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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Did Steelers Meet ALL Their Needs in the 2019 NFL Draft? No. Now Chill Out

With the conclusion of the 2019 NFL Draft, one may wonder how well the Pittsburgh Steelers did in terms of improving their team for a championship run.

As is always the case this time of year, the opinions on that are mixed. But what about specific needs? Did Pittsburgh adequately address every single one?

  • The answer is: Highly Unlikely.

And it would be foolish to expect a team to do that anyway–at least not with high draft picks. Coming into the draft, the three biggest needs were believed to be inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver. And that’s why it was no surprise — despite general manager Kevin Colbert’s annual mantra of not necessarily drafting by need — that the Steelers used their first three draft choices to address those areas of their team.

On Thursday, the Steelers sent a 2019 second-round pick and a 2020 third-round pick (along with their own first-round pick, of course) to the Broncos in-order to move up in the first round to select Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush with the 10th overall pick.

Devin Bush, Steelers 1st round pick 2019, Steelers Devin Bush trade

Steelers 2019 1st round pick Devin Bush of the Michigan Wolverines Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski, USA Today via Saturdaytradition.com

On Friday, the Steelers used their first of two third-round picks (the one acquired from the Raiders in the Antonio Brown trade) to select receiver Diontae Johnson out of Toledo. With their original third-round draft pick, the Steelers took cornerback Justin Layne out of Michigan State.

“What about the depth at outside linebacker, safety, running back and tight end?” asked many fans following the first three selections.

  • This is a natural reaction, because the second a team addresses one need, someone comes along to worry about another position.

But as the title of this article suggests, you can’t hit every team need with every premium (first, second or third-round) selection. Some may say, then, that it was a mistake to part ways with this year’s second-round pick in-order to move up and get Bush.

Fine, but then you don’t get Bush. You likely spend your first-round pick on another position–probably cornerback–and use a second or third-round pick on a lesser talent at the inside linebacker spot.

Some argue that, instead of drafting Benny Snell Jr., a running back out of Kentucky, in the fourth round, the Steelers should have addressed the depth–or lack thereof–at outside linebacker. The theory is you can get a number three running back–with James Conner and Jaylen Samuels firmly affixed at the top of the running back depth chart, that appears to be Snell’s ceiling at the moment — much later in the draft — or even as an undrafted uookie free agent.

True, but it all depends on how much Kevin Colbert and the coaching staff value depth at running back, a position that has been decimated by injuries at playoff-time in recent years.

It also depends on what they think of the depth at outside linebacker behind T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. It’s safe to say they already know what they have in Anthony Chickillo, a former sixth-round pick out of Miami who was converted from a defensive end. As for Keion Adams (a seventh-round pick in 2017) and Ola Adeniyi (an undrafted free agent in 2018), the coaches see them every day in practice.

  • Perhaps they feel that one or both can provide adequate depth in 2019. That is something we’ll find out once training camp commences this summer.

As for the rest of the draft, if you think Vance McDonald is your number one tight end heading into 2019–and based on his production and salary, there’s no reason to think he isn’t — it wouldn’t seem wise to spend a high pick on one, hence the selection of Michigan’s tight end Zach Gentry in the fifth round. Based on Gentry’s college production, his ceiling screams number two or three tight end.

  • But, again, maybe that’s all Zach Gentry’s ceiling needs to be.

When it comes to the final four picks, which include an undersized edge rusher (Sutton Smith out of Northern Illinois), a defensive tackle (Isaiah Buggs out of Alabama), another inside linebacker (Ulysees Gilbert III out of Akron) and an offensive tackle (Derwin Gray out of Maryland), most likely, you’re hoping for a couple of special teams demons and some depth in the trenches.

  • In other words, your typical end of Day 3 draft menu.

No draft is perfect, and no team is ever going to have one that is universally loved by the experts and fans alike. All you can hope for is that a team addresses its most pressing needs early.

The Steelers appear to have done that in the 2019 NFL Draft. Did they address those needs with the right players? Only time will tell.

