Undefeated Regular Season or Not, the Steelers will Feel Pressure in Playoffs

I suppose it’s normal for Steelers fans to worry about things like whether the team should lose its first game to, you know, take the pressure off.

Ben Roethlisberger

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

It’s probably been a common concern throughout history for most fanbases of teams that, like Pittsburgh, have made it through nine games without a single defeat. I get it, you feel the pressure, it’s enormous. It’s like a balloon that continues to expand every week.

  • When will it happen?
  • When will the bubble finally burst?

You need to appreciate what losing feels like. You think the Steelers need to know what losing feels like. You believe this will humble them. You theorize this will provide an opportunity for them to work on things that they may currently be overlooking during their 9-0 start to the 2020 campaign.

But, most importantly, you just think they need to get that first loss out of the way before the playoffs. Does matching the 1972 Dolphins’ feat of going undefeated all the way through the Super Bowl matter? It does if Pittsburgh can actually pull it off, of course.

However, what if the Steelers get through the regular season without a single mark in the loss column–something that only the ’72 Miami team and the 2007 Patriots have been able to pull off in the modern era–but lose in the postseason? That fate befell the ’07 New England team, and it happened in the waning moments of Super Bowl XLII. The Patriots went from 18-0 to 18-no! thanks to former Steeler Plaxico Burress‘s championship-clinching touchdown catch with just seconds remaining.

In many ways, that loss to the Giants shaped New England’s extended championship run–some say it’s the greatest dynasty in the history of professional sports–as much as those six Lombardi trophies.

But at least the Patriots endured that loss in the middle of what would turn out to be an unprecedented Super Bowl era.

  • If the same thing happens to the Steelers, they’ll have no recent Super Bowl victories to hang their hat on.
  • Damn it, they should lose and just get it out of the way!

Why? Do you think the Steelers will feel any less pressure if they enter the postseason with a loss or three on their record?

Former players whose teams got off to similar starts to the Steelers have talked about the enormous pressure they felt and how that all seemed to go away with a loss. But with all due respect to folks who experienced something I admittedly never have, they were going to experience the weight of the playoff moment whether they entered the dance with one loss, four losses or zero losses.

  • I believe the pressure of going undefeated only pertains to the regular season.

Once you’re in the playoffs, the pressure one feels is like the wetness one experiences while submerged in water–wet is wet.

It’s the postseason. It’s do or die. It’s win or go home. When it comes to the Steelers, they always feel the pressure to succeed in the playoffs. And it’s not just making it there and winning a game. It’s not just advancing to the Super Bowl. Nothing but a Lombardi trophy and a parade (excluding this year, I’m guessing) will ever be good enough.

As it pertains to most NFL players, do you honestly think they feel any less pressure as a 13-3 team instead of one that’s “chasing history”? Aren’t all Super Bowl contenders chasing history? I mean, if you enter the postseason with the best record and a bye, folks are going to expect you to exit the postseason with a Super Bowl title.

I don’t know why the Patriots lost in Super Bowl XLII, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because they were under overwhelming pressure to go undefeated. Were they asked about their chances of going 19-0 a lot over the course of the season? Yes, but it didn’t seem to get in their way until they met up with a Giants team that had a great front-four that made life miserable for Tom Brady.

While speaking with the media on Wednesday, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said the team’s goal was to win a Super Bowl, not go undefeated.

  • Kudos to him, but that’s how it’s always been in Pittsburgh.

It will be the goal this postseason, as well, whether the Steelers enter undefeated or not.

 

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What Do Steelers Fans Want from Bud Dupree and JuJu? Super Bowls or Draft Picks?

The NFL trade deadline came and went on November 3; the Steelers added more than they subtracted, thanks to acquiring inside linebacker Avery Williamson and a seventh-round pick from the Jets in exchange for a fifth-round pick in 2022.

This was seen as a success by many Steelers’ fans and media members who were a bit concerned about the inside linebacker spot after the season-ending ACL tear suffered by Devin Bush against the Browns back in October.

