Steelers Report Card for Loss to the Browns, Who got the F’s?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who has just seen his classroom endure a traumatic incident here is the Steelers Report Card for the Body Bag Game” against the Browns.

Mason Rudolph, Larry Ogunjobi, Steelers Browns 2019 Body Bag Game

Larry Ogunjobi closes in on Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
The short week figured to test Mason Rudolph. Many are writing off Rudolph’s entire future based on one bad night which is foolish. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell pointed out, Mason Rudolph did some nice things, particularly early in the game. But his interceptions were costly, and grew uglier as the night progressed. One plus, Mason Rudolph displayed excellent tackling technique. The Steelers had a shot to win despite giving up 14 quick points, but Rudolph’s picks killed those chances. Grade: F Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Sometimes the eye can see what it wants to, because memory has James Conner playing very well before he got hurt. However, the stat sheet of 10 yards on 5 carries and 1 catch for 7 yards tells a very different tale. Jaylen Samuels had a decent night running and catching, but his opportunities were limited. Trey Edmunds continues to show he has some serviceable skills as a reserve running back, but blocking is not one of those. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught 3 of 7 passes targeted to him, but with wide receivers dropping like flies he really didn’t appear to be a factor in the passing game. Moreover, on at least one pass early in the first half, McDonald appeared to mail it in terms of blocking. Nick Vannett caught 1 pass on one target. The tight ends have a chance to boost this offense, but do not appear to be taking advantage. Grade: D

Wide Receivers
Wow. Where’s Cobi Hamilton when you need him? JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson were having decent games before blatant head shots took them both out. James Washington did well. As for Tevin Jones and Johnny Holton? Well, Holton caught his first pass, but missed on a deep one he should have had. Tevin Jones had a hand on a catchable pass that got intercepted. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
4-7-11. Those were Cleveland’s numbers for sacks, tackles for losses and quarterback hits. A quality line can’t make miracles, but can certainly provide an offense the foundation it needs to overcome deficiencies at the skill positions. On paper, and certainly when measured in terms of salary cap investment, the Steelers should be fielding an offensive line that does just that. But that wasn’t apparent against the Browns, and hasn’t been apparent for much of the season. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Browns actually sniffed 100 yards in total rushing, but the Steelers made them work for it with the defensive line accounting for 5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward led the team in tackles which is impressive. Grade: B

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Nick Chubb, Tyson Alualu, Steelers vs Browns

Cam Heyward tackles Nick Chubb. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had the team’s lone sack, hit the QB 2 other times and helped drop at least three Browns for losses. Vince Williams and Devin Bush clocked in at 3rd and 4th on tackles while Bud Dupree had 2.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. The Steelers defense pressured Baker Mayfield, but Mayfield eluded the rush and, at least early in the game made the Steelers pay. That’s not all on the linebackers, but some of it is. Grade: C+

Secondary
Cleveland’s first touchdown looked alarmingly easy. The Steelers defense was in complete disarray on the Browns second touchdown and the play that preceded it. After that the Steelers secondary settled down, and helped limit the Browns to go 6-16 on third down conversions. Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton led the unit in tackles and passes defensed. Grade: C

Jarvis Landry, Steelers vs Browns 2019

Jarvis Landry scores with nary a Steeler nearby. Photo Credit: Matt Starkey, Cleveland.com

Special Teams
Diontate Johnson and Cam Sutton returned two punt for an average of 9 yards, which is slightly above the league mean, just as was the Browns kickoff return average. Steeler punt coverage held the Browns below the league average, where as Tony Brooks-James two kick retruns average 16 yards which could be the reason why he’s looking for a job today.

Chris Boswell missed on one field goal, but that came off of a bad snap/bad hold. Boswell made his other attempt and his lone extra point attempt. Grade: C-

Coaching
Keith Butler’s defense has been the strength of the team and the unit was clearly stumbling to find its footing during the first 20 minutes of the game. Following that, however, the Cleveland Browns were scoreless until a Mason Rudolph interception at the 9 yard line with 6:32 remaining essentially gifted them another score.

  • Randy Ficthner’s predictable offense is taking a lot of heat from commentators for whom the Report Card has a lot of respect.

And those commentaries have a lot of merit. Still, Randy Ficthner is charged guiding a backup quarterback through an offense designed for a franchise quarterback with backup and now scout team players thrust into starting roles at the skill positions.

