2018 Steelers Season Review – A Perfect Storm Ruins A Promising Year in Pittsburgh

The NFL divisional playoffs were played over last weekend, and unlike the previous 4 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers are not only didn’t play, they never even had a chance to get there, despite holding a 7-2-1 record at mid-season.

  • Our Steelers 2018 season review explores why and how a perfect storm ruined a once promising season in Pittsburgh.

Truthfully, our Steelers-Patriots preview has already told the story of the 2018 Steelers as a team that started September morbidly cold, got super heated in October, only to find room temperature as winter arrived. That’s accurate, but doesn’t tell us much about why things played out that way. Today, we dig a deeper.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

Counting on a Bell that Never Tolled

Full disclosure: I endorsed the Steelers second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell. I was wrong. Franchising Le’Veon Bell was a mistake on two levels:

Travis Kelce, Jon Bostic, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Travis Kelce catches as Jon Bostic & Sean Davis look on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

First, because Le’Veon Bell never played, the Steelers had 14.5 million salary cap dollars committed to player who wasn’t delivering value. That commitment forced the Steelers to go bargain hunting on defense, leading to the signings of Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett.

Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett were upgrades from Sean Spence and Mike Mitchell, but even at their best the duo was never going to return defense to the level it was teasing in mid-2017 before injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier.

  • For a while, it looked like James Conner was going to make Le’Veon Bell “Mr. Irrelevant.”

But, Bell’s hold out meant that an injury to James Conner would downgrade the Steelers from a Super Bowl contender to a team that might make the playoffs.

And of course James Conner did get injured, leading to a rather ironic situation discussed below.

Learning the Right Lesson at the Wrong Time

For several years, the Steelers have failed to field sufficient depth at running back. During the Mike Tomlin era, the Steelers have (almost) never reached December with their top two running backs healthy. Despite that, they’ve neglected the third running back slot.

  • Randy Fichtner took a lot of criticism for passing so much, but people forget that the season started very differently.

In fact, early on Mike Tomlin seemed poised to ride James Conner until the wheels fell off, just had he’d done with Willie Parker, Le’Veon Bell and, to a lesser degree, Rashard Mendenhall.

But as you can see, James Conner’s touch count dropped dramatically, starting with the Panthers game. Before that he was averaging 23.6 touches per game, after that his touch count dipped to an average of 16.2.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

And that 31% decrease occurred just as it became clear that Le’Veon Bell would sit out the season.

Keep in mind that turnovers forced Pittsburgh to play from behind in Jacksonville and at Denver, and that certainly contributed to the decrease, but on 247 Sports Pittsburgh, Jim Wexell has suggested numerous times that the Steelers were trying to avoid running Conner into the ground.

  • This was the right thing to do because Jaylen Samuels was an unknown commodity.

But, it though Ben Roethlisberger‘s interception % was below that of 2017 and below his career average, throwing the ball so much ultimately led to more interceptions, and turnovers or the lack thereof doomed the Steelers.

Keeping Ben Out in Oakland

By Mike Tomlin’s own admission, Ben Roethlisberger could have returned to the game at Oakland 1 series earlier. Having taken Mike Tomlin to task for this decision at the time and the Steelers 2018 Report Card, there is no reason for repetition.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Joshua Dobbs Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

  • Indeed, the counter argument that no one considers is that Tomlin was concerned about his 125 million dollar quarterback puncturing a lung.

Did anyone really want to see the Steelers close out the season with Joshua Dobbs under center? But we don’t live in a hypothetical world. The reality is that Ben delivered as soon as he returned to the game, and suffered no further injury. There’s no reason to think one more series would have changed things.

Tomlin gambled, and lost and it cost the Steelers a whole lot more than one game.

Zebras Put Steelers on Endangered Species List

I don’t like complaining about officiating. Complaining about officiating is what the sore loser Seattle Seahawks did following Super Bowl XL. When a bad call goes against you, it’s on you to deal with it.

Yet, I’ve actively followed the Steelers for 31 years, and I have never seen Pittsburgh suffer from so many chronic bad calls. Consider:

Take away any one of those, and the Steelers could very well be playing this weekend. Yes, championship teams find ways to overcome bad calls. (See the 2005 Steelers following Troy Polamalu’s overturned interception in the divisional playoff win over the Colts.)

The 2018 Steelers clearly lacked what it took to overcome those bad calls, but they had far too many to overcome.

Of Turnovers and Ball Security

What do James Conner, Xaiver Grimble, Stevan Ridley and JuJu Smith-Schuster have in common? They all fumbled at critical moments costing the Steelers wins when they needed them. While Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions came either in the Red Zone or at critical moments in games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Saints, JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble doomed the Steelers. Photo Credit: Butch Dill, AP via Tribune Review

Joe Haden would have made a Red Zone interception himself against the Chargers, but Sean Davis leveled him, and the ball, bounced right into Keenan Allen‘s hands with an uncanniness not seen this side of the 1991 Steelers loss to the Browns at Cleveland Stadium.

  • Like Greg Lloyd and James Harrison before him, T.J. Watt not only sacked quarterbacks but stripped the ball while doing it.
  • Yet all too often, the ball failed to bounce the Steelers way.

On the season, the Steelers turned the ball over 26 times and only secured 15 turnovers. You simply can’t win a lot of games like that.

It’s the Talent Stupid

There are no shortage of professional commentators, let alone fans, who’ve spent the balance of 2019 berating Mike Tomlin for failing to deliver with a “super talented team.” 2018 Steelers did underachieve.

  • But is ti accurate or even fair to describe the 2018 Steelers roster as “Super talented?”

On offense, James Conner almost canceled out the loss of Le’Veon Bell, but Bell’s ball security suggests he wouldn’t have fumbled those two balls. Vance McDonald made greater impact in 2018 than in 2017, improving the tight end position.

  • The offensive line’s performance was at least as strong as it had been in 2017.

But at wide receiver the story is different. Antonio Brown started the season slowly. JuJu Smith-Schuster exploded in 2018, and gave the Steelers a better number 2 wide out than Martavis Bryant had given them in 2017.

But James Washington didn’t give them a better number 3 option at wide receiver than JuJu had done a year ago. And while Ryan Switzer was a decent number 4 wide receiver, Eli Rogers gave them a better option in 2017.

