David Johnson Signs 2 Year Contract. Are Steelers Signaling Concern about Ladarius Green?

The Pittsburgh Steelers began the 2017 free agency signing period exactly has they began free agency in 2016 – by signing a veteran tight end with ties to the San Diego Chargers. The first move out of Pittsburgh in free agency saw the Steelers resigning David Johnson to a two year contract.

The veteran tight end of course played in Pittsburgh during 2016, but he’d spent 2014 and 2015 playing for the Chargers.

  • Ironically, the Steelers latest opening day tight end free agent signing might signal some buyers remorse regarding their first.
David Johnson, Steelers David Johnson, Presetony Brown, Steelers vs Bills,

David Johnson with the 6th of his 7 2016 receptions as Prestony Brown looks on. Photo Credit: Bill Wippert, AP via Penn Live

Let’s be clear, when the Steelers signed Ladarius Green last year, their plan was to add a dynamic weapon to complement Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. And when healthy, Ladarius Green did just that for the Steelers in 2016. In contrast David Johnson isn’t going to create any miss-matches with opposing secondaries.

  • Potentially, the Steelers decision to resign David Johnson so quickly signals that concern over whether Ladarius Green will return in 2017.

To be certain, Kevin Colbert as well as others on the South Side have clearly indicated that they expect Ladarius Green to be back in 2017. The Steelers have also insisted that Ladarius Green’s slow start to 2016 and his stint on the PUP was caused by complications from his ankle injury and not be concerns about his concussion history.

But, as we reminded readers just yesterday, the Steelers actions speak far louder than their words.

Timing of David Johnson Contract is What Raises Eyebrows

David Johnson gives the Steelers tight end corps a veteran presence and he brings blocking ability to the game that Jesse James and Xavier Grimble cannot yet match. David Johnson is also a fairly reliable pass catcher, even if quarterbacks don’t look his way very often. Those are all reasons why it makes sense to bring him back.

  • But the question is why pull the trigger on a new contract with David Johnson now?

David Johnson will turn thirty just before opening day 2017. He’s never had more than 14 passes thrown his way in a single season and has only scored a single touchdown. While David Johnson hasn’t spent his career as a roster bubble baby, his lease on NFL life has certainly been negotiated on a season-to-season basis.

  • The 2017 NFL Draft is said to be a deep one for tight ends.

The Steelers could presumable wait to see if they could get a tight end of their choice and, if not, David Johnson would have certainly been available afterwards. The fact that the Steelers have offered David Johnson a contract in early March as opposed to late May suggests they don’t wish to take chances.

That in turn at least suggests the Steelers are concerned about Ladarius Green’s concussion issues.

Alternative Explanations Exist

It is important to be fair to Ladarius Green. This writer has no sources on the South Side, so we’re only speculating. While terms of David Johnson’s contract haven’t been made public yet, one would guess that he signed for at or near the veteran minimum.

  • However, the two-year length of the contract would seem to indicate that he’s more or less guaranteed a roster spot.

So if there are other explanations to for the Steelers decision to resign David Johnson so early in free agency, concern about Ladarius Green’s concussions remains the most plausible one.

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What the Steelers Decision on Free Agent David Johnson Will Reveal about Ladarius Green

So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.” Matthew 20:17

Fear not, Steel Curtain Rising isn’t suddenly going religious, but this quote seems applicable to the story of Pittsburgh Steelers tight end David Johnson. The Steelers drafted David Johnson with their final pick of the 2009 NFL Draft following Super Bowl XLIII.

If the Steelers 2009 Draft is perhaps one of the most misunderstood of the Colbert-Tomlin era, it is perhaps fitting that David Johnson is the last member of that group to remain with the team.

David Johnson, Xavier Grimble, Steelers vs Chiefs, David Johnson Steelers free agent

David Johnson on a 26 yard reception in the Steelers 2016 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images

Capsule Profile of David Johnson’s Steelers Career

Fits and starts – that’s best description of David Johnson’s Steelers career. Johnson had to settle for the practice squad in 2009, but he earned a roster spot as the team’s 3rd string tight end in 2010 doing double duty that year and in 2011 at fullback. In 2012 Todd Haley announced he was moving David Johnson to fullback full time, but Johnson tore his ACL in preseason.

The Steelers brought Johnson back in 2013, ostensibly as a fullback, but he ended up beginning the season as the Steelers number 1 tight end while Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth were injured. David Johnson’s season was off to a strong start when disaster struck again as he tore an ACL, ending his season.

In May of 2016 the Steelers made a surprise move by resigning David Johnson. The move looked to be little more than an insurance policy, yet with Matt Spaeth headed to waivers and Ladariyus Green to the PUP, David Johnson once again found himself beginning the 2016 season as the Steelers number 1 tight end.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning David Johnson

David Johnson provided vital veteran stability to a tight end corps that lost a collective 20 years of experience and dependability with the departures of Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth.

David Johnson isn’t going to keep a lot of opposing defensive coordinators up late with worry, but David Johnson will frustrate opposing linebackers who think that running his way will give them a free shot at Ben Roethlisberger or Le’Veon Bell.

  • Jesse James confirmed in 2016 what he’d flashed in 2015 – that he’s a legitimate NFL tight end.

Xavier Grimble had flashes of his own in 2016, but didn’t have the kind of breakout year some were expecting and hoping for. Ladarius Green was a field flipper when he was healthy, but his season only lasted 6 games and one has to wonder if he can, or should, continue to play given his history with concussions.

David Johnson gives the Steelers a valuable, viable insurance policy at tight end who can resigned for the veteran minimum. This is one easy deal Kevin Colbert should get done.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning David Johnson

The conventional wisdom is that the Steelers will draft a tight end fairly early given the uncertainty surrounding Ladarius Green. The Steelers uncharacteristically kept 4 tight ends in 2016, there’s no chance that they’ll keep 5 in 2017.

  • David Johnson would seem to be the odd man out.

The story of a veteran hanging around as an old hand, acting as sort of a mentor, player coach is romantic, but the fact is that every veteran like that is taking up a roster spot for a younger player who has more upside.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and David Johnson

Let’s face it, David Johnson’s impending foray into free agency in 2017 isn’t quite as dramatic as Rod Woodson’s free agent debut in 1997.

Seriously, this writer admits to being somewhat of a homer for David Johnson, but even with that acknowledged, the truth he represents one of Kevin Colbert’s less consequential decisions this spring. David Johnson showed that he still can play and probably remains the Steelers best blocking tight end.

  • Given the Steelers success with the “Big Boy Package” a strong blocking tight end is a must.

But the Steelers also have the luxury of allowing this situation to evolve on its own terms. No NFL team is going to throw money at David Johnson, and the Steelers can go into the draft looking for a tight end, without having to reach for one, because Johnson will still be available afterwards.

Finally, if the decision the Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have to make on free agent tight end David Johnson isn’t terribly consequential, it does promise to reveal something important. If Steelers David Johnson before the 2017 NFL Draft, then we’ll know they’re concerned about Ladarius Green’s future, protestations to the contrary.

If they take a wait and see approach, then we’ll know their confidence level in Green’s return is high.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers 2017 Free Agent Tracker

The month of March is here which means that Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 off season is set to spring to life NFL Free Agency begins.  In 2017 the Pittsburgh Steelers have a total of 27 players who will be (or would have been) either Exclusive Rights, Restricted or Unrestricted Free Agents.

Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Steelers 2017 free agency, Steelers 2017 free agents, steelers vs giants

Last season Lawrence Timmons & James Harrison closed in on Eli Manning together. Now they’re both closing in on free agency (Photo Credit: Steelers.com)

Here is our Steelers 2017 Free Agency tracker, which we’ll update as events occur.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Unrestricted Free Agents

Click on a player’s name for a full-length free agent profile of each player, including the pro’s and con’s of resigning the player or letting him walk.

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Resignings

Le’Veon Bell, running back
2/27/17 – Steelers place Exclusive Rights Franchise Player tag on Le’Veon Bell, ensuring his return in 2017
James Harrison, linebacker
3/1/17Steelers resign James Harrison to two year contract
Landry Jones, quarterback
3/9/17 – Steelers resign Landry Jones to two year contract
David Johnson, tight end
3/9/17 – Steelers resign David Johnson to two year contract.
Greg Warren, long snapper
2/2/17 – Steelers resign Greg Warren to 1 year deal
Steven Johnson, linebacker/special teams
2/15/17 – Steelers resign Steven Johnson

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Pickups

Justin Hunter, wide reciever
3/15/17 — Steelers sign Justin Hunter from Miami to 1 year contract
Coty Sensabaugh, cornerback
3/19/17 — Steelers sign Coty Sensabaugh from the New York Giants to two year contract
Knile Davis, kick returner/running back
3/19/17 — Steelers sign Knile Davis from Kansas City to one year contract
Tyson Alualu, defensive lineman
3/20/17 — Steelers Sign Tyson Alualu from Jacksonville to two year contract

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Losses

Markus Wheaton, wide receiver
3/9/17 – Chicago Bears sign Markus Wheaton to a contract
Lawrence Timmons, inside linebacker
3/10/17 – Miami Dolphins sign Lawrence Timmons to 2 year contract
Jarvis Jones, outside linebacker
3/14/17 – Pittsburgh West, aka the Arizona Cardinals sign Jarvis Jones

Steelers 2017 Free Agents Who Remain Unsigned

DeAngelo Williams, running back
Cody Wallace, center/guard
Shamarko Thomas, special teams/safety
Ricardo Mathews, defensive end

Steelers 2017 Restricted Free Agents

Ross Cockrell, cornerback
3/2/17 – Steelers offer original round tender to Ross Cockrell
4/17/17 – Ross Cockrell signs restricted free agent tender
Chris Hubbard, offensive tackle
3/2/17 – Steelers offer right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard

Click on either player’s name for a full-length restricted free agent profile.

By giving extending both Cockrell and Hubbard restricted free agent tenders, the Steelers retain the right to match any offer a team might make them. In addition, the Steelers would get a 4th round pick should they decline to match an offer for Ross Cockrell.

Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

Alejandro Villanueva, offensive tackleRoosevelt Nix, fullback
Resigned with Steelers
Cobi Hamilton, wide receiver
Resigned with Steelers
Anthony Chickillo, linebacker
Resigned with Steelers
Chris Boswell, place kicker
Resigned with Steelers
Fitzgerald Toussaint, running back
Resigned with Steelers
Jordan Dangerfield, safety
Resigned with Steelers
Xavier Grimble, tight end
Resigned with Steelers
B.J. Finney, guard/center

Additional Steelers Exclusive Rights Free Agents
Valerian Ume-Ezeoke, guard/center
Cole Manhart, center
Kevin Anderson, linebacker

The Steelers can bring back any Exclusive Rights Free Agent by simply making them a qualified offer. For an in-depth discussion of the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class and its larger significance, click here.

Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent focus articles.

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Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agents Validate Mike Tomlin’s “No Loose Stone Unturned” Philosophy

The Steelers 2017 off season is already off to a little bit of a different start. Free agency remains a way away, yet there’s been a steady stream of news out of the South Side regarding Steelers free agent signings.

Instead, Kevin Colbert has been busy resigning the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights free agent class. What’s that? The term “Exclusive rights free agent” isn’t one you hear a lot either inside or outside of Pittsburgh. The first time I remember seeing it, in fact, was when the Steelers resigned Willie Parker after the 2005 season.

  • An NFL Exclusive Rights Free Agent is a player with less than two years of accrued seniority who doesn’t have a contract.

You could look at the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class and call them, “The fringe roster players who fueled the 9 game winning streak.” Take a little longer group, and you’ll see that the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights free agency is a testament to Mike Tomlin’s “No loose stone unturned philosophy” of personnel acquisition.

Here is a look at the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free agent class, how they got to Pittsburgh, and what they’ve contributed.

Anthony Chickillo, Dak Prescott, Anthony Chickillo strip sack dak prescott, Steelers 2017 exclusive rights free agents, steelers vs cowboys

Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent Anthony Chickillo strip sacks Dak Prescott. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent Class

Fitzgerald Toussaint
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers picked Fitzgerald Toussaint up as a practice squad addition after the Ravens cut him before opening day. There he stayed until late in the season when the Steelers activated him. At the time it appeared they were protecting him from practice squad poaching.
What he’s contributed: In just six week, Fitzgerald Toussaint went from practice squader to being the Steelers starting running back for their 2015 playoff win over the Bengals.

When it comes to backing up Le’Veon Bell, no one will confuse Fitzgerald Toussaint with being in DeAngelo Williams’ category, but he’s proven to be a reliable number 3 back.

Roosevelt Nix
How he got to Pittsburgh: Roosevelt Nix played defensive line in college, but Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and James Saxon saw something they liked, took a flyer on him a fullback and he made the 53 roster.
What he’s contributed: In 2015 Roosevelt Nix distinguished himself on special teams while working capably as a fullback. In 2016, Roosevelt Nix showed himself to be an accomplished run blocking fullback.

In less than a year, Roosevelt Nix went from being a guy the Steelers Nation’s Twitter General Manager griped about being a “wasted roster spot” to someone they questioned coaches for not playing more.

Chris Boswell
How he came to Pittsburgh: Every General Manager has a list of emergency players on it should injuries strike. But the Steelers went through not one, but two kickers when Shaun Suisham went down, making Chris Boswell their third choice.
What he’s contributed: Do we really need to ask this? Chris Boswell kicked the Steelers into the playoffs with his six kicks and shoe string tackle against the Bengals, and did it again in the playoffs against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Chris Boswell has shown himself to be a reliable kicker who can make long kicks in the wind, in the rain and with playoff games on the line. Can’t ask for more than that.

Alejandro Villanueva
How he came to Pittsburgh: This site already recounted the Steelers decision to pick up Alejandro Villanueva from the Eagles in 2014 as one of the 16 Defining Moments of the Steelers 2016 season.
What he’s contributed: It is harder to measure offensive lineman’s contributions, but going into 2016 the Steelers hedged their bets on Villanueva with Ryan Harris.

By the end of the season Alejandro Villanueva had erased all of those doubts.

Alejandro Villanueva, Roosevelt Nix, Dee Ford, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers 2017 exclusive rights free agents

Alejandro Villanueva in his first start as Roosevelt Nix behind him. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Pittsburgh Steelers, via Pittsburgh Magazine

Xavier Grimble
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers picked up Xavier Grimble in September 15 after the 49ers cut him and added him to the practice squad where he stayed until making the 53 man roster in 2016.
What he’s contributed: Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell was big on Xavier Grimble going into 2016, labeling him the Steelers X-Factor after Heath Miller retired he did so long before we know Matt Spaeth would get cut or Ladarius Green would have health issues.

Xavier Grimble might not have lived up to the hype in 2016, but he did come down with critical touchdowns against Cincinnati and Baltimore.

Anthony Chickillo
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers drafted Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Because he was cut and resigned to a shorter contract, he’s an Exclusive Rights Free Agent.
What he’s contributed: Anthony Chickillo split time as a starter with Arthur Moats while Bud Dupree was recovering. During that time he had 2.5 sacks.