Bud Dupree, Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Bud Dupree strip sacks Ryan Finley. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

However, there may have been more than a few fans disappointed by the fact that Pittsburgh failed to part with either outside linebacker Bud Dupree or receive JuJu Smith-Schuster in exchange for some 2021 draft compensation. You see, that’s the new thing now, not only with the fans, but also with the media and, yes, even the teams, themselves.

Both Dupree and Smith-Schuster are in the final year of their rookie deals, and I don’t know how many times I was asked if I thought the Steelers were going to trade the star players before the deadline. In the old days, it was just understood that some players were going to reach the end of their rookie contracts and ultimately depart without anything in return except for maybe a compensatory draft choice.

  • But those days are long gone.
  • Today, everyone thinks they’re owed compensation.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Lammons, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

JuJu Smith-Schuster out duels Chris Lammons for the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Again, even the fans are preoccupied with worry about a pending free agent. Instead of being excited about what Dupree and/or Smith-Schuster could do for the Steelers here in 2020 and their quest to finally make it back to the top of the NFL mountain, the sentiment among so many folks leading up to the deadline was: “So, they’re supposed to just let them walk without getting anything in return?”

Yes…at least this season. Pittsburgh is 8-0 for the first time in franchise history. What would you rather have:

  • A 2021 first-round draft choice for Dupree or a Super Bowl?
  • A second-round pick for Smith-Schuster or a seventh Lombardi?

I realize that outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, the rookie third-round pick out of Charlotte, has shown a great deal of promise this year. I also understand how deep the Steelers’ receiving corps is. But can you imagine Pittsburgh’s defense without Dupree and what he has brought to the outside linebacker position opposite T.J. Watt? Can you picture that receiving corps without Smith-Schuster leading the way both on the field and off?

  • As I alluded to already, this isn’t just driven by fans.

In my opinion, they’re taking their cues from the media and even the teams. How often do you hear media members talk about the possibility of getting compensation for a pending free agent? More now than ever, and that’s because NFL general managers and coaches seem to be interested in doing just that.

But while that might make sense for your downtrodden franchises like the currently winless Jets, it makes very little sense for a team like Pittsburgh. Besides, do you think a team like New York is going to part ways with a premium draft choice in exchange for a rent-a-player? No, that team is going to want to stack draft choices, not part with them. And do you really think the Steelers are going to trade a main cog in their machinery to another contender? No, because that would be quite dumb.

Avery Williamson is a free agent after this season, and he’ll likely leave. But that’s okay because he’s just a rent-a-player for the Steelers, one that the team didn’t develop and one that the fans didn’t become emotionally attached to.

Hines Ward, Super Bowl XL, Steelers Super Bowl XL, Antwaan Randle El Hines Ward Super Bowl XL

Hines Ward catches a touchdown pass from Antwaan Randle El in Super XL. Photo Credit: Bill Frakes, Sports Illustrated

  • Dupree and Smith-Schuster, but especially, Smith-Schuster, are different.

I get that, but it still doesn’t change much.

Back in the old days of NFL free agency — for someone my age, that would be the 1990s and 2000s–many Steelers players came and went, but not before leaving behind lots of great memories.

Kevin Greene, a veteran free agent pick up in 1993, gave Pittsburgh three great years and helped the franchise reach Super Bowl XXX, their first trip to the big dance in 16 seasons. But he left for the Panthers after that.

Antwaan Randle El, a receiver who also specialized in punt returns and even a little quarterback from 2002-2005, threw the game-sealing touchdown pass to Hines Ward in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XL. Immediately after becoming a Super Bowl hero, Randle El signed a lucrative second contract with the Washington Football Team.

  • Can you imagine how that 2005 season may have played out if Pittsburgh was more interested in flipping Randle El for a future draft pick?

I don’t know how the Steeler careers of Dupree and Smith-Schuster will end, but if they leave behind some Super Bowl memories, well, that would be much better than some extra draft compensation.

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Stop Worrying About a Steelers Loss Until They Have One

The Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Dallas Cowboys this Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick after batting away Lamarr Jackson’s final pass. Photo Credit: New York Times.

