6 “Its Only Preseason, BUT…” Observations from the Steelers 26-20 win over the Lions

The Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed in their third preseason outing of the summer at Heinz Field where they triumphed over the Detroit Lions 26-20. Although “its only preseason” the contest was not nearly as close as the final score suggests.

Here are 6 quick, “Its Only Preseason But” observations.

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers vs Lions Preseason

Pat Freiermuth catches 1 of 2 TDs. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

1. Meet the New Ben, Same as the Old Ben?

All eyes were on Ben Roethlisberger as he took the field for the first time following the Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic disaster in the playoffs against Cleveland. Since then Ben Roethlisberger agreed to take a 5 million dollar pay cut to return while admitting that his arm did not hold up well during the course of 2020.

  • So how did he do?

Pretty well. On the plus side Ben showed his old mobility in the pocket, dodging around to buy time and hitting receivers down the field. Likewise, his arm strength looks just fine, as he rifled off two touchdown passes in the Red Zone.

  • Throwing down field as more of a mixed bag.

He was right on the money in trying to hook up with Eric Ebron, but Ebron couldn’t hold on.

However, his pass to Diontae Johnson looked to be a little underthrown. Johnson noted, and slowed to adjust his route. Roethlisberger himself admitted that he put too much air into that ball. That’s good, but make no mistake, the Buffalo Bills will destroy the Steelers on that type of play when the regular season starts.

2. Too Early to Worry about the Run Defense?

The Lions top four rushers had long runs of 12, 13, 10 and 9 yards. OK, one of those was a scramble by David Blough and we are talking about an offense that didn’t get on the board until the first minute of the fourth quarter.

Sometimes these preseason tendencies are little more meaningful than an April batting average; sometimes they signal season-long problems.

3. Welcome to Pittsburgh Paty Freiermuth

Sometimes preseason stars are just that – preseason stars. Anyone even remember Matthew Thomas? Neither did I. Had to look up his name. This might jog your memory:

This same Matthew Thomas whom Jim Wexell reported that coaches had hopes could come in an earn playing time by the time the leaves began to fall. The same Matthew Thomas the Steelers cut on December 3rd of that year. The same Matthew Thomas Baltimore signed in January only to cut in August.

  • Then there are players who prove they are the real deal.

And here we introduce Pat Freiermuth. A lot of people questioned the Steelers decision to draft Pat Freiermuth, a tight end out of Penn State, in the 2nd round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

No one’s asking that question this morning, when Freiermuth caught not one, but two touchdown in the end zone. Both times he had double coverage, both times Ben Roethlisberger found Freiermuth. Both times he made it look easy.

4. Kalen Ballage Secures Backup Slot

Najee Harris and Anthony McFarland both put in strong nights. But if the Mike Tomlin era has taught us ANYTHING its that the Steelers need a running back depth chart that’s at least 3 players deep.

(How might 2014, 2015 and/or 2018 turned out if the equivalent of a Mewelde Moore and/or Gary Russell had been on the roster. We’ll never know. And that’s the point.)

Kalen Ballage looks like he can be that player. Ballage was one of Kevin Colbert’s unheralded free agent signings and brought a pedestrian resume to Pittsburgh. But he’s looked strong in preseason. Benny Snell, who began the summer as running back number 3, remains out with injury.

And while Jaylen Samuels looked strong against the Eagles, he didn’t play as well against the Lions.

5. T.J. Who? Well, No, Quite

Neither Melvin Ingram nor Alex Highsmith put up any gaudy stats against the Lions, but both men were around the ball. While no one is going to suggest that their performance gives the Steelers cause to stall in their contract negotiations with T.J. Watt, it looks like the Steelers have 3 viable outside linebackers.

6. Glad You’re Still Here JuJu

One of the surprises of the 2021 off season was the return of JuJu Smith-Schuster. JuJu Smith-Schuster might have only had 5 catches against the Lions, but if you looked at his tape, you’d never have known he was playing in preseason.

  • Just as you won’t have known he was playing from hopelessly behind against the Browns last January.

In terms of pure talent, Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson probably lead the Steelers wide receivers depth chart. But when it comes to heart and want to, JuJu and James Washington lead the way.

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5 Observations from My 1st Preseason Football Game in 2 Decades as Steelers Beat Eagles

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 24 to 16 in their 2nd preseason game of the 2021 season. This game also marked my first game of preseason football 20 years after living aboard for that long.

Here are some quick hits from re-encounter with preseason football.

Anthony McFarland, Steelers vs Eagles preseason

Anthony McFarland scores a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

1. It is Good to See Preseason Again

Some will blanch at this, but the statement should come as no surprise given this site’s annual admonitions that we should all appreciate preseason.

  • But the blunt truth is that after reading about so-and-so player for months, it is finally good to see them with my own eyes.

The NFL could and should do more to improve the presentation of this part of its “product” but those comments will come in a future column.

2. Soft in the Middle?

The Eagles had a lot of success throwing to the middle of the field. And Jaylen Hurts wasted little time setting the tone by picking on Devin Bush who was on coverage and gave up a long gain on the second play of the game.

  • One pass play panic does not cause, as Yoda would remind us.

Fair enough. And let’s also remember that this was Bush’s first action since tearing his ACL. But Robert Spillane also looked to be on the wrong end of a lot of completions. And the Eagles had some success running up the middle. During the game the news broke that the Steelers were trading for inside linebacker Joe Schobert.

While this news has been confirmed yet, one can see why there’s interest.

