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 Beat Broncos 27 to 19 with +100 Yards from Najee Harris & James Pierre Late Interception

The Denver Broncos opened the season with 3 straight wins, until losing last week to Baltimore Ravens. The Pittsburgh Steelers opened the season with a win, and then lost their next 3 games.

  • Pittsburgh prevailed in the battle of 3-1 vs. 1-3 to the tune of 27 to 19.

And the irony of it is, the Steelers were successful because, for once, things went as they were scripted.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Broncos

Chase Claypool scores a touchdown in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

How Things were “Supposed” to Work for the Steelers

In mid-August my wife asked what the Steelers prospects were for the coming season. I assured her that, despite a fairly strong showing in preseason, the Steelers still “Needed a lot of things to go right.”

So what were those things that had to go right?

  • Ben Roethlisberger needed to throw less than 40 passes a game, his ’20 average
  • Najee Harris needed to revive the Steelers rushing attack
  • The offensive line had to to improve
  • Gambles on players like James Pierre had to pay off
  • Players like Chase Claypool would need to make that “2nd year leap”

Almost nothing has gone according to plan for the Steelers in 2021.

The last three weeks saw Ben Roethlisberger thr0w 40, 58, and 40 passes. In week one Ben got it done with 32 passes. Funny how that one ended in a win. The offensive line struggled, and if it hadn’t been worse than it was in 2020, it wasn’t showing signs of getting better.

Injuries hobbled the defense and young players whom the Steelers were counting on performance spanned from, “He might be taking a step back” to “he’s improving, but only marginally.”

Tried and True Yields a Fresh Start

“Throw to score, run to win” was the credo of Bill Cowher’s first offensive coordinator, Ron Erhardt. In today’s pass-happy, Fantasy Football driven NFL such thinking is passé.

  • Winning is never passé and relying on your running game remains a winning formula.

And so it was that the Steelers opened with two straight runs to Najee Harris. One 3rd and 1, with the defense forced to respect the threat of another Harris rush, Ben Roethlisberger hit Chase Claypool for 23 yards. The Steelers followed with a Jet Sweep to JuJu Smith-Schuster and two plays later Ben Roethlisberger was hooking up with Diontae Johnson on a 50 yard touchdown.

  • Opening drive touchdowns have been spare for the Steelers for a long, long time.

So an early TD was welcome, but as the loss to the Packers proved, how you begin isn’t nearly as important as how you finish. But by sticking to a tried and true formula for “Steelers Football,” Pittsburgh had given itself a fresh start.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Broncos

Najee Harris hits the open field. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Harris Grinds it Out

The next two drives saw the Steelers run 19 plays. The first drive ended in a fumble, the second one in a field goal. Pittsburgh rushed the ball on 11 of those 19 plays. While you’d like to see a little more from you offense, the Steelers were accomplishing something important:

  • They were establishing the run.

The offensive line might not have been engaging on road grading quality run blocking, but they were opening holes and Najee Harris was exploiting them. That allowed plays like Chase Claypool’s 59 yard hook up from Ben Roethlisberger, that got them into the Red Zone and paved the way for Najee Harris air mail express 1 yard touchdown leap.

The trend continued in the second half, as the Steelers set themselves up for success by creating manageable third downs and stitched together a 14 play 88 yard drive that consumed 7 minutes of the clock and ended with Chase Claypool going over the top to put the Steelers up 24-6 with 2:41 left to play in the 3rd quarter.

By that point, Najee Harris had logged his first 1 yard game and the Steelers first 100 yard rushing effort in 16 games.

But the game wasn’t over yet.

Defense Corrals Broncos Offense for 3 Quarters

The Steelers defense dominated the Broncos offense for 3 quarters. Their efforts early in the game were critical to victory. After an early Ben Roethlisberger fumble gave the Broncos the ball at Steeler 29 yard line.

  • It was early in the 1st quarter and a Broncos touchdown would tie the game and fundamentally alter its dynamic.

