Should Steelers Feel Any Buyers Remorse over Trading Ross Cockrell Away?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a problem in their secondary. Labeling them “hiccups” or simply suggesting that big pass plays hindering the defense’s dominance dodges the issue. So we’ll repeat the statistic unearthed during this sites post-Packers analysis and Report Card:

Since Joe Haden left the field injured, the Steelers have given up a 57 yard touchdown pass in every 27 and a half minutes of play.

That’s a searing statistic that shows just how serious of a situation the Steelers must resolve with their secondary. To be fair to Coty Sensabaugh, Haden’s replacement, Artie Burns has been just as much at fault, if not more at fault, for these breakdowns. So have other members of the defense, who’ve literally players slip through their hands.

In other words, issues plaguing Pittsburgh’s defensive backfield might very well go beyond the secondary being different absent Joe Haden.

Which brings us to the question that no one else seems to be asking, so we’ll ask here:

  • Is it time for the Steelers to be feeling some buyer’s remorse over trading Ross Cockrell away?

OK. If you’ve come this far to read this instead of simply seeing the headline on Twitter, rolling your eyes as you click away, stay with us for a second longer.

Ross Cockrell, Steelers vs Raiders, Ross Cockrell interception, Mike Mitchell, William Gay

Ross Cockrell’s Red Zone interception against the Raiders in 2015. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

So let’s be clear, no one, not even the most wild-eyed homer, would suggest that Ross Cockrell’s should change his name to Mel Woodson Taylor. Suggesting that Ross Cockrell would develop into the next Deshea Townsend or William Gay would probably have been a stretch.

Moreover, Coty Sensabaugh appeared to be beating out Cockrell in training camp and he’s only started 4 games in New York, which is enough for Pro Football Focus to rate him as “Poor” whereas PFF rates Sensabaugh as “Average.”

  • With those negatives acknowledged, let’s also accept the advantages that having Ross Cockrell on the roster now would bring.

The biggest benefit that Cockrell would bring is that it would give Keith Butler and Carnell Lake some viable alternatives at cornerback. Steel City Insider’s Jon Ledyard expresses a sentiment that’s common in Steelers Nation these days, if social media is any guide:

Combine these consistent failures with Burns’ penalties and missed tackles and I think we’re all hoping Cameron Sutton shows something soon to start pushing Burns for playing time.

One reader pointed out that the more realistic scenario would be Cam Sutton  pushing Coty Sensabaugh for playing time. Both scenarios breathe new life into the old cliché of “grasping at straws.”

  • Steelers third round pick Cam Sutton has all of what, 6 quarters of preseason experience under his belt?
  • Contrast that with Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Bruns combined 110 games and 6 interceptions.

Should a serious Super Bowl contender really entertain the thought of replacing that kind of experience with a raw rookie 12 games into the season? That’s one’s hard to get your head around.

The Steelers could, however, entertain making the same sort of switch with Ross Cockrell. Sure, Cockrell struggled in the AFC Championship, but which Steelers (other than perhaps Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown) didn’t struggle that night?

Prior to that Ross Cockrell defended 15 passes, including a key 3rd down pass breakup on the road in Cincinnati, while making two interceptions in 15. Perhaps Cockrell is struggling in New York, although playing on a 2-9 team does have the way of bringing out the worst in a player. But last winter when the Steelers laid and original round tender on Cockrell, Steel City Insider editor Jim Wexell observed this:

Here’s another thing: Ross Cockrell is a treasure. He works so hard that no one will dismiss his chances. Therefore, no ones [sic] going to leak that they’re dissatisfied with their outside guys. And really, with how hard Cockrell works and how smart he is, there’s no certainty a high draft pick will beat him out.

And before you write off Wexell as a homer, Pro Football Focus was labeling Ross Cockrell as one of the Steelers “secret superstars” as recently as early July 2017.

Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake have forgotten far more about defensive back development than I will ever know. So has Kevin Colbert, who also understands how to make the cost-benefit calculations that the salary cap demands, and economics certainly factored into the Cockrell trade.

  • But Cockrell could have at least potentially pushed Burns and/or Sensabaugh whereas Cam Sutton is too young and William Gay is too old.

Which means the Steelers really need to find a way to coax Artie Burns out of his slump and get Sutton some help from either Mike Mitchell and/or Sean Davis. Barring that, the Steelers need Joe Haden to get healthy fast.

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NFL Suspends Marcus Gilbert for Four Games. The Bright Side? Steelers Decision on Cam Sutton Just Got Easier

The big story leading into the week following the Steelers Thursday Night trashing of the Tennessee Titans was who would lose their roster spot when the Steelers activated rookie cornerback Cam Sutton from IR. Of course the story took an unexpected twist before the day ended….

Marcus Gilbert, NFL suspends Marcus Gilbert, Mike Mitchell, Steelers vs Rams

Marcus Gilbert celebrates with Mike Mitchell during the Steelers 2015 win at St. Louis. Photo Credit: Rob Cornforth, UPI

On Steel City Insider, writer Jim Wexell focused on L.J. Fort whose been cut and resigned several times and Daniel McCullers, who hasn’t been active yet. He also mentioned backup tackles Matt Feiler and Jerald Hawkins. And on his message board, most of the talk focused on the backup tackles. The fact that the Steelers added offensive tackle Jake Rogers only fueled that fire.