  • Anyone really think that adding a few more layers of complexity is wise?

While preparing such a young team on a short week while on the road might not be “fair,” the results indicate that the Steelers was defense up to the challenge while the offense wasn’t. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
On a night when the Steelers offense was struggling to gain any semblance of traction, he kept the Browns offense from gaining any sort of field position advantage by booming off 6 punts that averaged 49.6 yards. This is helped keep the Steelers in the game until it tun overs took their toll in the 4th quarter, and for that Jordan Berry wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Body Bag Game.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Rams – Who Got A’s, Who got D’s?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased as punch to see half of his class excelling to their potential while worried that the other half keeps losing points due to misspellings and other sloppy mistakes, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Rams at Heinz Field.

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

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

Quarterbacks
Mason Rudolph passed for a career high 242 yards as he completed 22 of 38 attempts with no interceptions and one touchdown. Hardly numbers to impress a Fantasy Football owner. But what those numbers fail to demonstrate is the poise, control and command that Mason Rudolph displayed on the field. Ultimately, that proved to be a difference maker. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Jaylen Samuels got his 2nd consecutive start and was limited to 40 total yards from scrimmage as he was neither a threat to run nor as a pass catcher. Tony Brooks-James got 11 yards on 6 carries. Trey Edmunds got 1 yard on 4 carries, although he did convert a critical 4th down pass. It wasn’t all their fault, but the Steelers needed more from their running backs. They didn’t get it. Grade: D

Tight Ends
The Steelers used a lot of two tight end sets in hopes of helping the offensive line against the Rams stout front seven. The lack of running lanes for the running backs and the punishment Mason Rudolph faced speak for themselves. Vance McDonald caught 3 of 7 passes thrown his way for 11 yards. Nick Vannett caught 1 of 1 passes thrown his way. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
James Washington took another stride forward in catching 6 passes for 90 yards, including a touchdown. Yet he coughed up the ball just as he was moving the Steelers into scoring position. Diontae Johnson caught 4 passes for 64 yards while JuJu Smith-Schuster, battling Jaylen Ramsey for most of the day, was limited to 3 catches for 44 yards. The Steelers wide outs must do better. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Steelers offensive line had its stiffest test, so stiff that Mike Tomlin reconfigured it by moving Matt Feiler to guard and Chukwuma Okorafor to right tackle. Things didn’t start well as a bad snap spotted the Rams 7 points. Mason Rudolph had good time to throw at times, but he did take more punishment than he has all season. As for the running game? The Rams recorded 12.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: D-

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line quite simply needs to step it up. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave led the Steelers defensive line in tackles, including a key strip sack, which although  probably a gift from the officials, turned the game for the Steelers. Cam Heyward registered one helacious sack, another tackle for a loss, 2 passes defensed and 3 quarterback hits. Tyson Alualu had a hand in a tackle behind scrimmage and 4 tackles. Grade: A-

Linebackers
We could have written this ahead of time:  T.J. Watt led the unit with 2 sacks including a strip sack. Bud Dupree had 4 tackles, Vince Williams and Devin Bush had 3 a piece while Mark Barron clocked in the most with 11 and 1 pass defensed. Strong play by the line backers, but cursory viewing replays suggest that the inside linebackers were largely responsible for the gaps that Todd Gurley and Malcom Brown exploited. Grade: B+

Secondary
Is Minkah Fitzpatrick for real? Or is Minkah Magic just a dream? Each week when the Steelers need a big play Minkah Fitzpatrick steps up on cue. The Rams game added to his lore, as his heads up fumble recovery for a touchdown and last minute interceptions were game changers. Mike Hilton played point man in shutting down Cooper Kupp, while Steven Nelson had a key tackle to force a third down with 11:44 left to play. Terrell Edmunds helped bat away a pass in the end zone, although he’s lucky he didn’t get called for pass interference. Grade: A

Steven Nelson, Gerald Everett, Steelers vs Rams

Steven Nelson makes key 3rd down stop on Gerald Everett. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Special Teams
As usual the Steelers coverage units gave up a longish punt and kick returns. Ryan Switzer got negative yards on the one punt return he tried to bring back. Diontae Johnson returned 3 punts including one for 14 yards, but he had a fumble.

  • Chris Boswell was 1-1 on his field goal and perfect on PATs.