This might be a pipe dream, but if the Steelers haven’t explored moving Anthony Chickillo to right outside linebacker under the tutelage of James Harrison, they should.

Cobi Hamilton, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Steelers vs browns, Cobi Hamilton overtime touchdown Browns, Steelers 2017 exclusive rights free agents

Cobi Hamilton ends the Steelers 2016 regular season with an overtime touchdown catch. Photo Credit: 247 Sports

Cobi Hamilton
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers picked up Hamilton in early August in what looked to be little more than move to fill out the training camp roster.
What he’s contributed: The AFC Championship loss might have reveled Cobi Hamilton as not quite ready for prime time, at least in the post season context, but Hamilton made 17 catches during the year, and he showed a penchant for coming down with the ball when the Steelers needed him to.

B.J. Finney
How he got to Pittsburgh: B.J. Finney was part of the Steelers 2015 undrafted rookie free agent class. He didn’t make the final roster, but did hold down a practice squad spot for the entire year.
What he’s contributed: B.J. Finney started 3 games for the Steelers this year, including two starts in place of Ramon Foster. He also started the season finale in place of Maurkice Pouncey.

This is probably just idle internet chatter, but there’s talk that the Steelers might (or “should”) consider saving on the salary cap by letting Ramon Foster go an starting B.J. Finney. Not likely to happen, but the fact that it’s a rumor should tell you something.

Jordan Dangerfield
How he got to Pittsburgh: After he failed to catch on as an undrafted rookie free agent with the Bills in 2013, the Steelers signed Jordan Dangerfield to a “Futures Contract” in January 2014. He made the practice squad in 2014 and 2015 and broke the 53 man roster in 2016.
What he’s contributed: Jordan Dangerfield’s stat sheet might not impress, but he did make two starts in 2016 and was the “Next man up” in the secondary ahead of Robert Golden and the 2013 Draft classes signature wash out, Shamarko Thomas.

The Steelers remaining Exclusive Rights Free agents are guard Cole Manhart, center Valerian Ume-Ezeoke and linebacker Kevin Anderson all of whom finished the year on injured reserve.

Mike Tomlin True to “No Loose Stone Unturned” Philosophy

It might not be accurate to label an NFL Exclusive Rights Free agent as “a player no one else wanted” but they are certainly players that someone else overlooked. When the Steelers 2007 season ended, Mike Tomlin promised to leave “No loose stone unturned” in his quest to bring a Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh.

If you look at the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class, some players made larger contributions than other, but it clear that without their collective efforts, the 2016 Steelers never would have knocked on the door to Super Bowl LI.

That’s a testament to Kevin Colbert’s commitment to seeking quality talent from where ever may find it and to Mike Tomlin and his staff’s commitment to give every player a fair shot regardless of what his pedigree is.

All NFL General Managers and Head Coaches certainly pay lip service to this ideal, but the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class proves they mean it in Pittsburgh.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2016 Season

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his students make some impressive strides during the past year, but nonetheless sees that they’re still not ready to weather the pass-fail nature of a full NFL playoff run, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2016 Season.

Le'Veon Bell, Ben Roetlisberger, Steelers vs Bills, Steelers regular season rushing record

Le’Veon Bell in his record setting performance vs. the Bills. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
By any measure, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played a fine season in 2016. Statistically speaking, Ben Roethlisberger’s quarterback rating was a one point above what it had been a year ago. But Big Ben’s 2016 campaign is not without fault. Ben Roethlisberger ‘s struggles on the road have become alarming, and his play in the later two rounds of the playoffs, while not bad, fell well short of outstanding. To be fair, Roethlisberger spent most of the season playing with a depleted wide receiver crops. Landry Jones played respectably in relief of Roethlisberger, and impressed with his overtime win. Grade: B+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2016 season

Running Backs
While this conversation doesn’t begin and end with Le’Veon Bell, it perhaps should. In playing just 13 games, Le’Veon Bell affirmed his status as one of the game’s best two way threats, broke both the Steelers single game regular season and playoff rushing record and teased at reviving the concept of “franchise running back.” DeAngelo Williams played well in relief of Bell, although he did miss most of the second half of the season due to injury. Fitzgerald Toussaint Only got 14 carries, but looked respectable. Roosevelt Nix role in paving the way for Bell is under appreciated outside of Pittsburgh. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
This was an interesting year for Steelers tight ends. When he finally got on the field, Ladarius Green showed that he had “field flipping” capability, even if his advertised the straight away speed was slower than advertised. Unfortunately, Green only made it into 6 games. In his absence, the sum of Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, and David Johnson performance in a “tight end by committee” situation was greater than the whole of its parts. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
How good is Antonio Brown? How about this? You take away any hint of a legitimate number 2 wide receiver, as well as a must respect dependable tight end and he still makes over 100 catches and brings in two more touchdowns than he did a year ago. Oh, yeah, and he consummated one of the most dramatic comebacks in franchise history on Christmas with a truly incredible play.

Unfortunately, Antonio Brown didn’t get a lot of help from his fellow wide outs. “Disappointment” is the only way to classify Sammie Coates second season. Coates was supposed to make us forget about Martavis Bryant, but instead reminded us of Limas Sweed.

Eli Rogers performed extremely well, although his fumble in the AFC Championship hurt the team. Ditto Cobi Hamilton. The former practice squad barnstormer came up with several clutch catches during the year, and Demarcus Ayers did the same when he finally saw action late in the year.

This improvement is both impressive and promising with an eye towards the future. However the Report Card grades on performance and results, and the Steelers didn’t have a Super Bowl caliber wide receiving corps this year. Grade: C+

Limas Sweed, Evan Oglesby, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers Ravens AFC Championship, Limas Sweed drop

Limas Sweeds drops the ball during the 2008 Steeler AFC Championship game against Baltimore. Photo Credit: Keith Spakocic, AP via NY Daily News

Offensive Line
After years of plug and patch the Steelers cemented their 4th lineman to a long term deal when they inked David DeCastro to his new contract. The Steelers 2016 offensive line did an excellent job in what is its most important task at this point in the Tomlin era – to protect Ben Roethlisberger. And the synergy between Le’Veon Bell waiting for holes to open and the line opening them was something special to behold. Still, there were times when the line struggled to open running lanes, namely on the road vs. Baltimore and of course at the goal line in the AFC Championship and their grade must reflect that. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
Let’s begin by ordering some crow with a side of humble pie. When Cameron Heyward went on injured reserve, this site declared, “Game Over.” Fortunately, that’s not what happened. Instead, led by Stephon Tuitt, everyone on the defensive line stepped up their play a notch. Nine games into the season, the Steelers defensive line looked incapable of stopping anyone. By the season’s end, the Steelers were holding feature backs to negative yardage for entire halves.

The Steelers defensive line didn’t put up a lot of sexy statistics, but they delivered time and time again by making the types of plays that don’t show up on stat sheets, but win games. Grade: B

James Harrison, Art Rooney II

Art Rooney II and James Harrison share a post-game handsake. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Linebackers
In 2016 the Steelers linebackers returned to their status as the strength of the defense. This resurgence was fueled by strong second halves by Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier, who seemed to make splash play after splash play. Bud Dupree got a late start to 2016 thanks to an injury, but Dupree came in second on the team in sacks despite only playing in 7 games and starting in four.

  • James Harrison of course came off the bench to start the Steelers final 7 games, and the improvement of the Steelers defense with Harrison in the lineup full time is by no means coincidental.

