Steelers 2020 Tight End Draft Needs — Does Eric Ebron Change Priorities for Pittsburgh?

It wasn’t long ago that the Steelers appeared to be severely lacking at the tight end position. That seemed to change with the free agent acquisition of Eric Ebron in March. But was Eric Ebron enough of an addition to make tight end less of a priority for the 2020 NFL Draft? We’re about to answer that question.

Eric Ebron, Colts

New Steelers tight end Eric Ebron, with the Colts in 2019. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

It’s fairly accurate to make the word starters plural when discussing the tight end position in the Steelers offense. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, it was mostly a singular term in 2019–and that may have even been a stretch.

After coming off an exceptional and breakout season in 2018, veteran Vance McDonald seemed to disappear a year ago, catching just 38 passes for 273 yards and three scores. In fairness to McDonald, however, he, like every other receiving target, may have been severely limited due to the mostly season-long absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

As for others stepping up to fill the void left by Jesse James, who inked a free agent deal with the Lions? Xavier Grimble, a veteran who was looking to move up the depth chart following James’ departure, was injured and then waived. Nick Vannett, a four-year veteran Pittsburgh acquired in a trade with the Seahawks early in the year, contributed just 13 receptions for 166 yards in the number two role.

  • So you can see why the concern was there to add another viable weapon at tight end.

And viable, Ebron is. Yes, like McDonald, Ebron, who made the Pro Bowl in 2018, fell off a season ago, catching just 31 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns. But just like McDonald, Ebron was hit with the sudden loss of his franchise quarterback, thanks to the surprising retirement of Andrew Luck right before the start of the regular season. And while it is true that Jacoby Brissett, the young Colts quarterback who stepped in to take Luck’s place, was much further along in experience and development than both Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges a season ago, his performance wasn’t quite on the level of Luck’s.

And we would be remiss without mentioning Ebron’s ankle injury that forced Indianapolis to place him on Injured Reserve late in the 2019 season.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Backups

Coming into his rookie season as a fifth-round pick out of Michigan, Zach Gentry, a converted quarterback who caught 49 passes in his college career, was expected to be a bit of a developmental project at the tight end spot. Gentry didn’t disappoint in that regard, as he appeared in just four games and caught one pass.

Rounding out Pittsburgh’s depth chart at the tight end spot is Christian Scotland-Williamson, a native of Waltham Forest, England and a former rugby player. Scotland-Williamson spent the previous two seasons on Pittsburgh’s practice squad and was signed to a reserve/future contract following the 2019 season.

The Steelers 2020 Tight End Draft Needs

Again, what looked like a position of great need heading into free agency now seems to be one of strength, thanks to the addition of Ebron. If he can return to his Pro Bowl form under Ben Roethlisberger, he could be a dangerous weapon in Pittsburgh’s offense.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Ebron has a history of decent production playing with high-caliber quarterbacks — his first quarterback was Matthew Stafford after the Lions picked him in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft— and he has 283 receptions for just under 3200 yards in his six-year career.

Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron should complement each other quite nicely moving forward.

As for adding depth behind the top two tight ends? It should be a priority, but only a Moderate-Low one.

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Tight Spot. Eric Ebron Signing Shows Steelers Still Struggle to Replace Heath Miller

As the dust is settling on the first phase of free agency, reaction is generally positive to the Steelers signing of Eric Ebron, a former first round draft pick at tight end who most recently played for the Colts. If reports are correct, the Steelers have signed Eric Ebron to a 2 year 12 million dollar contract.

Eric Ebron, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Terrell Edmunds

New Steelers tight end Eric Ebron gets gang tackled in 2019. Photo Credit: 937thefan.radio.com

The move comes as a mild surprise, given that Vance McDonald had been slotted as a possible salary cap casualty (and likely would have been gone had the NFLPA not ratified the CBA.)

So instead of jettisoning one high-priced tight end, and going with a bargain-basement renewal of Nick Vannett’s contract, untested rising sophomore Zach Gentry and an unknown draft pick, the Steelers will field two veteran tight ends.

  • That makes sense, as the Steelers clearly need to beef up their production at tight end.

As mentioned above, Eric Ebron’s arrival in Pittsburgh has been met with qualified praise. The key is “qualified.” At the Tribune-Review, Tim Benz conceded that we should be “concerned” and “skeptical” about Eric Ebron’s attitude issues, but argued the Steelers were better for “giving him a shot.”

At The Athletic, Mark Kaboly praised Ebron’s athletic prowess, while warning of his “poor blocking, bad hands and a reputation as a diva….” Over at Steel City Inside, Matt C. Steel admits to having “questions about Ebron as a person and a player.” Yet, Steel is excited about Ebron’s arrival because of his athletic talent and because of the deeper significance that the signing suggests about the evolution of the Steelers offense.

The fact that commentators need to couch their analysis with qualifiers underlines one simple truth:

  • Four years after his retirement, the Steelers are still struggling to replace Heath Miller.

Can Eric Ebron change that? Perhaps. But history suggests fans should be skeptical.

Dependability is Hard to Replace

If you had to name 1 unsung hero of the Steelers 2nd Super Bowl era, you’d be wise to name Heath Miller. No, Heath Miller didn’t toil in obscurity in the shadow of multiple Lombardis the way, say Larry Brown did. Those spontaneous cheer’s of “Heath!” every time he caught the ball offer sufficient proof.

Jesse James.

Jesse James scores against the Panthers.

But if you had to make a list of the 4 most essential players of the Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII teams, you’d like name Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward on offense and Troy Polamalu and James Farrior on defense.

Sure, you wouldn’t have to expand the size of the list too much to get to Heath Miller’s name, but several other names would probably make it before Miller.