The key play for Danny Smith’s special teams was Trey Edmunds interception to stop a fake punt attempt, which could have been a game changer. Grade: B

Coaching
Randy Fichtner’s taking a lot of heat. Some of it is justified, some not. Fichtner didn’t fumble those three balls nor did he drop those six passes. These types of execution errors are hobbling the offense. He’s also playing with a running game on life support.

However, winning and losing starts at the line of scrimmage, and the put plainly, Pittsburgh is consistently losing that battle when it comes to establishing the run.

  • In the 90’s, when Carnell Lake reported after ending a contract hold out, Dick LeBeau quipped to reporters, “I just became a better coach.”

The addition of players like Steven Nelson, Minkah Fitzpatrick, paired with the maturation of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree seems to be making Keith Butler much, much a better coach too. Seriously. The Steelers defense is performing at levels not seen since at least 2010 if not 2008 and has scored as many touchdowns as the offense in the last two weeks.

The Steelers started the season at 1-4 and, while injuries contributed to that “September stench,” they’ve remained and issue since then. Today they’re 5-4 and “Playoffs” are a real possibility for Pittsburgh. Credit Mike Tomlin for keeping his team focused and finding ways to win. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
For the last two years he’s been the top dog in his unit. Steelers management agrees, so says the contract he signed before the season. Since then his spot in the pecking order has been displaced, but he’s but he’s not been deterred, as his five defensed passes led the team on Sunday, including a final one that set up the game sealing interception, and for that Joe Haden wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Rams.

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Defense Dominates, Steelers Defeat Rams 17-12 as Mason Rudolph Matures, Under the Radar

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Los Angeles Rams 17-12 at Heinz Field and improved their record to 5-4. While their margin was small, the men in Black and Gold very well may have gained something far bigger with this win.

  • Any NFL game where the winning team fails to break the 20 point mark is by definition a defensive game.

Add an exclamation point to that, when the game includes a safety, safety, two defensive touchdowns, follow by a strip sack and an interception on the final drive.

The Steelers defense was elite against the Rams and their play was certainly worthy of the block letter throwback uniforms they wore. And yet for all of the defensive fireworks, the most important development of the game may be the maturation of Mason Rudolph.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Rams

Stats might not show it, but Mason Rudolph made strides against the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Scary Start Leads to Slugfest in the Trenches

When your center snaps that ball above your quarterback’s head on the third play from scrimmage, its not good. When an untouched defender scoops up the loose ball untouched and basically walk into the end zone, its really bad.

That’s how things started for the Steelers as Maurkice Pouncey hiked the ball over Mason Rudolph’s head and Dante Fowler got the Rams up 7-0 with less than 15 seconds elapsed. On the ensuring series, the Steelers offense managed just one yard as Jaylen Samuels ran for 3, Tony Brooks-James got stuffed for -2, and Rudolph failed to connect for with JuJu Smith-Schuster.

  • Normally a start like that foreshadows disaster; on this day in Pittsburgh, it simply signaled the Steelers defense to snap in to action.

The defending NFC Champion Los Angeles Rams brought the NFL’s 10th ranked offense into Heinz Field
They left Pittsburgh as a unit that was outscored by its defense

Rams slot receiver Cooper Kupp entered the game as the NFL’s number one receiver on third downs. Keith Butler’s boys focused on shutting him down. Mike Hilton had primary reponsiblity for that, but enjoyed help from Terrell Edmunds and/or dime safety Mark Barron.

  • Cooper Kupp left Heinz Field without a catch.

Mike Tomlin told the FOX commentator team that the Steelers game plan was to “Get to Jared Goff before they can get to Mason Rudolph.” The Steelers game plan worked.

Cam Heyward and Javon Hargrave helped end Rams drives with third down sacks. T.J. Watt set up another third and long with a sack, and helped rattle him at the end with a strip sack. Vince Williams, Jordan Dangerfield and Mike Hilton also joined the party by registering quarterback hits and, while they weren’t credited, Bub Dupree and Mark Barron met T.J. Watt at the quarterback at least once.

If ESPN’s stats are to be trusted, when the dust cleared:

  • The vaunted Rams defensive front had sacked Mason Rudolph 3 times and hit him 8 times
  • The Steelers defense sacked Jared Goff 4 times and hit him 8 times

Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler’s game plan worked.

Minkah the Man with Magnetic Hands

Steelers free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick earns his own section in this game breakdown. The unorthodox trade that brought Minkah Fitzpatrick to Pittsburgh was questioned by many, including this writer.