Yet, as the day wore on and the debate developed,  Wexell cautioned:

Jim Wexell’s works on Steelers backup tackles proved to be prophetic

Now we know why.

The NFL suspended Marcus Gilbert for 4 games for use of performance enhancers, meaning the Chris Hubbard will need to protect Ben Roethlisberger’s right side in the Steelers up coming matchups with Green Bay, Cincinnati, Baltimore and yes, New England.

Gilbert issued a statement via Twitter:

While Chris Hubbard already started 6 games this season, the Marcus Gilbert’s suspension deprives the Steelers of one of their best lineman during the stretch run. Gilbert will not appeal the suspension, an appeal which could have impacted his availability for the playoffs. Either way, the move will cost Gilbert:

There is a bright side to the story, however. With Marcus Gilbert off the roster for four weeks, the Steelers will not have to release anyone to activate Cam Sutton from the injured reserve list. The Steelers of course drafted Cam Sutton in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

Sutton spent most of 2017’s training camp out injured, but saw playing time in both the Steelers 3rd and 4th preseasons games and made the final 53 man roster, only to be put on IR. Sutton began practicing with the Steelers 3 weeks ago, and Pittsburgh must decide to activate him or leave him on IR for the rest of the season.

While expecting Cam Sutton to come in and contribute immediately is highly unrealistic, Joe Haden is out with a broken leg, leaving the Steelers shorthanded at cornerback with only William Gay and Brian Allen behind Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Burns.

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Le’Veon Bell Tops Steelers Game Ball Winner Poll for 2nd Straight Week

The Steelers game ball winners poll following the Steelers 29-14 win over the Bengals at Heinz Field generated a lot of participation, with votes being cast across both sides of the ball, including several write ins and with ties resulting across the ballot.

Scroll down below the photo of this week’s top vote getter to review the full results!

Le'Veon Bell, Vontaz Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals

Le’Veon Bell gets tackled by Vontaze Burfict en route to his latest 100 yard performance against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

  • And it should come as no surprise, that for the second straight week Le’Veon Bell led the voting.

Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers Game ball winners BengalsThe second slot yielded a pleasant surprise, as Roosevelt Nix tied with Ben Roethlisberger with 10 votes. Nix was instrumental in paving the way for Bell. The fullback is largely an anonymous (and largely disappearing) role in today’s NFL so it is nice to see Nix get recognition.

Fourth place brought yet another tie, with David DeCastro and Robert Golden netting eight votes (interesting that Golden would poll 4 times more votes than the guy who caught his pass). They were followed by yet another tie a slot below, as Bud Dupree and Joe Haden both polled 6 votes to split 5th place.

Antonio Brown drew 5 votes, followed by William Gay’s 4 votes. JuJu Smith-Schuster got 3 votes, Cam Heyward polled 2 tying with Darrius Heyward-Bey, with Tyson Alualu, Maurkice Pouncey and Ryan Shazier polling 1 a piece.

As always, Steel Curtain Rising thanks you our beloved readers for taking time out to vote and gives special nod to those who took the time to cast write in votes.

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Steelers Report Card for the Win over the Bengals – A’s for Defensive Excellence

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who has a note from his mother excusing his middle of the week absences from sickness here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals at Heinz Field.

T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt jumps for joy after sacking Andy Dalton as Cam Hewyard looks on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

Quarterback
This was Ben Roethlisberger’s best game of the season thus far, as Roethlisberger led the Steelers to two touchdown drives, managed to work an number of receivers into the passing game and did not turn over the ball. Big Ben’s day could have been even better had two potential touchdown not been dropped. Still, the Steelers struggled on third downs, and Roethlisberger must bear partial responsibility. Grade: B

Running Backs
Is there any doubt that Le’Veon Bell is back into form? Le’Veon Bell attacked the NFL’s number 2 rushing defense head on, and fought his way to 134 yards on 34 carries. He also made noise in the running game with a brilliant stiff arm of Dre Kirkpatrick. James Conner carried 3 times for 19 yards, while Terrell Watson carried once for no gain. Roosevelt Nix paved the way. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald made two catches, including an impressive 28 yard catch. He also dropped a gimmie on the end zone. Overall however, his blocking was a key element to Bell’s success. Xavier Grimble also had one catch for 1 yards and blocked well when McDonald left via injury. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
The Bengals have had a lot of success in containing Antonio Brown, but Brown did his damage in the first half with 4 catches for 65 yards including a touchdown. Still, the William Jackson put Steelers Nation on notice that AFC North as a corner that can go toe-to-toe with Brown.

