Steelers Sign Steve Nelson to 3 Year Contract. First Big Free Agent Move @ Corner in 20 Years

Could a cycle be forming? In Pittsburgh’s 2019 home opening loss, the Kansas City Chiefs used and abused the Steelers secondary revealing it as a major weakness that needed to be corrected. To be sure, Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds stepped up their play from that awful day to begin making improvements during the season.

  • And now, as a first off season step towards shoring up that secondary the Pittsburgh Steelers have signed cornerback Steve Nelson from the Chiefs.

If reports are correct, Steve Nelson’s contract is for 3 years and $25.5 million, although there is no information on guarantees and signing bonuses at this point. Nelson cannot “officially” sign with Steelers at until 4:00 pm today.

Steve Nelson, Steve Nelson Steelers, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs. Chiefs

Steve Nelson attempts to tackle Antonio Brown in the Steelers 2016 playoff win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Twitter

Given the money the Steelers are paying him, Steve Nelson will undoubtedly be slotted as the starter opposite Joe Haden. The move also ensures that the Steelers will not pick up the 5th year option on Artie Burns, although exercising that option would have been insane under any circumstances given Artie Burns track record.

Coty Sensabaugh, the incumbent starter, is a free agent who will not get a ton of money thrown at him, but is also not the type of player you can bring back at the veteran minimum. That in turn could be good news for Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen. Mike Hilton looks set to arrive at St. Vincents as the Steelers starting slot corner, but Burns, Sutton or Allen could conceivably mount a challenge.

Steelers First Big Free Agent Move at Cornerback in 20 Years

Cornerback has been a sore spot for the Steelers defense since at least Super Bowl XLV if not before. Despite that, the Steelers Steve Nelson signing is the first time the franchise has made a big-name free agent signing at cornerback since bringing Dwayne Washington to Pittsburgh in 1998.

By any measure, Steve Nelson is a counts as a major free agent signing by the Steelers. In 2018, he totaled 68 tackles, defensed 15 passes and made four interceptions. That 4 interception total tops the season high-total for any Steelers player since Troy Polamalu recorded 7 interceptions in 2010.

  • However, those were the first interceptions of Steve Nelson’s career.

That shouldn’t be necessarily be considered as an ominous sign – as Nelson had 16 passed defensed in 2016 and many scouts will tell you the passes defensed is a better performance metric for judging defensive backs.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Steve Nelson.

Steelers Free Agent News Coming Fast and Furious

While players cannot officially sign until 4:00 pm, a lot has already happened. Jesse James is headed to Detroit and Le’Veon Bell is flying off to the New York Jets. However, Anthony Chickillo will be returning to Pittsburgh.

Stay tuned. Steel Curtain Rising will have more in depth commentary on the moves above.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Painful? Yes. But Steelers Make Right Decision to Move on from Antonio Brown

All good things come to an end. So it is with Antonio Brown and the Steelers. After dominating the headlines for the first two months of 2019, the on-going Antonio Brown Soap opera reached the beginning of the end as Antonio Brown met with Art Rooney II and the two sides agreed to seek a trade.

Art Rooney II, Antonio Brown, Steelers to trade Antonio Brown

Art Rooney II & Antonio Brown agree to part ways. Photo Credit: Twitter

If reports are correct, Antonio Brown first met with Art Rooney II while Brown’s father Eddie Brown was in the room. Once the two sides agreed to a trade, agent Drew Rosenhaus along with Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan joined entered to discuss next steps.

  • Significantly, the Steelers did not grant Drew Rosenhaus permission to explore trade opportunities with other teams.

This is important, because it underlines the fact that the Steelers are holding on to one of the key cards they have left to play in this deck – determining where Antonio Brown lands. (Preferably somewhere in the NFC.)

It Sucks, But the Steelers Made the Right Decision

There’s no way to sugar coat it, the Pittsburgh 2019 offense will be poorer for Antonio Brown’s absence. However, this move had to be made, however painful it might be.

  • As Jeremy Fowler’s report detailed, Antonio Brown got preferential treatment from Mike Tomlin.

While this outrages a lot of fans, the truth is that star athletes get special treatment from a lot of organizations, at all levels of organized sports. But abandoning your teammates in the heat of battle – with the playoffs on the line – simply cannot be tolerated.

  • One can argue that this sets a bad precedent, that in the future disgruntled players can social media temper tantrum their way off the team.

That could happen.

  • But that pales in comparison to sending a signal to the locker room that quitting is OK.

Like most fans, when news of this incident broke, I clung to some sort of hope that this would somehow just “all go away.” And the Steelers seemed to leave the door open in early January. Perhaps, in a pre-social media era that might have even been possible.

But it takes two to tango, and nothing Brown has done since walking out on the Steelers prior to the Bengals game indicates he’s willing to do his part of the dance.

Make No Mistake About It: Losing Brown Will Hurt

Antonio Brown is a Hall of Fame talent. Losing him will hurt. A lot.

Rarely can a team make a one-for-one replacement for a Hall of Famer as the Steelers did when they transitioned from Mike Webster to Dermontti Dawson. More often than not, you end up with situations akin to what the Steelers found themselves in the 80s when they replaced Lynn Swann with Louis Lipps or Jack Lambert with David Little.

  • Lipps and Little only sins as Steelers were to be merely good instead of great.