  • Yet, there’s been no doubt that Minkah Fitzpatrick has worked magic with the Steelers defense.

Javon Hargrave’s third down sack of Jared Goff in the first half popped ball loose and it landed just ahead the line of scrimmage. To the naked eye, it looked like an incomplete pass. Yet, the referees sounded no whistle.

Minkah Fitzpatrick scooped up the ball and returned it 43 yards for a touchdown giving the Steelers a 7 point lead with 1:56 left to play in the first half.

When the game was on the line with 30 seconds remaining, Minkah Fitzpatrick worked his magic again, as Joe Haden (who had a pick of his own) deflected a pass with Fitzpatrick intercepted again, sealing the win.

The Maturation of Mason Rudolph

The Pittsburgh Steelers defense earned all of the praise being showered on it following the win over the Rams. But Mason Rudolph’s stand up performance is flying just underneath the radar.

  • Yes, the Steelers offense had to punt 9 times
  • Yes, the Steelers had to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal after reaching the 7 with 2:49 left to play
  • Yes, the Steelers offense couldn’t kill the game with a first down with 1:25 remaining

And no, Mason Rudolph didn’t make any fantasy owners happy with his 22 of 38 for 242 and one touchdown passing day.

But make no mistake about it, Mason Rudolph made important strides against the Rams. He executed the drive that ended with a 3 yard pass to James Washington to perfection. After giving up his 2nd safety in as many weeks at the hands of the almighty Aaron Donald, he stood clam in the pocket and executed a 4th and 1 conversion by connecting with Trey Edmunds.

  • Those objective achievements are important but perhaps Mason Rudolph’s most important achievements came on the subjective side of the ledger.

Against the Rams, Mason Rudolph embraced his role as leader of the Steelers offense in a way he hadn’t done before. Repeatedly during the game, Rudolph stood at the line of scrimmage, surveyed the defense, and unhesitatingly changed protections or audibled to a new play.

The Los Angeles Rams might have gotten to Mason Rudolph just a little less frequently than the Steelers got to Jared Goff. But the Rams never got into Mason Rudolph’s head, and that was the difference in this victory for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Ravens – F’s for Two Key Groups

Taken from the grade book of a furious teacher who watched in dismay as his students did well enough on the test to pass only to fail because THEY FORGOT TO PUT THEIR NAME ON THEIR papers, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2019 loss to the Ravens at Heinz Field.

Mark Andrews hurdles Minkah Fitzpatrick. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
Mason Rudolph was 13 of 20 for one TD and no interceptions. The coaches took the training wheels off a bit, and Rudolph did OK, but his downfield accuracy left a lot to be desired. He made a phenomenal play just as he got KOed. Devlin Hodges entered the game and played far better than anyone had the right to expect him to. Grade: B

Running Backs
James Conner ran well, but his carries were limited. Jaylen Samuels didn’t run as well, and his interception while running the Wildcat was disastrous. Sure, he didn’t call the play that never should have been called, but he did throw the pass, and it went right to the Ravens. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald had 3 catches on 3 targets including one that set up James Conner’s touchdown. Nick Vannett had one pass thrown his way. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster again showed that he is a legitimate big play wide receiver catching all 7 passes thrown his way. James Washington reappeared, making 3 catches including two of great consequence. Diontae Johnson caught 5 passes but he fumbled the ball, which mercifully went out of bounds. While it’s not fair to scapegoat JuJu Smith-Schuster, there’s no sugar coating the fact that his fumble was fatal. Grade: F

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph was only sacked once and had good time to throw. The run blocking looked to be a little better, but it is hard to be sure because the Steelers really didn’t try to establish the run. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt led the unit in tackles, Cam Heyward had a sack, a tackle for a loss, and two more QB hits. Javon Hargrave had a sack, a tackle for a loss and another QB hit. Baltimore ran the ball well coming into Pittsburgh. The defensive line slowed them down. Grade: B+

Linebackers
Devin Bush was second in the unit in tackles, and caught his first interception, even if it should have been overturned on replay it was a heads up play by the rookie. T.J. Watt added another sack and dropped 3 defenders behind the line of scrimmage. Bud Dupree had a sack in overtime. Grade: B

Secondary
Mike Hilton had a stand out game with an interception prior to the 2 minute warning. He also batted another pass away and dropped a defender behind the line of scrimmage. Kameron Kelly had an interception, and you didn’t hear the names of Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and Terrell Edmunds much. And that’s good. Grade: B

Special Teams
The Steelers special teams gave up another long run, which didn’t result in points but it does highlight their weakness. Worse yet was the Steelers kick return team who averaged 15 yards per return. Ryan Switzer had one nice punt return for 13 yards. Chris Boswell was perfect and Jordan Berry pinned the Ravens inside the 20 twice.

