Steelers Defeat Colts 26-24 as Game Comes Down to “Who Makes the Last Mistake”

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Indianapolis Colts 26-24 as Adam Vinatieri shanked a field goal with 1:13 left to play.

  • The win evened the Steelers record to 4-4 and included several impressive defensive performances as well as a number of gritty offensive plays.

But that doesn’t hide the fact that Pittsburgh made more than its share of mistakes and sloppy plays. In that sense, the Steelers victory over the Colts affirmed the wisdom of the late Washington DC area sports radio journalist Ken Beatrice, who often reminded listeners, “More games are lost every week in the NFL than are won.”

Adam Vinatieri, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Colts, Adam Vinatieri miss Heinz Field

T.J. Watt signals “No Good” after Adam Adam Vinatieri’s miss. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Steelers Defense Goes Big Play or Bust in 1st Half

The story on the 2019 Steelers thus far had been this:  After the week 1 debacle against New England, only a handful of plays separated a 3-4 Pittsburgh squad from victories over Seattle, San Francisco and Baltimore – 3 of the toughest teams in the league.

While the Ben Roethlisbergerless offense was finding its way, a resilient defense reaffirmed the Steelers relevance. That story while true, came with a big “But,” attached to it:

  •  “Oh, But the Steelers haven’t beaten anyone.”

That was true. Cincinnati and Miami are competing for the 1st pick overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, while the Chargers could contend for top 10 pick. The Colts brought a 5-2 record to Heinz Field were certain to offer a stiffer test. And they delivered on their promise.

Despite losing starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett, relief pitcher Brian Hoyer moved the Colts offense with alarming ease during much of the first half, leading Indianapolis to two touchdown drives.

But the Colts defense more than held its own against the Steelers, limiting Mason Rudolph and the Steelers offense to two field goal attempts on the Steelers only two trips to the Red Zone.

  • Yet the Colts were making mistakes of their own.

The Colts answered Fitzpatrick’s touchdown with a six play 1:36 minute touchdown drive but one that ended with Cam Heyward blocking the extra point. That left 0:42 seconds in the second half, and Mike Tomlin was determined to be aggressive.

Unlike Miami last week, Frank Reich’s defense only allowed piecemeal yardage, yet on what should have been the last play of the half, Darius Leonard got greedy and hit Vance McDonald late. The extra 15 for a personal foul gave Chris Boswell the yards he needed to attempt a 51 yard field goal which he nailed.

Two miscues by the Colts in the last 42 seconds of the 1st half netted 4 points for Pittsburgh. Four points which would come in handy for the Steelers down the stretch.

Who Makes the Last Mistake?

A few critical plays often define the difference between defeat and victory in the NFL. Sometimes contests are decided by who has the ball last – think the Steelers 2009 win over Green Bay at Heinz Field.

Other times, games come down to who makes an error at a critical juncture – think how the Steelers have sabotaged themselves with poor ball security over the last year.

  • The truth is that the in the Steelers match up against the Colts hinged on who made the last mistake.

Both teams made mistakes aplenty in the second half.

It says here that the Steelers won because they did marginally better at taking advantage of those mistakes, but they still needed the Colts to continue making them. Bud Dupree ended the Colts first procession with a strip sack, and the Steelers converted it into a touchdown thanks to a Mason Rudolph to Vance McDonald touchdown.

Yet on their next possession, the Steelers gave up a safety, only to have Ola Adeniyi, Terrell Edmunds force a fumble which Johnny Holton recovered. But despite getting the ball at their 17, the Steelers had to settle for a field goal.

Chester Rogers fumble, Terrell Edmunds, Steelers vs Colts

Chester Rogers fumbles a punt return. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

With James Conner and Benny Snell out injured, the Steelers offense figured to see a lot of Jaylen Samuels. And see him we did. While Trey Edmunds got his first extended NFL action, Jaylen Samuels functioned as the focal point of the Steelers offense for much of the afternoon.

The Steelers gave Jaylen Samuels 21 touches, and while he did well, perhaps the biggest mistake Randy Fichtner made was in relying on him a little too much. Samuels was less effective in the 2nd half, particularly in the Red Zone.

And with the Steelers holding a 23 to 18 lead with just under 12 minutes left to play, he fumbled the ball, a fumble which the Colts only needed 7 plays to transform into a touchdown. But, in keeping with the tenor of the afternoon, Terrell Edmunds batted away the two point conversion, leaving the Colts with a meager 1 point lead.

