JuJu Smith-Schuster Returns for Steelers vs Chiefs! Plus Pittsburgh Must be Cautious with Najee Harris

The Pittsburgh Steelers uphill battle to upset the Kanas City Chiefs tomorrow night just got a little more level. In move that was totally unexpected as recently as five days ago, the Steelers have activated wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuter from the injured reserve list.

JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith Schuster. Photo Credit: Twittter

On Wednesday JuJu Smith-Schuster suddenly appeared in practice, with teammate Diontae Johnson confirming that he had idea this was coming until he saw JuJu putting on his cleats. Still, the expectation was that Smith-Schuster would sit this game out.

The Steelers have confirmed their decision to activate Smith-Schuster from IR while releasing backup punter Corliss Waitman.

JuJu also shared this Tweet with followers:

It is huge move by JuJu Smith-Schuster. He could have very easily opted out of playing, eyeing the calendar and his next contract and no one would have thought any less of him. Instead, JuJu opted to prove his commitment to winning.

One might ask, with the emergence of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and to a lesser extent Ray-Ray McCloud, can JuJu Smith-Schuster, who only had 15 catches for 129 yards before injury, really help the Steelers after not taking a snap in over a month?

The answer is yes, he can.

As The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly explained:

His return would be most noticeable on third downs. With Smith-Schuster in the lineup, the Steelers converted 46 percent of their third downs. Without him, they fell to 36 percent. A year ago, he was tied for second behind Keenan Allen with 24 third-down catches that resulted in first downs.

Defenses will be forced to respect Smith-Schuster and even if that doesn’t directly translate in to catches for Number 19, it will allow Ben Roethlisberger to hit targets like Pat Freiermuth

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return also yields intangible benefits. Smith-Schuster is a physical receiver, as Vontaze Burfict found out when JuJu decked him as a rookie, forcing him from the field on a gurney.

While Smith-Schuster isn’t going to transform this team’s running game into well-oiled, road-grading machine, his physicality will help set the tone for blocking at the second level.

Harris Expected to Play, Steelers Must be Cautious

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return isn’t the only bit of good injury news coming out of the South Side. It was also announced that Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu were both…

…Got you, didn’t I? Alas, the Steelers aren’t getting either defensive lineman back this week, although Lord knows either man would be an instant upgrade alongside Cam Heyward.

The good news that the Steelers did get comes on the other side of the ball and involves Najee Harris. Harris of course injured his right elbow in the Steelers 2021 season finale against the Ravens. His participation was limited throughout the week and when asked about his status for the game, offensive coordinator Matt Canada admitted he was “Concerned.”

As of Friday Harris was listed as questionable, but the Steelers have removed him from the injury list and will play him against the Chiefs.

The reality is simple – with Harris, the Steelers have a chance against the Chiefs, without him they do not. Najee Harris is clearly the most talented player on the Steelers offense and his 188 yard performance against the Browns in Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field signified a changing of the guard.

  • Still, the Steelers need to be careful here.

A decade ago RGIII led Washington to the playoffs en route to earning rookie of the year honors. However he was injured during that first playoff contest, but was put back in the game. Whether this was due to Mike Shanahan’s mistake or Daniel Snyder’s meddling the world will never know. It matters little now, as RGIII never the same.

Mike Tomlin and the Steelers medical staff must avoid a similar mistake at all costs.

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Belief. It Just Might Be the 2021 Steelers Secret Weapon Against the Chiefs

Against all Odds the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers have reached the playoffs.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger celebrates. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

That in and of itself is a tremendous accomplishment and a testament to the resiliency of entire organization. Within Steelers Nation, fans are quick to cite the example of the 2005 Steelers season, were the team squeaked into the playoffs, won all of its games on the road and ultimately Super Bowl XL.

Blunt Truth Number 1:  These aren’t the 2005 Steelers.

The 2005 Steelers featured a talented roster featuring 3 Hall of Famers (Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu, Alan Faneca), one future Hall of Famer (Ben Roethlisberger) and another Hall of Fame caliber player (Hines Ward.) The roster was deep – remember Brett Keisel wasn’t even starting. And roster was healthy when the playoffs arrived.

The 2021 Steelers roster is way out of its depth in comparison.

Literally. Sure, T.J. Watt and perhaps Minkah Fitzpatrick have legit Hall of Fame potential, but when Tyson Alualu went down, Isaiah Buggs became the primary starter alongside Cam Heyward. The Steelers cut him last week. Which brings us to:

Blunt Truth Number 2:  The Kansas City Chiefs are a far more talented team.

It is no secret that Patrick Mahomes is the brightest young quarterback in the game. Often times feels like he’s the football equivalent of the Purple Rose of Cairo – as if Andy Reid walked in on his grandkids playing Madden, and off the screen walked Mahomes who turned around and immedately began putting up Madden like-stats in the real NFL.

Arrowhead Stadium is the one of the NFL’s most difficult venues, and the Chiefs schooled the Steelers there 36-10 two weeks ago in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score suggests. As Mike Tomlin has said. His team has warts. A lot of them.

