Guess Again: No, Steelers Didn’t Cut Diontae Spencer In Favor Of Ryan Switzer

Like every other NFL team, the Steelers had to reduce their roster down to 53 players on Saturday in the annual league-wide mandated cut-down day.

  • There weren’t any shockers, for sure, but there may have been a mild surprise or two.
  • One cut that may, I say, may, have shocked some people was the cutting of CFL punt-return sensation, Diontae Spencer.

After putting together a couple of All-Star worthy seasons up in Canada, many believed Diontae Spencer could be the answer to Pittsburgh’s less-than-stellar punt return game over the past couple of seasons. Yes, with now former receiver Antonio Brown getting phased out of that part of the game over his final few seasons in Pittsburgh, the Steelers just couldn’t find anyone to bring the occasional spark to punt returns like Brown did.

Ryan Switzer was decent enough in 2018, after Pittsburgh acquired him in a trade with the Raiders right before the start of the regular season, but Spencer’s resume suggested he could be a level or two above merely decent.

And while he wasn’t the story of the preseason, Diontae Spencer did show enough in two or three of his punt returns to make it clear that he was the closest thing to a true play-maker, difference-maker, that the team had on its roster.

But Diontae Spencer’s talents in the return game weren’t enough to keep him on the roster, especially when he was so limited as a receiver and, at 5’8″, 163 pounds, a gunner-type player on special teams.

Daryl Drake obituary, Daryl Drake, Diontae Spencer
Diontae Spencer and Daryl Drake at practice. Photo Credit: Diontae Spencer’s Twitter feed.

 

It also didn’t help Spencer’s case that the Steelers only kept five receivers. That is what really doomed him. It wasn’t a matter of Pittsburgh keeping Switzer over Spencer. It was a matter of camp sensations such as outside linebacker Tuzar Skipper and inside linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III simply being way too good to cut or risk signing to the practice squad.

If the special teams abilities of Tyler Matakevich and Anthony Chickillo were deemed to be very valuable despite the limitations each displayed at their respective positions, sacrifices were going to have to be made elsewhere, hence the decision to part ways with a one-trick pony punt-returner.

When you really think about it, under no circumstances would a player as limited as Spencer make a receiving corps made up of just five players. If Switzer was suddenly considered disposable, it’s unlikely Spencer would have been the first receiver to get the nod as the fifth. My guess is Johnny Holton, who brought much more to the table as both a receiver and an all-around special teams player, would have gotten the nod.

  • Is Ryan Switzer less spectacular as a return man than Spencer was during his short stay?

Yes. But he’s much more capable as a receiver (and it also doesn’t hurt that Ben Roethlisberger has endorsed his abilities). You also have to remember that Diontae Johnson, a rookie receiver the Steelers selected in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, may yet grow into the role of punt returner while he hones his game at his actual position.

  • Finally, while the role of punt returner is a valuable one, it’s not nearly as valuable as that of a player who can wear many hats.

Diontae Spencer wore just one hat in Pittsburgh, and that’s why he’s out shopping for another NFL team.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers Report Card Following Pittsburgh’s 17-7 Preseason Win vs. Chiefs

The Pittsburgh Steelers extended their 2019 preseason winning streak to 2-0 with a 17-7 win over the Kansas City Chiefs at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Staff writer Tony Defeo delivers his Report Card where he pulls no punches as he “calls it as he sees it.”

mason rudolph, steelers vs chiefs preseason, Darron Lee

Mason Rudolph evades Darron Lee. Photo Credit: Barry Reger, AP, PennLive.com

Quarterback
For the second-straight game, Ben Roethlisberger did not dress. Mason Rudolphstarted and played the majority of the first half. Like a week earlier, Rudolph looked much more confident and comfortable in Randy Fichtner’s offense. On the night, he completed 10 of 15 passes for 77 yards. His night could have been even better, had he not been victimized by some drops and fumbles.

