L.J. Fort’s Snap Count with Steelers Deserves to Go Up after Performance vs Falcons

If you tuned into the Steelers’ Week 5, 41-17 win against the Atlanta Falcons this past Sunday at Heinz Field, you may have been anticipating the defensive debut of an athletic and mostly-unproven player at inside linebacker.

  • After all, reports that this young lion had been getting reps with the first team tantalized during the preceding week.

Only that athletic inside linebacker wasn’t Matthew Thomas, the Steelers 2018 undrafted free agent out of Florida State, who dazzled in the preseason and had many clamoring for him to get an increase in playing-time thanks to the struggles of the Steelers’ defense through the first four weeks.

Instead, what the fans got was more playing time for L.J. Fort, the 2012 undrafted rookie free agent of Northern Iowa, who bounced around the NFL for a few years before winding up with the Steelers in 2015.  L.J. Fort saw playing-time on defense sparingly over his first three seasons with Pittsburgh, but he did have a knack for dazzling a bit in preseason action.

L.J. Fort, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

L.J. Fort rushes Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, via Steelers.com

Witnessing L. J. Fort in action in recent years (as limited as that action may have been), you could see that he possessed athleticism superior to the likes of Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich. In-fact, L.J. Fort appeared to come about as close as humanly possible to having the abilities of a Ryan Shazier, whose athletic gifts seemed to be super-natural for an inside linebacker.

Yet, when Ryan Shazier suffered his gruesome and life-altering spinal contusion injury against the Bengals last December at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium, it was Tyler Matakevich who stepped in at inside linebacker, albeit only briefly, before he suffered a pretty serious shoulder injury on the same night.

  • Ah, but with Tyler Matakevick out, the Steelers turned to the unproven L.J. Fort but down-the-stretch and into the playoffs? Right?

Alas, they did not. Instead, they went out and signed Sean Spence, who was out of work and sitting on his couch, when head coach Mike Tomlin and Co. came calling.

  • The results, as you know, were not great, as the Jacksonville Jaguars exposed Sean Spence and the rest of the Steelers’ defense during that ugly playoff loss January 14th.

Fast-forward to this past Sunday. The veteran Vince Williams was out of action due to a hamstring injury, and even though Tyler Matakevich started at inside linebacker alongside Jon Bostic, this meant that L. J. Fort, who had just 11 snaps on defense through the first month of the season, would see increased action, particularly on third down.

L.J. Fort’s snap count with the defense only reached 27 on Sunday, a number that was significantly less than both Jon Bostic and Tyler Matakevich, but Fort  got the most bang for his buck, recording six tackles and a sack of Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan. L.J. Fort was also credited with three quarterback hits and played well in pass coverage.

Fort even put the finishing touches on a 41-17 win by using his quickness to pounce on a fumble in the end zone after outside linebacker T.J. Watt stripped Ryan of the football near the Steelers’ goal line.

  • Does this mean Fort is the answer to the Steelers’ lack of a dazzling play-maker at the inside linebacker spot?

Not necessarily. What it could mean is that the injury to Vince Williams may have been a blessing in disguise, as it left the Steelers with almost no choice but to utilize L.J. Fort and make him a bigger part of their defensive game-plan.

The Steelers may have gotten stronger at inside linebacker this past Sunday; no, not because Matthew Thomas got a chance, but because L.J. Fort finally got his.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Falcons – Is Defense Finally Finding Its Way without Star Pupil Shazier?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders if the rest of the class is finally compensating for the loss of its star pupil, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Falcons at Heinz Field.

Cam Heyward, Jon Bostic, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Heyward & Jon Bostic put Matt Ryan under duress. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger had an efficient day, posting his lowest yardage and passes thrown totals. It was certainly his most complete performance, as the Steelers converted 9 of 12 third downs and Big Ben tossed 3 touchdown passes. Still, Ben Roethlisberger took time to get warmed up and took points off the board with a costly end zone interception. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Back
James Conner delivered just as many were questioning the Steelers confidence in him and fans were warming to welcoming Le’Veon Bell back. James Conner dominated with 110 rushing yards and 75 yards receiving, while scoring 2 touchdowns. James Conner fumbled, which is worrisome. Roosevelt Nix saw little action, but he road graded Conner into the end zone. Stevan Ridley got 8 yards on 5 carries. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble’s combined 4 catches for 48 yards might not be that impressive, but Vance McDonald’s blocking helped James Conner author his dominating opening drive. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown finally managed to get aligned with Ben Roethlisberger, and the duo clipped the Falcons for 2 touchdowns and 101 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster made a leaping catch to haul in Pittsburgh’s 2nd touchdown. Ryan Switzer caught 1 pass for 5 yards. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Mike Tomlin argued that the Steelers “Big Men” decided this game by winning their 1-1 matchups. That would include an offense live that didn’t give up a sack, only allowed its quarterback to be touched once and only saw one running back dropped behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: A