Vic Fangio called Javonte Williams number on 3 straight plays. And on three straight plays Minkah Fitzpatrick, Isiah Buggs, T.J. Watt, Robert Spillane and Terrell Edmunds ganged up to neutralize him. Denver was forced to settle for 3.

Two possession later, Javonte Williams torched the Steelers offense for 49 yards as James Pierre barley saved a touchdown. That set up Denver at the Steelers 5 yard line, but Devin Bush dropped Teddy Bridgewater for a 12 yard sack, effectively forcing them to settle for 3 again.

But as the third quarter ended the Broncos offense found their stride and gave the Steelers defense a run for its money.

Defense Finally Bends, Breaks but Bounces Back in a Big Way

When the Denver Broncos got the ball with 2:14 left in the 3rd quarter they were down 24 to 6 and things looked pretty hopeless. But they stitched together a 14 play, 76 yard touchdown drive that saw them convert 3 fourth downs.

While you never want to see something like that happen, the Steelers don’t have the shut down defense they had in 2019 or 2020 and such efforts are to be expected, if not accepted 2021 in the NFL.

  • But the Steelers had to punt on their next drive and worse yet, they lost Najee Harris.

This gave Denver the ball back with 7:40 left to play and it was in those seven minutes and 40 seconds that the Broncos would test one of the Steelers biggest gambles of the season to the limit.

First, Denver reached midfield by picking on James Pierre for a 15 yard completion. Two plays later Pierre bit a little too hard on the inside to Courtland Sutton as Sutton burned him for a 39 yard touchdown pass.

The Steelers defense nixed the 2 point conversion and the offense tacked on a field goal to keep it an 8 point game, but Denver got the ball back with 2 and a half minutes to play. As soon as he got in scoring range, Teddy Bridgewater wasted little time in picking on James Pierre. Pierre deflected it but could have ended things with an interception.

  • Two plays later he did hook up with Kendall Hinton to bring Denver to the 9 yard line.

Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds knocked away passes on 1st and 3rd downs with Joe Schobert tackling Melvin Gordon short of the goal line on second.

One 4th and 9 Bridgewater again tried to pick on Pierre. Here’s Pierre’s response:

The story of the first three quarters was that, for one game at least, the Steelers offense functioned the way it was “supposed to.”

The story of the fourth quarter was that, when the game was one the line, the gamble the Steelers made in James Pierre paid off in spades.

No NFL team wants to start the season at 2-3, but 2-3 beats the hell out of 1-4. As Mike Tomlin reflected: “Time will tell the story. We are appreciative of the efforts and the win we got today, but those type of perspectives and things of that nature will be revealed to us as we continue to play.”

Amen to that.

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Steelers Report Card for Raiders Loss – Arriving @ School with No Pencil Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who fears that a lack of paper and pencils might scuttle the semester, here is the Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Raiders.

Trayvon Mullen Jr. , Steelers vs Raiders

Trayvon Mullen Jr. intercepts Ben Roethlisberger early in the 1st quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
To his credit Ben Roethlisberger repeatedly took the blame for this loss. And it is true that his 40 for 27 for 295 yards and 1 touchdown and one interception hides the fact that too many of his deep throws were off. Roethlisberger is right, he does need to play better. But he has plenty of company. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 10 runs for 38 yards and 5 catches for 43 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers look pedestrian. And they are. But they’re not Harris’ fault. Outside of his 14 yard burst – which not coincidentally sparked the Steelers first touchdown drive – Harris had no room to run. Benny Snell had two carries for one yard. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 4 passes on four targets and came ooh so close to converting a third down. He also contributed with some quality blocks. Eric Ebron had zero catches on 2 passes. Zach Gentry had 14 snaps. Moving forward success on offense might require more Freiermuth and less Gentry. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson lead the team with 9 catches for 105 yards including a 41 yarder that set up a score. But he also broke off a route way too early that lead to an interception. Chase Claypool had 3 catches including a 52 yarder that set up another touchdown. Still Claypool was targeted 6 more times to no avail. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 of 7 passes thrown his way for 41 yards. Claypool and Johnson must go the extra mile to make plays for their quarterback. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
Where to start? Against the Raiders, the 2021 Steelers offensive line was the 2020, except with the good qualities stripped out. Run blocking was nonexistent and Ben Roethlisberger was hit 10 times including 2 sacks. To borrow on our opening metaphor, good line play is to quality offense as paper and pencils are to quality education. And the Steelers offensive line isn’t even showing up to school with their erasers.  Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was a one man wrecking crew breaking up passes and dropping players for losses in 3rd down doing more than you’d expect to make up for the loss of Tyson Alualu. Chris Wormley and Isaiahh Loudermilk didn’t put up a lot of stats, but the Raiders couldn’t run. Still, defensive line could have done more to make its presence felt in the pass rush. Grade: B-

