Like Past Steelers Wide Receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster to Find Fortune Outside Pittsburgh

Since the arrival of free agency to the NFL in 1993, the Pittsburgh Steelers have given second contracts to just two wide receivers: Hines Ward and Antonio Brown.

  • Everyone else has had to find their fortune elsewhere.

That includes Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes. That includes Super Bowl XL hero Antwaan Randle El. That includes John Stallworth record breaker Yancey Thigpen. That includes first round picks like Charles Johnson and Plaxico Burress.

When the Steelers brought JuJu Smith-Schuster to Pittsburgh, they already had Antonio Brown locked down to a long-term contract, and with questions about some of their other wide outs, they hoped they were drafting the next Hines Ward. JuJu Smith-Schuster has filled that role, in many respects. But has he done enough to earn a second contract? Today we find out.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Career with the Steelers

When the Steelers drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft a Twitter spat started between Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates over who JuJu was coming to replace. As it turns out, he replaced both of them.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

  • JuJu Smith Schuster installed himself almost as an instant weapon in the Steelers offense as a rookie.

During his first season he caught 58 of 79 passes thrown his way for 917 yards, including a 97 yarder against the Lions and a critical 69 yarder that set up the infamous Jesse James play in the loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field. Ju-Ju Smith Schuster followed that up with a 111 catch, 1426 yard, 7 touchdown sophomore season that included another 97 yard touchdown pass.

However, with Ben Roethlisberger injured, an absent running game, inconsistency efforts by Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges and his own injuries, JuJu Smith-Schuster struggled in 2019 catching just 42 passes for 552 yards.

JuJu bounced back in 2020, recording 97 catches. Critics might charge that his “Yards per catch” dropped. It did. That’s because JuJu Smith-Schuster became the go-to man when touch catches were called for.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

With all of those accolades, you’d think that the Steelers would have inked JuJu Smith-Schuster to a new deal a long time ago. JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger would like him back. There’s a reason why JuJu Smith-Schuster’s catch percentage was 15 points higher than that of Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron or James Washington:

  • He was the best receiver on the field for the Steelers.

JuJu Smith-Schuster was a men among boys. He put his heart and soul into the game. When others dropped passes, JuJu pulled them down. JuJu was physical. He yielded no quarter to any other player on the field.

You win championships with players like JuJu Smith-Schuster. If the Steelers are serious about making a final run at Lombardi number 7 with Roethlisberger, then they must keep JuJu in Pittsburgh.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vontaze Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals, JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension

JuJu Smith-Schuster stands over Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

Ah. If only it were about the X’s and O’s. Alas, It is not. A quick look at Over the Cap reveals that a wide receiver of JuJu’s pedigree could easily make 15 to 16 million per year. The Steelers have, at best 3 million under the cap.

Sure, they could free 16 million for JuJu. And JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Perhaps he’ll give “home town discount.” The stars seem aligned.

  • But it isn’t that simple. Those contracts have 40 or 50 million dollars guaranteed.

You really think JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to leave 30 or 35 million dollars guaranteed on the table to sign a one year “prove it” contract ? In a perfect world, JuJu Smith-Schuster would be a Steeler for life. But the world is far from perfect, and if JuJu has shown he’s a good, a very good wide receiver, he’s not yet shown he’s a great receiver and hence not deserving of a second contract from the Steelers.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

This one hurts. A lot. Because absent some injuries and other personnel issues, JuJu Smith-Schuster should have, could have likely would have played a key role in bring home Lombardi Number 7 during his time in Pittsburgh.

  • And in an normal year, its possible the Steelers might have found the money to keep JuJu in Black and Gold.

Although in a normal year, that money likely goes to Bud Dupree first. And there’s a simple reason why, as former Steelers scribe and Current USA Today Wire Editor Neal Coolong explains:

This, in a nutshell is why the Steelers so seldom give 2nd contracts to wide receivers. Does JuJu Smith-Schuster , like Hines Ward and Antonio Brown, bring intangibles to the table that statistics fail to capture? Absolutely. But, Ward had a Hall of Fame worth career and Antonio Brown had GOAT like talent.

JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t shown he’s in that level yet, and that’s why the Curtain’s Call is that he’ll find his fortune outside the Steel City.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Promote Adrian Klemm as Offensive Line Coach. A Strange Move that Might Work

….Once upon a time, a once proud Steelers unit fell into deep disrepair.

Someone from outside Pittsburgh caught the Steelers head coach’s eye. Some viewed the outsider of choice as suspect. He had deep ties deep ties to a historic divisional rival after all. But everyone felt it best to embrace a breath of fresh air, to bring in new blood.