JuJu Smith-Schuster had two catches for 39 yards including a touchdown. Eli Rogers reminded everyone why he’s still on the roster, while Martavis Bryant got everyone to ask “Just WHAT is he complaining about again?” Finally, Darrius Heyward-Bey caught what might have been the most important catch of the game on a fake field goal. Grade: B

Offensive Line
IF ESPN’s statistics are to be trusted, the Bengals only touched Ben Roethlisberger once. And while the offensive line wasn’t busying keeping Roethlisberger clean it was opening holes for Le’Veon Bell thanks to David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey’s pulling. This until established control at the line of scrimmage early on and never looked back. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Its some how fitting that Cam Heyward opened the Bengals final series with a sack, as the defensive line dominated the Bengals front seven from Cincinnati’s final possession of the first half onward. In addition to his sack, Heyward had two tackles for losses, and stopped several other Bengals for no gain. Perhaps most satisfying, late in the second quarter Heyward began punctuating his tackles with an extra backwards slam, and it was all down hill for Cincinnati after that.

Take out Joe Mixon’s 25 yard scamper, and the Steelers held the Bengals running backs to 2.8 yards rushing. That all starts up front. Grade: A-

Linebackers
Vince Williams had two tackles. Anthony Chickillo had a key pass defense. Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt both had sacks, while Ryan Shazier lead the team in tackles including one for a loss and was last seen chasing Andy Dalton in the backfield as the beleaguered Bengals signal caller opted to simply throw it away on 4th and two. A fine day by the linebackers. Grade: A-

Joe Haden, Joe Haden 1st Steelers interception, Joe Haden intercepts Andy Dalton

Joe Haden after intercepting an Andy Dalton pass intended for A.J. Green. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

Secondary
Andy Dalton passed for 140 yards and the Bengals only managed 19 yards of total offense in the second half despite playing from behind the entire time. Oh, and Cincinnati finished 3-11 on third down conversions. Oh, and A.J. Green was held to 3 catches for 31 yards or 1 grab less than the Steelers secondary as Joe Haden and William Gay nabbed their first interceptions of the season. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell boots it well against the Bengals, as he knocked in 5 field goals, including one from 41 yards away and another from 49 away. The Bengals did have one long punt return, which is the second week in a row the Steelers have allowed one.

The biggest play of course came on the hands of Robert Golden who connected with Darrius Heyward-Bey for the fake. That was a gutsy and risky call, but the Steelers executed it and it ended the game. Grade: B+

Coaching
Todd Haley did his homework on this one, expertly mixing the pass and the run to get the Steelers on the board early with touchdowns, and then controlling the clock after that – all against the NFL’s number 2 rush defense.

  • Still, the Steelers Red Zone and third down performance need to improve.

Objectivity commands us to remind ourselves and everyone else that the ease with which the Bengals scored their first two touchdowns was al little disquieting. You can be forgiven if you forgot because from the Bengals final drive of the first half onward, the Steelers defense dominated as thoroughly as any unit fielded by Bud Carson, George Perles, Dom Capers or Dick LeBeau ever fielded.

  • Keith Butler’s defense was that good against the Bengals in the games final 32 minutes.

Cincinnati didn’t have a chance, and Andy Dalton’s final throw away on 4th and 2 in the 4th quarter perfectly symbolized the Bengals haplessness.

Mike Tomlin’s teams are sometimes prone to let down, and this was a possibility after a big win over the Kansas City Chiefs coupled with a Bengals team bringing a 2 game winning streak into Heinz Field on the heels of a bye week. But Mike Tomlin kept his team focused. And if his offense needs to improve in situational football and he does need to take care not to overwork his feature back, his Steelers put in a pretty good afternoon against the Bengals. Grade: B

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Bengals

Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin during the 2017 win over the Bengals at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

Unsung Hero Award
A year ago after the Steelers loss at Miami commentators trotted out various statistics of the Steelers records with Cam Heyward and without Stephon Tuitt in the lineup together.

  • Now to be fair to the rest of Johnny Mitchell’s pupils, the Steelers defensive line righted that ship after Cam Heyward’s season ending injury.

But for as well as L.T. Walton, Ricardo Mathews and John Maxey might have played in Heyward’s absence, the Steelers brass went out and signed someone who could be a true 3rd defensive end in the rotation, and his name is Tyson Alualu and it was his playmaking as much as anyone else’s that lead to the defensive turn around and for that Tyson Alualu wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Bengals.

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Steelers Bludgeon Bengals 29-15, as Defense Delivers 2nd Half Knockout

The Cincinnati Bengals arrived at Heinz Field fresh off a bye week and on a 2 game winning streak intent serving notice to the Steel City that Queen City would not allow the AFC Crown to fall into Steelers hands uncontested.

  • The record shows that Cincinnati and Pittsburgh opened the game by exchanging a pair of hard body blows.

But when the dust settled, the Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed, to the tune of a 29-14 victory. And what made the win impressive was the 2nd half defensive knockout delivered by the Steelers defense.

Roosevelt Nix, Roosevelt Nix blocks, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Bengals, Rosie Nix

Rosie Nix renders Bengals defenders in Le’Veon Bell’s way as road kill. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Steelers-Bengals Toe-to-Toe For Just Shy of Two Quarters

In is no secret that the Steelers offense has failed to live up to expectations this season. What fans envisioned as the NFL offensive equivalent of the Death Star has resembled the type of offense that we could have expected Ron Erhardt, Bill Cowher’s first offensive coordinator, to field.