Heath Miller didn’t bring a lot of star power to the offense, instead he delivered something that is almost intangible: Dependability.

The Steelers drafted Jesse James in 2015, Miller’s last year, and to be honest, Jesse James did deliver some of that dependability in the passing game, albeit on a smaller scale. Knowing that James really wasn’t a viable replacement for Miller, the Steelers made a splash free agent signing of Ladarius Green.

  • Like Ebron, Green had the speed an athleticism to stretch the field and, on paper, revolutionize the Steelers offense.

The truth is, during his stint as a Steeler, Ladarius Green delivered “field flipping” capability to the Steelers offense. Unfortunately, Ladarius Green’s Steelers career lasted all of 6 games. Fast forward to the tail end of the 2017 preseason where the Steelers did the (then) uncharacteristic and traded for Vance McDonald.

But injuries kept McDonald on the sideline for much of the 2017 regular season, and he virtually disappeared in 2019. The Steelers (as well as yours truly) thought they’d developed a Xavier Grimble as a legit number 2 tight end going into 2019. They hadn’t and Kevin Colbert had to spend precious draft capital to trade for Nick Vannett.

Vannett did well given the circumstances, but clearly, he wasn’t the answer.

  • Will Eric Ebron be any different?

Maybe. But the Steelers best options at tight end since Miller’s retirement have been James and McDonald. More athletic players like Ladarius Green have struggled. Eric Ebron would fit the latter category, but as Mike Tomlin would insist, “He is writing is own story.”

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Steelers Need to Beef Up at Tight End, But Expect Free Agent Nick Vannett to Depart Pittsburgh

One can debate whether quality tight end play is an essential ingredient to a Steelers Super Bowl season, but Heath Miller’s dependability sure did contribute to wins in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

  • Since Heath Miller retired, the Steelers have struggled to play consistently well at tight end.

One move they made to remedy that in 2019 was to bring in Nick Vannett. At 6’6″ and 261 lbs, Nick Vannett certainly looks the part. However, is he productive enough to be a part of Pittsburgh’s offense in 2020 and beyond? That’s what we’re about to discuss.

Nick Vannett, Steelers vs Benglas

Nick Vannett in his first game as a Steeler. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Capsule Profile of Nick Vannett’s Career with the Steelers

Nick Vannett spent his first three full seasons as a member of the Seattle Seahawks, who selected him out of Ohio State in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. But with the likes of Jimmy Graham taking most of the reps as the starting tight end, Nick Vannett could never break through the glass ceiling in Seattle, as he started just 16 games and caught 67 passes through the 2019 season, before being traded to Pittsburgh last September in exchange for a fifth-round draft pick.

As the number two tight end behind Vance McDonald, however, Vannett caught only 13 passes for 128 yards over the final 13 weeks. He did step in and start his first game for the Steelers, making a critical third down conversion catch in helping the Steelers beat the Bengals for their first win of 2019.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Nick Vannett in 2020

Yes, Nick Vannett’s productivity was lacking a season ago, but with the Steelers quarterback situation so compromised with the loss of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the final 14 games, very few skill position players showed out.

Again, Nick Vannett looks the part and could certainly benefit from catching passes from a healthy Roethlisberger in 2020. Would he surpass Vance McDonald in terms of productivity? Not likely. However, he could be the number two tight end the offense has been missing since Jesse James left via free agency following the 2018 season.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Nick Vannett in 2020

Vannett’s rookie contract averaged just over $760,000 per year, according to Spotrac. While his productivity certainly wouldn’t warrant the type of contract that Jesse James signed with the Lions last year, for example (James inked a four-year deal worth $25 million and included $11 million in guaranteed money — and caught just 16 passes last year), he’s likely to get a raise in free agency.

With the Steelers again up against the cap — even with an increased ceiling after the NFLPA voted to approve the new Collective Bargaining Agreement on Sunday — paying an unproductive number two tight end $1 million-plus may not be a luxury the team can afford.

Besides, Zach Gentry, a fifth-round pick out of Michigan a year ago, is looking to make a leap in his sophomore year. And while his productivity was basically non-existent in his rookie season, he’s a much younger and much cheaper alternative as the number two tight end. And even if Gentry is destined to be a number three tight end, this doesn’t mean the Steelers won’t look to the early rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft to address the position with someone with more upside than Vannett.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Nick Vannett

I think this is an easy call for the Steelers. Vance McDonald, whose salary will eat up over $7 million in cap space next season, appears to be sticking around.

The team needs to save money anywhere it can, and there’s no point in paying two tight ends seven-figure salaries. Therefore, the Steelers will move on from Nick Vannett, hope for improvements from Zach Gentry in his second season, and fortify the position in the upcoming draft.

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NFLPA Approves CBA, Simplifying Free Agency for Steelers in 2020

A majority of the National Football League’s Player’s Association have voted to approve the new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NFL Owners. The new CBA runs through 2031 ensuring another decade of NFL labor peace.

The deal also paves the way for an expanded regular season and playoffs, gives the players a slightly larger chunk of the NFL’s revenue pie, loosens marijuana testing requirements and penalties and curtails some of Roger Goodell’s discipline power.

  • In the short term, it also simplifies the Steelers 2020 salary cap situation.

Prior to ratification of the CBA, the Pittsburgh Steelers were approximately 2 million dollars over the projected 2020 salary cap. The new CBA is expected to bump that up by about 6 million. That extra six million gives the Steelers a little breathing room, but still will not save them from having to make moves to operate.

Bud Dupree, Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Bud Dupree strip sacks Ryan Finley. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Before the CBA was ratified, conventional wisdom held that the Steelers would probably need to cut 4 or 5 veterans to keep Bud Dupree, retain a few other free agents, sign their draft class and have some in-season breathing space.