When your coach defers on the toss in overtime because he’s worried about how bad his return team is, things are bad. Grade: D

Devlin Hodges, Steelers vs Ravens

Devlin Hodges passing for the Steelers in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Coaching
So, the Steelers go into a show down with a division rival, starting their backup quarterback who gets hurt three plays into the second half. Their 4th string quarterback comes on, leads a comeback, forces overtime, only for the Steelers to lose because of a fumble in OT.

  • So that’s a phenomenal reflection on the coaches. Right?

Well, yes it is, but it is also much more complicated. Mike Tomlin claims that the Steelers weren’t planning on deploying a gimmicky offense going into the game. Fine. Let’s take him at his word.

But the Steelers started the first two series using those gimmicks, and the Wildcat pass was a disaster which set up an easy 7 points for the Ravens.

  • Sure, the Steelers offense put up enough points to win given the circumstances.
  • Sure, the Steelers defense kept the team ahead in take aways and put in a strong effort.
  • Sure, the game turned on a fumble in overtime, which is decidedly NOT the coaches’ fault.

But Jaylen Samuels never should have been passing from the Steelers 12 yard line. Never. This is a case where one bad call is indeed a difference maker in a game. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He’s one of the few on that side of the ball with no premium draft or free agent pedigree. Fans and Twitter general managers regularly scheme to find ways to take him out of the lineup. But while he might not have the freakish athletic talent of some of his peers, he’s a hard hitter and he gives it all on every play.

Against the Ravens this player returned to the lineup with a vengeance, leading the team in tackles and notching a stat in just about every category save for an interception and, for that reason, Vince Williams is wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Ravens.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rudolph Takes the Training Wheels Off – To Mixed Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Defense, Offense Improvise to Stay Alive

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

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

  • In the face of adversity, the Steelers improvised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ball Security Remains Steelers Achilles Heel

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

  • In the end, it wasn’t enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Report Card for 2019 Opening Loss to Patriots – No Practice Makes for Imperfect

Taken from the grade book of a teacher dismayed that his pupils STILL haven’t learned that practice makes perfect, here is the Steelers Report Card for the latest loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

Donte Moncreif, Donte Moncrief Steelers debut, steelers vs patriots

Donte Moncrief’s Steelers debut definitely left a lot to be desired. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Quarterback
No sugar coating here: Ben Roethlisberger looked every bit the quarterback who had thrown 13 passes in the preseason. He was out of synch with receivers. This was brutally evident on several long balls, but he also tried to force a slant route that should have been a pick six. Ben Roethlisberger was far from the only culprit this night, but he says “He needs to play better.” Agreed. Grade: F

Running Backs
With the way the game evolved neither James Conner nor Jaylen Samuels had much of a chance to get going. Both made some catches, but these were not factors. And the run blocking wasn’t there. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Word has been that to protect his health, the Steelers were going to keep Vance McDonald on ice. Well, they certainly did that. Vance McDonald didn’t get into the action until garbage time where he caught 2 passes for 40 yards, Xavier Grimble was invisible and Zach Banner didn’t get work as a third tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster first game as the Steelers official number 1 WR drew mixed results. JuJu managed to make some nice catches, but didn’t approach being a game changer. In contrast, Donte Moncrief led the team in targets and looked terrible. James Washington could have had a game-breaking play, yet lost his balance. Ryan Switzer caught 6 of 6 balls thrown to him, but that merely highlights how well covered the rest of the WRs were. Grade: F

Offensive Line
Credit the offensive line for giving Ben Roethlisberger time to throw. There were several times when Ben had too much time no one was open. However, the offensive line’s run blocking was atrocious. 3 times in the first half the Steelers faced 3rd and 1 or 4th and one and failed to convert. Making those conversions could have at least altered the dynamics of the game. Instead, the Steelers lost the battle of scrimmage. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Patriots had some success running the ball early in the game that put them in 3rd and short situations, which they converted. That’s not all on the defensive line, but it starts there. The Steelers couldn’t get pressure on Brady consistently, and if you give Brady time he will burn you. And Brady burned the Steelers. Yet again. Grade: F