Sure, Ben Roethlisberger still has JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald as weapons. God willing James Washington will develop and James Conner will stay healthy. And, as it has been noted, the Steelers won Super Bowl XL with Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El and Super Bowl XLIII with Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington.

Just in case you forgot.

Nonetheless, Art Rooney II has made the right decision.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs the New Orleans Saints – a 31 Year Retrospective

The Steelers history against the New Orleans Saints has Pittsburgh taking a 7-8 record down to the Big Easy where the Steelers are 4-5 vs. 3-3 at Heinz Field and Three Rivers Stadium.

As the Steelers prepare for their 10th trip to New Orleans for a game that could make or break their 2018 season, here is a look at highlights of the Steelers last 31 years of history against the Saints.

Steelers history vs Saints, Antonio Brown, P.J. Williams

Antonio Brown stiff arms P.J. Williams. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports via, Tribune-Review

1987 – Steelers Playoff Potential Nothing More than a Tease

November 29th @ Three Rivers Stadium
New Orleans 20, Pittsburgh 17

The 1987 Steelers were looking to build on a 6-4 record as Pittsburgh was very much alive in the AFC Central playoff picture during that strike shortened season. The Steelers took a 14-3 lead into the locker room at half time on the strength of a Dwayne Woodruff pick six and a Walter Abercrombie touchdown.

However, Pittsburgh faltered in the 2nd half as the Saint scored 17 unanswered points, aided by 3 Mark Malone interceptions. The Saints took an intentional safety at the end of the game to bring Pittsburgh to within 4, but the Steelers could not mount a comeback.

  • The game was typical of the 1987 Steelers who teased playoff potential but ultimately fell short against a quality Saints team.

1990 – Joe Walton’s Ineptitude on Full Display in Steelers win

December 16, 1990 @ The Superdome
Pittsburgh 9, New Orleans 6

The 1990 Steelers entered the game with a 7-6 record and an an offense floundering under Joe Walton’s mismanagement. And this game shows just how badly Joe Walton had neutered the 1990 Steelers offense, as a single Gary Anderson field goal were the only points it could score for 3 quarters.

  • Bubby Brister only threw for 154 yards passing, while Merril Hoge and Tim Worley couldn’t combine to break the 100 yard rushing mark.

For its part, the Steelers defense held the Saints to two Morten Andersen second half field goals, until Gary Anderson booted two more 4th quarter field goals to give the Steelers the win.

  • The 1990 Steelers went 9-7 yet only one two games against teams that finished with winning records. This was one of them.

1993 – Rod Woodson’s Career Day

October 17th 1993 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 37, New Orleans 14

The 1993 Steelers started 0-2 leading many to question whether Cowher Power’s 1992 debut had been a mirage. But Pittsburgh won its three games, leading up to a showdown with the then undefeated Saints.

Rod Woodson intercepted Wade Wilson’s opening pass and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown. Two series later Rod Woodson picked off Wilson again. On Pittsburgh’s next procession, Neil O’Donnell hit Barry Foster for a 20 yard touchdown pass, and the Steelers were leading 14-0 in less than 8 minutes.

  • And Pittsburgh was just warming up.

By half time the Steelers were up 24-0, and the Saints hadn’t even managed a first down. Carnell Lake intercepted Wade Wilson’s first pass of the second half, which made way for two more Gary Anderson field goals, followed by an Eric Green touchdown.

Wade Wilson had arrived in Pittsburgh as the NFL’s number 3 passer, only to have the Steelers intercept him three times and limit him to 6 completions on the day as Donald Evans, Levon Kirkland, Joel Steed and Kevin Greene sacked him 5 times.

  • While the 1993 Steelers would ultimately underachieve, this game revealed that their championship potential was real.

2002 – Poor Defense Dooms Tommy Gun’s First Start

October 6th, 2002 @ The Superdome
New Orleans 32, Pittsburgh 29

The 2002 Steelers had started 0-2 and only won in week three thanks to a blocked field goal plus Bill Cowher’s decision to bench Kordell Stewart late in the game for Tommy Maddox.

But the Steelers defense gave up 13 points early in the game before Tommy Maddox and Plaxico Burress connected to get Pittsburgh on the board before the half. The Steelers mounted a spirited effort in the 2nd half with Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward and Terance Mathis scoring touchdowns, the but Saints scored 13 points to keep ahead of the Steelers.

  • The game confirmed, if there had been any doubt, that the once vaunted Steelers secondary was a shell of its former self.

2006 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees I

November 12th, 2006 @ The Superdome
Pittsburgh 38, New Orleans 31

The 2006 Steelers took a Super Bowl Hangover induced 2-6 record to New Orleans to face the 6-2 Saints. Fireworks ensued as the Saints and Steelers fought to a 24 to 17 half time score. The Steelers fought back in the second half, scoring as Ben Roethlisberger connected for a touchdown to Cedric Wilson in the air as Willie Parker ran for two more on the ground.

Deuce McAllister put the Saints within striking distance of a comeback with a fumble returned for a touchdown with 8:31 remaining in the 4th quarter. But the Steelers defense burned nearly 4 minutes off of the clock, and closed the game as Tyrone Carter and Ryan Clark teamed up to end a Saints comeback effort with a forced fumble and recovery.

  • The game marked the 6-2 rebound of the 2006 Steelers that would ultimately allow Bill Cowher to retire during a non-losing season.

2010 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees II

October 31st, 2010 @ The Superdome
New Orleans 20, Pittsburgh 10

If the first battle between Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees was a shootout, their second meeting took on the character of a slug fest.