If Harrison did provide a spark to the pass rush, and made smothering tackles in run defense, his days of covering receivers downfield should be at an end.

Vince Williams, Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats all provided valuable support as backups, but the unit was clearly better when all four starters played together. And that’s not something that’s been true of the linebacking corps for a long time. While this group made a lot of progress in 2016, their struggles in the AFC Championship game show they still have another leap yet to make. Grade: B+

Secondary
The secondary was the Steelers weak link in 2015 and arguably has been a weak link for some time before. Management gambled and essentially re-wrote the depth chart, taking a huge gamble in the process. Artie Burns and Sean Davis were both at the center of this gamble. While Sean Davis was the more consistent player who was playing like an absolute stud by year’s end, Artie Burns also made impressive strides as they year went on.

Ross Cockrell likewise vindicated the faith that the coaches and front office showed in making him a starter, and Mike Mitchell didn’t provide as many splash plays as he did in 2016, but provided veteran leadership and stability. William Gay offered steady play, but it is fair to ask whether he’s losing a step.

The Steelers secondary was no longer a liability in 2016, but they remain powerless to prevent Tom Brady from having his way with them, and until that changes they must continue to improve. Grade: C+

Special Teams
Special teams coach Danny Smith is everyone’s favorite scapegoat in Steelers Nation. While the Steelers special teams did leave a lot to be desired at times, all of the blame doesn’t necessarily fall on Danny Smith’s shoulders.

Chris Boswell provided another solid year of place kicking. Whether it was kicking field goals in the snow at Buffalo or in windy Cincinnati or on the road in Kansas City, Boswell was Mr. reliable and arguably the MVP on two of those 3 contests. His counterpart Jordan Berry had a solid year, but failed to do anything to stand out.

  • The Steelers kicking and kick coverage units were the bigger area of concern.

While the NFL is trying to eliminate kick returns, the Steelers kick returners routinely trade 15 yard returns for 25 yard touchbacks. And while the Steelers avoided getting burned by a punt or a kickoff returned for a touchdown returned long return this season, there were too many close calls.

  • On the positive side, the Steelers special teams defended several on-sides kick attempts; however, 2007 remains the last time the Steelers executed an on sides kick of their own.
  • The Steelers also got caught on two fake punts.

In all fairness, the Steelers special teams rose to the occasion in the playoffs against the Chiefs, but overall their play during the course of the season was too inconsistent, and rarely “special.” Grade: C-

Coaching
One of the things that frequently gets lost in the shuffle is that Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley had far fewer weapons to work with in 2016 than he had at his disposal in 2015. Nonetheless, the Steelers offense still finished in the top ten in terms of both scoring and yards.

Todd Haley drew fire for not relying on Le’Veon Bell enough against Miami in the regular season and the perhaps for trying to rely too heavily on him in the first matchup against the Ravens.

  • But the Steelers offensive found the right balance during the second half of the season.

On defense, Keith Butler’s second full season did not start well, as the Steelers struggled at times, and at the season’s mid-point, Butler’s defense was drawing unfavorable comparisons to Tony Dungy’s 1988 Steelers defensive squad, which set franchise records for futility.

  • But during the second half of the season, the Steelers defense began playing a new tune.

And if the inserting of James Harrison and Bud Dupree helped improve performance, the absence of Cam Heyward can hardly be considered a plus. The bigger change was that Butler got his players to focus on doing their job and, equally importantly, he got production out of his 3 rookies. By the season’s end the Steelers defense was one of the best at sacking the quarterback, and also improved in creating turnovers.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers locker room

Mike Tomlin addresses the Steelers. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

By his own admission, Mike Tomlin won’t be considered a success until his team raises Lombardi Number 7. Fair enough. It is also fair to criticize Tomlin for the team’s lackluster performance in Philadelphia and also for the loss at Miami.

Those are the types of losses that can sink a season. But Mike Tomlin kept his team from riding the emotional rollercoaster, and they went on a 9 game winning streak, with the team seemingly getting stronger with each win.

Trying to stack two Super Bowl eras on top of each other is very hard to do, and the Steelers still have a ways to go before they accomplish that goal. But the Steelers took another step closer in 2016. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
Losing a player like Heath Miller is never easy, and it becomes all the more difficult if the high profile free agent you sign to replace him only manages to play 6 games.

But the Steelers transition away from the Heath Miller era at tight end was largely successful, and Jesse James was a big reason for that. James’ blocking improved as the season wore on, and he found himself making several critical catches for the team during December and January, and for that Jesse James wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2016 season.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Overtime Win over the Browns

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is proud to see average, everyday students rise to the occasion with the star pupils out, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the overtime win over Cleveland.

DeAngelo Williams, DeAngelo Williams touchdown Browns, Marcus Gilbert, Jesse James

DeAngelo Williams celebrates his touchdown against the Browns with Jesse James and Marcus Gilbert. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Quarterback
The game’s very first series made it clear that Landry Jones wasn’t going to get the same protection that Ben Roethlisberger got, and Landry Jones struggled for much of the first half. And Landry Jones’ interception at the end of the 3rd quarter was as ugly as it gets. But Jones pushed on, and led the Steelers to two touchdowns in the 4th quarter and another in overtime. Jones also deserves credit for his heads up play in recovering a fumble in the end zone. And Jones did all of this with the Steelers top weapons on offense sitting on the bench. If we apply the same standard we applied last week to Ben Roethlisberger, there’s only 1 grade for Landry. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers vs. Browns

Running Backs
One of the big questions heading into the game was how well DeAngelo Williams would respond after 9 games on ice. Fantasy Football owners who started Williams are probably suffering from buyer’s remorse. Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley, however, are not. On the surface, Williams 1 yard rushing in the first half and his overall 67 yards on 22 carries remain unimpressive. But Williams ripped off runs of 12, 10 and 8 in the second half, scored the Steelers first two touchdowns. He also did an incredible job in avoiding safety when the Steelers were backed into their own end zone.

Fitzgerald Toussaint had 3 carries for 14 yards including a 12 yarder, and Roosevelt Nix had 2 catches for five yards. Grade: B+

Tight Ends
Jesse James had two catches for 16 yards on 3 targets. Neither Xavier Grimble nor David Johnson had a carry. The Steelers tight ends had a solid, if not spectacular performance against the Browns. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Eli Rogers led the team with 6 catches for 61 yards taking another important developmental step forward. As did, Cobi Hamilton who caught the game winner as well as a critical completion during the 3rd quarter. Demarcus Ayers looked good in his second NFL game, finding his way to the end zone for a go ahead score in the 4th quarter. Darrius Heyward-Bey saw his first action in 9 weeks, and came away with on reception for 46 yards. Overall a very good day for the Steelers wide receivers. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
B.J. Finney made several starts at right guard for Ramon Foster this season and played well enough that some bloggers suggested his comparative salary cap value might make Foster expendable during the 2017 off season.

  • No one is going to say that about his performance in place of Maurkice Pouncey.