  • So the talent level of the Steelers 2018 was strong, but slightly lower than it had been a year ago.

On defense, the 2018 Steelers defense improved from the post-Shazier 2017 defense, but was nowhere near the level the defense was approaching in the middle of 2017.

Take this a step further as “MuleFunk” did over on the 247 Pittsburgh’s message board, and compare the 2018 Steelers defense to the 2008 Steelers defense that led Pittsburgh to victory in Super Bowl XLIII. How many of this year’s players could start on the ’08 defense?

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

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

You’d start Joe Haden over Deshea Townsend, I’d argue you start Cam Heyward over Brett Keisel and probably T.J. Watt over LaMarr Woodley. Neither of those moves is a slam dunk, but you wouldn’t even think to ask the question with any other player on the Steelers 2018 defense.

To the contrary, if Dr. Brown were to show up with his DeLorean, I’d unhesitatingly go back to 2008, snatch Lawrence Timmons off the bench, and start him at either inside linebacker slot in the 2018 Steelers defense.

Finally, while it may not solely be a question of talent, Chris Boswell went from “Mr. Automatic” to “Mr. Cross your Finger and Clutch Your Rosary Beads.” That alone cost the Steelers one game, arguable another and complicated other wins.

Conclusion – A Cloudy Future for Pittsburgh

In the end, a team is its record and the Pittsburgh Steelers took a step back in 2018. But if the Steelers took a step back in 2018, could they take a step forward the way they did after disappointing campaigns in 2003 and 2007?

However, that was before the situation with Antonio Brown became public, and issue which clouds any attempt to predict Pittsburgh’s immediate future.

 

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs the New Orleans Saints – a 31 Year Retrospective

The Steelers history against the New Orleans Saints has Pittsburgh taking a 7-8 record down to the Big Easy where the Steelers are 4-5 vs. 3-3 at Heinz Field and Three Rivers Stadium.

As the Steelers prepare for their 10th trip to New Orleans for a game that could make or break their 2018 season, here is a look at highlights of the Steelers last 31 years of history against the Saints.

Steelers history vs Saints, Antonio Brown, P.J. Williams

Antonio Brown stiff arms P.J. Williams. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports via, Tribune-Review

1987 – Steelers Playoff Potential Nothing More than a Tease

November 29th @ Three Rivers Stadium
New Orleans 20, Pittsburgh 17

The 1987 Steelers were looking to build on a 6-4 record as Pittsburgh was very much alive in the AFC Central playoff picture during that strike shortened season. The Steelers took a 14-3 lead into the locker room at half time on the strength of a Dwayne Woodruff pick six and a Walter Abercrombie touchdown.

However, Pittsburgh faltered in the 2nd half as the Saint scored 17 unanswered points, aided by 3 Mark Malone interceptions. The Saints took an intentional safety at the end of the game to bring Pittsburgh to within 4, but the Steelers could not mount a comeback.

  • The game was typical of the 1987 Steelers who teased playoff potential but ultimately fell short against a quality Saints team.

1990 – Joe Walton’s Ineptitude on Full Display in Steelers win

December 16, 1990 @ The Superdome
Pittsburgh 9, New Orleans 6

The 1990 Steelers entered the game with a 7-6 record and an an offense floundering under Joe Walton’s mismanagement. And this game shows just how badly Joe Walton had neutered the 1990 Steelers offense, as a single Gary Anderson field goal were the only points it could score for 3 quarters.

  • Bubby Brister only threw for 154 yards passing, while Merril Hoge and Tim Worley couldn’t combine to break the 100 yard rushing mark.

For its part, the Steelers defense held the Saints to two Morten Andersen second half field goals, until Gary Anderson booted two more 4th quarter field goals to give the Steelers the win.

  • The 1990 Steelers went 9-7 yet only one two games against teams that finished with winning records. This was one of them.

1993 – Rod Woodson’s Career Day

October 17th 1993 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 37, New Orleans 14

The 1993 Steelers started 0-2 leading many to question whether Cowher Power’s 1992 debut had been a mirage. But Pittsburgh won its three games, leading up to a showdown with the then undefeated Saints.

Rod Woodson intercepted Wade Wilson’s opening pass and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown. Two series later Rod Woodson picked off Wilson again. On Pittsburgh’s next procession, Neil O’Donnell hit Barry Foster for a 20 yard touchdown pass, and the Steelers were leading 14-0 in less than 8 minutes.

  • And Pittsburgh was just warming up.

By half time the Steelers were up 24-0, and the Saints hadn’t even managed a first down. Carnell Lake intercepted Wade Wilson’s first pass of the second half, which made way for two more Gary Anderson field goals, followed by an Eric Green touchdown.

Wade Wilson had arrived in Pittsburgh as the NFL’s number 3 passer, only to have the Steelers intercept him three times and limit him to 6 completions on the day as Donald Evans, Levon Kirkland, Joel Steed and Kevin Greene sacked him 5 times.

  • While the 1993 Steelers would ultimately underachieve, this game revealed that their championship potential was real.

2002 – Poor Defense Dooms Tommy Gun’s First Start

October 6th, 2002 @ The Superdome
New Orleans 32, Pittsburgh 29

The 2002 Steelers had started 0-2 and only won in week three thanks to a blocked field goal plus Bill Cowher’s decision to bench Kordell Stewart late in the game for Tommy Maddox.

But the Steelers defense gave up 13 points early in the game before Tommy Maddox and Plaxico Burress connected to get Pittsburgh on the board before the half. The Steelers mounted a spirited effort in the 2nd half with Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward and Terance Mathis scoring touchdowns, the but Saints scored 13 points to keep ahead of the Steelers.

  • The game confirmed, if there had been any doubt, that the once vaunted Steelers secondary was a shell of its former self.

2006 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees I

November 12th, 2006 @ The Superdome
Pittsburgh 38, New Orleans 31

The 2006 Steelers took a Super Bowl Hangover induced 2-6 record to New Orleans to face the 6-2 Saints. Fireworks ensued as the Saints and Steelers fought to a 24 to 17 half time score. The Steelers fought back in the second half, scoring as Ben Roethlisberger connected for a touchdown to Cedric Wilson in the air as Willie Parker ran for two more on the ground.

