George Pickens Catch = The Beauty and Bliss of Steelers Training Camp

The Steelers returned to St. Vincents, in Latrobe on Tuesday, July 26th after a 2 year thanks to COVID-19. And took just 24 hours and less than one picture on my Whats App to bring home the beauty and bliss that is summer at St. Vincents.

George Pickens, Steelers 2022 training camp, Cam Sutton

George Pickens making a catch on the first day @ St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted George Pickens in the 2nd round of the 2022 NFL Draft, friends who know a lot more about X’s and O’s than I do were excited. A quick look at his college record revealed why. This kid had talent, and were it not for an injury, he’d surely have gone early in the 1st round.

And this first photo from training camp makes it easy to see why:

In a single shot you have the beauty of training camp.

Sure, as Jim Wexell pointed out, it was only, “a lazy, looping “bomb” by Trubisky that Cam Sutton allowed George Pickens to catch as he was falling down.” But you know what? It matters not. And that’s the bliss of training camp.

Art Rooney Sr. once lamented to a reporter that, “Everyone’s a winner on draft day.” The Chief was right. The draft is about potential. St. Vincent is about seeing how can prove their potential.

Every summer is filled with these moments like George Pickens catch. Some of these go on to earn their rightful spot in Steelers lore, such as Joe Greene dominating in the Oklahoma Drill as soon as he arrived at St. Vincents or Ben Roethlisberger making an “a memorable rollout, throwback, 40-yard laser to Zamir Cobb” that caught Bill Cowher’s attention and brought Big Ben 1 step closer to Tommy Maddox on the depth chart.

Others, fade into obscurity. During my first year in Buenos Aires prior to the Steelers 2001 season I remember excitedly read Bob Labriola’s account in the Steelers Digest Kendrell Bell stopping Jerome Bettis at the goal line with a hit so resounding that it echoed off the hills which surround Chuck Noll field.

No one remembers that now because today Jerome Bettis is in the NFL Hall of Fame, while Kendrell Bell is a One Year Wonder Steelers rookie of the year.

  • How will we remember George Pickens catch a generation from now?

Will we see it as the first sign that this kid was something special?  Or will this photo only serve to remind us of how deeply he disappointed us ? Only time can tell us where George Pickens’ journey will take him and just as time will tell us where the 2022 Steelers journey will take them.

But that one photo of George Pickens is proof that the journey has begun.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Grades – An A+ for Drafting T.J., JuJu, Sutton & Conner

The 2022 NFL Draft is now history. In Kevin Colbert’s finale, the Pittsburgh Steelers bucked the conventional wisdom and drafted Kenny Pickett in the first round. They also addressed wide receiver and defensive line with their premium picks.

So now time to get down to grades – grades for the Steelers 2017 Draft Class.

Yes, Chuck Noll always said it took five years to grade an NFL Draft class, and if it was good enough for The Emperor, its good enough for me.

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2019 draft needs at outside linebacker

Steelers outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DKPS

First Round: T.J. Watt – Striking Gold

29 teams drafted before the Pittsburgh Steelers that day. The Kanas City Chiefs picked Patrick Mahomes. The other 28 wished they’d picked T.J. Watt instead.

In 5 years T.J. Watt has put himself on a Hall of Fame trajectory. He’s a playmaker and possibly a generational talent. It is conceivable that during his 6th year he’ll break the Steelers All Time sack record. Grade: Grand Slam

Second Round: JuJu Smith-Schuster — A True Steelers from the Get Go

JuJu Smith-Schuster landed in Pittsburgh and eventually pushed not one, but two players off of the team. He had a phenomenal rookie year and followed it up with a team MVP performance. His 3rd year was marred by injuries, poor quarterback performance and an imploding offense.

Even if his numbers never bounced back in year’s four and five, JuJu Smith-Schuster was still a factor on the team, still a player who gave his all on every play. Grade: Quality Value Pick

Third Round A: Cam Sutton – The Late Bloomer

Cam Sutton is the second to last defensive back drafted during Carnell Lake’s tenure as secondary coach, and he’s probably the best. Sutton got onto the field in late 2017, played more in 2018, and began making plays at a steady pace through 2019 and 2020. Facing salary cap Armageddon in the 2020 Off Season the Steelers targeted Sutton for an extension and he delivered in 2021. Grade: Quality Value Pick

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Third Round B: James Conner – The Home Town Hero

In minds of many, James Conner’s Steelers career is measured by what it wasn’t, rather than what it was. As Tony Defeo pointed out in his free agent profile, that’s not fair to Conner. At all.

James Conner’s body of work with the Pittsburgh Steelers reveals him as a good running back. Not a great one, but a good one. The injuries aren’t Conner’s fault. Nor is the fact that a once great offensive line slipped into deep decline just when he needed him the most. Grade: Quality Value Pick

Fourth Round: Joshua Dobbs – The Rocket Scientist

Joshua Dobbs was a bit of a surprise pick and became the type of player that just kept sticking on.