3. Harris Living Up to the Hype?

One of the adages behind those “Grumpy Old Man” “Eat Your Peas and Carrots and Enjoy Preseason Football” articles is simple: Preseason might not tell us much about how good (or bad) the Steelers will be, but it often gives an excellent look at individual players.

But early in preseason it was clear that Jerome Bettis was the real deal, just as it had been equally clear a year earlier that Bam Morris wasn’t up to the task of replacing Barry Foster.

Aside from the analytics addicts who’ll tell you never to draft a running back in the first round, all we’ve heard about 2021 first round pick Najee Harris has been positive.

  • And seeing him with my own eyes I concur.

Sure, his numbers of 2 carries for 10 yards are pretty plain, but he also had two other nice runs called back on penalties. Along those lines, backup running back Anthony McFarland looks like he’s vindicating those who said, “The kid won’t do much as a rookie, but watch out after that.”

4. The Battle to be QB Number 2

The battle to be Ben Roethlisberger’s backup has been one of the bigger stories of training camp. There’ve been conflicting reports as to whether Dwayne Haskins was gaining on Mason Rudolph or not.

  • Honestly, after watching both men against the Eagles, nothing sticks out.

Yes, this goes against the conventional wisdom that Haskins is gaining

Both men put up good numbers. But neither man was exactly throwing against the ’85 Bears. Of the two, Haskins looked a tad bit more decisive. In contrast, save for his long completion to Diontae Johnson, Mason Rudolph looked like Ben Roethlisberger ’20 edition lite.

  • Nearly all of his passes were quick short high percentage dump offs and check downs.

Haskins wasn’t exactly channeling his inner Dan Fouts, but he was more aggressive, and his mobility was an asset. But then again, he wasn’t facing top-line starters. Neither man was inspiring, but that many not mean much. Mike Vick’s numbers during the 2015 preseason were excellent.

  • When the games counted, it was a different story.

In all fairness to Haskins he has led drives that put 30 points on the boards, as opposed to Rudolph’s 0. But in all fairness to Mason Rudolph, he’s been playing against better competition.

Speaking of doing things when it counts, Joshua Dobbs has to be kicking himself. He started the summer on the outside looking in and his reps will be limited. Which makes his ugly interception all the more unfortunate.

5. Berry, Sammuels and Pierre Stepping It Up

After their Hall of Fame game against the Cowboys, Pressley Harvin III was proclaimed as the next “Josh Miller” largely on the strength of his directional punting. Jordan Berry got his shot, and pinned the Eagles into the 20 yard line on his first opportunity.

  • This isn’t to say he’ll win the competition.

As Jim Wexell has reported at Steel City Insider, Berry was cut in favor of Dustin Colquitt last year on orders from way up high. But it does look like competition is bringing out the best in Berry.

  • The same can be said for Jaylen Samuels.

Outside of his wildcat role and spot duty, Jaylen Samuels has been pretty quiet since lighting up the Patriots for over 100 yards at the tail end of the 2018 season.

  • Jaylen Samuels got 10 carries against the Eagles and was targeted once more.

He ran pretty well on those ten carries and turned his one reception into a 17 yard gain. Samuels knows what’s at stake and is playing like it. James Pierre also realizes the opportunity he has in front of him and is stepping it up.

*Now that I remember, I saw a bit of the Steelers-Eagles 2005 preseason game, and also saw about 2 quaters from the Steelers 2019 preseason game against the Titans.

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Steelers Draft Najee Harris in First Round of 2021 NFL Draft. Good Things Follow When Pittsburgh Picks RB 1st

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Alabama running back Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, making Harris the 24th pick overall. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert described the decision to draft Harris as “Easy.” Kevin Colbert explained why Pittsburgh’s pick was so easy:

Najee is as complete a back as we could hope to get at any point in the draft. Najee has the size, he has the speed, he has the athleticism. He has the run skills to run inside and outside. Also, he can also play in the passing game as a receiver, as a blocker. He’s a three-down NFL back. He played in an NFL system and really his one hidden trait is he finds invisible yards at that second level.

Mike Tomlin similarly beamed about his first round pick:

His picking vision is excellent, in terms of finding holes. He shows patience while doing that. He’s a complete back. He’s very good in the passing game, whether it’s routes out of the backfield or aligning outside the backfield. There’s not a lot of holes in his overall game.

Prior to the draft, on Steel City Insider Matt C. Steel observed, “I love his football character and desire to get better. He’s a unique young man; someone I can comfortably add to help create a championship culture.”

Those are intangibles, but they were on display during draft night, when Harris opted not to join the draft party in Cleveland, and instead watch the draft with family from a homeless shelter where he once lived.

On why he watched the draft from Oakland, Harris explained, “Us, as a family, we went through a lot of stuff. That was actually one of the places I stayed at, in the homeless shelter. I just want to make sure they know that if they need a helping hand, I’m always here.”

For my money, that tells you everything you need to know about Najee Harris character.

Najee Harris, Steelers 2021 First Round Draft Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 1st round pick Najee Harris. Photo Credit: MC NFL

Najee Harris Video Highlights

While the Steelers do make an effort to incorporate character into their draft day decisions (see guys Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt just to name two), ability on the football field is what drives their decisions.

So here’s a quick look at Najee Harris’ video tape:

Clearly, there’s a lot to like.

How Najee Harris Fits into Steelers Scheme

The Pittsburgh Steelers once proud tradition as a rushing franchise has deteriorated beyond recognition.