The Steelers (7-0) will face a Dallas squad that will be down to either its fourth or fifth-string quarterback, depending on who starts and where you want to rank the candidates: Cooper Rush and Garrett Gilbert.

That’s right, no Dak Prescott (severe ankle injury), no Andy Dalton (concussion) and no Pittsburgh’s own Ben DiNucci (poor play).

Pittsburgh is a two-touchdown favorite to win this game and improve to 8-0. As far as many are concerned, the Steelers should be doing so well in this contest that Mason Rudolph gets his most extensive work since starting eight games for the injured Ben Roethlisberger a season ago.

I can see that. I can get behind that. I’m fairly confident these Steelers will walk into the JerryDome and leave with a thoroughly enjoyable blowout victory against America’s Team.

But what about the annual Tomlin loss? In case you don’t know, a “Tomlin loss” refers to a defeat, usually on the road, against an inferior opponent. This is the kind of loss folks didn’t see coming early on in the career of head coach Mike Tomlin, but it has become so prevalent over the years — think the Chiefs in 2009, the Raiders in 2009 or the Browns in 2009 (wow, there were many such losses in 2009) — that fans just naturally begin to circle possible candidates on the schedule the moment it’s released every spring.

  • As I already said, I don’t think the Steelers will lose this Sunday.

Unfortunately, the game against Dallas (2-6) marks the first of three-straight match-ups that can only be described as trap games. After the Cowboys, Pittsburgh will take on the Bengals (2-5-1) and the Jaguars (1-6 heading into this Sunday’s action) before the epic rematch with the Ravens on Thanksgiving.

Plenty of opportunities for the fans and the media to worry about and speculate on the possibility of the team’s first loss of 2020. After all, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen against a team that Tomlin will not have his players ready for.

  • What is it with this attitude?

I’m not trying to be all rah rah about the Steelers. I get that it’s natural to always think about the worst-case scenario, but my goodness, Pittsburgh is 7-0 for the first time since Star Wars was gripping the nation, and all we can talk about is a possible first loss?

If you’re looking at 1978 (the year I alluded to in the previous paragraph) in a superstitious manner, the Steelers first loss really should happen this Sunday in Dallas. The eighth game was when the eventual Super Bowl champions suffered their first defeat in ’78.

  • And, get this, it was against a team from Texas: The old Houston Oilers.

If it’s not in Dallas, surely it will happen against the Bengals and their stud rookie quarterback, Joe Burrow. OK, but these are the Bungals, right? No way Pittsburgh will give up its chance to make history by losing to them. Fine, but those Jags are always a pain in the butt.

Maybe it will happen over these next few games, but I don’t think we need to sit around and worry about it. One thing these 2020 Steelers seem to be is extremely focused. Yes, many games have been a little too close for comfort, so far, but, believe me, Pittsburgh isn’t alone in that category.

  • The NFL is a tough league, and that’s what makes the Steelers start so remarkable.

Enjoy the ride. Will a loss happen? Probably–the odds suggest that it will happen sooner rather than later. However, that’s for the Steelers to worry about.

As for you, just enjoy those undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers.

Not many NFL fans get to do that in November.

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#ICYMI: Steelers Just Schooled Browns on How Respect is Earned in the NFL

Before the Steelers set foot in Nissan Stadium to take on the Titans in a battle of unbeatens last Sunday, many wondered just how credible of a contender Pittsburgh was.

The Steelers’ first five victories came against teams that were either suspect–the Giants, Broncos, Texans and Eagles — or the Browns.

However, thanks to a 27-24 victory over Tennessee, the Steelers are now not only the lone undefeated team in the NFL heading into Week 8, but they’re also legit for real.

  • That’s how you earn respect in the NFL.
Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns

Bud Dupree sacks T.J. Watt. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent/Getty Images, via WJAC.com

If you’re a Browns fan or supporter who is reading this, I want you to heed these words: You don’t earn respect by saying you want it or by your supporters insisting on it. You don’t gain respect by being on Hard Knocks and gaining many sympathetic fans that way. You don’t earn respect by being glib and/or disrespectful with reporters–I’m talking to you, Baker Mayfield.