And perhaps the Ron Erhardt metaphor is an apt one for the Steelers offensive effort vs. the Bengals. When asked to explain his philosophy to Bill Cowher, Ernhardt’s words were simple:

  • Throw to score, run to win.

That’s exactly what the Steelers did at Heinz Field on this October day against the Bengals. The Steelers opened the game with a steady diet of Ben Roethlisberger handing off to Le’Veon Bell and throwing to Antonio Brown, and scored a touchdown on their opening drive, as Roethlisberger connected with Brown for a seven yard score.

After the Steelers and Bengals traded punts, Cincinnati got on the board with a efficient, if a little too easy looking, drive to tie the score.

  • The Steelers offense offered a new answer that we haven’t seen yet this season.

While Le’Veon Bell carried the ball for one yard, the rest of the yardage on the drive came in the form of passes to Eli Rogers, Vance McDonald and JuJu Smith-Schulster, who scored from 31 yards out. Unfortunately, that was the last time the Steelers offense would see the end zone during the afternoon. To be sure, Todd Haley’s crew provided some fireworks, perhaps most noticeably in the form of Le’Veon Bell’s 42 yard catch and run:

But the Bengals answered the Steelers touchdown with one of their own, and the Steelers could only managed a field goal in response, although the Todd Haley’s crew does deserve credit for moving 71 yards in 1:28 even if they did stall in the Red Zone to give Pittsburgh a 6 point advantage going into the half.

Special Teams Interlude

The Steelers special teams have run hot and cold this season, making a few big plays which contributed to Pittsburgh’s wins over Cleveland and Minnesota, while committing costly errors against Chicago and Kansas City.

  • Against the Bengals, Chris Boswell was a perfect 5-5 including a pair of 41 and 49 yarders – which are not gimmies at Heinz Field.

But the biggest play of the game came from the punt unit, and it didn’t involve Jordan Berry, but rather upback Robert Golden and Darrius Heyward-Bey who hooked up for a 44 yard catch on 4th and 7. Fake punts are, by definition, do or die plays, and a failure there would have opened the door wide open to a Bengals last ditch comeback.

But the pair succeeded, and gave the offense a chance to burn more time off the clock and ended with Chris Boswell knocking in his 5th.

Steelers Defense Bludgeons Bengals

As noted previously on this site, commentators both inside and outside Pittsburgh have twice sought to elevate Keith Butler’s defense to elite status, only to see the Steelers defense give up yards in gobs on the ground against Chicago and then against Jacksonville.

  • Last week, against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Steelers defense turned out almost excellent performance against what had been the NFL’s top offense.

So, when Cincinnati marched down the field and appeared ready to match the Steelers touchdown for touchdown, Steelers Nation’s collective sign of “Oh, boy here we go again. Everyone spoke too soon” was understandable.

But the Steelers closed the 1st half by limiting the Bengals to a one yard Andy Dalton scramble, things seemed to be heading in the right direction.

  • Oh, if ever there was a first half close that signaled a second half turn around, this was it.

The Steelers forced a three and out to begin the second half, and ended the Bengals second possession with a Joe Hayden interception. The Bengals next possession ended like this:

  • Sean Davis deflects a pass that William Gay intercepts
  • T.J. Watt sacks Andy Dalton on third down
  • Dalton opens his next possession with a sack by Tyson Alualu, closes with a sack by Bud Dupree
  • Dalton fails to convert a 4th and 2 by under throwing A.J. Green

When it was all tallied up, the Steelers held the Bengals to a total if 19 yards of offense in the 2nd half.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, as a franchise, has undoubtedly had stronger halves in its history. It’s possible that one of those even came in the Tomlin era, during the 2010 win at Tennessee. But the work of Keith Butler’s defense against the Bengals at Heinz Field must rank up there with the great single half performances of Steelers defenses.

2017 Steelers a Work in Progress, but Making Progress

Mike Tomlin began the year by cautioning everyone that the 2017 Steelers were a work in progress. And thus far his team has vindicated him. The Steelers sputtered, surged and stuttered their way through the season’s first five games.

  • Last week, the Steelers appeared to a step forward against the Kansas City Chiefs.

This week against the Bengals, the Steelers sustained that first step and then took another one forward. To transform itself into a true contender, the Steelers offense will need to do more than rely on Chris Boswell’s leg for entire halves of games.

But against the Bengals that was enough, as the Steelers offense delivered the body blows, while the defense landed a series of 2nd half knockout punches.