Joshua Dobbs entered the game late in the second quarter and, much like last week, he found James Washington downfield on a 43-yard pass. Late in the first half, just one play after hitting Eli Rogers on a pretty 25-yard pass, Dobbs was intercepted in the end zone on a high throw that was intended for rookie Diontae Johnson. As for Devlin Hodges, the rookie from Samford entered the game early in the fourth quarter and completed just two of four passes. However, one of those passes was a pretty 24-yard touchdown to the rookie Johnson. Grade: B+

Running BacksSteelers, Report Card, grades,
James Conner got the start, and put in a workman like performance, with six carries for 28 yards. Second-year man Jaylen Samuels looked really good, as he tallied four carries for 26 yards and a 14-yard touchdown. As for Benny Snell Jr., the rookie from Kentucky carried seven times for 16 yards. But even though it was another quiet night, he did look decent on blitz pick ups. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet night for JuJu Smith-Schuster, who started the game but didn’t have any receptions. As for Washington, the second-year man continued to shine, tallying four receptions for 78 yards. Donte Moncrief, the veteran free agent pick-up fumbled the only pass that he caught on the night.

After missing the Buccaneers game with an injury, the rookie Dionte Johnson had a bit of a coming-out party, catching three passes for 46 yards and a touchdown. Johnson would have had another score, but it was called back on a very questionable offensive pass interference penalty. Eli Rogers kept his hat in the ring in the competition for the slot receiver role, with two catches for 31 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Veteran Vance McDonald started and had just five yards on one reception that he fumbled out of bounds. Xavier Grimble didn’t do much to inspire hope that he can be the number two tight end, catching one pass for 13 yards and showing the old alligator arms while dropping another. Rookie Kevin Rader had two receptions for 20 yards, but he also committed a holding penalty. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Most of the starters played and put in a good night’s work. As for the work put in at right tackle by Chukwuma Okorafor, the second-year man from Western Michigan continued to struggle in his bid to win the swing-tackle job, and he was beaten badly on the Chiefs’ lone sack on the night. Grade: B

Defensive Line
There were no standout performers on the defensive line, but Stephon Tuitt started his first game of the preseason, while Javon Hargrave started his second. Rookie Isaiah Buggs recorded two tackles, while Daniel McCullers, the veteran whose job he could possibly take, did nothing noteworthy. Grade: C

Linebackers
Rookie sensation Devin Bush was held out of the Chiefs’ game for unspecified reasons, but the linebackers continued to shine, especially the outside linebackers. Starting his first game of the preseason, Bud Dupree may have had the best night of his career–preseason or otherwise–as he recorded three quarterback hits, two sacks and a pass defensed. He was a handful all night, as was T.J. Watt, who seemed to be in the backfield often and recorded two quarterback hits. As for Tuzar Skipper, the undrafted rookie continued to push for a spot on the roster by posting a sack and recovering a fumble. Mark Barron started again at inside linebacker and looked decent in pass coverage. Tyler Matakevich also started and led the defense in tackles with seven. He didn’t look so hot in pass coverage, as he had a hard time keeping up with Chiefs tight end Deon Yelder on a 25-yard catch and run. Rookie Ulysees Gilbert III had another active night, posting four tackles. Grade: A

Secondary
Joe Haden did not start. Veteran free-agent pick-up Steven Nelson did and looked decent in coverage. Surprisingly, so did fourth-year man Artie Burns, who started at corner, opposite Nelson. Burns had one pass defensed and forced a fumble while making a tackle in run support. Mike Hilton didn’t dazzle in pass coverage, but he was his usual disruptive self while blitzing. Cam Sutton recorded two tackles–including one for loss–but was victimized in coverage on Kansas City’s lone touchdown. As for the safeties, Sean Davis got his first start of the preseason, posting two tackles and recovering a fumble. Jordan Dangerfield posted two tackles, while Kam Kelly had one. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell didn’t have any field goal attempts on the night, but he did convert on both of his extra point tries. Matthew Wright connected on his lone field goal try from 46 yards away.

Jordan Berry averaged 45.7 yards on three punts, while Ian Berryman averaged 36 on two, downing one inside the 20.

It was a quiet night for kick-returner Johnny Holton, who averaged 36 yards on two returns. The rookie Johnson nearly fumbled while fielding his first punt and only tallied 11 yards on three returns. As for Diontae Spencer, he again looked like a real find, returning two for 49 yards–including one for 38. Grade: B

Unsung Hero
It’s hard not to go with Artie Burns for the night he turned in.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Report Card for Steelers 2019 First Preseason Win Over Tampa Bay

The Steelers started off their 2019 season on the right foot with a 30-28 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Heinz Field. Here our how everyone graded out on our Report Card. 