Both teams were scoreless during the entire 1st quarter, and when they both got on the board in the 2nd quarter it was only with field goals. In the second half New Orleans put 10 points on the board, but the Steelers moved to within three on a Rashard Mendenhall touchdown.

However, the Steelers defense couldn’t hold on, as Drew Brees connected with Lance Moore at just over the two minute mark to give the Saints a 10 point lead. Ben Roethlisberger attempted to rally the Steelers and got them to mid field but Leigh Torrence intercepted him as he attempted to hit Mike Wallace.

  • Lot’s of commentators suggested that this loss spelled gloom and doom for the 2010 Steelers, but the tam of course finished in Super Bowl XLV.

2014 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees III

November 30th, 2014 @ Heinz Field
New Orleans 35, Pittsburgh 32

Don’t let the close score fool you. The Saints marched into Heinz Field and blew out the Steelers, with Pittsburgh only getting in theoretical striking distance of pulling ahead thanks to a 2 point conversion pass to Lance Moore, of all players, as time expired.

  • The story of this game was Ben Roethlisberger.

The offensive line gave him time, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown served as reliable targets, but Ben Roethlisberger’s passes were too often off target. Roethlisberger threw two picks, but that number could have easily been double.

Drew Brees only threw for 257 yards, but he threw 5 touchdowns, as an unknown Kenny Stills lit up the Steelers defense for 162 yards.

  • This was Brett Keisel’s last game, Troy Polamalu’s final regular season game, Ike Taylor’s penultimate game and the final time the trio was to play with James Harrison.
  • This late November loss to the Saints seemed to signal that Pittsburgh was nothing more than average, but the 2014 Steelers rebounded for 4 straight wins

The Steelers history vs the New Orleans Saints offers a mixed bag, with both some impressive wins and tough losses. But none of the outcomes had season-defining implications. Today’s contest could be quite different in that respect.

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How Many Ben Roethlisberger Passing Attempts = Too Much Passing for the Steelers?

Wouldn’t you know it? Just as it became clear that the Steelers were indeed passing too frequently, James Conner gets injured leaving Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner no other choice but to put the success of the Steelers offense on Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulders.

  • And, as site writer Tony Defeo commented to me in an email, “The more Ben Roethlisberger throws, the worse the Steelers do.”

Tony is hardly the first person to mention that, as all sorts of statistics have been thrown around over the last week or so correlating Steelers losses to high number of passing attempts from Ben Roethlisberger.

  • And numbers do reveal that the Steelers win far more often when Ben Roethlisberger throws less.

But does that really mean that Ben Roethlisberger plays worse the more he throws? And if so, how much is too much? Let’s see what the numbers say….

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Image via The SteelersWire

Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance by Passes Attempted

Numbers do not lie. But if viewed without the proper context, numbers can certainly mislead. For example, the Steelers are 2-6 when Ben Roethlisberger throws between 50 and 59 passes. So that must mean that Ben Roethlisberger is getting getting sloppy and taking too many risks, right?

  • That’s not necessarily the case.

There are a lot of factors that fall outside a quarterback’s control, such as defensive or special teams breakdowns, that can easily force him to pass a lot. In fact, if you take a deeper look at the numbers, you will see that Ben Roethlisberger’s performance often dips after he passes a certain threshold – however, there are some very interesting exceptions.

  • Note, statistics come from Pro Football Reference, cover only the regular season and are current up to 12/6/2018.

Ben Roethlisberger has averaged 33 passes per game during his career. As my graduate school statistics teacher told me, the average represents the balance point of the data, so we’ve broken down Ben’s performance on both sides of those numbers.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger passing statistics, Ben Roethlisberger 33 passing attempts

Ben Roethlisberger’s career passing statistics above and below 33 attempts.

As you can see, the difference is pretty stark.

When Ben Roethlisberger is throwing 33 passes or less, the Steelers are winning almost 83% of the time. However, when Mike Tomlin or Bill Cowher have asked him to pass more than 33 times, the Steelers are only a .500 team.

The really interesting thing is that while Ben’s performance drops a bit after he crosses the 33 pass threshold, the drop off isn’t that dramatic. Yes, a little more likely to throw an interception, but he’s also throwing more touchdowns.

That may be interesting, but it doesn’t give much insight into Ben Roethlisberger’s performance in must-pass situations. To get that insight, you need to dig deeper into the numbers:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger career passing statistics, Ben Roethlisberger over 50 pass attempts

Ben Roethlisberger’s career passing statistics, broken down passing attempt ranges.

Ben Roethlisberger is .500 in games where he’s thrown over 60 passes, but he’s only done that twice, once last December against the Ravens where the Steelers won at the buzzer on a Chris Boswell field goal and earlier this season against the Chiefs when the Steelers defense couldn’t cover to save their lives.

  • And next you see the famous stat of Ben Roethlisberger passing 50 times.

And, statistically speaking, that is when Ben Roethlisberger is almost at his worst, throwing a tell-tale 2.3 interceptions in those situations. The Steelers don’t do much better when Ben Roethlisberger throws between 40 and 44 passes, as they’re only winning 29% of those contests, and that’s the pass attempt range that finds Ben Roethlisberger at his statistical worst.

  • However, a funny thing happens when Ben Roethlisberger breaks in to the 45 to 49 attempts range.

The Steelers record jumps to a 50/50 proposition, and Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating is actually above his career average.