Twice afterwards the Steelers had the chance to put the Colts away for good, but after a drive that started with an impressive 40 yard catch by James Washington and an opportune pass interference penalty on Diontae Johnson stalled at the 8, Pittsburgh had to settle for another Chris Boswell field goal.

  • The Steelers got the ball back with 3:58 left and conceivably Pittsburgh could have put the game out of reach with one first down.
  • Yet, they failed to get that first down.

The Colts got the ball back, and on the heels of one questionable pass interference call and another less questionable pass interference non-call, Indianapolis got all the way to the Steelers 22. Even after Bud Dupree dumped Marlon Mack for a 3 yard loss, all Adam Vinatieri had to do was knock in a 43 yard field goal.

  • And, almost as if on cue, he hooked it wide to the left, and the Colts had lost to the Steelers.

Mike Tomlin explained it perfectly as he closed his press conference, “We’re far from where we want to be. But we’ll take it.”

 

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Buyer’s Remorse? Steelers Cut Donte Moncrief, Promote Tony Brooks-James from Practice Squad

In a move that counts as dramatic if unsurprising, the Pittsburgh Steelers have cut Donte Moncrief to make room on their regular season roster for practice squad running back Tony BrooksJames.

With James Conner and Benny Snell both injured, the only running backs the Steelers have going into Sunday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts are Jaylen Samuels and Trey Edmunds. So in one sense simple roster-math dictates that the Steelers make this move.

  • But if the Steelers were simply looking to move a body, they could have just as easily cut Johnny Holton

Indeed, they could have cut Holton today and resigned him Monday morning. Instead, they chose to give in to a bit of free agency buyer’s remorse and cut Donte Moncrief, the wide receiver the Steelers signed in free agency to a two year, $9 million contract with a $3.5 million signing bonus.

  • By waving Donte Moncrief now, add another $250,000 to their salary cap as all of Moncrief’s bonus accrues.

The upside to this decision, however, is that it now gives the chance for the Steelers to get a compensatory pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Donte Moncreif, Donte Moncrief Steelers debut, steelers vs patriots

Donte Moncrief’s Steelers debut definitely left a lot to be desired. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

While the NFL’s formula for awarding compensatory picks isn’t 100% apparent, the Steelers believed they were due a 3rd round pick in 2020, largely due to the deal signed by Le’Veon Bell. However, when the Philadelphia Eagles cut L.J. Fort, the Steelers lost that pick, leading to speculation that Donte Moncrief would get cut before the 10th week of the season.

Given that the Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Nick Vannett trades have greatly depleted the Steelers draft capital, a 3rd round compensatory pick is certainly valuable.

  • Nonetheless, it amounts to a bitter consolation prize.

The Steelers were counting on Donte Moncrief to provide veteran leadership and mentorship for JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson following the departure of Antonio Brown. While Donte Moncreif’s record outside of Pittsburgh was mixed, it was hoped pairing him with Ben Roethlisberger would give him a chance to live up to his potential.

Yet, in the Steelers opening day loss to the Patriots, Moncrief dropped six passes including a would-be 3rd down conversion early in the game when just a little bit of momentum would have given Pittsburgh a shot in the arm.

A week later, Moncrief caused Mason Rudolph’s interception when he let a pass go through his hands, in a play which turned the game in favor of the Seahawks.

https://twitter.com/BarstoolsTweets/status/1173309965823401984

In fairness to him, Donte Moncrief was having a strong training camp, until he suffered a dislocated finger, and injury which he indicated he did not expect to heal during the season.

One week ago existing the bye week, word was that the Steelers were “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s return. That remains the case, but it is also true that Pittsburgh is now “All In” on the youth movement at wide receiver because at the ripe age of 23, JuJu Smith-Schuster becomes the Steelers most experienced wide out.

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win Over Dolphins – How Did Mason Rudolph Grade Out?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who hopes his star student can sustain the mental toughness he used to get through a rather tough exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Dolphins.