David DeCastro, James Conner, Steelers vs Falcons

David DeCastro obliterates a hapless Falcons defender. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward led the unit with 3 tackles, 1.5 tackles for losses and a sack and a half. Javon Hargrave also had ½ of a sack, while Stephon Tuitt had two tackles. Falcons running backs only gained 52 yards on the ground, and that starts with the line. Grade: A

Linebackers
After lurking in the background for the last few weeks, T.J. Watt was a man on fire, sacking Matt Ryan 3 times, forcing a fumble, dropping 5 Falcon runners behind the line of scrimmage and leading the Steelers in tackles. Bud Dupree helped drop two runners behind the line of scrimmage and helped pressure Ryan. Anthony Chickillo also helped drop two runners for a loss. Jon Bostic also had a piece of a sack and drop for a loss.

Tyler Matakevich had six tackles while splitting time with L.J. Fort, who book ended the defense’s splash plays with a sack of Matt Ryan on the first series and a fumble recovery for a touchdown in the 4th quarter. Grade: A

Secondary
Despite the 1-3 record the Atlanta brought to Pittsburgh, the Falcon’s passing attack had been prolific. That looked to spell disaster for the Steelers-sieve like secondary.

  • Instead it was a disaster for Matt Ryan.

The Steelers secondary didn’t post a lot of flashy statistics, but they contained the Falcons passing attack, and forced them off the field on third downs. Mike Hilton showed his versatility as a pass rusher, and Terrell Edmunds made key stops. While Matt Ryan was often under duress, there were also times when he had time to throw, but failed to find anyone open. Grade: B+

Special Teams
The Steelers coverage units were strong and Ryan Switzer had a nice 23 yard return. Jordan Berry punted well. The key special teams play was of course Roosevelt Nix’s punt block, which sealed the game for the Steelers. Chris Boswell missed another extra point, but made his next five. Grade: A-

Roosevelt Nix, Roosevelt Nix blocked punt, Steelers vs Falcons

Roosevelt Nix blocks Matt Bosher’s punt. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Coaching
Is this the same Steelers team that we saw in September?

While Randy Fichtner’s offense has produced points in fits and starts this season, the Falcons game was the first time the Steelers offense played consistently for an entire game. Sure, the passing game had its hiccups, but constancy in the running game more than compensated.

  • Many will say that Keith Butler’s defense had its best afternoon since losing Ryan Shaizer.

That would be the wrong conclusion, because the Steelers defense played its best game since Joe Haden got hurt last year against the Colts. For the first time since that afternoon, it actually felt like the Steelers defense was executing its game plan as opposed to reacting to an offense.

  • September was a bad month for the Steelers offense, defense, and special teams.

The loss to the Ravens had the potential to be particularly deflating, because the Steelers looked inferior throughout the night. However, if that was the perception outside of Pittsburgh, it was not shared on the South Side.

Not only did Mike Tomlin keep negativity from taking root, he had the Steelers out there playing with confidence for the first time all season, and it was confidence that allowed the Steelers to take control of the ball game. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award

In the words of Jim Wexell, Julio Jones arrived at Heinz Field “on pace to become the first 2,000-yard receiver in NFL history” and he left Pittsburgh “on pace to become a 1,805-yard receiver.”

  • And that is because Joe Haden shut him down until garbage time arrived.

Joe Haden didn’t record any “Splash Plays.” Instead, he simply took the Falcons most potent offensive weapon out of the game, and for that Joe Haden wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over Atlanta.

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Is Matthew Thomas the Shot of Athleticism the Middle of the Steelers Defense Needs?

Like most summers, when I heard the initial hype for inside linebacker Matthew Thomas, a Steelers undrafted rookie free agent out of Florida State, I basically tuned out all of that noise.

After all, how often do OTA and mini-camp “Next James Harrison” or “Next Fast Willie Parker” darlings ever leap off the hype train and onto the moving train that head coach Mike Tomlin calls life in the NFL?

Point made. Besides, it isn’t like the hype for Matthew Thomas was overwhelming. He was just one of those youngsters some fans were hyping up as a player to watch.

Matthew Thomas, Kyle Allen

Matthew Thomas strip-sacks Kyle Allen. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Matthew Thomas was once a highly-touted high school prospect (top-15 nationally, according to his NFL.com draft profile) who had a turbulent college career that included suspensions for off-the-field and academic issues. He was considered your typical raw athlete, someone that could be molded into something spectacular if everything fell the right way.