His body of work with the Steelers is limited. His first pass was, well, like a rocket converting a third down on the road deep in Baltimore territory in spot duty. He looked good in his limited action in the 2020 finale. And the Rocket Scientist turned backup QB was a constant fixture along side Ben Roethlisberger reviewing plays on tablets. All that’s good, but you still expect a bit more from a 4th rounder. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Fifth Round: Brian Allen – Another Dud @ DB

The Steelers drafted Brian Allen as a project. Allen had only switched to cornerback for his final two years at Utah. But at 6’3” and 215 pounds and with long arms, and with a 4.48 40 time he had all of the measurables.

Brian Allen saw action on special teams in 16 games over two years with the Steelers and then was waived/injured at the end of training camp in 2019. He latched on to a number of practice squads in 2019, played 24 defensive snaps for the 49ers in 2020 appearing on one game, and appeared in 3 games on special teams for the Browns in 2021. Grade: Bust

Sixth Round: Colin Holba – The Luxury Long Snapper

My immediate reaction to the Steelers decision to use a draft pick on a long snapper was, “Colbert and Tomlin are getting cocky.” It just seemed like a waste of a pick. And it sort of was. Colin Holba didn’t make the team, but got pick up by the Jaguars, who spanked the Steelers in the playoffs. He also played for the 49ers and Giants in the next three seasons. Grade: Farm Team

Seventh Round:  – The Unsung Linebacker that Never Was

With the depth chart ahead of him it didn’t seem like Keion Adams stood a chance at making the team when they drafted him in 2017. However, his story reminded this scribe of Carlos Emmons, another 7th round linebacker who faced a stacked depth chart to make the team and eventually work himself into a serviceable starter.

Alas, Adams would not follow in Carlos Emmon’s footsteps. He spent 2017 on IR, got cut at the end of summer in 2018, spent a day on the practice squad, spent some time with the Giants and was done.

Final Grade for the Steelers 2017 Draft Class

One Grand Slam, 3 Quality Value Picks, 1 Serviceable Pickup, 1 Bust and 1 Farm Team Pick. Moreover, the first 4 picks became starters, all four got second contracts, 2 with the Steelers. And of course the first rounder is on a Hall of Fame trajectory. Grade: A+

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“Roster Bubble Baby” No More? Steelers Resign Arthur Maulet to 2 Year Contract

The Steelers second official move in free agency amounted to a bit of a surprise. After locking down special teams ace Miles Killebrew down to a 2 year contract, the Steelers followed suit with another 2 year contract for Arthur Maulet, seemingly giving him a respite on being a roster bubble baby.

Arthur Maulet, Steelers vs Broncos

Arthur Maulet with his lone pass defense in 2021. Photo Credit: Mark Alberti, Icon Sportswire via Getty Images from BTSC

Capsule Profile of Arthur Maulet Career with the Steelers

When Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said that replacing (now) Super Bowl starting slot cornerback Mike Hilton would be a multi person job he wasn’t kidding.

During the 2021 season the Steelers split slot corner duties 3 ways between starting corner Cam Sutton and rookie “Swiss Army Knife” Tre Norwood. The other person was free agent Arthur Maulet.

A quick look at his transaction history on Pro Football Reference reveals that Arthur Maulet has been a roster bubble baby throughout his entire NFL life. That did not change when he arrived in Pittsburgh, joining the Steelers after the 2021 NFL Draft, getting cut in late August, only to return to the regular season roster before opening day.

Roster bubble baby or not, Maulet quickly worked himself into line up of the Steelers secondary, playing in 15 of 17 games. Maulet struggled at times, giving up a few key plays in the Steelers game against the Bears. As the season progressed, Maulet stepped up and provided run support when it was sorely needed.

He also forced a fumble against the Titans that Minkah Fitzpatrick recovered and the Steelers converted into their only first half points for a 19-13 point win.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Arthur Maulet

Arthur Maulet is never going to build a sexy ESPN highlight reel. But he’s shown that he can be a serviceable defensive back in a unit that needs stability. He also came up strong in run support, and the Steelers need all the hlep they can get in stopping the run.

Terms of the two year deal haven’t come out, but you can imagine its not much higher than the veteran minimum.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Arthur Maulet

Joe Haden, Terrell Edmunds and Ahkello Witherspoon are all free agents. And while its possible that some of them will come back, free agency is 24 hours away. The faster the clock ticks towards 12:00 March 14th, 2022, the more likely all three are to leave Pittsburgh. The Steelers still have James Pierre under contract. He might some “upside,” but are you comforted with the thought of him as the proverbial “next man up?”

  • By bringing back Arthur Maulet reinforces a liability not a strength.

Maulet might have been a respectable role player in a secondary featuring established playmakers, but remove those playmakers and Maulet becomes someone that teams exploit early and often.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Maulet

Success in the salary cap era hinges on finding players that provide the biggest bang for the smallest salary cap buck.

In 2021 Kevin Colbert did some bargain hunting and found Arthur Maulet, and Maulet delivered decent value. In this writer’s humble opinion, Maulet figured to be the type of player the Steelers could wait to sign and bring back after the draft.

But Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have decided differently. And so they should. Maulet might not be a superstar, but he did log 33% of defensive snaps and another 33% of specials teams snaps. That shows he can be a role player and you need those on your roster.

If the Steelers still want to bring back Arthur Maulet after that draft, he’ll likely be available.

Follow Steelers free agency. Click here for our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers 2021 Final Report Card: Not Too Tardy to Break Even Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who isn’t too tardy to break even, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2021 Season.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Titans

T.J. Watt after recovering a Titans fumble. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
In in final season, Ben Roethlisberger went 390-605-3,740-22-11 for a passer rating of 86.8. At times he flash Hall of Fame caliber play, at others he looked like he was struggling to be average. Overall his play was solid, and without his gravitas the Steelers would have been lucky to have won 4 games. Still he was slipping. Mason Rudolph looked “OK” in his one start. Grade: B-

Running Backs
As a Steelers running back struggled more break the 1000 yard mark than Najee Harris did in 2021? Maybe Jerome Bettis in 1999. Maybe. Harris had no help from the line and seldom enjoyed Derek Watt’s escort services. Yet Harris got it done. Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage saw little more than spot duty and neither showed themselves capable of spelling Harris for long periods of time – not behind this line. Grade: C+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron was splitting snaps fairly evenly until he got hurt vs the Chargers. At that point Pat Freiermuth stepped with Zach Gentry and together with Kevin Rader made tight end to be one of the few bright spots on offense. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
On balance, Diontae Johnson showed he is a good but not great receiver. Chase Claypool flashed promise and frustration in equal parts as consistency eluded him. JuJu Smith-Schuster was lost early in the season. James Washington was never more than just sort of “there.” Ray-Ray McCloud had a decent time as a number 4 wide out. The Steelers needed more from this unit. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Yes injuries, surprise retirements, starting rookies too soon and inconsistent coaching were all factors. The bottom line is Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 38 times and the run blocking was atrocious at times. Grade: F

Defensive Line
How do you grade a unit like this? Cam Heyward authored a Hall of Fame worthy season playing alongside… practice squaders. Seriously, guys like Chris Wormley and  Montravius Adams may have shown that they’re serviceable, but they are not starters. Grade: D

Linebackers
T.J. Watt authored a NFL MVP worthy season suggesting generational talent. Alex Highsmith had his issues, but got better as the season went along. On the inside it was a different story. Robert Spillane is strong against the run but can’t cover the pass. Joe Schobert was decent against the pass. Devin Bush, well let’s just hope his ACL was really bothering him. Watt brings this group’s grade up. Way up. Grade: C-

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception Chargers, Steelers vs Chargers

Cam Sutton intercepts the ball. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Secondary
Cam Sutton authored a strong year in his first season as a starter. Joe Haden showed he has something left, but his body is beginning to brake down while Ahkello Witherspoon came on strong at the end of the year. Terrell Edmunds might not make many splash plays, but he did play in 98% of the snaps and continued to improve. Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have put together the highlight footage he did in years past, but make no mistake about it, he’s the best player on the defense not named Watt. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell had a spectacular season. Ray-Ray McCloud showed himself to be a decent return man after a shaky start. Coverage was generally solid. Pressley Harvin had his ups and downs, but the team stuck with him in the face of personal tragedy. Grade: B

Coaching
On offense, the Ben Roethlisberger was clearly not a good fit for Matt Canada’s system and the progress that the unit saw came to a dead stop when Kevin Dotson got hurt and Kendrick Green hit the rookie wall.

  • So Canada’s off the hook right? Not so fast.

Canada isn’t responsible for the personnel he has to work with, but he certainly is in charge of how they are used. The worst sin an offensive coordinator can commit is to try to force a system on players unsuited. Worse yet, is when the coordinators insist on forcing even after it is clear the players are unsuited. Canada appears to have done that in 2021, which is not a good sign for his return.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns

Mike Tomlin at Paul Brown Stadium. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

On defense Keith Butler quickly discovered he had a hole in his middle that he didn’t have the personnel to plug. How does one judge a coaching job when one could easily argue that 3 if not 4 of the defense’s front seven need replacing?

Injures, retirements and COVID fueled salary cap limitations left Mike Tomlin the NFL’s most manic depressive roster. On the defensive line alone it was like seeing Hulk Hogan alongside the Batten Twins.

And if Tomlin does deserve some of the criticism for those talent deficiencies – and he does – he also deserves credit for finding a way to eek 9 wins out of this roster. Grade: C

Front Office
As mentioned in our Steelers 2021 Season Review, Pittsburgh actually had a decent plan for fielding a competitive team despite weathering salary cap Armageddon. But injuries and retirements wiped 3 starters off of the board before summer’s end with 2 more losses before the leaves had fallen. And if some of the “next men” up faltered, other replacements fared better. The Front Office faced a potential devastating salary cap situation and fought it to a draw. Grade: C

Unsung Heroes
The Steelers 2021 roster had a lot of holes, holes where the proverbial “Next man up” failed to plug. But a look back at the season finds two non-first line players making consistent contributions doing “the little things” that help win games, and that’s why Arthur Maulet and Tre Norwood are the Unsung Heroes of the 2021 Season.

