight reel, there’s reason to conclude that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert did draft on his own merits:

Highlight reels can be deceiving, but JuJu Smith-Schuster stands at 6-1 1/2, weighs in at 215-pounder and brings the Steelers 4.54 speed after catching 70 passes for 914 yards and 10 touchdowns last season for the USC Trojans.

Following the pick, Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates exchanged pleasantries on Twitter as to whose roster spot the Steelers may have jeopardized by the exchange. Mike Tomlin’s response was clear:

It would seem that Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates were intent on showing the world just why the Steelers felt they needed to draft a wide receiver so high.

On paper at least, the move gives Ben Roethlisberger another tallish target to throw to, and someone who can potentially help take the heat off of Antonio Brown in ways that Eli Rogers or Cobi Hamilton can’t, and that Darrius Heyward-Bey hasn’t proved he do consistently.

Clearly the Steelers can carry Brown, Bryant, Coates, Smith-Schuster or their roster, with room for 1 or 2 more wide outs, but it is also safe to say that every Steelers wide receiver not named “Brown” should be looking over his shoulder.

Competition brings out the best in athletes, so with that we say “Welcome to Steelers Nation” to JuJu Smith-Schuster.

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Reinstated Martavis Bryant Can Transform Steelers Offense — If He Stays Clean…

The NFL gave the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 offense a potential octane boost by conditionally reinstating Martavis Bryant who’d sat out the 2016 season serving a suspension for repeated violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policies.

While the Steelers January 2016 AFC Divisional Playoff loss to Denver certainly disappointed, Martavis Bryant had been a clear bright spot for Pittsburgh, and Steelers fans were left salivating at the prospect of a Death Star-like offensive attack for 2016.

  • Unfortunately, rebel spies sabotaged those plans before they even got started through a torrent of injuries and suspensions.

Absent Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Markus Wheaton and Ladarius Green for much of the year, and with Sammie Coates’ development stunted by injuries and/or maturity issues, the Steelers offense in 2016 too often consisted of force-feeding the ball to Le’Veon Bell.

Martavis Bryant’s return can change all of that in a hurry. But this comes with a catch….

Martavis Bryant, Steelers vs Cardinals, Martavis Bryant Touchdown, NFL Reinstates Martavis Bryant

Martavis Bryant transforms a simple kill the clock possession pass into an 88 yard touchdown vs. the Cardinals. Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

Martavis Bryant’s Impact IF He Stays Clean

It says here that a healthy Martavis Bryant boosts the Steelers 2017 offense more than Ladarius Green and/or Sammie Coates can. Sammie Coates and Ladarius Green have flashed potential as field flippers – Martavis Bryant is a game flipper.

Just look at his final pass catch in the Cardinals game, and you’ll know what I mean.

  • But of course, for Martavis Bryant must stay clean if he’s to make game-changing plays for the Steelers.

And that of course has been an issue in the past. We now know why Martavis Bryant was drafted in the 4th round and why Mike Tomlin kept him on the bench for the first part of his rookie season. Yet he continued to violate the NFL’s substance abuse policies and sat out the first four weeks of 2015.

  • After that, Martavis Bryant said all of the right things both publicly and to his teammates, including apparently lying to Ben Roethlisberger about his continued use of marijuana.

Now comes the obligatory acknowledgement about how both social and, in some states at least, legal attitudes towards marijuana are quickly changing. Perhaps in a decade or so images of players taking hits from bongs won’t be seen any differently than pictures of John Stallworth or Dwight White smoking cigarettes were in the 70’s.

Let’s chuck in another obligatory acknowledgement that the NFL is guilty of some real hypocrisy regarding his marijuana polices and its free use of painkillers.

Fair enough. As political discussions are verboten here on Steel Curtain Rising, we’ll leave it to others to debate the pro’s and con’s of de-criminalizing, legalizing and/or normalizing pot usage.

But that discussion is also irrelevant for two reasons:

  1. Agree or disagree with the laws and league rules or not, both still remain in force.
  2. Martavis Bryant clearly has a substance abuse issue with marijuana

Some may quibble with the second point above, but as Rebecca Rollett of Going Deep with the Steelers observed:

If there is a substance your employer has forbidden you to use, whether it is marijuana, celery salt, or Dapper Dan’s pomade, and, knowing you can lose your job if you don’t stop, you use it anyhow, you are an addict.

The interesting thing is that Rebecca made that observation in October 2015, right after Bryant’s first suspension ended. In commenting about Le’Veon Bell’s claim to have given up pot Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell observed:

I believed him then because I’ve detected a change in him.
Yeah, I know, you’re thinking, “What do you know about that subject?” But I sense a crispness (as opposed to a crispiness) in Bell that I hadn’t before, and I remember thinking how dopey he was when I interviewed him at his NFL Combine out of college.
No, this guy is sharp. Martavis Bryant? I don’t know if that guy can ever become sharp, but I hadn’t detected any change in him, at least like I did in Bell.