  • Yeah, but those kind of guys are found in NFL training camps each and every summer.

Through his first two preseason games, you’d didn’t see a whole lot of tangible evidence of Thomas’ potential, despite the many articles praising his play. Sure, he played well, but nothing screamed “Give this kid a roster spot.”

However, the final two exhibition games in-which Matthew Thomas collected a combined 20 tackles and seriously looked like the Steelers’ most-athletic, if not its most gifted inside linebacker.

Thomas’ crowning moment came last Thursday night’s win when he sacked Panthers’ quarterback, Kyle Allen, stripped him of the football, recovered the fumble out of mid-air and then proceeded to race 75 yards downfield–provided more than enough evidence that he would and should make it beyond the final cut.

He did.

Now, mere days before the Steelers’ first regular season game against the Browns at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium this Sunday, there is not only talk of Thomas soon surpassing Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort on the depth chart (if he hasn’t already), but of him perhaps being Pittsburgh’s answer to the massive hole that was left at the position when the spectacular Ryan Shazier was lost (probably permanently) due to a spinal injury last December.

That’s certainly a lot of hype, but — and this is obviously just one writer’s opinion — it really does feel like there’s hope at the inside linebacker spot.

  • You read and hear about Matthew Thomas’ athleticism, and he clearly displayed it during that aforementioned strip-sack and race for the goal line.

The conventional wisdom is that with Jon Bostic and Vince Williams as their starter, the Steelers defense is slow at inside linebacker, which means the Steelers defense is just plain  slow because you’re exposed from sideline to sideline on running plays and over the middle on those short and intermediate passing plays.

Obviously, in-order to combat a lack of athleticism at inside linebacker, you need an athlete. Matthew Thomas is at least that guy.

  • Now, he has a chance to hone that athleticism and raw potential into an above-average or good-to-great inside linebacker.

When they talk, each spring, about Super Bowl contenders such as the Steelers, they say there are only maybe a half-dozen roster spots up for grabs.

Matthew Thomas found a way to grab one of those roster spots, and if he can find a way to reach his full potential, the Steelers may solve their problem at inside linebacker sooner than we think.

 

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Steelers 2018 Roster Balances Super Bowl Hopes with Long-Term Viability

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 roster is nearing completion and the choices Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have made balance the teams Super Bowl aspirations with an eye towards sustaining long term success.

  • In case you’ve been under a rock, the Steelers roster cuts included a minor bombshell when the team cut Landry Jones.

The Steelers also cut Nat Berhe, but resigned him after placing Olasunkanmi Adeniyi on injured reserve, which will keep the undrafted free agent rookie out of the lineup for the next two weeks. The Steelers have not made any trades nor have they tried to claim any players on waivers.

That could change as the week evolves but the Steelers 2018 opening day roster is pretty well set.

Antonio Brown, Heinz Field, pregame warm ups

Antonio Brown in pre-game warmups at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Roster

Quarterbacks

Ben Roethlisberger
Joshua Dobbs
Mason Rudolph

Cutting Landry Jones was a major surprise, and for the first time since 2004, the Pittsburgh Steelers will open the season without a veteran signal caller as their backup quarterback. The Steelers are clearly taking a short-term risk in the name of making a long-term investment.

Running Back

James Conner
Jaylen Samuels
Stevan Ridley
Roosevelt Nix

The elephant in the room’s name is Le’Veon Bell as of Tuesday morning, Bell had not signed his franchise tag nor given any indication as to whether or when he would do so. The Steelers clearly didn’t expect this, as they likely would not have cut Fitzgerald Toussaint. Should Bell stay away, the running back by committee crowd will get its wish.

Tight End

Vance McDonald
Jesse James
Xavier Grimble

The biggest news here is the move the Steelers haven’t made yet. Injuries have abounded at tight end, yet the Steelers haven’t made any move to bring in an outside player.

Wide Receivers

Antonio Brown
JuJu Smith-Schuster
James Washington
Justin Hunter
Ryan Switzer
Darrius Heyward-Bey

Antonio Brown all of preseason, supposedly only as a precaution. The Steelers have high hopes for JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington while Justin Hunter looked good in preseason. Again. Ryan Switzer is an unknown while Darrius Heyward-Bey is mainly on the roster to play special teams.

Offensive Line

Alejandro Villanueva
Ramon Foster
Maurkice Pouncey
David DeCastro
Marcus Gilbert
B.J. Finney
Chukwuma Okorafor
Matt Feiler
Zach Banner

Some felt the Steelers would only keep 8 offensive lineman, however Zach Banner made the cut despite joining the team late in the summer. You can never have too many good offensive lineman.

