Steelers Report Card for Win over Chargers – Not Quite Straight A’s, but Close

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is crossing his fingers n hopes that his student can sustain the momentum they’re taking into spring break, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Chargers.

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Quarterback
The first rule for a backup quarterback is to avoid mistakes that cost his team the game. Devlin Hodges did that in going 15 for 20 for one touchdown. His interception was costly, but fortunately not a difference maker. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner continues to excel. Although his rushing average might not impress, he ran well and was even more effective catching the ball. Benny Snell saw his first extended action, and put together an tremendous night with 75 yards on 17 carries. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Both Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett caught both passes thrown to them for five yards on their only targets. But the tight ends real contribution came in run blocking, where they really made a difference. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet, quiet night for the Steelers wide outs as Diontae Johnson led the team with 2 catches for 14 yards. Donte Moncrief was next with one catch for 11 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had one catch for 7 yards. Johnny Holton had one target and failed to come back to the ball allowing for an easy interception. Grade: C

Offensive Line
This is the type of offensive line play that defines Steelers football. The quarterback wasn’t sacked nor was he even hit based on ESPN’s statistics. But more importantly, the Steelers were able to run the ball when they needed to, and the offensive line opened holes for both running backs. Grade: A

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

Bell Snell rushing through the holes opened by the Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier

Defensive Line
In a night when the defense dominated at levels not seen in years, the defensive line features a sparse stat sheet. But don’t be fooled. As Jim Wexell pointed out, Stephon Tuitt’s vicious hit of Philip Rivers knocked the quarterback off track for the entire first half. Tyson Alualu tipped a ball that turn into an interception, and Cam Heyward on Javon Hargrave helped stone the Chargers running backs. Grade: A

Linebackers
Anyone still want to second guess that Devin Bush trade? In only his sixth game as a pro, Devin Bush scored the first defensive touchdown of the year and set up the Steelers second score with his second interception in as many weeks. Oh, and he also led in tackles. T.J. Watt had a half sack, batted down a ball, and harassed Philip Rivers all night. Anthony Chickillo returned notching a half sack, and Vince Williams helped keep the Chargers rushers in check. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick batted away a pass and was second in tackles, followed by Terrell Edmunds. Mike Hilton had his hands on a the penultimate pass of the night. The real star of the show was Cam Sutton, who batted away 3 passes and came down with the game sealing interception. Grade: A

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton onsides kick recovery, Steelers vs Chargers

Cameron Sutton recovers the onside. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today

Special Teams
The Steelers kick coverage continues to be an issue, but Ryan Switzer had a respectable return. Chris Boswell was perfect on the night. The real stars of the show were Cam Sutton Jordan Berry and Johnny Holton. Cam Sutton made a head-over-heels onsides kick recovery while Berry and Holton who teamed to pin the Chargers down at their one with less than one minute to play.

These players were exactly what the Steelers needed. Grade: A

Coaching
The deck seemed to be stacked against the Steelers. They were playing on the West Coast. Not only was their starting quarterback injured, but so where his two offensive counterparts from the 2017 NFL Draft. The Steelers were also down one starting inside linebacker and a cornerback who has quietly authored a dominating season.

  • Yet, Mike Tomlin got his team to tune out the noise and the Steelers turned out their best performance of the season.

On offense, Randy Fichtner adhered to the KISS principle – Keep It Simple Stupid, and in doing so he set his rookie, 4th string quarterback up to win his first start. Whether it was by design or necessity Shaun Sarrett finally got the offensive line run blocking going.

On defense, Keith Butler continued to do what he has quietly done for the past several games: Deploy a defense that is playing dominant football.

  • Sure, as injuries mounted in the second half things got closer than one would like to see. But the Steelers defense closed the deal, all you can ask.

One quibble against the coaches is the intercepted deep pass. The Chargers were on the ropes before that, and that play got them back into it. Ultimately, that will be a footnote on this season’s history, but it does nudge the grade down. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
He arrived in Pittsburgh as both a second choice and a surprise, but made a respectable debut. Then, in his second season he began to struggle when he should have soared. Things went downhill from there, as he lost his starting job to a player who, a year later, is out of football. Then he found himself on the bench altogether.

He saw his first action in months against the Chargers. He could have been picked on and exploited as an easy target. Yet, his name was not often heard and he was by no means the weak link in a very strong Steelers defense, and for that Artie Burns wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Chargers.

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Steelers 24-17 Win over Chargers Yields Building Blocks to Take into Bye Week

The Pittsburgh Steelers have struggled in 2019. Injuries have struck key players. Players have turned over the ball at inopportune moments. Several Steelers have stepped up to make spectacular individual plays, but something has always conspired to keep Pittsburgh from bring it altogether.

  • In the Steelers 24-17 win over the Chargers, Pittsburgh finally brought it together.