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Steelers Report Card for Road Win over Browns – “Above the Line, But Below Par”

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who couldn’t watch the game live on Sunday, and then spent much of Monday stranded in Montevideo, Uruguay thanks to storms over the Rio de la Plata, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2017 road opener against the Browns.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers 2017 season opener, Joe Schobert

Antonio Brown 4th quarter jump ball catch sealed the game 2017 opener for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger’s 24 of 36 for 263 yards with two touchdowns and one interception to give him a solid statistical start on his first action of the 2017 season. And to be fair, there are a couple of three occasions where Ben Roethlisberger threaded the needle in ways that only he can do. But if his only interception came on a ball that was tipped, he also threw at least two if not three passes that should have been intercepted but were not. While Big Ben had a good day against the Browns, he did look like a starting quarterback who’d only played one series in August. Grade: Bsteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
In a preemptive attempt to help his running backs, Mike Tomlin argued that penalties prevented the Steelers from establishing their running game. There’s some truth to that. It’s also true on the offensive line’s run blocking was left wanting on more than one occasion. But much of 3 quarters, Le’Veon Bell looked nothing like a back who has earned the right about being forced to play for 12 million dollars. To his credit, Bell delivered when his efforts were most needed late in the game. But he had a subpar afternoon, by any standard. James Conner also struggled. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Vance who? The Steelers turned heads in late August by trading for Vance McDonald, with Mike Tomlin citing the need for a “Varsity” tight end. Vance McDonald dropped the one pass thrown his way, and was clearly upstaged in the passing game by Jesse James, who caught two touchdown passes in addition to four others for 41 yards. ON the flip side, there did appear to be some issues with James blocking. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
5 summers ago a young wide receiver who was burning through Steelers records faster than he was burning defensive backs asked the Steelers to make him the NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver. Kevin Colbert said no thanks, and gave his contract to a man that they would later make the NFL’s NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver.

Against the Cleveland Browns, Antonio Brown again vindicated the faith the Steelers have shown in him. On an afternoon where the vaunted Steelers offense sputtering, Antonio Brown kicked into high gear, and was almost single handedly responsible setting up the Steelers first two scores as he was for killing to clock in overtime.

  • And let the record reflect that Antonio Brown bailed Ben Roethlisberger out late in the game in a ball that begged to be intercepted.

Martavis Bryant’s ballyhooed return to the gridiron consisted of 2 catches for 14 yards and a couple of drops. It might not be Bryant’s fault, but he never threatened to stretch the field. Eli Rogers caught two passes for 11 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had zero catches but multiple holding penalties. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Steelers have invested a lot in their offensive line and the unit it proved itself both in terms of pass protection and road grading run blocking during the latter half of 2016. The team doubled down by extending Alejandro Villanueva’s contract this summer. In terms of pass blocking, the unit did well, as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once, only hit another time, and needed very little fancy footwork to keep plays alive. The same cannot be said for the run blocking. While the sample size was small, Bell and Connor had difficulty finding day light. Fortunately, the Steelers were able to run the ball when they needed to kill the clock, but it shouldn’t have taken 4 quarters. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
How good was the Steelers defensive line against Cleveland? Well, I watched the game on tape delay furiously fast forwarding between downs, and didn’t even realize that Stephon Tuitt was out of the lineup until the 4th quarter. While Tuitt made his presence known in just two plays, Tyson Alualu, Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward more than made up for his absence, with Heyward and Hargrave registering sacks, Alualu leading the group with five tackles, and all three men registering tackles for losses. At the end of the day, Cleveland rushed the ball 25 times and barley got more than 50 yards. Grade: A

T.J. Watt, T.J. Watt rookie debut, Steelers vs Browns, DeShone Kizer

T.J. Watt had two sacks & an interception in his rookie debut. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Linebackers
All T.J. Watt did in in his professional debut was lead the Steelers defense in tackles, register two sacks, and atone for a foolish personal foul by intercepting a pass…. Ryan Shazier was close behind, with 7 tackles and a quarterback hit. Starting in place of Bud Dupree, Anthony Chickillo got two sacks, hit the quarterback two other times, and dropped two Cleveland ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. Vince Williams had 5 tackles. The Steelers linebacking stat sheet is helped by the work of the defensive line, but the only thing that forces the minus on this grade is the penalties. Grade: A

Secondary
Joe Haden had a homecoming an then some, winning his first home opener in 7 years, while recording a sack and defending a pass. William Gay was all over the field and looked sharp, although his personal foul was costly (and perhaps unavoidable, he did not intend to lead with the head). Artie Burns and Sean Davis’ names weren’t heard much, which can be good. While the Steelers secondary had a good game, it must also be noted that there were times when Cleveland’s receivers had them beat, only to see DeShone Kizer overthrow the ball. Stiffer tests await. Grade: B

Tyler matakevich, Britton Colquitt, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers punt block browns

Tyler Matakevic blocks Britton Colquitt’s punt setting up a Steelers touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Special Teams
Sometimes measurables just don’t add up and the Steelers 1st quarter blocked punt explains why you keep a player like Tyler Matakevich on your 53 man roster. Matakevich blocked punt and Anthony Chickillo’s recovery got the Steelers on the board to start the day, and forced the Browns to play catch up from the very get go.