Defensive Line

Cam Heyward
L.T. Walton
Javon Hargrave
Dan McCullers
Stephon Tuitt
Tyson Alualu

Cam Heyward is officially a “tackle” and Karl Dunbar has brought Daniel McCullers further along than anyone ever expected.

Outside Linebacker

T.J. Watt
Bud Dupree
Anthony Chickillo

1 year ago the Steelers carried 5 players here. Now they have 3 albeit with one rookie on IR and another on the practice squad.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Inside Linebacker

Vince Williams
Jon Bostic
L.J. Fort
Tyler Matakevich
Matthew Thomas

The “battle” between Tyler Matakevich and Jon Bostic never really evolved and Matthew Thomas has insiders privately wondering whether his role can grow as the season evolves. Insight linebacker might not have to be a strength for the Steelers defense in 2018, but it cannot be a liability.

Cornerback

Joe Haden
Artie Burns
Mike Hilton
Cam Sutton
Coty Sensabaugh

In contrast to quarterback, the Steelers opted for experience over youth, in keeping Coty Sensagaugh over Brian Allen, although Brian Allen remains on the practice squad. For once, the Steelers have strong depth on paper.

Safety

Sean Davis, Ezekiel Elliot, Steelers vs Cowboys

Sean Davis can’t stop Ezekiel Elliot. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via The Steelers Wire.

Morgan Burnett
Sean Davis
Terrell Edmunds
Nat Berhe
Jordan Dangerfield

Sean Davis is the only player who returns from 2017 in the entire unit, although Jordan Dangerfield was on IR. The Steelers have invested heavily in this position and for the defense to improve, those investments must deliver.

Specialists

Chris Boswell
Jordan Berry
Kameron Canaday

Jordan Berry did not post pretty preseason numbers, nonetheless, he made the team. Next time you’re in a Steelers bar either A. Ask people “Who is our long snapper” or B. “Who is Kameron Canaday?” No matter which question you ask, here’s 100 Argentine pesos that says 1% of the people you poll have the right answer. Anonymity is a virtue for a long snapper. Let’s hope we don’t hear “Kameron Canaday” until free agency rolls around.

Steelers 2018 Practice Squad

Keion Adams, Outside Linebacker
Brian Allen, Cornerback
Jarvion Franklin, Running Back
Trey Griffey, Wide Receiver
Bucky Hodges, Tight End
Lavon Hooks, Defensive End
Farrington Huguenin, Outside Linebacker
Tevin Jones, Wide Receiver
Patrick Morris, Offensive Line
R.J. Prince, Offensive Line
Christian Scotland-Williamson, Tight End

Perhaps conspicuous by his absences was Joshua Fraizer, the Steelers 7th round draft pick. Christian Scotland-Williamson holds a spot thanks to the International Player Pathway. Trey Griffey is of course the son of Ken Griffey Jr. and the grandson of Ken Griffey Sr. Keion Adams and Brian Allen are members of the Steelers 2017 draft class.

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Report Card for Steelers 3rd Preseason Game vs. The Titans

The Steelers took on the Titans at Heinz Field on Saturday afternoon in the (say it with me) all-important third preseason. With the exception of a key superstar or two, all of the starters played for Pittsburgh, and the performance and results looked more akin to a Super Bowl contender than they did the previous week in Green Bay.

Terrell Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds Preseason Interception, Vince Williams

Terrell Edmunds returning a preseason interception. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via PennLive.com

Quarterbacks
Ben Roethlisberger made his preseason debut and played three series, completing 11 of 18 passes for 114 yards and a 32-yard touchdown pass to Justin Hunter. He looked a bit rusty, as the many high passes to  Jesse James — including one that left the big tight end with a back contusion–illustrated. All-in-all, it was about what you’ve come to expect this time of year from the 15-year veteran. Landry Jones completed six of his nine pass attempts for 69 yards and an interception that was more on the receiver than on him. Mason Rudolph played the entire second half and completed seven of 11 passes for 65 yards, as he often utilized short, underneath passes to running backs out of the backfield. Grade: B-

Running Backs
James Conner started, and while his rushing performance left a lot to be desired (just 18 yards on 10 carries), he was very Le’Veon Bell-like, as he compiled 52 receiving yards on six catches. Rookie Jaylen Samuels was the workhorse on the day and a mighty fine one that that, tallying 41 rushing yards on 11 carries, along with 36 receiving yards on four catches out of the backfield. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Second-year man JuJu Smith-Schuster led the way with six receptions for 46 yards, but he did have a couple of notable drops. Other than Smith-Schuster and Hunter’s aforementioned 32-yard score, it was a rather quiet day for the receivers.  Rookie James Washington was targeted twice on the day and left with zero catches after suffering an oblique injury. After standing out in the first preseason game, Damoun Patterson’s workload continued to decline, as did, one would think, his chances of making the final 53-man roster. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
It was another day without Vance McDonald and another quiet game for the Steelers tight ends. James left with two receptions for 17 yards after suffering his aforementioned back injury, while no other tight end did anything of significance. Grade: Incomplete