Not only did the Steelers bring it together, but they added key elements to their game which had been missing and those ended up being the difference makers.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

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

Steelers Defense Dominates Early and Often

Perhaps critics can be forgiven for failing to see it amidst the wreckage of a 1-4 start, but the Steelers defense has been getting better. This isn’t about simply avoiding the sieve-like quality that has too often bedeviled them since injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier derailed a promising rise in mid-2017.

  • No, the Steelers defense has been signaling that it can go beyond that, that it can dominate.

And against the Chargers, Keith Butler’s boys dominated. Devin Bush led the charge early on when the rookie made yet another heads up play, by scooping up a failed lateral to put the Steelers ahead 7 to nothing.

  • On the very next series, Tyson Alualu tipped a pass, and again Devin Bush delivered with an interception.

That set up the Steelers 2nd score, which made the game 14-0, with 4 minutes left to play in the 1st quarter. The Steelers defense kept the pedal to the metal through the rest of the first half. The stat sheet says that Anthony Chickillo and T.J. Watt shared the lone sack of Philip Rivers. But what the stat sheet fails to show is that the Steelers defense harassed him through the first half.

More would be required of them later on, but Steelers defense played its best half of football since October 2017, when it completely shut down the then-NFL leading Kansas City Chiefs offense.

Road Grading Returns to Pittsburgh’s Offense

The Steelers offensive line has been saddled with a glass half-full, half-empty syndrome in 2019. On the one hand, the offensive line has done a masterful job of keeping Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges clean.

Forced to find a spark, Randy Fichtner had to turn to the Wildcat to get the offense moving. An innovative move to be sure, but one that worked against the Bengals and failed miserably vs the Ravens. Whispers began:

  • Was the offensive line missing Mike Munchak?
  • Was the unit’s collective age creeping up on it?

Against the Chargers, the Steelers defense silenced those whispers with authority and decisiveness. It is one thing run against NFL defenses trying to protect against the pass. It is another thing to establish the run when the opposing team knows you’re going to run the ball.

  • The Chargers knew the Steelers were going to run the ball.
  • The Steeler ran it and dared Los Angeles to stop them.

Los Angeles tried, and failed. James Conner’s first touchdown run required some hustle on the part of the running back, but it was made possible by road-grading quality blocking by Vance McDonald and Alejandro Villanueva.

The Steelers offense authored two drives, one in the 2nd quarter and the other to begin the 3rd quarter, which burned 9:09 and 6:48 off the clock and added 10 points to the score board. With 19 minutes remaining to play, Steelers had effectively imposed their will on the Chargers.

Sutton, Special Teams Stamp Out Chargers New Signs of Life

Credit the Steelers coaches for many things going into this game, but the Devlin Hodges attempt to hook up keep with Johnny Holton is not one of those. The Chargers weren’t fooled, and the interception injected new life into a team that looked like it was really ready for the showers.

  • Instead, Philip Rivers did what Hall of Fame quarterbacks do when you give them a 2nd chance, he rallied his team to two touchdowns.

And Philip Rivers might have succeeded in rallying for a third, had it not been for one 3rd round pick and an Aussie punter. Cam Sutton has tantalized Steelers Nation since Pittsburgh drafted him in 2017. He got activated off of injured reserve and immediately pressed Artie Burns and Coty Sensabaugh for playing time late in his rookie year.

However, Cam Sutton disappeared shortly thereafter, but began flashing again during preseason, and asserted himself at points during the 2019 campaign. But Cam Sutton asserted himself to close out the Chargers game in stunning fashion, defending multiple passes and making a spectacular head over heels on-sides kick recovery.

Cam Sutton recovers an on sides kick in the Steelers 24-17 win over Chargers. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today via The Athletic

The Chargers had all three of their time outs after the on-sides kick, and the Steelers offense couldn’t make a first down, forcing a punt. Jordan Berry boomed off a punt which pinned the Chargers down at their one.

Throwing from his own end zone, Philip Rivers first pass bounced off of Mike Hilton’s hands. Cam Sutton grabbed his second one, which sealed victory for the Steelers.

Steelers Take 2-4, Building Blocks into Bye Week

A 2-4 record is nothing to be of proud of, but it sure beats 1-5. But beyond doubling their total in the win column, the victory over the Chargers gives the Steelers something they can build on heading into the bye week.

  • The Steelers first win over the Bengals, however satisfying, was gimmicky

In contrast, the Steelers defeated the Chargers by out executing San Diego, er um, Los Angeles, the fundamentals. And that gives Pittsburgh a sustainable strategy the can follow over the next ten games to come.

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NFL Concussion Protocol be Dammed Steelers Should Sit Mason Rudolph vs Chargers

Twitter can be addictive. Which is why I don’t neither stay logged into it on my desktop nor my mobile devices. But yesterday afternoon a retweet caught me by surprise.

mason rudolph, mason rudolph nlf concussion protocol

Mason Rudolph practices while in Step 4 of NFL Concussion Protocol. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette via Twitter

The original tweet was from Matt Freed, a photograph from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It does of course show Mason Rudolph throwing the football at the Steelers practice facility on the South Side.