Linebackers
Bud Dupree had a sack. Vince Williams, Mark Barron and Devin Bush split time inside. The linebackers got some pressure on Brady on a few odd occasions, but that was too little too late. Brady decimated the Steelers with the short passing game and while that’s not all on the linebackers, they shoulder some of the blame. Grade: D

Secondary
Any one want to question Sean Davis’ value? Kameron Kelly got his first start and looked every bit the like an AAF retread. Terrell Edmunds made a few nice plays but nothing to indicate he’s about to make the 2nd year leap. Steven Nelson’s name wasn’t heard much, which is good. Joe Haden did not appear to make any egregious mistakes. But Tom Brady passed for 341 yards and six touchdowns while converting 7 third downs. The totals could have been double had the Patriots passed more. Grade: F

Special Teams
On the positive side, Chris Boswell made his one attempt and Jordan Berry boomed off several long punts. Ryan Switzer returned no punts and was average as a kick returner. But the Patriots returned two punts for 35 yards. That was hardly a decisive factor, but it does show just how much things went wrong. Grade: C-

Coaching
At half time Mike Tomlin told NBC that lack of execution was the issue. He was right. To wit, if the Steelers can force a 3 and out after kicking a field goal and then score a touchdown to open the second half, they’re very much in the game.

  • But that doesn’t get the coaching staff off of the hook.

The New England Patriots were in championship form. The Pittsburgh Steelers looked like they were still playing preseason. Judging by the tone of coverage of reporters who’ve been watching the team daily for the last two months, Pittsburgh’s piss poor performance surprised them as much as it did the fans.

Yet here we are again in early September, and the Steelers aren’t simply failing to execute, failing to adjust, they’re also not playing with any confidence or poise.

  • Could that have been solved by more reps for the starters in preseason?
  • Is it something else?
  • Is it just a fluke?

It matters not. The Pittsburgh Steelers were woefully unprepared for Prime Time. And that’s on Mike Tomlin. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
If there was one brightish spot for the Steelers, it came in the form of T.J. Watt who got in Tom Brady’s face and was easily the most impactful and consistent defender and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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Report Card for Steelers 18-6 Preseason Win Over Titans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unsung Hero

Brandon Reilly for his totally unexpected contributions.

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Tomorrow, Steelers Rookie Devin Bush Steps into a Intense Spotlight

Steelers’ rookie first-round pick Devin Bush was the star of a training camp highlight over the weekend, when he got the best of fellow rookie Benny Snell Jr. in a backs on backers drill.

If you watch the video linked to the first paragraph, you’ll see that Devin Bush took Benny Snell, a fourth-round pick who earned a reputation at Kentucky as a hard-nosed running back who liked to run downhill, and drove him about five yards backwards before depositing him on his, well, backside.

  • Naturally, Devin Bush drew praise and cheers from the many onlookers at the team’s annual Friday Night Lights practice at Latrobe Memorial Stadium.

As a long-time observer of the team, I saw what Devin Bush did and the first thing I thought was that he needed to win just about every backs on backers battle he could against a rookie running back.

Devin Bush,

Steelers rookie Devin Bush on the fields of St. Vincents. Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo! Sports

Sure, Devin Bush, an inside linebacker from Michigan, is a rookie in his own right, and he’s out there learning just like every other player at his first NFL training camp. But it’s a little different for Devin Bush.

He’s not just a rookie first-round draft choice. He’s a rookie first-round draft choice that general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin deemed valuable enough to trade up 10 spots to select–and part with a first-round pick (2019), second-round pick (2019) and third-round pick (2020) in the process.

That’s a huge departure for a Steelers front office whose draft day philosophy is usually to stand pat and let the chips fall where they may. But the Steelers couldn’t wait and hope that Bush fell to them (that would have been a minor miracle, anyway), not this year, not with what he could possibly mean to their defense.

  • In that context, my thought process regarding Devin Bush’s dominance of Snell Jr. wasn’t really surprising. And that’s because my expectations for him are high.

And that brings me to what Bush is just days away from facing: a stadium full of Steelers fans who will have the same expectations of Bush that I do when Pittsburgh takes on the Buccaneers this Friday night at Heinz Field in the first preseason game of 2019.