Deuce McAllister put the Saints within striking distance of a comeback with a fumble returned for a touchdown with 8:31 remaining in the 4th quarter. But the Steelers defense burned nearly 4 minutes off of the clock, and closed the game as Tyrone Carter and Ryan Clark teamed up to end a Saints comeback effort with a forced fumble and recovery.

  • The game marked the 6-2 rebound of the 2006 Steelers that would ultimately allow Bill Cowher to retire during a non-losing season.

2010 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees II

October 31st, 2010 @ The Superdome
New Orleans 20, Pittsburgh 10

If the first battle between Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees was a shootout, their second meeting took on the character of a slug fest.

Both teams were scoreless during the entire 1st quarter, and when they both got on the board in the 2nd quarter it was only with field goals. In the second half New Orleans put 10 points on the board, but the Steelers moved to within three on a Rashard Mendenhall touchdown.

However, the Steelers defense couldn’t hold on, as Drew Brees connected with Lance Moore at just over the two minute mark to give the Saints a 10 point lead. Ben Roethlisberger attempted to rally the Steelers and got them to mid field but Leigh Torrence intercepted him as he attempted to hit Mike Wallace.

  • Lot’s of commentators suggested that this loss spelled gloom and doom for the 2010 Steelers, but the tam of course finished in Super Bowl XLV.

2014 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees III

November 30th, 2014 @ Heinz Field
New Orleans 35, Pittsburgh 32

Don’t let the close score fool you. The Saints marched into Heinz Field and blew out the Steelers, with Pittsburgh only getting in theoretical striking distance of pulling ahead thanks to a 2 point conversion pass to Lance Moore, of all players, as time expired.

  • The story of this game was Ben Roethlisberger.

The offensive line gave him time, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown served as reliable targets, but Ben Roethlisberger’s passes were too often off target. Roethlisberger threw two picks, but that number could have easily been double.

Drew Brees only threw for 257 yards, but he threw 5 touchdowns, as an unknown Kenny Stills lit up the Steelers defense for 162 yards.

  • This was Brett Keisel’s last game, Troy Polamalu’s final regular season game, Ike Taylor’s penultimate game and the final time the trio was to play with James Harrison.
  • This late November loss to the Saints seemed to signal that Pittsburgh was nothing more than average, but the 2014 Steelers rebounded for 4 straight wins

The Steelers history vs the New Orleans Saints offers a mixed bag, with both some impressive wins and tough losses. But none of the outcomes had season-defining implications. Today’s contest could be quite different in that respect.

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How Many Ben Roethlisberger Passing Attempts = Too Much Passing for the Steelers?

Wouldn’t you know it? Just as it became clear that the Steelers were indeed passing too frequently, James Conner gets injured leaving Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner no other choice but to put the success of the Steelers offense on Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulders.

  • And, as site writer Tony Defeo commented to me in an email, “The more Ben Roethlisberger throws, the worse the Steelers do.”

Tony is hardly the first person to mention that, as all sorts of statistics have been thrown around over the last week or so correlating Steelers losses to high number of passing attempts from Ben Roethlisberger.

  • And numbers do reveal that the Steelers win far more often when Ben Roethlisberger throws less.

But does that really mean that Ben Roethlisberger plays worse the more he throws? And if so, how much is too much? Let’s see what the numbers say….

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Image via The SteelersWire

Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance by Passes Attempted

Numbers do not lie. But if viewed without the proper context, numbers can certainly mislead. For example, the Steelers are 2-6 when Ben Roethlisberger throws between 50 and 59 passes. So that must mean that Ben Roethlisberger is getting getting sloppy and taking too many risks, right?

  • That’s not necessarily the case.

There are a lot of factors that fall outside a quarterback’s control, such as defensive or special teams breakdowns, that can easily force him to pass a lot. In fact, if you take a deeper look at the numbers, you will see that Ben Roethlisberger’s performance often dips after he passes a certain threshold – however, there are some very interesting exceptions.

  • Note, statistics come from Pro Football Reference, cover only the regular season and are current up to 12/6/2018.

Ben Roethlisberger has averaged 33 passes per game during his career. As my graduate school statistics teacher told me, the average represents the balance point of the data, so we’ve broken down Ben’s performance on both sides of those numbers.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger passing statistics, Ben Roethlisberger 33 passing attempts

Ben Roethlisberger’s career passing statistics above and below 33 attempts.

As you can see, the difference is pretty stark.

When Ben Roethlisberger is throwing 33 passes or less, the Steelers are winning almost 83% of the time. However, when Mike Tomlin or Bill Cowher have asked him to pass more than 33 times, the Steelers are only a .500 team.

The really interesting thing is that while Ben’s performance drops a bit after he crosses the 33 pass threshold, the drop off isn’t that dramatic. Yes, a little more likely to throw an interception, but he’s also throwing more touchdowns.

That may be interesting, but it doesn’t give much insight into Ben Roethlisberger’s performance in must-pass situations. To get that insight, you need to dig deeper into the numbers:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger career passing statistics, Ben Roethlisberger over 50 pass attempts

Ben Roethlisberger’s career passing statistics, broken down passing attempt ranges.

Ben Roethlisberger is .500 in games where he’s thrown over 60 passes, but he’s only done that twice, once last December against the Ravens where the Steelers won at the buzzer on a Chris Boswell field goal and earlier this season against the Chiefs when the Steelers defense couldn’t cover to save their lives.

  • And next you see the famous stat of Ben Roethlisberger passing 50 times.

And, statistically speaking, that is when Ben Roethlisberger is almost at his worst, throwing a tell-tale 2.3 interceptions in those situations. The Steelers don’t do much better when Ben Roethlisberger throws between 40 and 44 passes, as they’re only winning 29% of those contests, and that’s the pass attempt range that finds Ben Roethlisberger at his statistical worst.

  • However, a funny thing happens when Ben Roethlisberger breaks in to the 45 to 49 attempts range.

The Steelers record jumps to a 50/50 proposition, and Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating is actually above his career average.

  • Does this mean, somehow, that the 44-49 pass attempts range is sweet spot for Randy Fichtner to aim for?
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Falcons preview

Ben Roethlisberger has had his ups & downs in ’18. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via New York Post

No, not really. It is probably more of a statistical aberration, as you can see the same trend at work in the 30’s, although the Steelers are winning far more of those 30 to 34 passing attempt games.