The fact that Mason Rudolph is able to go out and throw a football a few days after suffering a hit that knocked him unconscious is a welcome sign. The sight of Mason Rudolph laying there motionless as JuJu Smith-Schuster signaled frantically for the medical staff to take the field was harrowing.

  • Early word was that Mason was doing well, but was not talking to the press as he was in the NFL’s Concussion protocol.

Can players practice while in the NFL’s Concussion Protocol? Well, according to the NFL’s 5 step guidelines, they can. After a player has rested and proceeded through the light exercise phases of the protocol, he entered Step Four: Step Four: Football Specific Activities.

Per Joe Ruttner’s reporting in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Mason Rudolph not only threw, but was running reps with the scount team, which would put him in Step Five of the NFL’s Concussion Protocol which Step Five: Full Football Activity/Clearance.

In pure football terms this means that if Mason Rudolph can make it through a week’s practice without showing signs of a concussion, he and not Devlin Hodges could actually start for the Steelers on Sunday Night against the LA Chargers.

Given that the Steelers will take the field without Jaylen Samuels and James Washington and with other key starters such as Vance McDonald and James Conner already having missed portions of games with injuries, this is a welcome sign in pure football terms.

  • But football is not the only concern here.

Mason Rudolph’s long-term health is. I do not pretend to be an expert on concussions, but everything we know indicates that if a player has suffered one concussion they’re more susceptible to other concussions and this is at its highest immediately after a concussion has been suffered.

  • NFL Concussion Protocol be dammed, the Steelers should sit Mason Rudolph for the Chargers game no matter what.

Sit him out for a week. Give him the bye week off, and give him 3 full weeks before he’s exposed to the risk of another concussion. Mike Tomlin has always deferred to his medical staff when it comes to clearing an injured player to return. That is as it should be.

But concussions are different. Isaac Redman once admitted he lied while in the concussion protocol to return to play. Hines Ward once lashed out at Ben Roethlisberger for NOT lying about having headaches so that he’d be able to play. After retiring, Troy Polamalu admitted to having suffered far more concussions than had ever been publicly diagnosed.

One would hope that Mason Rudolph would be smart enough NOT to do that, but one never knows, which is exactly why the decision should be taken out of his hands.

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Steelers Can’t Get a Break: Jaylen Samuels Knee Surgery Sidelines RB #2 for a Month

In his weekly press conference Mike Tomlin dropped a bit of a bomb when he announced that running back Jaylen Samuels has his knee scoped and will be out for close to a month. Yes Steelers Nation, we have seen this movie before, only in 2019 it is hitting theaters earlier.

To be fair to Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin, the Steelers did at least attempt to upgrade their number 3 running back slot when they drafted  Benny Snell Jr. in the 2019 NFL Draft. Benny Snell only has 6 rushing attempts to his name, and while his 5 yard average might look impressive, 23 of those came on one run in the Steelers loss to Seattle.

  • Nonetheless, Benny Snell is now Steelers RB number 2 behind James Conner.

The Steelers also have Trey Edmunds, brother of Terrell Edmunds, on their practice squad and will likely activate him before Sunday Night’s game against the Chargers. The Steelers brain trust of course built the roster with Ben Roethlisberger in mind. But now they don’t even have the luxury of Mason Rudolph starting, as Devlin Hodges will get the nod this week.

Sadly, a Steelers Tomlin-era tradition of struggling to keep RB 1 and RB 2 healthy continues.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Steelers Cut Xavier Grimble

The Steelers also made another move prior to Sunday’s loss against the Ravens, when they waived tight end Xavier Grimble with an injury settlement. The move is slightly puzzling. The Steelers rarely wave players on injured reserve, as the last time they did so was when they cut Bruce Gradkowski in the fall of 2016.

Xavier Grimble had entered 2019 as the Steelers number 2 tight end, but that role appeared to be too big for him. Certainly Grimble, unlike Jesse James, wasn’t able to hold his own in Vance McDonald’s absence.

  • On paper the presence of Nick Vannett would appear to make Grimble expendable.

And restricted free agent tenders are not guaranteed, so the move makes salary cap sense for the Steelers. Still, if either McDonald or Vanett were to go down for an extended period, Grimble would have been available for the 2nd half of the season.

No one would have looked to Grimble as a savior in such circumstances, but at least he’d have brought more experience than Zach Gentry. With that said, it is entirely possible that Xavier Grimble asked for his release, as he’ll be free to latch on to another team.

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Ravens Defeat Steelers 26-23 in OT. Ball Security Remains Pittsburgh’s Achilles Heel

The Baltimore Ravens came to Pittsburgh and defeated the Steelers in overtime to the tune of 26 to 23. After last week’s victory against the Bengals, going into the game the talk was if the Steelers could win and the Browns were to lose, Pittsburgh would find itself in a 3 way tie in the AFC North.