Devin Bush Jr., Steelers preseason debut, Peyton Barber

Devin Bush stops Peyton Barber cold. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterbacks

To the surprise of no one, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t start for the Steelers as they took on the Buccaneers at Heinz Field Friday night in the first preseason action of 2019. Joshua Dobbs did, and he was succeeded by Mason Rudolph, who was succeeded by growing camp darling, Delvin Hodges. Dobbs probably looked the shakiest, as he completed five of eight passes for 85 yards. However, he did look great while hooking up with James Washington on a 43-yard strike early in the first quarter.

  • Dobbs also showed off his running prowess, as he set up a field goal with a 36-yard scramble in the second quarter.

Mason Rudolph came on in the second quarter and also completed five of eight passes but for 91 yards and two scores. Rudolph’s first touchdown pass came on a beautiful back-shoulder throw to Washington late in the first half. He showed great patience on his second, as he found rookie tight end Zach Gentry alone in the back of the end zone early in the third quarter.

As for Hodges, he completed 8 of 14 passes for 79 yards and an eight-yard touchdown strike to Tevin Jones early in the fourth quarter. Overall, it was a decent performance by all three youngsters, as they battle it out for the roles of backup and third-string quarterback. Grade: B-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2018season

Running Backs

There was nothing to write home about, as James Conner sat out the night’s action, and Joshua Dobbs was actually the leading rusher with 44 yards on two carries. Rookie fourth-round pick, Benny Snell Jr. got the bulk of the action, gaining 26 yards on 13 attempts, while posting another 25 yards on two receptions. As for Jaylen Samuels, the second-year man carried just twice for 21 yards, while Trey Edmunds, Terrell’s brother, carried five times for 19 yards. Grade: C

Wide Receivers

Obviously, Washington stood out, as he showed great hands and body-control, while pulling in four passes for 84 yards and a touchdown. Johnny Holton, the return specialist the Steelers signed this summer, put himself on the radar with two receptions for 69 yards–including a dazzling 59-yard catch and run early in the third quarter that set up a touchdown. Tevin Jones and Diontae Spencer were the only other contributors among the receiving corps, as they caught three passes apiece for 24 and 17 yards, respectively. Grade: B-

Tight Ends

Xavier Grimble didn’t see much action, while Zack Gentry caught three passes for 17 yards and a score. Kevin Radar, battling for the third tight end spot, fumbled on his lone catch of the night. Grade: C

Offensive Line

Naturally, most of the veterans got the night off. As for the subs, many of whom are trying to break through as super reserves, they did fairly well in pass protection, only allowing two sacks on the night and very little pressure. But the running game didn’t benefit from many holes. Grade: C

Defensive Line

Javon Hargrave was the only starter to see action. Veteran reserve Tyson Alualu was penalized for roughing the passer on what looked like a questionable call. As for rookie sixth-round pick, Isaiah Buggs, he posted three tackles and recovered a fumble. Grade: C

Linebackers

It was a promising debut for inside linebacker Devin Bush, as he led the team in tackles with 10 and was in on a lot of the action all night. Tyler Matakevich forced a fumble on a sack. And Ulysees Gilbert III, a sixth-round pick from Akron, made a bit of a splash in his debut, recording 1.5 sacks and intercepting a pass on a two-point conversion. Ola Adeniyi combined with Bush to stop the Buccaneers short on a running play on fourth and one in the second quarter. Grade: B+

Secondary

Terrell Edmunds was the only regular who started in the secondary. Justin Layne, the rookie third-round corner from Michigan State, played a considerable amount and recorded eight tackles, but he missed one on the Buccaneers’ first touchdown of the night. Grade: C-

Special Teams

Chris Boswell carried his great camp over into his first preseason game, connecting on both of his field goal tries–including one from 47 yards out–and his lone extra point attempt. As for Matthew Wright, he made his lone field goal attempt from 42 yards away and connected on both of his extra point tries. Diontae Spencer returned two punts for 52 yards–including one for 30. As for the punters, incumbent Jordan Berry averaged 44.5 yards on two kicks, while Ian Berryman’s lone punt traveled 66 yards. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero

Tyler Matakevich. While he’s always been a special teams ace, Matakevich has never shown much at his actual position of inside linebacker. But he did record a strip-sack on Friday that was recovered by the Steelers.