The Steelers, of course are at their best when Ben Roethlisberger is throwing fewer than 30 passes. But, while Ben’s passing statistics are better, that success is also indicative of other things going well.

A good chuck of those games came when Roethlisberger had the likes of Jerome Bettis, Le’Veon Bell and/or Willie Parker to help ease the load on offense. He also had Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor and Aaron Smith to keep opposing quarterbacks in check. There’s also the simple fact that when you’re defending a lead, it is easier to relay on shorter, higher percentage passes.

Steelers Still Need to Air it Out, But with Caution

During the 2018 off season a vocal contingent of Steelers Nation called for the Steelers to embrace running back by committee. Well, careful what you wish for ladies and gentleman…..

While Jaylen Samuels, Stevan Ridley and Trey Edmunds certainly offer potential, it is difficult to see their combined efforts matching what a healthy James Conner brings to the offense.

Ben Roethlisberger is going to have to throw it early and often. Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald, Jesse James and James Washington are going to have to make an extra effort to stay on the same page.

  • But at the end of the day, it comes down to Ben Roethlisberger himself.

The number show that throwing over 33 passes doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the Steelers. And, while it is hard to prove with statistics, often times Ben Roethlisberger tries to do too much, but if he can resist that temptation, then the 2018 Steelers can still salvage a playoff run.

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60 Minute Men. Steelers Comeback, Beat Jaguars 20-16 at Buzzer

The Pittsburgh Steelers rebounded for dramatic 20-16 comeback victory over the Jaguars at Jacksonville’s at TIAA Bank Field.

In doing so, the men in Black and Gold extended their winning streak to 6 games, secured a conference win, and perhaps doomed the post-season chances of a re-emerging rival.

But Mike Tomlin’s Steelers also affirmed another, more important truth behind the game: Victory comes to those who play for 60 minutes.

Ben Roethlisberger dives for the game winner vs. the Jaguars. Photo Credit, Gary McCullough, AP via PennLive

Steelers Defense Bends, Badly But Balks at Breaking; Ben Just Bad

The Jacksonville Jaguars had bested the Steelers twice last year by employing a simple formula:

All week, the question on everyone’s minds was, “Can the Jaguars pull it off a third straight time?”

For a while, it looked like they might. Ben Roethlisberger played terribly for the vast majority of the game, and was particularly ineffective in the first half. Four of Pittsburgh’s 1st half possessions a ended in Jordan Berry punts. Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions ended two others.

  • Before the Steelers final drive of the 1st half netted 35 garbage yards, Pittsburgh’s offense totaled 42 yards.

For the Jacksonville Jaguars, it was more of a mixed bag. The Jaguars made it clear that they were going to feed the ball to Leonard Fournette. But in the early going Keith Butler’s defense also signaled that they were going to contest every yard.

That worked, for a while, but as the first half wore on, Forunette and Carlos Hyde started ripping off double digit runs and it was Déjà vu all over again for the Steelers defense.

  • With one large exception.

The Jaguars advanced relatively deep into Pittsburgh territory 3 times in the first half, but each time the Steelers defense steeled up and refused to allow touchdowns. Bud Dupree and L.J. Fort came up with big stops, and Javon Hargrave sacked Blake Bortles on third down.

So instead of being down 21-0, the Steelers defense kept the difference to 9 going into the half.

Establishing the Run

Running the ball might be out of fashion in today’s NFL, and that’s a shame, because something special happens when a team rushes the ball successfully.

As Mike Tomlin explained, when an offense starts to rush well, piles move forward a little more; players start missing tackles, running backs routinely eek out 2-3 extra yards in the open field. The defense erodes.

  • Bill Cowher described it as “Imposing your will.”

And “Imposing their will” has been a key ingredient to the Steelers success in this second Super Bowl era, whether that involved pounding the ball with Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell or James Conner.

There are few things better than seeing the Steelers impose their will on an opposing defense, and few things are worse than seeing a running back impose his will on Pittsburgh. And as the second half began, it appeared that the Jaguars were about to impose their will on the Steelers.

And to be sure Fournette got 8 yards on his first two carries, but a penalty pushed the Jaguars back, and then T.J. Watt ended the first drive with a strip sack of Blake Brotles.

But it looked like that stop might be just a footnote in the box score, as the Jaguars took advantage of another Roethlisberger interception by ramming the ball down the Steelers throats on an 80 yard touchdown drive.

That put the Jaguars up 16-0 and, on a day when its offense could do nothing right, it appeared to be the dagger in the Steelers heart. Ironically, it was the turning point of the game.

Steelers Defense Energized Instead of Eroded

It took only two plays for Ben Roethlisberger to hit Antonio Brown for a 78 touchdown to put the Steelers on the board. And, for all the credit the Steelers offense would earn for the fourth quarter comeback, the Steelers defense were perhaps the real stars of the rebound. As Steelers Wire founder Neal Coolong explains:

The Steelers offense stalled after the Roethlisberger to Brown strike, failing on the 2 point conversion and then punting and turning over on downs on its next two drives. It wasn’t an issue, because instead of eroding the will of the Steelers defense, Leonard Fournette’s 1st half energized Keith Butler’s boys into 2nd half shut down mode:

Then the Steelers offense finally came alive, as Ben Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown, James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster to move down the field, setting up Vance McDonald to make another tough touchdown catch.

Vince Williams, Blake Borteles, Steelers vs Jaguars

Vince Williams lowers boom of Blake Bortles. Photo Credit: Reinhold Matay, USA TODAY Sports

The Jaguars got the ball back. Everyone in the stadium knew they were going to run, and everyone knew Fournette was going to run it.

  • Forunette got four yards on his first carry, only to have the Steelers stuff out his next two carries forcing a punt.

The Steelers got the ball back with 1:42 left and one time out. A picture perfect fade pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster got the Steelers well into Chris Boswell field goal range, but Mike Tomlin opted to go for the win. Another 25 yard pass to Antonio Brown got the Steelers to the two.

It would take the Steelers 4 tries, but Ben Roethlisberger ran it in with 5 seconds left to go. For good measure, T.J. Watt strip-sacked Blake Bortles again to seal the Steelers win.