Sure, it’s only an exhibition, and for most of the veterans, it will be a glorified practice and a way to get some more work in (that is, if they even play at all). As for the other rookies and younger players–many of whom are already on the brink of having to get on with their life’s work–yes, the pressure will be on. It will be do or die, perhaps the one and only time they’ll be able to leave a strong and lasting impression on their bosses.

  • Devin Bush is facing no such pressure. His spot on the roster is a lock, not only for this season but the next few.

However, this does not mean Devin Bush won’t be feeling the pressure to perform and to perform well, staring this Friday. You see, about 120,000 eyes will be trained on his every move for every second that he’s in the game. Why?

  • Devin Bush is seen by many as a minor savior for the Steelers.

If he is truly the real deal–if his speed, explosiveness, athleticism, play-making ability, leadership and high football IQ can make a seamless transition from the college ranks to the professional level–Pittsburgh’s defense may have its replacement for Ryan Shazier, who was lost near the end of the 2017 campaign with a spinal injury that he’s still not fully recovered from.

Ryan Shazier was everything to the Steelers defense, which is why the team drafted in him out of Ohio State in 2014. Shazier battled the injury bug over the course of his four-years as the center of the Steelers defense, but when he was healthy, there was no question he was central to its every move.

You saw that in the very wild wildcard victory over the Bengals following the 2015 season, when Shazier spent the entire game wreaking havoc on the Bengals offense before rescuing the Steelers season in the final seconds with a forced fumble just one play after backup quarterback Landry Jones nearly threw it all away with an interception.

Shazier was the guy who did all the heavy lifting for Keith Butler’s unit. The entire defensive game-plan was schemed around him and his ability to pursue, to make things happen just about anywhere on the field.

  • After Ryan Shazier was lost in the final month of the 2017 season, Pittsburgh’s defense was never quite the same and had no real replacement at inside linebacker.

But how could anyone come off the bench and replace a talent like Ryan Shazier? And if there wasn’t anyone on the bench, there surely wasn’t anyone on the street who could, even though the Steelers tried by signing Sean Spence right before the playoffs.

It was to no avail, as Spence, a third-round pick in 2012 who spent his first incarnation as a Steeler trying to rehab from a devastating knee injury, wasn’t anything close to what the Shazier-lacking defense needed him to be.

The Steelers defense, a unit that’s spent the better part of this decade trying to recapture the magic from the previous decade, had its moments in 2018. But it didn’t have that explosive play-maker in the middle to bring everything together.

  • Jon Bostic was a nice veteran signing, but that’s all he was. He certainly didn’t have the ability to be a difference-maker in the middle of the defense.

As for Vince Williams, a sixth-round pick in 2013, despite being a self-made man who has gotten every single ounce that he can out of his abilities, he wasn’t the same without Shazier by his side.

The Steelers’ had a lot of young and promising talent on defense as they entered the 2019 offseason, but they didn’t have someone who could bring it all together.

Now, maybe they do.

We’ll soon begin to find out, starting this Friday night. Yes, it might only be preseason, but not since Ben Roethlisberger started his first regular season game for an injured Tommy Maddox back in 2004 have expectations for a Steelers rookie been this high.

The world won’t be watching as Devin Bush makes his debut this Friday, just Steeler Nation, but how he performs could make a world of difference for the team’s immediate future.

 

 

 

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Redskins Sign Jon Bostic. Did Steelers Err in Cutting Him? Probably Not. But….

News that the Washington Redskins had signed former Steelers linebacker Jon Bostic once again reinforced the notion the timing is everything in the NFL.

Not quite 3 hours elapsed between Pittsburgh picking Derwin Grey to wrap up their 2019 draft class and the announcement that they’d signed their initial 2019 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent class. 2 minutes later the hammer fell: The Steelers cut Jon Bostic.

That set this blogger into motion, penning a missive wondering whether the Steelers had made a mistake. Of course thanks to the 12 hour work day, the article never saw the light of day. Until now, thanks to boys in Ashburn, Virginia.

Cam Heyward, Jon Bostic, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Heyward & Jon Bostic put Matt Ryan under duress. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

The fact that the Washington wasted little time following the loss of Ruben Foster suggests that the rest of the league sees Jon Bostic belongs in the NFL. Yet, that doesn’t validate my initial gut reaction that letting Jon Bostic wasn’t the right thing to do. Before diving deeper, let’s get two things out of the way:

  1. I’m a certified sucker for underdog stories of players like Jon Bostic.
  2. The Steelers tried to replace Ryan Shazier with a combination of Bostic, Morgan Burnett and subpackages
  3. And they failed.