 

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Redskins Sign Jon Bostic. Did Steelers Err in Cutting Him? Probably Not. But….

News that the Washington Redskins had signed former Steelers linebacker Jon Bostic once again reinforced the notion the timing is everything in the NFL.

Not quite 3 hours elapsed between Pittsburgh picking Derwin Grey to wrap up their 2019 draft class and the announcement that they’d signed their initial 2019 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent class. 2 minutes later the hammer fell: The Steelers cut Jon Bostic.

That set this blogger into motion, penning a missive wondering whether the Steelers had made a mistake. Of course thanks to the 12 hour work day, the article never saw the light of day. Until now, thanks to boys in Ashburn, Virginia.

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

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

The fact that the Washington wasted little time following the loss of Ruben Foster suggests that the rest of the league sees Jon Bostic belongs in the NFL. Yet, that doesn’t validate my initial gut reaction that letting Jon Bostic wasn’t the right thing to do. Before diving deeper, let’s get two things out of the way:

  1. I’m a certified sucker for underdog stories of players like Jon Bostic.
  2. The Steelers tried to replace Ryan Shazier with a combination of Bostic, Morgan Burnett and subpackages
  3. And they failed.

There’s no arguing the final point. Sure the Steelers defense did improve more than is generally acknowledged by season’s end – See the victory over the Patriots and the should have been victory over the Saints.

However, story of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s 2019 is that the duo has set out to essentially undo its mistakes from 2018. Clearly, the Steelers braintrust do not see the B’s, Bostic and Burnett, as crucial for sustaining that improvement in 2019.

Perhaps they’re on to something. Jon Bostic was already losing snaps in favor of L.J. Fort by the time Pittsburgh played New England and New Orleans.

  • His snap percentages in those two games were 24.2 and 27.3, well below his season average of 52%.

Finally, a Steelers inside linebacker depth chart that reads, Mark Barron, Vince Williams, Devin Bush certainly beats one that reads, Vince Williams, Jon Bostic, and L.J. Fort.

  • So the case for cutting Jon Bostic appears pretty convincing, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe it does. But that doesn’t mean that Jon Bostic didn’t add value to the Steelers in 2018. He his sure tackling and stout work against the run helped shore up shaky run defense. In late November, voters looked poised to send Bostic to the Pro Bowl, and as Sean Gentille reported, Pro Football Focus liked him at the time.

The main argument for reserving a roster spot for Jon Bostic on the 2019 Steelers would have been the depth he could have offered. Should something happen to two of the Steelers top three inside linebackers, there’s no question that Jon Bostic would be a better option than Tyler Matakevich.

Ah, but there’s the rub. Tyler Matakevich will only cost the Steelers $720,000 against the salary cap this year. Sutton Smith and Ulysees Gilbert will cost them even less.

  • Jon Bostic was set to make 2.5 million in Pittsburgh this year.

By letting Jon Bostic go the Steelers saved 1.8 million dollars, money that can be used to resign Joe Haden or perhaps pick up a veteran tight end of safety. So maybe money, and not timing, is everything in the NFL?

Either way, Steel Curtain Rising thanks Jon Bostic for his brief service to the Steelers and wishes him well in Washington.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers Draft Ulysees Gilbert III, ILB, Akron in 6th Round. Time for Tyler Matakevich to Look Over His Shoulder?

A year ago, everyone predicted a defensive draft for the Steelers. They didn’t get one. In 2019 the refrain remained the same and Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin delivered, using their third 6th round pick on defense, as the Steelers drafted Ulysees Gilbert III, Inside Linebacker, Akron.

Ulysees Gilbert III played for four years at the University of Arkon, appearing in 45 games, making 475 tackles and recording 8.5 sacks. As a Junior he had 3 interceptions, including on pick six and deflected 4 passes.

Uylsees Gilbert III, Steelers draft Ulysees Gilbert

Steelers pick Akron’s Ulyesse’s Gilbert in the 6th round. Photo Credit: Jeff Harwell, Akron Athletic

While Ulysees Gilbert will need to prove that he can play in Keith Butler’s defense, to secure a roster spot he’ll need to show he can make an immediate impact on special teams.