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Another Wolverine to Pittsburgh! Steelers Draft Zach Gentry, Tight End, Michigan in 5th Round of 2019 NFL Draft

It must have been déjà vu all over again in the Steelers draft room during the 5th round. Except this time it wasn’t a surprise. Four years ago when it came time for the Steelers to pick, they drafted Jesse James.

  • The Steelers followed form in the 5th round of the 2019 NFL Draft by picking Michigan’s Zack Gentry.

The move counted as a bit of a surprise, as Heath Miller was still going reasonably strong, and the team had just resigned Matt Spaeth. The move turned out to be a wise one, as Heath Miller retired in after the 2016 season, and injuries to Ladarius Green and Vance McDonald made Jesse James the defacto starter at tight end in 2016 and 2017.

  • The Steelers released 2018 practice squader Bucky Hodges just days before the draft, prompting many to think Pittsburgh would address the position sooner.

Instead, the Steelers drafted inside linebacker Devin Bush, wide receiver Dointae Johnson, cornerback Justin Layne, and running back Benny Snell before turning to Zack Gentry in the 5th round.

Zach Gentry, Steelers draft Zach Gentry 5th round 2019

Steelers draft Zach Gentry in 5th round of 2019 NFL Draft. Photo Credit: Mike Mulholland via MLive.com

Draft analyst Lance Zierlein (son of former Steelers offensive line coach Larry Zierlein) described Zack Gentry this way:

With his size and background at Michigan, teams might be tempted to play him as a combination tight end with run-blocking duties, but he’s much better-suited in space than in the trenches. Gentry runs pretty well and moves fluidly as a route-runner, but his hands and focus can be maddening. He showed flashes of what he could do with a more capable quarterback last year, but his disappointing workouts and testing might have pushed back and out of the draft.

Is is the case with Dontae Johnson and perhaps Benny Snell, the Steelers appear to value Zack Gentry a little more highly than do the pundits.

Zack Gentry Highlight Tape

Zack Gentry actually played quarterback during his freshman year for the Wolverines, sat out 2016 presumably due to injury, and was back as a tight end in 2017 and 2018. During that time he caught 49 passes for four touchdowns.

Here is a look at some of his highlights:

IF nothing else Zach Gentry appears to have good hands. Welcome to Steelers Nation Zach Gentry.

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Steelers 2019 Draft Needs Matrix

The 2019 NFL Draft is just hours away and when it does the Pittsburgh Steelers will have already logged one of the most unusual off seasons in franchise history.

  • They’ve traded away their best player for near fire sale value
  • The national media has piled on the team and its franchise quarterback
  • Kevin Colbert has been uncharacteristically aggressive in free agency

The latter point is the one that is most relevant one to keep in mind. A year ago the Steelers responded to the playoff disaster against Jacksonville by making piecemeal moves in free agency, and defying the critics and going offense heavy in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2019 pre draft press conference

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their 2019 pre draft press conference.

This year Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin moved swiftly to address the Steelers most glaring roster needs by signing cornerback Steven Nelson, inside linebacker Mark Barron and wide receiver Donte Moncrief.

  • While Kevin Colbert denies those moves will impact the Steelers draft decisions, don’t believe him.

Whether the freshly signed free agents turn out to be the next Ladarius Greens and Mike Mitchells or the next James Farriors and Ryan Clarks isn’t relevant tonight. What is relevant is that the Steelers have inoculated themselves against having to reach to fill need in with one of their premium picks.

And just what are the Steelers needs heading into the 2019 NFL Draft?

Steelers 2019 NFL Draft Needs

Over the last month, with a whale of an effort from staff writer Tony Defeo, Steel Curtain Rising has broken down the Steelers need on a position by position basis. Now that all is said and done, the Steelers areas of need break down into 3 tiers.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

At the top you have cornerback and inside linebacker identified as areas of High-Moderate need, followed by wide receiver and running back which clock in at Moderate-High.

In the middle tier, you have tight end, defensive line, outside linebacker and safety which are of Moderate need.

In the bottom tier you have offensive line which is of Low-Moderate need and quarterback which is of Low need.

There’s a lot of clustering there, so how do we break the ties? For that you have our annual Steelers 2019 Draft Need Matrix.