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

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

Quarterback
Coaches let Mason Rudolph test the waters outside of the kiddie’s pool this week, and for the first 20 minutes or so Mason Rudolph looked like he wasn’t going to keep his head above water. After that, Mason Rudolph led the Steelers to score 27 unanswered points, including two drives that started with him standing in Pittsburgh’s own end zone. While this is impressive, Rudolph’s total body of work still shows he has a long way to go. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ground out 145 yards, ripping off several long runs that sparked the entire offense. Benny Snell had 13 yards on 5 carries, while Trey Edmunds got zero yards on his first carry as a Steeler. Roosevelt Nix was back, and helped pave the way for the Steelers rushing success. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught 3 passes for 19 yards and Nick Vannett caught 1 pass for 15 yards. The presence of both men, along with Zach Banner who checked in as a third tight end on many plays helped make the run blocking a success. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
While his season thus far is not earning JuJu Smith-Schuster many fans among Fantasy Football owners , anyone who has doubts about status as an elite a wide receiver need look no further than his touchdown catch. JuJu had a monster night going 5 of 103 making critical catch after critical catch. Diontae Johnson’s 12 yard grab on 3rd and 11 got the offense moving, and his pre-halftime touchdown was simply sensational. James Washington caught one of 6 passes thrown his way. Grade: A

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Lammons, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

JuJu Smith-Schuster out duels Chris Lammons for the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Offensive Line
The Dolphins made little secret of their plan to crowd the offensive line either by putting 8 men in the box or by going all out on the Blitz. In both cases, the Steelers offensive line met the challenge, including a heads up play by David DeCastro to recover a fumble. Grade: A

Defensive Line
In their first game without Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers offensive line smothered the Dolphin’s running attack and Cam Heyward terrorized Ryan Fitzpatrick in the second half, sacking him, helping stop a 4th down conversion, while hitting him twice. Grade: A

Linebackers
If T.J. Watt continues at this pace, his name won’t be remembered alongside predecessors like James Harrison, Greg Lloyd or Joey Porter. People will put his name before theirs.

That’s saying a lot, but T.J. Watt continues to decimate opponents, logging two strip sacks against Miami, two tackles for a loss, and hitting Ryan Fitzpatrick three times. Bud Dupree had a sack and an impressive drop deep in the backfield. Overall a strong night for the linebackers, but Devin Bush, Bud Dupree and Mark Barron ALL missed tackles on Allen Hurns touchdown. That brings the grade down. Grade: A-

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

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

Secondary
Perhaps the only defensive back’s name that you heard against the Dolphins was that of Minkah Fitzpatrick who intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick twice. Oh, and Mike Hilton also forced a fumble. The Dolphins deserve credit for getting on the board fast, but the Steelers defense shut them down completely afterwards, and that only happens if Joe Haden, Steve Nelson and Terrell Edmunds are doing their jobs. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed his first kick of the season but nailing a 54 yarder at Heinz Field is a tall order. The Steelers gave up another longish punt return which didn’t impact the game’s result, but the trend is becoming annoying. Ryan Switzer’s returns were average. Grade: B

Coaching
Steelers coaches had been keeping the training wheels on Mason Rudolph thus far this season, and they took them off against the Dolphins. For a quarter and a half, Mason Rudolph looked every bit like the kid who should only ride his bike on the sidewalk. With the training wheels on.

  • But the Steelers coaches kept Rudolph on the street.

Randy Fichtner didn’t attempt to revert to the Wildcat, nor did he try to limit passing to chink and dink check downs. Mason Rudolph proved to be up to the challenge, although at this point his game has far more rough spots than smooth ones.

Outside of the sloppy play on Miami’s second touchdown, finding fault with Keith Butler’s defense would require a considerable amount of effort. OK, the Steelers defense was dominating a Dolphin team that is actively vying for the first pick overall. But you’re supposed to dominate in those circumstances, and dominate they did. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Things looked bleak after Miami put 14 points on the board in less than one quarter. The Steelers responded with a drive that burned off almost half of the time in the 2nd quarter, netting a field goal.

When Miami got the ball with 2:40 remaining, it would have been easy to play with an eye towards simply keeping the Dolphins off of the score board and getting into the locker room. Instead, the Steelers used a time out on defense and secured an interception.

  • Then they aggressively attacked the Dolphins from mid-field and scored a touchdown.

He takes a lot of heat over his clock management, but his aggressiveness sapped the momentum away from Miami and put Pittsburgh in the driver’s seat for the 2nd half and for that Mike Tomlin wins the unsung hero award for the Steelers MNF win over the Dolphins.