Vince Williams, Mark Barron and 1st round pick Devin Bush have locks on roster spots at inside linebacker. Jon Bostic will likely prove to be difficult to dislodge. However, Tyler Matakevich should probably be looking over his shoulder this evening.

A year ago coaches were talking up Tyler Matakevich and penciled him as the top candidate to replace Ryan Shazier. Fast forward 12 months, and the Steelers have just made the boldest draft day trade in franchise history to pick someone at his position, and then their penultimate pick at inside linebacker.

Tyler Matakevich however, has played a key role on the Steelers special teams. Steelers inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky seemed to confirm that Gilbert will need to shine on special teams when he told reporters: “In today’s game, a lot of inside linebackers have to be special teamers.”

But as Olsavsky clarified what the Steelers really liked about Gilbert was “His movement. He could really cover a lot of ground, sideline to sideline and he’ll hit you. That’s what we look for. If you like to run around and hit people, you know you’re good for us.”

Here is a clip of highlights from Ulysees Gilbert’s junior year, which statistically speaking was his best:

Gotta love the retro look with the black and white film.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Ulysees Gilbert.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers 2019 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs – Time to Strengthen Defense’s Center

Can a football team do something so well, for so long that when something suddenly goes wrong it doesn’t know how to react?

  • That might be what has happened to the Steelers at inside linebacker.

Think about it. Jack Lambert was the Steelers first inside linebacker after Chuck Noll made the switch to the 3-4 in the early 80’s. Since then, whether David Little, Levon Kirkland, James Farrior or Lawrence Timmons has been playing, inside linebacker has been a solid spot on the Steelers depth chart, if not a strength.

  • All that changed with Ryan Shazier went down and the Steelers defense has been reeling since.

The Steelers were supposed to address the need in the 2018 NFL Draft. They did not. Will the 2019 NFL Draft be different?

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

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

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

Vince Williams is the dean of the Steelers linebacking crops boasting 93 NFL games and 47 starts. The 6th round draft pick out of Florida State is in the what you see is what you get stage of his career.

Vince Williams doesn’t have the athleticism that will scare opposing offensive coordinators, but he does bring a motor that doesn’t stop and a craving for hard hits and contact. While you don’t want Vince Williams dropping too deep into coverage, he’s strong against the run and can get to the quarterback as his 12 sacks in two years as a starter prove.

  • Beside Vince Williams, the Steelers have free agent Mark Barron.

Mark Barron brings athleticism that Vince Williams lacks and as a former safety can occupy the increasingly important Dime Linebacker role that Morgan Burnett rejected. A quick look at Barron’s stat sheet doesn’t suggest anything spectacular, but he offers the Steelers a solid presence.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

For most of Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers inside linebacker depth has been the envy of the league. In 2015 or so, Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola described it as “obscene.” But that was then. Now tells a different tale.

Behind their starters, the Steelers only have one linebacker who has proven himself, and that man is Jon Bostic, the free agent Kevin Colbert brought to Pittsburgh a year ago. Jon Bostic started for the bulk of 2018.

And while Jon Bostic was no Ryan Shazier (no one expected him to) he proved himself to be a solid tackler. Coverage never was Jon Bostic’s forte, however, he proved to be better than expected.

  • Still, that was not enough for the Steelers defense.

Bostic could not give the Steelers a 3 down presence at inside linebacker, and found himself splitting time with L.J. Fort as the season wore on.

The Steelers also have Tyler Matakevich at inside linebacker. As former 7th round pick Tyler Matakevich is an NFL player in the mold of his coach Jerry Olsavsky – One who lacks the measurables but makes up for it in heart and football sense.

Unfortunately, Matakevich got hurt a few plays after Ryan Shazier, but coaches continued to express their confidence in him during the 2018 off season. However, when the dust settled following training camp and preseason, Matakevich found himself 3rd on the depth chart behind Bostic and Fort.

The Steelers 2019 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin did the right thing in aggressively addressing the Steelers need at inside linebacker through free agency, a move both men probably wish they’d taken a year earlier.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

By adding Mark Barron to their roster, the Steelers have avoided putting themselves into the position of having to either selling out to get Devin White or Devin Bush or reaching for need in the first round.