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Blocked! Steelers Rally Fizzles as Chargers Win 41-37, while Tomlin’s Remarks were Revealing

The Steelers-Chargers Sunday Night Game had it all:

  • 41 4th quarter points
  • A blocked punt in the Red Zone that set up a 4th down PI call that set up Najee Harris air mail touchdown
  • A 75 yard Ben Roethlisberger touchdown drive ending with a pass to Eric Ebron
  • A pass deflected by Cam Heyward that set up a Cam Sutton interception in the Red Zone
  • A Ben Roethlisberger touchdown to Pat Freiermuth
  • A defense that stopped NOBODY on the ground, coming up with a stop on 4th and 1
  • A 45 yard Chris Boswell field goal with the clock winding to 3:29

Yes, the game had it everything, but in the end everything was not enough as the Steelers fell to the Chargers 41-37 in their first trip to SoFi Stadium. The Steelers first loss in 41 days drops their record to 5-4-1, while Mike Tomlin’s uncharacteristic response reveals a lot about how he sees the rest of 2021 unfolding.

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Chargers 2021, Miles Killebrew blocked punt

Miles Killebrew blocks a punt. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Can’t Run. Chargers Can, Without Even Trying

The first half ended with a 17-10 advantage for the Chargers. Although a 7-point half time deficit is hardly cause for panic, if it felt like San Diego er um Los Angeles was in charge, its because they were.

On Pittsburgh’s second possession, Chase Claypool had brought the Steelers to the Chargers 5, but Pittsburgh failed to punch it in. An end around by Claypool yielded 3 yards while a rush up the middle by Najee Harris delivered none. Mike Tomlin opted to pass on third and 4th downs and the Steelers misfired on both, getting no points for 73 yards.

  • In contrast, the Chargers responded by going 98 yards and netting a score.

Justin Herbert accounted for 40 of those yards on four unplanned scrambles were just as easy as they looked. The Steelers couldn’t rush the ball while the Chargers could, even when they weren’t trying to.

By the time a Cameron Sutton penalty gave Dustin Hopkins a do over field goal that he converted for 41 yards, the Chargers had a 17 point lead owith just 18 minute left to play.

For all intents and purposes, the game seemed to be over.

Give the Men in Black and Gold Credit for Something

Let’s be blunt. You can talk all you want about professionals football players being paid millions to play a boy’s game. The truth is that a lot of teams facing a 17-point deficit, at night, on the road, with just over a quarter to go would mail it in. The allure of the showers, of getting out of the stadium and on to the plane becomes too strong.

Pat Freiermuth, Kendrick Green, Steelers vs Chargers

Kendrick Green blocks to set up Pat Freiermuth’s touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

  • But not Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers responded to the Chargers field goal with one of their own. On the next drive the Steelers defense did something it hadn’t done all night – force the Charger to punt. For the record, Ray-Ray McCloud returned the punt for 12 yards.

Ah, but off setting penalties forced a re-kick, which Miles Killebrew blocked, igniting the Steelers 24-point 4th quarter explosion. (Note, the Steelers also scored 3 points in the 4th prior to the blocked punt.)

Symmetry within the Number 3 Dooms Steelers

That 24-point explosion was entertaining. It would have been something really special had it not been broken up by 14 points scored by the Chargers. Or by Kyler Fackrell and Joey Bosa book ending the 2 minute warning with 8 and 11-yard sacks of Ben Roethlisberger.

  • The Steelers defense made 3 separate stops the Chargers in the 4th quarter.

Those there the only 3 stops the unit had in them. I suppose that’s an odd sort of symmetry for a Steelers defense missing 3 starters in the form of T.J. Watt, Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick. At the end of the day the Steelers couldn’t get pressure – or containment – of Herbert without Watt.

And if James Pierre did a fine job of filling in for Haden, that forced Tre Norwood out of his slot position and into Minkah’s which is how you get a 53 yard walk off touchdown to Mike Williams with just over 2 minutes remaining.

Factor in Joe Haeg playing for an injured J.C. Hassenauer was in for an injured Kevin Dotson which opened the door to the Chargers final sacks. The Steelers simply didn’t have the players they needed to compete.

Tomlin’s Uncharacteristic Remarks Revealing

Once upon a time, Mike Tomlin would have scoffed at a long injury list with “The Standard Is the Standard.” But after the game he explained, “We have to get back to the drawing board and do a better job of putting them in positions to be successful with the people that we have at our disposal.”

  • Is Tomlin stepping back from “The Standard is the Standard?” Is he, in effect, making excuses?

Don’t bet on it. Mike Tomlin is taking the blame upon himself because he doesn’t want criticism contaminating the spirit and attitude of a promising young crops players.

