Steelers 2020 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs: Ignoring the Position = Ignoring History

Outside linebackers may have compiled sexier highlight reels, but the inside linebackers have formed the heart of the Steelers defense since Chuck Noll made the switch to a 3-4 in 1982.

Think about it. Each generation’s linebacking corps is remember for its Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, James Harrison and/or T.J. Watt. But those guys can only do their damage on the edge because players like Jack Lambert, David Little, Levon Kirkland and James Farrior have the center taken care of.

Ryan Shazier’s injury left the Steelers reeling at inside linebacker. Pittsburgh appeared to turn a corner in 2019, but does that mean they can ignore the position in the 2020 NFL Draft?

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

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

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

In 2020 the Steelers will start a potent duo at inside linebacker, led by 2019’s first round draft pick Devin Bush, and Vince Williams who has manned the other starting linebacker position since his rookie campaign in the 2013 season.

  • At age 31, Vince Williams has never been and will never be a superstar.

But he very much is the type of player who helps teams win Super Bowls. No, that’s not a misprint. Mel Blount was far more important to the Steelers 1978 Super Bowl team, but it matters little of Ron Johnson had been a liability at the other cornerback position.

And Vince Williams has never been a liability, and when paired alongside a truly athletic inside linebacker, Vince Williams is very much an asset. He craves contact, is stout against the run and can pressure the passer when needed.

He’s the perfect foil to Devin Bush, who exploded early in his rookie season for 3 fumble recoveries, one sack, and a touchdown. As the season wore on, Devin Bush was eclipsed by Minkah Fitzpatrick, but all indications point to him being worth the hefty price Pittsburgh paid to make him a Steeler.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Mark Barron was an important part of the reason why the Steelers turned a corner at inside linebacker last year, and he is no longer on the roster. In fact, he was on the field for 69% of the Steelers defensive snaps as compared to Vince Williams’ 37%.

  • Alas, Mark Barron was a cap casualty, collateral damage wrought by the need to apply the franchise tag to Bud Dupree.

His departure was not unexpected, but perhaps Tyler Matakevich’s was, and together they’ve left the cupboard pretty bare at inside linebacker for the Steelers. The Steelers do have Ulysees Gilbert, whom they drafted in the 2019 NFL Draft, and Robert Spillane who was on their active roster for the 2nd half of 2019.

The Steelers 2020 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

During the Tomlin era, inside linebacker really has been a boom-bust position for the Steelers. There’s been very little middle ground. When things go according to plan, the Steelers have been solid at inside linebacker.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • But of course, one needs to expect the unexpected in the NFL.

And that’s when inside linebacker has been a problem for Pittsburgh. Injuries limited Larry Foote’s 2013 season to a handful of snaps. He was first replaced by Kion Wilson whose NFL career would last for another six games.

Within a few game, Vince Williams had already replaced him, but the rookie Williams faced a steep learning curve at the expense of the Steelers defense. Something similar happened in 2017 when Ryan Shazier’s spinal injury ended his NFL career.

  • His back up, Tyler Matakevich, only lasted a few snaps, forcing Arthur Moats into the mix.

The Steelers signed Sean Spence after the mix, and it didn’t take long to see why Spence had been waiting for the phone to ring at home in December.

The point to this brief history lesson is that, while the Steelers have a strong starting duo at inside linebacker, depth is decidedly thin, meaning that the Steelers needs at inside linebacker going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate-High.

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Tyler Matakevich’s Special Teams Skill Secured a Steelers Roster Spot. Now What about a Second Contract?

Mike Tomlin makes no bones about it: The surest way roster bubble rookies can earn themselves a lot on the 53 man roster is to prove themselves on special teams.

One player who took that to heart and used special teams as to transform himself from Latrobe longshot is into a core special teamer is Tyler Matakevich who is now a free agent. The question is Matakevich role on special teams so cirtical that the Steelers offer him a second contract? We will soon find out.

Tyler Matakevich, Steelers vs Bengals

Tyler Matakevich at Heinz Field in the rain. Photo Credit: Pininterest.