Lessons Learned, Lessons to Live By

Steelers fans, and probably the Steelers players themselves undoubtedly wanted a dominating revenge win over the Jaguars. With a last second win, Pittsburgh failed to deliver. But the Steelers leave Jacksonville with a W, and they learned some important lessons in the process.

The Steelers defense is capable of going toe-to-toe with an elite NFL rusher and adjusting along the way as Christopher Carter’s stats highlight:

The Steelers also showed they’re capable of winning a game even when Ben Roethlisberger is not at his best – at least for most of the afternoon. But perhaps most importantly, the this group of Pittsburgh Steelers demonstrated that they have the discipline, the attitude and the resilience to fight to the very last minute.

And against the Jaguars, that made all the difference.

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Mike Tomlin Should Call Le’Veon Bell and Ask “Do you want to win a Super Bowl?”

This time tomorrow, mercifully, the Pittsburgh Steelers-Le’Veon Bell soap opera will be over. But before then, there’s one more move that should be made:

  • Mike Tomlin should call Le’Veon Bell and ask “Do you want to win a Super Bowl?”

That’s a simple question, and one that carries a “Yes” answer for anyone who ever laid their hands on a Nerf football as a kid, barked out a bogus snap count, and faded back in search of connection on one of those “2 completions for a 1st down.”

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

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

This is a serious proposal. OK. Mike Tomlin’s eyes will never grace the pages of Steel Curtain Rising, let alone this article.

  • But this is still and idea worth executing idea.

As Jim Wexell suggested, Le’Veon Bell likely feels backed into a corner. Although he did threaten a hold out, he also indicated numerous times that he’d be playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018. Yet he’s missed milestone after milestone, and quite possibly feels like sitting out is his only face-saving option.

  • And, there’s the business side of this equation to consider too.

Le’Veon Bell has already forfeited 8 million dollars in change, and “only” stands to make about 6.5 million if he signs his franchise tender. 6.5 million dollars for less than a half a season is a lot of money even by NFL standards, but it pales by comparison to what Bell things and probably can make next spring as a free agent.

  • All it takes is a torn ACL or blown Achilles and Le’Veon Bell’s 2019 signing bonus drops exponentially.

And that’s why Mike Tomlin should call Le’Veon Bell, and ask, “Hey Le’V, we want to win a world championship? Do you want to help?”

Because that’s one bargaining chip the Steelers still have, because money can buy you a lot of things, but it can’t buy you a Lombardi Trophy or Super Bowl ring as Daniel Snyder and Neil O’Donnell can attest.

It is true that if James Conner continues to play at this level and remains healthy, the Steelers strictly speaking don’t need Le’Veon Bell.

  • The operative phrase above is “If James Conner stays healthy.”

As mentioned here last week, James Conner’s bruising running style carries costs. Moreover, while Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels are not bad backups, but at this point I’d still rather have the 2010 or 2011 edition of Isaac Redman as my number two. Mike Tomlin vowed to run Willie Parker until the wheels fell off, and as noted here in August, during the Tomlin era the Steelers have struggled to keep RB 1 and RB2 healthy until season’s end.

  • Viewed this way, Le’Veon Bell signing his franchise tender even at this late date is a win-win for both sides.

The Steelers get an immediate upgrade to the depth behind James Conner. Le’Veon Bell pockets 6.5 dollars, or more than his entire rookie contract. He has the luxury of getting into shape, and the security that Mike Tomlin no longer has a need to ride him into the ground.

And, he makes a legitimate AFC Championship contender even stronger.

Is there a Precedent for This Sort of Thing…?

Word is of course, that Le’Veon Bell has already decided to sit. Who knows where that is coming from, but the report surfaced on ESPN and now everyone and his brother is reprinting it like Gospel.

That’s a same, because having James Conner and Le’Veon Bell would give the Steelers their strongest, deepest backfield since 2004 when Bill Cowher had Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley at his disposal.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Redskins, Jerome Bettis Redskins

Jerome Bettis rushes for 100 yards vs Redskins in 2004. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Perhaps the better analogy would be 2005, when Duce Staley played little, save for a start against Green Bay that helped ensure a win. A win the Steelers needed to make into the playoffs en route to victory in Super Bowl XL.

  • Sometimes stories yield their own symmetry.

The last time the Steelers played and defeated the Carolina Panthers was in 2014. The game cost the Steelers the services of Jarvis Jones, then seen as an up and comer. It didn’t take long for the Steelers to hit the Red Phone to James Harrison.

But it wasn’t only Mike Tomlin that picked up the phone. If reports are correct, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel called Harrison and encouraged him to come out of retirement.

Mike Tomlin should not only call Le’Veon Bell, but get Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Cam Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey and perhaps Ramon Foster to follow suit. A chorus of “Hey Le’Veon, do you want to win a Super Bowl” just might do the trick.

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Why Steelers Beat Browns with Bell – Le’Veon Bell’s Ball Security Is Under Appreciated

The Pittsburgh Steelers would be 1-0 today if Le’Veon Bell had shown up and reported for work as expected. The reason is that, if the Steelers missed anything from Le’Veon Bell on Sunday, it was Le’Veon Bell’s ball security skills.

Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. It IS a strange thing to read from a writer who has already done the cyberspace equivalent of taking pen to paper to argue that James Conner shouldn’t be scapegoated for the Steelers 21-21 opening day tie against the Browns.

But if you read on, you’ll see that my argument isn’t any sort of hypocritical double-speak or some writer’s equivalent of buyer’s remorse, but rather simple numbers. And numbers don’t lie.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell ball security, Le'Veon Bell fumble

Le’Veon Bell’s ball security is highly under appreciated. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

Steelers History Shows Highlight Reels Only Tip of Iceberg

When we talk about the all-time great players, we tend to focus on highlight-worthy qualities.

For example, when you watch any film of Steelers Hall of Fame middle linebacker, Jack Lambert, it’s usually of Lambert crashing into a running back, yelling at an official or leveling a wide-receiver who made the mistake of trying to catch a pass in his area.

As it pertained to the leveling of that wide-receiver and Jack Lambert’s area, the reason No. 58 was often in position to wreak havoc was because when he dropped back into pass coverage, there were very few linebackers of his era (or any era) who had the athleticism and football-awareness to get the depth necessary to put himself in the position to get those kill-shots he was so famous for.

