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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Kudos to Kevin Colbert for Bringing in Two Free Agents Who Can Start for Steelers

I don’t know much about the NFL’s salary cap, and chances are, neither do you.

I do know the Steelers need help at both inside linebacker and safety–or at least they did–and I was wondering how they were going to find two competent pieces in free agency.

And if they did that, would they have enough money to pay star running back Le’Veon Bell $14.5 million in 2018 (unless the two sides can reach an agreement, which seems remote at this point).

Turns out, Pittsburgh was able to address both inside linebacker and safety last week, thanks to the signing of veteran linebacker Jon Bostic on Sunday, followed by the signing of veteran safety Morgan Burnett on Tuesday.

Morgan Burnett, Alejandro Villanueva, Steelers vs Packers

Morgan Burnett late in the Steelers 2017 win over the Packers. Photo Credit: Evan Seigle, via Packers.com

According to several pieces I’ve read as well as the site, spotrac.com, Burnett’s salary will eat up just  under $2.5 million in cap space this season. Considering the Morgan Burnett’s contract is worth a reported $14.3 million over three years, that’s kind of amazing–or at least means the money is back-loaded and will account for over $5 million in cap space in 2020 (the final season of Morgan Burnett’s deal).

Morgan Burnett is a consistent veteran and was one of the best pieces on the Packers’ defense the past several seasons, so much credit has to go to the Steelers for being able to bring him to town.

As for Jon Bostic, considering his contract is for $4 million over two seasons, no extensive research is needed to know he won’t eat up much cap space this year or next.

  • But who really cares about cap space, prorated bonuses and contacts? I know I prefer to focus on football.

I do know both Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett are capable of starting for the Steelers in 2018 and, at least on paper, will make the defense stronger than it was when it was getting manhandled by the Jaguars in 45-42 loss in the divisional round of the playoffs on January 14 at Heinz Field.

They just have to make fans forget how easily the likes of Jacksonville running back Leonard Fournette tore through the defense with ease at Heinz Field in the regular season and then again in the playoffs (don’t look now, but the Jacksonville Jaguars playoff record in Pittsburgh is 2-0).

If Burnett can be a steadying back-end presence in the secondary and that always crucial last line of defense in 2018, he will be an instant upgrade over Mike Mitchell, who all too often wasn’t either of those things in 2017.

Massaging the salary cap is never an easy thing for the Steelers this time of year, but they managed to bring relief to their aching defense, and do so without wrecking the future–or so it would seem.

Maybe Burnett’s $5 million cap hit will hurt the Steelers in 2020. But, then again, maybe quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be getting on with his life’s work by then (hopefully, with at least one more Super Bowl on his career resume), and the organization will find salary cap relief organically.

  • But I’m not worried about that right now.

I just feel like giving props to the Steelers front office–namely Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan–for finding a way to get the right pieces for its defense (at least on paper) and doing so at a reasonable price.

Not an easy thing, and this is why they make the big bucks.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Never a Superstar, Steelers Free Agent Arthur Moats Is Solid Backup Who Delivers When It Counts

The Pittsburgh Steelers are not splash players in free agency. Sure, the franchise used free agency to secure the services of future Hall of Famers such as Kevin Greene and fixture starters like Ryan Clark, but the Pittsburgh has never put itself into contention for the off season Lombardi.

But most Steelers free agent signing headlines are more likely to elicit a “Who?” opposed to an, “Yes! We got him!” from fans. So, from that perspective, Arthur Moats in many ways has been a typical Steelers free agent signing, which speaks well of both him and the team. And as Moats reaches free agency again, it will be interesting to see if the Steelers offer him a third contract.

Arthur Moats, Arthur Moats strip sack Andy Dalton, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Arthur Moats strip sacks Andy Dalton. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Capsule Profile of Arthur Moats Steelers Career

Arthur Moats joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013 during a time of turmoil at outside linebacker.

After ending 3 straight seasons on injured reserve, the Steelers had parted ways with LaMarr Woodley. Jason Worilds had finally seemed to hit his stride, posting a good although not great year, prompting Pittsburgh to transition tag him. While Jarvis Jones rookie year had provided a mixed bag, the latest done jersey number 95 still had legitimate “upside.”

So it came as a bit of a surprise, when at the end of March, the Steelers signed Arthur Moats from the Buffalo Bills. The move to bring in Arthur Moats delivered almost immediate dividends, as Moats recorded a sack in relief of Jarvis Jones in the Steelers win over Carolina. Moats forced a critical fumble in the Steelers November win over the Ravens, and also downed Joe Flacco.

In 2015 the Steelers drafted Bud Dupree, but Bud Dupree’s arrival didn’t stop Moats from making splash plays, as he recovered a fumble on Cleveland’s first play of the game, setting up a Steelers score. For the season, Moats recorded 4 sacks and recovered two fumbles.