And before the finger wagging can start, this has nothing to do with “But ‘Steelers Football’ must evolve beyond ‘3 Yards and a Cloud of Dust.’” Yes, the game has evolved. But while you may not need to be a top rushing team to win a Super Bowl (although it certainly didn’t hurt Denver in 2015 or Seattle in 2013) you must be able to run the ball effectively when you need to.

  • And the Pittsburgh Steelers have not been able to do that since James Conner‘s injury in 2018.

Sure, there have been spits and starts, times when Benny Snell or even Jaylen Samuels showed tremendous promise. When healthy and with a strong line, James Conner can be a very good NFL running back.

  • But when you’re dead last in rushing, as the Steelers finished in 2021, a “very good” running back isn’t good enough.

The Steelers need to revitalize their running game, and that revitalization begins with the man carrying the ball. Yes, Pittsburgh needs to pick offensive lineman, preferably later tonight, if Harris is to be effective.

Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

When thinking of the line vs the back debate, remember that Jerome Bettis ran behind some pretty weak offensive lines in 1998 and 1999 as Kordell Stewart’s struggles allowed defenses to crowed 8 men in the box. He still managed 1,000 yard seasons in both years.

Yet last year in the debacle against Washington, with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron and Diontae Johnson supposedly stretching the field with Ben Roethlisberger, Snell, Samuels and Anthony McFarland totaled 21 yards rushing.

When Steelers Draft Running Backs 1st, Good Things Happen

The Steelers were expected to draft a running back, although many fans and analysts argue that the value in a running back just isn’t there are 24. Time will answer that question moving forward, but one thing is clear:

  • When the Steelers draft a running back first, good things happen.

Pittsburgh Picked Franco Harris in 1972 and the Immaculate Reception and four Super Bowls followed. And while their contributions were minimal, the Steelers won Super Bowl XIV and Super Bowl XLIII after drafting Greg Hawthorne and Rashard Mendenhall.

And even if they were ultimately disappointments, Walter Abercrombie and Tim Worley were two first round draft picks that helped the Steelers break playoff win droughts as rookies.

So welcome to Steelers Nation Najee.

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The Steelers Must Improve @ Running Back in the 2021 NFL Draft. Period.

Art Rooney II once described the running game as “The foundation of the franchise.” Rooney is right. While they may not hold the record anymore, if memory serves at some point early in the 2nd Super Bowl era, the Steelers lead the rest of the NFL in total yards rushing since the NFL-AFL merger.

  • Yet in 2020 the Steelers reached historic lows in rushing.

Drafting a running back early, perhaps even in the first round, would seem to be logical. Yet, there are no shortage of Pro Football Focus mock drafts that don’t have the Steelers addressing running back until the middle of the draft. Which begs the question, just how badly do the Steelers need to get a running back in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Steelers Depth Cart at Running Back: The Starters

The Steelers go into the 2021 NFL Draft without a starting running back. James Conner held that position in 2020, but Conner is now an Arizona Cardinal.

  • It says here that when healthy and with a strong line, James Conner was a very good running back.

Perhaps he couldn’t have been a starter in the mold of some of the Hall of Famers such as John Henry Johnson or Jerome Bettis who’ve manned the position for Pittsburgh in the past, but behind a strong line it would have been easy to see [a healthy] Conner emerging as a Steelers number 1 running back in the mold of Merril Hoge.

Alas, that was not to be.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

Fortunately, the Steelers cupboard at running back is far from empty. The proverbial “Next man up” for Pittsburgh is Benny Snell. The Steelers drafted Benny Snell in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and Snell has looked good and won praise from Mike Tomlin at times.

Still, Snell has done nothing to show that Pittsburgh can count on him developing into a viable number 1 running back.

  • And with the injuries that James Conner suffered in 2019 and 2020, Snell’s had chances.
Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Behind Snell, the Steelers have Anthony McFarland and Jaylen Samuels. Jaylen Samuels was a 5th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and led the Steelers to victory over the New England Patriots by rushing for 142 yards. However, Samuels hasn’t done much but show he’s a niche back since then, although on Steel City Insider, Craig Wolfley went as far as to suggest he’s the answer for the Steelers at running back.

The Steeler used another 4th round pick on Anthony McFarland during the 2020 NFL Draft. McFarland only played 2 years at the University of Maryland and is seen as both a project and as a change-of-pace back rather than someone to shoulder the full load. As a rookie McFarland looked good at moments, but never looked like an RB number 1 in waiting.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Running Back

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftShould we be so quick to write off those mock drafts that show the Steelers passing on running back in the first round? After all, of the 5 first rounders they’ve used on running backs in the modern era, Franco Harris was a home run, Greg Hawthorne was a bust, Walter Abercrombie disappointed, Tim Worley blew his signing bonus up his nose and Rashard Mendenhall didn’t have the passion to match his talent.

  • Those lessons are important, but another type of history is important here.

Speaking after the 2020 season, Art Rooney II remarked:

We’ve got to be a lot better in running. Certainly we don’t want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers being last in the league in rushing again ever. I think it’s something our coaches are focused on and we’ll be looking for ways to improve in the draft. It’s something we’ve got to fix, and we are working on it.

Art Rooney II doesn’t say a lot. But what he does say, he means.

See Art II’s comments about drafting a quarterback in January 2018 and the Steelers picking Joshua Dobbs in the 2018 NFL Draft. See Chris Boswell having to earn his roster bonus during training camp/preseason in 2019.

For all of the Sound and Fury generated by Ben Roethlisberger’s late season struggles, the astute eye will observe that his Big Ben difficulties began when the running game floundered.

If the Steelers are serious about making a final run with Roethlisberger, they need to beef up their running game, and they need to do it big time. The names of Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams, and especially that of Najee Harris have been associated with the Steelers.