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Dice Roll: Steelers Cut Fred Johnson, Jayrone Elliott, Activate Trey Edmunds, Paxton Lynch

With Mason Rudolph and Jaylen Samuels ruled out for Pittsburgh’s Sunday Night Football matchup against the Chargers, the Steelers cut Fred Johnson and Jayrone Elliott and activated Trey Edmunds and Paxton Lynch.

While there was some hope that he could play, as of this writing Mason Rudolph remains in the NFL concussion protocol. Rudolph could still be cleared, but the Steelers will start Devlin Hodges with Paxton Lynch backing him up.

Trey Edmunds,

Trey Edmunds in the 2019 preseason. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

This amounts to a minor bit of irony, as Paxton Lynch was the Denver Broncos first round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, while Devlin Hodges spent opening day browsing the want ads after spending the summer on the Steelers training camp roster.

Trey Edmunds, brother of Terrell Edmunds, has been with the Steelers since early 2018, after joining the practice squad when Le’Veon Bell began his hold out. The Steelers activated Trey Edmunds last season when James Conner got hurt. Edmunds appeared in 4 games on special teams but did not get a carry.

Trey Edmunds will backup James Conner and Benny Snell Jr., but could see action in the offense. Edmunds is a fullback by trade, and Roosevelt Nix has been declared out of the game.

Steelers Hope to Bring Back Johnson and Elliott But….

According to Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Steelers plan to bring back both Jayrone Elliot and Fred Johnson. That could very well happen, but the Steelers have had a bit of bad luck with cutting and resigning roster bubble players this season.

Before opening day the cut preseason stand out Tuzar Skipper, when they activated Johnny Holton, only to lose him on waivers to the New York Giants. They also planned to bring back wide receiver/kick returner Diontae Spencer to the practice squad, but he got claimed by the Denver Broncos.

  • Of the two, resigning Fred Johnson appears the higher priority.

Fred Johnson’s play in preseason was strong enough that some in the organization see him as a potential future starter. Given the aging Steelers offensive line and the dearth of draft picks to replace them, the Steelers need to stockpile potential where they can.

Finally, Steelers free agent corner Steven Nelson will not play, leading Artie Burns to see his first extended action since the beginning of the 2018 season.

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Steelers Can’t Get a Break: Jaylen Samuels Knee Surgery Sidelines RB #2 for a Month

In his weekly press conference Mike Tomlin dropped a bit of a bomb when he announced that running back Jaylen Samuels has his knee scoped and will be out for close to a month. Yes Steelers Nation, we have seen this movie before, only in 2019 it is hitting theaters earlier.

To be fair to Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin, the Steelers did at least attempt to upgrade their number 3 running back slot when they drafted  Benny Snell Jr. in the 2019 NFL Draft. Benny Snell only has 6 rushing attempts to his name, and while his 5 yard average might look impressive, 23 of those came on one run in the Steelers loss to Seattle.

  • Nonetheless, Benny Snell is now Steelers RB number 2 behind James Conner.

The Steelers also have Trey Edmunds, brother of Terrell Edmunds, on their practice squad and will likely activate him before Sunday Night’s game against the Chargers. The Steelers brain trust of course built the roster with Ben Roethlisberger in mind. But now they don’t even have the luxury of Mason Rudolph starting, as Devlin Hodges will get the nod this week.

Sadly, a Steelers Tomlin-era tradition of struggling to keep RB 1 and RB 2 healthy continues.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Steelers Cut Xavier Grimble

The Steelers also made another move prior to Sunday’s loss against the Ravens, when they waived tight end Xavier Grimble with an injury settlement. The move is slightly puzzling. The Steelers rarely wave players on injured reserve, as the last time they did so was when they cut Bruce Gradkowski in the fall of 2016.

Xavier Grimble had entered 2019 as the Steelers number 2 tight end, but that role appeared to be too big for him. Certainly Grimble, unlike Jesse James, wasn’t able to hold his own in Vance McDonald’s absence.

  • On paper the presence of Nick Vannett would appear to make Grimble expendable.

And restricted free agent tenders are not guaranteed, so the move makes salary cap sense for the Steelers. Still, if either McDonald or Vanett were to go down for an extended period, Grimble would have been available for the 2nd half of the season.

