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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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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Steelers Resign Sean Spence in Wake of Shazier, Matakevich Injuries

Injuries to Ryan Shazier and Tyler Matakevich have forced the Pittsburgh Steelers to resign Sean Spence.

The Steelers arrived a Paul Brown Stadium for their 23-20 Monday Night Football win over the Cincinnati Bengals with four healthy inside linebackers but left with only two.

In a move that has been rumored for over a day saw Pittsburgh Steelers resign Sean Spence, the inside linebacker whom they drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, kept on injured reserve during both the 2012 and 2013 campaign and who split time as a starter with Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams during 2014 and 2015.

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Sean Spence after securing a key fumble recovery in the Steelers 2014 win over the Houston Texans. Photo Credit: SteelersWire

When he finally returned to full health, Sean Spence did everything the Pittsburgh Steelers asked of him, as he started 13 games over two seasons, where he record 2 sacks, over 60 tackles and a key fumble recovery in a game against the Houston Texans.

  • Facing a crowded inside linebacking depth chart, Sean Spence rejoined Dick LeBeau during the 2016 off season.

However, despite the his familiarity with the Dick LeBeau’s system, Spence only managed to start six games for the Titans, although he appeared in 15 contests where he recorded 3 more sacks, defensed 3 passes and forced a fumble.

During the 2017 off season, Dale Lolley mentioned that the Steelers might be intersted in bringing Spence back as a backup, but Spence instead signed with the Indianapolis Colts. However, Spence only saw action in 3 games with the Colts and found himself on the waiver wire back in October.

It is unknown whether Sean Spence will have a chance to start in place of L.J. Fort or, should his health allow Tyler Matakevich, but his presence does free the Steelers from the need of having to prep Arthur Moats, who has inside linebacking experience, to do emergency duty there.

While the fact that Sean Spence was still available in early December should raise a yellow caution flag, the Steelers know him well and Sean Spence knows Keith Butler and Jerry Olsavsky.

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Ryan Shazier’s Spinal Contusion Sobers Reaction to Steelers 23-20 Win over Bengals

The Steelers 23-20 Monday Night Football win over the Cincinnati Bengals will spark debates and discussions for a long time. Unfortunately, this is one game that people will remember for the wrong reasons.

  • Football is a contact sport, and an often a brutal one.

On one level, there’s often something beautiful about this, as athleticism, precision, strategy, teamwork and pure force combine to form the ultimate test of wills. If the movie Concussion is accurate, even Dr. Bennet Omalu’s wife Prema Mutiso concurs.

  • Last Christmas, the Steelers and Ravens treated the world to an example of the NFL at its best.
  • On Monday Night Football, the Steelers and the Bengals treated the world to an example of the NFL at its worst.

One can argue whether this was simply a hard hitting game or a dirty game. A little bit of both is true, and both teams bear responsibility. Regardless, Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion shows just how a big of a risk players take and how high of a toll the game extracts.

It’s hard, and it some lights feels almost inappropriate to focus on football in a context like this, but solider on we will.

George Lloka, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Bengals

George Lloka drills Antonio Brown as he scores the Steelers 2nd touchdown in a brutal game against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Rocky III Reenacted on the Gridiron

A good friend of mine and founding member of the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Buenos Aires sees himself as an old-fashioned Cold Warrior, and I’ve often joked  that the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Miracle On Ice equals Rocky IV in real life.

  • If that’s the case then the Steelers first half vs the Bengals provided the football equivalent of Rocky III.

If you’ll remember, in the movie right before the first fight, Clubber Lang takes out Micky, Rocky fights anyway but is clearly out of sorts and gets KOed as a result. That pretty much sums up the Steelers first half against the Bengals.

To be sure, Road Ben Roethlisberger started the game for the Steelers, but Ryan Shazier got hurt 3 plays after Ben’s first interception.

After that, the next 24 and a half minutes belonged to the Cincinnati Bengals. You wouldn’t exaggerate if you argued that the Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t looked as aimless since the dark days of the 1998 and 1999 late season melt downs under Bill Cowher.

  • Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt got dominated at the line of scrimmage, leading to…
  • Tyler Matakevich aka, “Dirty Red,” looking clearly out of his depth ,as Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon ran up the middle at will
  • Coty Sensabaugh proved that the long touchdowns he’s given up since taking over for Joe Haden were no fluke

Indeed, Coty Sensabaugh looked to be playing the role of a tormented child struggling to catch a bar of ice cream tossed between Andy Dalton and A.J. Green in cruel game of keep away.

Steelers vs Bengals, A.J. Green, Robert Golden, Coty Sensabaugh

A.J. Green catches a touchdown pass as Robert Golden and Coty Sensabaugh can do little more than watch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The Steelers offense was just as unfocused. Martavis Bryant dropped another catchable long bomb, Antonio Brown dropped a would-be touchdown pass, Le’Veon Bell couldn’t find room to run, the offensive line gave up a sack on 3rd down, and Ben Roethlisberger threw several near interceptions.

When Andy Dalton connected with A.J. Green for their second touchdown of the night with 0:45 left in the first half, it looked as if both a blowout and a shut out were in the making.

Comeuppance for Tomlin Clock Management Critics

Steel Curtain Rising has already challenged the conventional wisdom by complementing Mike Tomlin’s clock management skills, but the Bengals game adds new fuel to the fire.

After getting torched on the road during a cold, rainy Monday for another touchdown on a night after you’ve lost your most dynamic player and your down by 3 scores, taking a knee when you’ve got 26 seconds left in the half must be appealing head coach.

  • As long as that head coach isn’t Mike Tomlin.

Tomlin ordered his offense to go for it, and a heads up play by Le’Veon Bell, combined by a foolish pass interference penalty by the Bengals allowed the Steelers to get into position for Chris Boswell to knock in a 30 yard field goal.

17-3 at the half isn’t pretty, but it sure beats 17-0.

Steelers Rally, Show Resiliency in 2nd Half

It would be easy to look at the Steelers offense’s 17 point second half and credit them for the comeback. And the offense did play much better in the final 30 minutes which were highlighted by:

  • An offensive line protected Ben Roethlisberger well an opened holes for Bell and James Conner
  • Le’Veon Bell’s heads up, play to the whistle touchdown while Cincinnati snoozed
  • A pass interference call set drawn by Martavis Bryant that set up Chris Boswell’s first field goal
  • An incredibly tough touchdown catch by Antonio Brown as he got KOed by George Lloka

The real story of the second half, however, was the Steelers defense. The unit began the night without Joe Haden and Mike Mitchell, lost Ryan Shazier 3 plays into the night, and lost Tyler Matakevich a few plays into the 3rd quarter, leaving L.J. Fort as their last healthy reserve linebacker.

Andy Dalton, Vince Williams, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Bengals, Vince Williams sack Andy Dalton

Vince Williams sack of Andy Dalton keyed the Steelers most important defensive stand of the night. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Having seen enough of Coty Sensabaugh, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler started the rookie Cam Sutton in the second half. At one point it looked like a preseason game as Arthur Moats, Anthony Chickillo were also seen on the field along with Fort and Sutton.

  • Despite that, the Steelers defense persevered as the Bengals fell apart, particularly on third downs.

After the Steelers pulled to within a touchdown, Vince Williams spearheaded the key defensive series as he charged untouched on 1st down to sack Andy Dalton. That led to a three and out, which in turn set up the Steelers touchdown drive.

  • Bud Dupree closed the night with another sack of Dalton, forcing a punt with 2:48 remaining.

For those looking to complain about clock management, look no further than Tim Lewis who allowed the Steelers to burn up over 2 minutes of time before using his time outs. By the time Chris Boswell was kicking the game winner, time had expired.

A Word about JuJu

The NFL has suspended Steelers rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster for his hit on Vontaze Burfict. Looking at the replay, yours truly concurs with those who argue that JuJu’s hit, while illegal, wasn’t intentional.

  • But his standing and gloating over Burfict is unacceptable and appalling.

Knowing what we now know about CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy), we can argue about whether the NFL’s defenseless receiver, no helmet to helmet hit and concussion protocol amount to real protections for players or mere window dressing.