In 2016, Arthur Moats recorded 3.5 sacks and defensed 3 passes while splitting time with Bud Dupree, and finished the season with two sacks against the Browns in the finale. In 2107, Moats saw his playing time drop, as the rotation at outside linebacker ended. Still, he saw action n 14 games, including work at inside linebacker due to injuries to Ryan Shazier and Tyler Matakevich.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Arthur Moats

Let’s face it, backups don’t move the mercury of fan enthusiasm (save for perhaps DeAngelo Williams.) When you think of great Steelers outside linebackers, you think of Hall of Famers like Jack Ham and Kevin Greene, or intimidating legends like Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter or James Harrison.

  • Arthur Moats name’s never going to make that least, nor should it.

But that wasn’t what Arthur Moats was brought to Pittsburgh to do. He was brought to in to be a backup, and the first role of a good backup is to provide stability when the starter is unavailable. Arthur Moats has started 24 of his 62 games in Pittsburgh, and he’s provided solid stability with splash play making ability.

Arthur Moats is just the kind of player you want in the mix behind T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree and Anthony Chickillo. He’s only just turning 30, and he’s not going to cost a lot of money. What’s the wait?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Against Arthur Moats

For better (see keeping T.J. Watt in the game) and for worse (see the James Harrison situation), the Steelers ended their outside linebacker rotation in 2017 and there’s been no indication that will change in 2018.

The Steelers have salary cap issues, and while Arthur Moats isn’t going to command serious money from any NFL team, he is someone who deserves to get paid more than the veteran minimum. Depth is nice, but the Steelers have Kion Adams coming off of injured reserve, who could grow into a Moats type role and would do so for a lot less money.

Resigning Arthur Moats would make for a quality feel-good story, but is it a luxry the Steelers can afford?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Arthur Moats

We started by saying that in a lot of ways Arthur Moats is your typical Steelers free agent. His arrival was unheralded, he provided stability and depth in an understudy role and delivered convincingly when called upon.

  • In fact, Arthur Moats is kind of a defensive equivalent to Mewelde Moore.

When you say “Championship caliber player” you probably don’t think someone like Mewelde Moore, yet Moore was the unsung hero of the 2008 Steelers season that culminated in Super Bowl XLIII.

When it comes to winning Lombardi Number 7, Arthur Moats’ impact will never equal that of, say, Cam Heyward, but he’s shown the ability to be the “Next man up” when his number is called, and championship rosters require players who fit that role.

If the Steelers are smart, they’ll find a way to bring back Arthur Moats.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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This Time There’s No Suspense over Sean Spence’s Impending Free Agency with Steelers

25 years ago the arrival of free agency breathed life into the once staid NFL off season by introducing an element of the unknown. Once, after the games ended, news on the NFL would dry up, except for the draft.

  • Now February is filled with speculation over what will happen, while free agent moves dominate the news in March.

Sean Spence has been around long enough that this is his second go-around as a Steelers free agent. Two seasons ago there was legitimate speculation about his fate and future with the team. Today there’s little suspense behind Sean Spence’s free agency. Let’s look at why.

Sean Spence, Steelers vs Texans, Steelers win Texans Christmas

Sean Spence in Steelers Christmas win over Texans. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Sean Spence’s Steelers Career

The Steelers picked Sean Spence in the 3rd round of the 2012 NFL Draft hoping to replace James Farrior and/or Larry Foote. Early returns indicated Spence was that player until devastating knee injury threatened to end Sean Spence’s NFL career before it began.

The Steelers kept him on IR for two seasons, but drafted Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier to hedge their bets.
By the time Steelers OTAs in the spring of 2014, both Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier had passed him on the depth chart, but Sean Spence was back to full health, and looking good.

Sean Spence earned a roster spot, and entered the season as “The next man up” at inside linebacker. Injuries quickly paved the way for Spence’s to get playing time, and he 8 games where he:

Spence didn’t have quite as many “Splash Plays” in 2015, but he continued to rotate with Williams in relief of Shazier, and started four games during the course of the season. Spence’s strong resume led to speculation that the Steelers might resign him with an eye toward replacing Lawrence Timmons.

  • That never happened.

Sean Spence looked like a “Starter Capable” player and he followed Dick LeBeau to the Tennessee Titans. Despite some solid numbers in 2016, Spence didn’t get an offer after playing on his one year deal. The Colts signed him, but cut him before training camp, brought him back for a few games, but Spence was on the couch out of football when Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal contusion against the Bengals.

The Steelers resigned Spence and he started immediately, looking ever bit like a player coming off the couch in the Steelers games against the Ravens and Patriots. He played better against the Texans and Browns, but was part of an atrocious defensive effort in the playoff loss to the Jaguars.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Sean Spence

Sean Spence knows the system, having come up under Dick LeBeau and playing for Keith Butler. Perhaps Sean Spence isn’t a long-term answer or a long term starter for the Steelers at inside linebacker, but his experience suits him to serve as a bridge starter and mentor to the inside linebacker the Steelers will likely chose early in the 2018 NFL Draft.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Sean Spence

The Steelers lost Ryan Shazier and Tyler Matakevich in a matter of minutes, and it was clear through the rest of the game that L.J. Fort and Arthur Moats weren’t up to replacing him in the middle caused Kevin Colbert to look to Sean Spence.