Does that mean that all hope is lost? No, it does not, because the 2021 Steelers might have a secret weapon.

2021 Steelers Secret Weapon: Belief

After the Steelers win over the Ravens at M&T Stadium in Baltimore Mike Tomlin volunteered the following observation:

Najee sustained an elbow injury; was able to get himself back into the game and make significant plays for us. Pat had an opportunity to get a first down; he came up a little bit short in terms of lacking a little awareness there. We had to punt the ball and he came back and made a significant play. Ray-Ray had an opportunity to secure field goal position in the early portion of overtime; he didn’t. He came back and made a play. The growth and development of these young guys throughout this journey, and the negativity that’s usually associated with growth and development, did not take away from their efforts.

Mike Tomlin is of course commending the efforts of Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and Ray-Ray McCloud the latter two who came up short on critical plays only to bounce back big. Tomlin’s praise for his players can often be spare, but he didn’t hold back. Tomlin’s message is clear: He is seeing Iron Sharpen Iron.

That makes this next tweet all the more relevant:

The Steelers, apparently dispensed with the normal “Victory Monday” and went right back to work. The take away is clear:  Everyone is counting out the Steelers except themselves.

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

That’s a good place to be and it conjures memories of another quote.

Bob Labriola supplied it in Steelers Digest during the fall of 1991 as the Chuck Noll’s Steelers were slogged through their ill-fated trek up Walton’s Mountain. A reader asked how 1989 Steelers could shock the world while the 1991 Steelers muddled in mediocrity with essentially the same players.

Labriola pulled no punches arguing, “The 1989 Steelers weren’t really that good. But they won because they believed they were.”

This was blasphemy to a Generation X fan whose faith in the franchise had been vindicated by the 1989 Steelers. How could Labriola say about a team that was a dropped pass and/or a bad snap from the AFC Championship? But I recently watched a full replay of the 1989 Steelers upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome recently and Labriola was right:

  • The 1989 Steelers had roster that was average at best.

Sure, Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson were Hall of Famers. Greg Lloyd, Merril Hoge, Carnell Lake and others were excellent players. But you don’t see too many people wearing John Rienstra  or Derek Hill jerseys at Heinz Field on throwback weekend.

But Labriola was equally right about something else:

  • Those boys believed in themselves.

Before the Astrodome upset, Houston had shut out the Steelers in the “House of Pain,”and beat them in the snow at Three Rivers Stadium. Two months before the 1989 Steelers came within a hair of upsetting the Broncos in Mile High, Denver had spanked them 34-7.

Between those contests, Chuck Noll didn’t add any new talent, nor did Tom Moore or Rod Rust rollout any new schemes.

  • The 1989 Steelers improved in the interim because they’d learned to believe in themselves.

If the 2021 Steelers upset the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday night, they will do so for the same reason.

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Super Bowl Legends Dissing Steelers Defense Isn’t New. But It Still Hurts

“There’s absolutely no physicality. There’s no energy defensively. There’s no tone-setters.”

“Pittsburgh football ain’t about having fun. Pittsburgh football is about dominating people on the field because of your physicality.”

“But that ain’t what y’all want. What y’all want to do is show up, and y’all want to live on the backs of legends. Don’t nobody care about that no more. Young people aren’t respectful to the past. In the past, Pittsburgh was something. This Pittsburgh defense ain’t jack.”

Those quotes, courtesy of Fox News, are all from the same person, former Steelers safety Ryan Clark, during a rant on Monday while making an appearance with his current employer, ESPN.

Ryan Clark, James Farrior, Troy Polamalu

Ryan Clark celebrates after an interception. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Heavy.com

Clark, a member of the Steelers Super Bowl XLIII team, a championship team that was spurred on by one of the most dominant defenses in the history of the NFL (Dick LeBeau‘s unit finished number one in just about every important category in 2008), was upset about the performance of Keith Butler‘s 2021 version, a version that has allowed 586 rushing yards over the past three games (the Steelers have lost two of those games and had to settle for a tie against the pitiful Lions in the other).

Clark isn’t the only former Steelers defensive player to chime in on the struggles of the current defense. Former linebacker Arthur Moats has been very critically, especially of the effort put forth by linebacker Devin Bush: “Your tape is going to tell me everything I need to know so don’t tell me you want to make plays when I cut the tape on you, you’re not showing that effort.”

I realize that Bush has come under the microscope with the media and fans because of his lack of productivity this year, but Moats’ comments had to cut deep like a surgical procedure with no anesthesia.

It’s easy for us to just arbitrarily proclaim that a player isn’t putting forth the effort, but when a former player, an actual expert, accuses you of that, again, ouch!

Of course, former Steelers, especially former Super Bowl heroes like Ryan Clark, expressing strong opinions about the team’s defensive struggles is nothing new. In fact, I think the most famous quote from an old legend about such things came from Dwight White, a four-time Lombardi winner and member of the famed Steel Curtain defenses of the 1970s, once famously (or infamously) described Pittsburgh’s mediocre defense of the mid-’80s as “Soft and cheesy.