That’s besides the point. This isn’t 1989 when ESPN PrimeTime would lead with footage of Thomas Everett knocking out  Al Toon out with a concussion followed by Greg Lloyd by giving Toon a WWE style three count. JuJu Smith-Schuster should know better, and for that alone he’s earned his suspension.

Nice that Steelers Won, But….

This was another game that shouldn’t have been close on paper but that went down to the wire. The Steelers have been in several of these, yet they keep managing to come out on top.

While it’s nice that the Steelers won, seeing Ryan Shazier carted out on the back board with his hands covering his face casts a pall over everything and reminds us that the most important outcome of this game has nothing to do with the score.

Get well soon Ryan, our thoughts and prayers are yours.

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Steelers Report Card for the Chiefs Win – Enjoying the Manic Side of Schizophrenia

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is enjoying the manic surge of his schizophrenic students, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2017 win over the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs. Chiefs, Daniel Sorensen, Steelers Report Card Chiefs

Daniel Sorensen’s bobble is Antonio Brown’s bounty in the Steelers win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
There’s no doubt that Ben Roethlisberger was better than he was last week against the Jaguars and perhaps than he’s been better before. Fewer passes sailed on him, and if he got lucky on his touchdown pass, he also was unlucky yon his one interception. Still, if reports are correct, Roethlisberger check out of run plays in the Red Zone and the team could not convert. The Steelers also struggled on third downs. Grade: C

Running Back
Le’Veon Bell’s Hall of Fame caliber talent had been missing all year…. Until he stepped on to the turf at Arrowhead. How good was Le’Veon Bell? Try the Steelers running the ball on 3rd and 9 and converting. Le’Veon Bell ran for 179 yards on 32 carries and willed his way into the end zone. James Conner ran twice for 14 yards while Terrell Watson converted a third and short. And let’s not forget that Roosevelt Nix paved the way for much of the day. Grade: A+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald’s taken a lot of criticism since arriving here via trade, but he made his presence felt as a blocker, and caught a critical 26 yard pass while the Steelers were in the end zone. Jesse James didn’t have a pass thrown his way, but the running backs don’t have the kind of day they did if the tight ends fail to block. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Is there any doubt that Antonio Brown is the NFL’s best wide receiver? There should be none in Steelers Nation. Antonio Brown’s 51 yard touchdown has to rank as one of his top career catches, which says a lot. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 3 passes for 32 yards and is showing himself to be an effective blocker. Martavis Bryant caught two passes for 27 yards. Thus far Ben Roethlisberger has only established a rapport with 84, and we’ll err on the side of assuming that the responsibly lies with him and not the other receivers. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
When you pay 23 million plus to field an offensive line, this is the type of road grading that you expect to see. Le’Veon Bell wasn’t simply better, so were the men up front. Whether it was Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro pulling or Alejandro Villanueva protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side, the Steelers offensive line got it done. The third down sack that the Steelers allowed which ended Pittsburgh’s first drive is the unit’s lone blemish. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line didn’t produce the kind of numbers that make fantasy owners happy (to the extent that Fantasy Football even bothers with defense), but it would be fool hardy to overlook the devastating performance of Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. The Steelers defense neutered the NFL’s leading rusher, and they made it look easy. That starts with the boys up front. Stephon Tuitt also had a critical pass defensed late in the game. Grade: A

Linebackers
In case anyone had any doubts, James Harrison proved that age hasn’t robbed him of his decisive, play making capability, as Harrison downed Alex Smith on the penultimate play. Vince Williams was playing as a one-man wrecking crew racking up 2 sacks, 2 QB hits and 2 tackles behind the line of scrimmage before getting injured. Ryan Shazier had 4 tackles and got his hands on Smith’s last pass. Tyler Matakevich looked good in relief of Williams. An excellent day by the Steelers linebackers. Grade: A

Secondary
Mike Hilton had another fine day coming in with two tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Hilton may be small, but he simply makes plays. Joe Haden got his hand on a pass, but otherwise was invisible… which is good for a corner. Artie Burns stepped up to break up two key passes early on, although he blew the coverage and missed a tackle on the Chief’s touchdown drive. Mike Mitchell also caused a costly roughing the passer play (although he might have been pushed by Anthony Chickillo). The Steelers secondary had a good day, but the Chief’s 4th quarter touchdown surge drops their grade a notch. Grade: B