  • But Steelers defense was flatfooted without Shazier, and Spence did little to change that.

Sure, he improved during the regular season, but he really didn’t give much of an indication that he was even a short-term answer. The Steelers need to improve at inside linebacker, and its hard to make the case that Sean Spence’s return helps make that happen.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Sean Spence

Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about how twin injuries have forever linked the fates of Sean Spence and Ryan Shazier. It was an inspiring story.

  • But inspiration isn’t what the Steelers need at inside linebacker, what they need is a dynamic playmaker.

Word is that Lawrence Timmons will be on the free agent market, and speculation is that the Steelers would bring him back. Its entirely possible that Timmons would do more for this unit than Spence, which should tell you what you need to know.

After the dust of both free agency and the draft settles, Sean Spence may be worth a considering bringing back at a veteran minimum contract, but anything beyond that would be a surprise.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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What Should The Steelers Do With Restricted Free-Agent Anthony Chickillo?

“Depth is the first victum of the salary cap.” It might be a cliche, but most cliche’s era their idiomatic status because they’re true. Unlike 70’s and 80’s, the salary cap has made it near impossible for any team to be as deep as it wants to be.

  • Sure, a team that drafts exceptionally well can stock its backup slots with true rising stars, but free agency renders such situations temporary.

Think of the Steelers recent history at inside linebacker.

Just a few years ago Pittsburgh boasted Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Sean Spence AND Terence Garvin. Bob Labriola described the Steelers depth there as “obscene.” That was then, this is now. In the space of a few series against Cincinnati, the 2017 Steelers went from having inside linebacker as a team strength, to having to call Sean Spence off of a couch in Florida to start the next week.

As the Pittsburgh Steelers gear up for 2018’s free agency period, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin would do well to keep that experience front-of-mind as they make decisions regarding restricted free agent linebacker Anthony Chickillo.  

Anthony Chickillo, DeShone Kizer, Steelers vs Browns

Anthony Chickillo closes in on DeShone Kizer. Photo Credit: David Richard, AP via PennLive.com

 

Capsule Profile Of Anthony Chickillo’s Steelers Career

Anthony Chickillo was a defensive end for the University of Miami Hurricanes who came to Pittsburgh as a sixth round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Given the Steelers long history as a 3-4 defensive team, Chickillo’s size (his draft profile listed him at 267 pounds) wasn’t going to translate well to the pro level–at least not in Pittsburgh. Therefore, the plan was for Chickillo to transition to outside linebacker under the tutelage of position coach Joey Porter.

But there was the matter of Anthony Chickillo making it onto the final roster during his rookie training camp. While Chickillo did initially make his first roster, he was waived days later and signed to the practice squad.

Fortunately for Anthony Chickillo, he was quickly promoted to the active roster and, according to his Wikipedia page, he made his NFL debut at Heinz Field against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 6.

  • All-in-all, Chickillo appeared in seven games in 2015, forcing one fumble and recovering another.

However, it was in his second season when Anthony Chickillo, now fully transitioned to the outside linebacker position, would learn his craft via baptism by fire.

Anthony Chickillo was not only part of the team’s early-season plan to rotate its outside linebackers, he actually started seven games, after 2015 first round pick Bud Dupree was placed on Injured Reserve following offseason surgery.

Anthony Chickillo recorded 19 tackles and the first 2.5 sacks of his career in 2016, before ultimately taking a backseat to veteran James Harrison and the newly-activated Dupree down the stretch.

Anthony Chickillo’s finest hour occurred against the Browns in Week 1 of last year, when he posted two sacks while starting in place of Dupree and recorded the Steelers first touchdown of the season, after recovering a blocked punt by Tyler Matakevich in the end zone early in the first quarter.

Chickillo appeared in all 16 games a year ago, but he only added one more sack to his Week 1 total.

The Case For The Steelers Tendering Anthony Chickillo 

It shouldn’t take much more than a low tender to keep Chickillo around for another year. With veteran Arthur Moats about to hit unrestricted free-agency, the Steelers could soon be lacking in proven depth at the outside linebacker spot behind Dupree and second-year man T.J. Watt.

  • However, the Steelers need to be smart here.

Anthony Chickillo body of work, while not jaw dropping, certainly shows his can play in the NFL and his development is trending in the direction of “starter capable.” Offering Anthony Chickillo a tender that is too low might invite a team to extend him an offer.

And, if anything will be different than previous years, we know that James Harrison isn’t going to be around as an emergency outside linebacker.

The Case Against The Steelers Resigning Anthony Chickillo 

The case against the Steelers offering Anthony Chickillo a restricted free agent tender would go like this. At age 25, hasn’t evolved much beyond that of a depth player since making the transition from his college position. Sure, he’s trending towards “starter capable status,” but is he there yet?

  • The Steelers have to be stingy about using their salary cap space.