You don’t earn respect through offseason rankings and/or predictions. You don’t gain respect by beating your rival and its backup quarterback. You don’t earn respect by beating that backup quarterback over the head with his own helmet — I’m talking to you, Myles Garrett.

  • You gain respect by beating your rival with its franchise quarterback and then doing it again and again.

Many people may not even remember this, but Cleveland went into M&T Bank Stadium early in the 2019 season and beat up the Ravens pretty good. You might say it was a bit of a statement game for the Browns, if not for the fact that nobody remembers it. Why? Because Cleveland then went out and lost four-straight games to the 49ers, Seahawks, Patriots and Broncos, respectively.

OK, if you wanted to be fair, you could say the Browns were a young team, still searching for answers. Maybe the true answers came in the form of a 21-7 victory over the Steelers in the infamous Body Bag game. It was Thursday Night Football. It was nationally televised. It was controversial. Garrett became both a villain and a hero to many at the same time.

  • The Browns were proud of their victory. Their fans were proud of their victory. Even the media was proud of their victory.

The only thing left for the Browns to do was finish the job 17 days later in the rematch at Heinz Field. A victory would not only improve the Browns’ record to 6-6, it would also put them in a prime position to earn a playoff spot.

What happened? The Browns, those upstarts, those offseason champions, those Hard Knocks heroes, couldn’t knock off the Steelers and the third-string quarterbackDevlin Hodges — who replaced Mason Rudolph, the backup quarterback who helped to turn Garrett into both a villain and a hero at the same time.

  • The Steelers prevailed, 20-13, and were the ones now sitting in prime playoff position.

As for the Browns. They went on to lose three of their last four–including a rematch against the Ravens at home–to finish the season at 6-10. They had regressed from their 2018 record of 7-8-1.

Fast-forward to 2020, and the Browns are now 5-2 and look to be in great shape to earn a trip to the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Where’s the respect? Where’s the hype?

Maybe those things don’t exist right now because Cleveland’s two losses came against their two biggest rivals–the Ravens and Steelers–and by a combined score of 76-13.

Also, two of the Browns’ victories were against the Bengals — and just barely.

  • Both Pittsburgh and Baltimore showed the Browns what true respect looks like.

Is it any surprise that the Steelers, just one year after barely missing the playoffs without an injured Ben Roethlisberger, are now the only undefeated team in the NFL?

Are you ever truly shocked when Pittsburgh takes on a juggernaut like the Titans and wins?

  • Championship organizations do many things to continue to earn respect.

They don’t just win Super Bowls as the number one or number two seed. They become the first team in NFL history to do it as the number six seed as the Steelers did in Super Bowl XLIII.

The Browns still have a chance to earn respect before 2020 is over. They have one more shot at both Pittsburgh and Baltimore. After that, they’ll likely have a chance to earn some in the postseason.

  • Will they? That remains to be seen, but while they’re busy trying to earn respect, the Steelers are busy trying to win a title.

Maybe that’s the difference between the two teams. Until that changes, no respect will be coming the Brownies’ way.

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Rumors of James Conner’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated (by me)

There is a monster, and that monster is me.

I don’t know if I got that Simpsons quote exactly right (that show has been on for a billion years), but I believe it accurately describes me and my perception of Steelers’ running back James Conner following his lackluster performance during a 26-16 Week 1 victory over the Giants.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns

James Conner delivers a stiff arm in his latest 100 yard game. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

In that game, Conner carried the football just six times for nine yards and wound up exiting with an ankle injury, an occurrence that paved the way for second-year man Benny Snell Jr. to carry the football 19 times for 113 yards.

Coming on the heels of back-to-back-back injury-filled seasons for the fourth-year man out of the University of Pittsburgh, I was pretty much over Conner and his fragility.

  • But maybe I should just get over myself.

Conner followed up his uninspiring 2020 debut with a 100-yard day in a 26-21 win over the Broncos at Heinz Field in Week 2. Two more such performances have followed for Conner since, and he’s clearly the alpha dog in Pittsburgh’s backfield.