  • Clearly, he believes that, with a little confidence, this group’s best football lies ahead of it.

The fight they showed in the 4th quarter suggests Tomlin is right. We’ll find out over the next 7 games.

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Frustrated by Devin Bush in 2021? Chill & Remember ACL Tears Are Complicated to Comeback from

Question: Entering the Chargers game, which injures have hurt the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers the most? There’s no definitive answer, but this blogger offers an unorthodox suggestion:

  • The injuries in question have probably never shown up on the Steelers weekly injury reports.

Injuries, as the late, great Washington DC area sports radio journalist Ken Beatrice reminded listeners, are just as much of a factor as talent and coaching. This was true for the NFL during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and is even more true today.

  • Where in 2021 have injuries hit the Steelers the hardest?

The Steelers certainly missed Ben Roethlisberger against the Lions and Justin Herbert will force them to miss Minkah Fitzpatrick just as dearly tomorrow. And anyone who has seen the Steelers run defense lapse could and should point to the absence of Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu.

So if those are your answers, you’re in good company, just as is anyone who brings up T.J. Watt’s name. But my two choices are Devin Bush and Zach Banner.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Banner and Bush don’t share a lot in common, but both men suffered ACL tears during the 2020 season.

  • Zach Banner played in training camp and preseason, but had to be put on IR.

The Steelers failure to use him on Sundays has drawn frustrated “Whys” as Dan Moore and Chukwuma Okorafor have had their struggles. Devin Bush has of course played all season, but he hasn’t been the same. This has led even level-minded reporters to go as far as to question the Steelers decision to trade up to get him.

The frustration with Banner and Bush is understandable, but perhaps misguided.

ACL Tears Remain Serious Injuries in 2021

Once upon a time, an ACL tear could spell doom for a professional football player. Anterior cruciate ligament sent the legendary Gale Sayers career on the path to ruin. Fortunately, with the rise of arthroscopic surgery, and improvements in rehabilitation therapy, ACL tears stopped being an immediate threat to a player’s career.

In fact, Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer Rod Woodson was the first NFL player to tear his ACL in a season, only to return later that year.

Rod Woodson, Michael Irvin, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX

Rod Woodson beats Michael Irvin in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: @Sports Pics, via Behind the Steel Curtain

Woodson tore his ACL in the 1995 Steelers season opener, but returned to play 12 snaps in Super Bowl XXX. Woodson’s pass defense of Michael Irvin is one of Steelers Nation’s legitimate bragging points from otherwise disappointing loss.

  • In that sense, perhaps Steelers fans got a little spoiled.

Not only because Woodson’s feat remains rather unique, but because it came with a cost. As Woodson confessed to Jim Wexell in Men of Steel, returning for the Super Bowl was “‘not the smartest thing to do'” continuing he adds, “‘I was probably 45-50 percent healthy at that point.'”

Woodson of course returned for the Steelers 1996 season and in the home opener he returned Vinny Testaverde’s first pass 43 yards for a pick six. Woodson made the Pro Bowl in 1996.

  • So of course he was fully recovered, right?

Wrong. Woodson confided this to Wexell, “’In ’96, I was still sore, and then my Achilles started acting up a lot, just from compensating for my knee….’” Woodson left the Steelers after 1996, but went on to play in 7 more years, making 4 Pro Bowls and one All Pro Team will appearing in two more Super Bowls.

  • So surly he was fully recovered by time he left Pittsburgh, right?

Wrong again. While admitting to struggling a bit in San Francisco, Woodson explained, “’I was still trying to recover from the knee a bit, even that second year.’”

And while players like Casey Hampton and Heath Miller returned for a productive seasons after suffering ACL tears late in the 2011 and 2012 campaigns, it is easy to forget just how fortunate they were. Shaun Suisham suffered an ACL tear during the 2015 Hall of Fame game that ended his career.

Are Bush and Banners ACL Tears Lingering On?

It is hard to really say how much impact Zach Banner’s absence has had on the offensive line. He won the starting job in 2020, only to tear his ACL in the season opening win over the Giants. Which is to say, he’s largely an unknown commodity.

  • With Devin Bush, it’s a little different.

Bush had a strong, if not fantastic rookie year in 2019 and was playing well early in 2020. So far in 2021 he’s been a non-factor. Is it because he’s still not fully recovered from his ACL tear? It is hard to know for sure.

Some film analysis of the Lions game suggests he was badly out of place on some of those critical runs the Lions used to gouge the Steelers defense. That was only one play, however, and Bush was far from the only person on the Steelers defense out of position (see Joe Schobert and Cam Sutton.)

  • While medicine is a science it remains an inexact science.

People’s bodies heal differently and at distinct paces. Modern medicine has done a lot to make ACL tears more manageable for NFL players, but if something seems not quite right with Devin Bush, just remember that even in 2021 anterior cruciate ligament injuries anything but trivial.

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Steelers Report Card for Browns Win: Acing AFC Central History Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased as punch that his pupils aced AFC Central history this week, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2021 win over the Browns at First Energy Stadium.