It is likely that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin will still make a few “We’ve decided to go in a different direction calls” over the next few days.

  • But they’ll probably be able to make fewer calls because the new CBA will allow the Steelers greater flexibility to renegotiate contracts.

Renegotiating contracts to gain short-term salary cap space is a tactic which the Steelers once scorned, but has been a staple of Steelers policy for the last decade and represents one of the biggest differences between Art Rooney II’s leadership and that of his father Dan Rooney.

Who Is on the Chopping Block?

The players the Steelers are most likely to release remain (or perhaps traded) are still Ramon Foster, Anthony Chickillo and Mark Barron. However, the new CBA may make it easier for the Steelers to keep Vance McDonald.

One beneficiary could likely be Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster as the new CBA simplifies any potential contract extension.

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Bud Dupree Free Agent Profile – Should the Steelers Keep Him in Pittsburgh?

First Round Draft Picks generate attention. Their success or failure is pronounced the moment their names are announced.

  • People form opinions on First Round Draft Picks fast.

Shades of grey rarely nuance these opinions. Such is the nature of the beast. Then there is Bud Dupree, whose journey as a First Round Pick might sit in a class all of its own as his arrival at free agency shows….

Bud Dupree, Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Bud Dupree strip sacks Ryan Finley. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Capsule Profile of Bud Dupree’s Career with the Steelers

It was May 1st, the 2015 NFL Draft was in full swing and for the second time in 4 years a “Top Ten Talent” was falling towards Pittsburgh. In 2012 David DeCastro fell. In 2015, it was Bud Dupree.

  • The Steelers snatched both players immediately.
  • Everyone cheered their pick of DeCastro yet picking Bud Dupree drew a mixed response.

No one questioned Bud Dupree’s athletic talent, but everyone agreed he was “project” who needed to develop. Bud Dupree won the starting job, and when he notched 3 sacks in his first 5 games it looked like the rookie was going to prove a lot of people wrong.

  • But then Bud Dupree hit the proverbial “rookie wall” followed by a 2016 season that began with Dupree on injured reserve.

The Steelers activated him in week 10 and within a few games he was exploding for 2.5 sacks against the Bills and followed by consecutive sacks in the Steelers final two wins of 2016.

  • Bud Dupree seemed primed for big things.

Unfortunately, Dupree disappointed during his next two seasons. Sack production remained static and flipping him with T.J. Watt helped T.J. Watt, but did nothing for Dupree. Coaches leaked that Dupree was doing well in pass coverage. That might have been true, but these were also the same coaches that assured us, off the record, that Jarvis Jones’ was providing robust run support support…..

The Steelers nonetheless picked up his 5th year option, with Kevin Colbert proclaiming that Dupree was only “scratching the surface” of his talents.

Bud Dupree, Baker Mayfield, Bud Dupree strip sack Baker Mayfield

Bud Dupree strip sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

In 2019, Bud Dupree exploded justifying the faith the Steelers had entrusted in him. Bud Dupree registered 11.5 quarterback sacks. Perhaps more importantly, he also forced 4 fumbles, helping change the course of several games. While some 2nd generation stats suggest that Bud Dupree’s wasn’t as dominating as his 2019 sack total suggests, he did give the Steelers their first double-digit outside linebacker sack duo for the first time since the days of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Bud Dupree

For the first time since 2010, the Steelers fielded a championship caliber defense. While Minkah Fitzpatrick and Steven Nelson certainly contributed to that, the constant stream of splash plays delivered by T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree were equally important.

Over the last decade the Steelers have invested 3 first round picks, on 2nd round pick, and called Jamese Harrison out of retirement all in an effort to field a dominating duo of outside linebackers.

The Steelers have invested in Dupree’s development, and he delivered in his first year under the direct tutelage of Keith Butler. Is now the time to roll the dice by starting either Anthony Chickillo, Ola Adeniyi or Tupac Skipper starting in his place?

Whether it is by a long-term deal or the franchise tag, the Steelers have options to keep Bud Dupree in Pittsburgh in 2020. They must make sure that happens.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Bud Dupree in 2020

1 out of 5 is not bad right? Bud Dupree flopped in his first four years in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers gave him a fifth year because they had no other choice. And they hedged by resigning Anthony Chickillo to a larger than expected contract.

  • Given all of the playmakers he Steelers field on defense, could Bud Dupree do anything but excel?

Let another team overpay Bud Dupree, just as teams routinely overpaid Steelers free agents in the 1990’s. Moreover, to resign Bud Dupree the Steelers would need to part ways with veterans such as Vance McDonald, Mark Barron, Ramon Foster and/or Anthony Chickillo, depleting depth across their roster.

Would you bet your starting tight end, several other key players and $16 million that Bud Dupree can deliver a repeat performance of 2019?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Bud Dupree

There are a lot of opinions out there as to what the Steeler should do about Bud Dupree. But there is a lot more harder, objective evidence pointing to what Pittsburgh will do.

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have all gone on record listing keeping Bud Dupree as a priority for Pittsburgh this off season.

  • The only real question is which veteran players get cut to make salary cap room for Bud Dupree.

Expect Bud Dupree to be back with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2020.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for 2019 Season – Better Late Than Never Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is horrendously late in turning in his grade sheet, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2019 season.