No one would have looked to Grimble as a savior in such circumstances, but at least he’d have brought more experience than Zach Gentry. With that said, it is entirely possible that Xavier Grimble asked for his release, as he’ll be free to latch on to another team.

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Saying Goodbye: Steelers Cut Eli Rogers, Trade Jerald Hawkins to Reach 53 Man Limit

The Pittsburgh Steelers made their roster cut downs yesterday and while Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin did not unload any major surprises on the fan base, the team did part way with two veterans.

  • The biggest and perhaps most difficult move was the decision to cut veteran wide receiver Eli Rogers.

Eli Rogers joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2015, spent the year on injured reserve, and emerged as their starting slot receiver by the end of training camp in 2016. By season’s end, Eli Rogers was their defacto number 2 wide out.

Eli Rogers, Eli Rogers free agent

Eli Rogers in 2017. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

That role was probably a step too big for Rogers, but no one can deny that Rogers 48 catches and 3 touchdowns equaled phenomenal production for a player that few fans had even heard of going into August. In 2017 Eli Roger’s production dipped, thanks largely to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant‘s presence, but Eli Rogers played extremely well in the playoff loss to the Jaguars, as Ben Roethlisberger connected with him on all five attempts.

However, Eli Rogers did well grabbing 12 of 14 balls thrown his way during the season’s final 3 weeks, as Rogers gave the Steelers a legitimate 3rd wide receiver. Going into training camp, Eli Rogers was seen as competing with Ryan Switzer for a roster spot. While this writer asserts that Eli Rogers is a better wide out than Switzer, Switzer is a better return man, and with James Washington and Donte Moncrief that’s a trade off the Steelers can afford to make.

Steelers Trade Jerald Hawkins to Tampa Bay

The Steelers also traded Jerald Hawkins to Tampa Bay, exchanging a 7th round pick and Hawkins for Tampa Bay’s 6th round pick. The Steelers of course drafted Jerald Hawkins in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Hawkins had a strong training camp, only to get injured in the Steelers preseason win over the New Orleans Saints.

Hawkins would be back in 2017, only to get injured in spring practices in 2018. Word was he was not fully recovered going into 2019 and effectively found himself behind undrafted rookie free agents.

Credit Kevin Colbert for getting a 6th round pick for a player that the Steelers were going to cut anyway.

Other Steelers Who Got a Visit from “The Turk”

The Steelers cut a host of other players to reach the roster limit. Those cuts included:

Quarterback:
Devlin Hodges

Running Backs:
Trey Edmunds, Travon McMillian and Malik Williams,

Wide Receivers:
Trey Griffey, Johnny Holton, Tevin Jones, Brandon Reilly, Eli Rogers and Diontae Spencer

Tight Ends:
Micky Crum, Kevin Rader, Christian Scotland-Williamson and Trevor Wood

Offensive Line:
Garrett Brumfield, Derwin Gray, J.C. Hassanauer, Patrick Morris and Damian Prince

Defensive Backs:
Marcus Allen, Dravon Askew-Henry, Marcelis Branch, Jhvonte Dean, P.J. Locke and Trevon Mathis

Linebackers:
Jayrone Elliott, Christian Kuntz, Tegray Scales, Sutton Smith and Robert Spillane

Defensive Linemen:
Winston Craig, Greg Gilmore, Henry Mondeaux, Casey Sayles and Conor Sheehy

Both Chris Boswell and Jordan Berry held off their respective  challenges from Matthew Wright and Ian Berryman.

Marcus Allen, Derwin Gray, Trey Edmunds, Patrick Morris, Christian Scotland-Williamson, Kevin Rader, Robert Spillane have already returned to the Steelers practice squad. One spot remains open, and Jim Wexell points out, it could be filled by either Sutton Smith or Johnny Holton.

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4 Challenges the Steelers Must Master this Summer at St. Vincents

Training camp has started and for the next few weeks St. Vincents, in Latrobe will occupy the center of the universe for Steelers Nation. Over the next 24 hours, we’ll be treated to images of players moving into camp, interviews with veteran stars and rookie hopefuls and a press conference from Mike Tomlin where he promises to “Build a foundation.”

A foundation is indeed necessary if the men in Black and Gold are to reverse their two year slide from AFC Championship appearance in ‘16, to one-and-done in ’17 to watching Cleveland come up “choto” to keep them out of the playoffs in ’18 (“Choto” is a bit of Argentine porteño slang, either Google it or check here and here to see choto used in a Steelers football context.)