T.J. Watt, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns

T.J. Watt sacks Baker Mayfield inside the 2 minute warning. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger quietly authored his best game of the season going 23-34-1-0 for 266 yards. He did it against the NFL’s best pass rusher. And while he did have one should-been an interception, he did not turnover the ball. He also managed 7.8 yards per attempt, just a hair below his career average, without throwing a pass longer than 16 yards. Grade: B+

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 96 yards on 26 carries and if the average isn’t great, he again got better as the game wore on, including willing himself into the end zone. Anthony McFarland saw his first action of year and will need to do more than one yard gains if he wants to see more. Kalen Ballage carried once for a loss. Grade: B

Steelers, Report Card, grades,Tight Ends
Ben Roethlisberger targeted Pat Freiermuth early and often, targeting him four times on the opening drive. Pat Freiermuth only caught one of them, but he caught 3 of the next 4, including a 22 yarder that set up a touchdown, and of course the touchdown itself which was a “Lynn Swann” catch if there ever was one. Zach Gentry caught 3 passes in the second half, both on scoring drives. Eric who? Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Both Chase Claypool and Ray-Ray McCloud made some noise running the ball, with Claypool catching 4 of 5 balls thrown his way. Diontae Johnson was 6 for 13 on catches to targets, but his 50 yard reception to seal the game was a thing of beauty. James Washington caught 1 pass for 4 yards on one target. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Myles Garrett may be many things to Steelers fans, but one of this is not to be underestimated. Rookie Dan Moore got the task of containing Garrett and, quite frankly did an admirable job as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked twice and hit 5 other times. Run blocking also continues to improve, although Najee Harris did have to make something out of nothing more than once. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Everyone expected Cam Heyward to show up against the Browns. But so did Chris Wormley, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Henry Mondeaux and Isaiah Buggs and the quartet delivered a far higher level than anyone had a right to expect them to. Grade A

Linebackers
The stat sheet suggests T.J. Watt had an off day, as he “only” had 1.5 sacks and 3 QB hits. Of course his first half sack killed a 4th down conversion and his second came with 1:13 left to play in the first half. He also killed another 4th down conversion with a tackle for a loss. And he recovered a fumble. Alex Highsmith had another good day, including a key tackle on Cleveland’s last drive. Devin Bush had 5 tackles, but at least two of them killed drives. Grade: A

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jarvis Landry, Cam Sutton, Steelers vs Browns

Minkah Fitzpatrick celebrates after deflecting a pass. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Secondary
The Browns were able to complete some passes early in the game, but their 3 for 10 3rd down conversion rate shows they couldn’t sustain drives. Joe Haden had a pass defensed and Cam Sutton had a tackle for a loss. Minkah Fitzpatrick had a more solid game and delivered some “Minkah Magic” breaking up a pass to Jarvis Landry in the Red Zone on 4th down with less than 2 minutes to play. Grade: B

Special Teams
The Steelers botched the extra point attempt badly, at the very least Chris Boswell should have been coached to throw it away quickly if the play began to unfold badly. That obscures the fact that Ray-Ray McCloud had a good day returning kicks and that coverage units were solid. Grade: B-

Coaching
Outsmarting oneself is the biggest temptations that all offensive coordinators must resists. Too often coordinators get too impressed with their own schemes (see Joe Walton, Kevin Gilbride). Matt Canada resisted that temptation.

To be sure, he used misdirection on motion and Jet sweeps to keep the defense honest, but he committed to a game plan grounded in the fundamentals of physical football and that carried the day.

Before the game Keith Butler admitted that he was going to sellout to stop the run and he kept his world. The Steelers defense had been stout thus far this season, but the Seattle game opened the question as to whether the run defense was their “soft underbelly.”

  • Against the Browns it was not.

1-3 NFL teams sit on lonely islands. And here in 2021 it isn’t just fans that start to focus on the draft and free agency, but so do agents and scouts. Meanwhile, assitant coaches start polishing their resumes double checking their lease opt out terms.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Contract

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: markybillson.medium.com

knows this, yet he’s kept his team focused through this three game winning streak, earning his third win against a team that whipped him at Heinz Field just 8 months ago.

As Tomlin himself confided “…days like today that kind of gives you an indication of what you could be.” More importantly, he was also quick to concede that much more story is needed to be written. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
Playing on a defense with no fewer than 6 first round picks means you’ll have to compete for highlight footage. And the fact is that, while “Splash” plays do turn games, the every down stops are just as important. This player has been making those all season and he continued to do so against his former team, while also coming up with a forced fumble right at the Red Zone, and for that Joe Schobert wins Unsung Hero honors for the win over the Browns.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Broncos: Offensive Line Stops Skipping Class Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who was just as truant as the offense during the season’s first month, here is the Report Card from the Steelers win over the Broncos.