Its true that Pittsburgh’s depth at outside linebacker has befitted the team over the past few seasons, but depth isn’t a luxury that a team that borders on salary cap purgatory can afford.

While its true that Anthony Chickillo is the kind of player you’d like to get back for at least another year, the harsh realities of salary cap dollars an sense suggest that Pittsburgh’s best choice is to take the risk of making him a free agent, and bringing him back for the veteran minimum.

Curtain’s Call On The Steelers And Anthony Chickillo 

To reiterate, the Steelers depth at outside linebacker could be severely lacking if the veteran Arthur Moats decides to ply his trade elsewhere. At the end of the day, the Steelers really just need bodies at the position. Perhaps that’s not  a ringing endorsement for Anthony Chickillo, but he does know the Steelers system, and he has seen an awful lot of playing time over the past two seasons.

  • Besides that, Anthony Chickillo has been a regular on special teams, a unit that’s often overlooked during the free-agency period, as fans are more focused on the big names on offense and defense.

Anthony Chickillo might just be a backup outside linebacker, but he’s an extremely competent backup, and the Steelers may not be looking for much more than that for 2018.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Season Review – Time to Take Mike Tomlin to Task

The tone to the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 season review stands in stark contrast to its last several predecessors. The Pittsburgh Steelers measure success in Lombardi Trophies and each of the last 3 seasons has ended with the franchise closer to the Super Bowl than the year before.

  • You could even argue that the 6-2 close after a 2-6 start in 2013 counted as progress.

No 2017 post-mortem assessment makes that argument and none should. While Steel Curtain Rising has been and remains a Mike Tomlin supporter, that doesn’t change the fact that the Steelers head coach has some explaining to do.

Let’s look back at how Tomlin and the 2017 Steelers got to this juncture.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2017 season review, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin yells during the Jaguars loss. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Going All in to Get Through an Open Window

The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers went on a roller coaster ride that saw them swoon deeply only to rebound all the way to the AFC Championship game. Yet once, there Tom Brady decimated the Steelers defense, while the offense struggled in kind.

In truth, Ben Roethlisberger was only acknowledging the proverbial elephant in the room. Everyone knew “Life’s Work” was approaching Roethlisberger, Ben simply uttered it aloud.

The Steelers brain trust took heed, drafting T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton and James Conners with their first four picks, addressing 3 of the 4 most glaring needs exposed in the AFC Championship.

  • The Steelers entered free agency interested in signing a corner and went into the draft looking to pick up a tight end.

Neither avenue bore fruit. But in a flurry of late-August activity, the Steelers signed Joe Haden when he became available, traded for Vance McDonald and J.J. Wilcox. Pittsburgh was far outside its comfort zone.

Perhaps it was simply because talent unexpectedly became available. Perhaps it’s because Art Rooney II is a little bit more of a risk taker than his father was. Or perhaps it was because the Steelers brain trust felt 2017 equaled “Now or Never” territory.

It doesn’t matter. The Pittsburgh Steelers went “All In” on their 2017 roster.

Steelers 2017 Defense Defies Expectations Only to Dip into Decline

The story on the Steelers 2017 season was supposed to read like this:

  • With the Four Killer Bees finally united, the Steelers offense would blow opposing teams out of the water while the defense kept the opposing team a score or so behind.

Or something like that.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, A.J. Bouye

Antonio Brown scores 4th down 4th quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Except it never happened. When the 2017 regular season kicked off and Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant finally took the field together, the Steelers offense sputtered rather than soared.

  • Yet the Steelers took a 6-2 record into their bye week.

And they did so because of their defense. Keith Butler’s defense only gave up an average of 14 points during the first 11 weeks of the season – a figure which includes the 5 interception disaster against the Jaguars.

  • Both inside and outside of Pittsburgh, commentators were collocating “shutdown” with “Steelers 2017 defense”

The during the first half of the win over Kansas City and the second half of the win over Cincinnati the Steelers defense was “Scary Good.” The Lions piled up gobs of yards in a fantasy owner’s delight, but inside the Steelers Red Zone, Detroit took 17 shots and came up with zero points.

And then of course Ryan Shazier got injured, transforming the middle of the Steelers defense to a sieve. On paper Sean Spence, Tyler Matakevich, L.J. Fort and Arthur Moats provided respectable depth at inside linebacker, paper promises which never materialized on the field.

Fortunately, by that point in the regular season, the Steelers offense had found its rhythm.

Roethlisberger Stumbles then Roars to Life

Ben Roethlisberger did not play well at the beginning of 2017. Sure, Martavis Bryant also looked lost, but it says here that Antonio Brown made Ben Roethlisberger look like a lot better quarterback than he really early in the season. Le’Veon Bell also took several weeks to find his stride, and Vance McDonald also took time to acclimate to the new offense.

  • The offense finally turned things around in the 2nd half against the Colts.