Eli Rogers saw his first duty as a punt returner, and he posted a respectable 10 yard average. The Steelers kick coverage was strong, although you don’t like to see an opponents punt return average 11 yards and break a 24 yarder. Chris Boswell was a perfect 3-3 on PAT’s while Jordan Berry had a strong day punting. Grade: A-

Coaching
Suffice to say, the Steelers offense failed to live up to the all of the pomp and circumstance that accompanied the return of the Steelers four Killer Bees. The unit stumbled for most of the afternoon hobbled by dropped passes, penalties and missed opportunities. But Steelers offensive sputters weren’t solely a question of failed execution.

In abstract terms, the Steelers coaches can be faulted for leaning too heavily on Le’Veon Bell during the latter half of 2016 (in practical terms, they didn’t have much of a choice). It seems like Todd Haley started 2017 determined to overcompensate.

  • The Steelers showed little desire in even attempting to establish the running game.

Yes, the line and Le’Veon Bell were not having a good afternoon, but they weren’t given much of a chance to warm up, let alone impose their will. Nor did Haley seem inclined to go with the vertical passing game, as his repeated bubble screens would indicate.

  • The Steelers offense was good enough to secure a W, but they left far too many plays on the field.

Keith Butler’s defense was its own worst enemy. Butler’s Boys gave DeShone Kizer a rude awakening to the NFL, stuff the run, and went 3-12 on third downs. The only issue is the defensive penalties, which set directly up one touchdown and facilitated another.

As Tony Defeo has rightly pointed out on BTSC, the Mike Tomlin’s Steelers avoided another embarrassing loss to an inferior team. But as Steel City Insider’s Jon Ledyard correctly argues, the Steelers have far too much talent on offense to allow a Browns team to need clock killing heroics to close the 4th quarter.

  • Mike Tomlin chose to rest a good number of his offensive stars for large stretches of the preseason.

Certainly, this is not the first summer Tomlin has taken that route. But regardless, the Steelers offense looked quite rusty against the Browns, although to their credit the units did effectively close both halves. The Steelers performance against the Browns was above the line, but still below par.  Grade: C+

Unsung Hero
This man has taken a lot of heat from fans in recent years, including barbs from this site. But Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith saw a weakness in the Browns punt formation, he trained his team to exploit it those men executed it to perfection and they scored the points that ended up being the difference in the game. And for that Danny Smith is the Unsung Hero for the win over the Browns.

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Steelers Trade for J.J. Wilcox from Buccaneers, Bolstering Safety Depth

How much value can you squeeze out of a sixth round draft pick? A lot apparently.

A year ago the Steelers traded their 6th round pick of the 2018 NFL Draft to the Cleveland Browns to acquire Justin Gilbert. When the Steelers 2017 roster was assembled, it was done in part by trading Sammie Coates to the Cleveland Browns for that self-same 6th round pick (they also gave Cleveland their 2019 7th round pick).

Steelers trade for J.J. Wilcox, J.J. Wilcox, Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs. Cowboys

The Steelers now will hope J.J. Wilcox has better luck covering running backs not named Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

A day later we find the Pittsburgh Steelers trading their 6th round pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in exchange for safety J.J. Wilcox and Tampa’s 7th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

When the Denver Broncos cut safety T.J. Ward (apparently the initial “J.” is in vogue in Pittsburgh) speculation mounted that the Steelers would sign him, but he instead signed with the Buccaneers, making J.J. Wilcox expendable.

  • The Steelers need depth at Safety.

Starting free safety Mike Mitchell has been injured all summer and his status for the season opener is unknown. Reserve safety Jordan Dangerfield injured himself in the Steelers final preseason game against the Carolina Panthers. Robert Golden has been healthy, but his play at safety has been spotty at best. William Gay will also play safety some this season, but he’s untested at that position (not to mention on the wrong side of 30 for a defensive back.)

J.J. Wilcox appeared in 58 games for the Cowboys, and made 38 starts, logging 5 interceptions and forcing two fumbles by Pro Football Reference’s count. While the trade for J.J. Wilcox is official, he does not formally join the Steelers roster until Labor Day. At the time the Steelers will have to make two more roster moves, to make way for Wilcox and Le’Veon Bell.

While it is unlikely that J.J. Wilcox will start immediately, unlike Joe Haden, he could see playing time sooner rather than later. The Steelers 2017 secondary will have a very different look from its 2016 counterpart as with Ross Cockrell in New York, William Gay playing a new position, and two new faces added at the tail, tail end of the 2017 off season.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Roster Shaped by Coates and Cockrell Trades, Haden Signing

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Roster is almost fully in focus as Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert made a flurry of moves to get their roster to the league mandated 53 man limit. And in doing so the Steelers dynamic-duo showed that they were once again unafraid to venture outside their comfort zone, including:

  • trading Sammie Coates and a 2019 7th round pick to Cleveland for a 2018 6th round pick
  • trading Ross Cockrell for an undisclosed draft pick

While trading a player in lieu of cutting them isn’t terribly unorthodox, it hasn’t been the Steelers standard operating procedure, especially when it comes on the heels of the Vance McDonald trade and the signing of Joe Haden. Beyond that the Steelers made a number of cuts which count as surprises:

Mike Hilton, a training camp and preseason sensation, also made the team as the Steelers will keep 7 cornerbacks.