T.J. Watt, Teddy Bridgewater, Steelers vs Broncos

T.J. Watt pressures Teddy Bridgewater. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 15-25 for 253 yards two touchdowns and no interceptions in what was easily is biggest day of the season. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger had 3 “almost interceptions” but he was right on the money with his two touchdown strikes as well as the deep balls that set up the rushing touchdown. But Ben put the ball on the ground, which brings his grade down. Grade: B

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran for 122 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries and caught 2 passes for 20 more. Harris exploited holes and moved piles forward. Benny Snell dropped a pass early on and found himself on the bench, but ran hard when Harris had to leave with cramps. Kalen Ballage got several carries but had no yardage to show for it. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
All three tight ends got involved in the passing game as Pat Freiermuth and Eric Ebron caught two passes a piece while Zach Gentry caught another that set off a scoring drive. The run blocking was improved, the tight ends helped with. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool owned the Broncos, burning them for 130 yards on 5 catches and a touchdown. Diontae Johnson opened the scoring with a 50 yard scamper and had one other catch for 22 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had two carries for 3 yards and no catches before leaving the game with a season ending shoulder injury. Ray-Ray McCloud only had one catch, but made an interception saving hit. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
After spending a month mired in a morass of something worse that mediocrity the offensive line turned in a fine performance. Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and only hit on one other occasion. What’s more, he had time to throw all afternoon long. Najee Harris also had plenty of room to run. This unit must continue to improve, but if it does a lot of other good things can happen. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon III might not be the NFL’s 2021 equivalent of Franco and Rocky, but they’re a solid duo. Williams torched the Steelers for a 49 yard game, but that was the lone highlight of the Denver rushing attack. That starts with the line who had a solid day including Henry Mondeaux who got his first sack.

Linebackers
As The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly pointed out, you didn’t hear Joe Schobert’s name much, although he did register 5 tackles, and that’s because he was doing his job in the middle of the field. Devin Bush had the lone sack of linebackers against a Denver time that was max protecting, while T.J. Watt did work in two pressures. A solid afternoon for the linebackers. Grade: B+

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick led the team with 10 tackles and was disruptive all over the field. But the real hero of the group is James Pierre. Pierre stopped a would-be touchdown in the first half by coming from behind to tackle Javonte Williams. His interception saved another touchdown and sealed the game. Yes, he gave up a touchdown and a long gain before that, but the ability to bounce back is critical sign of a quality cornerback. Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds had passes defensed, quietly logging solid games. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made field goals of 48 and 43 yards and was 3-3 on PATs – that’s 9 points in an 8 point game for those of you at home. Ray-Ray McCloud’s kick returns were average at best and the Steelers kick coverage was sound. After getting called out by Tony Defeo, Pressley Harvin III responded with his best day punting, including a 63 yarder late in the game. Grade: B

Coaching
The Denver Broncos came into the game with one of the NFL’s top defenses, yet Matt Canada managed to piece together a game plan that saw the Steelers score early and add to that lead all while controlling the clock.

One defense Keith Butler was missing Cam Sutton and rather than put the job of replacing him on one person, he managed to divide the load and do it effectively. The fact that the Steelers went 1-3 on fourth downs is a bit disturbing, but the unit delivered when the game was on the line.

Cam Heyward, Teddy Bridgewater, Steelers vs Broncos

Cam Heyward pressures Teddy Bridgewater. Photo Credit: AP

Three game losing streaks are ugly in their very essence in the NFL. And any the pressure to hit the “panic” button is tremendous, even if a coach denies it. Mike Tomlin refused to do that, and continued to trust in his men and his methodology and that trust paid off. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero Award
The stat sheet tells us that he might not have made any “Splash” plays. But 4 of the 5 figures on his stat line directly correlate to scuttled drives and for that Cam Heyward wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Broncos.

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Steelers 2021 Preview: Roethlisberger’s Last Ride to be a Rough One?

The wait will soon end.

Its been 245 days since the Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns and a lot has happened since then. Some of it completely predictable, some of it surprising:

Through it all, Kevin Colbert managed once again to perform the salary cap equivalent of the Loaves and the Fishes. Thanks to COVID-19 the Steelers were facing their worst salary cap situation since 2012 and 2013, yet Colbert managed to put together a roster on paper that is far stronger than anyone had a right to expect on the lonely January night when Roethlisberger and Pouncey commiserated on the sidelines.

But the time for measuring roster moves on paper has ended and the time for judgement rendered on the gridiron is about to begin.

So what can we expect?

J.J. Watt, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Texans

J.J. Watt pressures Ben Roethlisberger in 2014. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

Roethlisberger’s Final Ride Likely a Rough One

Times like these force oneself to channel their inner Jesse Ventura and “Call it as I see it McMahon.” And the truth is that if this is Ben Roethlisberger’s last ride, it looks to be a rough one.

  • That’s not the call I want to make, but the one my eyes tell me I have to make.

Why?

First let’s consider what caused the Steeler once promising 2020 season to end in an unmitigated disaster:

  • Ben Roethlisberger inability to throw the long ball caught up with him.
  • The running game disappeared
  • Injuries ravaged the defense, neutering a dominant group

Word is that Ben Roethlisberger has recovered his long ball, but given his limited action in preseason we’ll simply have to wait to see if that comes true. The Steelers dumped Randy Fichtner and replaced him with Matt Canada, which should help. As for the defense and injuries, well let’s get to that.