Steelers 2019 Draft Need Matrix

The premise of the Steelers draft needs matrix is simple – it is a guide to who the Steelers should pick in the event their on the clock and have two or more players with the same grade on them. Here is the Steelers 2019 Draft Needs Matrix:

Steelers 2019 Draft Needs Matrix, Steelers 2019 Draft Needs

Inside linebacker beats cornerback by a hair. Both are positions where the Steelers could and should draft to meet immediate future need. Inside linebacker wins out because the Steelers have more bodies at cornerback i.e. Cam Sutton, Brian Allen and dare we hope Artie Burns who could still contribute.

  • Whereas Jon Bostic is the only legitimate player behind Vince Williams and Mark Barron.

Running back will surprise many. And so it should. James Washington is the X factor in the quest to replace Antonio Brown. If he pans out as reporters and coaches assure use he will, the Steelers will be OK. If not, the Steelers will fall hard this autumn.

However, as is the case with inside linebacker and cornerback, the Steelers have more bodies at wide receiver than they do at running back. We’ve written time and time again how a dearth of running back depth as derailed the Steelers in December. Adding a third running back to play along side James Conner and Jaylen Samuels could go a long way to rectifying that chronic problem.

Wide receiver beats safety because of the above mentioned X factor and the simple reality that Ben Roethlisberger no longer has a Hall of Fame talent to target. Safety trumps outside linebacker because Anthony Chickillo has shown he can contribute at a far greater level than Marcus Allen or Jordan Dangerfield.

  • Outside linebacker beats out tight end because the Steelers might need to replace Bud Dupree before Vance McDonald sniffs free agency.

Tight end beating out defensive line is a no brainer. The Steelers could use more depth at defensive line, but they’re OK there. But defensive line depth clearly outshines the need to use a mid or even late round pick on a quarterback for a third straight year.

The NFL Draft – The Day Dreams Come True

Who will the Steelers pick in the first round? Will Devin Bush fall to him, or will Kevin Colbert engineer his first day one draft trade since picking Troy Polamalu in 2003? Or might they look to corernback, and draft Rock Ya-Sin, Bryon Murphy, or Greedy Williams? Or perhaps they’ll tap a safety again, such as Justin Thronhill or Darnell Savage?

  • Maybe they’ll surprise everyone and grab a tight end or a wide receiver?
  • I don’t pretend to know who that person will be any more than I’ll pretend to pontificate on who that person should be.

But every boy who ever wrapped his hands around a Nerf football and yapped out a bogus snap count has dreamed of playing in the NFL. And for a few hundred young men, that dream is about to become true. Let’s give those young men their day and wish the good luck and God speed in the NFL.

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Steelers 2019 Draft Needs @ Tight End – How High of a Priority for Pittsburgh?

The Steelers haven’t built their offense around the tight end position since the early 90s and the days of Eric Green. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not important. The cupboard is a little bare at the moment thanks to the free agent departure of veteran Jesse James, who signed a fairly lucrative deal with the Lions.

Therefore, there’s no question Pittsburgh should draft a tight end. The real question is when?

Vance McDonald, Chris Conte, Vance McDonald stiff arm Chris Conte, Steelers va Buccaneers

Vance McDonald stiff arms Chris Conte into oblivion. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

The Steelers often like to employ two starters at the tight end position, and even though he never put up huge numbers, Jesse James started 34 games over his final three years in Pittsburgh. Despite just starting seven games in 2018, James had his best season in terms of receiving yards with 423.

James took on the role of the number two tight end a year ago, thanks to the emergence of Vance McDonald, who Pittsburgh acquired in a trade with the 49ers just prior to the 2017 regular season. Vance McDonald, 28, had by far the finest season of his career, tallying 50 receptions for 610 yards and four touchdowns.

After several failed attempts, it looks like the Steelers have finally found a more than suitable replacement for the legendary Heath Miller. Not only that, but with his combination of size, speed and athleticism, Vance McDonald appears to give the Steelers the kind of weapon at the position that has tortured their own defense for years.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft:The Backups

Despite the 2018 coming out party of Vance McDonald, again, the Steelers are going to have to find a replacement for James. At first glance, Xavier Grimble, who will be entering his fourth season with Pittsburgh after turning pro in 2014, appears to be a decent candidate to assume James’ old role in the offense.