Linebackers
For a while, it seemed like T.J. Watt might beat the Raiders all by himself, logging 3 tackles, a strip sack and a QB hit in a quarter of play. But then he got hurt. Melvin Ingram, Alex Highsmith, Robert Spillane and Joe Schobert all had their moments, but David Carr had too much time to throw in the first half. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Raiders, Derek Carr

T.J. Watt strip sacks Derek Carr during the Steelers 26-17 loss to the Raiders on September 19th 2021 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Secondary
As Jim Wexell pointed out, on the critical play of the game, Minkah Fitzpatrick cheated up to the line of scrimmage Troy Poalmalu style in an attempt to shut down Darren Walker. Alas, the gambit failed, and Henry Ruggs streak through the secondary. Minhak Fitzpatrick tried to recover but fell short and Ahkello Witherspoon never had a chance.

The secondary, sans Joe Haden, and sans Devin Bush, T.J. Watt and Tyson Alualu in front of them held the Raiders in check for the first half. But the unit gave up two touchdowns in the 2nd half. Grade: D

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud had a nice 15 yard punt return and 2 respectable kick returns. The Steelers kick coverage was solid, but they did give up more punt yardage than desirable. Grade: C+

Coaching
Mike Tomlin knows his team.

Many fans and journalists want to make hay of Tomlin’s decision to punt on 4th and 1 with 9 minute left. But let’s be honest, the Steelers offense simply isn’t physical enough go for that one yard with any confidence.

(For those of you with long memories, think of Bill Cowher calling a fea-flicker on 4th and 1 vs. the Jaguars during the Dark Days of September 1999.)

On defense, Keith Butler kept the Steelers in the game with smart play in the first half, but his unit gave up one long drive, followed by a quick strike and then a field goal drive in the 2nd half. As for the offense, we glimpsed the potential of what Matt Canada can do on the two touchdown drives. But until the offensive line can muster the physicality to breathe live into those schemes, the Steelers will go no where. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
Alas, it didn’t alter the outcome, but lining up for a 56 yarder at Heinz Field is never easy. Doing it when just under 4 minutes remaining and facing an 11 point deficit only adds to the fun. It was the longest kick in Heinz Field history and Chris Boswell not only made it, but he split the uprights. And for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Raiders.

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Raiders Prevail over Pittsburgh 27-17 as Depleted Depth Sinks Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland-Los Angeles-Oakland-Las Vegas Raiders met for the 24th time yesterday at Heinz Field, as the men in Silver and Black prevailed 27-17.

The two teams may have now faced off 2 dozen times, but the game marked this citizen of Steelers Nation 2nd Steelers game in 2 years viewed from his native abode in suburban DC. It is only fitting then to begin the analysis of why Las Vegas won by borrowing the words of legendary WMAL/WTEM sports radio journalist Ken Beatrice, who reminded listener: “Injuries are as much a factor as talent and coaching in the NFL.”

  • Ken was right and Sunday’s lose provided a perfect case study.