James Conner has rushed for 369 yards through the first five games of the 2020 campaign for the undefeated Steelers and is averaging 4.9 yards per carry. And if you take away Conner’s Week 1 fiasco (and I realize you can’t, but hear me out), he’s averaging 5.2 yards per rush.

Even if you add the statistics of Conner’s first game to his overall tally (and I don’t believe you’re legally allowed to expunge them), he’s still on pace to finish 2020 with 1180 yards, earning him the first 1000-yard season of his career.

That would certainly be a desirable outcome for a Steelers’ team that has always wanted to at least be effective running the football, if not totally balanced on offense.

Unlike previous Steelers editions, they don’t seem to be intent on running Conner until the wheels fall off in 2020. But even though Snell and rookie Anthony McFarland Jr. have gotten their work in, they’ve combined for 25 carries and 102 yards since Week 2.

  • The Steelers may be trying more of a running back by committee approach, but it looks like they’ve decided to go with the low-fat version, thus far.

It’s obviously still a really young 2020 regular season, and Conner might make folks like me cynical again with another injury.

But my initial hot take regarding James Conner — head coach Mike Tomlin was playing favorites and Benny Snell Jr. had passed him by on the depth chart — has not aged well.

Maybe Mike Tomlin knows more than me after all.

 

 

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The Steelers Are 4-0 for First Time Since Welcome Back Kotter Was On. Let that Sink In…

I don’t know what you were doing in 1979, but I know what I was doing –I  was not caring one bit about the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I don’t know what happened between then and the days before Super Bowl XIV — Pittsburgh was looking to cap off the ’79 season with its fourth Lombardi trophy of the decade in a match-up against the Los Angeles Rams in January of 1980 — but my seven-year-old heart and soul were suddenly so emotionally invested in the outcome of this game that a loss would have surely brought me to tears.

  • Anyway, the Steelers did triumph in that game, 31-19, and a lifelong fan was born.

I’ve seen it all in the four-plus decades since deciding that the Steelers were the greatest team in the history of the universe. I’ve witnessed three head coaches, countless playoff appearances, 16 division titles, nine AFC title games, four Super Bowl appearances and two more Lombardi trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

I’ve witnessed Mean Joe Greene and Cam Heyward; Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger; Lynn Swann and Hines Ward; John Stallworth and Antonio Brown; Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and Le’Veon Bell; Jack Lambert, James Farrior and Ryan Shazier; Jack Ham, Mike Merriweather, Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, James Harrison and T.J. Watt; Mel Blount and Rod Woodson; Donnie Shell and Troy Polamalu; and Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field.

  • However, despite “seeing it all” over the course of 41 years of fandom, I’ve never seen Pittsburgh win its first four games.

That all changed on Sunday at Heinz Field, when the Steelers defeated the Eagles, 38-29, to begin the year 4-0 for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

It’s just hard to fathom for me that this is the first time Pittsburgh has started a season so successfully since I was in elementary school, since I believed in Santa Claus, since disco was a thing.

Yet, here we are. What’s the lesson to be learned from this? I think one such lesson is that it’s never too late to be amazed by a sport, a team or a player. Take receiver Chase Claypool, for example, who scored four touchdowns in the victory over the Eagles–three receiving and one rushing–becoming the first rookie in franchise history to do so.

  • Much like the 4-0 start, I can’t believe I — or even much older Steelers fans — had never witnessed such a feat.

There’s a lot not to like about the 2020 calendar year–although, I’d be a fool to tap into any of that mess on here–but there are some bright spots.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 4-0 for the first time since Welcome Back, Kotter was on the air.

Welcome back, indeed.

 

 

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13 Games in a Row? No Problem for the Pittsburgh Steelers

“We do not care.”

That was Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s response during a virtual question and answer session with reporters on Thursday when asked his thoughts on the possibility of his team playing 13-straight games to end the season, thanks to the Week 4 game against the Titans being postponed due to 11 members of that organization testing positive for COVID-19.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

You know what?

  • I say kudos to Tomlin for quickly throwing a tarp over any potential excuse-making breeding ground before it even has any time to grow.