  • Instead, the game reaffirmed the putrid direction which Pittsburgh’s season has taken.

To win, the Steelers would need to abandon the gimmicks which carried them to victory over the Bengals. They did that. The Steelers defense would need to be excellent. The Steelers defense delivered. The team, as a whole, would need to improvise in the face of the unexpected. They did that too.

But, as it has so many times over the last two seasons, the game turned on what’s become the Steelers Achilles Heel: Ball Security.

JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Ravens, Marion Humphery

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s overtime fumble dooms Steelers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review,

Rudolph Takes the Training Wheels Off – To Mixed Effect

Let’s take Mike Tomlin at his word that the Steelers did not plan a steady diet of Jet screens and the Wildcat. Nonetheless, the Steelers tried both in the game’s first two series, and paid mightily for it as their first Jet screen ended with a 4 yard loss, and Jaylen Samuels threw an ugly interception that was headed in Ryan Switzer’s direction.

  • The Ravens quickly scored a touchdown padding their lead to 10-0 with hardly 10 minutes elapsed in the game.

Randy Fichtner decided to go conventional, and did something he hasn’t done much of, allow Mason Rudolph to air it out. Mason Rudolph delivered, hitting James Washington for a 21 yard gain, and then James Conner for 8 yards, before finding JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 35 yard touchdown pass.

  • That was a good drive for Rudolph and the Steelers offense.

However, Mason Rudolph misfired on several other drives as he tried to connect with Diontae Johnson and Johnny Holton on a number of deep routes that were wildly inaccurate.

But the Steelers defense was doing its part, as Kameron Kelly and Mike Hilton pulled down interceptions while Vince Williams, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward sacked Lamar Jackson to set up a punt and his 2nd interception.

You never want to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns after turnovers, which is what the Steelers had to do, but those efforts led to a half time score of 17-13, proving that Pittsburgh was very much in the game.

Steelers Defense, Offense Improvise to Stay Alive

Lamar Jackson’s scrambling is one reason why the Baltimore Ravens were able to put 17 points on the board so quickly. Jackson scrambled early and often and the Steelers appeared to be powerless to stop them.

I’ll leave it to the film reviewers to diagnose why, but right now I’ll credit Keith Butler‘s defense with making the adjustments necessary to neutralize Jackson’s run threat.

  • In the face of adversity, the Steelers improvised.

The gods of fate shined on the Steelers early in the second half when Devin Bush came down with an interception that really should have been overturned on replay. But what the gods of fate giveith, they taketh away.

On the Steelers third offensive play of the 2nd half, Mason Rudolph did his best Ben Roethlisberger impression by evading not one but two sacks to find James Washington for a 26 yard gain.

  • Rudolph, however got sandwiched between Matthew Judon and Earl Thomas and went down like a ragdoll.
  • Rudolph lay on the turf at Heinz Field, motionless and unconscious.

With Mason Rudolph down for the count, on came Devlin Hodges, a man who spent the NFL’s opening day browsing the want ads. Its been a long time since someone wearing number 6 has slung the ball for the Steelers, but let’s daresay that Devlin Hodges looked better than Bubby Brister did in his debut.

Hodges moved the team to the 1 on the strength of a 14 yard pass to Vance McDonald. One play later James Conner was barreling into the End Zone for Pittsburgh’s first lead of the day.

Delvin Hodges wasn’t perfect. His biggest play was probably his 21 yard scramble. He threw an ugly pass that was intercepted that got nullified by a penalty. But he put the Steelers in a position to win.

Ball Security Remains Steelers Achilles Heel

Fault the Steelers defense for allowing Baltimore to tie the game at the end of regulation, (although Javon Hargrave’s sack was crucial in forcing the Ravens to settle for 3.) But credit those same men for holding the Ravens to -4 yards on the first drive in over time, thanks to a Bud Dupree sack and stout play by Stephon Tuitt and Kameron Kelly.

  • In the end, it wasn’t enough.

On the Steelers second play of overtime, Devlin Hodges hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 10 yard gain, only to have Marlon Humphrey pop the ball lose.

As it did two weeks ago in San Francisco, as it did last year against New Orleans, Denver and Cleveland, Ball Security again doomed the Steelers.

  • When asked if he was ready to take a moral victory away from this game, Mike Tomlin abruptly declined declaring, “No I don’t.

Nor should he. Your defense can take away the ball and wreak havoc all it wants in the opponent’s backfield. Your offense can improvise and find ways to make things happen either through the air or through the ground.

  • But it matters not if you fail to protect the ball with game on the line.

The Steelers can’t, and that’s why they are 1-4.