T.J. Watt, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

T.J. Watt strip sacks Ryan Fitzpatrick. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterbacks
2019 cemented the Tomlin era as the Golden Age of 3rd String Steelers’ Quarterbacks as Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges all started games. Ben Roethlisberger played poorly in both of his appearances. Was it elbow trouble or just early season rust? We’ll never know. Mason Rudolph made uneven progress until the Cleveland game. Devlin Hodges won his first 3 starts, but fell when the training wheels came off against the Bills. Steelers’ quarterbacks played well enough to lead the team to 8 wins, but they did not key any of those wins. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Steelers planned to split carries, but few foresaw the distribution that evolved between James Conner, Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Trey Edmunds AND Kerrith Whyte. While James Conner was injured, running back by committee succeeded. But Conner proved he was the cream of the group when he returned. The running backs were hardly a “strength” but they were generally good enough. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
With You Know Who out of Pittsburgh, the tight end’s role in the passing game should have grown. It did not. Maybe it wasn’t his fault, but Vance McDonald was a non-factor in the passing game. Put charitably, his effort at blocking was suspect. Nick Vannett did what was asked of him and has legitimate “upside.” Zach Gentry did well in spot duty. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends in 2019. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
Rookie Diontae Johnson led the Steelers in both targets and catches, something no one foresaw. James Washington had a solid sophomore year, translating preseason and practice flashes into the regular season. Injuries limited JuJu Smith-Schuster to 12 games making it hard to judge his performance. Johnny Holton is excellent on special teams, but adds nothing to the passing game. Deon Cain flashed. Grade: C

Offensive Line
This unit has taken a lot of heat. Some of it is justified. The Steelers have invested heavily in their offensive line, and 2019 did not deliver a good return. Early in 2019 pass blocking was solid, while run blocking lagged. Run blocking improved, but pass protection lagged as the year progressed. Craig Wolfley argues that expecting the line to carry the entire offense absent so many playmakers is unreasonable. He’s right. Still, the Steelers needed more from their offensive line in 2019 and didn’t get it. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
How good was the 2019 Steelers’ defensive line? Try so good that it could lose Stephon Tuitt, their best player 6 games in, and still see Cam Heyward play well enough to earn mention among names such as Greene, Holmes, White, Greenwood and Smith. Oh, and Javon Hargrave likely established himself as 2020’s best defensive free agent. Sure, a picky person could argue the Steelers were a little too vulnerable to the run at times. Picky is as picky does. This unit was excellent. Grade: A

Cam Heyward, Todd Gurley, Cameron Heyward, Steelers vs Rams

Cam Heyward stones Todd Gurley in the 3rd quarter of the Steelers win over the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Linebackers
Under Keith Butler‘s tutelage, Bud Dupree finally played like a first round draft pick. Vince Williams continued his stout play at inside linebacker, while Devin Bush made an immediate impact. Mark Barron started slow, but he rebounded so strong that he limited Devin Bush’s snaps – although Bush still led the team in tackles.

In his third year in the league, T.J. Watt catapulted himself into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation with 14.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 8 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries and 8 defensed passes. Most importantly, T.J. Watt made those “splash plays” at critical moments in games. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s arrival transformed the Steelers secondary as he made 5 interceptions in his first 6 games while returning a fumble for a touchdown. Teams stopped throwing his way. That opened the door for Joe Haden to make 5 interceptions of his own. Mike Hilton rebounded from a shaky sophomore year and again looks like another Kevin Colbert Undrafted Rookie Free Agent steal. Terrell Edmunds disappointed, failing to flash any of the playmaking ability you’d expect from first rounder. Grade: A-

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots in a 29 yard field goal against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

Special Teams
Chris Boswell reversed his Russian roulette routine of 2018 and returned as the Wizard of Boz in 2019. Jordan Berry started off strong only to fade, with poor punts and/or critical errors contributing to losses to the Bills and the Ravens.

While he was probably playing injured for most of the season, Ryan Switzer’s returns were mediocre, although he was sure handed. Diontae Johnson had difficulty fielding kicks early in the season, but found his legs and gave the Steelers some spark to their punt returns.

The coverage of Danny Smith’s units was spotty. They didn’t give up any touchdowns, but did give up too many “longish” returns. While they stopped one fake punt attempt, they gave up two more and badly botched one of their own. Grade: C

Coaching
Randy Fichtner is taking a lot of heat. Some is knee-jerk nonsense but critiques that his formations and play calling are too predictable have some merit.

But to draw on a chess analogy, Fichtner lost his queen on the second move of the game and had to substitute pawns for his bishop and rook for large parts of the season. Given those circumstances, fielding and offense that was just good enough to scrape up enough plays to reach 8-8 doesn’t look too bad.

  • While it happened under the radar, Keith Butler’s defense began to improve at the tail end of 2018.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

But even those who witnessed the latent leap in the late season games against the Patriots and Saints, who would have predicted such a stunning turnaround in 2019? Injections of talent at cornerback, linebacker and safety fueled the lion’s share of the change, but the unit played as a much more cohesive group.

  • Finally, there’s Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers served as a punching bag throughout the 2019 off season as the national media took the side of You Know Who as well as Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers looked strong in preseason, only to fall flat in the opener, and then lose their franchise quarterback in week two. His replacement would get injured himself in week four, forcing Tomlin to turn to his 4th string quarterback.

  • The franchise could have folded at any number of points in the process.

Instead, Mike Tomlin focused his team on producing winning performances. Through it all, he never blinked. He never shied away from personnel decisions or from taking the calculated risks he is known for.

While Mike Tomlin would agree he doesn’t deserve “Coach of the Year” honors, 2019 might have been his best performance. Grade: A

Front Office
Kevin Colbert made three aggressive free agent signings, two of which bore fruit. When he shipped You Know Who off to Oakland, it looked like he got robbed. Now the Steelers look like stealers. Colbert continued by making a bold draft-day trade followed by a bolder in-season trade accompanied by another trade that addressed a critical need. Kevin Colbert then took Pittsburgh on practice squad poaching run that secured potential.