But injuries impact every NFL team, and they only partially explain why the Steelers lost to the Raiders. The loss to the Raiders revealed a fundamental flaw that the Steelers must correct if they are to similar defeats in the future.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Raiders

Soloman Thomas sacks Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

2 Men Short Becomes 4 Man Short, in a Hurry

As Mike Tomlin explained after the opening day win over the Bills, the Steelers defense is supposed to go toe-to-toe with any team in the league. He made no apologize for that. And while he won’t say it, that’s also an implicit admission that the defense will have to carry the team early on.

  • So it was cause for concern that Devin Bush and Joe Haden headed up the Steelers inactive list.

Both men would get company in the training room, fast. Tyson Alualu fell first, going onto the cart with an ankle injury early in the game. At first it didn’t seem to matter, as T.J. Watt accounted for 4 tackles on the first 9 plays including a strip sack and a drive ending run stuff on third down.

  • Unfortunately, that was about it for T.J. Watt, as a groin injury forced him from the game.

And for a while, it seemed like the Steelers could manage without Watt. Melvin Ingram teamed with Robert Spillane on a key run stuff and helped force an incompletion in the end zone. And when the Steelers second team defense wasn’t making shut down plays, the Raiders tripped over themselves, taking one touchdown off of the board due to penalties and settling for 3 field goals instead of touchdowns.

This was good, because the Steelers offense struggled to get out of 1st gear.

Steelers Offense Stuck in 2020

During 2020 the skinny on the Steelers offense was simple. When Ben Roethlisberger could hit JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson on short, 5 to 7 yard routes, things were OK. If anything else was required to win, Pittsburgh had problems.

  • During the first 3 drives of the game the Steelers offense remained stuck in 2020

Najee Harris ripped off a nice 14 yard run, but other than that, he found no daylight. Outside of a 17 yard strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster, Roethlisberger’s successes were confined to 5 or 6 yard hook ups. He misfired deep to Chase Claypool twice and Diontae Johnson cut off his route way too early on another occasion leading to a Trayvon Mullen interception.

Fortunately, Roethlisberger and Johnson found their groove late in the 2nd quarter as they hooked up for a 41 yard catch, that set up a 6 yard JuJu Smith-Schuster touchdown on a Jet Sweep. It felt good to see the Steelers score a non-garbage time TD at Heinz Field again, but they were still down 9-7.

Failure on Fundamentals Catches Up with Steelers in 2nd Half

A two point half-time deficit does not an unscalable wall make, as Yoda might remind us. And when the visiting team goes up by nine with 20 minutes left to play, you are still very much in the game. But in the 2nd half injuries on defense conspired with failures on fundamentals on offense to do the Steelers in.

The Steelers defense has been a pass rushing juggernaut since 2015 at least. And if all of the pressure on the passer didn’t necessarily result in turnovers until recently, it kept opposing quarterback honest and at least helped limit long completions.

Cam Heyward, Alex Highsmith and Melvin Ingram made some fine plays, but in the end the Steelers defense couldn’t compensate for the loss of four starters as the Raiders exploited them for several deep gains including a 61 touchdown pass that saw Tre Norwood and James Pierre get torched.

  • The Steelers couldn’t overcome that because of failures on fundamentals on offense.

The good news is that Najee Harris has proven he is a legitimate weapon for the Steelers. Its no coincidence that Pittsburgh’s first touchdown drive started with a 14 yard carry by Harris, and its second end zone encountered ended with a 25 yard catch and run that featured a twisting goal line dive by Harris.

Unfortunately, the Steelers offensive line couldn’t block well enough to make Harris a factor in the game. That forced Ben Roethlisberger to look deep. He found Chase Claypool on one occasion for 52 yards to set up Harris’ score, but he misfired on his other 3 attempts.

And there’s the rub.

After the game, Ben Roethlisberger took the blame, admitting that “I need to play better.” That’s true. To a degree.