  • Does this mean, somehow, that the 44-49 pass attempts range is sweet spot for Randy Fichtner to aim for?
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Falcons preview

Ben Roethlisberger has had his ups & downs in ’18. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via New York Post

No, not really. It is probably more of a statistical aberration, as you can see the same trend at work in the 30’s, although the Steelers are winning far more of those 30 to 34 passing attempt games.

The Steelers, of course are at their best when Ben Roethlisberger is throwing fewer than 30 passes. But, while Ben’s passing statistics are better, that success is also indicative of other things going well.

A good chuck of those games came when Roethlisberger had the likes of Jerome Bettis, Le’Veon Bell and/or Willie Parker to help ease the load on offense. He also had Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor and Aaron Smith to keep opposing quarterbacks in check. There’s also the simple fact that when you’re defending a lead, it is easier to relay on shorter, higher percentage passes.

Steelers Still Need to Air it Out, But with Caution

During the 2018 off season a vocal contingent of Steelers Nation called for the Steelers to embrace running back by committee. Well, careful what you wish for ladies and gentleman…..

While Jaylen Samuels, Stevan Ridley and Trey Edmunds certainly offer potential, it is difficult to see their combined efforts matching what a healthy James Conner brings to the offense.

Ben Roethlisberger is going to have to throw it early and often. Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald, Jesse James and James Washington are going to have to make an extra effort to stay on the same page.

  • But at the end of the day, it comes down to Ben Roethlisberger himself.

The number show that throwing over 33 passes doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the Steelers. And, while it is hard to prove with statistics, often times Ben Roethlisberger tries to do too much, but if he can resist that temptation, then the 2018 Steelers can still salvage a playoff run.

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Steelers Turnover Drought Has Plagued Pittsburgh’s Defense for Years

It’s amazing how everyone can suddenly create a narrative and act like it’s brand-new.

As it pertains to the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers defense and its 12 takeaways through 11 games, why are you surprised?

  • If you’ve been paying attention at all since the start of the 2011 season, you shouldn’t be.

That season, the Steelers, a team that somehow managed to win 12 games, limped into the playoffs with just 15 takeaways. Is it any wonder they limped home after an overtime loss to Tim Tebow and the Broncos in the wild-card round?

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception, Damion Ratley

Joe Haden intercepts Baker Mayfield in a rare Steelers turnover. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Between 2011-2017, the Steelers averaged 21.5 takeaways a season, a number far-below what a team needs from its defense if it wants to reach the Super Bowl.

  • Historically, the average number of takeaways for Super Bowl champions is just under 37.

Sure, that number may have decreased in recent years, what with spread offenses and rules to help offenses becoming more and more prevalent. But the fact remains you must have an opportunistic defense in-order to go far in the NFL.

So why haven’t the Steelers been able to develop an opportunistic defense, even after transitioning away from Dick LeBeau’s “Old, Slow and it’s over”  veteran defense from the post-Super Bowl days, to Keith Butler‘s current unit that’s younger, faster and much more adept at getting after quarterbacks and sacking them to the turf?

  • And that may be the most confounding development of all.

Back in the latter days of Dick LeBeau’s reign as defensive coordinator, one could legitimately make a case for his unit being past its prime. Why? In addition to failing to take the football away, it could no longer get after the passer. Between 2011-2014, the Steelers averaged around 35 sacks a season, which seemed to go hand-in-hand with the 19 takeaways they averaged.

Historically, a defense that gets after the passer is one that can also take the football away. While it didn’t get discussed much, James Harrison was closing in on Joe Flacco right before Troy Polamalu made his game-changing interception in the 2008 AFC Championship game.

  • So it was reasonable to assume that once “Blitzburgh” made its return, so would the takeaways.

Unfortunately, despite leading the NFL in sacks a year ago with 56, the Steelers defense only recorded 22 takeaways. The Jaguars, meanwhile, recorded 33 takeaways to go along with their second-best 55 sacks.

So, what was the difference? The difference may lie in a Jacksonville defense that had more splash-play-capable players who were adapt at strip-sacking and ball-hawking.

  • And I truly believe those kinds of abilities are natural and can’t be taught.

All this week, Steelers’ players and coaches have talked about the need to take the football away at a greater rate. Oh yeah? How are they going to do that? A coach may be able to preach stripping the football away from a ball-carrier, but it may require an innate ability to scoop the fumble up before anyone on the opposing team finds it.

A coach can preach ball awareness, but only the truly great defensive backs have the ability and the instinct to make a play on a pass and act like they have just as much of a right to it as the receiver they’re covering.

The Steelers defense should be applauded for the strides it has made this season–it’s giving up an average of just under 23 points a game (really good in today’s NFL) and is

again on pace for 56 sacks. But no matter how much  the coaches may preach it, and no matter how much the players may start to focus on it, it appears Pittsburgh’s defense still lacks–even after all these years–the talent to make it opportunistic.

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Baltimore Beats Pittsburgh 26-14, as Ravens Reveal 2018 Steelers Mediocrity for All to See

Something felt different about the Baltimore Ravens 26-14 defeat of Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. In terms of 21st century NFL rivalries, Manning vs. Brady may have supplied a lot of sound but Steelers vs. Ravens generated genuine football fury. Consider:

  • Heath Miller once suffered a hit so ferocious it kept him out for 2 weeks afterwards – and this was before the NFL instituted its concussion protocols.
  • Haloti Ngata once broke Ben Roethlisberger’s nose
  • Isaac Redman wasn’t supposed to be on the field, yet willed his way to the end zone a game winning score

And we forget all of this happened in the same nigh because we remember it as they Troy Polamalu-Joe Flacco strip sacked game. The Steelers-Ravens rivalry was fueled by one thing:

  • Both teams were staking legitimate claims to being biggest boy on the AFC North block and neither was backing down.