The Steelers offense didn’t suddenly transform itself into the NFL equivalent of Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons, but Pittsburgh’s points scored average jumped by 9.2 points season’s final eight games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster emerged as a superstar, and even with him and Bryant missing games, the Steelers offense keept humming. With the Shazierless defense faltering, it seemed like that might be enough for the playoffs. It wasn’t.

Taking Mike Tomlin to Task

We’ll never know how a healthy Haden and Shazier would altered the Steelers 2017 playoff fortunes. And that’s a shame, because this unit flashed greatness at midseason.

  • But no one will remember that thanks to the playoff debacle against the Jaguars.

In 2016 the Steelers were eliminated in AFC Championship, in 2017 year they were eliminated in the AFC Divisional round. That’s a clear regression, but consider the context makes Pittsburgh’s backwards step all the more poignant:

  • Last year the Steelers didn’t have a first round bye
  • Cam Heyward was on IR and Tyson Alualu wasn’t on the roster
  • Ross Cockrell and William Gay were number 2 and number 3 corners
  • Vance McDonald was in San Francisco and Jesse James was the Steelers starter at tight end
  • Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers and Sammie Coates were the Steelers #2, #3 and #4 receivers
  • Instead of T.J. Watt, James Harrison was dropping into coverage
  • Le’Veon Bell got hurt a half dozen plays into the game
  • The 2016 Steelers got eliminated in one of the toughest places to play, in 2017 they played at Heinz Field

Even without Ryan Shazier the Steelers defense, position-by-position is more talented than the 2016 edition. Yet you’d never know it by watching them against the Jaguars.

After the game fans began calling for the heads of Keith Butler, Carnell Lake and Joey Porter. When no defensive staff changes occurred, word leaked that Mike Tomlin had taken control of the defense. If that’s true, then let’s credit Tomlin for not forcing his lieutenants to take the fall.

  • But extolling Tomlin’s character does nothing to erase the inept, confused and bewildered that defined the defense throughout the Jaguars game.
Ryan Shazier, Ryan Shazier injury, Steelers 2017 season review

Losing Ryan Shazier dealt a dramatic blow to the 2017 Steelers defense. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA TODAY via BTSC

We don’t know the circumstances or context of Mike Tomlin’s role in running the defense. Perhaps it has been this way since Dick LeBeau departed. Or perhaps stepped in as a leader, and took a more active role when Shazier went down. The latter makes sense, because the Steelers defense clearly looked like a group of players who had to many voices whispering in their ear holes.

  • If that’s the case, then this is an issue Butler and Tomlin can solve during the off season.

But regardless, this doesn’t touch another root issue that doomed the Steelers defense down the stretch – the lack of apparent development by Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave following strong closes to their rookie years.

If there’s a lesson out of Michael MacCambridge’s biography on Chuck Noll, His Life’s Work, that applies to 2018, its that very little of what truly drives the Steelers makes it into public light.

  • So its possible that the tone and tenor of season-ending conversations evolved far differently than we imagine.

But based on what we know publicly Mike Tomlin owes Art Rooney II some serious answers to some tough questions. Presumptively, Tomlin’s responses satisfy Art Rooney II. Let’s hope his players can back his words up on the field.

 

 

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Report Card For Steelers 28-24 Week 17 Victory Over Browns

Quarterback

Starting just the fifth game of his career–and doing so in 10-degree weather–backup Landry Jones had a rather nice game filling in for the inactive Ben Roethlisberger. On the day, Jones completed 23 of 27 passes for 239 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a fumble. It may have actually been a better day for Jones, had backup center B.J. Finney, starting in place of the inactive Maurkice Pouncey, not suffered a thigh injury in the first half. In his place, emergency center Chris Hubbard had a devil of a time getting accurate snaps back to Jones, which contributed heavily to limiting the offense’s–and Jones’–effectiveness in the second half. Grade: B-

Running backs

Despite being without the resting Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers running game was pretty effective, particularly recently-signed veteran Stevan Ridley, who got the start and tallied 80 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Fullback Roosevelt Nix was stuffed on a fourth and goal early in the game, but he more than made up for it with some effective blocks, which freed Ridley on several of his early runs. Grade: B

Wide Receivers

What more can you say about rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster? The kid is simply magical and has emerged as a key cog in the Steelers passing-game. Without the injured Antonio Brown for the second-straight week, Smith-Schuster had a Brown-esque day, catching nine passes for 143 yards and a score. As for Martavis Bryant, while not as strong a day as Smith-Schuster, he still managed to be productive, catching six passes for 65 yards. Veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey opened the scoring by racing 29 yards for a touchdown on a reverse on the game’s first offensive series. Grade: A

Tight Ends

Jesse James and Vance McDonald were mostly quiet, tallying just three passes for 14 yards between them. But that may have been a product of compensating for an offensive line that was missing two starters in David DeCastro and Pouncey, along with the backup center in Finney, who missed the entire second half with a thigh injury. James and McDonald were effective in both protecting Jones on passing downs and in opening holes for a rushing attack that posted 124 yards on the day. Grade: C