  • Yet new blood could not revive what remained stale.

And after two seasons of test, the Steelers head coach opted for change again, this time looking no further than the end of his nose. Given his chance, this insider innovated, reanimating a unit that was once again proud….

That little fairy tail intro was prompted by the news that the Steelers officially named Adrian Klemm as offensive line coach, promoting him from his role of Assistant Offensive Line coach. Given that the once dominating Steelers offensive line has slipped from elite status to liability, Mike Tomlin’s decision to promote in house seems like a real head scratcher.

Adrian Klemm, Steelers

New Steelers offensive line coach Adrian Klemm. Photo Credit: Photo by Shelley Lipton, Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After all, following the Hindenburg Rescuers the Titanic disaster of a playoff loss to the Browns, Tomlin acknowledged the repeating the same thing and expecting a different result is insanity. Yet, after firing Randy Fichtner, he promoted quarterbacks coach Matt Canada to offensive coordinator. Now, after firing Shaun Sarrett, he promotes his assistant Adrian Klemm.

  • It seems crazy. And maybe it will turn out to be.

But precedents from Steelers history offers proof that it doesn’t have to be that way. After the 1998 season it became clear that offensive coordinator Ray Sherman was way, way in over his head. Mexican Blogger Carlos Ortega even reports that he once called a play that wasn’t even in the Steelers playbook, but one that came from the Minnesota Vikings playbook.

  • Bill Cowher looked outside the organization, and replaced Sherman with Kevin Gilbride.

The Steelers, of course, knew Kevin Gilbride from his days with the Houston Oilers and Jacksonville Jaguars. He was seen as a bright young offensive mind. Or just the guy to bring Kordell Stewart along. Except he wasn’t.

Bill Cowher surprised everyone with his next move, by hiring Mike Mularkey as his offensive coordinator. Mulkarkey had returned to the Steelers in 1996, shortly after Super Bowl XXX, as tight ends coach – which isn’t exactly a fast-track position for offensive coordinators in waiting.

  • Many questioned the move, but Mike Mularkey proved to be a good offensive coordinator.

Yes, perhaps he did do a little too much to earn his “Inspector Gadget,” moniker, but with weapons like Jerome Bettis, Antwaan Randle El, Hines Wards, and Plaxico Burress at his disposal, he fielded a good offense and managed the change from Kordell Stewart to Tommy Maddox effectively.

Can Klemm Copy Mukarkey’s Example

It remains to be seen if Adrian Klemm can follow Mike Mularkey’s example. Kleem does have 3 Super Bowl rings earned as a backup with the New England Patriots, and has extensive experience coaching future NFL offensive lineman while coaching in the collegiate ranks.

  • Former Steelers lineman Ramon Foster and Trai Essex have publicly endorsed the hire.

That’s a welcome sign, but regardless of his coaching acumen, Kleem has his work cut out for him. The Steelers will likely part ways with Alejandro Villanueva and could see Zach Banner and Matt Feiler while Maurkice Pouncey is contemplating retirement and most certainly will if Ben Roethlisberger does not return.

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Can We Count on Chase Claypool? Here’s What Steelers Rookie Wide Receiver Playoff Statistics Suggests

The Pittsburgh Steelers are banking big time on rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool in the playoffs. Mike Tomlin makes no bones about it. After the Steelers narrow loss to Cleveland, Tomlin declared:

It was our intention to feature him a little bit today. We wanted him to have that type of rhythm and that type of confidence in his playmaking ability going into January ball. We were able to check that box.

The Steelers plan appears to be working. After breaking records in September, and October, Chase Claypool’s numbers began to drop in November. During the Steelers 3 game December losing streak, the rookie who’d scored 4 touchdowns in 1 game against the Eagles had all but disappeared from the Steelers offense.

Before the Browns game, Randy Fictchner talked openly about hitting the “Rookie Wall” explaining:

It always seems to happen about that time when your normal college season would be over. About 11, 12 games, that’s what you’re used to. That is what their bodies are used to. I won’t say that he hit that wall, but I will say there’s something there that you have to work yourself through. I saw it, you can see it.

Mike Tomlin declined to admit that Claypool had hit the rookie wall, but conceded that coaches had been trying to help him avoid hitting that wall by limiting his snaps. Claypool’s explosive performances against the Colts and Browns show that the Steelers plans paid big dividends in the at the tail end of the 2020 regular season.?

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

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

  • Now the challenge for Claypool and the Steelers make sure his late season surge carries over into the playoffs.

Playoff history of past Steelers rookie wide receivers suggests this will be difficult….