Capsule Profile of Tyler Matakevich Career with the Steelers

Tyler Matakevich came to the Steelers as their second 7th round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Arrived in Pittsburgh to immediate comparisons to his position coach Jerry Olsavsky. The Steelers took Jerry Olsavsky as an 11th round pick in the 1989 NFL Draft. Olsavsky not only defied the odds and made the team, but took advantage of an injury to Hardy Nickerson to earn himself a slot on the 1989 UPI All Rookie Team.

Tyler Matakevich didn’t manage to make such an impact as a rookie, but early on in training camp it became clean that whateer Matakevich lacked in “Measuables” he made up for in heart and tenacity.

Matakevich led the Steelers in special teams tackles in 2016, and saw action at inside linebacker during the loss to the Dolphins. In 2017, Matakevich entered the season as the team’s top backup at inside linebacker and again led the Steelers in special teams tackles with 14. He also blocked two punts, one in the season-opener against Cleveland and another in the finale against Cleveland.

  • However, a shoulder injury prevented Matakevich from seeing any time at inside linebacker as Ryan Shaizer’s replacement.

Going into 2018, Steelers coaches clearly wanted Tyler Matakevich to earn the starting inside linebacker slot along side Vince Williams. However, as the summer progressed, first Jon Bostic and then L.J. Fort surpassed Matakevich on the depth chart. Nonetheless, logged 16 tackles and remained one of the Steelers top special teams players.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Tyler Matakevich in 2020

Quality special teams play might not be a critical component to winning a championship, but special teams breakdowns can sink a Super Bowl run in the blink of an eye (see the 1993 Steelers.)

  • Tyler Matakevich has been a pillar of the Steelers special teams for the last four years.

Moreover, as special teams is more about “want to” than anything else, Matakevich sets the tone for the entire unit. At inside linebacker Matakevich probably won’t be anything more than a “break glass in case of emergency” type player, but he knows the system and will always be active on game day.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Tyler Matakevich in 2020

The Steelers will likely cut Mark Barron to make salary cap room to keep Bud Dupree. While the Steelers are in good hands with Devin Bush and Vince Williams at inside linebacker, Tyler Matakevich will be the lone experienced backup at inside linebacker for the Steelers.

  • As stated above, he’s nothing more than a “in case of emergency, break glass” type replacement.

An injury to either starter at inside linebacker will leave the Steelers in the same place they were in 2013 when Larry Foote got injured an in 2017 when Ryan Shazier got injured. Tyler Matakevich tells a feel-good special teams story, but the Steelers need someone who can add value at ILB depth chart.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Tyler Matakevich

The Pittsburgh Steelers like Tyler Matakevich. “Dirty Red” is a core special teamer, and someone who is very good to have in your locker room. No other NFL team is going to the type of money at Tyler Matakevich that the Eagles threw at L.J. Fort last year.

Expect the Steelers to bring Tyler Matakevich at or near the veteran minimum level.

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

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Steelers Report Card for Season Ending Loss to Ravens

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who can’t help but be disappointed over how his class performed on their final exams, here is the Steelers Report Card for the season-ending loss to the Ravens.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell’s rushing was one of the true bright spots for the Steelers against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP via PennLive.com

Quarterback
On the plus side, for the first time in 2 games, Devlin Hodges didn’t throw any interception. However, his fumble inside of the two minute warning of the first half was just as bad. Overall, Hodges was 9 of 25 on the day. And while he did suffer some drops, this type of quarterbacking play doesn’t even qualify as “game management.” Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Benny Snell was the lone bright spot for the Steelers, churning out 91 yards on 18 carries while scorning the Steelers only touchdown. Kerrith Whyte had 3 carries for 1 yard while Jaylen Samuels had 1 catch for 16 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald caught both passes for that were thrown his way including a 12 yarder that converted a third down. Run blocking was solid, which the tight ends contributed to. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson led the group with 4 catches for 54 yards. James Washington, who has been solid all season, had zero catches on 3 targets some of which were catchable balls. No other wide out got a target. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Devlin Hodges was sacked twice and hit 6 times although he was under pressure for much of the afternoon. Run blocking was solid. The offensive line didn’t appear to be a liability against the Ravens, but it certainly wasn’t a strength. Grade: C