Offensive Line

Missing its top two talents in Pouncey and DeCastro, the Steelers offensive line still managed to do a decent job in both protecting Jones and in opening holes for the running backs. Matt Feiler started the first game of his career at right guard and was highlighted on one or two occasions effectively pulling in a manner that probably made the Pro Bowler DeCastro proud. Unfortunately, starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva was beaten badly for a sack that led to a Jones’ fumble, and then there were those snapping snafus by Hubbard, the emergency center. Hubbard rolled three snaps back to Jones and was errant on another that the backup quarterback had to chase down to prevent a turnover. Grade: C

Defensive Line

Starting in-place of Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu recorded two sacks, while Stephon Tuitt was his usual disruptive self, contributing 1.5 tackles for loss. The Browns running backs were only credited with 41 yards, but quarterback DeShone Kizer rushed for 61 yards, picking up several first downs on third and long. Grade: C+

Linebackers 

Rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt recorded eight tackles (including two for losses), a sack, a pass defensed and two quarterback hits. Sean Spence tallied six tackles at inside linebacker, while Vince Williams and L.J. Fort combined for two of the team’s six sacks on the day. Bud Dupree had a quiet day at the left outside linebacker spot, while Anthony Chickillo was credited with just one tackle in spot duty. Grade: B

Secondary

The Steelers were gashed for two big plays in the second quarter, one from 54 yards out, and one from 56 yards away, that contributed to the Browns first two touchdowns. Playing with Joe Haden, the secondary used the same personnel it will in the postseason, yet Kizer managed to pass for 314 yards and may have led Cleveland to its first victory of the year, had receiver Corey Coleman been able to hold on to a fourth down pass that would have set the Browns up inside Pittsburgh’s 10-yard line with less than two minutes remaining. But the secondary was opportunistic late in the game, as veteran William Gay punched the ball from the grasps of running back Duke Johnson Jr. on a screen pass early in the fourth quarter that had gone for 30 yards on third and long. And later in the final period, safety Sean Davis came up with an interception of Kizer that snuffed out another drive in a close game that would come down to the final minutes. Grade: C

Special Teams 

With the Browns punting from their own end zone in the second quarter, reserve inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich came up with another timely special teams play, as he deflected a punt, causing it to settle at the Cleveland 28. Three plays later, the Steelers scored their second touchdown of the day to go up 14-0. Matavevich wasn’t the only special teams hero on the day. Right after the Browns tied the score at 21 early in the second half, Smith-Schuster returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for what turned out to be the game-winning score. Jordan Berry managed to down two his four punts inside the 20, while Chris Boswell converted on all four of his extra points. Grade: A

Coaching

On a day where head coach Mike Tomlin and his coordinators had to be conflicted on how to approach things, what with the Patriots needing only to defeat the Jets in-order to sew up the AFC’s top seed, it’s hard to complain about the overall performance. Yes, the defense looked exposed at  times, but  then again, it looked exposed at  times one year earlier, when Pittsburgh had to come from behind to defeat the Browns in the 2016 regular season-finale at Heinz Field. However, this didn’t continue on into the playoffs, as Pittsburgh’s defense was quite stout in recording two victories. Who knows how much of the normal game-plan was in play

Photo credit: Bostonherald.com

Sunday on both sides of the ball. And as Dupree said after the game, the defense was sort of freelancing in-order to break the team’s single-season record for sacks (it did with 56). Grade: B

Unsung hero

How about the thousands of fans who braved the 10-degree temperatures to come out and see a game that was essentially meaningless? Happy New Year!

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Time for Steelers, Mike Tomlin to Flip “Standard is the Standard” Script on Patriots

The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots face off today at Heinz Field with home field advantage in the playoffs at stake, and success or failure in this contest will likely hinge on how well the Steelers can live up to Mike Tomlin’s “Standard.”

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

“The Standard is the Standard; Injuries will not be an excuse,” is a credo Mike Tomlin has preached since arriving in Pittsburgh. His philosophy is simple, if you’re good enough to make an NFL roster, you’re in the top half of 1% of the world’s football players, so winning performance is possible.

  • That sounds hokey, but a big part of the Steelers success is driven by Tomlin’s players buying into “The Standard.”

The Steelers 2016 season offers a perfect example as Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, Ricardo Mathews (who isn’t even in football this year) and L.T. Walton helped author a 180 degree defensive turn round after Cam Heyward’s injury.

  • Yet, the Mike Tomlin’s Steelers have fallen woefully short of “The Standard” against the New England Patriots.

Let’s be clear, the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s New England Patriots have dominated Tomlin’s Steelers because they’ve been the better football team. As much as Steelers fans detest it, that’s the harsh “no ifs ands or butts” reality. But its hard to look at recent Steelers-Patriot history and not see that injuries have dominated the back stories:

Even before losing Le’Veon in the playoffs, the Steelers were already entering the game with Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates as their number 2, 3 and 4 wide receivers behind Antonio Brown.