At 6-4, 261 pounds, Xavier Grimble certainly has the size; he has also shown flashes of athleticism while catching 22 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns. And, at 26, he’s obviously still young enough to evolve into a decent to better veteran tight end in the Steelers offense. The question is, does Pittsburgh trust Xavier Grimble enough to promote him, especially after his boneheaded goal line fumble that turned a sure touchdown into a touchback early in what turned out to be a crushing loss to the Broncos last November 25?

Behind Vance McDonald and Xavier Grimble are players named Jake McGee, Bucky Hodges and Christian Scotland-Williamson, none of whom have ever seen any game action in the NFL.

The Steelers 2019 Tight End Draft Needs

McDonald still has three years remaining on a five-year contract extension he signed with San Fransisco at the end of the 2016 season. That means he likely has the number one tight end spot in Pittsburgh’s offense for as long as he continues to produce. Health is another matter as far as McDonald is concerned, as he suffered through a string of injuries prior to last season.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Provided Vance McDonald stays healthy, he should be a reliable weapon in Pittsburgh’s offense for the next few years. But as I alluded to already, there’s clearly room on Pittsburgh’s depth chart for another tight end.

  • Does this mean the Steelers should draft one in the first, second or even third round?

Before you rule it out, remember that Pittsburgh just lost two of its biggest play-makers in receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell. It wasn’t long ago that the drafting of receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster seemed like a luxury, while the selection of running back James Conner felt like a heartwarming story.

Today, not only are both coming off of Pro Bowl seasons, they’re the two biggest weapons in Ben Roethlisberger‘s arsenal. Point is, if the Steelers have a shot at a talented and athletic tight end, it may not be the worst thing if they drafted him–even with a premium selection. Play-makers are play-makers, and the Steelers need to find them wherever they can. Therefore, the draft priority must be considered Moderate.

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Remember Jesse James Steelers Career for More than the Patriots Touchdown that Wasn’t

Jesse James Steelers career ended last week when he signed with the Detroit Lions. Second string Steelers tight ends don’t occupy much space Steelers lore, and Jesse James as a player won’t change that.

However, Jesse James authored the most pivotal and controversial play of the Steelers post-Super Bowl XLV rebuilding phase.

  • People will remember the Jesse James Play for a long time.

And it is paradoxically unfortunate and appropriate that Pittsburgh will remember Jesse James for that one play.

 

Jesse James, Jesse James Patriots touchdown

Jesse James touchdown that wasn’t vs Patriots. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

It is unfortunate because instant replay robbed Jesse James of what would have been one of the most sensational touchdowns in Steelers regular season history. It is appropriate because had it worked, the play would have perfectly embodied the type of player Jesse James was for the Steelers.

Revisiting the Fateful Steelers-Patriots 2017 Encounter at Heinz Field

Let’s go back to that fateful day. The Steelers, with a Ryan Shazierless defense and with Antonio Brown injured, had actually led the Patriots for most of the game, until Brady-to-Gronk decimated Pittsburgh in the 4th quarter. All hope appeared lost until JuJu Smith-Schuster transformed a sideline pass into a 69 yard gain that brought the Steelers to the New England 10 with 34 seconds left to go.

Here’s what happened next:

It is hard to know who were Ben Roethlisberger’s primary reads on this play. Ben looks and pumps towards Darrius Heyward-Bey but that could have been an intentional fake. JuJu Smith-Schuster could have been his primary receiver, but he was covered. So instead he looked to Jesse James.

  • As well he should have.

Because by that point in his career, Jesse James had developed himself into a dependable receiver who delivered catches when they counted. For those tempted to roll their eyes, take a look at the numbers.

Jesse James, Jesse James Steelers, Jesse James statistics steelers

Jesse James stats with the Steelers

Just how good Jesse James catch rate, how does he stack up against Heath Miller? Heath Miller’s dependability was legendary, and his catch rate was 72%. Jesse James’ catch rate clocks in at 69.4%

Running backs and tight ends catch percentages tend to be higher than receivers because they’re catching higher percentage passes closer to the line of scrimmage. But Jesse James’ catch percentage trended up in Pittsburgh even as did the length of his average reception. In other words, Jesse James no stats compiler who benefited from check down passes.