  • As it pertains to this era, when it comes to Steelers’ superstar running back, Le’Veon Bell, his all-around skill-set may be unequaled.

Whether it’s his patience right before choosing a hole on running plays or his aptitude for being an extremely skilled receiver out of the backfield, few can match Le’Veon Bell’s abilities. Including ones we don’t often focus on…

Le’Veon Bell’s Ball Security Skills Highly Underrated

Like the rest of us, Le’Veon Bell is fully-aware of his greatness which, unfortunately, has led to the current hold out with the Steelers–his training camp absence  has spilled-over into the regular season.

As a consequence, second-year running back James Conner was moved up the depth chart and started the Steelers’ Week 1 contest against the Browns last Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio.

  • For three-plus quarters, Steeler fans may have been saying “Le’Veon who?” as Conner displayed very Bell-like attributes, while tallying close to 200 total yards from scrimmage.

Sadly, midway through the fourth quarter, and with Pittsburgh holding what seemed to be a safe 21-7 lead, James Conner ignited a Browns’ comeback by fumbling at the Steelers’ 17-yard line, a play that led to a one-yard touchdown.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles in 4th quarter of Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

The Browns ultimately tied the game at 21, a score that held all the way through to the end of overtime. As I wrote on this very site earlier in the week, while James Conner’s gaffe was critical, there were other  Steeler transgressions (such as Ben Roethlisberger’s in ability to sync with Antonio Brown and Big Ben’s 5 turnovers) that contributed greatly to the Week 1 sports equivalent to kissing your sister.

Having said that, however, one has to wonder if Le’Veon Bell’s presence on the field would have prevented a Brown’s comeback, and that’s because Le’Veon Bell’s presence likely would have included much better ball security. Why?

  • Because Bell’s superior skills aren’t just limited to patience, receiver-like hands and, oh yes, his ability to pick up blitzes (he may be the best in the business at that last one).

Of all of Le’Veon Bell’s awesome attributes,  perhaps the most underrated is his ability to hold onto the football, this despite  having an insane workload through five seasons in the NFL.

  • Including regular season and postseason games, Bell has 1,635 career touches (1,310 carries and 325 receptions), yet he’s only fumbled eight times.
  • That means Le’Veon Bell has a fumble percentage of 0.5%

“So What????” you scream, “Running Backs are supposed to hold on to the damn ball in the first place! And now you want to pat this greedy brat on the head for just doing the bare minimum expected of any NFL running back?”

Yeah, I get it. Simply holding on to the ball does seem like a rather mundane accomplishment to praise. So let’s look at how Le’Veon Bell’s fumble percentage compares to that of other great Steelers running backs:

Steelers Running backs fumble percentages, Le'Veon Bell, Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis

Regular season fumble percentages of Steelers running backs

Looks a little more impressive now, doesn’t it? Not does Le’Veon Bell lead the pack, he leads it by a mile.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and John Henry Johnson, the Steelers 3 Hall of Fame running backs, all have fumble percentages well in excess of Bell’s. Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Parker fumbled the ball 1.1% and 1.3% of the time, or more than twice as often as Bell.

  • Merril Hoge and Barry Foster, fumbled the ball almost four times as often as Le’Veon Bell.
  • Dick Hoak, aka “Mr. Steeler”fumbled the ball 2.4% of the time or almost five times as often as Le’Veon Bell

Frank Pollard and Rocky Bleier fumbled the ball 2.8% and 3% of the time, or nearly 6 times as often as Le’Veon Bell.

In fairness, seven of Le’Veon Bell’s fumbles came over the previous two seasons, which clocks him in at 0.9%  but since we’re being fair, he also had a combined 742 touches. And that’s still far below the 2% fumble rate which is the average of the subgroup ahead.

  • No matter how you break things down, Bell takes extremely good care of the football.

Does this mean James Conner doesn’t take care of the football? Not at all. It just means he hasn’t logged enough reps to earn such a reputation at this point of his career.

  • Le’Veon Bell obviously has.

People talk about discipline in football and think they can point to certain behaviors away from the field as a sign that a player lacks it — Le’Veon Bell often frustrates Steeler fans with some of his “moves” away from the gridiron.

But what requires more discipline and attention to detail than being able to hold onto the football when multiple defenders are trying to wrest it from you 35 times a game?

Le’Veon Bell does many things well on the football field, and if he was in the lineup last Sunday, chances are, the Steelers would be 1-0.

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Le’Veon Bell’s Holdout Leaves Steelers Running Back Depth Chart in Familiar, Precarious Position

Le’Veon Bell’s absence and refusal to sign his franchise tender has been discussed to death in Steelers Nation. But there’s one story element that has largely been ignored: Le’Veon Bell’s holdout leaves the Steelers running back depth chart in both a familiar and precarious position.

Last week, while heading down to La Boca for the Buenos Aires edition of the #SteelersWorldWide photo, Agustin Esposito asked me, “¿No te parece con Nix, Conner, Ridley, Samuels, Nix y Bell y los Steelers estan quedando con demasiados corredores?”

James Conner, Steelers vs Bengals, Jesse James, Leveon Bell's holdout

James Conner 4th quarter run in 2017 Steelers win over Bengals. (Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Fansided.

Since most of you don’t speak Spanish, Agus was asking if by keeping James Conner, Stevan Ridley, Jaylen Samuels Roosevelt Nix and Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers weren’t carrying too many running backs.

  • My response was no, the Steelers weren’t keeping too many running backs.

The answer surprised Agus and he asked me to explain. And I pointed out to the Steelers of starting Ben Tate, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Dri Archer and Jordan Todman in all too recent playoff games.

  • The Steelers locker room is rallying around James Conners, who has had a strong preseason.

Maurkice Pouncey even argued that were it not for his injury history, former Pitt Panther James Conners would have been a first round pick. I don’t follow college ball, but Pouncey went to a major NCAA program, so he has the credentials to speak on the subject.

James Conner ran very well in his limited opportunities in 2017, and he authored a very strong preseason. And if Conners comes out and rips off a 100 yard game against the Browns and then again against the Chiefs, momentum will build in the Steelers Nation for Kevin Colbert to simply lift the tag and let Le’Veon Bell walk (which he won’t do.)

  • But what if James Conner gets hurt?