Whether one of those will wind up in Pittsburgh or whether it will be someone else, the Steelers Need at running back going into the 2021 NFL Draft can only be described as High.

 

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Steelers 2020 Season Final Report Card: Summer Started Too Soon Edition

Taken from the grade book of an again tardy teacher whose summer has started too soon, here is the Steelers Final Report Card for the 2020 season.

Ben Roethisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers loss browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey after the wild card loss to the Browns. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via USA Today for the win.

Quarterback
At age 38 and coming off of elbow surgery Ben Roethlisberger performed better than anyone had the right to expect. His passer rating was a hair above his career average and he threw only 10 interceptions. Sacks were at a career low. Yet the long ball troubled him all year and defenses exploited his one-dimensional game late in the season, when it counted the most. In the final analysis, Ben Roethlisberger was “Good, but…” which makes his grade obvious. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Back
The 2020 Steelers were league bottom feeders in rushing, put up historic lows for the franchise and couldn’t “get ONE yard when they needed it,” so obviously the running backs must have been terrible, right? Actually, that’s not right. James Conner proved that with good blocking, he can be a good but not great running back. Conner also confirmed he can be counted on in the short passing game. Benny Snell showed he can be a good number 2 running back. Anthony McFarland never grew beyond rookie flashes. Jaylen Samuels saw spot duty and did OK. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron made some nice catches and was an asset in the Red Zone. However, as Steel City Insider’s DI Davis documented, he was an absolute liability as a blocker. Nor did he gain much after the catch. Vance McDonald delivered when called upon but saw his role decline. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster authored the type of season that everyone expected of him after 2018. He made combat catch after combat catch and was easily the Steelers most reliable target. Diontae Johnson had a strong year and showed why he can be special. Still, his drops hurt the team. Badly. Chase Claypool authored and impressive year for a rookie and the Notre Dame grad has a bright future ahead of him. James Washington was the unit’s forgotten man, but he delivered when called on. Grade: B+

James Washington, Steelers vs Browns

James Washington catches a touchdown against the Browns. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Offensive Line
How times have changed. As recently as 2018, these spots started with “one of the best offensive lines in football.” Today? Not so much. Let’s give the line credit for solid pass blocking. Even if Ben got rid of the ball quickly, he had good pass protection. Run blocking was a different story. It was “Above the line” early in the year, but the line’s performance changed as the leaves on the trees changed, and then ultimately fell. The high snap to open the playoffs was a mortal mistake. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led this unit in tackles and overall performance, even if Stephon Tuitt had 11 sacks. Overall the defensive line’s play was solid throughout the year. Grade: B

Linebackers
With T.J. Watt, Vince Williams, Devin Bush and Bud Dupree the Steelers fielded a foursome on par with the 2008 defense and those of the Blitzburgh defenses in the 1990s. Ultimately, injuries took their toll on this unit, even if Robert Spillane and Avery Williamson did well given the circumstances. Grade: B

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Willie Snead, Justin Layne, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Layne lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have had as many highlight or as many interceptions had he had in 2019, but he was still one of the best defensive backs in the league. Terrell Edmunds quietly authored another strong year as did Steven Nelson. Joe Haden was solid, although he did get burned a few times. Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton answered the call. Per Pro Football Focus ratings, the Steelers only allowed a “45.9 passer rating on throws over 10 yards downfield.” The secondary did its job. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed 1 field goal all year and made all but 4 extra points, which ranks him a little low. Matthew Wright did an impressive job as a stand-in kicker. Dustin Colquitt couldn’t get it done as a punter, but Jordan Berry did a respectable job. Overall, the Steelers kick and punt return coverage was strong, even if it did wane a bit as the year progressed.

  • Ray-Ray McCloud was an asset to the team early in the season, both as a kick returner and a punt returner.
  • However, following his fumble against Washington he was never the same.

Regardless of whatever else ailed them in 2020, special teams was a strong spot for the Steelers. Grade: B

Mike Tomlin, f bomb

Mike Tomlin reacts to live mic F-bomb. Photo Credit: Twitter


Coaching
Let’s credit Randy Fichtner for fielding an offense that was tailored to his players’ strengths and unlike anything we’d seen in the Roethlisberger era before. He also showed some willingness to innovate, early on at least.

  • However, as defenses adapted, the Steelers offense failed to adapt in kind.

Some of that is execution (see the opening play in the loss to Cincinnati), but ultimately the unit could not cope. For the 2nd straight season the running game faded and then failed when the Steelers needed it the most.

Keith Butler (or was it Mike Tomlin? ) began the year by fielding a shut down defense. Sure, the unit gave up a few too many long plays for comfort, but they also had the killer instinct to slam the door shut on teams when the got into the Red Zone on more than one occasion.

  • Injuries ultimately doomed this defense.

Finally, let’s start by giving Mike Tomlin credit for weathering the most unusual years in NFL history to lead his team to an 11-0 start. Yes, the Steelers did see another December collapse and fairly or unfairly, that mark remains on Tomlin’s resume. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
“You Shall Not Run!” That was the credo that the Steelers defense lived during September and October. The Steelers defense took the running game away from opponents and allowed its playmakers to do their damage. If the T.J.’s, the Minkahs and the Heywards collectively formed the football equivalent of Gandalf the Grey, then the staff bringing it all together was Tyson Alualu. He didn’t rack up a lot of stats, but his steady presence at nose tackle are what enabled the rest of the defense to fly and for that he wins the Steelers Unsung Hero Award for the 2020 season.