Guys like Clark, Moats and White know a thing or two because they’ve seen a thing or two, especially Clark and White who, again, played on some of the best defenses in the history of the NFL.

It can’t be easy for a former player to sit back and watch a unit that he once helped to make legendary, intimidating and dominant regress into something that wouldn’t put fear into a high school team’s offense.

It has to be especially frustrating to watch the 2021 unit because, despite the injuries, there should be more than enough star power to still be quite effective. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh’s unit, one that was hovering around the top 10 in total yards fairly recently, has dropped to 21st in that category.

  • As for the run defense, it’s near the bottom of the NFL, allowing 133.1 yards per game.

Pathetic.

Also, a defense that was one of the more opportunistic units in the NFL the past two seasons has just 10 takeaways in 11 games. Heck, even the pass rush, the hallmark of the defense–the entire team, really–since the second half of the 2016 campaign, is having a down year and is on pace for just 37 sacks–and that’s with an extra regular-season game.

What has happened to the Steelers defense in 2021? It can’t be just about the injuries; if it is, guys like Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu deserve a lot more money than what they’re currently earning. If it’s indeed about attitude, want to and being on the details, well, the unit better figure things out and quick.

Former players aren’t just watching, they care deeply. And when a legend like Ryan Clark, one of the most charismatic and vocal former NFL players currently working in television, puts you on blast, he isn’t going to turn the volume down until you get it right.

 

 

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Steelers 2021 Thanksgiving Honors: Cam Heyward Wins a Second Time

Thanksgiving 2021 has arrived so it’s time to award this year’s Steel Curtain Risings Steelers Thanksgiving Honors. To understand our what crystalized our choice, let’s return to the tail, tail end of the Steelers tie against the Lions.

On 3rd and goal with 20 seconds remaining all that separated the Detroit Lions from a touchdown going into half time was 8 yards. Here’s the Pro Football Reference stat line for what happened next:

A curious choice for a stat to highlight, especially given Cam Heyward’s twin sacks in 3rd down in the 4th quarter and then again in overtime? Maybe. Not.

It wasn’t the tackle that Heyward made, although his save a touchdown and force a field goal, it was the way that Cam Heyward made the tackle. He wrapped Swift at the 2-yard line and tossed him back like a rag doll a good 3 or 4 yards.

Cam Heyward, Cameron Heyward, Steelers 2021 Thanksgiving Honors, Steelers vs Chargers

Cam Heyward Steelers 2021 Thanksgiving Honors winner. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Those kinds of plays are all about attitude. In a goal line situation is the defense’s way of channeling their inner Gandalf the Grey saying, “You SHALL Not Pass!” Those are the kind of plays that define a good defense, and it is with that style an attitude that Cameron Heyward has defined himself as a Pittsburgh Steeler.

Normally, we’d look to bestow the award on someone new. But Cam Heyward’s play in 2021 has been nothing short of phenomenal.

The Steelers defensive line is hurting. Stephon Tuitt has yet to play a game or even take a snap on practice. Tyson Alualu was lost, likely for the season, in week 2. Cameron Heyward is responding like any true champion: He’s stepping it up.

He already has 4.5 sacks on the season, one more than his 2020 total. He’s dropped 7 players for losses, equaling his 2020 total. He’s hit quarterbacks 10 times. His batted down 7 balls – doubling his 2020 total. And he’s forced and recovered a fumble and has an interception to his credit.

  • All with 7 games to go.

But like with his tackle of D’Andre Swift, it isn’t what he’s doing, is the way he’s doing it and when he’s doing it.

  • Throughout this season of barn burners, Cameron Heyward is consistently making big plays at big moments.

Case in point: This article was drafted on Sunday, before the Chargers game. In that contest Cam Heyward “only” had two tackles and one pass defensed. What those numbers don’t show is that he ran down Justin Herbert on a 36 yard run and kept him out of the end zone. Then, 5 defensive plays later he batted away a pass, which Cam Sutton picked off, setting up Ben Roethlisberger’s tying touchdown to Pat Freiermuth.

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Garrett Gilbert, Steelers vs Cowbosy

Cam Heyward after sacking Garrett Gilbert. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

You think Art Rooney II knew what he was doing at the tail end of training camp in 2020 when he essentially told Omar Khan and Kevin Colbert to get Cam Heyward signed, damn the salary cap consequences?

You only need to register a pulse to know that Cameron Heyward has been a good player since the Steelers drafted him. But during 2021 he’s taken it a step further.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, with Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, and Aaron Smith yield nothing to any other franchise in terms defensive line legacy.

  • During 2021 Cam Heyward has once again proven he belongs in that elite group of excellent players.