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Along the way, the front office made upwards of 60 roster moves during the season. Like the players on the field and the coaches on the sideline, the Front Office refused to throw in the towel when things got tough. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
Great players author highlight reels, generate press clippings and hear their names mentioned. But sometimes silence serves as a sign that a player is excelling at his craft. Such was the case of Steven Nelson in 2019. You didn’t hear the free agent corner’s name simply because he was shutting down his side of the field. For that, Steven Nelson wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2019 season.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Jets – As Good as it Gets? Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigning himself to the reality that his students’ best effort might just be enough to “get by” here is the Steelers Report Card from the loss to the Jets.

Bud Dupree, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Jets

Bud Dupree tackles Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
Devlin Hodges started the day and picked up right where he left off, throwing an interception 8 plays into the game. Later, after moving the team into the Red Zone, Hodges threw another interception. Mason Rudolph came in relief, and with some help from the defense put 10 points on the board in just over two minutes. But Rudolph got injured early in the 2nd half, and gave way to Hodges. Credit Hodges for maintaining his poise after being benched and ultimately delivering a pass on target. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
With just six carries James Conner both showed he is clearly the class of the backfield and showed why the Steelers can’t depend on him. Kerrith Whyte had a few nice runs as did Benny Snell, despite what the stat sheet says. Jaylen Samuels didn’t do much on the ground, but did damage in the passing game. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Nick Vannett and one pass for 18 yards and Vance McDonald had 3 passes for 9 yards. That’s a lot of passes for the tight ends in the current Steelers offense, although McDonald was the targeted receiver on the first interception, which might indicate why the coaches have avoided passing in the middle of the field. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson caught 8 of nine passes thrown his way, including the team’s only touchdown. James Washington was next with 5 catches for 41 yards, although he had his hands on two balls that he couldn’t catch, one of which would have been a difference maker, another would have won the game. (Frankly, both here catches that You Know Who would have found a way to make.) Deon Cain caught 2 passes for 10 yards. Grade: C

Offensive Line
The Steelers gave up 4 sacks, each of which seem to come at a more critical moment than the one that preceded it. Steelers quarterbacks where hit 7 times. Steelers ball carriers were dropped another 6 times behind the line of scrimmage.

Is it Mike Munchak’s absence? Is it age? Is it that line’s talents really were tailored to suit Ben Roethlisberger’s style of play? Is there some other X factor? some other factor? Who knows? But the Steelers offensive line had another disappointing performance on a day when they could have been difference makers. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 7 tackles and one QB hit, Javon Hargrave was next with 6 and a QB hit. Tyson Alualu had 5. The Steelers defensive line had a good day, but more pressure on the passer as well as just a little more to stop Le’Veon Bell could have made a difference. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Sam Darnold, Steelers vs Jets

T.J. Watt strip-sacks Sam Daronold. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Linebackers
Never let it be said that the Steelers can’t count on T.J. Watt to deliver big plays in a timely fashion. He did it again with his strip sack of Sam Darnold that set up the Steelers touchdown. Bud Dupree had a sack when helped force the Jets to settle for a field goal. Devin Bush had 5 tackles including dropping Le’Veon Bell for a loss. Mark Barron had 5 tackles and a “body block” of a key pass. Overall a good day for the linebackers. Grade: B

Secondary
Mike Hilton actually led the team in tackles and defensed a key pass early on. Minkah Fitzpatrick had 5 tackles but his pass interference penalty converted a third down for the Jets on their touchdown drive. Joe Haden defensed a pass as well, but that one could have been intercepted if not for Vyncint Smith going into full fledged defensive back mode. The Jets didn’t score on that drive, but a takeaway would have been nice.

Terrell Edmunds and Joe Haden were in perfect position on Robby Anderson’s touchdown. Given the ball’s placement it would have taken a superhero effort for either man to break that up. A superhero effort is in fact what the Steelers needed from the entire defense. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Braxton Berrios returned a punt for 20 yards on a drive where the Jets gained a total of 15 yards. Yet that was enough for Sam Ficken to knock in a 54 yard field goal. The Steelers also allowed the Jets to convert a 4th down because of a (perhaps bogus) neutral zone infraction. The Jets would have to punt later on that drive, but the conversion allowed them to milk a minute and change off of the clock and move the ball move the ball 11 yards down the field.

Diontae Johnson had three quality returns. Kerrith Whyte had 3 decent kick returns. Steelers kick coverage was excellent while Jordan Berry downed 3 punts inside the 20. Chris Boswell made both of his kicks.

The secondary hardly had a “poor day” but against the Jets, the Steelers needed their special teams to be truly special. And they weren’t quite special. Grade: C-

Coaching
It would be easy to take shots at Keith Butler‘s defense given the easy scoring drive and failure to stop Le’Veon Bell when he converted a third down with a 7 yard run in a drive the ended with a field goal.

  • Easy, but ultimately wrong.

The Steelers defense limited an NFL team with a hot quarterback to 1 touchdown and 3 field goals. Sure, a few more splash plays from the defense, a turnover in the second half for example could have been difference makers. But in the final analysis, the Steelers defense played well enough to win.

Randy Fichtner did try to establish the run, and didn’t limit his quarterbacks to easy dink and dunk throws. The offensive line remains a concern, and part of that falls on Fichtner’s shoulders.

  • But perhaps he did as well as he could with the players at his disposal.

One can second guess Mike Tomlin’s decision to start Devlin Hodges, but no one can question that he made the right move in pulling Duck when he did. And credit Mike Tomlin for this: When offered the chance to use injures explain away the loss, Tomlin didn’t blink, and reaffirmed “The Standard is the Standard.”