Stevan Ridley brings the Steelers solid experience, and his resume is that of a respectable number 2 NFL running back. But could he carry the load over the long or even medium term? Jaylen Sanders started the summer slow, but finished preseason as one of the player whom Mike Tomlin termed as “leaning into the tape.”

That probably earned Sanders a spot in the roster, although the suspicion here is that had Bell reported on Labor Day, Jaylen Sanders very well might have joined Olasunkanmi Adeniyi on IR. Sanders will be on the roster and likely get a helmet on game day against the Browns.

Which is good. Expect the rookie’s pass catching skills to be in demand with Vance McDonald out, and an injured Xavier Grimble starting opposite Jesse James in the number 2 tight end spot.

Pro offenses have evolved, and the Steelers roster composition has evolved with it. The days of carrying 5 running backs and a fullback are probably over. Moreover, when Ben Roethlisberger is your quarterback, investing so much salary cap and roster space in your running back depth chart makes even less sense.

  • But carrying only 3 running backs plus a fullback is cutting things a little too close.

As observed here last month, the Steelers have struggled to keep their top two running backs healthy for an entire season during the Mike Tomlin era. In 2008, the Steelers lost Willie Parker for a spell, then lose Rashard Mendenhall. Fortunately they had Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell to shoulder the load.

In 2010 Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman remained healthy for the entire season, with Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer only seeing spot duty carrying the ball.

  • Both of those season ended with the Steelers going to the Super Bowl.

That remains Pittsburgh’s goal this year, but even if James Conner performs above expectations, Le’Veon Bell’s holdout greatly reduces the Steelers ability to adsorb an injury at running back.

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Le’Veon Bell No Shows @ Steelers Practice. Time to Get Pissed, But Not to Panic

Fans arguing for running back by committee shift for the Steelers offense might get their wish as Le’Veon Bell no showed at Steelers practice. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert issued the following statement:

We are disappointed Le’Veon Bell has not signed his franchise tender and rejoined his teammates. Coach Tomlin and the coaching staff will continue to focus on preparing the players on our roster for our regular season opener on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.

Colbert’s statement is a long way from “Franco who?” but it also underlines that the Steelers really have form of compelling Bell to rejoin the team. Per Jeremy Fowler’s report on ESPN, neither the Steelers nor people close to Bell is surmised by the All Pro running back’s no show, and given Bell’s erratic behavior this off season perhaps they shouldn’t be.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell Holdout,

Le’Veon Bell was absent for the Steelers 1st practice. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Time to Panic? No. Time to Get Pissed? Yes.

Le’Veon Bell has broken rushing records which neither Hall of Famers Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, and John Henry Johnson nor Super Bowl record setter Willie Parker could touch. Among NFL players with 60 or more games, Le’Veon Bell leads them all in total yards from scrimmage.

  • Despite those on-the field achievements, Le’Veon Bell has managed to make himself one of the most unpopular players in recent Steelers history.

And today’s no-show at practice reveals why. While Bell had threatened to retire if the Steelers hit him with the franchise tag again and hinted at holding out all season, he later clarified that he intended to report the regular season. And when the Bell and the Steelers failed to reach a long-term deal, Bell issued the following statement:

Steel City Blitz’s Ben Anderson is speaking for a large swath of Steelers Nation, including many of those who scoffed at the idea of running back by committee.

Let’s clarify one thing. Unlike Hines Ward in 2005, Barry Foster in 1993 or Mike Merriweather in 1988, Le’Veon Bell has absolutely zero contractual or legal obligation to play for the Steelers. He’s not under contract, and has the option of giving up the 14.5 million franchise tender in exchange for sitting out the year. Some, such as James Harrison have advised Bell to do just that.

  • But if that were Bell’s intent, he should have said so all along.

So Steelers fans have every right to be upset with Le’Veon Bell. When an athlete makes it clear he’s not giving any hometown discounts and that he’s firmly focused on the bottom line, such mercenary attitudes can rub us the wrong way, but at least the athletes are being honest.

When the talk a good game a la Neil O’Donnell about money not being their sole motivating factor and then behave differently, that’s something else. With that said, there is no reason for fans to panic at this point at least.

Yes, Le’Veon Bell’s value to the Steelers offense is undeniable:

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell statistics, Le'Veon Bell stats, Le'Veon Bell Steelers offense

Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense.

James Conners, Stevan Ridley, and Jaylen Samuels showed a lot of promise, but expecting the trio to make that up simply isn’t realistic. And with Vance McDonald‘s status unknown, there’s no obvious replacement as a check down option for Ben Roethlisberger when Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington are covered downfield.

But given Le’Veon Bell’s erratic behavior, he could merely be intent on enjoying a full Labor Day weekend before reporting or perhaps he’s planning on reporting in before the Browns game soon enough that he can collect his $852,000 game check but late enough that Mike Tomlin will not play him.

  • In order to accrue a full season of seniority, Le’Veon Bell must report for at least 6 weeks before the end of the season.

To get to that point, Bell will have to forfeit nine million dollars in change. And for all antics thus far, Le’Veon Bell hasn’t shown himself as someone willing to leave that much money on the table. Yet.

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Le’Veon Bell No Shows @ Steelers Practice. Time to Get Pissed, But Not to Panic

Fans arguing for running back by committee shift for the Steelers offense might get their wish as Le’Veon Bell no showed at Steelers practice. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert issued the following statement:

We are disappointed Le’Veon Bell has not signed his franchise tender and rejoined his teammates. Coach Tomlin and the coaching staff will continue to focus on preparing the players on our roster for our regular season opener on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.

Colbert’s statement is a long way from “Franco who?” but it also underlines that the Steelers really have form of compelling Bell to rejoin the team. Per Jeremy Fowler’s report on ESPN, neither the Steelers nor people close to Bell is surmised by the All Pro running back’s no show, and given Bell’s erratic behavior this off season perhaps they shouldn’t be.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell Holdout,

Le’Veon Bell was absent for the Steelers 1st practice. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Time to Panic? No. Time to Get Pissed? Yes.

Le’Veon Bell has broken rushing records which neither Hall of Famers Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, and John Henry Johnson nor Super Bowl record setter Willie Parker could touch. Among NFL players with 60 or more games, Le’Veon Bell leads them all in total yards from scrimmage.

  • Despite those on-the field achievements, Le’Veon Bell has managed to make himself one of the most unpopular players in recent Steelers history.