And that’s what made this one feel different. The Ravens didn’t necessarily assert their AFC North superiority — Cincinnati’s still leads the division — but Baltimore laid bare the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers mediocrity for all the world to see.

Terrell Edmunds, Javarious Allen, Steelers vs Ravens

Terrell Edmunds unable to stop Javorius Allen in 4th quarter. Photo Credit, Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Against Ravens, Steelers Follow Script Rote

It is still too early in September to draw conclusions in the NFL calendar, but team’s tendencies do become clear by the end of the month. And four weeks into the season the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers have their script down pat:

  • The defense gives up an early touchdown
  • The offense will go 3 and out
  • The offense will give up a turnover; if not special teams will surrender big gain
  • The opposing offense takes advantage and scores another touchdown
  • Ben Roethlisberger completes a big pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster or Vance McDonald
  • Down a few scores, the Steelers offense comes to life to tie the game or take the lead
  • Having taken the lead, the Steelers offense goes AWOL on 3rd down
  • Not coincidentally, Ben Roethlisberger fail to hook up with Antonio Brown at critical stages
  • The Steelers defense goes AOWL on third down

The game ends alternatively as a player like T.J. Watt or James Conner makes a dramatic dramatics that keep the Steelers from losing, OR the Steelers defensive front seven, which features 3 number 1 picks, 1 number 2 pick and a number 3 pick, gets abused by a running back on a play when EVERYONE knows is coming.

  • Sound sarcastic? Sadly it is not.

The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers follow a pattern, and they follow it well. And Pittsburgh would be in business if could convince Roger Goodell fashion a sort of pro football equivalent of a Fabulous Freebirds Rule (Google it) declaring that the Steelers only need keep score for the 2nd and 3rd quarters.

  • Were that the case the Steelers wouldn’t simply be 4-0, they have outscored their opponents 87 to 30.

Alas, the game of football is still played for 60 minutes, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have been outscored 76 to 15 in the first and fourth quarters.

Erratic Play from Roethlisberger Continues

Yet, if the Steelers have followed a script thus far in 2018, Ben Roethlisberger has not.

As the Steelers strong performances in the 2nd quarter suggest, Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t “lost it.” He’s still capable of making every throw he needs to make, he can still work the two minute drill, he isn’t playing with a compulsion to force the ball, and he can still make good decisions.

  • But by his own admission, Ben Roethlisberger isn’t on the same page as anyone.

True, he is more out of sync with Antonio Brown than anyone else, but last night saw a second half in which Roethlisberger misfired to JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Jesse James and Ryan Switzer on numerous occasions.

  • Is this because Ben Roethlisberger didn’t play enough in preseason or during training camp?
  • Is it because he takes of Wednesdays and needs more preparation?

Mike Tomlin had better figure out the answer, because the Steelers need Ben Roethlisberger to carry them. Four games into 2018 the Steelers now know that they have a good NFL running back in James Conner. Steelers fans can now also see the difference between a good NFL running back, and a great, Hall of Fame Caliber talent in Le’Veon Bell (who, by the way reminds us he still wants to retire a Steeler – thanks Le’Veon).

Deceptive Perceptions of Defensive Decency in Pittsburgh

Fantasy football owners who started the Steelers for team defense very well may be happen this week. After all, in 2018 holding an opponent to 19 non-turnover assisted points is often times more than enough. And on paper, Keith Butler’s defense made some other improvements:

  • Bud Dupree and Javon Hargrave sacked Joe Flacco
  • The Steelers forced another Red Zone turnover
  • Tackling was generally good
  • The Ravens had to settle for 4 Justin Tucker field goals in final 3 quarters of the game
  • After the first touchdown the Steelers secondary stopped surrendering yards in big chunks

On paper it would seem like the Steelers defense approached decency against the Ravens. However, the Steelers defense couldn’t deliver when it counted, as the Ravens converted 8 of 17 third downs. Worse yet, as Baltimore was nursing a 6 point lead, the Steelers defense gave up two six minute plus drives.

Yet neither they, nor anyone else did. Worse yet, no one watching the game would have felt the Steelers defense was capable of making a game-changing play.

Can the Steelers Salvage Something of 2018?

The quarter pole of the 2018 season finds the Pittsburgh Steelers at 1-2-1 and mired deep in mediocrity. If Ben Roethlisberger find a way to play well for more than just the 2nd and 3rd quarter, the Steelers could compete with a lot of teams. Maybe.

If Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler could could find a way to both pressure the passer AND not leave gaping holes in their secondary, the defense could play well enough not to require transforming each game into a shoot out. Maybe.

If the special teams could set up and make a play ever now and then, it would take some heat off of offense and defense. Maybe.

That’s a lot of maybes. And teams that depend on “maybes” heading into October are by definition mediocre ones. That’s who the Pittsburgh Steelers are right now.

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How Key Is Joe Haden to Steelers? He’s the Glue Holding Pittsburgh’s Secondary Together

Is Joe Haden a true shutdown cornerback in today’s NFL?