  • Numbers don’t lie, but statistics sometimes fail to paint an accurate picture.

Both Kordell Stewart and Neil O’Donnell have higher passer ratings than Terry Bradshaw. Anyone want to take either of those over the Blonde Bomber in an all-time Steelers draft? Nope, I didn’t think so. In terms of tight ends, a high catch percentage doesn’t mean much if you drop the ball when the game is on the line (just ask Bert Jones of Super Bowl XIII fame). While he didn’t get a lot of attention for it, Jesse James delivered.

  • In 2016 vs Dallas, Jesse James set up the should have been Roethlisberger-Brown game winner with a 24 yard catch.
  • Jesse James also helped set up Antonio Brown’s game winner against the Ravens on Christmas going 3-3 on targets including nailing a key 3rd down conversion.
  • In the Steelers 2017 win over the Ravens, Jesse James went 10 for 12 on targets, making drive-sustaining catch after drive-sustaining catch, including going 3-3 to set up Chris Boswell’s winner at the buzzer

I wanted to see Jesse James stay in the Black and Gold. But Kevin Colbert made it pretty clear the Steelers weren’t going to offer Jesse James the kind of money he thought he could get on the open market.

  • Jesse James bet on himself and, unlike Le’Veon Bell, his gamble paid off.

Good for him. For as much of quality, under the radar player Jesse James evolved into for the Steelers, Vance McDonald is a much more dynamic player, and a true offensive weapon. The Steelers made the right decision in terms cost-benefit trade off by declining to match the Detroit Lion’s offer.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Jesse James Steelers career deserves to be remember for the quiet dependability he delivered when the game was on the line, not for the play instant replay said he didn’t make over the Patriots.

Good luck in Detroit Jesse James. Steelers Nation will be rooting for your success – as long as it doesn’t come at Pittsburgh’s expense.

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

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Should the Steelers Gamble by Not Giving Xavier Grimble a Restricted Free Agent Tender?

For every NFL rookie that gets a dreaded visit from The Turk, a practice squad slot equals a lifeline to their NFL dream.

  • What they make of that lifeline varies greatly from player to player.

In the case of Pittsburgh Steelers practice squanders, on the one end of the spectrum you have James Harrison who worked his way to NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

On the other hand, you have many more players like Shakim Phillips, who made the Steelers 2015 practice squad, got in invitation back to St. Vincents the next summer where his NFL dream ended. In between you get players like:

  • Ramon Foster, who matured into a solid starter,
  • Isaac Redman the cult-hero who developed into a decent number 2 back before falling to injury
  • Chris Hoke who became an invaluable understudy
  • Justin Brown who shined in practice in 2013 but disappointed on the active roster in 2014

Xavier Grimble is a player who cut his teeth on the Steelers practice squad, an experience which he parlayed into an active roster spot. Now that he’s reached restricted free agent status, his spot on the continuum above will come into clearer focus.

Xavier Grimble, Xavier Grimble fumble, Jack Dempsey, Steelers vs Broncos

Xavier Grimble thinks he has a touchdown, but Will Parks is about to force a fumble. Photo Credit: Jack Dempsey, AP via Tribune-Reivew

Capsule Profile of Xavier Grimble’s Steelers Career

After spending time with the Patriots and the 49ers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2014, Xavier Grimble joined the Steelers practice squad in 2015. In 2016 Xavier Grimble earned a slot on the Steelers active roster behind Jesse James and David Johnson while Ladarius Green sat out in the PAP list.

  • Say what you want about back up Steelers tight ends, they may not catch many passes but when they do, they catch touchdowns.

That was true of Matt Spaeth. Entering the 2015 off season, Matt Spaeth had only caught 53 passes, but 10 of those, or just under 20% went for touchdowns. Xavier Grimble is on a similar path as he has caught 22 passes but three of those have been for touchdowns.

  • Yes, that’s only a 13% touchdown catch rate, but he’s been the number 3 tight end whereas Spaeth was TE number 2.

In three years on the Steelers active roster, Xavier Grimble has appeared in 44 games and made 6 starts, including a touchdown against Cincinnati in 2016, a touchdown in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens, and a touchdown against the Packers in 2017.

