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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Steelers 2019 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs – Time to Strengthen Defense’s Center

Can a football team do something so well, for so long that when something suddenly goes wrong it doesn’t know how to react?

  • That might be what has happened to the Steelers at inside linebacker.

Think about it. Jack Lambert was the Steelers first inside linebacker after Chuck Noll made the switch to the 3-4 in the early 80’s. Since then, whether David Little, Levon Kirkland, James Farrior or Lawrence Timmons has been playing, inside linebacker has been a solid spot on the Steelers depth chart, if not a strength.

  • All that changed with Ryan Shazier went down and the Steelers defense has been reeling since.

The Steelers were supposed to address the need in the 2018 NFL Draft. They did not. Will the 2019 NFL Draft be different?

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

Vince Williams is the dean of the Steelers linebacking crops boasting 93 NFL games and 47 starts. The 6th round draft pick out of Florida State is in the what you see is what you get stage of his career.

Vince Williams doesn’t have the athleticism that will scare opposing offensive coordinators, but he does bring a motor that doesn’t stop and a craving for hard hits and contact. While you don’t want Vince Williams dropping too deep into coverage, he’s strong against the run and can get to the quarterback as his 12 sacks in two years as a starter prove.

  • Beside Vince Williams, the Steelers have free agent Mark Barron.

Mark Barron brings athleticism that Vince Williams lacks and as a former safety can occupy the increasingly important Dime Linebacker role that Morgan Burnett rejected. A quick look at Barron’s stat sheet doesn’t suggest anything spectacular, but he offers the Steelers a solid presence.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

For most of Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers inside linebacker depth has been the envy of the league. In 2015 or so, Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola described it as “obscene.” But that was then. Now tells a different tale.

Behind their starters, the Steelers only have one linebacker who has proven himself, and that man is Jon Bostic, the free agent Kevin Colbert brought to Pittsburgh a year ago. Jon Bostic started for the bulk of 2018.

And while Jon Bostic was no Ryan Shazier (no one expected him to) he proved himself to be a solid tackler. Coverage never was Jon Bostic’s forte, however, he proved to be better than expected.

  • Still, that was not enough for the Steelers defense.

Bostic could not give the Steelers a 3 down presence at inside linebacker, and found himself splitting time with L.J. Fort as the season wore on.

The Steelers also have Tyler Matakevich at inside linebacker. As former 7th round pick Tyler Matakevich is an NFL player in the mold of his coach Jerry Olsavsky – One who lacks the measurables but makes up for it in heart and football sense.

Unfortunately, Matakevich got hurt a few plays after Ryan Shazier, but coaches continued to express their confidence in him during the 2018 off season. However, when the dust settled following training camp and preseason, Matakevich found himself 3rd on the depth chart behind Bostic and Fort.

The Steelers 2019 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin did the right thing in aggressively addressing the Steelers need at inside linebacker through free agency, a move both men probably wish they’d taken a year earlier.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

By adding Mark Barron to their roster, the Steelers have avoided putting themselves into the position of having to either selling out to get Devin White or Devin Bush or reaching for need in the first round.

But if bringing Mark Barron on provides the roster with some immediate relief, it does little to address the Steelers need to find a long-term playmaker to occupy the center of their defense. Strength at the center of the Steelers defense, think Casey HamptonJames FarriorRyan Clark is vital to the unit’s success.

The Steelers need to strengthen that center, and they need to do it in the 2019 NFL Draft which means their need at inside linebacker should be considered High-Moderate.

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Steelers Sign Mark Barron, Possibly Signaling Jon Bostic and/or Morgan Burnett’s Exits

“Be aggressive!” Appears to be the mantra free agency mantra of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2019 as they continued to bolster their defense by signing former Los Angeles Rams linebacker/safety Mark Barron.

If initial reports are correct, Mark Barron’s contract with the Steelers is for two years and 12 million dollars with a $5.75 million signing bonus.