Not to sound old — and I am a member of Generation-X, which means I’m now getting there — but I remember the days when teams played 16-straight regular season games without a bye. Nobody thought anything of it. Nobody rattled off stats about how teams that had their byes after a certain point in the season had a greater chance of winning a Super Bowl than teams who had them much earlier.

  • Teams just fulfilled their schedules and either went to the playoffs or to a tropical destination.

I realize this is a new era, and the physical toll the game of football takes on players is far too extensive to ignore. I know the health and safety of these athletes is paramount. I do have a heart. I’m not rotten to the core.

But that’s not what everyone is really worried about when they suddenly “concern” themselves with the brutality these Steelers players will potentially be putting themselves through over the course of thirteen weeks.

They’re worried about how it will affect Pittsburgh’s chances if it makes the postseason for the first time since 2017, something that seems quite likely now, thanks to a 3-0 start to the 2020 regular season.

I get it, but I also know of a lot of people who get concerned when a team earns a postseason bye— “Oh no, it’s going to ruin their momentum!”

There are folks who simultaneously worry about a team playing on a Thursday night because they think the quick turnaround from the previous Sunday will hinder its chances of winning and also worry that the team will be rusty for the next game thanks to the extra days off.

It’s not just the fans, either. Yes, at the moment, Coach Tomlin and his players may say they’re not worried about playing 13 weeks in a row, but let’s see what their attitude is, come January, when game number 14 is of the playoff variety.

  • My guess is someone will care by then.

When it comes to too much time off vs. playing too many games in a row, you can always find an excuse for poor play with either scenario if you really want to.

The fact of the matter is, if someone wouldn’t have pointed out on Thursday how potentially damaging it could be to the Steelers if they didn’t get some time off between now and the end of the season, it never would have crossed my mind that it could be detrimental to their health and/or their chances at a playoff run.

If the Steelers really want to guarantee themselves some time off right before the playoffs, they need to keep winning and earn that precious number one seed—the only one that now comes equipped with a bye.

Wait a minute, what if that extra week off leaves them rusty for the divisional round…….? 

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Time for James Conner Critics to Eat Crow? Not so Fast

“I hope you’re willing to eat a little crow,” is something sports fans say when someone has an opinion about a player or team they don’t agree with.

As it pertains to Steelers running back James Conner, perhaps I should prepare to do a little crow hunting for my dinner. Why? Because my strong opinion heading into Pittsburgh’s Week 2 match-up against the Broncos at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon was that Conner should play second fiddle to Benny Snell, Jr.

James Conner, Alejandro Villanueva, Steelers vs Broncos

James Conner rushes as Alejandro Villanueva blocks. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Benny Snell, the Steelers fourth-round pick out of Kentucky in the 2019 NFL Draft, rushed for 113 yards on 19 carries after coming in for an injured Conner in a 26-16 Week 1 victory over the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Monday Night Football just six days earlier.

Conner, who rushed for just nine yards on six carries before exiting the Week 1 contest, showed all of his critics, including me, that we were wrong in doubting him, as he carried the football 16 times for 106 yards and a score in Pittsburgh’s 26-21 victory over the Broncos last Sunday.

Conner looked poised, healthy and strong as he put the finishing touches on Sunday’s win with a 59-yard scamper right after Pittsburgh took over on downs with 1:51 remaining.

As for Benny Snell, he did nothing to reward the faith those who had any in him, and he followed up what appeared to be a breakthrough performance six days earlier by gaining just five yards on three carries and almost breaking the Steelers’ back with a fumble early in the fourth quarter that allowed Denver to get back into the game.

  • Now, the critics of James Conner’s critics are saying, “See? You were wrong! That’s what you get for making snap judgments.”

Whoa, I can’t speak for most of his critics, but I know I didn’t make any snap judgments about James Conner after Week 1. Those judgments and opinions were based on an entire body of work, mainly going back to late in the 2018 season, when multiple injuries forced him to miss several games down the stretch during a year in-which Pittsburgh barely missed the playoffs.