And today’s no-show at practice reveals why. While Bell had threatened to retire if the Steelers hit him with the franchise tag again and hinted at holding out all season, he later clarified that he intended to report the regular season. And when the Bell and the Steelers failed to reach a long-term deal, Bell issued the following statement:

Steel City Blitz’s Ben Anderson is speaking for a large swath of Steelers Nation, including many of those who scoffed at the idea of running back by committee.

Let’s clarify one thing. Unlike Hines Ward in 2005, Barry Foster in 1993 or Mike Merriweather in 1988, Le’Veon Bell has absolutely zero contractual or legal obligation to play for the Steelers. He’s not under contract, and has the option of giving up the 14.5 million franchise tender in exchange for sitting out the year. Some, such as James Harrison have advised Bell to do just that.

  • But if that were Bell’s intent, he should have said so all along.

So Steelers fans have every right to be upset with Le’Veon Bell. When an athlete makes it clear he’s not giving any hometown discounts and that he’s firmly focused on the bottom line, such mercenary attitudes can rub us the wrong way, but at least the athletes are being honest.

When the talk a good game a la Neil O’Donnell about money not being their sole motivating factor and then behave differently, that’s something else. With that said, there is no reason for fans to panic at this point at least.

Yes, Le’Veon Bell’s value to the Steelers offense is undeniable:

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell statistics, Le'Veon Bell stats, Le'Veon Bell Steelers offense

Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense.

James Conners, Stevan Ridley, and Jaylen Samuels showed a lot of promise, but expecting the trio to make that up simply isn’t realistic. And with Vance McDonald‘s status unknown, there’s no obvious replacement as a check down option for Ben Roethlisberger when Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington are covered downfield.

But given Le’Veon Bell’s erratic behavior, he could merely be intent on enjoying a full Labor Day weekend before reporting or perhaps he’s planning on reporting in before the Browns game soon enough that he can collect his $852,000 game check but late enough that Mike Tomlin will not play him.

  • In order to accrue a full season of seniority, Le’Veon Bell must report for at least 6 weeks before the end of the season.

To get to that point, Bell will have to forfeit nine million dollars in change. And for all antics thus far, Le’Veon Bell hasn’t shown himself as someone willing to leave that much money on the table. Yet.

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Got the Preseason Humbug? Steelers Mike Hilton’s Story Is the Perfect Cure

The Pittsburgh Steelers preseason tonight against the Philadelphia Eagles. Most fans will welcome the return to the gridiron after a 2017 that ended so abruptly.

  • However, every year the “enduring preseason football” griping gets louder.

Taking our cue from the late Ken Beatrice, season ticket holders who must pay major league prices to see minor-league talent have beef. As for the rest of us? Well, that’s why we have our annual “Eat your liver and your Brussels sprouts and enjoy preseason football” article.

So if you have a case of the preseason football humbug, Mike Hilton’s story will cure what ails you.

Mike Hilton, Rashard Higgins, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers prseason

Mike Hilton breaks up a pass for Rashard Higgins. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via PennLive.com

The Other Cornerback from Ole Miss

Unless you’ve been under a rock, cornerback has oscillated between being an urgent and major area of Steelers need since Super Bowl XLV. No need to look it up, that was in January, 2011.

Sadly, Senquez Golson never played an NFL down. But in late 2016 Kevin Colbert chanced that that Bill Belichick’s garbage might be his treasure when he signed Senquez Golson’s former teammate Mike Hilton to Pittsburgh’s practice squad.

However, Mike Hilton caught Jim Wexell’s eye during OTA’s, earning reps with the first unit with back-to-back pass breakups. Days later, Hilton ended a two minute drill by intercepting Landry Jones in the end zone, prompting praise from Ryan Shazier and landing Hilton on Wexell’s training camp dark horse list.

Here our story takes a hypothetical turn….

The Problem with Cutting (or Eliminating) Preseason Football

The conventional wisdom holds that preseason is too long. Perhaps from marketing perspective that’s true as the NFL is not showcasing its top talent.

Fearing injury, coaches are loath to play starters in preseason. And when stars do suffer injuries, the howls to shorten preseason get louder. Michael Vick’s broken leg in the 2003 preseason offers a perfect example.

  • And seeing starters injured in preseason, as happened to David DeCastro and Sean Spence, is difficult.

But that doesn’t change the fact that calls to shorten or eliminate preseason games are short sighted, and Mike Hilton shows why.

Mike Hilton’s 2017 Preseason Campaign

Doing it on the practice field and doing it under game conditions are two different things. Word was at the end of 2013 that wide receiver Justin Brown was an up and comer based on his work on the Steelers practice squad. Brown did earn a 2014 roster spot, but couldn’t produce in games and was gone before Christmas.

  • Justin Hunter is another player who practices well, but still hasn’t proven it in games.

As Mike Hilton illustrates, preseason gives coaches a live-fire antidote to curing this ill

All of this begs the question: Would Mike Hilton have gotten these chances in a shortened preseason schedule?

Maybe, maybe not.

If Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake only had two preseason game might their focus have been on getting reps for Ross Cockrell and Coty Sensabaugh, their prospective numbers 2 & 3 corners? If not, health allowing, reps for draft picks like Cam Sutton and Brian Allen would get priority over street free agents like Mike Hilton.

Fortunately, Mike Hilton got those reps, proved he belonged on Pittsburgh’s roster so much that a case could have been made that Hilton, and not T.J. Watt deserved the Steelers rookie of the… er um the Joe Greene Great Performance award.

Steelers Football’s Back – Enjoy It

Times change. A generation ago preseason served as the water fountain sitting at the end of a football desert. Today YouTube, Steelers.com, Twitter and Facebook feed us our year round football fix.

  • That doesn’t change the fact that preseason remains a valuable proving ground for young men seeking to live a dream.

Preseason projections aren’t perfect (see Jarvis Jones in 2013), and 90% of the guys playing in the 4th quarter of the 1st preseason game will never see and NFL practice squad, let alone a roster. But preseason is the place where players like Merril Hoge, Greg Lloyd, Darren Perry, James Harrison, Willie Parker, Ramon Foster and Antonio Brown began making names for themselves.

The same thing will happen tonight night against the Eagles. So watch and enjoy.

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