Of course the play that most fans are going to remember is the goal line fumble against Denver where Grimble initiated contact unnecessarily (while holding the ball incorrectly) which cost the Steelers the game, if not the playoffs.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Xavier Grimble

The Steelers have invested a lot Xavier Grimble’s development. After four years, Xavier Grimble clearly won’t morph into the 2nd coming of Bennie Cunningham, let alone Heath Miller.

But arguably,  Xavier Grimble has already contributed more than Preston Gothard did as starting tight end for some mediocre teams in the 80’s.

  • The point is that Xavier Grimble is a serviceable player who provides valuable depth at tight end.

Is Xavier Grimble worth the 2 million plus it would take to offer him a restricted free agent tender? Well, if Jesse James is playing elsewhere in 2019, then the answer might be yes. Even if Jesse James is back, the Steelers would be wise to keep keep this valuable backup in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Xavier Grimble

Practice squad to regular season roster stories may warm the soul, but don’t spontaneously sprout Lombardi Trophies. Sure, Xaiver Grimble is a decent number 3 tight end, but at age 27 he’s reaching the “What you’ve seen is what you’re going to get” phase of his career.

With the Steelers facing the loss of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger is going to need dynamic targets to take heat off of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald.

  • Is Xavier Grimble going to be that person?

No. Even if Grimble makes it to training camp, there’s no assurance he’ll beat out Jake McGee for a roster spot. The Steelers would be better off parting ways with Grimble and bringing in a younger player who offers more promise.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Xavier Grimble

Jesse James’ free agent profile has yet to be published, but I’m going to go ahead and scoop myself and say that the Steelers should resign Jesse James and provide a solid number 2 behind Vance McDonald.

Under that scenario, with Jesse James locked up for 3-4 years, the idea of spending the 2 million plus to put a qualifying restricted free agent tender on Xavier Grimble sounds like salary cap insanity.

  • Moreover, the Steelers certainly could gamble that Xavier Grimble will still be available to be brought back at the veteran minimum if they decline to tender him.

However, Kevin Colbert’s comments at the NFL Scouting Combine indicate that the Steelers will probably let Jesse James test free agency. That makes Xavier Grimble a more valuable commodity to the Steelers, but perhaps not valuable enough to warrant a restricted free agent tender.

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

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Painful? Yes. But Steelers Make Right Decision to Move on from Antonio Brown

All good things come to an end. So it is with Antonio Brown and the Steelers. After dominating the headlines for the first two months of 2019, the on-going Antonio Brown Soap opera reached the beginning of the end as Antonio Brown met with Art Rooney II and the two sides agreed to seek a trade.

Art Rooney II, Antonio Brown, Steelers to trade Antonio Brown

Art Rooney II & Antonio Brown agree to part ways. Photo Credit: Twitter

If reports are correct, Antonio Brown first met with Art Rooney II while Brown’s father Eddie Brown was in the room. Once the two sides agreed to a trade, agent Drew Rosenhaus along with Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan joined entered to discuss next steps.

  • Significantly, the Steelers did not grant Drew Rosenhaus permission to explore trade opportunities with other teams.

This is important, because it underlines the fact that the Steelers are holding on to one of the key cards they have left to play in this deck – determining where Antonio Brown lands. (Preferably somewhere in the NFC.)

It Sucks, But the Steelers Made the Right Decision

There’s no way to sugar coat it, the Pittsburgh 2019 offense will be poorer for Antonio Brown’s absence. However, this move had to be made, however painful it might be.

  • As Jeremy Fowler’s report detailed, Antonio Brown got preferential treatment from Mike Tomlin.

While this outrages a lot of fans, the truth is that star athletes get special treatment from a lot of organizations, at all levels of organized sports. But abandoning your teammates in the heat of battle – with the playoffs on the line – simply cannot be tolerated.

  • One can argue that this sets a bad precedent, that in the future disgruntled players can social media temper tantrum their way off the team.

That could happen.

  • But that pales in comparison to sending a signal to the locker room that quitting is OK.