I don’t know what criteria one needs to be labeled as such, but if there’s one thing for sure, it’s what Joe Haden does for the Steelers’ secondary, a unit that has already had more ups and downs through three weeks of the 2018 regular season than a drive through Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington.

In a Week 1 tie with the Browns on September 9, the Steelers’ defense yielded just 150 yards through the air and recorded 10 passes defensed.

  • Joe Haden recorded one of  them on a nice break-up in the end zone.

Unfortunately, Joe Haden suffered a hamstring injury in the game against Cleveland and sat out the Week 2 match-up with the Chiefs at Heinz Field. Haden’s loss wasn’t just unfortunate in theory, it was unfortunate in application, as Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City’s young quarterback, torched Pittsburgh’s defense for 326 yards and six touchdowns in a 42-37 loss that dropped the Steelers to 0-1-1.

Joe Haden,

Joe Haden is the glue holding Steelers secondary together. Photo Credit: Kim Klement, USA Totday

Pittsburgh’s secondary looked so helpless in the game, it not only failed to record a single pass defensed (defensive end Stephon Tuitt posted the only one on the day on a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage), players like Artie Burns, Cameron Sutton, Sean Davis and rookie Terrell Edmunds spent the majority of the afternoon either totally confused or mostly out of position.

  • After the Kansas City disaster, the confidence in the Steelers’ defense was perhaps lower than it had been since the departure of Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor.

As I said, however, the early portion of the 2018 campaign has been one crazy roller coaster ride for the  secondary; eight days later, in a Monday night match-up with the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay, Haden returned and so did his great influence on the pass defense.

No, the unit didn’t necessarily look great, as Artie Burns and veteran Coty Sensabaugh took turns in the Tampa area burn unit, thanks to the plethora of big plays they allowed. However, there was the first half of the game that included four takeaways on four straight possessions. The secondary was responsible for three of those turnovers, as Mike Hilton tallied a fumble recovery and an interception, respectively, while Terrell Edmunds recorded an interception.

What about Joe Haden, the man with the 4.5 speed tasked mostly with covering receiver DeSean Jackson, he of the 4.3 40 time? The veteran corner not only recorded three of the Steelers’ 13 passes defensed, he limited Jackson, who came into the night with nine receptions for 275 yards on the season, to just three catches for 37 yards.

  • How did Joe Haden limit such a potent threat in DeSean Jackson?

I’m no expert, but I’m guessing great technique and veteran savvy had a lot to do with it. As for the technique part, perhaps Haden can spread his influence to Burns, who is obviously younger and a step or so faster.

Regardless of how Burns influences the individual members of the Steelers’ secondary, again, there’s no question the impact he has on it as a whole.

  • Ryan Shazier is said to have been the most important member of the Steelers’ defense.

And it doesn’t take a football Ph.D to know that the Steelers defense hasn’t fully recovered since he suffered that frightful spinal injury against the Bengals late last season.

But Joe Haden was also lost for several weeks in 2017, and it’s clearly no coincidence that it was during this time that the defense was victimized by the big play to the tune of a 46 yard touchdown pass for every 27 minutes of play and this stat comes from before Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion.

So, is Joe Haden a shutdown corner? Who cares? He’s a damn good one, and the Steelers defense is better with him in the lineup.

 

 

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Steelers 2018 Super Bowl Hopes Lie in the Answers to 4 Key Questions

The Lombardi Trophy is Pittsburgh’s sole measure of success. Can the Steelers win the Super Bowl in 2018? The men in Black and Gold will begin the 2018 season Cleveland and the Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes largely hinge on the answers the team can provide to these four questions.

Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes, Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Lombardi Trophy, Santonio Holmes, Dan Rooney

Will Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger hoist the Lombardi this year? Photo Credit: Hans Dery, Reuters via abc.net.au

Is Big Ben Still Synchronized?

How quickly we forget. When Jim Wexell broke the news the Friday before the playoff game that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t retiring, Steelers Nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

  • Actually, it didn’t because, for whatever reason, Wexell’s scoop drew little attention.

Nonetheless, Wexell was breaking very good news. But which Ben Roethlisberger will the Steelers welcome back in 2018?

The Ben Roethlisberger from the first 8 weeks of 2017 who posted a 82.7 passer rating? Or the Ben Roethlisberger of the season’s last 8 weeks who posted a 105.3 passer rating, the very best of his career?

Bringing home a 7th Lombardi Trophy to Pittsburgh in 2018 will require the concerted efforts of all 53 men on the Steelers roster, but no one’s health and performance is more important than that of Ben Roethlisberger.

Can the Steelers Come Out Running at the Opening Bell?

As of Thursday morning, Le’Veon Bell has neither reported to the Steelers complex on the South Side, nor has he given any indication of if or when he will, aside from an oblique comment from his agent about something “extraordinary” happening.

  • Some fans have been clamoring for Running Back by Committee for the entire off season.

Some wishes come true. As I pointed out previously, you can win the Super Bowl using Running Back by Committee, but the Steelers must first find a way to keep their top two running backs healthy for an entire season, something they’ve struggled to do in the Mike Tomlin era.

Le’Veon Bell, for all his antics, for all the questions about his self life and any alarm sparked by his production decline in 2017, remains a championship caliber talent until proven otherwise.

In his absence, the Steelers will find out, for better and for worse, what they have in James Conner, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels. Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster give the Steelers air game legitimate weapons, but the Steelers can’t win through the air alone.