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave, in what will likely be his final game as a Steeler, led the line with 5 passes. Cam Heyward was next with a sack, a batted pass and 2 quarterback hits. Tyson Alualu had four tackles. Gus Edwards ran the ball pretty well, as did RGIII. This isn’t all on the line, but run stopping starts with them. Grade: C

Linebackers
Devin Bush led the team with 12 tackles, Vince Williams was the next best linebacker with 7, followed by T.J. Watt who had 5, a half sack and a batted pass and 2 QB hits. More importantly, T.J. Watt also forced a fumble which could have been a real difference maker. Bud Dupree had a sack and two QB hits. Linebacking was solid, but the Ravens rushing attack was strong. Grade: B-

Secondary
RGIII completed 11 of 21 passes, or just barely above 50%, and the Ravens were 7 of 16 on third downs. Steven Nelson batted away two passes, Joe Haden batted away another while ending the game with an interception. Mike Hilton had a half sack, shared another tackle behind the line of scrimmage and added another QB hit. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds looked strong in run support. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, RGIII, Steelers vs Ravens

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree bring down RGIII. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Special Teams
On the plus side, Diontae Johnson logged two solid punt returns….

  • But Jordan Berry’s fumble was awful, and exactly the type of a mistake that the Steelers could not afford.

Sure, the Steelers chances of scoring 9 points in those last 4 minutes were slim, but that doesn’t change the fact that the touchdown killed chances of a comeback.

Kerrith Whyte also muffed the kick return on the following play, which set up a safety. Oh, and the Steelers gave up a fake punt. Grade: D

Coaching
There’s really not a lot to say.

On offense the Steelers game plan seemed to be to try to grind it out on the ground and only pass when necessary. The Steelers executed the first part of that reasonably well, the second part not so much.

  • On defense, the fact that the Ravens backups rushed the ball so well so well is indeed alarming.

But while the Steelers run defense certainly made any fantasy football owner who started Gus Edwards happy, the fact is that the Ravens never once went the length of the field and all of their non-turnover aided scores were field goals.

While Keith Butler’s boys will not and should be let off the hook for giving up an easy touchdown after Hodges fumble return, overall the defense played well enough to win.

It would be easy to come down on Mike Tomlin for ending the season with 3 losses, the third of which looked worst of all. But even the best head coach can only outwit of the law of averages for so long. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
Conditions were awful and his opportunities were limited. But Chris Boswell went out and made both of his kicks and he did in workman like fashion, as he has done all season long, and for that he is win the Unsung Hero Award for 2019’s season-ending loss to the Ravens in Baltimore.

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Exposed: In 2 Games Ravens Reveal Steelers for Team They Could Be But Ultimately Weren’t

The Steelers 2019 season crashed to an ugly end at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in a 28-10 loss at M&T Bank Stadium. On paper, the Steelers were “in the game” until the 4th quarter, but things really weren’t as close as they might have seemed.

  • And that’s before you factor in that Baltimore sat most of its starters.

While 2019 will hardly go down as a banner year in the Steelers-Ravens rivalry, the truth is that through two contests the Baltimore Ravens exposed the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers for both what they could be and what they ultimately weren’t.

Devlin Hodges, matt Jundon, Steelers vs Ravens

Matt Judon strip sacks Devlin Hodges. Photo Credit: Gail Burton, AP via HeraldStar.com

Steelers vs Ravens II, 2019 Boils Down to 5 Plays

Per ESPN’s stat sheet, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers ran a combined 118 plays during the game. But 5 plays suffice to tell the story of the game and, to a large extent, the story of the Steelers 2019 season.

1. 0:54 in 2nd Quarter – Devlin Hodges is strip sacked by Matthewy Judon

The Ravens had knocked in a field goal with 1:10 left to play, and Mike Tomlin, as he too seldom gets credit for doing, tried to use that time to score. Things got off to a smart start when Devlin Hodges hit Jaylen Samuels for 16 yards to put the Steelers at their 45. His next pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster went incomplete.

  • On his next drop back he lost 11 yards and fumbled for the fifth time this season.