Of course Martavis Bryant is back and the rest of the Steelers wide receiving corps is healthy going into the Patriots game (assuming JuJu Smith-Schuster plays) Le’Veon Bell (knock on wood) remains healthy. But it’s the Steelers defense that is ailing.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell went as far as to compare the trio charged with replacing Ryan Shazier, L.J. Fort, Tyler Matakevich and Sean Spence, to last year’s Hamliton, Rogers Coates troika. And at this point, Joe Haden’s status is unknown, meaning that rookie Cameron Sutton might make his first NFL start against Tom Brady.

  • So be it. Part of success or failure in NFL football lies in the ability to either overcome weaknesses or exploiting opportunities created injuries.

The New England Patriots, in fact, began the rivalry by doing just that when Drew Bledsoe stepped in for an injured Tom Brady in the 2001 AFC Championship game and decimated the Steelers secondary completing his first 4 passes including a touchdown that put the Patriots ahead 14 to 3.

The Steelers-Patriots 2017 regular season match up at Heinz Field gives Mike Tomlin and company a chance to flip that script.

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James Harrison vs Ravens – Baltimore Brings Out Best in Deebo. Mike Tomlin Must Play Him

James Harrison vs Ravens – Baltimore Brings Out Best in Deebo. Mike Tomlin Must Play Him

The Steelers Monday Night win against the Bengals may have been sobering and costly, but expect the Baltimore Ravens to show zero sympathy for Pittsburgh. While the Steelers have stayed a top the AFC North all season long, the Ravens have quietly been pulling themselves out of mediocrity.

  • Baltimore’s won 4 of their last five, including two 40 point performances and one shut out.

At the final gun of the Bengals game, the Steelers were without 3 starters on defense (Ryan Shazier, Mike MitchellJoe Haden)  and minus two starting backups ( Tyler Matakevich & Coty Sensabaugh) due to injury or under performance. Seany Spence’s return should give the Steelers some depth, if not stability at linebacker, but if ever there was a defense in need of an octane boost its this one.

James Harrison, Joe Flacco, Jason Worilds, Steelers vs Ravens, James Harrison sacks Baltimore

James Harrison closes in in Joe Flacco in the Steelers 2014 playoff game against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via Concord Monitor

Fortunately, Mike Tomlin has that option available to him and its as simple as this:

  • Play James Harrison as extensively as the Steelers defensive coverage needs will allow.

James Harrison should play against the Ravens, because James Harrison always brings his A+ game against Baltimore.

Even in the face of such a litany of high-profile performances, its easy to write of James Harrison’s record against the Ravens as sentimental and perhaps a by-product of yesteryear. But while James Harrison may get emotional charged up to play the Ravens, the call to play him more is supported by data.

See for yourself:

James Harrison vs Ravens, James Harrison sacks ravens, James Harrison vs AFC North

James Harrison vs Ravens – Deebo Brings is “A” Game. Always.

Numbers don’t lie.

James Harrison has an uncanny ability to “turn it up” against the Ravens, much the same way that Franco Harris could find a something extra for the playoffs. In fully 66% percent of his games, or two out of every 3, James Harrison has sacked a Baltimore Ravens quarterback.

Out of James Harrison’s 82.5 (and counting) career sacks, 19 or just under a quarter of them have come against the Baltimore Ravens. During his career, James Harrison has had 6 multi-sack games against the Ravens, with two of those coming since his “retirement.”

  • Playing good football goes beyond simply bringing down the quarterback .

But again, James Harrison’s numbers against the Ravens stand out. He averages 2.9 tackles per game against the Ravens, as opposed to 2.1 against the rest of NFL. His lone interception against Baltimore even exceeds is regular season average.

James Harrison, Joe Flacco, James Harrison strip sack Joe Flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers Ravens 2008 Heinz Field

James Harrison’s strip sack of rookie Joe Flacco in 2008 proved to be critical for Pittsburgh. Photo Credit: BaltimoreRavens.com

None of this is to suggest that T.J. Watt should ride the bench against the Ravens. T.J. Watt is having a strong year and has shown he can do damage in a number of ways. In just about every game he’s play, T.J. Watt has made a heads up, “Wow, and he’s only a rookie” type play. He’s clearly a player on the rise and a wise first round draft pick.

T.J. Watt brings and athleticism to the position that James Harrison probably could bring even in his prime. And T.J. Watt is an asset in coverage. The blunt truth is that at this point in his career, James Harrison is a liability in coverage.

  • So let’s say that Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Joey Porter are wise enough to know when to send James Harrison in and went to hold him out.

Although James Harrison signed a 2 year contract with the Steelers this spring, he’s 39 years old, and T.J. Watt and Anthony Chickillo’s emergence only bring Harrison closer to his “Life’s Work.” Ditto Bud Dupree (ok, maybe not….)

But James Harrison brings his best against Baltimore. Playing James Harrison against the Ravens at Heinz Field wouldn’t simply give him a chance to out with a bang, it would also improve the Steelers chances of winning.