It is probably unfair to scapegoat Finney, but the truth is that the Browns got pressure on Landry Jones on several third downs, and each time it looked like they came right up the middle. Indeed, the line struggled to protect their quarterback for the first time in recent memory, and the rushing lanes weren’t quite as solid. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Injuries left the Pittsburgh Steelers playing their 3rd string defensive line for most of the day. The truth is that the Browns ran the ball a little too easily. OK, a big part of this has to do with James Harrison being out (who essentially plays a defensive end in the Steelers nickel alignment), but if the Standard is the Standard, then the Steelers defensive line fell a little short, although Daniel McCullers did get a sack on Robert Griffin III. Grade: C-

Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, George Atkinson

Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree sandwich George Atkinson in the Steelers overtime win vs. the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Linebackers
Does anyone still debate why the Steelers rushed to pick Ryan Shazier instead of a defensive back in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft? Ryan Shazier led the Steelers linebackers securing an interception at the 5 yard line, and helping ensure that the Browns would lose 14 yards when on 3rd and Goal at the Steelers 2 in overtime. Jarvis Jones had his best game as a Pittsburgh Steelers, sacking RGIII once, forcing another fumble as the Browns threatened to score, and batting away a pass in overtime. Bud Dupree had another sack, and another tackle for the loss. Lawrence Timmons had 6 tackles.

While the Steelers linebackers had a strong day, they too bear some of the responsibility for the breakdowns in the run defense so their grade must reflect that. Grade: B+

Secondary
Sean Davis led the unit and the Steelers defense overall with 9 tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss and another QB hit. Mind you, the man is playing safety. Artie Burns had 8 tackles, and batted away a pass that he almost intercepted. Ross Cockrell’s name wasn’t heard much, and that’s good for a cornerback. William Gay had a key pass defense, while Mike Mitchell had 8 tackles and a fumble recovery. A solid day for the Steelers secondary, particularly in the Red Zone. Grade: B+

Ross Cockrell, Seth Delvalve touchdown steelers, steelers vs. browns overtime

Seth Delvalve scores for the Browns as Ross Cockrell attempts to stop him. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 3-3 on his extra points and Jordan Berry had an excellent day punting on an afternoon where the Steelers found themselves backed up in their own end zone too often.

Eli Rogers returned 3 punts for a total of 15 yards with a long return of 10 yards. While that’s nice, he did bobble one return – which cannot happen during the playoffs. Cobi Hamilton returned 3 kick offs for 44 yards which is as unimpressive as it looks.

  • The real concern here is the Steelers kick coverage.

The Browns averaged 30 yards on their kickoff returns, or five more than they’d get in touchbacks, and Mario Alford returned 3 punts for 26 yards including one return of 17 yards. Those are the types of return yardage numbers that can tip a close playoff game in the wrong direction…. Grade: C-

Coaching
Mike Tomlin’s Christmas present to Todd Haley was to ask him to devise a winning game plan after taking away his top 4 offensive players. The truth is that Haley’s offense sputtered for much of the day, but once they got in a groove, they scored 21 points in less than two quarters.

  • Keith Butler didn’t have the same “excuse” as only James Harrison was held out of the game.

That alone made it clear just how much James Harrison means to the Steelers running game. Had the stakes in the game been higher, Butler likely would have played the Steelers nickel less. While the Steelers defense likely made some Fantasy Football owners happy, the fact is that they secured two Red Zone turnovers in addition to stuffing a 3rd down attempt for a 14 yard loss defending their own two.

  • I’ll take that.

Finally, Mike Tomlin sent an important signal when he benched the Steelers top players. But he also insisted it would be “Business as normal” for everyone who did suit up. Tomlin lived true to his word. It would have been easy for Tomlin to either intentionally coach towards a tie or to make other decisions that would have left Cleveland with a win, particularly in overtime.

Instead, Mike Tomlin played to win, and his players responded by delivering a win. This is exactly what the mentality and level of execution Pittsburgh needs heading into the playoffs. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
When Landry Jones threw his interception at the end of the 3rd quarter and Briean Boddy-Calhoun streaked to the end zone for an apparent pick-six that looked to doom the Steelers for the afternoon. But one player continued to hustle, never gave up, and ended up catching Boddy-Calhoun and knocking out the ball before he scored a touchdown.

  • The play saved a touchdown, and sparked the Steelers rally.

This is exactly the type of hustle at all times mentality a team needs in the playoffs, and for that Darrius Heyward-Bey wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers overtime win over the Browns.

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A’s for Excellence, Not Effort: Steelers Report Card for Christmas Comeback vs. Ravens

Taken from the grade book who has seen his failing student earn straight A’s since getting a failing mid-term progress report, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Christmas comeback win over the Baltimore Ravens.

Bud Dupree, Joe Flacco, Bud Dupree sacks Joe Flacco, Steelers Christmas comeback over Ravens

Bud Dupree sacks Joe Flacco during the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Quarterback
How do you grade this one? Ben Roethlisberger got off to a strong start, then sputtered a little in the first half, only to throw two Kordell Stewartesque interceptions in the third. That would normally be enough to earn the signal caller an “F.” Then came the 4th quarter, where Ben Roethlisberger completed 14-of-17 passes for 164 yards for two touchdowns while hitting 6 different receivers. Players grades come as a product of performance and results. Do the results of Ben’s 4th quarter play outweigh earlier performances? Yes they do. Grade: A

steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers vs. RavensRunning Backs
Coming into the game the Baltimore Ravens had the NFL’s second best rushing defense that only allowed 3.5 yards per carry. Moreover, this is a rush defense that smothered Le’Veon Bell just two months before.

  • But in the Steelers Christmas comeback against the Ravens, Le’Veon Bell reminded everyone that ball players and not bean counters determine the outcome of games.

Le’Veon Bell rushed for 122 yards on just 20 carries (that’s an average of 6.1 yards per carry), scored 1 touchdown on the ground and another through the air, where he made 3 catches for 15 yards. Roosevelt Nix only appeared in 19% of the snaps, which is perhaps a surprise, but he blocked well when he was in the game. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
The big question going into the game was how much Ladarius Green’s absence would impact the passing game. The answer was that the men below him on the depth chart stepped up. Xavier Grimble caught the game’s first touchdown pass holding on to the ball when he knew he would get drilled. Jesse James came up big late in the game, catching 3 of his four passes in the 4th quarter. David Johnson didn’t have a target, but was a force in as a blocker, as were the other two Steelers tight ends. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown was quiet for much of the first three quarters, but exploded in the 4th quarter, catching 6 passes for 73 yards in the final 15 minutes.

  • However, if Brown’s only catch had been his last one, the touchdown catch, he’d have had a great game.

Eli Rogers put on another strong performance, catching a couple of field-stretching that set up scores, including a 20 yarder that put the Steelers in the Red Zone. Cobi Hamilton only had on catch, but it came on the game’s final drive.

You wouldn’t think that Antonio Brown, plus a 7th round pick playing his first game and two undrafted rookie free agents would be the recipe for success in a playoff-defining game but was it ever. Grade: A

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers offensive line, Steelers Ravens Christmas

Steelers offensive line opens holes for Le’Veon Bell in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Offensive Line
If you really want to see how much the Steelers have grown since their last loss to the Ravens, then offensive line provides the perfect gauge. Sure, the offensive line kept an injured Ben Roethlisberger clean down at M&T Stadium, but the Steelers rushing offense went nowhere, on a day when Pittsburgh needed it to.

  • The Steelers came out of the gate intending to run the ball, and dared the Baltimore Ravens to stop them.

Back-to-back Le’Veon Bell runs for 23 and 13 yards to start the 4th quarter for the Steelers show just how badly Baltimore failed. Ramon Foster also deserves extra credit for making sure Bell got into the end zone on the penultimate touchdown. Grade: A+

Defensive Line
This game looked to be a tough one for the Steelers defensive line, with Stephon Tuitt out and Ricardo Mathews nursing an injury. Suffice to say, no one envisioned the Steelers starting L.T. Walton, Javon Hargrave and Mathews on Christmas with the playoffs on the line.

  • The Steelers defensive line did encourter some rough sledding against the Ravens.