And for that, for his leadership in the locker room and in the community of Pittsburgh, Cameron Heyward wins Steelers 2021 Thanksgiving Honors.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors Explained

Steelers Thanksgiving honors is a tradition that began here on Steel Curtain Rising in 2009. The idea was to pick a player or member of the Steelers organization who gave Steelers fans reason to give thanks.

Football, while important to all of us isn’t and shouldn’t be our top priorities – that should be family and friends. So the hope here is that everyone reading this has reason to give thanks for the people in their lives.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation.

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Frustrated by Devin Bush in 2021? Chill & Remember ACL Tears Are Complicated to Comeback from

Question: Entering the Chargers game, which injures have hurt the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers the most? There’s no definitive answer, but this blogger offers an unorthodox suggestion:

  • The injuries in question have probably never shown up on the Steelers weekly injury reports.

Injuries, as the late, great Washington DC area sports radio journalist Ken Beatrice reminded listeners, are just as much of a factor as talent and coaching. This was true for the NFL during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and is even more true today.

  • Where in 2021 have injuries hit the Steelers the hardest?

The Steelers certainly missed Ben Roethlisberger against the Lions and Justin Herbert will force them to miss Minkah Fitzpatrick just as dearly tomorrow. And anyone who has seen the Steelers run defense lapse could and should point to the absence of Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu.

So if those are your answers, you’re in good company, just as is anyone who brings up T.J. Watt’s name. But my two choices are Devin Bush and Zach Banner.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Banner and Bush don’t share a lot in common, but both men suffered ACL tears during the 2020 season.

  • Zach Banner played in training camp and preseason, but had to be put on IR.

The Steelers failure to use him on Sundays has drawn frustrated “Whys” as Dan Moore and Chukwuma Okorafor have had their struggles. Devin Bush has of course played all season, but he hasn’t been the same. This has led even level-minded reporters to go as far as to question the Steelers decision to trade up to get him.

The frustration with Banner and Bush is understandable, but perhaps misguided.

ACL Tears Remain Serious Injuries in 2021

Once upon a time, an ACL tear could spell doom for a professional football player. Anterior cruciate ligament sent the legendary Gale Sayers career on the path to ruin. Fortunately, with the rise of arthroscopic surgery, and improvements in rehabilitation therapy, ACL tears stopped being an immediate threat to a player’s career.

In fact, Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer Rod Woodson was the first NFL player to tear his ACL in a season, only to return later that year.

Rod Woodson, Michael Irvin, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX

Rod Woodson beats Michael Irvin in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: @Sports Pics, via Behind the Steel Curtain

Woodson tore his ACL in the 1995 Steelers season opener, but returned to play 12 snaps in Super Bowl XXX. Woodson’s pass defense of Michael Irvin is one of Steelers Nation’s legitimate bragging points from otherwise disappointing loss.

  • In that sense, perhaps Steelers fans got a little spoiled.

Not only because Woodson’s feat remains rather unique, but because it came with a cost. As Woodson confessed to Jim Wexell in Men of Steel, returning for the Super Bowl was “‘not the smartest thing to do'” continuing he adds, “‘I was probably 45-50 percent healthy at that point.'”

Woodson of course returned for the Steelers 1996 season and in the home opener he returned Vinny Testaverde’s first pass 43 yards for a pick six. Woodson made the Pro Bowl in 1996.

  • So of course he was fully recovered, right?

Wrong. Woodson confided this to Wexell, “’In ’96, I was still sore, and then my Achilles started acting up a lot, just from compensating for my knee….’” Woodson left the Steelers after 1996, but went on to play in 7 more years, making 4 Pro Bowls and one All Pro Team will appearing in two more Super Bowls.

  • So surly he was fully recovered by time he left Pittsburgh, right?

Wrong again. While admitting to struggling a bit in San Francisco, Woodson explained, “’I was still trying to recover from the knee a bit, even that second year.’”

And while players like Casey Hampton and Heath Miller returned for a productive seasons after suffering ACL tears late in the 2011 and 2012 campaigns, it is easy to forget just how fortunate they were. Shaun Suisham suffered an ACL tear during the 2015 Hall of Fame game that ended his career.

Are Bush and Banners ACL Tears Lingering On?

It is hard to really say how much impact Zach Banner’s absence has had on the offensive line. He won the starting job in 2020, only to tear his ACL in the season opening win over the Giants. Which is to say, he’s largely an unknown commodity.

  • With Devin Bush, it’s a little different.

Bush had a strong, if not fantastic rookie year in 2019 and was playing well early in 2020. So far in 2021 he’s been a non-factor. Is it because he’s still not fully recovered from his ACL tear? It is hard to know for sure.

Some film analysis of the Lions game suggests he was badly out of place on some of those critical runs the Lions used to gouge the Steelers defense. That was only one play, however, and Bush was far from the only person on the Steelers defense out of position (see Joe Schobert and Cam Sutton.)

  • While medicine is a science it remains an inexact science.

People’s bodies heal differently and at distinct paces. Modern medicine has done a lot to make ACL tears more manageable for NFL players, but if something seems not quite right with Devin Bush, just remember that even in 2021 anterior cruciate ligament injuries anything but trivial.