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Steelers Report Card for 2020 Season Finale Loss to Browns: Tempted to Grade on Effort Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is sorely tempted to give grades based on effort, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 season finale loss to the Browns.

Chris Wormely, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns

Chris Wormley sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
Mason Rudolph saw his first meaningful action in over a year and looked a bit rusty at times. On the negative side, his pocket presence was weak and his interception costly. On the positive side he threw with authority and didn’t simply hug the sidelines as he’d done a year ago. His two 4th quarter touchdown drives impressed. Joshua Dobbs played and completed several shovel passes and rushed for 20 yards. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had a “good” day, considering the context running for 37 yards on 9 carries. He also caught 5 passes. Benny Snell ran 3 times for ten yards and Anthony McFarland ran 3 times for 17 yards. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald took the lead and caught 5 passes on 6 targets. The run blocking also improved, slightly. Coincidence? Probably not. Kevin Rader and one pass thrown his way. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool ended his regular season with a bang, catching 5 passes for 101 yards including a combat catch for a touchdown. Diontae Johnson only caught 3 passes, but one was a 47 yard field flipper. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 passes including the 2nd touchdown. James Washington had two targets but couldn’t come down with either of them. The Steelers receivers delivered. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph was only sacked once, but faced a lot of pressure – some of that was him holding on to the ball too long. The run blocking was a little better, at times. Grade: C

Diontae Johnson, Robert Jackson, Steelers vs Browns

Diontae Johnson beats Robert Jackson for a big gain. Photo Credit: Caitlyn Epes, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt’s sack set up a 4th and long that allowed the Steelers to score their final touchdown. Chris Wormley saw extended action and helped force a punt with a sack. Tyson Alualu split time with Isaiah Buggs and Carlos Davis. Steelers did OK at containing the Browns running game, but didn’t keep Baker Mayfield in the pocket. Grade: B-

Linebackers
The Steelers 2nd string linebacking crops played for most of the game and was led in tackles by Alex Highsmith, followed by Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen. Alex Highsmith’s sack helped end the Browns 2 minute drive and Jayrone Elliot’s sack helped scuttle another drive. Still, Mayfield got out of the pocket one too many times. Given that this is what doomed the Steelers vs the Bengals, it cannot be over looked. Grade: C

Secondary
Sean Davis saw his first action in over a year and looked a little rusty but did well overall and defended a pass. Justin Layne started in place of Joe Haden and struggled at times. Steven Nelson defended a pass. And Mike Hilton only had 1 tackle but it came on a critical third down. Grade: B

Special Teams
Matthew Wright was 3-3 on field goals, including two from 46 yards out. Jordan Berry punted well. The Steelers punt coverage was solid as was their kick coverage, although the Browns did get one long one in. Ray-Ray McCloud did a decent job at returning kicks, but his punt returns are well below his 13.1 pre-fumble average. Grade: B

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Browns

JuJu Smith-Schuster scores a 4th quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Coaching
On defense the Steelers game plan didn’t show any wrinkles. The big run was an execution error, but the Steelers were sound fundamentally after that point, save for Mayfield’s ability to get out of the pocket must be stopped next week.

On offense, credit Randy Fichtner and Matt Canada for devising a way to get Joshua Dobbs into the game, and credit Mike Tomlin for having the confidence to run that package of plays. Whether this is something that the Steelers can make work for them in the playoffs, if nothing else the Steelers have given Cleveland’s defensive staff something else to think of.

  • This game was a thriller, and Mike Tomlin deserves all of the credit for that.

After Nick Chubb 47 yard run put Cleveland up 7-0 in the first quarter, it would have been easy for Pittsburgh to pack it in. Other playoff bound teams would have done the same thing (think Marv Levy’s Bills – yes, I am that old.)

  • But not Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

Had you taken a time machine from 2002, the last time the Browns were in the playoffs, and watched yesterday’s game, without knowing the stakes, you could have easily thought it was the Steelers who were fighting for their playoff lives. And you would have never guessed they were down 8 starters. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
One of the reasons why the game remained competitive was because on its next drive Cleveland got to first and goal at the four, where it had a pass batted away. 3 plays later they’d lost a yard and were settling for 3. Minkah Fitzpatrick batted that pass away and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers loss to the Browns.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Jaguars – Straight A’s But Still Imperfect Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher leading a straight A yet imperfect class, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2020 victory over the Jaguars in Jacksonville.

Stephon Tuitt, Jake Luton, Steelers vs Jaguars

Stephon Tuitt sacks Jake Luton on 3rd down. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 32 of 46 for 267 two touchdowns plus an interception. These are solid numbers, but the Steelers were below the line a bit on 3rd down conversions, and Ben Roethlisberger’s end zone interception cost the team at least 3 points. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ran 13 times for 89 yards, ripping off a long run deep in Steelers territory and executing an impressive reverse of field run that could have easily gone for a loss. Benny Snell scored the only rushing touchdown of the day and looked OK in non-garbage time runs. Anthony McFarland was not impressive gaining 3 yards on 3 carries. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron was on his own for much of the game, as an injury took Zach Gentry out of the game. Ebron caught 4 of 7 passes thrown his way including the final touchdown. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had another breakout day which at one point saw him hauling in more catches that Jake Luton had made completions. He showed his versitiliy, catching balls at short, medium and long lengths, including an incredible goal line catch. Chase Claypool had 4 catches and an impressive touchdown. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 4 catches for 19 yards. Ray-Ray McCloud had 4 catches for 20 yards and 1 run for 3. James Washington only had one catch, but it converted a third down and set up a touchdown. Grade: A