Like most fans, when news of this incident broke, I clung to some sort of hope that this would somehow just “all go away.” And the Steelers seemed to leave the door open in early January. Perhaps, in a pre-social media era that might have even been possible.

But it takes two to tango, and nothing Brown has done since walking out on the Steelers prior to the Bengals game indicates he’s willing to do his part of the dance.

Make No Mistake About It: Losing Brown Will Hurt

Antonio Brown is a Hall of Fame talent. Losing him will hurt. A lot.

Rarely can a team make a one-for-one replacement for a Hall of Famer as the Steelers did when they transitioned from Mike Webster to Dermontti Dawson. More often than not, you end up with situations akin to what the Steelers found themselves in the 80s when they replaced Lynn Swann with Louis Lipps or Jack Lambert with David Little.

  • Lipps and Little only sins as Steelers were to be merely good instead of great.

Sure, Ben Roethlisberger still has JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald as weapons. God willing James Washington will develop and James Conner will stay healthy. And, as it has been noted, the Steelers won Super Bowl XL with Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El and Super Bowl XLIII with Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington.

Just in case you forgot.

Nonetheless, Art Rooney II has made the right decision.

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¿Por qué los Pittsburgh Steelers se quedaron sin postemporada en 2018?

Después de mucho tiempo sin dar muestras de vida, decidí reencontrarme con aquellos pocos que seguían mis cavilaciones en Steel Curtain Rising.

  • Me hubiese gustado volver para comentar una victoria en el Super Bowl 53…

En lugar de eso me mueve la curiosidad de poder desentrañar el “misterio” de por qué un equipo tan talentoso no pudo siquiera acceder a los playoffs…

Como se hace en las organizaciones, se me ocurrió revisar los números del balance de esta temporada.
Ver cuales son los “debe” y cuales los “haber”.

Asique mis amigos, hoy toca AUDITORÍA…!!

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin faces the biggest challenge of his coaching career. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP via Tribune Review

Las razones del fracaso

Durante la grabación de uno de los podcasts (finalmente no emitido) de Steelers 360, al que fui invitado por el querido Carlos Ortega, decía yo, que atribuía el pobre resultado de la temporada regular a dos causas:

  • Turnovers
  • Pobre ejecución

Pero ¿qué significa pobre ejecución?. Siguiendo con el ejemplo de las evaluaciones de las organizaciones, ¿Cuáles son los indicadores de pobre ejecución? ¿Puede uno analizando las estadísticas del juego llegar a alguna conclusión que explique los hechos? o ¿hay acaso razones que no se plasman en fríos números?

Dice el erudito italiano Umberto Eco que la estadística es una disciplina tan manipulable que si hay dos personas y dos pollos, a través de esta ciencia yo podría concluir que cada una comió un pollo aunque haya sido sólo una la que comió…
Advertido de que los números no lo explican todo o que, por el contrario, parecen decir más de lo que hay, voy a adentrarme en esta cuestión y veremos qué encuentro.

En esta primera entrega me voy a dedicar a poner bajo el microscopio los turnovers.

Los rostros de Coty Sensabaugh y Brian Allen reflejan la desazón que invadió al equipo en muchos momentos de la temporada

El arte de dispararse al pie

Comencemos diciendo que, esta temporada quedamos en segundo lugar (y fuera de playoffs) en la división norte de la AFC, detrás de los Ravens por un solo partido. Quiero decir que si hubiésemos ganado sólo un juego más, hubiera habido mes de enero para los Steelers. ¿Qué partido? ¿Denver? ¿Chargers? ¿Oakland? ¿el primer juego contra Baltimore? Escojan el que gusten. Todos y cada uno de ellos estuvo a tiro de pedrada.

  • Y los perdimos. Sólo hizo falta ganar un juego más.

Es sabido por todos que si un equipo entrega el ovoide la mitad de las veces en las que anota, es esperable que se estrelle contra una pared. Y eso sucedió con los Steelers.

Explico: el porcentaje de series ofensivas que finalizaron en anotación fue de 36,8% mientras que las series que terminaban en entregas de balón fue de 14,3%. Es decir que por cada 10 series anotadoras, 4 terminaban entregando el ovoide.

