Steelers Report Card for Win over Texans – DeCastro Makes a Difference Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is please to see his students stepping it up homework gets tougher, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2020 Watt Bowl win over the Texans at Heinz Field.

Eric Ebron, Steelers vs Texans

Eric Ebron goes up to catch a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger continued to look sharp in his third game back throwing 36 passes for 23 completions for 237 yards two touchdowns and no interceptions. Those are pretty good numbers and Roethlisberger suffered several drops. He also struggled to connect with wideouts on deep patterns, which isn’t entirely his fault. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had his 2nd 100 yard game in as many weeks and this time it hinge on one long burst. He also caught four passes for 40 yards. Anthony McFarland Jr. got his first action and provided the perfect change of pace. Benny Snell Jr. was back and held on to the ball. His stat line isn’t impressive, but his third down conversion was critical. Jaylen Samuels ran once for 1 yard. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Last week we noted that Eric Ebron was developing a rapport with Ben Roethlisberger and this week the duo took a step forward as Ebron led the team in receptions and made an end zone play to secure a touchdown. Vance McDonald was more active in the passing game, making a crucial 3rd down conversion and making a difference in the blocking game. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster led all receivers with 4 catches for 43 yards, including a walk off touchdown. That’s not impressive, but he also secured a 2 point conversion. James Washington was next with 5 catches for a very economical 36 yards. Diontae Johnson was targeted twice with zero catches and had one reverse for 8 yards.

James Conner, Steelers vs Texans

James Conner scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Chase Claypool had a mixed day. On the one hand, he failed to catch some catchable balls and he fumbled the ball away. On the other hand, he made a crucial 3rd down conversion and drew a pass interference call. Receivers are doing OK on short and medium routes but struggling on long ones. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
David DeCastro made his return and the difference was obvious as the Steelers collective rushing average was 4.4 yards per carry and Ben Roethlisberger was only hit 4 times. The telling stat line of the Watt Bowl was J.J. Watt’s – 1 solo tackle and 4 assists. The Texans chose to keep Watt lined up across from  Chukwuma Okorafor, and the first year starter proved to be up to the task. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward, who has been a veritable house of fire this season, had a quiet game as the Texans double teamed him all day. For this strategy to be effective, you must contain Stephon Tuitt. They couldn’t as Tuitt had 4 tackles, 4 QB hits and a key third down sack. Tyson Alualu continued his stout play up the middle as the Texans averaged 1.9 yards a carry. Grade: A

Linebackers
T.J. Watt led linebackers in tackles, had a tackle for a loss, 4 QB hits and a critical sack on the Texan’s final possession – making the Watt Bowl one of his quieter games of the season, until you factor in that his sack came on the Texan’s final possession.… Bud Dupree had a sack and a half plus two more QB hits. Devin Bush had an outstanding pass break up in the end zone while splitting a sack. Alex Highsmith saw enough spot duty to get a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: A-

Devin Bush, Darren Fells, Steelers vs Texans

Devin Bush breaks up a touchdown pass intended for Darren Fells. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Secondary
It was a tale of two halves for the Steelers pass defense. During the first half Deshaun Watson picked Pittsburgh apart. During the second half the Steelers defense completely shut him down. The only drive in the second half that didn’t end in a punt for Houston was the one that Mike Hilton ended with an interception. Minka Fitzpatrick led the unit in tackles and Joe Haden got a hand on a ball he perhaps should have caught. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Dustin Colquitt had his best day punting on the year, for those of you who keep track. The Steelers punt and kick coverage was exceptionally strong. Ray-Ray McCloud did well on both kick and punt returns while Diontae Johnson fair caught a punt he probably should have let bounce into the end zone. Chris Boswell was 2-2 on field goals and 2-2 on extra points. Grade: B

Coaching

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

Randy Fichtner has an diverse arsenal of weapons at his disposal and with each week he’s attempting to make the Steelers offense more versatile. For the moment, the deep passing game remains a sore spot, but the Steelers are pretty effective in the short-and-medium range game, and against the Texans they ran the ball effectively.