Diontae Johnson, steelers vs jaguars

Diontae Johnson makes goal line catch. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked the entire day and was only hit twice. More importantly, the running backs had room to run. No one will confuse Sunday’s performance against the Jaguars with road grading delivered by Steelers offensive lines of yesteryear, but it was and improvement over previous weeks, and enough to make the running game a factor, albeit an erratic one. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the defensive line in tackles and while he wasn’t credited for a sack, he clearly pressured the quarterback. Tyson Alualu lone stat is a tipped pass – which helped cause an interception and fuel what was at a minimum a 10 point swing. Henry Mondeaux had one quarterback hit. James Robinson’s rushing average wasn’t bad, but if the Steelers did contain him, and that started with the line. Grade: B+

Linebackers
As usual Vince Williams led the Steelers linebackers in tackles, dishing out punishment as he went along. T.J. Watt went sackless for only the 3rd time in 10 games, but did hit the quarterback 2 times. Robert Spillane had four tackles while Alex Highsmith had 2. The real star of the unit was Bud Dupree who had deflected a pass had one sack and came very close to deflecting another. Grade: B+

Secondary
The Jaguars were 4-13 on third downs. Deep into the 4th quarter Diontae Johnson had more catches than Jake Luton completions. Oh, yeah, and Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edumnds both had two deflected passes and two interceptions, the first time since 1998 that two safeties have had multiple picks in one game (thanks to Jim Wexell for that stat.) If you’re keeping score, Steven Nelson had an uncredited deflected pass. And if you’re keeping track, Joe Haden had 3 tackles. Grade: A

Terrell Edmunds, Steelers vs Jaguars

Terrell Edmunds nets his 2nd interception in a game. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made 2 field goals but missed another, while being perfect on extra points. Jordan Berry had a soild day punting. Ray-Ray McCloud had a solid day returning, and the Steelers punt coverage was solid. Marcus Allen had a heads up play on an on sides kick. Grade: B+

Coaching
While it is true that Jordan Berry did take the field a little too often for comfort, that should not obscure the fact that the Steelers run game was considerably better than it has been for the last several weeks. And if Randy Ficthner’s offense didn’t put together as many long drives as one will like, it did transform 2 turnovers into touchdowns.

  • Keith Butler came into the game with a simple mandate: Dominate a rookie quarterback.

Butler’s boys passed with flying colors, containing James Robinson, creating unmanageable third downs which the rookie was ill-equipped to convert.

Behind it all is Mike Tomlin. The Steelers are riding an unheard of 10-0 record, yet you wouldn’t know that by reading any of his player’s post-game press clippings. This type of “We’re good but we can and will improve attitude” is as healthy as you can get. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Look at the stat sheet and it says 1 tackle, 1 assist, 1 sack, 1 tackle for a loss, 1 pass defensed and 1 QB hit. Look pretty mundane. But Stephon Tuitt’s play in this game was anything but mundane and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2020 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Cowboys – 8-0 ≠ Perfection Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who hopes his class realizes that 8-0 does not equal perfection, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Dallas Cowboys.

Eric Ebron, Saivion Smith, Steelers vs Cowboys

Eric Ebron leaps over Saivion Smith for six. Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images via Arizona Sports

Quarterbacks
Ben Roethlisberger struggled, again, for much of the first 30 minutes and was completely ineffective. Then he came alive to lead 3 touchdown drives all while protecting the ball. Roethlisberger remains unable to connect with receivers deep. Mason Rudolph came in at the end of the first half and looked like a QB doing mop up work when more was warranted. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner, Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland all saw action. None of the men were particularly effective rushing the ball, and James Conner’s two catches lost yards. The running backs didn’t get much help rushing the ball, but you’d still like to see more. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron only caught 3 passes for 22 yards but one of those was for the go ahead touchdown. Vance McDonald caught 1 pass for 2 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster continues to prove his worth with 9 catches for 93 yards and a tough touchdown. James Washington hasn’t been asked to do much this year, but he’s delivered when called upon as he did when scoring the first touchdown. Diontae Johnson had 6 catches for 42 yards. Chase Claypool had 8 catches for 69 yards but slid with the Steelers needed a first down. Grade: B

Offensive Line
On the plus side, Ben Roethlisberger was not sacked and only hit twice, although he got injured on one of those hits. On the negative side, the Cowboys run defense completely smothered the Steelers rushing offense. That created long third downs and forced the Steelers to be one dimensional in the 2nd half. This must not continue. Grade: C-

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Garrett Gilbert, Steelers vs Cowbosy

Cam Heyward after sacking Garrett Gilbert. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Look at the stats and you’ll see that Cam Heyward only had a half sack and a tackle and a half for a loss. But that sack he split was a monster play that should have ended the game. Stephon Tuitt had four tackles and one for a loss. Isaiah Buggs and 3 tackles and Henry Mondeaux had one that went for a loss. Dallas didn’t run over the Steelers, but they did better than they should have. Grade: B

Linebackers
Robert Spillane had 8 tackles. T.J. Watt might have “only” split half a sack with Heyward, but he had 3 QB hits and batted 3 passes down. Bud Dupree had a tackle and a QB hit. Alex Highsmith continues to see his playing time increase and had 3 tackles and a sack. Dallas had more success converting third downs than they should have. Grade: B