While “Mark Barron” is far from a household name he does have some history with the Steelers, as he was responsible for hit that injured Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers 2015 win over the then St. Louis Rams. Although Barron’s hit was clearly against NFL rules, he was neither flagged nor fined for the transgression.

Mark Barron, Ben Roethlisberger, Mark Barron injures Ben Roethlisberger

New Steelers free agent Mark Barron injures Ben Roethlisberger in 2015. Photo Credit: Tom Gannam, via TimesWVA.com

As a result of the play, Mike Vick was forced to start 3 games in Ben Roethlisberger’s absence, with Landry Jones relieving Vick and rallying the team to a comeback win over Arizona.

  • The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Mark Barron with the 7th overall pick in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

Mark Barron entered the NFL as a safety, until they traded him to the Rams in mid-2014, who moved him to inside linebacker. Like some other recent free agent signings from past off seasons, Mark Barron comes to Pittsburgh with some injury history, having missed the first four games of 2018, before starting the final 12 including the Rams 3 playoff games.

This could spell bad news for Jon Bostic, who figured to be the incumbent starter following L.J. Fort’s free agent defection to the Philadelphia Eagles. The move could also signal a coming release of Morgan Burnett, whom the Steelers signed as a safety last season.

The Steelers plan was to start Morgan Burnett at safety, but injuries led to Terrell Edmunds getting the start, and Edmunds played well enough to keep the strong safety spot for the balance of the season. Morgan Burnett did work his way into the lineup, but as a dime linebacker, a move which prompted Burnett publicly request his release.

Although the Steelers have now made high-profile free agent signings at inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver, Pittsburgh is expected to target all three positions in the 2019 NFL Draft.  The moves however, frees Pittsburgh from the need to reach to fill any of the areas on their depth chart.

  • A generation ago the saying went, “When you draft for need, Troy Edwards happens.”

Today you could say, “When you draft for need, Jarvis Jones or Artie Burns happen.”

Word to the Wise: Official Word on Barron Signing Pending

A quick word to the wise:  News of the Steelers signing Mark Barron broke on Twitter on Sunday the 17th. By Monday the Post-Gazette and Tribune Review were running the story, seemingly having confirmed Adam Schefter’s report on ESPN.

  • However, as of Tuesday, March 19th at 7:30 am Eastern the Steelers had still not officially announced the signing.

While the delay is likely due to logistical issues, it is possible that the deal hit a snag. Back in 2008, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette announced that the Steelers had signed Bud McFarland. That deal never materialized. However, in that case the Tribune Review had clearly and consistently reported that no deal had been reached with Bud McFarland.

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

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Steelers Sign Donte Moncrief, Resign Eli Rogers, Lose L.J. Fort

The Steelers most aggressive forays into free agency since 1993 continued as Pittsburgh signed wide receiver Donte Moncrief to a two year deal. The Steelers were expected to bolster their wide receiving corps following the trade of Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders, however many expected them to target the position early in the 2019 NFL Draft.

The Steelers had sown interest in Donte Moncrief during the 2014 NFL Draft but did not have a 3rd round pick having traded it away a year earlier to get Shamarko Thomas. Clearly that is one transaction which Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert would like have back.

  • Donte Moncrief in fact caught his first touchdown against the Steelers in the 2014 shoot out with the Colts.

As Jim Wexell details, Moncief’s other efforts against the Steelers have been far more pedestrian, but that was also the only time he had the benefit of being on the receiving end of Andrew Luck’s passes. While the Steelers clearly would like for James Washington to start opposite JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief will provide the “sophomore” wide out.

Donte Moncrief, Steelers sign Donte Moncrief, Artie Burns, Steelers vs Colts

Steelers sign Donte Moncief, pictured burning Artie Burns in 2017. Photo Credit: Matt Kryger, Indy Star

Rogers Signs for 2 Years, McCullers Back Too?

The Steelers took another step to bolstering depth at wide receiver when they signed Eli Rogers to a two year deal. Like Ryan Shazier, Eli Roger’s contract had tolled, meaning he did not acquire enough seniority to reach free agency this year, but the Steelers move will keep Rogers with the team through 2020.