When salary cap Armageddon loomed, the chief concerns for the Steelers were:

Can they preserve their pass rush?
Can they field a competitive secondary?
Can they rebuild the offensive line?

Let’s see where the Steelers stand on the eve of the 2021 season.

Pass Rush

So the Steelers lost Bud Dupree, but still have Alex Highsmith, resigned T.J. Watt and added Melvin Ingram. So, on paper that’s perhaps a net positive. However, Stephon Tuitt, who accounted for 11 sacks is beginning the season on injured reserve. And Tyson Alualu is also injured.

The Steelers should field a strong pass rush this year, but its doubtful they can field a better one.

Secondary

After years of being a liability, the Steelers secondary was finally a strength during the 2019 and 2020. Yet going into the 2021 off season, everyone expected a salary cap casualty to come out of the defensive backfield.

  • But few expected that casualty to be Steven Nelson instead of Joe Haden.

The Steelers plan was to go with Haden, Cameron Sutton, and James Pierre with Joe Haden and Antoine Brooks pushing as the 4th corner. Justin Layne got arrested and Brook got hurt. The Steelers sallied on during preseason, mixing and matching various configurations of their cornerbacks. Their final decision? They traded yet another draft pick for Ahkello Witherspoon.

Offensive Line

Let’s say this. No one can accuse the Steelers of standing pat on the offensive line. When the Steelers open against the Bills, Kelvin Dotson will be the only player working in the same place he was last season against the Giants.

  • But does change equal improvement?

That’s the bigger question. What isn’t a question is that this is another situation that did not evolve according to plan. Mike Tomlin’s idea was to start is experienced tackles Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor on the right and left sides. But Banner got hurt and left tackle proved to be too much for Okorafor.

Dan Moore’s performance has elicited nothing but positive commentary since he was drafted in the third round, but rookies starting a left tackle in the NFL are rare.

As it stands, on opening day the Steelers will start 2 rookies on offensive line, one sophomore who literally looks like a “rising sophomore,” a veteran who was unemployed in late June and veteran who is back at right tackle after not being able to cut it on the left side.

It might work. But would you bet your 401(k) balance on it?

Wimp Out Disclaimer

After writing 753 of gloom and doom its now time for the “Wimp Out Disclaimer.”

The red and yellow flag flying above the Steelers offensive line, secondary and pass rush are real but so has Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s reaction to them. When it became clear that Banner’s injury issues weren’t going away and Okorafor struggled, the Steelers started working Dan Moore into the line up.

The first thought here was that Mike Tomlin was planning to use Moore the way he used Kelvin Beachum in 2013, roating him in on both sides to push both starters. But Tomlin didn’t do that. He made the change immediately.

You can see a similar pattern elsewhere, from signing Melvin Ingram, to trading for Joe Schobert, to trading for Witherspoon.

The fact that the Steelers brass felt they needed to make these moves is worrisome, but their willingness to act decisively is encouraging.

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Steelers Draft Tre Norwood, Cornerback, Safety, “Swiss Army Knife” in 7th Round

With their first pick in the 7th round of the 2021 NFL Draft the Steelers bolstered their secondary by drafting cornerback/safety Tre Norwood, who played his college ball at Oklahoma.

The NFL’s draft site labeled Tre Norwood as a cornerback the Steelers announced him as a safety, but Mike Tomlin called him a “Swiss Army Knife/utility back/safety.”

  • The Sooners listed him as a “defensive back.”

Early in his career he played cornerback but gravitated to safety later in his career. As far as it concerns the Steelers, it really doesn’t matter – Pittsburgh is desperate for backups at both cornerback and safety.

Tre Norwood

Steelers 7th round pick Tre Norwood. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Tre Norwood Video Highlights

The 6 foot 192 pounder Norwood caught the attention of scouts thanks to his ball skills, as he intercepted 5 passes during the 2020 season, tying for 3rd national and leading the Big 12. Here’s a look at his highlight tape:

Looks good. He won’t find NFL quarterbacks throwing passes that are that easy to pick off, but he does know how to catch a ball.

How Tre Norwood Fits in with Steelers

The Steelers look to field a strong front four in their secondary, with Cameron Sutton, Joe Haden, Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick. The team is likewise high on James Pierre as a number 3 corner.

That latter of has proven nothing in 2 years in the NFL and Antoine Brooks is untested. But at the end of the day, Tre Norwood, the Swiss Army Knife, is a 7th round pick. 7th round picks can make a difference as rookies – just look at Kelvin Beachum in 2012. And in 1992 8th round pick Darren Perry won the starting job.

  • But the best case scenario for Tre Norwood is for him to contribute on special teams.

Hopefully, they’ll be no demand for his services in 2021 beyond that. Welcome to Steelers Nation Tre Norwood.

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