While the Steelers bottled up Terrance West, Kenneth Dixon and Kyle Juszczyk ran with authority, often times not going down on either the first or second contact. Still, while the Ravens did establish the run, their running backs never came close to taking over the game. Grade: C

Linebackers
James Harrison led the Steelers with 11 tackles. For all of the ink that Harrison generates as a pass rusher, he is perhaps even stronger against the run. Lawrence Timmons had 10 tackles, and a key sack of Flacco that put the Ravens out of field goal range. Ryan Shazier was next, with 10 tackles and a pass defense. Bud Dupree had another drive ending sack of Joe Flacco and got a hand on a pass on third down.

A little more consistent pressure on Flacco would have been nice, and perhaps a little better performance in the against the run. Nonetheless, it was a good night for the Steelers linebackers. Grade: A-

Secondary
Sean Davis made what was perhaps the most underrated play of the game when the Ravens had the ball on third down at the Steelers four, by knocking a way a touchdown and forcing the Ravens to settle for a field goal, keeping the Steelers within 10 as the 4th quarter began. William Gay led the Steelers defensive backs with 7 tackles, while Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell had 7 a piece, followed by Mike Mitchell who had 5 tackles and a pass defensed. Overall the Steelers pass defense was good against the Ravens, but Joe Flacco did complete 7 of 10 passes on the Ravens go-ahead touchdown drive. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect making his only field goal attempt and hitting on 4 extra points. However, he did get flagged twice for knocking kickoffs out of bounds, something which cannot continue.

The Steelers got little out of their return game, but their coverage units didn’t allow the Ravens much either. The same cannot be said for the Steelers punt coverage units, which allowed an average of 12.5 yards per return. That was hardly lethal, but with the top gunner Shamarko Thomas out for the year, the someone will have to step up.

The Steelers field goal until also reached on a botched snap. Those types of things usually hurt the kicking team, but if the defense isn’t on its toes, the opposing team’s kicking unit an turn a disaster into a big play. Danny Smith’s unit made sure that didn’t happen. Grade: B

Coaching
Amazingly enough, the Steelers coaching staff entered this game under attack. But the coaches answered the call.

Keith Butler was essentially forced to go into the biggest game of the season playing his 2nd string defensive line. That fact does show up on the stat sheet, but isn’t evident in the final score.

The bottom line is that Butler found a way to make it work. The Ravens did put up 27 points, but the telling statistic there is that the Ravens went 2 for 5 in the Red Zone, including one Red Zone possession that came as gift wrapped by Ben Roethlisberger.

Todd Haley also had his work cut out for them, given how well the Ravens defense has played the Steelers. The credit for the Steelers success rushing the ball lies with Le’Veon Bell and the offensive line, but Todd Haley and Mike Munchack were smart enough and confident enough to trust in those two units.

The Steelers offense put on a championship caliber performance in the 4th quarter. Again, the men who authored those plays on the field deserve credit, but they only excel in those situations on Sunday if they’ve been well-coached during the rest of the week.

  • Finally, we come to Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers entered this game fighting a lot of history and knowing that none of their previous 5 wins would mean anything if they’d lost. The Steelers came out and played focused football, daring and succeeding in attacking the strength of the Ravens, their rush defense.

  • But that wasn’t the whole story of course.

The Steelers offense sputtered for much of the 2nd and 3rd quarters, and easily could have folded or devolved into finger pointing when they began the 4th quarter down by 10. The same could have happened when they were down by 3 with 1:25 to play.

But the Steelers refused to blink and that reflects on their coach. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
There are so many candidates worthy of this honor in the Christmas win over the Ravens. All the well-placed praise lavished on the game stars, Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown, doesn’t change the fact that their heroics are only possible if their supporting cast does their job.

  • Jesse James and/or the entire Steelers tight ends receiving corps earned strong consideration.

But here we’re going to follow Mike Tomlin’s lead and give recognition to the young 7th round draft pick, how drew a 35 yard pass interference play and then blocked for Le’Veon Bell one touchdown drive. He then made 9 yard catch AND got out of bounds as the clock was ticking down towards zero.

  • All of this came in his very first NFL game, during the 4th quarter with the playoffs on the line.

This young player answered the challenge, and for that Demarcus Ayers wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers Christmas Day win over the Baltimore Ravens.

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What’s Missing from Steelers Christmas Win over Ravens? Narration from NFL Films John Facenda

The Steelers 31-27 win over the Ravens secured the AFC North, eliminated their rivals from playoffs and snapped Pittsburgh’s 4 game losing streak to Baltimore. The Steelers and Ravens fought an instant classic, featuring legendary performances on both sides of the ball.

  • Compared to the Lombardi-Landry matchups of yesteryear, the only thing lacking from the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens was narration NFL Films legend John Facenda.

Both stars and understudies stepped up at critical times to make the plays the Pittsburgh Steelers needed to prevail, but like all good Steelers-Ravens matchup, the winning team carried the day because they hit the hardest.

antonio brown, steelers christmas win over ravens, steelers vs. ravens

Four Ravens can’t stop Antonio Brown from score the game winning touchdown in Steelers Christmas win over Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Set Tempo Early, but Fail to Maintain Rhythm

Perhaps most disturbing aspect of the Ravens win over the Steelers in early November 6th was the fact that Baltimore dominated at the line of scrimmage. Le’Veon Bell had 32 yards on 14 carries, and DeAngelo Williams only managed a single yard on his only carry.

  • The Ravens front seven didn’t simply dominate the Steelers run blockers, they bullied them.

Mike Munchak’s offensive line has played much, much better football since that day, and the Steelers lineman came out early in the game looking liked they’d taken their November manhandling personally.

In the space of just over five minutes, Le’Veon Bell ripped off runs of 10, 7, 7, 6 and 10 yards. And, foreshadowing things to come, Ben Roethlisberger hit Xavier Grimble for a 20 yard touchdown strike, giving the backup tight end his first catch since the Steelers loss to the Cowboys.

  • The Steelers first drive against the Ravens impressed by any measure

More importantly, it established the game’s tempo – this game was going to be won in the trenches, with contributions coming from across the depth chart.

Ravens Match Pittsburgh Physically, Peck Away at Lead

The Steelers had done well to set the physical tone for the game, but unfortunately Pittsburgh struggled to keep pace. The Raven’s first half offense might have lacked for fireworks, Steve Smith Junior’s 44 yard catch notwithstanding, but the Ravens established that Baltimore was ready, willing and able to match the Steelers physical challenge.

  • During the first half, the Steelers defense did a good job of matching the brute force of the Raven’s attack.

Both Lawrence Timmons and Bud Dupree had sacks which helped force punts, and on two other occasions, the Steelers defense turned away the Ravens offense, forcing them to settle for field goals.

But, more importantly, the Ravens defense responded to the gauntlet the Steelers had thrown down to open the game. Sure, the Steelers offense made its share of penalties during the first half, but the Ravens took advantage of those by forcing the Steelers to punt three times.

Roethlisberger Send Steelers Nation Cardiac Units into Overdrive

The difference between Ben Roethlisberger’s play on the road and at home has provided one of Steelers 2016 season’s the more interesting subplots, even if Ben Roethlisberger’s road performance perked up during the second half of the season.

  • At home, Ben Roethlisberger had been virtually untouchable….

…Until the third quarter of the Ravens game. Ben Roethlisberger opened the 3rd quarter with an ugly interception, and closed it with an uglier one. Observer-Reporter scribe Dale Lolley spoke for everyone in Steelers Nation after the second pick:

Baltimore capitalized on the Raven’s first interception, scoring a touchdown and two-point conversion. Thanks to some smart play by James Harrison, Ryan Shazier and Sean Davis, the Steelers defense held the Ravens to another field goal following Ben Roethlisberger’s second pick.