But Ben can’t do it by himself anymore. Ben Roethlisberger has shown he can be a winning quarterback if he’s playing in a balanced offense. But until the Steelers can mount a competent running game, they will depend on pitching shut outs on defense.

And as today’s game shows, all it takes to neuter the Steelers defense is a few inopportune injuries.

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

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

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

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers vs Lions Preseason

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

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

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

  • So how did he do?

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

  • Throwing down field as more of a mixed bag.

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

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

2. Too Early to Worry about the Run Defense?

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

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

3. Welcome to Pittsburgh Paty Freiermuth

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

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

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

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

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

4. Kalen Ballage Secures Backup Slot

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Glad You’re Still Here JuJu

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

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

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

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Steelers 2021 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class Heavy on Defensive Backs

Mere hours after making Presley Harvin III their final pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Steelers announced that they’d come to terms with their 2021 Undrafted Free Agent Rookie class.

Shakur Brown, cornerback, Michigan State
Mark Gilbert, cornerback, Duke
Calvin Bundage, outside linebacker, Oklahoma State
Jamar Watson, outside linebacker, Kentucky
Donovan Stiner, safety, Florida
Lamont Wade, safety, Penn State
Rico Bussey, wide receiver, Hawaii
Isaiah McKoy, wide receiver, Kent State

Donnie Shell, Donnie Shell Hall of Fame, Steelers vs Dophins, 1984 AFC Championship

Like Donnie Shell before them, Mark Gilbert and Lamont Wade will try to make the Steelers as undrafted rookie free agents. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.

As they always do, the Steelers undrafted rookie free agent class closely mirrors the positions that Pittsburgh didn’t pick, or picked late in the preceding draft.

The Steelers needs on defense at outside linebacker and cornerback were arguably greater than inside linebacker or defensive line. The Steeler addressed the latter two in the 4th and 5th rounds with their picks of Buddy Johnson and defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk.

  • So its little surprise that Steelers swiftly moved to bring two cornerbacks, two outside linebacker and two safeties to St. Vincents.

Mark Gilbert brings strong ties to the NFL and to Pittsburgh football, as he is the cousin of former Pitt and Washington stand out Sean Gilbert and the nephew of Pitt’s Darrelle Revis.

While that makes for a great story, remember that those bloodlines will mean nothing to Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler when he goes out and tries intercept Ben Roethlisberger while covering cover JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool this summer at St. Vincents.

Mike Golic Jr. headlined the Steelers 2013 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent class and while he spent some time on Pittsburgh’s practice squad, he never played a down in the NFL.

  • If that sounds harsh, it should not. It is in fact the exact opposite.

Once you set foot on the campus of St. Vincents, the Pittsburgh Steelers stop caring about where you came from or how you got to Latrobe and only focus on what you can do to help the team win.

  • This mentality began with Chuck Noll and has engrained itself in DNA of the Steelers culture.

Its what allowed 10th round pick L.C. Greenwood to take his place alongside Joe Greene. Its what allowed Donnie Shell to earn a roster spot and ultimately force out two-time Super Bowl starter Glen Edwards en route to the Hall of Fame.

Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

Dwight Stone’s Steelers career ran from 1987 to 1994. Photo Credit: Amazon

Its what allowed Dwight Stone to earn a roster spot and get snaps at the expense of 3rd round pick Charles Lockett. It paved the way for Ramon Foster earn a practice squad slot, followed by a regular season roster spot, which he transformed into a decade long-career as a starter.

And looking back at that 2013 Steelers Undrafted Free Agent Rookie class, Mike Golic and Nik Embernate may have generated all of the buzz, but it was unheralded Chris Hubbard that used his opportunity to build an NFL career.

Time will tell if any of the Steelers 2021 Undrafted Rookie Free Agents set Super Bowl records like that of Fast Willie Parker in Super Bowl XL or that of James Harrison in Super Bowl XLIII.

But those men can come to St. Vincents secure in the knowledge that they will judged on what they can do, not where they come from.