Unlike previous occasions, neither Matt Feiler nor any other Steelers player was there to bail him out. The Ravens got the ball at the 23 yard line, and scored a touchdown and, in just 24 seconds, growing a 9 to 7 Ravens lead to a 16 to 7 lead.

2. 13:21 – 3rd Quarter – T.J. Watt Forces a Gusy Edwards Fumble

The Steelers offense had to punt the ball away after an easy 3 and out to start the second half, but they got it back quickly when T.J. Watt forced a Gus Edwards fumble, with Joe Haden recovering and returning the ball to the Ravens 34.

As it has all season, the Steelers defense both made a key turnover and gave the Steelers offense quality field position.

3. 10:02 – 3rd Quarter – Devlin Hodges targets JuJu Smith-Schuster for an incomplete pass

Benny Snell wasted little time putting the Steelers into the Red Zone by ripping off a 15 yard run immediately after Joe Haden’s fumble recovery. The Steelers offense converted another first down and worked their way to the 8 yard line.

However, when Devlin Hodges failed to connect with JuJu Smith-Schuster it was clear that the offense had already exhausted its “One Touchdown a Game Quota” and would have to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal.

  • That brought score to 16 Baltimore, 10 Pittsburgh.

On paper, the Steelers were back in it. Only a touchdown and an extra point separated the Steelers from the lead….

4. 4:36 – 4th Quarter – Jordan Berry Fumbles a Punt

Now down 19 to 10, the Steelers offense ran three plays for zero yards from their own 19. Jordan Berry went back to punt. The snap was good, but he mishandled it, tried to recover, couldn’t hold on to the ball, and the Ravens recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown.

5. 4:36 – 4th Quarter – Kerrith Whyte bobbles a kick return

Kerrith Whyte, who has shown some promise as a kick returner, bobbled the kickoff return. While he ultimately regained control of the ball and advanced it for 3 yards, he left the Steelers to start at their 6 yard line.

After throwing an incomplete pass, Devlin Hodges found himself in trouble in the end zone and opted to just get rid of the ball. The officials correctly called it intentional grounding, giving the Ravens a safety, and padding their 16 point lead into an 18 point lead with 4:21 left to play.

Chris Boswell is good, but there’s no way he’s kicking 6 field goals in less than four minutes…

Ravens Expose Steelers, For Good and For Bad

When the Steelers and Ravens met on October the 6th, Baltimore had just dropped games to the Kansas City Chiefs and to the Cleveland Browns. Their two victories had come against the Dolphins and Cardinals.

  • In other words, the Ravens were not yet the juggernaut they would become.

But they were still a quality football team. The Steelers, meanwhile were 1-3, with their lone victory coming over the Bengals thanks in no small part to their surprise use of the Wildcat.

  • Yet, the Steelers-Ravens October contest went down to the wire.

The Ravens knocked Mason Rudolph out of the game, but Devlin Hodges came off the bench to lead the offense to 10 points. Mike Hilton, Kameron Kelly and Devin Bush all had interceptions. Cam Heyward, Vince Williams, Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, and Javon Hargrave all had sacks.

The Ravens forced overtime, with the help of a highly questionable call on Ola Adeniyi, and the Steelers lost in OT due to a JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble.

In a nutshell, the 2019 Steelers took the AFC Number 1 seed to the wire and came as close to beating them as any other team has done since then. The first Ravens game showed what the 2019 Steelers were capable of when at full health and playing relatively mistake free football.

Let’s state this up front about the 2nd Ravens game:

  • Credit the Ravens offense for running so well against the Steelers defense.
  • But credit the Steelers defense for keeping the Ravens from going the length of the field.

The story of the second game against the Ravens isn’t much different from the story of the losses to the Bills and Jets. A depleted Steelers team made a workman like show of contesting the outcome.  The defense gave the offense extra chances to win, but turnovers and special teams mistakes put them in a hole they couldn’t climb out of.

In their first game against the Ravens, the Ben Roethlisbergerless Steelers exposed themselves as a team who could give a league heavyweight a run for its money if all went well.

In their second game against the Ravens, Baltimore exposed the 2019 Steelers as a team that very much needed help getting to the postseason, and as one that ultimately wasn’t worthy of a playoff spot.