Offensive Linemen
With the exception of Ramon Foster, the Steelers star-studded offensive line played as a unit for the first time this preseason, and while the big guys had to shake off some rust, they afforded Roethlisberger with the suburb protection he’s become accustomed to in the latter stages of his career. In-fact. even when super-subs such as Matt Feiler and B.J. Finney were in the game, holes were being opened, and quarterbacks were being protected. Grade: B+

Defensive Linemen
Perhaps for the first time since suffering a torn biceps in Week 1 of the 2017 season, Stephon Tuitt looked like a man possessed, as he continuously found his way in the Titans’ backfield and came away with one sack and two quarterback hits on the day. Cam Heyward also returned to his 2017 All-Pro form, recording one sack and two tackles for loss. Javon Hargrave looked decent, as did Tyson Alualu and L.T. Walton in their usual reserve roles. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt continued to sit out with a hamstring injury, and it was a quiet afternoon for Bud Dupree. However, Olasunkanmi Adeniyi continued to make a strong case to make the final cut, as he recorded yet another sack this preseason. Fellow outside linebacker-hopeful, Farrington Huguenin, was also pretty active and contributed with a sack of his own. As for the inside linebacker spot, Vince Williams celebrated his new contract by tallying three tackles and a sack before exiting for the afternoon. As has become the case in recent seasons, L.J. Fort looked solid when given playing time.

But perhaps the biggest story of this preseason–one that will likely continue to grow if his exceptional play continues–was undrafted free agent, Matthew Thomas, who led all Steelers defenders with nine tackles–including five solo. Grade: A

Secondary
Artie Burns‘ name was hardly mentioned, which is generally a good thing for a cornerback. Rookie first-round pick, Terrell Edmunds, created a turnover for the second week in a row, when he intercepted a pass in the first half and then proceeded to turn on the jets as he returned it 30 yards into Tennessee territory. The Titans never made it beyond midfield the entire first half, which means the secondary didn’t allow any big plays. Grade: A-

Special Teams
It was a decent day for veteran punter Jordan Berry, as he averaged 43.5 yards on two punts. But it was an even better day for backup Matt Wile, who averaged 48.7 yards on three boots. As for the kicking situation, Chris Boswell continued his ascension to the top of the NFL at his position, making all three of his field goal attempts–including a 45-yarder.

As for the coverage unit, if he can’t find his way to the top of the inside linebacker depth chart, Tyler Matakevich might one day find himself in Honolulu for his ability to be a special teams demon, as he was the first one downfield to stymie Titan punt returners on more than one occasion. Nat Berhe, who was brought in for that specific purpose, made a play that drew drew a congratulatory helmet slap from head coach Mike Tomlin immediately afterward.

Unfortunately, it continued to be a quiet day for the return game, which likely means the end is near for Pitt’s Quadree Henderson. Grade: B-

Coaching
Coming off an alarming performance against the Packers nine days earlier, the Steelers responded well in all phases of the game. Given that it was the regular season dress-rehearsal, that spoke volumes for the preparation heading into Saturday. Grade: B+

 

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Steelers Report Card From Their 2nd Preseason Game Against The Packers

Things were ugly Thursday night, as the Steelers fell  to the Packers, 51-34, at Lambeau Field in their second game of the 2018 preseason. Therefore, you shouldn’t expect a high GPA.

Quarterbacks

Mason Rudolph made his first start against the Packers and was immediately victimized by a pick-six on his very first pass of the night. Rudolph played the rest of the first half and recovered a bit, completing five of 12 passes for 47 yards and a four-yard touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Joshua Dobbs took over in the second half, and he, too, proceeded to throw a pick-six on his very first pass. Dobbs did fare a bit better, completing 12 of 18 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns to go along with that interception, while also contributing 27 rushing yards. Grade: C

Running Backs

James Conner, he of the leaner and meaner physique, looked impressive in his limited amount of work, carrying five times for 57 yard–including a 26-yard touchdown. Rookie Jaylen Samuels had a nice night, as he posted 38 yards and a score on nine carries, while veteran backup Fitzgerald Toussaint continued to play decent this preseason, tallying 26 yards on seven carries. Grade: B