Secondary
The Cowboys made some long completions, but overall Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and Terrell Edmunds had solid games. Cam Sutton forced a fumble. But the real star of the game was Minkah Fitzpatrick, whose fumble recovery set up a field goal and whose interception took at least a field goal off of the board for the Cowboys, while setting up another Steelers field goal – that’s a nine point swing. Which doesn’t even factor in his final pass deflection. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Where to start? The Steelers got suckered on a lateral during a punt return. OK. That’s understandable if not excusable. But Chris Boswell placed the ball exactly where he wanted to and Dallas still got a 64 yard kick return. Now throw in a missed extra point, a missed field goal and a blocked extra point. Easily the worst day ever for a Danny Smith-coached Steelers special teams unit. Grade: F

Mike Tomlin, Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Cowboys

Mike Tomlin and Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

Coaching
It is clear that the loss of both Devin Bush and Tyson Alualu is taking its toll on the Steelers defense. Yet Keith Butler continues to scheme to minimize those losses and to adjust during games. While they may be giving up yards, the Steelers defense continues to deliver with big plays at critical moments.

  • Randy Fichtner’s got a different set of challenges.

Outside of Derek Watt, he hasn’t lost any starters, yet he continues to start slowly. The Steelers struggle to establish the run, while the deep ball fails to be a factor. But like Butler, Fichtner continues to make adjustments on the fly, and while the Steelers offense might be “boring” it is putting points on the board when it counts.

  • Credit Mike Tomlin for being smart enough to understand that 8-0 equals not perfection in the NFL.

Being smart enough to realize you don’t know everything is a virtue in life and the NFL and it is one that Tomlin possess. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
The “usual suspects” on the Steelers defense made ESPN highlight-reel Splash Plays. And make no mistake about it, those plays were critical to the game’s outcome. But so were bread-and-butter plays turned in down after down, and no one epitomized that more than the defense’s leading tackler who dropped two players for losses, which is why Vince Williams wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Cowboys.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Ravens: Flunk Multiple Choice, Ace the Essay Edition

Taken from the grade book of a tardy teacher whose students flunked the multiple choice section but aced the essay part of the exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 win over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Isaiah Buggs, Lamarr Jackson, Robert Spliane, Steelers vs Ravens

Isaiah Buggs stops Lamarr Jackson at the goal line on 4th down. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger struggled during the first half, completing just four passes, although he protected the ball. In the second half, Ben Roethlisberger did what he does best – freelancing, and led the Steelers on 3 touchdown drives. Finishing the day going 21 of 32 for an economical 182 yards passing and 2 touchdowns. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had a tough day, only rushing for 47 yards on 15 carries, and added 3 catches for 13 yards. James Conner did score a critical, go ahead touchdown. Anthony McFarland had 1 carry for 1 yard, but he did well in avoiding a loss. Jaylen Samuels was targeted twice and did not catch a pass. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron only caught 4 passes for 48 yards, which looks pedestrian, but his touchdown was critical to getting the Steelers back into the game. Later, he made two drive-sustaining catches on series that ended with touchdowns. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool made 5 catches for 42 yards, including a picture perfect route on the final go ahead touchdown. Claypool also fumbled the ball, which is becoming a recurring issue. Ray-Ray McCloud and Diontae Johnson each made 1 catch for 6 yards, but he drew a pass interference penalty on a touchdown drive. James Washington was targeted once and drew a pass interference penalty. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Baltimore sacked Ben Roethlisberger twice and hit him 6 times, but Big Ben seemed under duress less than he would for a typical Ravens game. The line also gave up several tackles for losses and run blocking remains a challenge. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt was a monster, earning AFC Defensive player of the week for his 2 sack 3 tackles for a loss and 3 quarterback hits effort. Cam Heyward had 5 tackles and had to leave the game twice due to injuries. Tyson Alualu left the game early, and was replaced by Isaiah Buggs who struggled against the run early on. But Buggs made good on the penultimate drive of the game, stoning Lamarr Jackson twice, forcing a fumble on his second try. Grade: B

Stephon Tuitt, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

Stephon Tuitt sacks Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Robert Spillane continues to impress, leading the team in tackles, defensing 2 passes, and making a pick six that was a critical difference maker for the team. Bud Dupree had four tackles and a strip sack that wiped at least 3 points off the board for Baltimore. T.J. Watt “only” had a sack and 5 QB hits. Vince Williams had five tackles and recovered a fumble. Alex Highsmith made a leaping interception to start the 2nd half, which helped turn the game for Pittsburgh. The linebackers had a part in allowing Baltimore’s massive rushing total, but their critical plays at critical moments were essential. Grade: B+

Secondary
Joe Haden had 7 tackles and Steven Nelson had 4, while Cam Sutton and Justin Layne had 2 tackles apiece as did Terrell Edmunds. The real star of the unit was Minkah Fitzpatrick whose pass defense proved once again he was worth every bit of the 1st round pick the Steelers gave up to get him. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud had a respectable day on kick returns and returned 1 punt for 5 yards. The Ravens kick returns were nothing special, but they did have a 15 yard punt return. Jordan Berry had a spare 42.2 yards per punt, but he did boom off a 48 yard punt and a 56 yard punt. Chris Boswell was perfect on extra points. Grade: B

Coaching
The Ravens have a tough defense that figured to test Pittsburgh’s offense. In the first half, they shut the Steelers down easily. But Randy Fichtner made the necessary half time adjustments. It might not have been the greatest show on turf, but 21 2nd half points on the road after such a rough outing is nothing to sneeze at.

  • The Baltimore Ravens rushed for over 250 yards. Going into the game, teams that do that 215-1-1.Now they’re 215-2-1.