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Browns Game Offers the Steelers the Perfect Measuring Stick

There’s a certain symmetry to the Steelers 2021 bye week. They entered the bye after a game against the Seattle Seahawks and exit it playing the Cleveland Browns.

That’s fitting because the transition to the post-Ben Roethlisberger era began against the Seahawks in 2019 and the Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff debacle against the Browns confirmed that Big Ben has reached his 11th hour.

So the bye week gives us an excellent opportunity to take stock of where the Steelers stand in terms of that transition.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and James Conner after Maurkice Pouency’s high snap. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via The Altoona Times.

Quarterback
Stronger than in 2019, even since late 2020. When Ben Roethlisberger’s elbow popped, Mason Rudolph had never thrown an NFL pass and Joshua Dobbs had just been traded. Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been as erratic as he was in the playoffs, yet he’s lacked the same spark we saw as recently as the Colts game.

Running Backs
Stronger today. Period. Najee Harris is arguably the most talented player on offense, and the depth behind him is stronger than it was in 2019 or at any point in 2020.

Tight Ends
Stronger than in 2019, weaker than 2020. Vance McDonald was ailing in 2019, Xavier Grimble was showing he couldn’t cut it and the Steelers had to trade for and start Nick Vannett in the same week. Last year the Steelers still had McDonald and Eric Ebron, plus Kevin Radar. On paper this group isn’t as strong, but Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry improve every week.

Wide Receiver
Stronger than in 2019, weaker than in 2020. In 2019 the Steelers had JuJu Smith-Schuster, rookie Diontae Johnson, Ryan Switzer (oh, did you forget Donte Moncrief? So did everyone else.) The Steelers returned the same wideout corps as last year, but have lost JuJu, weakening them considerably.

Offensive Line
Weaker than in 2019, stronger than in 2020. While it wasn’t quite apparent, the offensive line’s decline had begun in 2019, but it was still providing good pass protection. A year ago the unit was falling apart. While it is far from a strength, the unit has improved since the beginning of the season.

Defensive Line
Weaker than in 2019 and 2020. Those Steelers defensive lines featured Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave and then Tyson Alualu. Now only Cameron Heyward remains. Nuff said.

Linebackers
Weaker than 2019, but stronger than 2020. Bud Dupree was blossoming in the fall of 2019, and Devin Bush was authoring a strong rookie year. T.J. Watt was T.J. Watt and Vince Williams held down the center. IN the playoff last year, T.J. was playing alongside Avery Williamson, Cassius Marsh and Marcus Allen (Ok, Marcus Allen only played 8 snaps. But as Tim Van Patton taught us in the 70’s 8 Is Enough. Yeah, that’s bad, but you get the point, don’t you?) While Devin Bush has been shaky and Alex Highsmith is finding his legs, I’ll take this quartet over the group on the field during the playoffs.

Secondary
Stronger than 2019, stronger than in late 2020. Truthfully, the Steelers secondary got A LOT better following the 2019 Seahawks game thanks to the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade. And that secondary might have been stronger than this one, but with Joe Haden was out against the Browns, and he’s back now. Nuff said.

Special Teams
About even. After a bad 2018 campaign, Chris Boswell has been back. While Pressley Harvin has been uneven, he has more upside than Jordan Berry.

What Does It All Mean? Give the Pre-Game Edge – Browns

Since the playoff debacle, Steelers have strengthened themselves at running back, offensive line, linebacker, and in the secondary. Unfortunately they’re weaker on defensive line and the Browns road grading rushing attack is well suited to exploit this weakness.

  • And Ben Roethlisberger has neither the mobility, fire power or receivers to will this team to victory.

The Steelers can win this game, but their ability to do so hinges on their defense and/or special teams delivering some potent fireworks.

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Lesson from JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Injury? Its Never Wise to Bet Against the House

“Tragic” and “Devastating” are just two of the words that JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s the season-ending injury evokes. There’s another word which isn’t being bandied about but probably should be: Unsurprising.

  • Yes, JuJu’s injury is unsurprising simply because it is never wise to bet against the house.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, JuJu Smith-Schuster injury, Steelers vs. Broncos

JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves the field after a season-ending injury. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Betting against the house” in this case has nothing to do with wagers or gambling (sorry if some point-spread-focused Google search led you here) but it does have everything to do with trying to oppose the odds.

  • That’s because history is driven by competing forces.

On the one hand you have men and women who make decisions that alter destinies of themselves and others for good or for ill. Yet at other times, historical forces conspire to move people in directions they had no intention of following.

  • Football is no exception. In fact, it proves the rule.

In football, owners, general managers, coaches and players all have the power to make choices that shape history.

In the late ‘60s Art Rooney Sr. chose to give control of the Steelers to Dan Rooney, who hired Bill Nunn Jr., who hired Chuck Noll, who drafted Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris and, well, if you’re reading this you know how that story ends.