Wide Receivers

This just in: The Steelers know how  to identify and cultivate receivers. Latest example appears to be second-round pick James Washington, who pulled in five catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns. Washington showed off one facet of his skill-set by getting deep on a 57-yard pass from Dobbs; and he showed off his ability to make the combat catch on a 19-yard touchdown in-which he was able to out-physical a Green Bay defensive back and come away with the football. It was a quick night for Smith-Schuster, but he continues to be a touchdown-machine, pulling in his lone reception for a four-yard score in the first half. Damoun Patterson continued his impressive preseason, catching three passes for 35 yards–including a 29-yarder. Grade: B+

Tight Ends

It was another uneventful night for the tight ends, although Jesse James did set up a score with a 21-yard catch (his only one of the night). Injuries continue to be a problem for Vance McDonald, as he sat out Thursday’s game with yet another ailment. Grade: Incomplete

Offensive Linemen

Rudolph was sacked three times, but that may have been more on him and less on the line, albeit one that was missing some key starters. Missing key starters or not, the Steelers did rush for 157 yards, while averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Grade: B-

Defensive Linemen

Javon Hargrave had a decent night, as did big Dan McCullers, as he plays for his football life this summer. However, the defensive line, minus Cam Heyward, didn’t generate all that much pressure on the Packers’ stable of four quarterbacks. And it’s hard to give a great evaluation of any unit that’s part of a defense that allowed 37 points on the night and had trouble getting off the field on third down. Grade: C-

Linebackers

What can you say about the inside linebacker unit? It’s very early, but it doesn’t look like Jon Bostic is going to adequately close the massive hole that was left in the middle by the tragic loss of Ryan Shazier late last season. Tyler Matakevich didn’t do a lot to make one feel better about the unit, either. L.J. Fort did have a fine night, posting five tackles and a sack, and unknown rookie Matthew Thomas also drew some praise. As for the outside linebacker position, Bud Dupree did record a sack, and the Packers were held to 77 yards rushing. Grade: C-

Secondary

The unit was missing Joe Haden, Mike Hilton and Sean Davis, and I don’t know if that had a lot to do with so many missed tackles, bad angles and futile pursuits of Packer ball carriers, but it obviously didn’t help much. The young Terrell Edmunds did continue to play well, even if he was pretty much helpless on a touchdown pass from future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers to stud tight end Jimmy Graham. As for the veteran side of things, Morgan Burnett returned to Green Bay to take on his former team and acquitted himself quite well, even recording a sack in the process. But those missed tackles and bad angles…just so many. Grade: D

Special Teams

Edmunds did set up Pittsburgh’s second touchdown by forcing and then recovering a fumble on a kickoff. The low-light for Danny Smith’s unit may have been Jordan Berry’s punting, as the veteran continues to draw criticism this summer–including from his head coach in the post-game presser. As for the return game, Quadree Henderson’s main path to a roster spot is that avenue, and again, Thursday night, that avenue was closed. Grade: C-

Coaching

Missing several key starters–including the Killer B’s–it remains to be seen if Pittsburgh’s biggest offensive weaknesses from 2017–red zone efficiency and situational play-calling–have been rectified in 2018. As for the defense, yes, that unit was also missing several key starters. But Mike Tomlin and Keith

Photo credit: Packers Wire USA Today.

Butler appear to have a huge problem on their hands finding some combination of defensive backs and inside linebackers to protect the middle of the field. Thursday night, they seemed light years away from finding a solution. Grade: C-

 

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Steelers Eagles Preseason Report Card

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their 2018 preseason campaign against the defending Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles. Here is their Report Card.

Damoun Patterson, Damoun Patterson preseason touchdown, Rasul Douglas, Steelers vs Eagles Preseason

Steelers hopeful Damoun Patterson preseason touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Matt Rourke, AP via Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
As has become the custom the past few summers, 15-year and future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn’t start the Steelers preseason opener against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on Thursday night.

Backup quarterback Landry Jones got the start, playing three series and completing four of four passes for 83 yards and a 71-yard touchdown strike to second-year receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Second-year quarterback Joshua Dobbs played the rest of the first half and completed nine of 13 passes for 91 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Joshua Dobbs led Pittsburgh on two touchdown drives in the second quarter. Dobbs set up the first scoring drive with an 18-yard run As for the second score, it was a sensational 29-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Damoun Patterson. Rookie Mason Rudolph took over the reins in the second half and completed seven of 12 passes for 101 yards. Grade: B-