Have the Steelers Shored Up the Center of Their Defense?

Images of the Steelers defense flashing shut down ability in early 2017 have been replaced by those of a sieve that allowed the Jaguars to score 45 points at Heinz Field. Eight months later, Joe Haden has a full year in the Steelers offense, Artie Burns has logged a strong summer and Stephon Tuitt has returned to full health.

All positive developments, but do they address the deficiencies that the Jaguars exposed and exploited? In late February Pittsburgh 247 publisher Jim Wexell offered some insight:

It was 14 years and almost two months ago that Tim Lewis, on his way out of town as defensive coordinator, gave me the tip that I haven’t forgotten.
Lewis told me the Steelers’ defense — which fundamentally hasn’t changed since — will always be built around the nose tackle, the inside linebacker and the strong safety. And he felt those positions, because they were in the middle of the action, had to be replaced more frequently than the others and therefore should always be monitored.

As Wexell points out, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Troy Polamalu, three great players by any measure, led the Steelers to victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. Joel Steed, Levon Kirkland and Carnell Lake were three good players who helped sustain the Steelers of the ‘90’s as contenders.

  • It says here that Ryan Shazier was a great player who was on course to reach Polamalu-like levels before his spinal contusion.

Against Jacksonville, without Shazier, it wasn’t so much a matter of the rest of the Steelers defense failing to be great or event good, but rather it looked like a backup JV defense competing against a championship Varsity offense.

The Steelers have tried to strengthen the middle of their defense by shifting Sean Davis from strong to free safety and by adding safeties Morgan Burnett, Terrell Edmunds and inside linebacker Jon Bostic.

Did the Steelers do enough? The Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes in large part depend on that answer being “Yes.”

Can Mike Tomlin Keep His Team Focused on What Is In Front of Them?

Pittsburgh’s 2017 season didn’t end so abruptly because of Mike Tomlin’s comments to Tony Dungy or because various players supplied “bulletin board material.” The Steelers lost because two turnovers essentially spotted the Jaguars 14 points and the defense was powerless to stop Jacksonville after that.

  • Had the Steelers made the same errors but stayed tight-lipped before the game the outcome would have been no different.

But it doesn’t mean that improved focus throughout the locker room wouldn’t have helped the Steelers compensate. Chuck Noll called it “Singleness of Purpose,” the idea that everyone on the team was focused on the same objective and they carried that focus on to everything they did.

  • You can find a lot of fault with Chuck Noll’s teams of the 80’s, but lack of focus was never one of them.

The Steelers, as an organization, seem to be channeling their inner Emperor. Throughout the summer at St. Vincents, answers to questions about the Steelers prospects of the season, whether they came from Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin or one of the veteran leaders universally ended with “…but right now, our focus is on beating Cleveland.”

If you establish that type of attitude in July and sustain it through the fall, you can give yourself a chance to play in February! Go Steelers!

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By Nurture or Nature Steelers Must Develop Defensive Talent This Summer

Going into January’s playoff debacle vs the Jaguars, the Steelers had invested 9 of their last 12 premium draft picks on defense. Yet with 8 them on the field, Blake Bortles and Leonard Fournette still hung 45 points on the Steelers defense….

In other words, assuming good health and no production drop off for Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and, yes, Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes rest in the development of Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Javon HargraveTerrell EdmundsJon Bostic and/or Tyler Matakevich.

Terrell Edmunds, Steelers 2018 training camp

Steelers 2018 1st round draft pick Terrell Edmunds. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • But what exactly does “Develop talent mean?”

Does it mean that Kevin Colbert and his scouting team simply did a good job in picking guys who have God-given talent? Or does it mean that Mike Tomlin and his staff molded that talent into NFL-caliber technique? The question is not as simple as one might think. Consider the stories of two safeties:

  • One arrived at St. Vincents unheralded, neutralized the need for a proven starter, won the starting job and led the team with 6 interceptions.
  • The other landed in Latrobe as a first rounder, failed to beat out the journeyman starter and forced 1 fumble and made 2 sacks as his “Splash” plays.

The first is Darren Perry, who in 1992 as an 8th round pick out of Penn State blew past veterans Larry Griffin and Gary Jones and allowed the Steelers to end Thomas Everett’s hold out via trade. Troy Polamalu is the second safety. He didn’t start a game and looked lost early and often as a rookie, but recovered to author a Hall of Fame career.

No one drafting today would pick Perry over Polamalu.

  • But it begs the question: Why was Perry ready to go on Day One whereas Polamalu wasn’t?

This is certainly a nurture vs. nature question that defies a definitive answer. Clearly, Polamalu was the superior athlete, but Darren Perry arrived in the NFL as the better football player. Polamalu simply needed a little more nurturing. But it isn’t always so simple.

Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher’s third draft pick was nose Joel Steed, whom they wanted to groom to replace Gerald Williams, so that Williams could move to defensive end.

However, when Gerald Williams got hurt it wasn’t Joel Steed who went in, but rather undrafted rookie free agent Garry Howe. Howe not only secured playing time at Steed’s expense, but if memory serves, he came up with a key fumble recovery.

  • Joel Steed won the nose tackle starting job the next summer and bloomed into a Pro Bowler.

As for Garry Howe? The Steelers cut him and if Pro Football Reference is accurate, he played a game for Cincinnati in 1993 and one for the Colts 1994 and was done.