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What the Hell Happened? Blogger Reflects on Steelers News After 2 Weeks Away…

A lot can change in 2 and a half weeks in Steelers Nation. The Steelers ugly season opening loss to the Patriots came ahead of a business trip that would keep me off line and unable to write for 2 weeks. As on cue, all hell broke lose (more on that at the end.)

But, as I pointed out after James Harrison got cut during my first Christmas in the US in 17 years, sometimes not being able to blog is a blessing.

Here go my reactions in sequence.

Steelers vs Patriots,

Pouncey “forgets”to snap. Photo Credit: News.com.au

Steelers Lose to Patriots

I drank the Kool Aid. On paper, the Steelers 2019 squad was better than the 2018 squad that defeated the Patriots last December. And those Patriots had the look of a ’79 Steelers type squad to me – a dynasty enjoying its last roar before falling and fading. Plus the Steelers looked really good in preseason.

I don’t know that I expected a win, but I did expect the Steelers to fight tooth and nail and for the game to go down to the wire.

  • Instead, the Steelers looked like they hadn’t so much as done a walk through in training camp.

They really came out flat in all three phases.

But it was only week one, we were told….

Steelers Trade Dobbs

I’m a sucker for underdogs like Joshua Dobbs. I was rooting for him since the day the Steelers drafted him. Yet, based on everything I read and what little I saw, he seemed to hit a plateau during the 2019 preseason campaign, and there was no question that Mason Rudolph should back up Ben Roethlisberger.

So the Steelers trading him for a 5th round pick seemed to be a smart move, even if it did depart from the Franchise’s core philosophy of always keeping 3 quarterbacks.

Besides, an extra 5th round pick would bolster their depleted capital going into the 2020 NFL Draft….

Ben Roethlisberger Injures His Elbow

So there I was, handing out tickets to the San Francisco Giants game, blissfully unaware of anything happening as the Steelers were playing the Seahawks, on the other side of the country.

At about the 6th inning I made it up to the luxury box my company had rented. I sit down, crack open a drink, scan the TV showing NFL scores, and I see Mason Rudolph’s passing numbers!

What??????

It didn’t take too long to find out that Ben Roethlisberger had left the game injured and that the Steelers had suffered yet another loss.

Well, we always knew that Ben Roethlisberger could suffer a season-ending injury, and now it has happened.

Steelers Trade 1st Round Pick for Minkah Fitizpatrick

I’m sitting there at a trade show, and I see a tweet from the Mexican Steelers WhatsApp group saying the Steelers have traded their 2020 1st round draft pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick.

  • This has to be wrong, because the Pittsburgh Steelers NEVER trade their first round draft pick. Right?

Well, it wasn’t wrong, it was right.

This one leaves me with mixed feelings. The Steelers philosophy of building through the draft is one that has served the franchise well. Just look at those 6 Lombardi’s and its overall outstanding record since 1969. Sure, Bobby Beathard built two and a half Super Bowl championship teams by trading draft picks for proven players.

  • But that’s not the Steelers Way.

Seeing the Steelers trade away a 1st round draft pick at the beginning of week three is kind of like trying to pen a love letter to your wife with your left hand. It just feels WRONG.

  • But this isn’t a one-sided story.

No disrespect to Joe Haden, but Minkah Fitzpatrick already looks like he could be the secondary’s most dynamic playmaker, and the secondary has not had a dynamic playmaker since Troy Polamalu in 2013.

Sean Davis’ injury is also a factor. With Sean Davis out, the Steelers were looking at the prospect of Kameron Kelly starting the rest of the year at free safety. Even if the rest of the Steelers defense starts living up to its pedigree, that could be enough to sink the unit by itself.

Steelers history junkies can look at how the Steelers defense cratered in 1988 when Cornell Gowdy manned the strong safety spot between Donnie Shell’s retirement and Carnell Lake’s arrival via the 1989 draft.

The Steelers do not play for draft position, and that philosophy has served them well. Bill Austin supposedly screwed the team by not losing enough in 1968 therefore depriving Pittsburgh of a shot at drafting O.J. Simpson. Chuck Noll had to settle for Joe Greene instead.

How did that turn out?

Beyond affirming the franchise’s commitment to winning, the Steelers also get Minkah Fitzpatrick at a very salary cap friendly contract for 2 years plus the 5th year option.

Steelers Trade for Nick Vannett

Just to keep things interesting, the Steelers then went and traded away one of those 5th round picks for tight end Nick Vannett.

  • Sometimes living in your hopes can animate your worst fears.

The Steelers gambled going into 2019 that 1. Vance McDonald’s relative health in 2018 would continue. 2. That Xavier Grimble was ready to be a true number 2 tight end.

We’re only 3 weeks into the season, and Vance McDonald has already missed action in multiple games. Xavier Grimble is probably a serviceable number 3 tight end, but he looked in over his head as a legit number 2, and certainly doesn’t seem capable of being a number 1. Besides, he’s hurt.

  • Really, the situation was no different than it was at safety with Sean Davis injured.