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Steelers Loss to Bills Proves Pittsburgh Not Immune to Gravity’s Pull

My, how different things look and feel just a week later. The Buffalo Bills arrival in Pittsburgh Sunday night and their departure after defeating the Steelers 17-10 served as a collective slap in the face for Steelers Nation.

  • The Buffalo Bills not only clinched a playoff spot by snapping the Steelers 3 game winning streak, they did so with the “Bills Mafia” occupying a good chunk of the seats at Heinz Field.

Since then bloggers and credentialed scribes have offered all sorts explanations over what this loss all means. However, there’s no need to complicated conclusions here. The lesson from the loss to the Bills is simple: the 2019 Steelers are not immune from the forces of gravity.

Levi Wallace, James Washington, Steelers vs Bills,

Levi Wallace picks off Devlin Hodges final pass to seal Bills win. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Gravity in the NFL

Discovered by Issac Newton while sitting under the apple tree at Oxford in 1687, Webster’s defines gravity as: the gravitational attraction of the mass of the earth, the moon, or a planet for bodies at or near its surface.

In science, gravity is an external force. In the NFL the pull of gravity can come from external factors. But the good news AND bad news for the Steelers is that in the NFL teams can create their own gravity wells.

A Brief History of the Steelers vs Gravity

The pull of the NFL’s gravity can be felt during a single game, over the course of a season or during an era. And the Pittsburgh Steelers have defied graveity at any number of times in in their history.

During the early and mid-1990’s, the Steelers saw an annual exodus of free agents, many of them Pro Bowl caliber, out of Pittsburgh. Yet Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe kept fielding contenders, until gravity finally won.
From a time, Ben Roethlisberger was the NFL’s most sacked quarterback behind a porous offensive line. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert defied NFL gravity for a time, employing both an offensive coordinator who was happy to “let Ben be Ben” and a “Plug and Patch” approach to offensive line building.

  • But by 2011 the toll all of the punishment Ben Roethlisberger was taking became evident, and the Steelers altered their approach.

Here in 2019, the Steelers have not only lost their starting quarterback and All World wide receiver but they’ve also had to bench Mason Rudolph and lost JuJu Smith-Schuster, in addition to losing James Conner and having to start any number of practice squad players at the skill positions.

  • Yet, since September, the Steelers have defied gravity until the Bills game.

The question is, does the loss to the Bill suggest the Steelers are succumbing to external forces of gravity, or are they creating their own gravity?

Point by Point: Breaking Down Steelers Loss to the Bills

With the benefit of a few days of analysis, it is easy to see that the Steelers loss to the Bills came down to a handful of critical plays, and one disturbing tendency. Let’s look at each of those elements.

1. Poor Special Teams Play

Jordan Berry first punt went for 22 yards and gave the Bills the ball at the Steelers 40 yard line. Sure, the Steelers responded with a Vince Williams-led gang sack of Josh Allen, but Allen also slipped past pressure on third down, and connected with Josh Brown to convert a 4th and 6.

It took them four more plays, but the Bills turned that 22 yard punt into the first touchdown of the night.

Jordan Berry has had a solid year and he doesn’t deserve to be a scaptgoat, but he picked the wrong night to shank a punt, because it set the Bills up for a relatively easy 7.

2. Failure Capitalize on Turnovers

Steven Nelson has toiled in relative anonymity this season while Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Bud Dupree and Joe Haden have grabbled the defensive headlines for the Steelers. So it seem to be a piece of poetic justice when picked off Josh Allen and returned the ball 33 yards to to the Bills 20 with 2:33 left to play.

  • The Steelers defense, it seemed, had notched another game-changing play at a critical moment.

Instead, James Conner stood in the Wildcat, got a low snap which he couldn’t cleanly give to Diontae Johnson, who put the ball on the ground and killed any chance the Steelers had of score before the half.

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

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

Later, in the third quarter, with the Steelers just having taken the lead, T.J. Watt popped the ball from Devin Singletary’s hands and Mike Hilton pounced on it. While Pittsburgh recovered it its own 31, a long touchdown drive would have given the Steelers a 10 point lead. Jaylen Samuels started things off with a 5 yard reception, then Devlin Hodges gave up sacks on back-to-back plays.