  • Free agency news in Pittsburgh was not all good, however.

Reserve linebacker L.J. Fort, who had an under the radar performance during 2018, signed a 3 year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. L.J. Fort had been on the Steelers roster since 2015, working almost excursively on special teams.

Injuries to Vince Williams gave L.J. Fort’s first prolonged playing experience, and L.J. Fort played well and by the end of the season he appeared to have surpassed Jon Bostic on the depth chart. The Steelers are expected to target inside linebacker early and perhaps often in the 2019 NFL Draft, so L.J. Fort was not expected to start.

However, L.J. Fort could have been a quality player at a position that is sorely lacking both depth and talent.

While the Eagles are not exactly giving L.J. Fort starter money, it would appear to be above what the Steelers were willing to pay.

Although there does not seem to be official confirmation yet, ESPN is reporting that the Steelers have resigned Daniel McCullers two a two year deal.

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

 

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L.J. Fort Played Well for Steelers in 2018. Can He Cash in Free Agency?

Inside linebacker has been a position of need for the Pittsburgh Steelers since December 4th 2018 when Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal contusion against the Cincinnati Bengals. The injury sent the Steelers scrambling to fill a gaping hole in the middle of their defense. In short order the Steelers have tried:

L.J. Fort was a beneficiary of all of these misfires, because they earned him his first real playing time. How well did he take advantage of that opportunity? The bottom line will reveal itself soon as L.J. Fort reaches free agency.

L.J. Fort, L.J. Fort free agency, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

L.J. Fort rushes Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, via Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of  L.J. Fort’s Steelers Career

L.J. Fort was an undrafted free agent out of Northern Iowa in 2012 and worked his way through several NFL teams–including the Browns, Broncos, Seahawks, Bengals and Patriots — before finding a more secure home with Pittsburgh in 2015.

After being used mostly as a special teams player during his first few seasons while dealing with a loaded depth chart at inside linebacker — Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams ate up the majority of snaps in 2016 and 2017 — L.J. Fort began to see more playing time near the end of 2017 in the wake of the tragic spinal injury suffered by Shazier in early December.

2018 was a minor watershed year for L.J. Fort on defense as he saw his playing time increase as the season went along and the Steelers tried desperately to find some way to replace the other-worldly athleticism Shazier once brought to the inside linebacker spot. Appearing in 15 games and starting two, L.J. Fort had his most productive season by far in 2018, recording 48 tackles, a sack and a touchdown in the Steelers win over Atlanta.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning L.J. Fort

While L.J. Fort did turn pro in 2012 and did bounce around the NFL before arriving in Pittsburgh, he only appeared in 18 games prior to 2015. Therefore, despite being 29 years old, Fort likely doesn’t have the wear and tear on his body that another player his age might.

Also, as already alluded to, of all the inside linebackers currently on the Steelers roster, L.J. Fort’s athleticism comes closest to matching that of Shazier’s prior to his injury. Jon Bostic, Tyler Matakevich and Williams certainly don’t possess L.J. Fort’s speed and quickness. In-fact, if L.J. Fort was on another team, and that team was preparing to play the Steelers during Shazier’s prime, L.J. Fort would likely be the guy pegged to emulate him in practice.

And given Fort’s age and limited tape, it’s not likely teams will be lining up for his services. In other words, the Steelers could and probably should resign him at a very team friendly price.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning L.J. Fort

While L.J. Fort does possess potential, the fact that it still has yet to be realized at this stage of his career may be quite telling. Besides, it’s not all that uncommon for an NFL player to look pretty good in limited playing time, before getting exposed as a starter. Fact is, the Steelers thought so little of L.J. Fort’s abilities after Shazier’s injury in late 2017, they signed Sean Spence off the streets and started him in the disastrous divisional round playoff game against the Jaguars.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and L.J. Fort

In reality, it is highly unlikely at this point of his career that L.J. Fort is still some diamond in the rough who will suddenly morph into a dominant linebacker in his 30s a la James Harrison.