With that in mind, here are 3 key challenges the Steelers must master during training camp and preseason.

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, St. Vincents, St. Vincent's, Steelers training camp, Latrobe

Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger set their sights high. Photo Credit: The Morning Call

1. Sharpening Players While Keeping Them Fresh and Healthy

Training camp is a time where teams build cohesion. But cohesion means little if guys get hurt during the process. NFL coaches must strike a fine balance.

Ben Roethlisberger is 37 years old. He knows the playbook. He’s well versed in the nuances of running the two minute drill. Mason Rudolph and Joshua Dobbs can use all the reps they can get, whereas Ben Roethlisberger knows how to throw a fade route.

Ben Roethlisberger’s training camp practice has reps have been limited and he’s seen precious little action in preseason for the past several summers. He’s also remained healthy and upright for the past two seasons.

  • But Roethlisberger has also been rusty at the start of the last two seasons.

He was far worse in early 2017 than in 2018, but last year it still took him several games to hit his stride. The Steelers cannot afford that, especially given the fact that JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief, James Washington and Vance McDonald will have to find someway to make up for the loss of You Know Who.

This summer at St. Vincents the Steelers must position themselves to start fast and finish strong.

2. Establish a Number 2 Wide Receiver

JuJu Smith-Schuster is a legitimate number 1 wide receiver. You don’t make the catches he’s made over the last two years if you don’t have true talent. But every true number 1 needs a number 2 to take heat off of him.

Just look at how You Know Who was limited down the stretch in ’16 when the Steelers were essentially starting practice squad guys at the number 3 and 4 wide receiver slots.

If James Washington can transfer what coaches and journalists say they see on the practice fields to game situations then the Steelers will be OK. If not, then they had better hope that Donte Moncrief does indeed benefit from having Ben Roethlisberger throw to him.

Otherwise, the Steelers fall from contender status will continue this autumn.

3. Find a True Number 3 Running Back

Yep. We are beating that horse again, although the horse is very much on its legs. The combination of injures and lack of backfield depth has been a chronic weakness throughout the Mike Tomlin era. Some situations were unavoidable.

However, the Steelers have gambled with not staffing a competent number 3 running back for the past several seasons, and it has hurt them every time. Counting on James Conner to stay healthy and Jaylen Samuels to both stay healthy and build on his rookie year is too big a role of the dice.

The Steelers NEED Bennie Snell Jr., Trey Edmunds or someone else to prove they can be a legit number 3 NFL running back. Otherwise, the prospect of needing to make another December call Stevan Ridley could be come very real.

4. Sort Out Secondary Depth

Assuming good health, which is never a safe assumption in the NFL, it says here the Steelers have four competent starters to field in the secondary with Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Terrell Edmunds and Sean Davis. Mike Hilton might not be a superstar, but he’s a 3rd corner you can win with.

  • After that, the Steelers have quantity, but no proven quality.

The Steelers need to develop that depth this summer. Morgan Burnett forced his way out of Pittsburgh after last season and most fans shrugged their shoulders. Yet, it was Burnett who knocked away Tom Brady’s final pass, and had he returned he’d have given the Steelers a strong option as a third safety.

Right now the backup safeties s are Marcus Allen and Jordan Dangerfield. Everyone seems to be down on Allen, even though his slate is blank. Maybe he can prove the doubters wrong.

Over at cornerback Cam Sutton and Brian Allen need to turn potential into production and/or Artie Burns has to salvage something of a once promising start. Otherwise, might see Justin Layne get a baptism by fire….

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Is Someone Listening in Pittsburgh? Steeler Draft Benny Snell, Running Back, Kentucky in 4th Round of 2019 Draft

Throughout much of the Tomlin era, and especially in over the past several seasons the Steelers, sometimes by chance and sometimes by choices, have skimped out on running back depth and it has cost them dearly in December.

  • Kevin Colbert took a step towards addressing that problem when the Steelers drafted Benny Snell Jr., running back out of the University of Kentucky in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft.

Although he scored 25 touchdowns, averaged 5.3 yards per carry and ran for just under 2,000 yards in two seasons for the Wildcats, Benny Snell performed poorly at the Combine, he had a 4.66 40 time, prompting some pre-draft analysts to take them off of their draft boards. Even his hometown paper concluded that Snell failed to help himself at the Combine.