Special Teams
Jordan Berry had a strong day punting, and Chris Boswell hit all of his kicks, but other than that the Steelers special teams did little to distinguish themselves. First, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster had a miscue after the Steelers safety which had the net effect of turning a 2 point advantage into a 1 point deficit. Then Brown almost muffed a fair catch. The Chiefs also had a 32 yard punt return late in the game which brought Kansas City to midfield for his final drive. These special teams mishaps could have been more costly. Grade: D

Coaching
The Haley haters who’ve been clamoring to see more Roosevelt Nix and rushing out of the I-Formation got their wish. The Steelers ran the ball early and often and with great effectiveness. Nonetheless, too many drives stall in the end zone, and the Steelers offense is struggling to convert 3rd downs.

  • The Steelers offense found a way to win, but the unit only managed to put 17 points on the board.

Keith Butler had his unit primed and ready to play. The Steelers went into the living room of the NFL’s best offense and completely shut them down in the first half – had it been a amateur wrestling matching the defense would have scored a technical fall. While its true that Kansas City’s late touchdown came a little too easily, it is also true that the Steelers defense got stuck defending a short field with two minutes left to play and completely stone walled the Chiefs.

Mike Tomlin certainly deserves criticism for the up and down nature of the Steelers performances this season, but Pittsburgh’s hardly provides a unique case in 2017’s NFL. Losses such as the one against the Jaguars and have a nasty ripple effect (see November/December 2009), yet Mike Tomlin prevented that by arriving at Arrowhead with a strong game plan whose execution more than anything else revolved around controlling the line of scrimmage. The Pittsburgh Steelers won those battles, and won the game because of it. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
This gentleman’s been quiet thus far in 2017 and in fact has been called out for lapses in any number of post-game film analysis on several occasions. But he’ll earn no such criticism from the Jon Leydard’s of the world this week, as he led the team in tackles, and came away with a critical pass defense in the end zone on 4th and Goal. For that Sean Davis wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Chiefs.

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Byrant & Heyward Lock in Dead Heat in Steelers-Vikings Poll

There wasn’t alot of drama behind the Steelers-Vikings game ball voting, as it came down to a tale of two studs on each side of the ball.

Martavis Bryant, Cameron Heyward, Steelers vs Broncos,

Martavis Byrant high fives Cam Heyward in the Steelers 2016 playoff loss to Denver. Photo Credit: David Zalubowski, AP via Pro Football Weekly

Cameron Heyward and Martavis Bryant ended the poll deadlocked with 12 votes a piece.Steelers Vikings Game ball results, Martavis Bryant, Cameron Heyward

Credit the citizens of Steelers Nation for being smarter than the proverbial average bear on this one. Support for Martavis Bryant is obvious here, factor in the pass interference penalties and as Bryant’s 3 catch, 91 yard efforts in the Steelers win over the Vikings broaches the level of being dominant.

Things with Cam Heyward aren’t so clear. In an age when the fantasty football mentality dominates too many fans, Heyward’s effort against the Vikings looks rather ho hum, as it is absent “Splash” plays to speak of. But Heyward dominated against the Vikings, stopping several runs at the line of scrimmage, and disrupting their running game consistently by rerouting runners.

  • After that, referee Eddie Morelli was the next highest vote getter with four, followed by 3 for Chris Boswell.

Boswell scored 14 points in the game, giving the Steelers all but 3 of their margin of victory so its a tad bit surprising that he didn’t do better. Ben Roethlisberger also earned 3 votes as did Eli Rogers. Ryan Shazier polled two votes while Bud Dupree got one.

That’s a bit surprising. Tyler Matakevich had his second big special teams play in as many weeks while Vince Williams had a big game on the inside and helped cut off the middle of the field for the Vikings – Williams has come a long way since his first start in the disastrous London Loss to the Vikings.

Mike Hilton, who had a strong game, earned a write-in vote, as did James Harrison who didn’t take a snap. Thanks again to all how voted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin,

Steelers head coach Mike Tomiln. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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