  • James Conner missed six more games in 2019 due to various ailments and, to reiterate, his 2020 debut in New York was filled with more of the same.

As for my opinions on Snell, they weren’t formed based on just one game. In addition to Snell’s impressive 2020 debut, I based my opinion on how well he played down the stretch of the 2019 campaign, when he nearly caught Conner to become the team’s leading rusher on the season.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

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

I based my reasoning on Snell’s offseason conditioning program that saw him report to training camp 12 pounds lighter than his rookie campaign. I used that knowledge to wonder if Snell’s explosive running style in Week 1 could have been attributed to his sleeker look.

  • But mostly, I based my judgments and opinions on Conner and his unreliable health.

I mean, how silly would it have looked for me to call for James Conner to be benched after one game if he was coming off of back-to-back injury-free and Pro Bowl seasons? Pretty darn silly.

Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Conner wasn’t coming off of back-to-back injury-free and Pro Bowl seasons. Sure, he made the Pro Bowl in 2018 while filling in for Le’Veon Bell, who spent that entire year holding out in a contract dispute with the Steelers, but as I mentioned already, that season wasn’t devoid of injuries for Conner.

Fact is, Conner may have answered his critics this past Sunday, but is he going to continue to answer them on a consistent-enough basis over the course of the season? Make no mistake, when James Conner has been healthy and in the lineup, he’s generally been a really good running back for the Steelers, someone who would have made fans utter a collective “Le’Veon Who?” a long time ago.

But the fans haven’t forgotten about Bell, or at least the record breaking production he provided during his five seasons as the Steelers starting running back.

Sure, Bell had his problems with injuries and suspensions, but in terms of overall health and reliability, he was an Ironman on par with the late Mike Webster compared to James Conner.

As I’ve said many times, James Conner’s story, one that includes overcoming cancer, is a great and admirable one. But until he proves otherwise, Conner’s story must include a chapter about his problems with injuries.

Until he proves over and over again that he can be a reliable running back for the Steelers, only then will that chapter be edited out of his story.

And only then will his critics truly have to sit down and eat a little crow.

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Debate Ended: Steelers Should Start Benny Snell Jr. at Running Back

If you’re a Steelers fan, you have to admire all that running back James Conner has had to overcome to even be in the NFL.

A star running back at the University of Pittsburgh, Conner suffered a season-ending ACL tear in 2015, an injury that actually led to doctors discovering that he had cancer. Conner battled through all of that adversity to not only defeat cancer and the injury but to become a third-round pick by the Steelers in the 2017 NFL Draft.

  • James Conner’s story is a great one, truly inspirational, something that should warm the hearts of even the most cynical.

But even such a heartwarming story only has so much traction in the very cynical world of sports, and Conner has said himself that he doesn’t want to be defined by his battle with cancer. He wants to be defined as an NFL running back.

Much like a lot of things about James Conner, I can respect that. But if he is sincere in that sentiment, he must respect the opinions of folks –many of whom are admirers of his — who no longer think he should be the Steelers starting running back.

Benny Snell, Darnay Holmes, Steelers vs Giants

Benny Snell smokes Darnay Holmes in the Steelers win over the Giants. Photo Credit: AP via the Tribune Review

That should be Benny Snell Jr., and that should be as soon as this Sunday’s Week 2 match-up against the Broncos at Heinz Field.

Conner looked timid and unsure of himself in the early moments of Pittsburgh’s 26-16 Week 1 victory over the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Monday Night Football. After gaining just nine yards on six carries, Conner was removed from the game and never returned. It was later revealed that he suffered an ankle injury.

In his place, Snell, a fourth-round pick out of Kentucky in the 2019 NFL Draft, rushed for 113 yards on 19 carries.

Back to Conner.

  • When you really get to the heart of James Conner’s professional story, his problems with injuries are at the forefront.

Conner suffered an MCL tear late in his rookie season. OK, fine, Le’Veon Bell was the bell cow running back in those days, and Conner barely saw the field on offense prior to his injury. But in 2018, after the Steelers had grown used to Conner’s tremendous production in the wake of Bell’s season-long contract holdout, the Pro Bowl-bound second-year back missed several games down the stretch due to a concussion and an ankle problem.