  • But in just over 1 quarter, the Ravens had scored 14 points, and the Steelers only three.

More ominously, during their 8 minute 3rd quarter field goal drive, the Ravens had proven that they could run the ball on Pittsburgh’s defense, as L.T. Walton, Javon Hargrave and Ricardo Mathews seemed to struggle in Stephon Tuitt’s absence.

That did not bode well for a Steelers team that needed at least 2 scores in 15 minutes to take the lead….

Ben Roethlisberger Channels His Inner Hulk Hogan in the 4th

In the 1980’s, Hulk Hogan transformed professional wrestling into a mainstream industry in large part by pretending  to get beaten into despair, only to rally when things looked to be their worst to secure victory.

  • While he certainly didn’t script it that way, Ben Roethlisberger did something similar against the Ravens.

Ben Roethlisberger started strong, only sputtered around for much of the first half, and then followed by playing some of the worst big-game football of his career in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, Big Ben, did what true Hall of Fame caliber quarterbacks do – elevate their play when a trip to the playoffs hangs in the balance.

Demarcus Ayers, Steelers Christmas win over Ravens, Jerraud Powers

Demarcus Ayers stiff arms Jerraud Powers in his first NFL catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

When NFL Films retells this game to future generations, they’ll rightly credit Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown for their All Pro 4th quarter performances. But the performances of the players below them on the depth chart, as well as the Steelers defense were just as important to the final outcome.

  • Jesse James started it off with his impressive, 21 yard catch
  • Demarcus Ayers followed by drawing a pass interference penalty that put the Steelers in the Red Zone
  • Two plays later, Ayers blocking occupied Kyle Arrington allowing Le’Veon Bell to reach the end zone.

Let the record reflect, that when the Ravens got the ball back, they stuck with what had been working for them as Kenneth Dixon got 7 yards on two runs. But Bud Dupree stepped up and defended a pass on third down, forcing Baltimore to punt.

  • At this point, the Steelers offense was on fire.

Le’Veon Bell took the first handoff and ripped off a 23 yard run. His next carry when for 13. Then Ben Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for 21 and 26 yard receptions where Brown earned the bulk of his yards after the catch.

Then the Steelers showed what makes their offense special. As Le’Veon Bell explained to Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell:

…[Ben] was looking the other way. He said my name. I heard it. ‘L. Bell,’ that’s what he said. I’m blocking but I turned around and he was scrambling to the right but looking to the left, so when I caught it, nobody was there because he looked everybody off and he was wanting to go to me the whole time. That’s a special play but it’s stuff like that that he does all the time. In certain times in prime-time drives, when he knows we need it, he comes up huge. That’s what we need. You need that from your quarterback. You need that on your team.

With 7 minutes remaining, the Pittsburgh Steelers had pulled off a dramatic comeback to take a 24 to 20 lead at Heinz Field, having clearly put the momentum on their side. But the 4th quarter drama was only beginning.

Fantastic Fourth Quarter Finish

There wasn’t a single Baltimore Raven who was ready to back down. Baltimore got the ball at the 25, where Joe Flacco proceeded to convert 3 third downs, as he moved down the field consuming precious clicks on the clock.

  • It was at this point in the game that Baltimore’s commitment to the run paid off.

Ravens running backs had a number of impressive carries on this drive, as all of them refused to go down at first contact, and they fell forward each time. With just a minute 1:25 to play, the Ravens handed it to Kyle Juszczyk who saw a couple of Steelers bounce off of him en route to the end zone and a 27-24 Ravens lead.

Again, Dale Lolley echoed the thoughts of Steelers Nation. The lesson of loss to the Cowboys seemed to reveal that the 2016 Steelers simply weren’t that good.

If the Steelers 5 straight wins had disproved that lesson, then Kyle Juszczyk’s touchdown seemed to assure the Ravens a 5th straight win over the Steelers, hammering home the painful reality that John Harbaugh’s Ravens were simply better than Mike Tomlin’s Steelers.

  • But this group of Steelers wasn’t finished writing their story.

Working with two time outs and starting at his own 25, Ben Roethlisberger hit Jesse James twice, Demarcus Ayers once, Eli Rogers once, and Cobi Hamilton once to bring the Steelers to the 4th yard line with 13 seconds to play.

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, steelers christmas win over Baltimore ravens

Ben Roethlisberger stands with Antonio Brown in Steelers Christmas win over Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

With no timeouts remaining, the easy call would have been to bring Chris Boswell on the field to tie the game and bring on overtime.

  • Instead, with the season in the balance, Mike Tomlin chose to go for all the marbles, trusting in Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger, in turn, trusted Antonio Brown to get across the goal line, even though he had two men in front of him.

  • Brown caught the ball, then squiggled, squirmed and stretched towards the goal line.
  • Before he was done, four Ravens were hitting him.

But in the end, they couldn’t hit Antonio Brown hard enough. Brown broke the plane, which ut  Pittsburgh ahead for good. The Steelers were AFC North Champions, while the Ravens would spend January at home.

Steelers in Position to Make a Run for a Ring

The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers began the season looking like sure-fire favorites to contend for a championship. Midway through the season, things looked quite differently, as rookies struggled to learn the defense, and injuries took their toll on the offense.

  • But Mike Tomlin’s team never blinked.

The Steelers scratched and clawed their way first back to respectability, getting a little better each week. Now the Steelers are headed to the playoffs for the 7th time since Mike Tomlin arrived in 2007. Can the Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers bring home Lombardi Number 7 their 7th trip to the playoffs?

  • Time will tell.

The Steelers won’t enter the playoffs as the AFC favorites, but both the resiliency and the championship caliber plays the men in Black and Gold  made against the Ravens proves that Pittsburgh is capable of proving a lot of people wrong.

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Vote Now Steelers Nation: Steelers Game Ball Winners for Christmas Win over Baltimore

Wow! What a game. On Christmas Day 2016 the Pittsburgh Steelers snapped a 4 game losing streak to the Baltimore Ravens on the heels of a heroic, furious 4th quarter comeback that saw the lead change twice as Steelers score 3 touchdowns. As we always do after a Steelers win, we invite you, the citizens of Steelers Nation to vote game ball winners.

Steelers vs. Ravens, Antonio Brown, Shareece Wright, Steelers Ravens Christmas

Antonio Brown makes a catch on Shareece Wright in the Steelers 31 to 27 win over the Ravens

Earning the top ballot slot is Antonio Brown, who was quiet for most of the game, but came alive in the fourth quarter making a number of tremendous catches, including the game winner.

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 12-06-2014 18:49:27
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Poll Results:
Who deserves a game ball for the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens (votes for multiple players allowed)

Behind Brown, you have Le’Veon Bell who also had an impressive game rushing for 122 yards who also came on strong in the 4th quarter. Ben Roethlisberger, who did throw two interceptions, never lost his composure, as he threw 3 touchdown passes including two strikes in the end zone in the 4th quarter.

Xavier Grimble also gets a ballot slot, for his early touchdown that put the Steelers ahead at the beginning of the game. And we’re also giving the Steelers offensive line a slot on the ballot, who did not allow a sack, and opened the lanes for Le’Veon Bell.

James Harrison leads the balloting on defense, as he ran for led the team in tackles. Lawrence Timmons is next, as he was second in tackles, and brought Joe Flacco down early on a critical 3rd down. Ryan Shazier is next, as he recorded 10 tackles and also had a last minute interception. Bud Dupree also gets a slot on the ballot, due to his sack of Joe Flacco.