Keith Butler’s defense has some issues in the first half, allowing as many touchdown drives as they forced punts. But credit “The Butler” (and Tomlin) for making the necessary half time adjustments to pressure Deshaun Watson while keeping him contained and completely smothering the run.

  • Mike Tomlin took the Steelers 2-0 start to the season in stride, acknowledging both the victories and areas that needed improvement.

He took that same attitude into this game, and his locker room followed his example. To use Tomlin’s words, “There was no blink in this group.” Most importantly, on two separate occasions during the Steelers final possession Tomlin remained aggressive when he could have played it safe and in both cases his players delivered. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers defense started slow in the second half, as noted above. There was one player who was full speed from the get go who started off one series with the first sack of Watson and then began another by dropping David Johnson for a loss, and for those efforts Vince Williams wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Texans.

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Steelers Defeat Texans 28-21 as T.J., Derek Prevail over J.J. in “Watt Bowl”

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Houston Texans 28-21 at Heinz Field, as brothers T.J. and Derek triumphed over big brother J.J. in the Watt Bowl.

  • The Watt brothers provided the game with a nice subplot, but the Steelers 3-0 record is even nicer.

But the nicest part about this win lies in the recipe the Steelers mixed during the Watt Bowl to secured victory down the stretch, as we explain below.

T.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Steelers vs Texans

T.J. Watt sacks Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Week 3 is a Curious Place in the NFL

Week 3 is a curious place in the NFL. The math makes it simple. On week one, 50% of the teams must win and 50% must lose. Week two typically clarifies little. Everyone is either winless, undefeated or .500. Not much room for anyone to stand out.

Trends start to confirm themselves in week three, as teams find rhythm, establish personality, and the law of averages begins to weed out the “On Any Given Sunday” element from scoreboard results.

The Steelers entered week 3 with a 2-0 record, while the Houston Texans arrived in Pittsburgh at 0-2.

  • Would one team take a big step forward while another one dug itself deeper into a hole?
  • Or would one team stumble backwards while another clawed out a foothold to stake the rest of their season on?

As the first half end, it things could easily go either way.

Steelers First Half Against Texans Resembles First Two Weeks

The first two weeks saw the Steelers both give their fans a lot to like while leaving a lot plays on the field. During the first half against the Texans, they followed the same script in a topsy-turvy 30 minutes that saw:

  • The Steelers reach the Red Zone with a strong opening drive, only to settle for a field goal
  • The Texans respond with a touchdown
  • Ben Roethlisberger trying and failing to connect deep with receivers leading to 3 and outs
  • Meanwhile the Texans tacked on another touchdown
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Texans, JuJu walk off touchdown

JuJu Smith-Schuster literally walks to a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

With 2:38 left in the half, Ben Roethlisberger did one of the things he does best – run an effective two minute drill, mixing and matching James Conner runs, short passes to James Washington and Eric Ebron before hitting JuJu Smith-Schuster for a walk-off touchdown. The Steelers were up 17-14 at the 1:14 mark.

  • A good place to be going into the locker room at half time, right?

Not quite. It was the Steelers defense’s turn to stumble, as Deshaun Watson surgically ripped the Steelers defense apart, completing passes in coverage against Mike Hilton, Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick to put the Texans back up 21-17 at the half.

These were exactly the types of slips the Steelers suffered during the first two weeks. And unlike the Giants and Broncos, it did not appear that the Texans would be so forgiving.

Steelers Methodically Impose Their Will in 2nd Half

Pittsburgh’s problem in recent years has been a chronic inablilty to put teams away. Sometimes they’ve gotten away with it (remember those Chris Boswell game winners in 2017?). Other times Pittsburgh has paid the price (see the 2nd half of 2018.) Last week, the Steelers had the Broncos on the ropes, only to let them back in before escaping with a victory.

  • Pittsburgh put away Houston through a steady, methodical process that consumed the entire half.