Benny Snell Jr., Steelers 2019 4th round pick Benny Snell Jr.

Kentucky running back Benny Snell Jr. runs for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Bryan Woolston, AP via Yahoo! Sports

  • Clearly, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Randy Fichtner, new running backs coach Eddie Faulkner felt differently.

Here is a look at Benny Snell’s NCAA Highlight tape:

Clearly, Benny Snell likes to score touchdowns. In Pittsburgh Snell joins a backfield headed by James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, both of whom exceeded expectations in 2018. The Steelers also have Trey Edmunds, brother of Terrell Edmunds, on their roster, although Edmunds has never seen an NFL snap.

  • For the record, the Steelers also have Roosevelt Nix, who technically speaking is a running back, occupying the role of fullback.

During the 2018 season the Pittsburgh Steelers passed more than any other NFL team as Ben Roethlisberger threw 675 passes, far more than he’s ever thrown before.

While many commentators criticized Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner for abandoning the running, the imbalance in the Steelers offense began when it became clear that Le’Veon Bell would hold out for the entire season.

  • At that point the Steelers attempted to reduce James Conner’s workload in the hopes of avoiding injury.

That was the first sign that the Steelers brain trust realized that they take a differ approach to how they deployed their running backs. The decision to draft Benny Snell is a second sign and a step in the right direction.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Benny Snell Jr.

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Is the Steeler 2019 Draft Need @ Running Back Stronger than Conventional Wisdom Indicates?

Ask a fan, a journalist or even a team employee what the Steelers top needs are entering the 2019 NFL Draft and they’ll tell you inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver – probably in that order.

  • Few would, or should argue.

But after those positions, there’s little agreement over what comes next. Some would argue for edge rusher, others tight end while still others will insist that the Steelers add another safety. Those arguments all have their merits.

Few, however, think of, let alone mention running back – is this a mistake? Let’s find out.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

Home town hero and cancer survivor James Conner became an immediate fan favorite when the Steelers picked the former Pitt Panther in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. James Conner saw little action in his rookie season which unfortunately ended in the December showdown against the New England Patriots.

  • James Conner’s body of work was so scant that the Steelers did not seriously consider him as an alternative to Le’Veon Bell.

Nonetheless, with Le’Veon Bell made good on threats to hold out/backed away of his stated intention to report and play in the franchise tag (Bell made both), James Conner became the Steelers starting running back.

James Conner proved to be up to the task as a quick look at his performance reveals.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

James Conner not only proved to be a capable replacement to Le’Veon Bell, by some measures, he was an improvement to Le’ Veon Bell. (One of those, unfortunately, was not ball security.) James Conner of course got hurt in the Steelers loss to the Chargers, but his return in week 17 should do nothing to dissuade fans that Conner is a championship caliber NFL running back.

  • The other Steelers starter at running back would be Roosevelt Nix, their fullback.

While Roosevelt Nix continued to play well when called upon by the Steelers, but in Randy Fichtner’s offense, Roosevelt Nix’s role decrease, as his 2018 snap count dropped to 9.86%, down from 16.37% in 2017.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

Behind James Conner the Steelers have Jaylen Samuels who was thrust into the starting role after Conner’s injury despite never having worked as a starting running back in his NFL life.

Given his lack of experience, the rookie Jaylen Samuels did incredibly well, rushing for 256 yards on 56 carries and catching another 26 passes for 29 yards which included 3 through the air.

Behind Samuels, the Steelers also have Trey Edmunds, brother of Terrell Edmunds, who got activated from the practice squad when Conner got injured, and remains an unknown commodity.

For those of you taking notes at home, the Steelers also have running backs Malik Williams and Ralph Webb on their roster.

Steelers Need @ Running Back Going into the 2019 NFL Draft

Although he only has a year of starting experience under his belt, James Conner already shares something in common with Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell, Isaac Redman and DeAngelo Williams.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • What might that be?

James Conner, like his Tomlin-era predecessors, suffered a late season injury that complicated “December football” for the Steelers because there was little proven depth behind him.

To be fair to the coaching staff, as soon as it became clear that Le’Veon Bell’s holdout would become permanent, the Steelers dramatically cut down on his workload as the table above indicates.