In the NFL, the winds of history blow against the best decision makers from varied directions, but the most common angles it takes are age, injury and the salary cap.

For an easy example, think back to the Steelers November 2014 game against the New Orleans Saints. The game was hailed as the reunion of the “4 War Horses”Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel.

  • Several sites and media outlets had stories commemorating the reunion. It was a great story that could only make Steelers Nation feel good.

But what happened? Brett Keisel suffered a career-ending injury that afternoon, Ike Taylor struggled so badly that he benched himself the following week, and Troy Polamalu only had four games games left in him. The “4 War Horses” was quickly reduced to James Harrison, the Lone Ranger.

  • And so it is with the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers.

When the off season started the Steelers faced Salary Cap Armageddon. A wholesale roster purge seemed inevitable. But thanks to Ben Roethlisberger’s pay cut, voidable contracts, contract restructures and a few cuts, Kevin Colbert stemmed the bloodletting.

There were even a few pleasant surprises! Vince Williams was a cap casualty who decided to return at a hometown discount. Tyson Alualu agreed to terms with the Jaguars, got COVID and had to stay in Pittsburgh, then reupped with the Steelers. And of course JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t get the offer he felt he deserved and he too returned.

But what happened next reminds me of the introduction to Raisin in the Sun. In finishing her description of the Younger living room Lorraine Hansberry concludes:

And here a table or a chair has been moved to disguise the worn places in the carpet; but the carpet has fought back by showing its weariness, with depressing uniformity, elsewhere on its surface.

Similar forces are working their will on the Steelers roster.

First, Vince Williams thought better of returning and decided to start his Life’s Work. Then in week two a broken ankle relegated Tyson Alualu to injured reserve, possibly ending the 34-year old’s season and perhaps career. And now, five games into his “prove it season,” major shoulder surgery has ended JuJu Smith-Schuster’s season.

Yes, Kevin Colbert moved plenty of contract numbers around to hide the holes the salary cap created in the Steelers’ roster, but five games into the season, the roster is already showing its weariness.

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Upside of Steelers Loss to Raiders? Trai Turner Spitting Incident Proves Rivalry Still Strong

It sure was an ugly scene on Sunday, as the Steelers fell to the Raiders, 26-17, in a Week 2 clash at Heinz Field.

Trai Turner, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin restrains Trai Turner. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The Steelers injury situation on the defensive side was ugly–the team lost cornerback Joe Haden and linebacker Devin Bush to injuries before the game, as well as Tyson Alualu and T.J. Watt to ailments during it.

The defensive performance after said injuries was hideous–Raiders quarterback Derek Carr played like Kenny Stabler, particularly in the second half when he took advantage of Keith Butler‘s depleted unit and seemed to pass at will.

The offense was again pretty darn ugly–you can’t get any uglier than what the Steelers have been doing on that side of the ball for the first two games of the 2021 regular season.

It was an all-around ugly game, for sure, but at least the Steelers remained aggressive all afternoon, including linebacker Robert Spillane, who laid the wood a time or two while filling in for the injured Bush–he even drew a questionable unnecessary roughness penalty for a hard shot on Carr.

The offensive line, a beleaguered and embattled unit that is made up of mostly young guys who are trying to learn their crafts and become a part of a cohesive unit right before our very eyes, certainly was chippy on Sunday. Rookie center Kendrick Green didn’t seem to mind mixing it up with many Raiders defenders all day long.

Despite the loss, it was cool to see that so much intensity still exists between two traditional rivals whose most famous feuds took place in the 1970s.

Youngsters like Spillane and Green may one day become famous (or infamous) characters in the Steelers/Raiders mutual hatred, but it looks like veteran guard Trai Turner got indoctrinated into the rivalry two games into his Steelers’ career.

That’s right, following running back Najee Harris‘ 25-yard touchdown catch and run early in the fourth quarter, a play that brought Pittsburgh to within two points with 11:15 remaining, Turner was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. Raiders defender Marquel Lee was also penalized 15 yards, meaning the dead-ball fouls offset. No big deal, right? Only problem for Pittsburgh was that Turner was ejected, while Lee was not.

Why? CBS cameras soon revealed that Turner spat on Lee after charging through half his Steelers’ teammates to get in the face of the Las Vegas defender. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was incensed at the game-day officials and was demanding an explanation while also giving them an earful.

Turner has no defense–again, he can clearly be seen spitting in Lee’s face. But did you see how angry Turner was as he charged after Lee? What could Lee have done to anger Turner so much? According to Turner, he was only retaliating for Lee spitting on him first.

Do you believe Turner? I do. I mean, Lee plays for the Raiders. This is the same organization whose mantra used to be, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” Actually, that is probably still the Raiders’ mantra. Remember when George Atkinson sucker-punched Steelers receiver Lynn Swann away from the play in a game between the two teams back in the 1970s? Whether you remember it or not, it happened. Chuck Noll was even sued by Atkinson after the legendary head coach accused the defensive back of being part of the criminal element of the NFL.