Things started slowly. The Steelers opened with a scoring drive that included that included flashes from rookie Anthony McFarland Jr.. Still, after spending 5 minutes on the field, the Steelers were forced to settle for a field goal.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Texans

JuJu Smith-Schuster pulls in the 2 point conversion. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But Keith Butler’s boys answered the call responding with:

  • A three-and-out where the Steelers defense smothered David Johnson
  • Another three-and-out that featured a hellacious Stephon Tuitt sack on 3rd down
  • A Mike Hilton interception, down at the Pittsburgh 13

With 13:27 left to play and starting at their own 21, the men in Black and Gold did something that has been the hallmark of championship Steelers football – They Imposed Their Will.

By Mixing runs and short passes and getting key third down conversions from Benny Snell Jr. and Vance McDonald, the Steelers methodically moved down the field, keeping the chains moving and the clock running.

By the time James Conner barreled into the end zone for a 12 yard touchdown run, the Steelers had physically dominated the Texans and burned 7 minutes off of the clock in the process, while JuJu Smith-Schuster added a 2 point conversion to make it 21-28.

Watt Bowl, Steelers vs Texans

T.J. and Derek prevailed over JJ in the Watt Bowl

Living in Our Hopes, Not in Their Fears

There’s something poetic about Houston’s final series in the Watt bowl starting with a 11 yard sack by T.J. Watt; that made it a question of “When” and not “If” the Texans would punt.

  • The Steelers got the ball back and again, They Imposed Their Will.

James Conner started the drive off with a 25 yard run. To Bill O’Brien’s credit, his Texans declined to fold. In response, Mike Tomlin refused to blink.

On 4th and 1 at Houston’s 35 with 3:11 remaining, Mike Tomlin not only went for it, Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball to James Washington who converted the down. Three plays later, the Steelers had a 3rd and 9 at their Houston’s 26. The smart money here says pound it up the middle, let Chris Boswell tack on 3 points and let Houston try for two scores in 2 minutes.

  • Again, Tomlin lived in his hopes and not his fears having Ben Roethlisberger hit Chase Claypool for a 24 yard gain that set up the victory formation.

Putting up ten points in a half hardly qualifies the Steelers as the next incarnation as “The Greatest Show on Turf.” But combined that with a 2nd half defensive shut out, turnover free football and 36:51 to 23:09 time of possession advantage, and during the Watt Bowl the Steelers may have mixed a recipe for winning football.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Broncos, 2-0 but Room to Grow Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who sees his class at 2-0 with room to grow, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Broncos.

Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Broncos

Jeff Driskel an instant before he’s smashed by T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was harshly critical of himself after the game and it is true that his interception and the Steelers 2-12 3rd down conversion rating disappoint. But Roethlisberger was equally impressive on both of his touchdown strikes, neither of which were easy throws. And Ben continues to spread the ball around. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ran strong, even if you take out his long run and by no means should that final run be discounted. Conner also caught two passes out of the backfield. Benny Snell had a bad day. He caught one pass for a loss and had 3 carries for 5 yards and a fumble which put Denver back in the game. Jaylen Samuels had 1 catch for 4 yards. In the end, Conner’s long run helps compensate for Snell’s fumble. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron had 3 catches for 43 yards and is quickly working himself into offensive weapon. Vance McDonald had one catch for 3 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 8 catches for 92 yards including two key receptions which he had to adjust to make. JuJu Smith-Schuster wasn’t far behind with 7 catches of his own. The cumulative total of two of Chase Claypool’s 3 catches amounts to 4 yards, the other one went for 84 and a touchdown. Another weapon is emerging on the Steelers offense. James Washington had a quiet day of 3 catches for 22 yards. A good afternoon for the Steelers wide outs. Grade: B

Offensive Line
The beginning of 2020 has been starkly different from the beginning of 2019. With one exception. If there was one positive coming out of last September, it was that the pass blocking of the Steelers offensive line remained stout, even if its run blocking seemed to be slipping.