The Steelers made a move they had to make, but it came at the expense of yet another draft pick.

One Constant Remains

A lot can change in two weeks in Steelers Nation, but one constant remains: When I am unable to write, big things happen. Here’s a quick summary:

  • The Cowher-Donahoe feud came to a head in 2000 on my first trip to Argentina. Dan Rooney sided with The Chin
  • As the Rooneys themselves, agonized between Russ Grimm and Mike Tomlin, I was on vacation in Chile
  • Super Bowl week in 2009 found me in Tandil deep in the province of Buenos Aires
  • Super Bowl week in 2011 found me in Brazil where I missed Super Bowl XLV
  • When Bruce Arians got the ax in 2012 I was in New York City on vacation (Rumor has it I tried to write something only to get “caught” by my wife….)
  • When the Steelers decided to resign Antonio Brown in 2011 I was off on a weekend get away in Colonia Uruguay
  •  Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor retired on my first important business trip for a new job in 2015
  • Dan Rooney died the day I returned form another trip in 2017
  • James Harrison got cut and signed with the Patriots during the first Christmas I celebrated in the US in 17 years

Yes, a lot has changed in the last two weeks. But somethings remain the same.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to 49ers – A Classroom Turned Upside Down

From the grade book of a teacher who left for a 10 day professional conference only to return to find his classroom completely turned upside down, here is the Steelers Report Card for the loss to the 49ers.

Dante Pettis, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs 49ers

Dante Pettis scores as Bud Dupree is helpless to stop him. Photo Credit: Lachlan Cunningham, Getty Images, Via SF Gate

Quarterback
Those who’ve suggested rushing the Roethlisberger era to an end to begin rebuilding sooner rather later experienced reality therapy yesterday. To be clear, Mason Rudolph does not deserve to be a scapegoat. But even if his passing number were on par with Ben Roethlisberger and Neil O’Donnell’s debuts, Rudolph looked like a 3rd rounder making his first start rather than that of a franchise quarterback. Mason Rudolph did some nice things, made some ugly mistakes but ultimately couldn’t spark the team to a win. Grade: C

Running Backs
James Conner ran for 43 yards on 13 carries and looked OK as a rusher at times. He didn’t have a lot of help from the offensive line. Worse yet, he had yet another fumble in a critical moment, which is at least the third time that has happened in less than 16 full starts. Benny Snell had 6 yards on 3 carries and Jaylen Samuels ran some pass routes but didn’t see a ball thrown his way. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald had one catch on 2 carries and then left the game injured. Xavier Grimble had 1 catch for 3 yards in his place, and his presence in the blocking game was about as pronounced as his role in the passing game. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster took one to the house showing the he does indeed retain his big play capability. But he was largely a non-factor outside of that play. Diontae Johnson looked good in his first start, but dropped at least one pass he should have caught. James Washington had two catches for 14 yards and is looking like a preseason-practice hero who doesn’t deliver on game day. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph only got sacked twice, but had to scramble 4 times and at other times had to throw it away. The 49ers also recorded 5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Championship caliber offensive line play can elevate average running and passing games. But the Steelers aren’t getting anywhere near championship caliber play from their offensive line. Grade: D

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line harassed Jimmy Garoppolo, but the 49ers almost ran at will, particularly when they needed to. That’s not 100% their responsibility, but the line is where stout run defense starts. Grade: C-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had an interception, fumble recovery, two passes defensed and two quarterback hits. Nice to see a premium pick delivering. Devin Bush had two fumble recoveries and led the team in tackles, but his inexperience continues to show. Bud Dupree got good pressure and helped force an interception. Mark Barron has yet to justify the free agency dollars the Steelers invested in him. The 49ers moved the ball in the 2nd half when they needed to, and the Steelers linebackers could not come up with a play to stop them. Grade: C

Secondary
Whether the Steelers decision to mortgage their future by trading for Minkah Fitzpatrick is unknown here today. But one thing is clear, he is easily the most dynamic member of the secondary. His interception off of a Joe Haden deflection was exactly the type of playmaking the Steelers secondary has been starved of for a long time. Terrell Edmunds was second in tackles, but has yet to make a splash play. Steven Nelson’s name hasn’t been heard much. The Steelers needed another play from the secondary in the 2nd half. They didn’t get it. Grade: C

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made both of his field goals and both extra points. Jordan Berry averaged 52.3 yards punting. All good. However, the kick return team allowed 25 yards per return, and the punt return team allowed 10 yards per return. Given the Steelers limitations on offense, this team cannot afford to sacrifice this type of field position. Grade: C-

Coaching
The Steelers coaches tried to establish the run to give Mason Rudolph a break. It didn’t work. The Steelers offensive line is doing a passable job in protecting the quarterback, but its run blocking leaves a lot to be desired.