Running Backs
Training camp holdout or not, star running back Le’Veon Bell wasn’t going to play, Thursday night. In his place, were a host of running backs, including veteran Stevan Ridley, who led all Steelers backs with 10 carries but for only 14 yards. Fellow veteran Fitzgerald Toussaint led the way with 29 yards and a touchdown on seven carries, while second-year man James Conner tallied an impressive 25 yards on just four carries. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
The youngster, Damoun Patterson, was the receiving star of the night, as he was targeted 10 times, while pulling down six catches for 77 yards and the touchdown grab that was every bit as sensational as Dobbs’ pass. Smith-Schuster tallied only one catch for the aforementioned 71-yard score, while rookie James Washington grabbed two passes for 44 yards–including an impressive combat catch near the sidelines in the second half. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Nothing newsworthy from this group. Veteran Jesse James caught just one pass for two yards. Vance McDonald sat out with an injury, while Xavier Grimble was shutout in the box score. Grade: Incomplete

Offensive Line
Missing several key starters–including Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro due to injury prevention and veteran Ramon Foster due to an actual injury, Jones and Company weren’t afforded with the best protection. Sure enough, both Jones and Rudolph were sacked twice each. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward didn’t play at all, Stephon Tuitt played very little, while Javon Hargrave saw the most action out of the starters. The Eagles were held to 106 yards rushing, which is perhaps a testament to the backups and how they’re learning under first-year defensive line coach Karl Dunbar. Grade: C

Linebackers
Inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich led the way with four solo tackles, while Jon Bostic collected three. However, neither really distinguished themselves in the battle for the starting job alongside Vince Williams. As for outside linebackers, Anthony Chickillo recorded one sack, while rookie Olasunkanmi Adeniyi made the defensive play of the night, with a strip-sack early in the third quarter that set up a field goal. Grade: B+

Secondary
Despite missing a good bit of training camp battling injury, Morgan Burnett, the strong safety acquired via free agency in the offseason, looked really good, same for rookie first round pick Terrell Edmunds. Coty Sensabaugh and Cam Sutton each recorded an interception, while Dashaun Phillips provided the low-light for the night when he was burned badly on a 63-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. Grade: C

Special Teams
Nothing much of note on special teams, as rookie Quadree Henderson only had one chance to return a kickoff, while Justin Thomas totaled just 12 yards on three punt returns. Kicker Chris Boswell converted all three of his field goal attempts and both extra points. As for the punters, veteran Jordan Berry averaged 41.7 yards on three punts, while the unknown Matt Wile totaled 96 yards on two punts. Grade: C

Coaches
It was the first preseason game, complete with vanilla game-plans that were executed by a lot of guys who won’t be around in a few weeks. Grade: Incomplete

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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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Steelers 2018 Training Camp to Test Mike Tomlin & Kevin Colbert’s Defensive Talent Evaluations

All eyes at St. Vincents are on Pittsburgh’s position battles at safety, inside linebacker, and running back. But in many ways, the die has already been cast, with the true test at this Steelers training camp will be of Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s ability to evaluate defensive talent.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers post-Super Bowl rebuilding phase has been over for some time.

Ben Roethlisberger is the only veteran who remains from Super Bowl XLIII. Only Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and Antonio Brown remain from Super Bowl XLV. The Pittsburgh Steelers have steadily improved since their nightmare 2-6 start to the 2013 season, and with each season they’ve gotten closer to climbing the Stairway to Seven.

  • Progress crashed to an abrupt halt last January in the playoff loss to the Jaguars.

And the reason for Pittsburgh’s painful playoff exit can be pinned squarely on the Steelers defense, who got manhandled at Heinz Field for a second straight time by Jacksonville. The loss sent Steelers Nation reeling, with no shortage of Black and Gold faithful seeking blood. One Twitter exchange is particularly instructive:

It might seem a bit contradictory to run a blog post questioning the Steelers collective defensive talent evaluation skills, but it is not. Losing Ryan Shazier was a game-changer for the Steelers in 2017. Everyone accepts that. Now.

But what people forget is that the Steelers decision to draft Ryan Shazier was a questionable one and many fans were labeling Shazier a “bust” as recently as 2016. In a similar vein, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin clearly made the right choices when it came to Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams (remember the guy was a 6th round pick) and Joe Haden.

  • But Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have swung and missed on the defensive rebuild.

And those misses have carried real costs. Missing on a premium pick requires you to redraft for the same position, forcing you to forgo talent elsewhere.

Shamarko Thomas never contributed outside of special teams, forcing the Steelers to invest another premium pick on Sean Davis. Jarvis Jones qualifies as the first unquestioned first round bust of Kevin Colbert’s tenure, and that move led the Steelers to draft Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt.