Eric Ebron

Eric Ebron makes a catch in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Here in 2020, the same can be said. The Steelers offensive line with Kevin Dotson and Chukwuma Okorafor for the first time provided Ben Roethlisberger with pretty good protection. The run blocking wasn’t there however. This must improve. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
The Broncos had some success rushing the ball early in the game, but credit the Steelers defense for making the necessary adjustments. Tyson Alualu had a sack and continued to prove that he probably brings more bang for the salary cap buck and Javon Hargrave would have. Cam Heyward 4 tackles and split a sack while Stephon Tuitt had 1. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt was T.J. Watt with 2.5 sacks in four tackles. Even when he wasn’t sacking the quarterback, he was taking up two defenders, freeing up Bud Dupree to do his damage, as he did on his strip-sack that knocked Drew Lock from the game. Devin Bush led the unit in tackles and batted away a pass but still runs hot and cold in terms of coverage. Vince Williams dropped 3 defenders behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: B

Secondary
Man, are the Steelers going to miss Mike Hilton next year, as he led the team in tackles, recorded a sack, recovered a fumble and defensed a pass. Minkah Fitzpatrick has been quiet this year, and while that’s generally a good thing this unit relies on him for big plays. Fitzpatrick, like Joe Haden and like Terrell Edmunds committed pass interference penalties on drives that ended in scores. While it is too early to worry, the secondary hasn’t jelled the way it did a year ago. Grade: C

Special Teams
Dustin Colquitt’s net punting average was a bit low. And that’s the worst you can say about special teams this week. Kick and return coverage was solid. Ray-Ray McCloud had a 49 yard return showing him to be a legit home run threat. Diontae Johnson had a return for a touchdown negated by penalty, but still managed a zig zaging 18 yard return and tacked on a 24 yard kickoff return.

Chris Boswell was 4-4 on kicks. Against the Broncos Danny Smith’s special teams were a differentiator. Grade: A-

Mike Tomlin, f bomb

Mike Tomlin reacts to live mic F-bomb. Photo Credit: Twitter

Coaching
In two weeks the Steelers offense has scored more touchdowns than the offense managed in the last 5 weeks of 2019. The exit from the “One Offensive Touchdown a Game” club is welcome.

Going 2-12 on third down conversions is not. This only one game and the 2nd week of the season, but Randy Fichtner’s offense cannot afford to fall into the habit of letting teams hang around that otherwise can be put away.

There’s a similar story on defense. For a second straight week Keith Butler‘s boys have shown they can come up big in the Red Zone when they need to, but they also left opportunities to put the Broncos away on the field.

Two weeks into the season Mike Tomlin has a team that is 2-0 but has yet he is fully aware that his team isn’t firing on all cylinders. That’s wise. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
The two biggest plays of the 2nd half were arguably the blocked punt for a safety and James Conner’s long run inside the two minute warning. One man was at the center of them both and for that Derek Watt wins the Unsung Hero Award of Steelers 2020 home opening win against the Broncos.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Giants: Teacher’s Too Late Edition

Taken from the grade book of a tardy teacher who is keenly aware that marrying Monday Night Football with 12 hour workdays doesn’t produce timely blog posts, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Giants.

Bud Dupree, Daniel Jones, Steelers vs giants

Bud Dupree forces Daniel Jones into a Red Zone interception. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

Quarterback
In his first game since elbow surgery Ben Roethlisberger had an efficient night throwing 32 times for 21 competitions 229 yards and 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for a key first down doing the 2 minute drill. Roethlisberger was rusty at first, but shook it off fast and played a very good game. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner came into this game with something prove, but unfortunately he proved that durability remains an issue. Fortunately for the Steelers, Benny Snell, Jr. answered the call rushing for 113 yards on 19 carries. Snell looked good, but fumbled at what could have been a costly moment. With 1 catch and 1 run for 3 yards Jaylen Samuels was a non-factor. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Balls were sparse for the tight ends against the Giants. Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron were both targeted twice with one catch apiece although Ebron’s did convert a third down on a scoring drive. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
After struggling for much of 2019, JuJu Smith-Schuster had a strong night with 6 catches on 6 targets for 69 yards and 2 touchdowns. Diontae Johnson had 6 catches on 10 targets for 57 yards. And while James Washington only had 2 catches, the sheer determination mustered to reach the end zone set the tone for the rest of the night. Grade: B