  • Considering these examples, you’d be tempted to suggest that a little football skill trumps raw athleticism when a player first arrives in the NFL.

You’d be tempted, but you’d be wrong, as the career trajectories of Troy Edwards and Kendrell Bell illustrate. The Steelers picked Troy Edwards (narrowly passing on Jevon Kearse) with the 13th pick in 1999 NFL Draft, and Edwards won the starting job alongside Hines Ward and led the team with 61 receptions.

Going into his second year, facing criticism about his commitment to off season training, Edwards scoffed explaining that “You can’t race air.” Edwards never started another game for the Steelers, and had one decent year in Jacksonville but never matched his rookie production.

  • The Steelers traded for Kendrell in 2001 NFL Draft, and even as a 2nd round pick, Bell looked like a steal.

With nine sacks, 70 tackles, a forced fumble and a defensed pass on his rookie resume, comparisons to Jack Lambert seemed warranted. But that was it for Bell. To be fair to Bell, he suffered one of those dreaded “high ankle sprains” during his second year and suffered other injuries.

  • But years later word also leaked out that Bell refused to follow or learn coverage schemes and didn’t pay attention to his gap responsibilities.

It seems that raw athleticism can indeed jump start an NFL career, but that if its not developed, you’ll sputter out quickly.

Early Returns on Steelers 2018 Defensive Talent Development Experiment

What does all of this tell us about the prospects for the 2018 Steelers defense?

  • Honestly, I won’t do you the disservice of pretending resolve the nurture vs. nature question.

When Franco Harris, who struggled a bit in as a rookie camp, took his first preseason carry, discarded the play call and reversed course to go the length of the field to score a touchdown, Chuck Noll’s instruction to Dick Hoak was “Don’t over coach the kid.” Yet players like Merril Hoge and Jerome Bettis unhesitatingly sing Dick Hoak’s praises coaching ability.

  • Bruce Arians refused to try to get Ben Roethlisberger to change his style, and praising Todd Haley is taboo, Haley managed to find a way to let Ben be Ben while designing an offense that kept him from getting killed.

It seems like, with parenting, a good coach must strike a balance between offering guidance and letting players be themselves.

Jumping to concussions after the first 10 days of training camp is never wise.

  • At this point in 2010, Thaddeus Gibson looked good. But the Steelers cut him in early October.

But word is that Artie Burns daily one-on-ones with Antonio Brown are finally yielding fruit. Terrell Edmunds is also looking good, and switching sides also seems to be benefitting Bud Dupree.

It will take a few months to know more about the Steelers defensive talent development exercise. But whether its because of nurture or nature, the early returns are positive.

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Art Rooney II Says Steelers Play Too Many Night Games. Fans Living East of US Eastern Time Agree

Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II made a rather head turning statement to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “The thing that concerns me about our attendance is more related to our schedule — I would rather not have as many night games.”

Steelers fans who live outside of the United States, and specifically those of us who are ahead of Eastern Time wholeheartedly agree.

  • Both sentiments might strike you as counter-intuitive and for good reason.

After all, going into the 2018 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are 46-24 on Monday Night Football and 26-5 at home. When playing under the lights on Sunday Night Football the Steelers record isn’t quite as strong, but is still 28-20 overall and 14-7 at home.

Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Indeed, the greatest game in Heinz Field history, the 2008 AFC Championship win over the Ravens that featured Troy Polamalu’s belief-defying pick six, came in Prime Time on Sunday night. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg:

And that’s only counting the Mike Tomlin era. Bill Cowher started 6-0 on Monday Night. With breakout performances like these, you’d expect Art Rooney II to petition Roger Goodell to schedule all the Steelers games in Prime Time, wouldn’t you?

  • Except he’s not, and he has a good reason.

As Rooney explains to Bouchette, “Last year we had three home night games almost in a row. I just don’t think our fans want to do that anymore.” The NFL is facing an issue with declining attendance, and while the Steelers still have a 20 year season ticket waiting list, they were not immune to the decline.

The problem as Rooney sees it, is asking fans to brave the cold and the commute home at night for three straight games. That’s sound business sense, but fans who live ahead of US Eastern time have a more selfish reason for agreeing:

  • Night games are pure hell, even when you’re watching on TV.

Early in the season, before the US switches its clocks to fall back, games start at 9:30 pm instead of 8:30 here in Buenos Aires. That projects to a 12:30 am finish which is manageable. But after the US switches clocks, we’re two hours behind. An 8:30 game starts at 10:30 and doesn’t end until 1:30 am at the earliest.

  • By the time you clean up, take the contact lenses out, perhaps pop up a poll and you’re lucky to have your head hitting the pillow by 2:30 am.

And if it’s a close game, featuring a lot of Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown heroics or a critical Cam Heyward sack or stop, you’ve got the adrenaline flowing and, lets face it, you’re not falling asleep right away.

  • Which means you’ve got to get up for work and start the week in sleep deprivation mode.

Night games also wreak havoc with bloggers. Traffic peaks the morning after a game, and there’s no chance to get anything but a stub up between a night game’s finish and starting work the next morning.

  • If you’re really efficient and suffer no unexpected delays in your work day you might get something up for the early evening publishing window.

Playing in Prime Time is a sign of excellence and a point of pride for both players and fans. But when Art Rooney II says he wishes the Steelers played less on prime time, the only reaction that fans living to east of the Eastern Time Zone can possibly summon is a simple “We agree.”

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