I’m not saying the Steelers are innocent; they’ve obviously had their share of maniacs who have contributed to this 50-year rivalry between the black and gold and the silver and black. What I’m saying is that Lee likely spat first and deserves just as much of the public flogging as Turner has been on the receiving end of since Sunday.

Anyway, I don’t want to get into the Immaculate Reception or anything like that–Lord knows that gets brought up every time the two teams meet–but isn’t it nice to see that this rivalry is still so down and dirty after all of these years?

Maybe these two proud organizations will do it right and finally meet up in the postseason again.

That’s when the real spit (and blood and punches) will start flying.

 

 

 

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Steelers Report Card for Raiders Loss – Arriving @ School with No Pencil Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who fears that a lack of paper and pencils might scuttle the semester, here is the Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Raiders.

Trayvon Mullen Jr. , Steelers vs Raiders

Trayvon Mullen Jr. intercepts Ben Roethlisberger early in the 1st quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
To his credit Ben Roethlisberger repeatedly took the blame for this loss. And it is true that his 40 for 27 for 295 yards and 1 touchdown and one interception hides the fact that too many of his deep throws were off. Roethlisberger is right, he does need to play better. But he has plenty of company. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 10 runs for 38 yards and 5 catches for 43 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers look pedestrian. And they are. But they’re not Harris’ fault. Outside of his 14 yard burst – which not coincidentally sparked the Steelers first touchdown drive – Harris had no room to run. Benny Snell had two carries for one yard. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 4 passes on four targets and came ooh so close to converting a third down. He also contributed with some quality blocks. Eric Ebron had zero catches on 2 passes. Zach Gentry had 14 snaps. Moving forward success on offense might require more Freiermuth and less Gentry. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson lead the team with 9 catches for 105 yards including a 41 yarder that set up a score. But he also broke off a route way too early that lead to an interception. Chase Claypool had 3 catches including a 52 yarder that set up another touchdown. Still Claypool was targeted 6 more times to no avail. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 of 7 passes thrown his way for 41 yards. Claypool and Johnson must go the extra mile to make plays for their quarterback. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
Where to start? Against the Raiders, the 2021 Steelers offensive line was the 2020, except with the good qualities stripped out. Run blocking was nonexistent and Ben Roethlisberger was hit 10 times including 2 sacks. To borrow on our opening metaphor, good line play is to quality offense as paper and pencils are to quality education. And the Steelers offensive line isn’t even showing up to school with their erasers.  Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was a one man wrecking crew breaking up passes and dropping players for losses in 3rd down doing more than you’d expect to make up for the loss of Tyson Alualu. Chris Wormley and Isaiahh Loudermilk didn’t put up a lot of stats, but the Raiders couldn’t run. Still, defensive line could have done more to make its presence felt in the pass rush. Grade: B-

Linebackers
For a while, it seemed like T.J. Watt might beat the Raiders all by himself, logging 3 tackles, a strip sack and a QB hit in a quarter of play. But then he got hurt. Melvin Ingram, Alex Highsmith, Robert Spillane and Joe Schobert all had their moments, but David Carr had too much time to throw in the first half. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Raiders, Derek Carr

T.J. Watt strip sacks Derek Carr during the Steelers 26-17 loss to the Raiders on September 19th 2021 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Secondary
As Jim Wexell pointed out, on the critical play of the game, Minkah Fitzpatrick cheated up to the line of scrimmage Troy Poalmalu style in an attempt to shut down Darren Walker. Alas, the gambit failed, and Henry Ruggs streak through the secondary. Minhak Fitzpatrick tried to recover but fell short and Ahkello Witherspoon never had a chance.

The secondary, sans Joe Haden, and sans Devin Bush, T.J. Watt and Tyson Alualu in front of them held the Raiders in check for the first half. But the unit gave up two touchdowns in the 2nd half. Grade: D

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud had a nice 15 yard punt return and 2 respectable kick returns. The Steelers kick coverage was solid, but they did give up more punt yardage than desirable. Grade: C+

Coaching
Mike Tomlin knows his team.

Many fans and journalists want to make hay of Tomlin’s decision to punt on 4th and 1 with 9 minute left. But let’s be honest, the Steelers offense simply isn’t physical enough go for that one yard with any confidence.

(For those of you with long memories, think of Bill Cowher calling a fea-flicker on 4th and 1 vs. the Jaguars during the Dark Days of September 1999.)

On defense, Keith Butler kept the Steelers in the game with smart play in the first half, but his unit gave up one long drive, followed by a quick strike and then a field goal drive in the 2nd half. As for the offense, we glimpsed the potential of what Matt Canada can do on the two touchdown drives. But until the offensive line can muster the physicality to breathe live into those schemes, the Steelers will go no where. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
Alas, it didn’t alter the outcome, but lining up for a 56 yarder at Heinz Field is never easy. Doing it when just under 4 minutes remaining and facing an 11 point deficit only adds to the fun. It was the longest kick in Heinz Field history and Chris Boswell not only made it, but he split the uprights. And for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Raiders.