Finally, two plays before the Bills 4th quarter touchdown, Tyson Alualu forced another Devin Singletary fumble, but the Bills recovered.

3. Devlin Hodges Throws 4 Interceptions

This was by far Devlin Hodges worst game. And truth be told, each interception was uglier than the previous pick. But the Steelers defense forced a punt after the first pick, held the Bills to zero yards and forced a field goal on after the 2nd. The next two came in the end zone in the final two minutes.

4. Failure to Control the Line of Scrimmage

The Bills sacked Devlin Hodges 4 times, hit him 7 times and kept him under duress all night long. While Steelers running backs ripped off some nice runs, the Bills also recorded 9 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Is Internal or External Gravity Pulling Pittsburgh Down?

The 2019 Steelers formula for defying gravity has been to mix, mistake free, ball control offense with dominating, turnover producing defense. There’s nothing novel about that. But patching together 8 victories with a practice squad offense is unique.

  • Was the root cause for the formula falling flat against Buffalo caused by internal or external gravity?

The Steelers defense remains sound. The Bills only went the length of the field once. The until also limited points scored off of 5 turn overs to 10. That’s still winning football. Moreover, the Steelers defense continues to produce turnovers.

  • There’s no real gravity, internal or external, pulling Pittsburgh down on defense.

On offense, it is easy to look at Devlin Hodge’s ugly interceptions and/or failure to see an open James Washington over the middle and say, “The undrafted rookie’s been running on air Wile E. Coyote-like and he finally looked down….”

Duck Hodges did fall to earth Sunday Night, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the game is too big for him. The key take away from the Bills game is that Steelers can’t count on Devlin Hodges to win games for them.

  • In other words, if they don’t create any extra external gravity for themselves, Duck Hodges can still fly.

The most troubling tendency coming out of the Bills game is the poor play of the offensive line. The offensive line has disappointed all season, but in the year’s biggest, most important match up it failed to pull its weight.

  • Whether dip in offensive line play is caused by internal or external factors remains unknown, but the Steelers need more consistent play from their offensive line.

We haven’t seen much of that in 2019. For both better and for worse the Steelers offensive line only has two more chances to change that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kerrith Whyte, Devlin Hodges, Steelers vs Cardinals

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

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

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

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

Joe Haden, Chase Edmonds, Steelers vs Cardinals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Finally, there’s Mike Tomlin.

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

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

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

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Finding New Ways to Win: Steelers Defeat Cardinals 23-17

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to the desert and defeated the Arizona Cardinals 23-17 in another wild, white-knuckle game that went down to the wire.

  • The victory improved the Steelers record to 8-5 and renewed their lease on playoff life for another week.

But more importantly, the victory affirmed a fundamental truth about this team’s identity: When the game is on the line, count on these Steelers to find new ways and, if necessary, new faces to win.

Diontae Johnson, Byron Murphy, Steelers vs Cardinals

Diontae Johnson scores a touchdown over Byron Murphy. Photo Credit: AP, Tribune-Review

Steelers Flip the Script, with Unexpected Results

Much has been made about the 2019 Steelers ability to defy the pull of gravity imposed by injuries, starting quarterback ineffectiveness, trades and free agent defections. But at the end of the day, the formula for the Steelers success has remained simple:

  • Secure turnovers on defense
  • Play efficient, turnover free, ball control offense
  • Avoid costly special teams mistakes

Yet, the Steelers showed no inclination to stick to the script. In the first quarter Pittsburgh marched to a 10 point lead on the strength of a Chris Boswell field goal followed by an electrifying 85 yard punt return by Diontae Johnson. For the first time all season, the Steelers were starting fast.

The Steelers continued to deviate from the script on their next possession, when Benny Snell coughed up the ball at Pittsburgh’s 30. The Cardinals marched down to the Steelers 3. It didn’t seem to matter:

  • Steven Nelson stoned Christian Kirk for no gain on first down
  • Kyle Murray scampered around and looked like he might try to run it in, only to be sacked by Minkah Fitzpatrick
  • Vince Williams stepped out of his spy role to sack Murray on third down who had nowhere to throw.