Breaking the cycle of addition is difficult. If you don’t have experience with it yourself, you’ve certainly crossed paths with someone who struggled to quit smoking or quit drinking or even to give up coffee.

  • The NFL wouldn’t have reinstated Martavis Bryant had he not show progress in his struggle.

Let’s hope he continues to come out on the winning side for the sake of Martavis Bryant’s physical and mental well-being in and of itself. And by the way, if Martavis Bryant remains physical and mental health remains strong, big things can happen in Pittsburgh in 2017.

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Justifying Steelers Faith in Landry Jones as Backup Quarterback

In case you haven’t been paying attention because you’re a little too busy gnashing your teeth over the Pittsburgh Steelers lack of free-agent activity, Pittsburgh inked backup quarterback Landry Jones to two-year contract that will average $2.2 million annually.

  • If you have been paying attention or are just finding this out, chances are, you’re not very happy with this development.

After all, you may be one of the many fans who consider Landry Jones the worst backup in the NFL. Why do you think this way? In addition to the four interceptions he threw in an exhibition loss to the Eagles at Heinz Field last August, Jones has looked kind of shaky in his 16 career appearances (four starts). He’s completed 85 of 141 passes for 1,071 yards, while throwing seven touchdowns to six interceptions.

Landry Jones, Carson Palmer, Landry Jones Steelers backup quarterback, Steelers vs Cardinals

Landry Jones and Carson Palmer talk after Jones relief win over the Arizona Cardinals in October 2014. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via Arizonasports.com

So why are Landry Jones’ numbers so underwhelming, so blah? Maybe it’s because he’s a backup quarterback, who has occasionally filled in for a franchise-caliber passer in one Ben Roethlisberger.

Good starting quarterbacks are a rare find, and those with the Hall of Fame credentials that Ben Roethlisberger possesses are even rarer. Therefore, when that guy’s backup takes his place for any length of time, the drop-off is going to be noticeable.

  • Back to those simply good starting quarterbacks. Just how rare of a find are they?

They are so rare, Brian Hoyer, a 31-year old journeyman quarterback with 8,600 yards and 31 starts on his resume, just got $10 million in guaranteed money to be the 49ers signal-caller over the next two seasons.

Meanwhile, Mike Glennon, who hasn’t started a game in the NFL since 2014 and threw for just 75 yards last season, signed a three-year contract with the Bears for $45 million, with $18.5 million of it guaranteed.

  • Will Hoyer and Glennon pan out for their new teams? That remains to be seen, but if either one of them winds up out of a job next season, that wouldn’t be a shocker.

Last season, Brock Osweiler parlayed the seven starts and 1,967 passing yards he accumulated while filling in for the legendary Peyton Manning in 2015 into a four-year, $32 million contract from the Texans.

After a more than forgettable stint in Houston, Osweiler is now a member of the Browns, who acquired him in a trade on Thursday (and word is that the Browns are trying to trade Osweiler to another team or could cut him outright).

What’s my point in all of this? If it’s that hard to find a starting quarterback in the NFL, how can you expect the Steelers to find a better backup than Landry Jones?

  • Are there better backups in the NFL than Jones?

I’m sure there are. Would any of those backups lead the Steelers to a string of victories if Ben Roethlisberger were to suffer a serious injury? Probably not.

Landry Jones, Todd Haley, Steelers vs Cardinals

Todd Haley gives Landry Jones instructions as he heads to the field to face the Cardinals. Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham, Getty Images via LA Times

Landry Jones has been in offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s system since Pittsburgh selected him in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. The reason Jones was brought in and groomed to be the backup was because the front office and coaching staff wanted someone who could step in at a moment’s notice and run the offense.

You remember what happened two years ago, when Michael Vick was signed just weeks prior to the start of the season and thrust into action in Week 3, following an MCL sprain suffered by Roethlisberger.

Mike Vick, who had only about six weeks to learn the playbook, was mostly ineffective, as the offense struggled mightily.

  • Does the offense run like a well-oiled machine under Jones? No, but at least the playbook and the system both stay the same.

In the grand-scheme of things, there is nothing less interesting to talk about than a team’s backup quarterback. Unless of course you live in Pittsburgh and the starter is Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell or Kordell Stewart. Then you positively LOVE talking about starting the backup quarterback until reality reveals that David Woodley, Todd Blackledge, and Mike Tomczak really didn’t offer the Steelers a better chance to win….