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Jets

JuJu Smith-Schuster can’t quite grab the final pass in the Steelers loss to the Jets. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Yes it is. And it also may be the case the Mike Tomlin has coaxed as much quality football out of this roster as he can. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
His pass catching numbers don’t dazzle, but the two passes he caught delivered 1st downs. And when the defense made its first interception of the day, he didn’t hesitate and made a text book tackle. After it was all over, he stood up and took the blame for not making a catch even You Know Who could have made. He did this all while playing hurt, and for that JuJu Smith-Schuster wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Jets.

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Grounded: Jets Defeat Steelers 16-10 as Injuries Puncture Pittsburgh’s Playoff Hopes

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to New York needing a win (and some help) to clinch a playoff berth. While they got the help they needed, the New York Jets nonetheless grounded the Steelers the tune of 16-10.

  • It was a hard-fought game full of ups and downs, unfortunate twists of fate and surprises.

The loss to the Jets followed the same narrative as it has all season for the Steelers. Although New York provided a new stage, as It has all season long, Injury remained Pittsburgh’s chief antagonist. Similarly, the difference between victory and defeat came down to the Steelers ability to compensate against the ravages of Injury.

James Washington, Marcus Maye, Steelers vs Jets

Marcus Maye breaks up a touchdown pass on James Washington. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Devlin’s Wounded Ducks Damage Pittsburgh’s Chances

The New York Jets started fast, leaning on  on Le’Veon Bell and a pass interference call against Minkah Fitzpatrick to secure scoring position. From there Sam Darnold threw a picture-perfect pass to Robby Anderson sandwiched between Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds to put the Jets up by 7 with barely 5 minutes elapsed.

The Steelers offense mixed some short passes and some quality runs to James Conner to get the Steelers going, but 8 plays into Pittsburgh’s first possession Devlin Hodges did something he’s seldom done this year – try a pass over the middle to Vance McDonald – and the Jets intercepted.

  • After trading a couple of punts, the Jets got back on the board again by knocking in a 54 yard field goal at the end of the first quarter.

The Steelers reached the Red Zone on the strength of  more James Conner running, a long pass to Diontae Johnson and a horse collar tackle on James Washington. However, once there Devlin Hodges tried to get the ball over the top of triple coverage on Jaylen Samuels and Marcus Maye intercepted him for his troubles.

With 5 minutes remaining in the 2nd half, the Steelers were down 10-0, a deficit which felt insurmountable.

Tomlin’s Surprise Switch

Perhaps “surprise” is a bit too dramatic. Mike Tomlin never formally named Devlin Hodges as his starter, and his chief criteria justifying the choices he made has been “he didn’t kill us.” Publicly, the Steelers have proceeded as if Devlin Hodges would close the year for the Steelers, even if reliable reporters sent mixed signals about the prospect of a QB change.

  • Two interceptions was enough for Mike Tomlin, sent Mason Rudolph in off of the bench.

It would be poetic to say that Rudolph sparked an immediate rally, but the Steelers first drive with Rudolph ended in a punt after six plays. But Steelers defense got the ball back and Mason Rudolph methodically moved the Steelers from their 14 into field goal range.

Chris Boswell got the Steelers on the board, and the Steelers defense got the ball back. Mason Rudolph hit Diontae Johnson for a 29 yard touchdown pass with 9 seconds remaining in the half.

The Steelers had tied the game by scoring 10 points in the half’s last 2:24. Going into the locker room, its seemed like Mason Rudolph and his Red Nose just might guide the Steelers home tonight….

When Great Defense Isn’t Enough

After the Jacksonville playoff debacle, Art Rooney II he argued that it is “difficult” to play defense in today’s NFL. He is right. The league has regulated the game in almost every way possible to increase both passing and scoring to keep the networks and fantasy owners happy.

Good defense in today’s NFL keeps a team in the game and gives the offense a chance to win it. Great defense in today’s NFL goes a step further giving the offense extra chances to win but securing turnovers. Dominant defense goes to the next level by doing all of the above plus turning the tables by scoring points of its own.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 defense has been dominant at times.

At other times, it has merely been great. The game against the Jets was one of those occasions. After Chris Boswell’s field goal, the Jets remained aggressive, and tried to score with 1:18 they had left.

  • T.J. Watt made them pay, when he strip sacked Sam Darnold.

As recounted above, the Steelers offense took advantage, and tied the game with a touchdown. In the second half, the Steelers defense limited the Jets to two field goals and forced 3 punts. Bud Dupree’s sack on 3rd and 9 helped force the Jets first field goal, but that was the half’s only splash play by the defense.

Splash plays or not, the Steelers defense held the Jets to two field goals in a second half that began with a 10-10 tie. In normal situations, that’s all you can ask for. But 2019 has been anything but normal for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Steelers Membership in “1 Touchdown a Game Club” Won’t Cut It

Mason Rudolph looked sharp in running 2 two minute drills to end the first half for the Steelers, the second of which ended in a touchdown.

This unfortunately exhausted the “1 touchdown a game” quota that Pittsburgh’s 2019 offense is permitted to produce. The Steelers played the entire second half without James Conner, who with just six carries clearly proved he’s the superior back to Kerrith Whyte and Benny Snell Jr.

  • On their third possession they lost Maurkice Pouncey.
  • Mason Rudolph got sacked/stuffed for a run that lost 5 yards on the next play.
  • Mason Rudolph kept the drive alive for 5 more plays thanks to a smart effort by JuJu Smith-Schuster.
  • But then Mason Rudolph was done for the day.

On the next drive Devlin Hodges did complete a pass for 15 yards. But soon after that he was sacked and then a failed exchange with B.J. Finney aborted a 3rd down conversion attempt. The Steelers next drive netted negative four yards. Their final effort saw James Washington get two hands on a ball in the end zone only to have it pushed away.