Perhaps that’s a sign that Mike Tomlin is learning that he shouldn’t take his credo of rushing a running back until his wheels start to fall off too literally.

  • However, the Steelers made no apparent attempt to target a running back during free agency.

And that leaves a bare cupboard behind James Conner and Jaylen Samuels. Steel Curtain Rising is already on record saying that beefing up running back depth is one of the under appreciated Steelers 2019 off season priorities. And with that in mind, the Steelers need at running back going into the 2019 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate High.

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The “Other” Steelers 2019 Off Season Priority: Beefing Up Running Back Depth

What’s the Pittsburgh Steelers biggest priority of the 2019 off season? Well, improving at inside linebacker and at cornerback (if not safety as well) top everyone’s list. As they should. Next comes finding someone to “replace” Antonio Brown.

  • That’s where most people’s lists tend to end. They should not.

There’s another off season priority for the Steelers, and while it make take a backseat to the priorities listed above, ignoring it will only come at Pittsburgh’s peril. The Steelers need to strengthen the depth of their offensive backfield. In doing so they’d be wise to remember the contributions of the Mewelde Moore back in 2008…

Mewelde Moore, David Jones, Steelers vs Bengals 2008

Mewelde Moore, the unsung hero of the Steelers 2008 season. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

 

Steelers Busted Up Backfield Syndrome

It is kind of funny if you think about it. Steelers fans find no shortage of topics to criticize Mike Tomlin on these days, whether its clock management, challenges, talent evaluation, locker room control or getting tripped up on trap games.

Yet the numbers are there for all to see. Whether we’re talking about Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell or the duo of Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, Mike Tomlin has shown little inclination to limit the work load of his starting running backs.

  • While that’s a debatable strategy to begin with, it is even more dubious if when you fail to adequately staff your running back depth chart.

This is after all the team that started Ben Tate, Josh Harris and Dri Archer in the playoffs one year, and Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman a year later.

First Step – Admitting You Have a Problem

While the Steelers brass hasn’t issued a mea culpa, there are signs that the coaches have realized they have a problem. Before it became clear that Le’Veon Bell’s hold out would become permanent, James Conner was on track to touch the ball 378 times this year.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

Although the Steelers dramatically cut back on Conner’s carries starting with the Panther’s game, James Conner got hurt anyway. That forced rookie Jaylen Samuels into the starting role despite never having played running back full time in his football life.

Fortunately, Samuels was up to the task. Unfortunately, it left the Steelers one play away from starting Stevan Ridley or Trey Edmunds as their starting running back.

The Steelers offense couldn’t control the clock, and airing the ball out resulted in more turnovers – even if Ben Roethlisberger’s interception percentage was down.

Solution Staff Moore Running Back Depth

While it is easy to play arm chair head coach and criticize Mike Tomlin and Randy Fitchner for passing too much, the fact is that their personnel left them little choice. This is one case where the arm chair general managers have the upper hand. Steelers history backs this up.

  • It certainly is true that the passing game is preeminent in today’s NFL
  • It may also be true that “Three yards and a cloud of dust” smash mouth “Steelers football” only delivered wins in Super Bowl’s IX and Super Bowl XL

But it is also true that the Steelers lone Lombardi Trophy of the Tomlin era came in 2008, when the front office had the foresight to staff a running back depth chart that was 3 and arguably 4 players deep. The plan was rely on Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall, with Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell serving as backups.

Mewelede Moore hadn’t just been overlooked by the Pittsburgh media, having signed as a free agent the same day Ben Roethlisberger signed his first extension, the coaches had ignored him too as Carey Davis got the call when Mendenhall got injured in Baltimore.

Moore rushed for 120 yards the following week, and piled up just under 800 all-purpose yards while only making 4 starts. I’ve long argued that Mewelede Moore was the unsung hero of the Steelers 2008 season which ended in victory at Super Bowl XLIII.

  • How might have 2018 turned out had the Steelers dedicated a roster spot to another running back instead of say, Justin Hunter?

We’ll never know. But we do know that the Steelers brass’ decision to staff running back depth charts which are essentially only two players deep has carried steep costs in December and January time and time again.

James Conner and Jaylen Samuels give the Steelers two good backs going into 2019. Regardless of whether he comes from free agency or the 2019 NFL Draft, the Steelers must bring a third running back to Pittsburgh; Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin must find the 2019 equivalent of Mewelde Moore.

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