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Raiders Prevail over Pittsburgh 27-17 as Depleted Depth Sinks Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland-Los Angeles-Oakland-Las Vegas Raiders met for the 24th time yesterday at Heinz Field, as the men in Silver and Black prevailed 27-17.

The two teams may have now faced off 2 dozen times, but the game marked this citizen of Steelers Nation 2nd Steelers game in 2 years viewed from his native abode in suburban DC. It is only fitting then to begin the analysis of why Las Vegas won by borrowing the words of legendary WMAL/WTEM sports radio journalist Ken Beatrice, who reminded listener: “Injuries are as much a factor as talent and coaching in the NFL.”

  • Ken was right and Sunday’s lose provided a perfect case study.

But injuries impact every NFL team, and they only partially explain why the Steelers lost to the Raiders. The loss to the Raiders revealed a fundamental flaw that the Steelers must correct if they are to similar defeats in the future.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Raiders

Soloman Thomas sacks Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

2 Men Short Becomes 4 Man Short, in a Hurry

As Mike Tomlin explained after the opening day win over the Bills, the Steelers defense is supposed to go toe-to-toe with any team in the league. He made no apologize for that. And while he won’t say it, that’s also an implicit admission that the defense will have to carry the team early on.

  • So it was cause for concern that Devin Bush and Joe Haden headed up the Steelers inactive list.

Both men would get company in the training room, fast. Tyson Alualu fell first, going onto the cart with an ankle injury early in the game. At first it didn’t seem to matter, as T.J. Watt accounted for 4 tackles on the first 9 plays including a strip sack and a drive ending run stuff on third down.

  • Unfortunately, that was about it for T.J. Watt, as a groin injury forced him from the game.

And for a while, it seemed like the Steelers could manage without Watt. Melvin Ingram teamed with Robert Spillane on a key run stuff and helped force an incompletion in the end zone. And when the Steelers second team defense wasn’t making shut down plays, the Raiders tripped over themselves, taking one touchdown off of the board due to penalties and settling for 3 field goals instead of touchdowns.

This was good, because the Steelers offense struggled to get out of 1st gear.

Steelers Offense Stuck in 2020

During 2020 the skinny on the Steelers offense was simple. When Ben Roethlisberger could hit JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson on short, 5 to 7 yard routes, things were OK. If anything else was required to win, Pittsburgh had problems.

  • During the first 3 drives of the game the Steelers offense remained stuck in 2020

Najee Harris ripped off a nice 14 yard run, but other than that, he found no daylight. Outside of a 17 yard strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster, Roethlisberger’s successes were confined to 5 or 6 yard hook ups. He misfired deep to Chase Claypool twice and Diontae Johnson cut off his route way too early on another occasion leading to a Trayvon Mullen interception.

Fortunately, Roethlisberger and Johnson found their groove late in the 2nd quarter as they hooked up for a 41 yard catch, that set up a 6 yard JuJu Smith-Schuster touchdown on a Jet Sweep. It felt good to see the Steelers score a non-garbage time TD at Heinz Field again, but they were still down 9-7.

Failure on Fundamentals Catches Up with Steelers in 2nd Half

A two point half-time deficit does not an unscalable wall make, as Yoda might remind us. And when the visiting team goes up by nine with 20 minutes left to play, you are still very much in the game. But in the 2nd half injuries on defense conspired with failures on fundamentals on offense to do the Steelers in.

The Steelers defense has been a pass rushing juggernaut since 2015 at least. And if all of the pressure on the passer didn’t necessarily result in turnovers until recently, it kept opposing quarterback honest and at least helped limit long completions.

Cam Heyward, Alex Highsmith and Melvin Ingram made some fine plays, but in the end the Steelers defense couldn’t compensate for the loss of four starters as the Raiders exploited them for several deep gains including a 61 touchdown pass that saw Tre Norwood and James Pierre get torched.

  • The Steelers couldn’t overcome that because of failures on fundamentals on offense.

The good news is that Najee Harris has proven he is a legitimate weapon for the Steelers. Its no coincidence that Pittsburgh’s first touchdown drive started with a 14 yard carry by Harris, and its second end zone encountered ended with a 25 yard catch and run that featured a twisting goal line dive by Harris.

Unfortunately, the Steelers offensive line couldn’t block well enough to make Harris a factor in the game. That forced Ben Roethlisberger to look deep. He found Chase Claypool on one occasion for 52 yards to set up Harris’ score, but he misfired on his other 3 attempts.

And there’s the rub.

After the game, Ben Roethlisberger took the blame, admitting that “I need to play better.” That’s true. To a degree.

But Ben can’t do it by himself anymore. Ben Roethlisberger has shown he can be a winning quarterback if he’s playing in a balanced offense. But until the Steelers can mount a competent running game, they will depend on pitching shut outs on defense.

And as today’s game shows, all it takes to neuter the Steelers defense is a few inopportune injuries.

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