Offensive Line
The Steelers offensive line slipped in 2019 after being one of the NFL’s best, if not the very best, for the last 5 or 6 years. They were a big question mark going into the game. Unfortunately, it was a mixed bag for the line. Rushing lanes were spare early in the game, and Ben Roethlisberger had pressure for much of the night, giving up 2 sacks and getting hit 5 times. The unit was good enough against the Giants, but tougher tests will come. Grade: C

Cam Heyward, Cam Heyward interception Gaints

Cam Heyward kills a drive by intercepting Daniel Jones in the end zone. Photo Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images, via SteelersWire.com

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu effectively manned the nose tackle position, leading the team in tackles and dropping runners for losses twice. Stephon Tuitt made his return from injury and recorded a sack. Cam Heyward had one tackle and a pass defense but hit the jackpot with his goal line interception. The unit grounded Saquon Barkley the entire night. Grade: A

Linebackers
T.J. Watt’s amazing interception set up the Steelers first touchdown and Bud Dupree’s pressure on Daniel Jones ended an 8 minute drive by setting up an interception. Vince Williams had a sack, and Devin Bush led linebackers with 7 tackles. Alex Highsmith rotated in and looked good as did Ola Adeniyi. A strong night for the linebackers. Grade: A

Secondary
The Steelers defensive game plan sold out on stopping Saquon Barkley and the Giants took advantage of that to move a little through the air and they were effective with the short passing game early in the 2nd half. Minkah Fitzpatrick bit on a run fake that exposed Steven Nelson to a 1-1 which he lost badly to Darius Slayton. Terrell Edmunds continues to struggle in coverage. This is a concern. On the positive side Mike Hilton was a force with a sack, defensed pass and 5 tackles. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Dustin Colquitt had a solid night punting. Ray-Ray McCloud had a 33 yard return that could have gone for more had he not tripped. The Steelers were 2-2 on field goals. All positives.

However, Diontae Johnson muffed a punt. Chris Boswell missed an extra point. One of his kickoffs went out of bounds. The Giants had a 20 yard punt return. None of these mistakes were fatal, but they could have been far more costly. Grade: C-

Devin Bush, Steelers vs Giants,

No room to run thanks to Devin Bush. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Coaching
Matt Canada’s influence on the offense can be seen with increased use of crossing routes and jet screens and Randy Fichtner put together an efficient game plan that moved the chains, spread the ball around and put points on the board.

  • Keith Butler’s defense picked up where it left off in 2020, which is high praise.

When your special teams muff the season’s first punt and give the home team the ball on your own 3 barely 4 minutes into the season, very bad things tend to happen. But Butler’s boys refused to blink and forced a field goal.

It is true that the Giants had more success passing the ball than one would like, but by neutralizing Saquon Barkley the Steelers defense dictated the game to New York’s offense.

All of the COVID-19 induced disruptions to the off season were supposed to benefit a stable team like the Steelers. Mike Tomlin arrived at MetLife Stadium with a team ready, willing and able to execute a straight forward game plan. Special teams snafus drop this grade. Slightly. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers were down 3-0 and had already punted twice as the 1st quarter waned. From their own 33 they ran once for a 1 yard run and tossed an incomplete pass. On third and 9 Ben Roethlisberger threw into double coverage on the side line and the only rookie on the field for the Steelers offense reached up to grab a pass, taking care to tap his toes to stay in bounds and convert the first down.

It was impressive on its own merits, and it also sustained a drive the ended with the Steelers tying field goal, and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2020 season opener against the Giants at MetLife Stadium.

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How the Steelers 26-16 Win Over Giants was as Sweet as a Double Stuff Oreo Cookie

The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the New York Giants 26-16 to open their 2020 season in an empty MetLife Stadium.

The Steelers victory has been described as “workman like,” “not pretty” but nonetheless a new blueprint and a reminder that “its not 2019.” All accurate descriptions, but if you want to understand the victory, you need look no further than the sandwich cookie.

Stay with me on this and see why.

James Washington muscles past Julian Love & Blake Martinez. Photo Credit: Seth Wenig, AP via Yahoo! New Zealand.