History of Steelers Rookie Wide Receivers in the Playoffs

The playoffs are different breed of NFL game. If memory serves, Hines Ward once likened the difference in intensity between the playoffs and regular season to the difference between the regular season and preseason.

  • That makes production in the playoffs particularly difficult for rookies.

To wit, at least 4 Steelers wide receivers have won Super Bowl rings as rookies – but you wouldn’t know it from their playoff statistics.

Numbers don’t lie. The prospects for Pittsburgh’s plans for Claypool don’t look bright.

Here you’ve got playoff statistics from 20 Steelers rookie wide receivers drawn from 41 games over a 43 years period. Passes were thrown from Hall of Famers like Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger to “How was he a first rounder?” Mark Malone, to middle of the roaders like Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart and yes, Bubby Brister.

Steelers rookie wide receivers playoff statistics

Based on those averages, if the Steelers were to play in two playoff games, Chase Claypool can be expected to catch between 3-4 passes for just under 50 total yards with his longest reception clocking in at 13 yards and his chances scoring a touchdown are minimal.

Ah. While numbers may not lie – Derek Hill and Charles Johnson’s rookie playoff campaigns foreshadowed future disappointment – statistics often fall short of telling the complete truth.

Times When Statistics Fail to Tell the Full Story

While Lynn Swann’s playoff rookie playoff contributions were pretty good, you’d never guess that John Stallworth was ALSO a future Hall of Famer if his rookie playoff stats were all you had to go by. On the flip side, Mark Stock logged 4 catches for 74 yards for the 1989 Steelers. Even if you can forgive his critical drop in the playoff loss to the Broncos, the rookie’s future looked bright.

  • Not only did Stock never play another down for the Steelers, he didn’t catch another NFL pass until 1993 when he was with the then Washington Redskins.
Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Ravens

Antonio Brown catches with his helmet. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

Sammie Coates is another player who enjoyed a false flash in the playoffs. He looked good in the Steelers playoff loss to the Broncos in 2015 but a year later he was dropping would-be game changers in the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

  • And sometimes quantity of catches tells us nothing about the quality of the catches.

Nate Washington converted a critical 3rd down on the Steelers first scoring drive against the Broncos in the 2005 AFC Championship – and then kept Domonique Foxworth from intercepting a few plays latter. Likewise, Antonio Brown’s 5 catches for 90 yards look pretty good for a rookie in 2010.

However, “pretty good” fails to communicate the reality that Brown made the most critical catches in the Steelers divisional win over the Ravens and then again in the AFC Championship win over the Jets.

Lipps and Randel El Pen Positive Precedent for Claypool

There are of course two Steelers rookies who followed strong regular seasons who continued their success in the playoffs. Louis Lipps had 45 catches for 860 yards and 9 touchdowns as a rookie for the 1984 Steelers and then went on to make 8 catches for 131 yards in the ’84 Steelers two playoff games.

As a rookie Antwaan Randle El had 47 catches for 489 yards and 2 touchdowns, and in the playoffs he had 9 catches for 138 yards – in addition to his 99 yard kickoff return for a touchdown the 2002 Steelers Wild Card win over the Browns.

The best part? Both Randle El and Louis Lipps, like Chase Claypool were Joe Greene Great Performance Award  aka Steelers Rookie of the Year winners. Here’s hoping Claypool follows the post season footsteps of Lipps and Randle El.

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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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Former Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Bill Cower Elected to Hall of Fame

The NFL is planning an expanded Hall of Fame class to celebrate its 100th anniversary and this year’s class already has a tinge of Black and Gold as former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher has been elected.

Bill Cowher succeeded Chuck Noll starting in 1992, and led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 149-90-1 regular season record and a that included 8 AFC North or AFC Central titles and 10 playoff appearances. Bill Cowher took the Steelers to Super Bowl XXX in the 1995 season in just his fourth year as coach, in a game that saw the Steelers fall to the Cowboys.

Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Steelers vs Seahwaks, Super Bowl XL

Newly elected Hall of Famer Bill Cowher in January 2006 at Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

The 1995 Steelers made the Super Bowl despite weathering an annual exodus of free agents, as Pittsburgh lacked the big budgets to compete financial. That exodus would continue following Super Bowl XXX, as the Steelers lost starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell and Leon Searcy, their top offensive lineman.

Yet, the Steelers were back in the playoffs in 1996, thanks in no small part to the arrive of The Bus Jerome Bettis in one of the biggest highway robberies disguised as a draft day trade during the 1996 NFL Draft.

Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Dewayne Robertson, Steelers vs Jets, Steelers history vs Jets

Jerome Bettis hurdles guard Alan Faneca evading Dewayne Robertson in the Steelers 2004 AFC Divisional playoff win. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

A year later, during Kordell Stewart’s first season as starter, the Steelers were back in the AFC Championship, losing in a heart breaker to the Denver Broncos. It was Cowher’s 3 AFC championship appearance in just six years, and another trip to the Super Bowl in the near future seemed be nothing more than a formality.

  • Alas, the 1998 and 1999 season would prove that even Bill Cowher and the Pittsburgh Steelers could only resist gravity for so long.

Veterans like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake and Dermontti Dawson were lost to the pull of free agency, injury and/or Father Time. While Tom Donahoe had done a solid job of drafting with an eye to replacing soon-to-depart free agents, misfires took their toll.

Will Blackwell was no Yancey Thigpen. Jamine Stephens was no Leon Searcy. Chris Conrad was no John Jackson. The Steelers fell to 7-9 in 1998, in a season that ended in a 5-game losing streak which followed an uneven, but nonetheless promising 7-4 start.

1998 was just a warmup, as the 1999 Steelers would finish 6-10 in a season that saw Kordell Stewart take another step backwards as he finished spending his days at Three Rivers Stadium working with the wide receivers.

The relationship between the two had been deteriorating for years but by 1999, Cowher and Donahoe were openly sniping at each other in the press and barely on speaking terms. Dan Rooney had to make a decision and he chose Cowher.

  • The decision shocked and angered many. Some, including yours truly, thought he’d made the wrong choice.

But the return of Kevin Colbert to his native Pittsburgh brought Bill Cowher his second wind. The 2000 season didn’t start out kindly for Cowher, as they began 0-3, but Bill Cowher engineered a shocking upset on the road against the Jaguars to turn things around in a season that ended 9-7 and just barely out of the playoffs.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

The Steelers would take the NFL by storm in 2001, locking up the number 1 seed in the AFC while finishing 13-3. They entered the AFC Championship as favorites, but fell to the then underdog New England Patriots.

In 2002 the Steelers struggled to start the year, and Bill Cowher benched Kordell Stewart in favor of Tommy Maddox. Cowher would later explain to Raul Allegre on ESPN Deportes that he hadn’t wanted to bench Stewart, but he felt that he had to because Kordell Stewart had lost the confidence of the locker room.

The Tommy Gun era in Pittsburgh won’t last long, but he did lead the Steelers to a 10-5-1 finish, in a season that included a dramatic comeback win at Heinz Field over the Cleveland Browns and a controversial overtime loss to the Titans.

The next year the Steelers took another surprised turn on the 2004 NFL Draft when they picked Miami of Ohio signal caller Ben Roethlisberger with their first round pick. While Dan Rooney would in fact have to prod Cowher and Colbert to draft Roethlisberger, the decision gave The Chin something he’d never had before: A franchise quarterback.

  • Tommy Maddox began the 2004 season as the starter, but got injured in week 2 against the Ravens.

Ben Roethlisberger came in, and while he didn’t rally the Steelers to win, he did see them to 14 straight wins. Roethlisberger didn’t begin playing like a rookie until the playoffs, where Pittsburgh would ultimately fall to the Patriots in yet another AFC Championship loss.

The 2005 season began with Ben Roethlisberger admitting that he could win fewer games but still be a better quarterback. He was right. The Steelers would struggle at times due to injures that saw both Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch start games. The team needed help getting into the playoffs.

  • When they got there, the Steelers didn’t look back.

The Steelers went on the road and defeated the Bengals. They went to Indianapolis and stunned the AFC favorite Colts in one of the most dramatic 4th quarter finishes in franchise history. Then it was on to Denver for a convincing win over the Broncos.

That set up the Steelers trip to Detroit, Jerome Bettis’ home down, where the Steelers played the Seattle Seahawks. The game saw the Steelers make their own luck, with Willie Parker’s 75-yard touchdown run, Ike Taylor making only one of 17 career interceptions, and Antwaan Randle El hitting game MVP Hines Ward for a touchdown on a play fake.

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

Hines Ward seals the win in Super Bowl XL.

The Bus added a Lombardi Trophy before it made its final stop in the Steelers victory at Super Bowl XL.

Bill Cowher returned for the 2006 season, although his wife Kaye and his daughter Lindsey had already moved to North Carolina. The Steelers would start 2-6, but rallied by going 6-2. Unfortunately both losses came to the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, and Bill Cowher decided to hang it up after that.

When Bill Cowher stepped down, he titled it a resignation, not a retirement, and “everyone” assumed he would be back coaching in a few years. But enjoyed the low stress life of working as a CBS broadcaster and enjoyed spending time the final years he had with his wife Kaye Cowher, who would lose her battle with skin cancer in 2010.