  • El turnover ratio de la temporada fue de – 11
  • La relación TD/INT fue de 2:1
  • Los partidos en donde más “generosos” estuvimos con el adversario fueron el empate contra Cleveland (TO ratio -5), la victoria que debió ser derrota contra Jacksonville (-2) y la derrota contra Denver (-4)

Si tomamos las derrotas solamente, allí el ratio es de -11.

En las victorias es 0

  • La cantidad de puntos recibidos gracias a esas entregas, totalizaron 58, equivalente al 16% del total de los puntos recibidos en toda la temporada.

La diferencia entre puntos anotados y puntos recibidos en toda la temporada fue de 68. Puede decirse entonces, que casi toda esta diferencia provino de entregas de balón

En ocasiones las defensivas enmiendan los errores de ofensivas entregadoras, obligando a despejar y evitando que el equipo beneficiado con el turnover cargue con puntos el tanteador. Otras veces no solo ocurre lo contrario sino que esos puntos cedidos determinan el destino del partido.

En la semana 1, en el último cuarto, con los Steelers arriba por 14 en el marcador, James Conner soltó el balón. La respuesta de los locales fueron 7 puntos. En la siguiente serie acerera, fue Big Ben Roethlisberger quien pierde el ovoide. La respuesta no fue inmediata pero los Browns lograron el empate 2 series después y obligaron a jugar tiempo extra. Ya en overtime B. Roethlisberger volvió a soltar el ovoide poniendo a los Browns en situación de ganar el partido si convertían un gol de campo que terminó siendo bloqueado por T.J. Watt.

Semana 4. En casa contra los Ravens. El resultado de las series ofensivas durante la segunda mitad fue: Punt-Punt-Punt-Punt-INT-downs. La intercepción se dió cuando los Ravens ganaban por 9 puntos de diferencia.

Ya más adelante en la temporada, en Mile High. Xavier Grimble tuvo una epifanía y por un instante se imaginó siendo Vance McDonald y supuso que podría atravesar el cuerpo del defensivo que venía a cubrir lo que ya era un TD casi inevitable…

Choque de cabezas, balón mal protegido por Grimble, knock out para el ala cerrada, balón suelto en la línea de gol que se pierde por la zona de anotación, touchback… Se perdieron 7 puntos que hubieran sido vitales para ganar el partido.

Xavier Grimble, Xavier Grimble fumble, Jack Dempsey, Steelers vs Broncos

Xavier Grimble thinks he has a touchdown, but Will Parks is about to force a fumble. Photo Credit: Jack Dempsey, AP via Tribune-Reivew

Se disputaba el 3er cuarto con los Steelers arriba en el marcador por 17 a 10. En 2 series seguidas se entregó la posesión (INT- fumble) y en ambas los locales anotaron de a siete. Para finalizar el encuentro, Big Ben lanzó una intercepción a la zona de anotación, faltando poco más de un minuto, desde la yarda 2 de Denver que selló el destino del partido.

Semana 16 de visita en New Orleans. Recién comenzando el 4to cuarto, la secuencia es Fumble, downs y fumble, este último ya en zona de gol de campo que cerró la posibilidad de, al menos, empatar el partido.

No todas las entregas de balón valen lo mismo. La estadística puede sobrevalorar el item TO. Sin embargo otras veces implican cambios del momentum del partido, otras veces puntos, cuando no la mismísima derrota.

La historia de nuestro equipo contará que en la temporada 2018, quedamos fuera de la postemporada, segundos en la división, a un juego, detrás del campeón divisional, Baltimore Ravens, que alistaron como titular por gran parte de la temporada al QB novato Lamar “Venus de Milo” Jackson.

Para concluir, en esta temporada tuvimos:
1 – un diferencial de turnovers lapidario, y
2 – el diferencial de puntos anotados y recibidos puede atribuirse completamente a entregas de balón.
Pero hay más (y esto no está reflejado en las estadísticas…
3- Varias de estas entregas de balón significaron la derrota

Como veremos en próximos episodios, las entregas de balón no fueron las únicas calamidades que debieron enfrentar los Steelers, un equipo con muchos records de top 10.
Tal vez por eso, dolió tanto este final.

El Dr. de Acero

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