In past situations, it’s fallen on Fitzpatrick to secure the turnovers and players like T.J. Watt and/or Bud Dupree to disrupt the backfield, but in their first goal-line situation, Fitzpatrick and Williams did the damage behind the line of scrimmage while Nelson provided the splash in the secondary.

  • Credit the Cardinals for flawlessly executing a no-huddle, tying touchdown drive that the Steelers could not stop.

But Devlin Hodges responded with an expertly managed two minute drill that got the Steelers back on the board with another field goal before the half. Hodges wasn’t flawless on the drive. He gave up a strip sack which would have been disastrous; however Matt Feiler covered it up, and Kerrith Whyte got back all 10 yards with a brilliant run up the middle on the next snap.

Faces in New Places Continues in Second Half

The theme of faces in new places continued in the 2nd half. After the Steelers pulled ahead by 10 late in the third quarter, the Cardinals mounted a long drive of their own. Faced with a 4th and 2, Arizona decided to go for it all. Kyle Murray had a lane to get the first down, but aired the ball out, only to have T.J. Watt intercept.

  • The Steelers appeared determined to keep it interesting however, when Jordan Berry botched a fake punt attempt.

That gave the Cardinals the ball at Pittsburgh’s 32, and they only needed 3 plays to move within three points. Yet, Diontae Johnson, who’d already had a critical catch and a touchdown earlier in the half, delivered again.

After a pass interference penalty on James Washington put the Steelers into Cardinal territory, Diontae Johnson ripped off a 16 yard reverse that put the Steelers just outside the Red Zone. Four plays later Delvin Hodges rolled to his left, threw against his body but managed to hook up with Johnson for a 16 yard completion that put the Steelers at the Cardinals 16.

  • Another Chris Boswell field goal gave the Steelers a 6 point cushion.

A clock management lapse by Hodges ended up giving the Cardinals the ball with 1:42 left to play, but successive sacks by Cam Heyward and Bud Dupree set up a Joe Haden interception on 4th and 17 with 47 seconds left to play.

Steelers Prepare for Showdown with Buffalo

The Steelers now face a show down next week at Heinz Field against the Buffalo Bills.

Who would have thought that a year that included a season-ending injury to Ben Roethlisberger, a benching by Mason Rudolph, prolonged injuries to JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conners would come down to a Week 15 Sunday Night football show down, and one against the Buffalo Bills of all teams?

Yet when asked for the secret to his success, Mike Tomlin explained:

We’re just singularly focused on Buffalo. That’s probably why we’re here. We don’t care about the three games.

Bills head coach Sean McDermott would no doubt say the same. Yet as McDermott focuses on the stopping the Steelers, he’d better do so with a wide-angle lens, because the win over the Cardinals proves that anyone of the 53 men on the Steelers roster can and will make a play when called upon.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Browns – “Pittsburgh Finishes It” Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is thrilled at seeing his entire class pull together to overcome adversity, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2019 win over the Browns at Heinz Field.

Joe Haden, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden interception, Steelers vs Browns

Joe Haden’s interception ensures that “Pittsburgh Finishes It” against the Browns. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Quarterback
When asked to assess Devlin Hodges play, an uncharacteristically frank Mike Tomlin confessed “He played his tail off.” Devlin Hodges did not have a strong first quarter, but hit his stride in the second, hitting 8 separate receivers, going 14 of 21 for 212 yards and 1 touchdown. He also threw an interception late, which could have been devastating, so his grade comes down. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
If there is any bright side to come out of 2019, it is perhaps that the Steelers coaching staff will see that you CAN split carries and run the ball effectively. Benny Snell had 69 yards on 13 carries, followed by Kerrith Whyte added 10 on 3 carries. More important than any numbers or averages, the Steelers ran the ball when they needed to, when the Browns knew it was coming and couldn’t stop them. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Whether by happenstance or design, the tight ends re-emerged in the passing game, with Vance McDonald catch 3 passes for 21 yards and Nick Vannett catching one for seven that helped sustain the Steelers insurance field goal drive. Run blocking was notably better this week, and the tight ends share credit. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
James Washington had another phenomenal game coming up with 3 clutch catches, including a touchdown to close the 1st half. On the day, Washington was 4-111. Tevin Jones only had one catch for 28 yards, but it set up the Steelers tying touchdown before halftime. Diontae Johnson had shaky afternoon with 1 catch on 5 targets, as costly penalty and a route that he cut off too early. But his 17 yard reverse served as the second punch in the combo that sparked the Steelers offense and set up the first score. Deon Cain had 1 catch for 5 yards but it gave the Steelers a first down on their tying drive during the first half two minute drill. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The offensive line didn’t exactly road grade, but when the game was on the line, the Steelers offensive line imposed its will. Delvin Hodges was only sacked once, and hit four times. In the first matchup against the Browns those numbers were 4 and 11, (and Myles Garrett only accounted for 3 of those QB hits.) The Steelers offensive line played its best game in weeks, and their improvement was key to victory. Grade: B+