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin similarly beamed about his first round pick:

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

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

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

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

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

Najee Harris, Steelers 2021 First Round Draft Pick

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

Najee Harris Video Highlights

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

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

Clearly, there’s a lot to like.

How Najee Harris Fits into Steelers Scheme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Steelers Draft Running Backs 1st, Good Things Happen

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

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

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

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

So welcome to Steelers Nation Najee.

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Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix – Who to Pick If Need Must Drive Decision

The 2021 NFL Draft is here. The Pittsburgh Steelers have 8 picks to fill enough holes with just enough talent to give themselves an shot at making what will, perhaps, be one final Super Bowl run with Ben Roethlisberger.

steelers press conference,

Steelers in Far Stronger Shape than Expected

When the Steelers 2020 season ended in flames with the playoff loss to the Browns, things looked bleak. Pittsburgh faced salary cap Armageddon thanks to COVID-19. But they’re far stronger than expected, thanks  to Ben Roethlisberger taking one for the team with a 5 million dollar pay cut.

Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert also stepped step outside their comfort zone with voidable year contracts that kept JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton and Eric Ebron in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers have also done some free agent bargain bin hunting, to give themselves depth at offensive line, cornerback, tackle, defensive line and a few other spots. Make no mistake about it:

  • The Steelers roster is weaker than the one that got beaten badly the Browns in the playoffs.

The Steelers have real needs they must fill in the 2021 NFL Draft. So what are those needs?

Steelers Needs Heading into the 2021 NFL Draft

Over the last few weeks, with the help of Tony Defeo, we’ve reviewed each part of the Steelers depth chat, classifying steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftPittsburgh’s need using the following scale.

  • The Steelers needs tier pretty quickly into three categories: Serious needs, almost serious needs, and  “Nice to Haves.”

The Steelers serious needs come at running back, tackle, center, and tight end. Note, Tony Defeo classified tight end as “High” but for the Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix, I’m classifying that is “High-Moderate.”

What that means in plain English is that the Steelers could draft tonight or tomorrow night who could win the starting job in training camp.

Below that we have “almost serious needs” where we place Cornerback as High-Moderate, Inside Linebacker as Moderate-High, Outside linebacker as Moderate (although that could easily go Moderate High). Those are followed by Safety, Defensive line an guard which are both “Moderate.”

  • In simple terms, its is less likely that the Steelers could draft a starter here, but possible.

And even if that player isn’t a starter, he could end up providing critical depth at the position. Guard might be the outliner there, particularly depending on what happens at center.

  • Finally, you have our “Nice to Haves” which are wide receiver and quarterback.

With Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins AND Joshua Dobbs under contract, the Steelers really don’t have room for a quarterback, unless a 1983 type situation unfolds and it won’t. Likewise, with JuJu back, and Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson still having plenty of “upside” using a premium pick on a wide out is a luxury the Steelers don’t have in 2021.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix

So how do you determine the Steelers pecking order in terms of needs? Well, for that we give you the Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix

Running back gets the nod over offensive tackle because the Steelers have two starters, albeit unproven ones, at tackle, whereas they do not have a legitimate number 1 NFL running back. Tackle gets preference over center because you need field two tackles an only one center. Center gets the nod over tight end because Eric Ebron is a better tight end than either B.J. Finney or J.C. Hassenauer is a center.

  • And there’s a chance that Kevin Radar can be a legit number 1 NFL tight end, at least in terms of blocking.

Tight end beats cornerback because the Steelers have two starter-capable players there, and cornerback trumps inside linebacker because someone could come in and beat out either Robert Spillane or Vince Williams.

But the Steelers have no one behind them, so outside linebacker trumps safety, where the Steelers do have some younger depth. But the depth at safety is even more untested than it is at defensive line so that gets the next nod. Guard comes in next because the Steelers should be OK there, but it is clearly a higher need that wide receiver or quarterback.