But if bringing Mark Barron on provides the roster with some immediate relief, it does little to address the Steelers need to find a long-term playmaker to occupy the center of their defense. Strength at the center of the Steelers defense, think Casey HamptonJames FarriorRyan Clark is vital to the unit’s success.

The Steelers need to strengthen that center, and they need to do it in the 2019 NFL Draft which means their need at inside linebacker should be considered High-Moderate.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

L.J. Fort Played Well for Steelers in 2018. Can He Cash in Free Agency?

Inside linebacker has been a position of need for the Pittsburgh Steelers since December 4th 2018 when Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal contusion against the Cincinnati Bengals. The injury sent the Steelers scrambling to fill a gaping hole in the middle of their defense. In short order the Steelers have tried:

L.J. Fort was a beneficiary of all of these misfires, because they earned him his first real playing time. How well did he take advantage of that opportunity? The bottom line will reveal itself soon as L.J. Fort reaches free agency.

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

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

Capsule Profile of  L.J. Fort’s Steelers Career

L.J. Fort was an undrafted free agent out of Northern Iowa in 2012 and worked his way through several NFL teams–including the Browns, Broncos, Seahawks, Bengals and Patriots — before finding a more secure home with Pittsburgh in 2015.

After being used mostly as a special teams player during his first few seasons while dealing with a loaded depth chart at inside linebacker — Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams ate up the majority of snaps in 2016 and 2017 — L.J. Fort began to see more playing time near the end of 2017 in the wake of the tragic spinal injury suffered by Shazier in early December.

2018 was a minor watershed year for L.J. Fort on defense as he saw his playing time increase as the season went along and the Steelers tried desperately to find some way to replace the other-worldly athleticism Shazier once brought to the inside linebacker spot. Appearing in 15 games and starting two, L.J. Fort had his most productive season by far in 2018, recording 48 tackles, a sack and a touchdown in the Steelers win over Atlanta.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning L.J. Fort

While L.J. Fort did turn pro in 2012 and did bounce around the NFL before arriving in Pittsburgh, he only appeared in 18 games prior to 2015. Therefore, despite being 29 years old, Fort likely doesn’t have the wear and tear on his body that another player his age might.

Also, as already alluded to, of all the inside linebackers currently on the Steelers roster, L.J. Fort’s athleticism comes closest to matching that of Shazier’s prior to his injury. Jon Bostic, Tyler Matakevich and Williams certainly don’t possess L.J. Fort’s speed and quickness. In-fact, if L.J. Fort was on another team, and that team was preparing to play the Steelers during Shazier’s prime, L.J. Fort would likely be the guy pegged to emulate him in practice.

And given Fort’s age and limited tape, it’s not likely teams will be lining up for his services. In other words, the Steelers could and probably should resign him at a very team friendly price.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning L.J. Fort

While L.J. Fort does possess potential, the fact that it still has yet to be realized at this stage of his career may be quite telling. Besides, it’s not all that uncommon for an NFL player to look pretty good in limited playing time, before getting exposed as a starter. Fact is, the Steelers thought so little of L.J. Fort’s abilities after Shazier’s injury in late 2017, they signed Sean Spence off the streets and started him in the disastrous divisional round playoff game against the Jaguars.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and L.J. Fort

In reality, it is highly unlikely at this point of his career that L.J. Fort is still some diamond in the rough who will suddenly morph into a dominant linebacker in his 30s a la James Harrison.

  • But that doesn’t mean he can’t be a very good depth player–not to mention a great special teams player.

Even if the Steelers go out and sign one of the prime free agent inside linebackers or draft one in the first round, there should still be room on the depth chart for L.J. Fort. And, again, considering the price it would likely take to keep him, I think it’s a no-brainer that L.J. Fort stays with the Steelers in 2019.

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

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David DeCastro, James Conner, Steelers vs Falcons

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

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

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

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

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

  • Instead it was a disaster for Matt Ryan.

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

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

Roosevelt Nix, Roosevelt Nix blocked punt, Steelers vs Falcons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unsung Hero Award

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

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

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

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

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

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

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

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

Matthew Thomas, Kyle Allen

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

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

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

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

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

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

He did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.