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Browns

Not even 3 Browns can stop Benny Snell. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Defensive Line
Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward served as a two man wrecking crew up front, combining for 1.5 sacks, 1.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and two quarterback hits. Tyson Alualu had four tackles. Cleveland ran the ball a little too well at times, and the line holds some responsibility for that.

But numbers fail to fully tell the tail as Cam Heyward recovered the fumble that sparked the Steelers final scoring drive, and he combined for the sack the forced Cleveland to settle for a field goal. Javon Hargrave’s sack forced a punt after Hodge’s interception. That’s some serious playmaking. Grade: A-

Linebackers
Devin Bush lead the team in tackles, followed by Bud Dupree, who continues to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks with another strip sack and another opportune sack (he would have had a 3rd had it not been for a bogus roughing the passer call.) T.J. Watt “only” had a sack a tackle behind the line of scrimmage, and 1 quarterback hit. Mark Barron had 5 tackles while Vince Williams had 2 plus 1 for a lose. Again, Cleveland’s success running the ball brings this grade down a bit. Grade: B+

Secondary
Terrell Edmunds led the secondary in tackles, while Steven Nelson was next with 5. Mike Hilton deflected two passes. Minkah Fitzpatrick had 1 pass deflected that he should have intercepted. In the end, it did not matter. Two plays later Joe Haden got his hands on the ball and held on to end the game. The Browns were 4-12 on 3rd down conversions, which only happens if the secondary is doing its job. Grade: A

Special Teams
Kerrith Whyte opened the game with a 34 yard kick return and averaged 24 yards on 3 returns, strong numbers in today’s NFL. The Browns got nowhere on their kick returns. Diontae Johnson is still finding his way as a punt returner, but he did have one good 13 yard return. Steelers punt return coverage was sound. Jordan Berry had a solid day punting, while Chris Boswell was perfect. Grade: B+

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

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

Coaching
Last time “Baker out of the pocket” was Mike Tomlin’s diagnosis of what ailed the Steelers defense. He was right. This time, the Steelers contained Mayfield Baker, and that was a difference maker. The Browns ran the ball a little too well for comfort early in the game, but the Steelers defense clamped down.

Randy Fichtner is taking heat in some quarters for the offensive game plan, but after a slow start the Steelers scored 20 unanswered points until the Browns settled for a field goal with 7:34 left to play.

  • Randy Kitchens and the Browns chose to focus on the final 8 seconds of the first game, all the way down to his “Pittsburgh Started It” selfie.

In contrast, Mike Tomlin’s focus was on fixing the errors so painfully apparent in the game’s first 59:52 of play. When challenged about the impact of his T-Shirt, Kitchens was dismissive, insisting his team was “ready to play.”

While Randy Kitchens “talked the talk,” Mike Tomlin “Walked the Walk.” The Pittsburgh Steelers were the team that was ready, willing and able to win. “Pittsburgh Finishes It” indeed. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
He inherited “Next Man Up” status the moment Le’Veon Bell’s no showed in September 2018. Yet, with James Conner ailing last week, Benny Snell got the start upon his return to health.

Nonetheless, against the Browns he had 37 yards on 7 carries including a few out of the Wildcat plus 2 catches for 22 yards on two carries, and for that Jaylen Samuels wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Browns at Heinz Field.

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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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