As always we offer our caveat, the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix does not suggest that Steelers should reach to fill needs.

But the needs matrix is intended to act as a sort of tie breaker for when and if the Steelers turn comes to pick and two men have the same draft grade (not that Mike Tomlin or Kevin Colbert will ever read this – nor should they.)

Finally, while more hype and hoopla surrounds the draft than their needs to be, but let’s keep in mind Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr.’s words, “Everyone’s a winner on draft day.” While the The Chief’s words were more of a compliant than an aspiration, the truth is that the NFL draft is the day a dream comes true for 250 or so young men.

Let’s give them there day, hope they enjoy it and, in turn, let their enthusiasm fuel our own hopes for the Steelers 2021 season and beyond.

 

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Steelers are Deep @ Wide Receiver. So is 2021 NFL Draft. What Happens Next?

Everyone knows the Pittsburgh Steelers are great at drafting wide receivers. Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Martavis Bryant are just some of the names Pittsburgh has drafted and developed over the past decade-plus.

The Steelers seemingly take a receiver in either the second or third round each year, but now that they head into the upcoming season with four recently-drafted youngsters still on the roster, do they need to address the position in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Colts

Diontae Johnson catches a 39 yard bullet for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Chart at Wide Receiver: The Starters

The unexpected re-signing of JuJu Smith-Schuster at the end of the first week of unrestricted free agency means that the Steelers are getting back an all-around receiver who can make the tough catches, block and is a much better big-play threat than people give him credit for. After exploding onto the scene during his first two seasons — including catching 111 passes for 1,426 yards in his sophomore campaign–Smith-Schuster’s production slipped a bit over his next two years. There were a few contributing factors, of course, namely injuries and the near season-long absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2019.

When Diontae Johnson was selected in the third round out of Toledo in 2019, it surprised a few folks. But watching him on tape, there was no question that he shared a lot of the same physical traits as one Antonio Brown, who the Steelers had recently traded in a very public and very messy divorce.

Despite Pittsburgh’s subpar quarterback play, Johnson turned in an impressive rookie season, catching 59 passes for 680 yards and five touchdowns. Johnson’s production predictably increased in 2020 with the return of Roethlisberger, as the former caught 88 passes for 923 yards and seven touchdowns. Johnson has struggled with ball-security issues over his first two seasons, including a high drop-rate — he led the NFL in that category in 2020.

However, Johnson is a youngster and, more importantly, his pluses appear to outweigh his minuses.

Steelers Depth Chart at Wide Receiver: The Backups

With the Steelers running so many three and four-receiver sets these days, it’s hard to say who’s number one, number two, number three, etc. on the depth chart. Chase Claypool, the team’s second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame last spring, certainly didn’t seem like a backup, as he burst onto the scene in a Randy Moss-like fashion.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles, Steelers rookie touchdown record

Rookie Chase Claypool scores the first of four touchdowns vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

At 6’4′ and 238 pounds, and blessed with 4.4 speed, the Canadian product quickly proved to be a matchup problem for both defensive backs and linebackers, alike. Claypool caught 62 passes for 873 yards and nine touchdowns, while also adding two more scores on the ground. Claypool became the first rookie in franchise history to score four touchdowns in one game in a victory over the Eagles on October 11 at Heinz Field.

James Washington, a second-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2018, has always seemed like the odd man out in the Steelers receivers’ room.

After a rather forgettable rookie campaign that saw him catch just 16 passes for 217 yards, Washington rebounded rather nicely in 2019, leading the team in receiving yards with 735. Washington’s production dipped again in 2020–30 receptions for 392 yards and five touchdowns–but I think this was more a result of Claypool’s emergence than an indictment of Washington’s abilities.

Ray-Ray McCloud, a sixth-round pick by the Bills in 2018, was signed by the Steelers last summer and made the team as a punt returner. McCloud excelled enough in that role that Pittsburgh brought him back for 2021.