  • But that doesn’t mean he can’t be a very good depth player–not to mention a great special teams player.

Even if the Steelers go out and sign one of the prime free agent inside linebackers or draft one in the first round, there should still be room on the depth chart for L.J. Fort. And, again, considering the price it would likely take to keep him, I think it’s a no-brainer that L.J. Fort stays with the Steelers in 2019.

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

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Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card – Under Achieving or Just Average? Neither Was Good Enough

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigned to the reality that his once thought to be special class is really just average, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin following the Steelers loss at Oakland. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP via Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing, something no Pittsburgh Steeler has done since Jim Finks in 1955. That’s good. But it came at a cost of 16 interceptions. That’s bad, but is interception rate was 2.4, which was better than last year and better than his career average. The problem is that Ben’s picks at inopportune times, and that lowers grade below where other statistics might suggest it should be. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Le’Veon who? James Conner took over the starting running back role and performed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. When Conner got hurt, Jaylen Samuels proved he is at least a viable number 2 NFL running back. Despite a nice run or two, Stevan Ridley failed to show he was a viable number 3 NFL running back.

  • The key knock against the running backs revolves around ball security.

Fumbles by running backs proved to be critical turning points in 3 games in which the Steelers needed wins and didn’t get them. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald might not be Pittsburgh’s version of Gronk, but he’s an offensive weapon who can do damage anywhere on the field. Jesse James role in the passing game declined as the season wore on, but he proved himself to be a reliable target, and his block has improved. Xavier Grimble did have a critical fumble, but is a serviceable number 3 NFL tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Due to either injury or attitude, Antonio Brown started slowly in 2018, but by season’s end he was in championship form (on the field….) JuJu Smith-Schuster made a tremendous 2nd year leap, revealing himself as a budding super star. James Washington struggled to find his footing, but flashed tremendous potential, whereas Justin Hunter never justified his roster spot. Ryan Switzer proved to be a decent 4th wide out while Eli Rogers gave this offense a boost. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
This is a hard grade to offer, because for much of the season Ben Roethlisberger had “diary-writing quality” pass protection. Nonetheless, defenses managed to get to Ben late in the season, and in Oakland when the Steelers had a rookie runner, the run blocking just wasn’t there. To call this unit “inconsistent” would be grossly unfair, but their performance fell short of the level of excellence needed. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 8 sacks with Stephon Tuitt following with 5.5 sacks and he increased his QB hit number from 2017. Both men improved their tackle totals. Javon Hargrave had a strong third year with 6.5 sacks. Tyson Alualu, Daniel McCullers and L.T. Walton functioned as role players. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt exploded in his second year leading the Steelers with 13 sacks and six forced fumbles. The move to the weak side helped Bud Dupree although his sack total was 5.5, down from 2017, but his pressures, tackles and pass deflections were up. Anthony Chickillo proved he is a viable NFL 3rd OLB. On the inside Jon Bostic clearly upgraded the position from where it was at the end of 2017, but his coverage ability remains suspect. L.J. Fort fared much better in coverage but is far from being an impact player. Vince Williams had another solid year.

Overall the Steelers 2018 linebackers were OK but, outside of T.J. Watt, lack anything resembling a difference maker. Grade: C

T.J. Watt, Matt Ryan, T.J. Watt Matt Ryan strip sack, Steelers vs Falcons

T.J. Watt strip sacks Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: AP, via Sharon Herald

Secondary
In some ways, the whole of the Steelers secondary was less than the sum of its parts. Joe Haden is the group’s clear leader. In contrast, Artie Burns regressed, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly developed into a competent NFL cornerback. Mike Hilton gives the Steelers a solid presence at nickel back. Sean Davis’ move to free safety proved to be fruitful, as he helped eliminate the long gains that plagued the unit a year ago. Terrell Edmunds took some time to find his footing as you’d expect for a rookie, but played well in the strong safety spot, as did Morgan Burnett.