Steelers 2017 roster, Ben Roethlisberger, Martavis Bryant

Hopefully, Ben Roethlisberger cheering as Martavis Bryant takes off will become a familiar sight. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Steelers 2017 Roster by Position

Quarterbacks (3)
Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, and Joshua Dobbs.

No surprises here.

Running Backs (4)
Le’Veon Bell*, Terrell Watson, James Conner and Roosevelt Nix

Terrell Watson’s power rushing pushed veterans Fitzgerald Toussaint and Davis off the team. Note, Le’Veon Bell doesn’t officially count against the 53 man roster yet.

Wide Receivers (6)
Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Eli Rogers, Justin Hunter and Darrius Heyward-Bey.

No surprises among the first four. Keeping Justin Hunter around will make Ben Roethlisberger happy, and DHB makes team largely because of special teams.

Tight Ends (3)
Vance McDonald, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble.

Jake McGee played well in preseason, but will likely head to practice squad. This site’s got a soft spot for underdogs, making it tough to see David Johnson go.

Offensive Line (9)
Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, Chris Hubbard, B.J. Finney, Jerald Hawkins and Matt Feiler.

9 offensive lineman might seem a little high, but if the Steelers 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 season painfully proved, you can never have enough good offensive lineman.

Defensive Line (6)
Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, L. T. Walton and Daniel McCullers.

A late push by McCullers saves his roster spot. On paper, this is the deepest defensive line Johnny Mitchell has ever had to work with – and he’s been coaching despite being given every chance. Assume he’ll be back on the practice squad.

Outside Linebackers (5)
Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, James Harrison, Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats.

Keeping 5 outside linebackers might seem like a luxury, but remember Arthur Moats has position flexibility to move inside in a pinch.

Inside Linebackers (4)
Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort.

If Shazier stays healthy, this group should be OK. Still it looks a lot less athletic with Timmons in Miami.

Cornerbacks (7)
Artie Burns, Joe Haden, William Gay, Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton, Coty Sensabaugh and Brian Allen.

It almost seems like the Steelers are trying to use quantity to compensate with quality issues…

Safeties (4)
Mike Mitchell, Sean Davis, Robert Golden and Jordan Dangerfield.

To the naked eye this looks good for the Steelers. However, Mike Mitchell has been injured for most of cap, Jordan Dangerfield got injured in the final preseason game, and Robert Golden is not a long term starter.

Specialist (3)
Chris Boswell, Jordan Berry, Kameron Canaday.

It seems that Kameron Canaday and not Colin Holba is the heir Greg Warren.

Finally, to the surprise of no one, the Steelers cut Senquez Golson, their 2nd round draft pick from the 2015 NFL Draft whose NFL career at this point consists of a handful of training camp practices. When fans have asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola about whether Golson would return to the practice squad, his stock answer is that he needs to be healthy enough to practice first.

  • Beyond signing their practice squad, the Steelers will also likely need to make another move as Le’Veon Bell does not yet count against their 53 man roster.

There’s a good chance that the Steelers will create space for Le’Veon Bell by putting Cam Sutton on IR, but the Steelers have hardly been predictable of late.

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Sisyphean Steelers Secondary Rebuild Underlined by Coty Sensabaugh Promotion, Phillips Trade

The Steelers preseason winning effort over the Atlanta Falcons didn’t come until after Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub and third-stringer Matt Simms carved up the Steelers secondary. On the Wednesday after the game, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert responded by:

Coty Sensabaugh, Steelers secondary Rebuild

Coty Sensabaugh practices during the off season at Steelers South Side facility. Photo Credit: Steelers.com via Steel City Underground

Coincidence? Perhaps, but probably not. No, these moves are likely the latest in what can only be described as a Sisyphean Steelers secondary rebuild. “Sisyphean”for those of you who’re rusty on your Greek Mythology, referse to the plight of Sisyphus who was condemned for all eternity to roll a bolder up hill, only to have it get away from him halfway up, so that he could start again.

On has to get the feeling that Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake can identify.

Steelers Secondary Rebuild Stuck in Second Gear

When the Steelers started training camp, building depth in the secondary in general, and at cornerback in particular were a key need for the team. On paper, things looked promising. For starters, the Steelers had bodies, in contrast to previous trips to St. Vincents.

Artie Burns and Sean Davis had come into their own during the second half of 2016, and Mike Mitchell had continued with another year of solid play. They’d added Coty Sensabaugh , word was William Gay was looking better than he had at the end of 2016, and Senquez Golson was also back.

A month later, finds Senquez Golson injured, again, joined by Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, who’ve largely been kept on the sidelines during training camp and preseason. The leaves the Steelers shuffling the deck again at cornerback, much as they did in 2015 when they traded for Brandon Boykin and claimed Ross Cockrell off of waivers.

  • Whatever else you can say, you can’t blame Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for lack of trying.

As recently as two years ago, you could argue that Pittsburgh was trying to rebuild the secondary on the cheap, as the Steelers brain trust ignored pleas from fans and the press to draft a cornerback early in the 2012, 2013, and 2014 NFL Draft. Indeed, in 2014 Carnell Lake shoed away questions about waiting so long to draft a corner by talking up Antwon Blake.