James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Browns

JuJu Smith-Schuster watches as James Conner scores. Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker, USA Today, via SB Nation

And in 2019, when the Steelers really needed to lean on a workhorse running back following the season-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Conner once again proved to be unreliable, as he battled a myriad of injuries and missed a total of six games.

  • As per Triblive.com reporter Chris Adamski, Conner has either been injured in or missed 17 of his past 21 games with the Steelers.

If you’re the Steelers, how can you work with that?

Conner did lead the Steelers in rushing yards a year ago with 464. But Snell finished with 424 yards and didn’t start to see an increased workload until late in the season.

Snell built on that late-season momentum by losing 12 pounds this past offseason and looked fast, quick and explosive during most of his 19 carries on Monday night. The sentiment held by many in the local Pittsburgh sports media is that Snell really is the best running back the Steelers currently have, but that Conner will get the starting nod this Sunday, provided he’s healthy.

  • That’s a mistake.

If you’re the head coach, it’s your job to put the best players on the field in-order to give your team the greatest chance to win. I don’t know how Tomlin can possibly say Conner is his best running back at the moment.

It’s so obvious that it’s Snell.

  • Benny Snell Jr. should be the starter this Sunday and for the foreseeable future.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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If David DeCastro Misses the Start of 2020, Steelers in Good Hands with Stefen Wisniewski

Sexy signings – the Steelers rarely make any during the NFL’s annual spring free agent frenzy.

  • Such was the case in March 2020.

Sure, tight Eric Ebron was intriguing, but not so much that Steelers fans immediately declared the team the favorite to win Super Bowl LV.

No, like most offseason

s, the Steelers concentrated on adding role players and depth pieces during the 2020 free agent period. One such depth piece was Stefen Wisniewski, a veteran interior lineman with position flexibility. That’s right, according to Pro Football Reference, Wisniewski has started 103 games during a nine-year career that began in 2011 when he was a second-round pick out of Penn State by the Oakland Raiders. Stefen Wisniewski started 61 games in four seasons with Oakland–including 45 at center and 16 at left guard.

Stefen Wisniewski

The Steelers 2020 free agent Stefen Wisniewski. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Since leaving Oakland following the 2014 season, Wisniewski, 31, has bounced around the league a bit–including stops in Jacksonville, Philadelphia and Kansas City. But despite evolving into a journeyman lineman, Wisniewski has managed to start 52 games since 2015.

Wisniewski was also a starter for the Eagles in their Super Bowl LII victory over the Patriots following the 2017 season. Wisniewski signed with the Chiefs prior to the 2019 season, and even though he only started two games during the regular season, he was named a starter for Kansas City’s Super Bowl LIV victory over the 49ers.

  • What’s this all mean?

It means that Steelers fans should take comfort in the fact that the team has a player like Wisniewski as their primary backup at both guard and center.

That should be especially comforting heading into Pittsburgh’s Week 1 match-up against the Giants. Why? Because David DeCastro, the Steelers decorated veteran right guard, has been dealing with some sort of injury all throughout training camp and wasn’t able to go during the Steelers last day of padded training camp practices on Friday.

But if DeCastro can’t go against the Giants, it says here that the team will be just fine with the veteran Wisniewski at right guard. Is this to say he’s anywhere near the player DeCastro is? No, of course not. DeCastro is this era’s Alan Faneca. He’ll be no worse than a borderline Hall of Fame guard the moment he becomes eligible after retirement.

If the Steelers had to be without DeCastro for an extended period of time, there’s no doubt the drop-off in play would eventually prove to be detrimental. But for a game or three? This is why you sign players like Wisniewski. This is why you go out and get veterans with position flexibility. This is why those sexy free agent signings that garner the huge headlines aren’t always the ones that prove to be the most fruitful during the course of the regular season.

Nobody cares all that much about free agent depth until it’s needed. Here we are, the season is about to start, and the Steelers might be in need of some valuable free agent depth along the offensive line.

Stefen Wisniewski has never looked sexier.

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