…But that’s another conversation.

As we close, however, let’s concede that if Landry Jones becomes the Steelers starter for more than a couple of three games, Pittsburgh IS going to suffer for it. But let’s also remember that the same is true for just about any other NFL team, and that the Steelers could do worse at QB Number 2.

  • Therefore, just accept the fact that Landry Jones is the Steelers backup quarterback.

If you’re STILL fretting over that fact, then remember this – having Le’Veon Bell behind him and Antonio Brown in front of him will make Landry Jones a lot better quarterback. And besides, there seriously are more important things to worry about.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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What the Steelers Decision on Free Agent David Johnson Will Reveal about Ladarius Green

So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.” Matthew 20:17

Fear not, Steel Curtain Rising isn’t suddenly going religious, but this quote seems applicable to the story of Pittsburgh Steelers tight end David Johnson. The Steelers drafted David Johnson with their final pick of the 2009 NFL Draft following Super Bowl XLIII.

If the Steelers 2009 Draft is perhaps one of the most misunderstood of the Colbert-Tomlin era, it is perhaps fitting that David Johnson is the last member of that group to remain with the team.

David Johnson, Xavier Grimble, Steelers vs Chiefs, David Johnson Steelers free agent

David Johnson on a 26 yard reception in the Steelers 2016 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images

Capsule Profile of David Johnson’s Steelers Career

Fits and starts – that’s best description of David Johnson’s Steelers career. Johnson had to settle for the practice squad in 2009, but he earned a roster spot as the team’s 3rd string tight end in 2010 doing double duty that year and in 2011 at fullback. In 2012 Todd Haley announced he was moving David Johnson to fullback full time, but Johnson tore his ACL in preseason.

The Steelers brought Johnson back in 2013, ostensibly as a fullback, but he ended up beginning the season as the Steelers number 1 tight end while Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth were injured. David Johnson’s season was off to a strong start when disaster struck again as he tore an ACL, ending his season.

In May of 2016 the Steelers made a surprise move by resigning David Johnson. The move looked to be little more than an insurance policy, yet with Matt Spaeth headed to waivers and Ladariyus Green to the PUP, David Johnson once again found himself beginning the 2016 season as the Steelers number 1 tight end.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning David Johnson

David Johnson provided vital veteran stability to a tight end corps that lost a collective 20 years of experience and dependability with the departures of Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth.

David Johnson isn’t going to keep a lot of opposing defensive coordinators up late with worry, but David Johnson will frustrate opposing linebackers who think that running his way will give them a free shot at Ben Roethlisberger or Le’Veon Bell.

  • Jesse James confirmed in 2016 what he’d flashed in 2015 – that he’s a legitimate NFL tight end.

Xavier Grimble had flashes of his own in 2016, but didn’t have the kind of breakout year some were expecting and hoping for. Ladarius Green was a field flipper when he was healthy, but his season only lasted 6 games and one has to wonder if he can, or should, continue to play given his history with concussions.

David Johnson gives the Steelers a valuable, viable insurance policy at tight end who can resigned for the veteran minimum. This is one easy deal Kevin Colbert should get done.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning David Johnson

The conventional wisdom is that the Steelers will draft a tight end fairly early given the uncertainty surrounding Ladarius Green. The Steelers uncharacteristically kept 4 tight ends in 2016, there’s no chance that they’ll keep 5 in 2017.

  • David Johnson would seem to be the odd man out.

The story of a veteran hanging around as an old hand, acting as sort of a mentor, player coach is romantic, but the fact is that every veteran like that is taking up a roster spot for a younger player who has more upside.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and David Johnson

Let’s face it, David Johnson’s impending foray into free agency in 2017 isn’t quite as dramatic as Rod Woodson’s free agent debut in 1997.

Seriously, this writer admits to being somewhat of a homer for David Johnson, but even with that acknowledged, the truth he represents one of Kevin Colbert’s less consequential decisions this spring. David Johnson showed that he still can play and probably remains the Steelers best blocking tight end.

  • Given the Steelers success with the “Big Boy Package” a strong blocking tight end is a must.

But the Steelers also have the luxury of allowing this situation to evolve on its own terms. No NFL team is going to throw money at David Johnson, and the Steelers can go into the draft looking for a tight end, without having to reach for one, because Johnson will still be available afterwards.

Finally, if the decision the Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have to make on free agent tight end David Johnson isn’t terribly consequential, it does promise to reveal something important. If Steelers David Johnson before the 2017 NFL Draft, then we’ll know they’re concerned about Ladarius Green’s future, protestations to the contrary.

If they take a wait and see approach, then we’ll know their confidence level in Green’s return is high.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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