Other Steelers Eligible for Hall of Fame Induction in 2020

Two former players and one Steelers legend could join Bill Cowher in Canton this July. Troy Polamalu is in his first year of eligibility and deserves to make it in. Alan Faneca is also eligible, although voters have had chances to vote him in, but declined.

  • Finally, Donnie Shell of the Super Steelers is a candidate on the Seniors circuit.

Donnie Shell deserves wear the yellow blazer and his own bust in Canton and his candidacy has been getting a boost from Tony Dungy, among others.

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Win or Lose, Mason Rudolph Has Shown a Lot of Fight as Steelers QB in 2019

As John Madden, the legendary former NFL coach and analyst liked to say, the backup quarterback is often the most popular player on a football team.

Mason Rudolph, in his first year as the Steelers starting quarterback, is now just beginning to find that out. Why? After his four-interception performance in a 21-7 loss to the Browns last Thursday night, fans are starting to clamor for Devlin Hodges, the rookie from Samford who is affectionately known as “Duck,” to be put into the lineup.

  • “They need to give Duck a shot, just to see if he can give the offense a spark.”

Wow, that’s the kind of stuff that hasn’t been heard around these parts since just days before Ben Roethlisberger made his first-career start way back in 2004 and soon began playing at a Hall of Fame level.

Mason Rudolph, Myles Garrett, Matt Feiler, David DeCastro

Even prior to this pivotal moment, Mason Rudolph had shown alot of fight in 2019.

Poor Mason Rudolph. Not only did the second-year man out of Oklahoma State barely get to enjoy a cup of coffee as the team’s newly-appointed backup quarterback after winning the job with a productive preseason, he couldn’t even make it to his eighth-career start before fans started calling for the other guy to start in his place.

  • Such is life for a starting quarterback who hasn’t achieved “elite” or “franchise” status.

Many thought he had the potential to be a franchise passer, when Pittsburgh, who had a first-round grade on him, traded up in the third round to select Mason Rudolph in the 2018 NFL Draft.

  • Truth is, and a lot of fans won’t want to hear it, Mason Rudolph still might have that kind of potential.

Only problem is, he hasn’t shown it right away. In-fact, he really hasn’t even shown glimpses of that kind of potential up to this point. Why? It could be due to many factors, including a lack of talent at both running back and receiver.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Redskins, Jerome Bettis Redskins

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

You know, people like to compare Mason Rudolph’s first year as a starter with Ben Roethlisberger’s 15 years ago. But what fans may have forgotten is that Big Ben had Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El and Plaxico Burress to throw to. And when he wasn’t doing that, he was handing the football off to Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis.

Try as you might, even on its best and healthiest day (receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson as well as running back James Conner may miss this Sunday’s game against the Bengals with injuries), you can’t compare this current group of skill-position players with the one from Roethlisberger’s rookie campaign.

Another reason may be because of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s conservative approach on offense with Rudolph at the helm. It was almost a running joke, early on, the way Mason Rudolph was attempting and completing passes that barely made it past the line of scrimmage.

Unfortunately, while the play-calling has gotten more aggressive, as Rudolph has gained more experience as a starter, the offensive production hasn’t improved much at all. Actually, it has regressed over the past few weeks.

Again, though, this current group of skill-position players, led by Smith-Schuster and Conner, has yet to prove it can be a force, especially compared to the ones previously headlined by Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Combine that with the injury factor and, oh yes, the surprising struggles of the offensive line, and it’s just so hard to evaluate Mason Rudolph’s performance so far.

  • But while Mason Rudolph has yet to show glimpses of greatness, he hasn’t proven to be a disaster, either.
Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Before last Thursday’s dreadful performance, Rudolph had thrown 10 touchdown passes to just four interceptions, two of which were far from his fault and should have been caught. And even after last Thursday’s game, Rudolph’s quarterback rating in 2019 is 82.9.

That’s not exactly horrible. In-fact, one might say those are numbers you can build on. I’m obviously no expert on quarterback play, and I realize Mason Rudolph’s footwork, pocket presence and arm strength have all been questioned by those who know why more about those kinds of things than I do.

  • But half the battle is not looking totally over-matched, and thus far, it’s hard to say the moment has been too big for Mason Rudolph.

Actually, you might say the exact opposite. You might say he’s shown great fight. In Rudolph’s third-career start against the Ravens at Heinz Field on October 6, he was knocked out cold, thanks to a vicious helmet-to-helmet shot by safety Earl Thomas. Rudolph had to be helped off the field, and he missed the following week’s game after being diagnosed with a concussion.