If you look at the key position battles that will be fought out on the fields of St. Vincents this summer, they either involve redrafts or highlight questions about key defensive talent acqusitions. Consider:

  • The Steelers are swapping T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, in a bid to jump start Dupree’s pass rush
  • Sean Davis is moving to free safety after starting for two years at strong safety
  • Artie Burns enters training camp as the incumbent starter at corner, but Cam Sutton could challenge

Then stir in the battle at inside linebacker. Tyler Matakevich and free agent Jon Bostic will vie to “replace” Ryan Shazier. Matakevich is a fan favorite, an inside linebacker in the mold of Jerry Olsavsky. The sentimentally is nice, but fails to compensate for athleticism. Bostic looks like a serviceable player – when healthy.

The Steelers coaching staff seems to understand that neither player offers the athleticism needed in the middle of the field. Talk of deploying sub packages that use Morgan Burnett and/or Terrell Edmunds in some sort of hybrid safety-inside linebacker position dominated the off season.

  • As others have observed, fans clamored for Ryan Shazier to switch to safety; now the Steelers are using safeties to try to replace him.

It is important to remember that the Steelers 2017 defense actually looked pretty good at times, broaching shut down level against Kansas City and Cincinnati and playing really tough in the Red Zone against Detroit. Ryan Shazier was a key player in making that happen, but he didn’t do it himself.

  • By sticking to their board and refusing to reach for defensive in the 2018 NFL Draft Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin implicitly acknowledge that.

If nothing else, the duo is being true to themselves, as they’ve never made personnel decisions of fear. Now its time to see how whether their self-confidence is justified or not.

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Steelers 2018 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs – How to Replace the Irreplaceable Ryan Shazier?

“An NFL player’s career can end in a second.” It’s a cliché which gets throw around far more frequently than it actually happens. But lack of frequency that doesn’t do anything to dilute the cliché’s fearsome truth.

Will Ryan Shazier play again? He vows to, and God knows everyone is rooting for him to do it, but Ryan Shazier is only barely walking again. The loss of Shazier devastated the Steelers defense and it is no secret that it greatly impacts their plays at inside linebacker for the 2018 NFL Draft.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starters

Vince Williams inherited the role as leader of the Steelers inside linebacking corps when Shazier went down as he was in the process of having the best year of his career. The truth is, that Vince Williams simply lacks the athletic ability of either Shazier or his predecessor Lawrence Timmons. He’s more of a bruiser in the Larry Foote mode.

  • More knowledgeable football minds have taken issue with Vince William’s ability over on Steel City Insider.

These commenters know more about football than yours truly and, with that conceded, the far more pedestrian analysis here is that when paired alongside a superb athlete, Vince Williams is solid inside linebacker; absent that athletic presence, he’s going to struggle a bit.

To fill the hole created by Shazier’s absence, the Steelers turned to Jon Bostic, a veteran with experience starting experience gained in Chicago, Indianpolis and New England.

  • Bostic was in fact a 2nd round pick by the Chicago Bears in the 2013 NFL Draft and is a fine athlete.

The worry/knock on Bostic is that he has a history of injuries, which limited him in 2015 and cost him the entire 2016 season. Still, when healthy Bostic has been effective, and word is that he is a suburb tackler.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

Losing Ryan Shazier taught the Steelers a hard lesson: Depth may look solid on paper, but sometimes that fails translate on the football field. Within a few plays of losing Shazier, his primary backup, Tyler Matakevich, also go injured.

No problem, the Steelers still had L.J. Fort whom they’d groomed for several seasons, and Arthur Moats could move inside in a pinch, couldn’t he?

  • Neither of those options worked out well, so the Steelers signed Sean Spence off the street.

Unfortunately, Sean Spence was out of football for a reason. Even when accounting for his rustiness, Sean failed to provide the stability in place of Shazier has he had done during 2014 and 2015.

Steelers 2018 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

The needs assessment of the Steelers at inside linebacker prior to the 2014 NFL Draft revaled just how quickly an area on the depth chart can jump from a position of weakness to one of strength. The Steeler of wisely ignored that, and drafted Ryan Shazier anyway.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • This year, Shazier’s injury reveals how the reality plays out in reverse.

The Steelers depth at inside linebacker is perhaps thinner than at any other area on the roster.

The Steelers apparently have a lot of confidence in Tyler Matakevich, if 2nd hand accounts from beat writers are any sort of guide. Like his inside linebackers coach, Jerry Olsavsky, Tyler Matakevich is one of those late round players who isn’t supposed to be big enough or fast enough but has a motor that never quits.

  • Fair enough. If Tyler Matakevich develops into a Jerry Olsavsky like player, then he’ll be an asset to the Steelers.

But even if that happens, he still lacks the athleticism to complement Vince Williams effectively. As they have done at safety, the Steelers have wisely signed Jon Bostic which will free them for needing to reach to fill the position. However, the Steelers 2018 draft needs at inside linebacker must be considered High-Moderate.

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