The Steelers had another shot, but another botched exchange saw Hodges fumble and fail to connect with JuJu Smith-Schuster. Alas, a second touchdown simply wasn’t in the cards for the Steelers offense at MetLife Stadium.

The Standard is the Standard, But…

After the game, reporters asked Mike Tomlin if losing a running back, a center and a quarterback to injury was too much to overcome. Tomlin balked at the suggestion, reaffirmed that “The Standard is the Standard,” and offered the easy example of the Steelers defense opening the game by giving up by giving up an easy touchdown.

  • Good for Mike Tomlin.

That’s the type of attitude that makes Mike Tomlin one of the best coaches in the NFL. It’s the type of attitude that can squeeze 8 wins out of a practice squad offense. And, he’s right on the merits. Devlin’s close but no cigar touchdown pass to Washington shows that the Steelers could have won.

  • But the truth is only so many rabbits to be pulled out of hats during an NFL season.

An offense that continually loses its top skill players while playing behind an underperforming offensive line can only take an NFL team so far. And that offense has taken the Steelers form controlling their own destiny just one week ago to needing a road victory over the Ravens and help to make the playoffs.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Bills – 2 Letter Grade Markdown for Tardiness Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who is marking himself down two full letter grades for being so late, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Sunday Night Football loss to the Bills.

Delvin Hodges, Shaq Lawson, Steelers vs Bills

Devlin Hodges tries to evade Shaq Lawson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Until Sunday night Devlin Hodges had soared above all expectations. Against the Bills the Duck fell to earth. Devlin Hodges threw a career high 38 passes against the Bills and in the process showed why his best role at this point is as a game manager. He threw four interceptions with each one being uglier than the first. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner return for his first action since getting a few carries against Cleveland and showed that he’s clearly the best rusher the Steelers have. Conner gained 42 yards on 8 carries and caught 4 passes for 9 yards, including the only touchdown. Kerrith Whyte 1 carry for 5 yards, Benny Snell had 2 for 1 yard and Jaylen Samuels had 2 for a loss. The running backs weren’t used enough, but that’s hardly their fault. Grade: B

Tight Ends
With Vance McDonald in the concussion protocol, Nick Vannett stepped into the starting role to catch 5 of 6 passes thrown to him for an economical 40 yards. Zach Gentry saw his first action in several weeks, and caught the only pass thrown to him. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
James Washington continued to show he is the class of the unit, catching 5 passes for 83 yards. He had 6 more passes thrown his way, but some of those were uncatchable. Diontae Johnson caught 5 of 7 passes thrown his way, but was not a factor. Tevin Jones had two passes thrown his way, including an end zone interception which he didn’t contest. Johnny Holton caught 2 passes for negative 2 yards. The Steelers needed more form their wide outs. Grade: C-

James Washington, Micah Hyde, Steelers vs Bills

James Washington catches a pass in front of Micah Hyde. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Offensive Line
Devlin Hodges was sacked 4 times and hit another 7 times and was generally under duress all night. The Steelers knew the Bills were going to applying pressure yet, the line failed to meet the challenge. In this site’s post-game write up, the line took a lot of heat for the 9 tackles for losses. But 4 of them were the sacks, and in the estimate of Steel City Insider’s “Heinzsight,” on the rest of the losses came on screens or Wildcat attempts. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the defensive line with 9 tackles and batted away a pass at a critical moment. Tyson Alualu had four tackles, a batted pass and forced a fumble that could have been a game-changer. Solid numbers, but the Bills ran the ball reasonably well, and there wasn’t much pressure on Josh Allen. Grade: C

Linebackers
Vince Williams led the unit in tackles splitting a sack with T.J. Watt who also batted away a pass. Bud Dupree had a quiet evening, while Devin Bush had 4 tackles including two for losses. Overall the linebacking was solid, but the Steelers could have used more splash from the unit. Grade: B-

Secondary
Steven Nelson had an interception which should have been a game changer. However, that must be balanced by the fact that John Brown made critical catch after critical catch. Terrell Edmunds led the team in tackles. Joe Haden blew his assignment on one of the Bills touchdowns. Grade: B-

Josh Brown, Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson can’t prevent Josh Brown from catching a pass for a first down. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Special Teams
Jordan Berry shanked his first punt of the season at the worst possible time. The Steelers gave up a 12 yard punt return, although Diontae Johnson had two solid returns, and Kerrith Whyte did a respectable job on kick returns. Chris Boswell was perfect kicking. Grade: D

Coaching
This was hardly a flawless game from Keith Butler’s defense. But the Bills only went the length of the field twice, and the Steelers defense did an excellent job in forcing a Red Zone turnover into a field goal situation.

  • The defense also secured two turn overs, both of which could have been game changers – had the offense capitalized.

Ah, yes, the offense. Randy Fichtner has taken a lot of heat in some quarters this season for his play calling. To a large extent, this site has refrained from joining the chorus because:

A. The Steelers have been winning
B. The Steelers have been fielding practice squad players at the skill positions

However, Randy Fichnter deserves the criticism he’s getting following the Bills game, and then some. As Ed Bouchette pointed out in The Athletic, after T.J. Watt’s forced fumble, the Steelers held a 10-7 lead, and lined up in the shotgun and called 3 straight pass plays, the second two of which ended in sacks.

The lopsided run pass ratio has come into focus, but as Jim Wexell pointed out, before the score was tied the ratio stood at 22-14. Point taken, but the Steelers didn’t seem committed to establish the run, which is perplexing, given how well James Conner was running.

  • Mike Tomlin has kept his team focused while walking on a tight rope.