And, of course, at the end the Body Bag Game against the Browns, Rudolph helped create a national news story by starting a brawl with Browns’ defensive end Myles Garrett that eventually ended with Garrett smacking Rudolph over the head with his own helmet.

It’s a shame that the fight ended the way it did, and it’s really a shame that Mason Rudolph, 24, has been turned into a villain by many national pundits and fans, many of whom have implied, without any proof at all, that Mason Rudolph may have provoked Garrett’s dangerous act with some sort of racial slur.

  • But the fight Mason Rudolph showed up until the bitter end of that brawl was admirable.

It demonstrated a frustration, not only with his performance, but with losing a game to a bitter AFC North rival. It showed me that Rudolph is fully committed to the Pittsburgh Steelers, to winning and to getting better as an NFL quarterback.

Dangerous head injuries, aside, Mason Rudolph is probably having the time of his life in 2019. Where he goes from here and how much more he improves is anyone’s guess.

But Mason Rudolph is fighting, and he’s fighting hard. At the very least, you have to love that part of his game.

 

 

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Does a QB Improve a WR? or Does a WR Improve QB? Could Donte Moncrief Answer the Question?

Does a good quarterback make a wide receiver better? Or does a good wide receiver make a quarterback better? Let’s skip the suspense and concede that Steelers free agent Donte Moncrief won’t settle one of football’s existential questions in 2019.

  • Nonetheless, he seems poised to add to the conversation.

While pundits have praised Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for their uncharacteristic aggressiveness in bringing Steve Nelson, Mark Barron and Devin Bush to Pittsburgh, reaction to Donte Moncrief’s arrival has been more tepid.

Donte Moncrief,

Steelers wide receiver Donte Moncrief, @ OTAs in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

While no one would call the 3rd round pick from the 2014 NFL Draft a “bust” (he certainly has outperformed Dri Archer, whom the Steelers took 7 picks later) thus far his NFL career “lacks the ‘Wow’ factor.” Perhaps more ominously, his catch percentage is trending towards the mid to low 50’s.

  • “Ah, but what about the quarterbacks that have been throwing to him?” Donte Moncrief defenders retort.

During his first three seasons in the NFL, Donte Moncrief was catching passes from Andrew Luck. During 2017 and 2018 he had was Jacoby Brissett and Blake Bortles tossing him the ball. So logically, with Ben Roethlisberger hawking the pigskin his way, Moncrief is going to shine, right?

  • Maybe. Maybe not.

Football is the ultimate team game. Even the best running back needs a good offensive line to excel. (See Jerome Bettis’ dip in productivity in 1998 and 1999 behind some mediocre offensive lines.)

And while the relationship between pass rush and interceptions is more tenuous than many think, a quarterback under duress is going to make more mistakes than one who has all day to throw. (Go back and watch the tape. James Harrison was closing in on Joe Flacco on Troy Polamalu’s pick-six in the ’08 AFC Championship game.)

  • Ironically, the relationship between the performance of quarterbacks and wide receivers is more directly, yet the impact is harder to define.

It is more direct because a quarterback needs a receiver to catch his passes, and the receiver obviously can’t catch passes that are never thrown. In contrast, great running backs can and do make something out of nothing when blocking breaks down.

  • Quarterbacks can improvise on broken plays, but it means little if the receiver drops the ball.

Recently, Ben Roethlisberger credited Antonio Brown for his success. This was as much about Ben Roethlisberger showing he’s a bigger man than Brown than it is about expressing truth. Yes, during Ben Roethlisberger’s 2017 early season slump, Antonio Brown DID make Ben Roethlisberger look like a better quarterback than his performance really indicated.

All three are quality wide outs. Hines Ward should but probably won’t get Hall of Fame consideration. But each is far less talented than Antonio Brown.

Moving beyond Antonio Brown, a look at how the other two third of “Young Money” have preformed outside of Pittsburgh further complicates the picture. Mike Wallace has never had a quarterback as good as Ben Roethlisberger throwing his way in Miami, Minnesota or Baltimore, and he’s struggled consistently match the performance of his Pittsburgh days.

Contrast that with Emmanuel Sanders, who has generally played better since departing for Denver. But Sanders’ success has come both with Peyton Manning throwing him the ball as well as Manning’s  successors.

  • So that really doesn’t help us answer the question.

Nor should that surprise Steelers fans, who saw John Stallworth post far better statistical seasons catching balls from Mark Malone and David Woodley than he did when Terry Bradshaw stood under center. But no one in their right mind would choose a Malone-Stallworth or a Woodley-Stallworth tandem over Bradshaw-Stallworth.