The More Things Change…

Last season was one Steelers fans prefer to forget, yet early in the Giants game, the 2020 Steelers teased a reprise of the worst of 2018 AND 2019.

  • Their quarterback struggled to connect with receivers
  • Diontae Johnson muffed the first punt of the season just as Kerrith Whyte bobbled 2019’s final kick off return
  • Chris Boswell missed an extra point, just as he did with frequency in 2018
  • Instead of holes, blue jerseys greeted James Conner at the goal line

True to 2019 form, the defense stepped up and forced the Giants to settle for 3 points even though the Steelers had gifted them the ball at the 3. Also following the 2019 template was T.J. Watt, whose heads up interception of Daniel Jones set up a 6 play drive that ended in a Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster touchdown.

Still, as the 2 minute warning loomed, the Steelers were down 10-9 and Dustin Colquitt had already punted 3 times. Which brings us to our sandwich cookie analogy.

Steelers Bookend Half Time with Double Stuf

Everyone knows that you really eat a sandwich cookie for the stuffing in the middle. When Oreo first launched “Double Stuf” my brother campaigned for my mom to get it at the grocery store. She refused, suggesting that we’d have better luck getting it on a visit to my grandmother’s house.Double Stuf Oreo, Steelers

Conveniently, my grandmother lived in Baldwin, three doors from the Pittsburgh city line. I don’t know that we ever got “Double Stuf” Oreos there (we DID get plenty of other junk food), but the Steelers performance on both ends of half time was pure “Double Stuf.”

  • Seriously.

Complaints of Mike Tomlin’s clock mis-management issues have become so rote that no one ever bothers to question if they’re actually supported by events on the field. Mostly, they are not, and the end of the 1st half against the Giants offers another example.

The Steelers went to work at their own 22 yard line with 1:32 left to play. The next 69 seconds would see:

  • Smith-Schuster, Johnson and James Washington make critical catches
  • Ben Roethlisberger convert a 1st down with an 11 yard scramble

Thanks to these efforts the Steelers found themselves at New York’s 11 with 0:23 seconds and time outs left. That was nice, but what came next was truly sweet:

As Tony Defeo opined recently, James Washington doesn’t get a lot of love from Steelers Nation, but his effort to get the touchdown evoked visions of Barry Foster against Atlanta in ’93 or Mark Bruener against the Raiders in ’00.

Those memories may date me, but all three plays provide about as clear examples as you can find of a player willing himself into the end zone.

Sweet indeed.

Red Zone Rising – Double Stuf to Start the 2nd Half Too

The New York Giants started their first possession at 12:07 from their own nine where Daniel Jones began to methodically pick apart the Steelers defense with an ease that hasn’t been seen in years.

Cam Heyward kills a drive by intercepting Daniel Jones in the end zone. Photo Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images, via SteelersWire.com

While you never want to see an opponent convert six 3rd and 4th downs in a single drive, Steelers coaches were rotating Ola Adeniyi and Alex Highsmith in for much of that 8 minute span which can only have helped New York.

  • How do we know?

Because when the Giants reached the Red Zone, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler made sure that T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree were on the field, and it was Dupree who flushed Jones from the pocket and batted his arm as he threw a pop fly right into the arms of Cam Heyward, who intercepted the ball for a touchback.

  • Nine plays later Chris Boswell put the Steelers up by nine points, all but sealing the result.

The first 18 plays of that drive undoubtedly made Fantasy Football owners who started Daniel Jones very happy. But Heywards interception reinforced the fact that in Reality Football yardage between the 20’s means nothing when defense stonewalls you in the Red Zone.

Sweet indeed.

The Hard Cookies on the Outside

It may not be the reason why you eat the sandwich cookie, but you can’t have a sandwich cookie without the hard cookies holding the stuffing in place.

  • The play of the Steelers during the rest of the game served as the hard cookies on the outside of the stuffing.

Sure, the long touchdown that Steven Nelson allowed represented a low light, but it is hardly a reason to panic. Terrell Edmunds name was heard a little too often for his own good, but the fact that Ben Roethlisberger out rushed Saquon Barkley proves that his supporting cast is pretty good.