  • Finally, my wife Alejandra gets a ballot slot.

Due to the Christmas celebrations down here in Argentina yours truly needed to watch the game on tape delay. My wife knew the result, but didn’t let on in the slightest, all the way until the end.

Remember, You Can Write in Your Game Ball Choices

This Steelers game ball winner poll isn’t about who I think should get game balls, its about who you think should get game balls. Both William Gay and Sean Davis had strong games – if you think they deserve a game ball, write their names in.

A case could also be made for Jesse James and Chris Boswell. Again, write in their names if you think they deserve a game ball. Better yet, write in their names and leave a comment stating your case.

Please be sure to check back later for our full analysis of the Steelers AFC North clinching win over the Baltimore Ravens.

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Steelers Report Card for Bengals Win: Chris Boswell Kicks Cincinnati Bengals Buckett

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who seen his students ace 5 straight test-sections in a row but know that it’s the six one that will determine the grade of the entire exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals.

2016 Steelers win at Cincinnati, Le'Veon Bell, David Johnson, David DeCastro, Ben Roethlisberger

David Johnson and David DeCastro open holes for Le’Veon Bell in the Steelers win at Cincinnati. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger probably didn’t make a lot of fantasy owners happy on Sunday, completing 21 passes on 36 tries for 286 yards. The truth is that Ben Roethlisberger was off a number of times, and had a few questionable balls. But Ben Roethlisberger protected the ball, the Steelers moved the chains, and his laser strike touchdown to Eli Rogers came at exactly the right time. Grade: Bsteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers vs. Bengals

Running Backs
Mike Tomlin had indicated the DeAngelo Williams might suit up for this game, but Williams did not dress, leaving it to Le’Veon Bell to carry the load for the offense again. Le’Veon Bell didn’t have the dominating type game that has been a stable of the Steelers previous four wins, but he found the tough yards on the ground to put the Steelers into manageable down and distance situation gaining 93 yards on 21 carries. As he as he always does, Bell also did his damage catching balls out of the air, catching 5 passes for 28 yards. Roosevelt Nix once again acquitted himself at fullback. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Against the Colts and the Giants, Ladarius Green showed he could be a “field flipping” tight end, which is a welcome sign. However, against the Bills he struggled a little, but bounced back against the Bengals making several tough catches in the middle, making 5 receptions for 72 yards. David Johnson had one catch for 12 yards. Chris Hubbard continued to work as an extra tight end, and Xavier Grimble and Jesse James both got extensive work as blockers. Overall, a strong performance from the tight ends. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Eli Rogers led the Steelers wide outs, making a number of key catches downfield including the team’s only touchdown. Cobi Hamilton made one 21 yard catch that help setup the Steelers last 1st half field goal, while Sammie Coates caught one pass for 10 yards on a scoring drive, but was targeted 3 other times, although he probably should have drawn pass interference penalties on at least two of those catches. A solid day by the receivers. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
In the first outing against the Bengals, Cincinnati sacked Ben Roethlisberger once, just as they did on Sunday, although Ben’s sack really came as the result of a bobbled snap. Other than that, the Steelers offensive line kept their quarterback clean. In the first outgoing against the Bengals, as a team the Steelers averaged 3.4 yards per carry, on Sunday that percentage dropped a hair to 3.3 yards, but the Steelers rushing average increases to 3.9 yards a carry if you discount Ben Roethlisberger’s kneel downs at the end.

It wasn’t a perfect day for the offensive line, as David DeCastro got flagged for a couple of penalties, but the Steelers offensive line improved in their second outing against the Bengals, and they needed it to. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line lost Stephon Tuitt early in the game and then lost Ricardo Mathews later in the game, forcing L.T. Walton, Daniel McCullers and Javon Hargrave to go it alone. If this unit struggled a bit against the run in the first half, they more than made up for it in the second half as Bengals running backs ran for 8 yards in the second half. The trio might not have put up any dazzling stats, but if these men don’t do their job, the linebackers don’t look nearly as good. Grade: A-

Linebackers
Games like this show just how badly stats can mislead. One might look at James Harrison’s totals, and think that without any sacks or hits to the quarterback or tackles for losess, Harrison simply ran up a nice tackle count. Nothing could be further from the case. James Harrison was intremental in neutralizing the Bengals rushing attack. Lawrence Timmons continued to show that he remains a vialbe, play making linebackiner in this defense, pulling down another interception and helping sustain the momentum in the second half, momentum which Ryan Shazier started by ending the Bengals first half possession with a sack. Bud Dupree had a difficult time against the Bengals offensive line, showing the limits of his athleticism. Still, he made it into the backfield on more than one occasion. Grade: A

Secondary
Mike Mitchell led the Steelers defensive backs in tackles and got his hands on a ball that could have been an interception. Sean Davis was next including a tackle for a loss that he split with Timmons. The biggest plays however came on successive third downs as first Ross Cockrell and then Artie Burns batted way sideline passes that, had they been completed, would have kept the drives alive. As Steelers Digest Editor Bob Labirola argued, a year ago the Steelers cornerbacks fail to make those plays (think about it, does Antwon Blake defense either of those passes…?) Those were difference makers in this game. Grade: A

Special Teams
First, there simply aren’t sufficient accolades to praise Chris Boswell’s performance. How many NFL kickers have made three 49 yard field goals in one game? He also hit 45 and 40 yarders. All outdoors, in December in the AFC North. Boswell of course make a critical tackle that saved a touchdown (and Keith Butler’s defense worked the short field to force a field goal.)

  • Sammie Coates added some much needed sparkle by giving the Steelers a 44 yard kick off return that set up the Steelers first score.

While these positives carry the most weight in the final game for the special teams, Fitzgerald Toussaint’s poor decision making and poor returns must be taken into account. Moreover, Alex Erickson 72 yard return could have been a game changer for Cincinnati. Grade: B

Coaching

For all of its flaws, Cincinnati remains a talented team with a defense that has shown an ability to give the Steelers offense fits. While Todd Haley has a long way to go before anyone can say he’s mastered the Bengals defense, but on this Sunday, he found the right mix of ball control and vertical passing that allowed the Steelers to get enough points on the board to get out of Paul Brown Stadium with a win.

  • Keith Butler had a more complicated task, stop a talented Bengals offense short-handed on the defensive line.

As mentioned above, the Steelers completely shut out the Bengals in the second half, eliminating the run while the Steelers linebackers and secondary made Andy Dalton look like David Klingler on third downs.

Finally, Mike Tomlin and his staff took a lot of criticism here for abandoning the run against Miami; others critiqued them for sticking to the run too closely vs. Baltimore. The truth is that a good coach knows when to change things up in midstream (see last week vs. the Bills) and when to stick to his guns.

As the first half ended with Cincinnati scoring on each possession and the Steelers looking at an 11 point deficit Mike Tomlin told CBS Sports that there was nothing the Steelers needed to so much as to stop beating themselves with penalties.

  • And the Steelers did just that in the second half.

While it is impossible to credit Tomlin completely with that turnaround, the fact is that the Steelers never gave in to despair, and continued to chip away at Cincinnati’s lead until going ahead late in the 4th. That’s a sign of a well-coached team if there ever was one. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
When was the last time that Antonio Brown didn’t lead Steelers wide receivers? I’m not about to do the research, but “a long time ago” will suffice. Antonio Brown didn’t dominate as he usually does, but he made critical catches that set up scores. He also had a touchdown negated by a penalty, and drew a holding call late in the game that iced the game for the Steelers and for that Antonio Brown wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2016 win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

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