Yardage aside, the Steelers defense limited the Ravens to 7 points in the 2nd half. While its probably more of a credit to the players rather than any scheme or strategy, the Steelers defense stopped Lamarr Jackson at every critical juncture that they had to stop him at.

In the last 8 quarters, the Steelers have gone from orchestrating a blow out in their first two tries, getting blown out in their next four, and rallying in their second 2, coming out victorious. Never at any moment has panic been evident in Pittsburgh’s play. That’s a credit to coach Mike Tomlin. Grade: B

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster Makes the tough catches against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Unsung Hero Award
He hasn’t seen the end zone since September and he has yet to post a 100 yard or 10 catch game. That didn’t change against the Ravens, but this player make drive sustaining, combat catch after combat catch and for that JuJu Smith-Schuster wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Baltimore Ravens.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Titans: Learn the Right Lesson Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who hopes his students don’t learn the long lesson from their experience of starting strong, stumbling badly and still passing, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2020 win over the Titans.

T.J. Watt, Ryan Tannehill, Robert Spillane, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs Titans

T.J. Watt sacks Ryan Tannehill. And then some. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger started this game as he had so many others this year – on fire. By Jim Wexell’s calculation’s Big Ben had a passer rating of 99.4 in the first half, and 17.0 thereafter. His interceptions alone accounted for a 6 point swing. To his credit Roethlisberger manned up after the game, but that doesn’t count as “extra credit for showing your work.” Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Back
James Conner had 82 yards on 20 carries and ran strong in addition to 3 catches for 29 yards. Benny Snell only had 2 carries, but found paydirt on one of them with a touchdown. Jaylen Samuels returned to the offense and got 5 yards on his only carry. Anthony McFarland 6 yards on one carry. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald had two catches for 14 yards while Eric Ebron had 6 catches for 50 yards, while Jerald Hawkins sealed the corner on Snell’s touchdown playing as the third tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson did something that not easily measured by statistics – they showed that the can and will make opposing defenses pay for double-teaming Chase Claypool. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 9 catches for 85 yards and they were combat catches. Diontae Johnson also had 9 catches for 80 yards, but he also scored two touchdowns. Ray-Ray McCloud had 2 catches for 12 yards. The one combat catch that JuJu missed was the end zone touchdown, and that brings this group’s mark down. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked the entire day and he was only hit 3 times per ESPN’s stats. James Conner and the other running backs ran very well in the first half and the line had a lot to do with that. Their rushing average plummeted in the 2nd half, which contributed to two very short drives when clock milking was in order. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Derrick Henry is, daresay, a running back cut out of the Jerome Bettis mold, yet agaisnt the Steelers he only managed 3.8 yards a carry. Certainly some of that is due to the Titans playing from behind, but part of the reason they were behind late was because Henry couldn’t get started early. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt’s stat sheets are slim, but they impact was deep. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a sack and dropped Henry for losses twice the second of which was a key play in forcing a punt. Bud Dupree’s name doesn’t appear on the stat sheet, which is strange, but he was tasked in part with helping ensure Henry remained contained. The real hero of the day is this unit’s work horse, Vince Williams who led the team with 10 total tackles, a sack and another tackle for a loss. Grade: B+

Cam Sutton, Corey Davis

Cam Sutton deflects a pass against Corey Davis. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Secondary
Joe Haden, Cam Sutton, and Terrell Edmunds all batted away passes at critical moments. Joe Haden made some critical stops on the final drive. Steven Nelson’s name was seldom heard which is very much a good thing. However, the secondary gave up a 70 yard touchdown which came early enough to allow Tennessee to get back in the game. Minkah Fitzpatrick either slipped or perhaps hesitated and A.J. Brown outran the rest of the secondary. These types of slips hurt. Grade: C

Special Teams
In his return to Pittsburgh Jordan Berry averaged 50 yards on two punts, delivering an immediate improvement. The Steelers kick and punt coverage remained strong. Chris Boswell was 3 for 3 on PATs and hit two field goals. The special teams also quashed an impromptu fake punt attempt. The real star was Ray-Ray McCloud, whose 57 yard punt return gave the Steelers an easy score inside the 2 minute warning. That’s 9 points score by special teams and another 6 directly set up by special teams. Excellent. Grade: A

Ray-Ray McCloud

Ray-Ray McCloud (almost) takes it to the house. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Coaching
Randy Fichtner’s offense did what it had not done in 24 games, score a touchdown on its opening drive. This immediately knocked the Titans off of their game, which is to ride Henry from ahead. The Steelers offense authored drives of 9, 7 and 7 and a half minutes.

Keith Butler was forced to play without two critical players, in Mike Hilton and Devin Bush, and knew his run defense would be tested by the NFL’s best rusher. The Steelers defense proved to be up to the task, and their early shut downs of the Titans offense were critical to establish and padding a lead which would become quite slim by the end of the afternoon.

  • It is true that Butler’s defense did suffers its share of hiccups, on the long pass play and the goal line, but they delivered.

When a team is on the road, goes negative 3 in the turnover category, gives up a 70 yard touchdown pass and STILL wins to remain undefeated, you suspect the coaching staff is doing something right. But when that team’s players exit the game with a humble, rather than triumphant attitude you simply have to credit head coach Mike Tomlin. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
OK. We’ve given the coaches their due. But there’s another reason why a team can turn the ball over so many times, give up long touchdowns and still win. It’s because of plays like this:

Sure, the Titan’s scored two plays later. It doesn’t matter. Good things happen to teams who see their heretofore no-names take on NFL All Pros head on and win and for that Robert Spillane wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Titans.

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