There’s no arguing the final point. Sure the Steelers defense did improve more than is generally acknowledged by season’s end – See the victory over the Patriots and the should have been victory over the Saints.

However, story of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s 2019 is that the duo has set out to essentially undo its mistakes from 2018. Clearly, the Steelers braintrust do not see the B’s, Bostic and Burnett, as crucial for sustaining that improvement in 2019.

Perhaps they’re on to something. Jon Bostic was already losing snaps in favor of L.J. Fort by the time Pittsburgh played New England and New Orleans.

  • His snap percentages in those two games were 24.2 and 27.3, well below his season average of 52%.

Finally, a Steelers inside linebacker depth chart that reads, Mark Barron, Vince Williams, Devin Bush certainly beats one that reads, Vince Williams, Jon Bostic, and L.J. Fort.

  • So the case for cutting Jon Bostic appears pretty convincing, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe it does. But that doesn’t mean that Jon Bostic didn’t add value to the Steelers in 2018. He his sure tackling and stout work against the run helped shore up shaky run defense. In late November, voters looked poised to send Bostic to the Pro Bowl, and as Sean Gentille reported, Pro Football Focus liked him at the time.

The main argument for reserving a roster spot for Jon Bostic on the 2019 Steelers would have been the depth he could have offered. Should something happen to two of the Steelers top three inside linebackers, there’s no question that Jon Bostic would be a better option than Tyler Matakevich.

Ah, but there’s the rub. Tyler Matakevich will only cost the Steelers $720,000 against the salary cap this year. Sutton Smith and Ulysees Gilbert will cost them even less.

  • Jon Bostic was set to make 2.5 million in Pittsburgh this year.

By letting Jon Bostic go the Steelers saved 1.8 million dollars, money that can be used to resign Joe Haden or perhaps pick up a veteran tight end of safety. So maybe money, and not timing, is everything in the NFL?

Either way, Steel Curtain Rising thanks Jon Bostic for his brief service to the Steelers and wishes him well in Washington.

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Steelers Draft Ulysees Gilbert III, ILB, Akron in 6th Round. Time for Tyler Matakevich to Look Over His Shoulder?

A year ago, everyone predicted a defensive draft for the Steelers. They didn’t get one. In 2019 the refrain remained the same and Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin delivered, using their third 6th round pick on defense, as the Steelers drafted Ulysees Gilbert III, Inside Linebacker, Akron.

Ulysees Gilbert III played for four years at the University of Arkon, appearing in 45 games, making 475 tackles and recording 8.5 sacks. As a Junior he had 3 interceptions, including on pick six and deflected 4 passes.

Uylsees Gilbert III, Steelers draft Ulysees Gilbert

Steelers pick Akron’s Ulyesse’s Gilbert in the 6th round. Photo Credit: Jeff Harwell, Akron Athletic

While Ulysees Gilbert will need to prove that he can play in Keith Butler’s defense, to secure a roster spot he’ll need to show he can make an immediate impact on special teams.

Vince Williams, Mark Barron and 1st round pick Devin Bush have locks on roster spots at inside linebacker. Jon Bostic will likely prove to be difficult to dislodge. However, Tyler Matakevich should probably be looking over his shoulder this evening.

A year ago coaches were talking up Tyler Matakevich and penciled him as the top candidate to replace Ryan Shazier. Fast forward 12 months, and the Steelers have just made the boldest draft day trade in franchise history to pick someone at his position, and then their penultimate pick at inside linebacker.

Tyler Matakevich however, has played a key role on the Steelers special teams. Steelers inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky seemed to confirm that Gilbert will need to shine on special teams when he told reporters: “In today’s game, a lot of inside linebackers have to be special teamers.”

But as Olsavsky clarified what the Steelers really liked about Gilbert was “His movement. He could really cover a lot of ground, sideline to sideline and he’ll hit you. That’s what we look for. If you like to run around and hit people, you know you’re good for us.”

Here is a clip of highlights from Ulysees Gilbert’s junior year, which statistically speaking was his best:

Gotta love the retro look with the black and white film.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Ulysees Gilbert.

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