Randy Fitchner made changes to the Steelers wide receiving corps, and there was some marginal improvement, but the wide outs are struggling to create separation. Why was Jaylen Samuels not used in the running game?

On defense the Steelers got opportunistic, which not something that can be said of recent Steelers defenses. However, the offense could not take advantage of those turnovers. Neither could the defense step up and make a stop when the team needed it.

  • Which is becoming a recurring theme.

Mike Tomlin, Randy Fitchner and Keith Butler have some work to do. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
If there is any unequivocal bright spot in this dismal Steelers 2019 season it is this man. Against the 49ers he added another sack, made a tackle behind the line of scrimmage and harassed the passer all day, and for that Stephon Tuitt wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the 49ers.

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Report Card for Steelers 18-6 Preseason Win Over Titans

The Pittsburgh Steelers improved their 2019 preseason record to 3-0 as staff writer Tony Defeo issues his Report Card.

Devin Bush, Terrell Edmunds, Dion James, Steelers vs Titans preseason

Devin Bush and Terrell Edmunds sandwich Dion James. Photo Credit: Christopher Hanewine, USA Today, via Steel City Insider

Quarterbacks
Since the third preseason game is the one where starters play the most, Ben Roethlisberger started and played three series. It’s hard to say if Roethlisberger was rusty or just looking to get the night over with, considering most of his passes were of the very short variety.

On the night, Roethlisberger was 8 of 13 for 63 yards and a 17-yard touchdown strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster on his third and final series. Mason Rudolph entered the game late in the first quarter, and on his initial throw of the game, he connected with college buddy James Washington on a 41-yard touchdown pass. It wasn’t necessarily a stellar night for Rudolph, as he completed six of nine passes for 75 yards, a touchdown and an interception on what appeared to be some miscommunication between he and Washington. Joshua Dobbs entered the game in the second half and played the rest of the way, completing four of nine passes for 79 yards and an interception. However, his night wasn’t as bad as his stat-line indicated, and he could have used some help from rookie tight end Zach Gentry on the interception. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Running behind his full starting offensive line for the first time this preseason, James Conner looked like the player he was last year before injuries derailed him; Conner carried five times for 41 yards, while pulling in two passes for 15 yards. Even with the rookie Benny Snell Jr. out with an injury, it was a quiet night for Jaylen Samuels, who carried just four times for 16 yards and caught two passes for an additional 11. Trey Edmunds, the brother of Terrell, carried six times for 12 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
For the first time this preseason, JuJu Smith-Schuster looked like his old self. Whether that was the result of playing with his franchise quarterback or the result of getting his first extended action is a question that can’t be answered. But he did catch four passes for 37 yards and a touchdown. It was a relatively quiet night for Washington, aside from the touchdown, which was his only catch. Young hopeful, Trey Griffey reeled in one pass for 23 yards, while veteran hopeful, Johnny Holton only had two catches for 12 yards and didn’t help his cause on two sideline passes–one in-which the cornerback pulled him down out of bounds before he could get both feet in; and one in-which he was called for offensive pass interference–that could have made his night a little better. Brandon Reilly, a youngster Pittsburgh claimed off the waiver wire in July, had a decent night, pulling in two passes for 41 yards. Diontae Spencer, the punt return guru, didn’t do much in that regard, nor in the passing game, but he did gain 29 yards on an end-around. Grade: B

Tight Ends
It was another lost night for this unit. Vance McDonald, who fumbled on his lone reception a week earlier, dropped an early pass and wound up with zero on the night. The rookie Gentry had one catch for 15 yards, but could have had another had he reeled in the relatively high pass by Dobbs that resulted in his interception. Xavier Grimble continues to play uninspired football in his quest to replace Jesse James as the number two tight end. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Much to no one’s surprise, the highly decorated unit dominated when all five starters — Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Matt Feiler — were in the lineup. Roethlisberger didn’t get touched, and, to reiterate, Conner looked spectacular. Grade: A

Defensive Line

As he’s sometimes wont to do when clicking on all cylinders, Stephon Tuitt looked like a man among boys, posting two sacks and the game’s first points when one of those resulted in a safety. Cam Heyward contributed four tackles and a sack, and even Dan McCullers played extensively and recorded four tackles. Grade: A-

Linebackers
Another impressive night for the unit as a whole. As for the outside linebackers, T.J. Watt had two tackles, while roster hopeful, Tuzar Skipper added four of his own along with yet another sack. Over to the inside linebackers. Vince Williams had two tackles and a sack. Rookie Ulysees Gilbert III didn’t jump off the screen, but he was still quite active, adding five more tackles to his preseason resume. It was a quiet night for Devin Bush, but he again looked like he belonged, while long-shot Robert Spillane stated his case with five tackles and a sack. Grade: A

Secondary
No Joe Haden again, but Steven Nelson continued to look like a more than solid free-agent addition as the other starting cornerback. It was another really good showing for Artie Burns, while rookie Justin Layne appeared to improve from his pro debut two weeks earlier. As for the safeties, Kameron Kelly had yet another active night with four tackles, while starting free safety Sean Davis added two before exiting with an ankle injury. Grade: B

Special Teams
The kickers were once again perfect, as Chris Boswell connected on an extra point, while Matthew Wright added a 31-yard field goal in the second half.