His balancing act failed against the Bills costing them a victory in a game that the Steelers could and should have won. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers offensive line has been a disappointment this season, but offensive lineman have made some great individual, “Heads Up” plays. For the second straight week, an offensive lineman showed some extra hustle at a critical moment by ending a 49 yard interception return by Tre’Davious White at the 18. And for that, for the second straight week Matt Feiler wins the unsung hero award.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Cardinals – How Much to Penalize Special Teams Snafus?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is proud to see new members of his class step up when called upon, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Cardinals.

T.J. Watt, Kyle Murray, Steelers vs Cardinals

T.J. Watt prepares to intercept Kyle Muarry. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
For the second straight week an undrafted Devlin Hodges defeated a number one overall pick. Hodges was an economical 16 for 19 for 152, but he ran the two minute drill well, and stitched together two clock-consuming drives. He also coughed up the ball and unnecessarily stopped the clock late. Stil, it was a good day for Devlin. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The opening drive saw all four Steelers running backs touch the ball. Kerrith Whyte and Benny Snell clocked in at 41 yards total, with Whyte doing his damage on longer runs. Jaylen Samuels touched the ball 9 times, while Trey Edmunds had one catch for 7 yards. Benny Snell’s fumble helped give the Cardinals life, but other than that it was a good day for the running backs. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald had 1 catch for 3 yards before leaving the game with a concussion, leaving Nick Vannett as the lone healthy tight end. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
A week ago we were wondering if we should worry about Diontae Johnson, today he looks like a rookie on the rise, after making 3 critical catches in addition to a 16 yard reverse that helped secure victory. James Washington only had 4 catches for 33 yards, but drew a pass interference penalty and helped keep the clock moving. Deon Cain only had one catch, but it went for 22 yards and converted a third down. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Cardinals sacked Delvin Hodges 3 times and hit him 4 times. The Steelers average 4 yards per carry on the ground. Those are overwhelming numbers, but Pittsburgh did have an edge in time of possession which indicates that the offensive line turned in a respectable performance. Grade: C+

Kerrith Whyte, Devlin Hodges, Steelers vs Cardinals

Kerrith Whyte rushes for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Kyler Murray is a mobile quarterback, and mobile quarterbacks have hurt the Steelers by getting out of the pocket. Responsibility for containing quaterbacks begins with the defensive line, and Murray got all of 2 yards on 6 carries. Outside of a handful of runs, Arizona running backs were ineffective. Cam Heyward helped snuff out any chance of a Cardinal comeback with sack. Grade: B+

Linebackers
For the first time since September, T.J. Watt did not have a sack, but Watt made one of the most consequential plays of the game by interception Kyle Murray in the end zone. Mark Barron led the Steelers defense with 7 tackles including one sack, followed by Bud Dupree who had a sack and two tackles for losses. Vince Williams also had a tackle for a loss and critical 3rd down sack. Grade: B+

Secondary
Joe Haden logged his 3rd and 4th interceptions in the course of the last 30 days, and batted away two more passes. Minkah Fitzpatrick “only” had one tackle. But it was for a loss, and stuff out a QB run on 2nd and goal form the Steelers 3. Steven Nelson might not have had the “Splash” plays, but he neutralized a goal line pass for zero gain, and tied for the team lead in tackles. Terrell Edmunds shared that tie for the lead in tackles, and dropped one ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage. One of the reasons why Muarry was sacked so much was that he simply had nowhere to throw…. Grade: A-

Joe Haden, Chase Edmonds, Steelers vs Cardinals

Joe Haden intercepts a pass intended for Chase Edmonds. Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas, USA Today, via Behind the Steel Curtain

Special Teams
On the plus side, Diontae Johnson’s 85 yard punt return gave the Steelers the fast started they’d needed. Chris Boswell was perfect kicking and Jordan Berry boomed off a 69 yard punt….

…Which Pharoh Cooper returned for 29 yards. To make matters worse on the ensuing drive, the Cardinals converted a fake punt. Fortunately, Joe Haden ended that drive with an interception, but these types of special teams snafus are exactly the types plays that can fuel upsets by inferior teams.

Which brings us to the Steelers botched fake punt. Mike Tomlin is taking responsibly for it, although reports indicate that someone tried to call it off, but Jordan Berry failed to get the message. The play allowed the Cardinals to pull within 6:44 left to play. The error could have been catastrophic. Fortunately it wasn’t, but  it brings the group grade down. Grade: C-

Coaching
Randy Fichtner doesn’t have a reputation for being an offensive innovator, but he certainly has shown that he knows how to get the most out of the talent at his disposal. No one is going to confuse this offense with the Killer Bees, just as no one is going to confuse any of the defenses it has triumphed over for the ’85 Bears.

  • But Randy Fichtner is getting it done, with players that weren’t even on the roster, let along projected as starters, on opening day.

Keith Butler’s defense gave up one clean touchdown drive, but the unit stepped up and killed two more drives that were on the verge of scoring with interceptions. They also stoned another drive that reached their 3 forcing a field goal. Most of the Steelers turnovers have come at home, but Butler’s boys showed they were capable of taking it away on the road.

  • Finally, there’s Mike Tomlin.

With this win, Tomlin clinches his 13th consecutive non-losing season, and if you want to see first hand evidence of Tomlin’s coaching influence, look no further than the contrast between Diontae Johnson’s play against the Browns and against the Cardinals. Tomlin’s strength is as a leader of men, and he’s got the men on this team pulling together, and because of that, they’re winning. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero Award
Regardless of how the Steelers 2019 season ends, people will forget this play. In fact, many have forgotten it already. But on 1st and 10 from the Cardinals 23, with 1:08 remaining in the first half, Chandler Jones strip sacked Devlin Hodges.

The ball lie there for the taking and an Arizona recovery would wipe 3 all but certain points off the board. Matt Feiler jumped on the ball, and the Cardinals never had a chance and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Cardinals.

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