While the Steelers secondary made progress in 2018, performance and results drive grades and the chronic 4th quarter touchdowns given up by this unit reveals that the Steelers secondary wasn’t good enough. Grade: D

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer gave the Steelers the first consistency they’ve enjoyed in the return game for quite some time and he ranked 13th league wide in punt returns. However, the Steelers gave up an average of 14.4 yards on punt returns which is terrible, although the Steelers kick coverage ranked near the top of the NFL.

Jordan Berry takes a lot of flack, and he did struggle at the beginning of the year, but his punting was solid if not spectacular by season’s end. Fans who object to this should remember that quality punting has never correlated with championships for the Steelers.

  • The key player here is Chris Boswell, who struggled all year. Arguably, missed kicks cost the Steelers 2 games.

Factor in the Steelers leading the league in special teams penalties, and the picture is pretty bleak. Yes, Danny Smith’s men did block two field goals, executed a fake field goal, and partially blocked a punt, which pulls the grade up a bit. Grade: D

Coaching
Randy Fichtner took over the Steelers offense and we saw some immediate improvements, particularly in Red Zone conversions. The Steelers also converted slightly more 3rd downs, although their ranking was down. Given that the Steelers played most of the season without a legit 3rd wide receiver those accomplishments speak even better of Fichtner.

  • However, Randy Fichtner’s offense still had issues.

The Steelers struggled, and failed, to add to leads. And as the season wore on, it became pass heavy to a fault. Injuries dictated some of this, but more passes led to more interceptions.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is probably the 2nd least popular man in Pittsburgh now. And to some degree that is understandable, as 4th quarter leads evaporated in November and December faster than an ice sickle in July.

  • But how much of that is Keith Butler’s fault?

It is hard to say, but film analysis by “Heinzsight” over on 247 Sports Pittsburgh concludes that on many of the critical plays that doomed Pittsburgh, Steelers linebackers and defensive backs were in the right places but failed to make plays (think Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds vs. Seth Roberts.)

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

  • If Keith Butler is the 2nd most unpopular man in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin paces him by a mile.
  • I haven’t jumped on the #FireTomlin bandwagon yet and will not start today.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

Mike Tomlin didn’t fumble those balls, throw those picks, let those interceptions bounce off of his hands or miss those kicks that cost the Steelers so dearly. I’m also in the camp that says Mike Tomlin’s ability to pacify Antonio Brown for as long as he has, speaks well of his coaching abilities. (Scoffing? Fair enough. But Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin two disciplinarian’s disciplinarian struggled with their Diva wide receivers.)

  • His one clear coaching mistake was holding Ben Roethlisberger out of the game in Oakland, and it cost the team the playoffs.

And given that the Steelers play against the Saints suggests that this team could have actually made a Super Bowl run, that decision amounts to a huge miscalculation on Mike Tomlin’s part, because draft picks come and go, but Lombardi’s stay forever. Grade: D

Front Office
This is the first, and perhaps last time the Front Office has appeared on a Steelers Report Card. But they are here because of the ripple effects of one calculated risk they took on using the second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell.

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

Mike Tomlin & Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Yahoo! sports

Integrity demands I acknowledge that I supported this move, arguing it was perhaps what both sides needed.

The error didn’t come in franchising Bell, but in failing to adequately prepare for his failure to show up. When James Conner got hurt, the decision to keep Justin Hunter on the roster instead of trying to sign 2018’s equivalent of Mewelde Moore perhaps did as much damage to the Steelers Super Bowl hopes as Tomlin’s blunder in the Black Hole. Grade: D

Unsung Hero
There could be several candidate here for this slot, but we’re going to settle for someone who truly embodied the “Next Man Up” philosophy, and did so in relative anonymity. Once again injuries derailed Marcus Gilbert’s season, but this year Chris Hubbard was in Cleveland. Not that you would have noticed, because Matt Feiler, stepped in and the Steelers offensive line never missed a beat and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2018 season.

 

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