  • Incumbent punter Jordan Berry posted 200 yards on four boots, while challenger Ian Berryman added 90 yards on two.

Ryan Switzer was the surprise kick-returner on the evening, averaging 19 yards on three returns, while also returning one punt for 20 yards. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero

Brandon Reilly for his totally unexpected contributions.

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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.

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Does a QB Improve a WR? or Does a WR Improve QB? Could Donte Moncrief Answer the Question?

Does a good quarterback make a wide receiver better? Or does a good wide receiver make a quarterback better? Let’s skip the suspense and concede that Steelers free agent Donte Moncrief won’t settle one of football’s existential questions in 2019.

  • Nonetheless, he seems poised to add to the conversation.

While pundits have praised Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for their uncharacteristic aggressiveness in bringing Steve Nelson, Mark Barron and Devin Bush to Pittsburgh, reaction to Donte Moncrief’s arrival has been more tepid.

Donte Moncrief,

Steelers wide receiver Donte Moncrief, @ OTAs in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

While no one would call the 3rd round pick from the 2014 NFL Draft a “bust” (he certainly has outperformed Dri Archer, whom the Steelers took 7 picks later) thus far his NFL career “lacks the ‘Wow’ factor.” Perhaps more ominously, his catch percentage is trending towards the mid to low 50’s.

  • “Ah, but what about the quarterbacks that have been throwing to him?” Donte Moncrief defenders retort.

During his first three seasons in the NFL, Donte Moncrief was catching passes from Andrew Luck. During 2017 and 2018 he had was Jacoby Brissett and Blake Bortles tossing him the ball. So logically, with Ben Roethlisberger hawking the pigskin his way, Moncrief is going to shine, right?

  • Maybe. Maybe not.

Football is the ultimate team game. Even the best running back needs a good offensive line to excel. (See Jerome Bettis’ dip in productivity in 1998 and 1999 behind some mediocre offensive lines.)

And while the relationship between pass rush and interceptions is more tenuous than many think, a quarterback under duress is going to make more mistakes than one who has all day to throw. (Go back and watch the tape. James Harrison was closing in on Joe Flacco on Troy Polamalu’s pick-six in the ’08 AFC Championship game.)

  • Ironically, the relationship between the performance of quarterbacks and wide receivers is more directly, yet the impact is harder to define.

It is more direct because a quarterback needs a receiver to catch his passes, and the receiver obviously can’t catch passes that are never thrown. In contrast, great running backs can and do make something out of nothing when blocking breaks down.

  • Quarterbacks can improvise on broken plays, but it means little if the receiver drops the ball.

Recently, Ben Roethlisberger credited Antonio Brown for his success. This was as much about Ben Roethlisberger showing he’s a bigger man than Brown than it is about expressing truth. Yes, during Ben Roethlisberger’s 2017 early season slump, Antonio Brown DID make Ben Roethlisberger look like a better quarterback than his performance really indicated.

All three are quality wide outs. Hines Ward should but probably won’t get Hall of Fame consideration. But each is far less talented than Antonio Brown.

Moving beyond Antonio Brown, a look at how the other two third of “Young Money” have preformed outside of Pittsburgh further complicates the picture. Mike Wallace has never had a quarterback as good as Ben Roethlisberger throwing his way in Miami, Minnesota or Baltimore, and he’s struggled consistently match the performance of his Pittsburgh days.

Contrast that with Emmanuel Sanders, who has generally played better since departing for Denver. But Sanders’ success has come both with Peyton Manning throwing him the ball as well as Manning’s  successors.

  • So that really doesn’t help us answer the question.

Nor should that surprise Steelers fans, who saw John Stallworth post far better statistical seasons catching balls from Mark Malone and David Woodley than he did when Terry Bradshaw stood under center. But no one in their right mind would choose a Malone-Stallworth or a Woodley-Stallworth tandem over Bradshaw-Stallworth.

  • It is hard to know exactly what role Donte Moncrief will play in the Steelers 2019 offense.

JuJu Smith-Schuster enters the season as the number 1 receiver, and both coaches and journalists tell us that if James Washington is poised to make a leap in his sophomore year. If that happens then the best-case scenario for Donte Moncrief is that he emerges as the number 3 receiver in the Steelers offense.

  • And if Donte Moncrief shines in that role, Ben Roethlisberger will deserve some of the credit.

But it will also be true that opposing defense will have been focusing on covering Smith-Schuster, Washington and Vance McDonald. So I guess Donte Moncrief presence in Pittsburgh might not contribute much to the QB improves WR/WR improves QB quandary.

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