#JustDoIt Mike Tomlin 

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win over Bengals: Sometimes Letter Grades Are Just Unimportant….

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who got a soberly brutal reminder that often times things like letter grades mean little in real life, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the MNF win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Antonio Brown, Kevin Minter, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers Bengals Monday Night Football, Steelers Bengals MNF,

Antonio Brown dodges Kevin Minter in the 4th quater of the Steelers MNF win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger’s final 24 for 40 for 2 touchdowns and 1 interception were pretty impressive on the night he passed the 50,000 yards mark. Yet Road Roethlisberger was in evidence early, and Ben struggled during the first half, as would be expected given the severity of Ryan Shazier’s injury. All things considered, Ben Roethlisberger had a very good night. Grade: B+

Running Backs
The Cincinnati Bengals limited Le’Veon Bell on the ground during much of the first half, but Le’Veon Bell did his damage through the air, and ultimately led the team in receptions, and piling up a respectable 76 yards on the ground. His heads up touchdown is what got Pittsburgh back in the game. James Conners played for a series and looked good on two runs, but got mauled on the third. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Jesse James caught one of two passes thrown his way and Xavier Grimble caught a 9 yard pass to set up a 4th and short on the Steelers 2nd field goal drive. The tight ends have been playing solid football, but neither man is Vance McDonald’s equivalent when it comes to blocking. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown arrived at Paul Brown Stadium without knowing whether he would start, but his toe injury wasn’t very apparent. William Jackson kept Brown in check during the first game, but Brown did his damage in the rematch, catching 8 passes for 101 yards and holding onto a touchdown in the face of a brutal hit. Martavis Bryant continues to emerge as a key possession-receiver type role, while JuJu Smith-Schuster caught four passes. Eli Rogers caught 1 of two passes thrown his way.  Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Steelers offensive line lost the battle at the line of scrimmage early in the game in terms of both run blocking and pass blocking. However, the second half was a different story as Ben Roethlisberger had time to throw, and Bell and Conner had room to run. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line has been a shining star of excellence so far this season, but the game at Paul Brown Stadium was not their finest hour. The Bengals controlled the line of scrimmage, particularly in the first half as their running backs averaged nearly 6 yards per carry and Andy Dalton had all day to throw. The line tightened things up somewhat in the first half, but with Shazier gone this unit is going to need to do even more. Grade: C

Bud Dupree, Andy Dalton, Stephon Tuitt, Steelers vs Bengals, Bud Dupree sack Dalton

Bud Dupree sacks Andy Dalton on 3rd down in Bengals final drive of the Steelers MNF win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Everyone knew going into the game that Ryan Shazier was the team’s best linebacker, but his loss highlights just how much he meant. In Shazier’s absence Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort struggled to stop running backs when they reached the second level.  Vince Williams got a sack on the Bengals 1st key series in the 4th quarter and Bud Dupree finished the last one with a sack, although Dupree let go of Dalton too early and it nearly cost the team. Grade: C+

Secondary
Robert Golden struggled in Mike Mitchell’s absence, and Coty Sensabaugh was so bad that the coaches replaced him with Cam Sutton. Cam Sutton got burn badly on a long touchdown that was called back, but his name wasn’t mentioned much for the rest of the night which is good, considering he was covering A.J. Green. Artie Burns deflected two passes and didn’t give up a long TD, while Sean Davis had seven tackles. The secondary struggled mightily early on but the Dalton failed to convert third downs in the second half. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Martavis Bryant continues to do well as a kick returner as his 96 yard return for a touchdown that was negated by a penalty shows. Eli Rogers was back on punt return duty, and also had a nice return negated by a touchdown. The Steelers coverage was solid. And Chris Boswell was a perfect 3 for 3 including yet another game winner at the buzzer. Grade: B

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals

Chris Boswell kicking the winning field goal as time expires in the Steelers MNF win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Coaching
IT would be easy to criticize the Steelers offense and defense for their sloppy first half performances and attempt to point the finger at the coaches as Colin Cowherd did.

  • But the team was clearly shaken by Shazier’s injury, as it should have been.

Todd Haley’s offense did what it needed to do in the second half, putting two touchdowns on the board and it got into position for Chris Boswell to kick field goals to close both halves. The Steelers defense looked lost after Shazier went down but Keith Butler‘s s boys made the necessary adjustments to hold the Bengals to 3 points in the second half.

And finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin. Nothing tests leadership like a crisis, and the Steelers were in crisis mode Monday Night against the Bengals. Mike Tomlin kept his team on an even keel, and had the courage to make a substitution at cornerback which probably helped and certainly didn’t hurt. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
During the second half, Bud Dupree got a hold of Andy Dalton but let go before he got him down, Dalton slipped away, but for a moment the entire Steelers defense seemed to lose the quarterback.

Such a situation could have had devastating consequences, were it not for the rookie linebacker who never lost track of Dalton, perused him and ultimately forced him to throw the ball away and for that T.J. Watt wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win against the Bengals.

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