  • It is hard to know exactly what role Donte Moncrief will play in the Steelers 2019 offense.

JuJu Smith-Schuster enters the season as the number 1 receiver, and both coaches and journalists tell us that if James Washington is poised to make a leap in his sophomore year. If that happens then the best-case scenario for Donte Moncrief is that he emerges as the number 3 receiver in the Steelers offense.

  • And if Donte Moncrief shines in that role, Ben Roethlisberger will deserve some of the credit.

But it will also be true that opposing defense will have been focusing on covering Smith-Schuster, Washington and Vance McDonald. So I guess Donte Moncrief presence in Pittsburgh might not contribute much to the QB improves WR/WR improves QB quandary.

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Painful? Yes. But Steelers Make Right Decision to Move on from Antonio Brown

All good things come to an end. So it is with Antonio Brown and the Steelers. After dominating the headlines for the first two months of 2019, the on-going Antonio Brown Soap opera reached the beginning of the end as Antonio Brown met with Art Rooney II and the two sides agreed to seek a trade.

Art Rooney II, Antonio Brown, Steelers to trade Antonio Brown

Art Rooney II & Antonio Brown agree to part ways. Photo Credit: Twitter

If reports are correct, Antonio Brown first met with Art Rooney II while Brown’s father Eddie Brown was in the room. Once the two sides agreed to a trade, agent Drew Rosenhaus along with Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan joined entered to discuss next steps.

  • Significantly, the Steelers did not grant Drew Rosenhaus permission to explore trade opportunities with other teams.

This is important, because it underlines the fact that the Steelers are holding on to one of the key cards they have left to play in this deck – determining where Antonio Brown lands. (Preferably somewhere in the NFC.)

It Sucks, But the Steelers Made the Right Decision

There’s no way to sugar coat it, the Pittsburgh 2019 offense will be poorer for Antonio Brown’s absence. However, this move had to be made, however painful it might be.

  • As Jeremy Fowler’s report detailed, Antonio Brown got preferential treatment from Mike Tomlin.

While this outrages a lot of fans, the truth is that star athletes get special treatment from a lot of organizations, at all levels of organized sports. But abandoning your teammates in the heat of battle – with the playoffs on the line – simply cannot be tolerated.

  • One can argue that this sets a bad precedent, that in the future disgruntled players can social media temper tantrum their way off the team.

That could happen.

  • But that pales in comparison to sending a signal to the locker room that quitting is OK.

Like most fans, when news of this incident broke, I clung to some sort of hope that this would somehow just “all go away.” And the Steelers seemed to leave the door open in early January. Perhaps, in a pre-social media era that might have even been possible.

But it takes two to tango, and nothing Brown has done since walking out on the Steelers prior to the Bengals game indicates he’s willing to do his part of the dance.

Make No Mistake About It: Losing Brown Will Hurt

Antonio Brown is a Hall of Fame talent. Losing him will hurt. A lot.

Rarely can a team make a one-for-one replacement for a Hall of Famer as the Steelers did when they transitioned from Mike Webster to Dermontti Dawson. More often than not, you end up with situations akin to what the Steelers found themselves in the 80s when they replaced Lynn Swann with Louis Lipps or Jack Lambert with David Little.

  • Lipps and Little only sins as Steelers were to be merely good instead of great.

Sure, Ben Roethlisberger still has JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald as weapons. God willing James Washington will develop and James Conner will stay healthy. And, as it has been noted, the Steelers won Super Bowl XL with Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El and Super Bowl XLIII with Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington.

Just in case you forgot.

Nonetheless, Art Rooney II has made the right decision.

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Stop the James Washington Limas Sweed Comparisons. Steelers Rookie Wide Outs Often Start Slow

Steelers wide receiver James Washington has had a disappointing year thus far but comparisons to Limas Sweed must stop.

Full disclosure: If you frequent this site, you know that I called out James Washington after the loss to the Broncos and said that his play was making activating Eli Rogers an attractive option. And when Eli Rogers returned to practice, I augured that the Steelers offense currently lacks a legit number 3 wide receiver.

  • I stand by those criticisms.

James Washington, James Washington Drop, Steelers vs Jaguars

James Washington drops a pass. Photo Credit: AP, via ProFootballTalk.com

But if it is true that James Washington’s rookie campaign pales in contrast to JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s efforts just one year ago, then it’s even more true that JuJu’s rookie performance was an exception.

  • Even a cursory look at history reveals Steelers wide receivers tend to struggle as rookies.