Cortez Allen, Torrey Smith, Steelers secondary rebuild

Images like this remind us why the Steelers once counted on Cortez Allen. Photo Credit: Alchetron

For the record, the Steelers had thought they had something in Cortez Allen and had invested heavily in drafting Shamarko Thomas as an eventual starter at safety. Both of those moves count as epic failures. But that was then.

  • Since 2014, the Steelers have drafted five defensive backs and used premium picks to draft all four of them.

Despite all of those moves, the Steelers still find themselves turning over loose stones hoping to uncover a defensive back or two who can help bring home Lombardi Number 7.

While that might not be listed as Standard Operating Procedure in the manual of a team that fancies itself as a Super Bowl contender, fans can take heart in the fact that the Steelers track record is pretty solid here.

Antown Blake wasn’t starting material, but he delivered good value as a waiver wire pickup. And while Ross Cockrell’s demotion is disappointing (and as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell indicates, probably permanent), the Steelers secondary was better with him starting in 2016 than it had been with Blake starting in 2015.

So the trajectory of the Steelers Secondary Rebuild remains upward. But unlike Sisyphus, the Steelers need to find a way to keep the ball rolling until they reach the mountain top. Because Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t have an eternity to wait.

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Is James Harrison on the Roster Bubble? Or are the Steelers “Bettising” Him?

Is Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison roster spot in jeopardy? Recent comments by linebackers coach Joey Porter seem to open that door.

  • Yet it is also possible that the Steelers are “Bettising” their linebacking legend.

Joey Porter’s announcement that first round draft pick TJ Watt will start at outside linebacker across from Bud Dupree and that neither will rotate is welcome news.

James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons

James Harrison roars at practice while Lawrence Timmons looks on. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

Finding a starter-capable player at right outside linebacker was one critical question the Steelers needed to answer “Yes” two during training camp, and it appears they leave St. Vincents having done so. But they will also leave St. Vincent’s without James Harrison having practiced with the team, which isn’t all that out of the ordinary, given that Harrison doesn’t need the reps.

But before the Steelers preseason opener against the Giants, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell identified 15 potential open slots on the Steelers roster and 38 locks, leave Harrison and William Gay as “almost locks.”

  • In Wexell’s view a combination of a numbers game with Harrison not showing enough speed could put him in jeopardy.

Regardless of whether Wexell was simply speculating or musing about something he’d heard off the record, Dale Lolley of the Observer-Reporter’s conversation with Joey Porter thickened the plot, as Porter declared:

We know what he can do. At the same time, you want to see a little bit to make sure he still has got it,” Everybody has to be tested to see if you still got it. We can assume something. But the NFL, sometimes you just wake up one day and that pop is gone. There will be a time when we take the wrapping off of him and let him go out there so we can see if it’s still that James from last year.

That, combined with James Harrison being held out of practice, was enough to get Dale Lolley to question whether the Steelers were preparing to move on from James Harrison.

While that’s certainly a possibility, such a move would be out of character for the Steelers. It’s well known that Chuck Noll held on to too many of his starters from the 70’s for too long, but institutional memory has largely kept the team from making the same mistake, as James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Hines Ward learned during the 2012 off season.

The Steelers not only brought Harrison back, but offered him a two year deal, with Harrison proclaiming his desire to play into his 40s. The Steelers cut plenty of players before their contracts expire – think Justin Hartwig or Willie Colon, but it’s rare for them to cut someone after signing them to a new contract (Greg Warren excepted, although word is the Steelers did it this way so that Warren would benefit financially.)

Are the Steelers Bettising James Harrison?

The other possibility is that the Steleers are “Bettising” James Harrison. “Bettising” of course refers to Steelers Hall of Fame Running back Jerome Bettis, who began hearing calls from the experts (Mike Prisuta, for example) as early as the 2002 season.

  • And while Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Dan Rooney didn’t pay much heed to those calls, outside criticism his ability still served to motivate Bettis late in his career.
Jerome Bettis, Ryan Clark

Jerome Bettis and Ryan Clark at St. Vincents in 2015. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Could the Steelers be doing something similar with James Harrison? It is possible but unlikely. James Harrison, who was in the weight room at 5:00 am the morning after the Steelers playoff win over the Chiefs, epitomes the concept of “self-starter.” He needs no motivation.

So on the one hand, you have the Steelers who don’t typically sign veterans and then cut them, on the other hand you have two veteran reporters who are not wont to suggest that someone of James Harrison’s stature is on the roster bubble as a matter of idle speculation.

To be clear, Jim Wexell has reiterated that he expects to see Harrison on the final roster. And even offered this after Harrion’s “mob interview” at St. Vincents:

As someone who would love nothing more than to see James Harrison hosting Lombardi Number 7 alongside Ben Roethlisberger, the hope here is that Wexell’s instinct is right and  Mike Tomlin and Joey Porter are in fact “Bettising” Deebo.

Time will tell. But until then, we’ll chalk this up as a case of 2+2 not quite equaling four.

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