  • While James Conner did little before getting injured again, Benny Snell impressed.

Tight ends Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald might not have made a lot of noise, but Eric Ebron’s lone catch converted a third down on the Steelers first touchdown drive. Certainly, the uneven offensive line play plus the injuries to Zach Banner and Stefen Wisniewski fuel cause for concern, but it is too early to panic.

  • One game does not a championship season make, as Yoda would remind us.

But going into and coming out of half time, the Steelers fused determination with timely big plays and sandwiched those sweet spots on both ends with solid fundamental football.

That’s a smart way to start the season and also a recipe that can take the Pittsburgh Steelers far in 2020.

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Are the Steelers Super Bowl Contenders in 2020? Here are 2 Questions They Must Answer First

Are the Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl contenders in 2020? To find out, they need to answer two other questions:

  • Can the Steelers continue to roll with Roethlisberger?
  • Can Devin Bush stand tall for Pittsburgh?

Every preseason analysis piece this site has published since our launch in 2008 has stipulated that the Steelers Super Bowl hopes and Ben Roethlisberger’s health are linked. And that analysis has been spot on.

  • Late season injuries to Ben Roethlisberger derailed the endings of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
  • Mid season injuries helped compromise the Steelers playoff seedings in 2015 and 2016.

Of course there are other reasons why the Steelers have failed to return to the Big Dance since 2010. But since Mike Tomlin arrived in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have gone into the season’s final weekend with all playoff possibilities eliminated only once.

  • That’s the difference a healthy franchise quarterback can make.

Everything we know indicates that Ben Roethlisberger’s arm is completely healed and that he’s throwing as well as ever. This is good. But we won’t know for sure how good Roethlisberger is until he’s tested in real game conditions.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

Ben Roethlisberger in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Denver Post

But if Ben Roethlisberger can return to even 85% or 90% of what he was in 2018, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron, Vance McDonald, James Conner and Benny Snell give Big Ben the weapons he needs to break the Steelers out of the “One offensive touchdown a game” jail that trapped them last year.

But cynics will note, “Ah, but they only had Ben Roethlisberger for 6 quarters last year, and still traveled to Baltimore for their last game with their playoff hopes alive….”

  • This is true.

And this truth carries us to our 2nd question. There is one player who is just as important as Ben Roethlisberger (Mark Kaboly would argue more important), and his name is Devin Bush. If you have trouble understanding this then think back to late 2016 and early 2017 when the Steelers defense was quietly forging its way to greatness.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

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

That quest halted with Ryan Shazier’s injury and only resumed after the Steelers traded up to grab Devin Bush with the 8th pick of the 2019 NFL Draft. Critics could argue that most of Bush’s splash plays came early in the season, and that his snap count tapered off during the second half of the season.

  • This is precisely the point.

A year ago the Steelers had Mark Barron to spell Devin Bush when necessary. Today, Mark Barron is a Denver Bronco. Losses of Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Bud Dupree and/or T.J. Watt would weaken Pittsburgh’s defense, but they have players to help compensate. In contrast, the Steelers are almost as thin at inside linebacker as they were when they lost Ryan Shazier.

Success for the Steelers in 2020 hinges on healthy and productive seasons from Roethlisberger and Bush.

Final Act of the Roethlisberger Era? Then Enjoy It

It has been a dozen years since the Steelers played in the Super Bowl. Since then Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have been methodically rebuilding towards a return. In that time, the Steelers have:

Through it all has been the latent yet palpable ticking of Big Ben’s clock in his race against Father Time.Now, in addition to that ticking clock, COVID-19’s salary cap implications threaten to force the Steelers to dismantle the team in 2021.

The Steelers have been Super Bowl contenders every year since they drafted Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. 2020 could be his final shot at bringing Lombardi Number 8 back to Pittsburgh.

But the good news is that if the Roethlisberger era Steelers are entering their final act as contenders, then they have a strong chance of writing a happy ending.

 

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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.”

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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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.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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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.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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