Pittsburgh 247’s Jim Wexell took aim at the Limas Sweed comparison, and after conceding that both were from Texas, both 2nd round picks, and both having grown up on farms, he offered this insight:

Through the same points in their 2010 rookie seasons, Antonio Brown had two catches in 21 targets; Emmanuel Sanders had 13 catches in 23 targets.

Compared to Antonio Brown, James Washington is killing it with his 8 catches on 25 targets! But in that light he’s no different than other rookie Steelers wide receivers who started slowly.

Steelers Rookie Wide Receivers Tend to Start Slowly

As a rookie, Hines Ward had 15 catches on 33 targets. While targeting numbers aren’t available, Lynn Swann had 11 catches and John Stallworth had 16. Combine those numbers and they hardly project to one Hall of Fame career, let alone two.

But Yancey Thigpen, while not a rookie, had all of one catch during his first season in Pittsburgh and only 9 more his next (although 3 of those were for touchdowns.) Ernie Mills had two catches as a rookie. Both went on to author fine careers as Steelers.

Sure, at this point James Washington is best known for plays he hasn’t made as a rookie, but so was Plaxico Burress. And there’s an important difference there. In diving unnecessarily to catch Ben Roethlisberger‘s throw, James Washington was simply trying too hard. By spiking the ball in the open field when he wasn’t down, Plaxico Burress was simply being dumb.

  • There’s one other thing to keep in mind: Strong rookie seasons, while promising, guarantee nothing.

Troy Edwards caught 61 passes as a rookie and scored 5 touchdowns. He started 1 game and caught 37 passes in two more seasons in Pittsburgh, and never matched his rookie campaign in 4 more seasons in the NFL.

Saying that James Washington’s rookie season has disappointed this far is simply observing the truth, but writing him off as a bust is foolishness in its purest form.

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Eli Rogers Practices. Should Justin Hunter or James Washington Look Over Their Shoulders?

The Eli Rogers returns to practice this week for the Steelers, which gives Pittsburgh 21 days to either activate him or put him on season ending IR. As it currently stands, if the Steelers do activate Eli Rogers that will mean that someone’s roster spot is in jeopardy. Which begs the question:

Currently the Steelers have wide receivers Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ryan Switzer, James Washington, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter on their roster. That gives them 6 wide outs which about brings them to their ceiling.

Eli Rogers

Eli Rogers returns to practice with the Steelers. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

Obviously, barring an injury in the next 21 says Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Ryan Switzer are staying put. Darrius Heyward-Bey only has one target this year, but because of his role on special teams his job is likely safe too.

  • But Justin Hunter and James Washington are no so lucky.

Although he was a four year veteran when the Steelers signed Justin Hunter as a free agent in the spring of 2017, Pittsburgh liked him then more for his potential rather than past performance. And two years later potential remains Justin Hunter’s calling card in the Steelers offense. Hunter only has 7 catches on 20 targets.

The Steelers drafted James Washington in the 2nd round of the 2018 NFL Draft, a move which drew immediate comparisons to JuJu Smith-Schuster, their 2nd round pick of the 2017 NFL Draft.

James Washington was close to a non-stop highlight reel in the 2018 preseason, despite Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger’s attempts to quell expectations. 11 games into the season, it is easy to understand why they were so quick to curb everyone’s enthusiasm. James Washington has 8 catches on 25 targets.

Steelers 2018 Offense Needs a Legit 3rd Wide Receiver

To revert to Tomlin speak the 2018 Steelers are still “writing their story.” But with 11 chapters on paper, Randy Fichtner’s offense is proving to be an upgrade from Todd Haley’s. Red Zone performance is up and at 45.71% third down conversions are higher than they ever were during the Todd Haley era.

Look across the depth chart, and its hard to find any one area that’s under performing or has a glaring deficiency. (Well, OK, a James Conner injury will change that in a hurry.)

  • But 11 games into 2018, the Steelers offense still doesn’t have a legit 3rd wide receiver.

Ryan Switzer has done everything this offense has asked of him and last week the kid certainly proved he can take a hit, but being a legit 4th wide receiver isn’t the same as being a third wide out.

  • He may not be the weapon that Antwaan Randle El, was, but Eli Rogers has already proven he’s a legitimate 3rd wide receiver in the Steelers offense.

Rogers of course injured his ACL in the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars and his knee must be tested. However, if Eli Rogers is healthy and ready to go, he’d provide an immediate upgrade from either James Washington or Justin Hunter.

  • In such a situation look for Justin Hunter to get a visit from the The Turk.

The Steelers aren’t going to cut James Washington, and putting him on injured reserve would end his season, whereas no team is going to be in a rush to ink Justin Hunter to a new deal should Pittsburgh cut him loose.

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