Rounding out the receivers’ depth chart are unknowns Anthony Johnson, Tyler Simmons, Cody White and Mathew Sexton.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Wide Receiver

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftEven when it was assumed that Smith-Schuster would quickly exit as a free agent, the Steelers still seemed to be in good shape at receiver. His return makes it arguably the deepest and most talented position on the team in 2021.

  • However, Smith-Schuster only signed a one-year deal and will likely test the free-agent waters again next year.

James Washington is also heading into the final year of his rookie deal and might soon want to go somewhere where he can start. Lying beneath all of that is the fact that the 2021 NFL Draft is said to be incredibly deep at wide receiver.

Given that the Steelers needs at wide receiver heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered Low-Moderate.

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James Conner Signs with Cardinals. His Steelers Career is Case of Stars Not Lining Up

Former Steelers running back and proverbial home town hero James Conner made his departure from Pittsburgh official yesterday when he signed with the Arizona Cardinals. This move was not as surprise, as all indications were that the Steelers had no interest in offering James Conner a second contract.

  • The move is nonetheless disappointing because Hollywood couldn’t have scripted the beginning of his story better.

The Steelers drafted James Conner in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Although Le’Veon Bell had just broken the Steelers single-game regular season and post-season rushing records – records that neither Hall of Famers John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis nor Super Bowl record holder Fast Willie Parker ever touched – it was clear that the Steelers needed someone to share the load with Bell.

  • James Conner seemed tailor made to fit that role.

James Conner didn’t just hail from Erie and hadn’t just played his college ball at Pitt, but he’d beaten cancer and a ACL injury to log a 1,000 yard season with the Panthers. His injury history allowed him to fall. It seemed like the Steelers were getting a starter-capable running back for a 3rd round compensatory selection.
Nice story, except things rarely work out as scripted.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns

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

James Conner only carried the ball 32 times as a rookie, his blocking ability limiting his ability to serve as a complementary back to Le’Veon Bell (or maybe the coaches just wanted to feed Bell the ball.)

Unfortunately, fate did not smile more kindly on Conner following his rookie year.

The Steelers erred badly by placing the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, as Le’Veon Bell held out. At first that seemed like a boon for the Steelers. James Conner ran with authority, prompting fans to throw together all sorts of stats that implied that the Steelers were better with Conner.

When it became clear that Bell was going to hold out, coaches started cutting back on Conner’s work load in the interests of preserving his health. When Bell’s hold out became permanent, this site observed that:

Today the Steelers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders; a serious injury to James Conner immediately downgrades them to a team that, with a few breaks, could win perhaps win a playoff game.

The Steelers, fate would have it, struggled and missed the playoffs. The following year James Conner had a shaky start to 2019, as the offense struggled to adjust from the absence of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown while defenses stacked the box daring Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges to throw.

  • Injuries was strike Conner down, forcing him to miss five games and parts of several others.

In 2020, just when it seemed like Benny Snell might be eclipsing him in the offense, James Conner responded with 3 one hundred yard games between weeks 2 and 5. But Conner would find himself on the COVID-19 list, then suffered a minor injury. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s run blocking regressed to the point where it became downright pathetic.

  • 2021 brought Conner one last chance at capturing glory for his hometown.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and James Conner after Maurkice Pouency’s high snap. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via The Altoona Times.

The Steelers had a home playoff game against their historic rivals, the Cleveland Browns. It’s the opportunity every kid who, after unwrapping a football under the Christmas tree got admonished, “I don’t want to see yinz throwing that in the house” dreamed of.

For what its worth, James Conner caught the game’s final pass, a two point conversion that followed Chase Claypool’s touchdown. Good for him to end things on a high note. James Conner, giving it has all to the bitter end his who he is.

  • But on balance, James Conner’s Steelers career shows that sometimes the stars just don’t line up.

Steel Curtain Rising thanks James Conner for his 4 years with the Steelers and wishes him nothing but the best in Arizona.

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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