Why Steelers Would be Wise to Resign Free Agent Markus Wheaton

In the 24 years since the Freeman McNeil verdict brought free agency to the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted 29 wide receivers. 27 of those wide receivers have gone on to play in at least one NFL football game, and 24 of those 27 have suited up for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • Clearly, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have an eye for drafting receivers.

But if the Steelers have excelled in finding and drafting wide receivers who’re good enough to make the field and play, Pittsburgh rarely picks ones that stay. Of those 24 wide receivers the Steelers have drafted since 1993, only two of them*, Hines Ward and Antonio Brown have gotten second contracts in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers sat and watched as first round picks Charles Johnson, Troy Edwards, Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes left in free agency (or were traded). They did the same with Antwaan Randle El after he authored a game-changing play in Super Bowl XL. If you count Yancey Thigpen, who was essentialy a waiver-wire pickup, the Steelers let their then single-season reception record holder walk in free agency.

IN a week when Antonio Brown signed his third contract in Pittsburgh, we turn our attention to whether Steelers free agent Markus Wheaton can break precedent and secure his second contract.

Markus Wheaton, Markus Wheaton free agent, Steelers vs Seahawks, Markus Wheaton Seahawks

Markus Wheaton in his 9 catch 201 yard game in 2015 vs. the Seahawks. Photo Credit: John Froschauer, AP via ESPN.com

Capsule Profile of Markus Wheaton’s Steelers Career

Although the Steelers “Young Money” phenomenon never quite lived up to its hype, Mike Wallace left Pittsburgh having made his mark on the Steelers wide receiving records. Markus Wheaton, whom the Steelers had drafted in the 3rd round of the 2013 NFL Draft, ostensibly came to Pittsburgh to replace Wallace.

Not that there was any pressure or anything.

As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola’s tweet from training camp indicate, the Steelers had high expectations for Markus Wheaton:

Unfortunately, injuries ruined Markus Wheaton’s rookie season. While he officially appeared in 12 games, Ben Roethlisberger only targeted him 13 times, of which Wheaton came down with the ball on 6 occasions.

Things looked better for Markus Wheaton going into 2014, as he earned the starting role alongside Antonio Brown. Wheaton had a strong game in the Steelers 2014 season opener against the Browns, but they struggled for the next several weeks. At mid-season he was all but forgotten in the excitement generated by Martavis Bryant’s debut.

  • Nonetheless, Markus Wheaton closed 2014 playing an unsung role by consistently making critical 3rd down conversions.

Markus Wheaton’s 2015 campaign closely mirrored 2014. He got off to an inconsistent start, but stepped up his play during the latter half of the season proving he could be a viable number 2 NFL wide out (although he did have an ugly drop in the playoffs vs. Denver.)

Markus Wheaton injured his shoulder in the Steelers preseason game against the New Orleans Saints, and only appeared in 3 games for the Steelers in 2016 before going on injured reserve.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Markus Wheaton

One year ago the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to field one of NFL’s deepest wide receiving corps in 2016. Instead the Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and Richard Mann struggled to find someone who could occupy the number 2 spot opposite Antonio Brown.

  • The Steelers never really found that number 2 wide out.

To the team’s collective credit, the Steelers compensated effectively by leaning more heavily on Le’Veon Bell and by using quantity to make up for a lack of quality. That formula failed the Steelers in the playoffs, as evidence by the need for 6 Chris Boswell field goals in Kansas City and the disaster that was the AFC Championship.

Markus Wheaton might not give the Steelers a modern day “Swann-Stallworth” type combo alongside Antonio Brown, but he’s a reliable receiver and a legitimate number 2 that has proven he can make defenses pay should they decide to ignore him.

  • Markus Wheaton can also move into the slot, should Martavis Bryant prove he deserves and can be trusted with a starting job.

Better yet, because he spent most of his contract year injured, Markus Wheaton isn’t in a position to command a lot of interest or money on the free agent market. That makes the Steelers resigning Markus Wheaton a no brainer.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Markus Wheaton

Here are 6 simple reason why the Steelers need not think twice about resigning Markus Wheaton:

In a best case scenario, the Steelers will have the services of all six men on a full time basis next year. While Steelers know there’s no certainty that both Bryant and Green, either man offers Pittsburgh’s offense a far more dangerous weapon than Wheaton does.

Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers got pressed into service far earlier than anyone expected them two, and while Rogers and Hamilton had suffered their growing pains in the AFC Championship, these player did in fact grow up fast.

  • The Steelers will probably keep 5 wide receivers next year with 6 being the absolute maximum.

Bringing Markus Wheaton back, even on a “Prove It” contract, would mean risking exposing losing Rogers, Hamilton or Ayers, guys who have longer-term prospects in Pittsburgh. Given that, the case for investing salary cap dollars and a roster spot in Markus Wheaton seems rather weak.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Markus Wheaton

In a number of albeit imperfect ways, Markus Wheaton’s development to this point in his career reminds me of Jason Gildon’s. Gildon was fortunate enough to do an apprenticeship behind Hall of Famer Kevin Greene, but by the end of Gildon’s sophomore season, Greene pronounced him as ready to start.

  • Jason Gildon did start in 1996 and 1997, but started off slow in both seasons but was playing fairly good football by the end of each.

That worked out well for the Steelers, because by the time he became a free agent, he didn’t have the type of numbers to command a big contract and the Steelers resigned Jason Gildon at a relative bargain.

  • A similar dynamic could be a work for the Steelers and Markus Wheaton.

It says here that, at the right price, the Steelers would wise to bring back Markus Wheaton for at least 2017 as he offers a known commodity in the face of several other “ifs” and unknowns. If some other team wants to get an outlandish offer to Wheaton, so be it, but otherwise the he should remain in Pittsburgh.

*Technically speaking, the Steelers did bring back Will Blackwell for one season after his rookie contract that injury limited to two games.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Think Steelers Should Trade Antonio Brown? Then Follow Le’Veon Bell’s Example and Stop Smoking

Antonio Brown, the Steelers superstar receiver and social media celebrity, has come under fire recently for putting too much emphasis on his superstar status and for, well, being on social media too much.

Among Antonio Brown‘s many follies recently was his Facebook Live post in the Steelers’ locker room shortly after an exciting 18-16 victory over the Chiefs in the AFC divisional playoffs on January 15.

I can go on and on about Antonio Brown’s various transgressions that include your usual diva-like receiver tendencies of whining and complaining about not getting enough passes thrown his way, but if you’re reading this article, you probably know it all by now.

Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Browns

Antonio Brown leads Le’Veon Bell at Heinz Field in Steelers 2014 opener. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via PennLive.com

As is often the case in the Internet Age, fans have been quick to call for the Steelers to trade Antonio Brown to another team. Not all of the fans, mind you,  but, relative to his status as perhaps the game’s top wide-out, enough to make it noticeable.

  • “Trade him for two number one draft picks!” some fans have written or screamed in recent days.

Fans are just crazy about the NFL Draft and draft picks. And any scenario that could involve Pittsburgh having multiple first rounders in this spring’s draft would be akin to counting down the days until Christmas morning for so many out there.

But if you think Antonio Brown, who has one year left on his current contract, would garner two first round picks in a trade, you are crazy. Given Antonio Brown’s lame-duck status, fetching even one first rounder might be little more than a pipe-dream.

However, that begs an even bigger question: even if you can garner two first round picks for Antonio Brown, why would you want to?

Why Antonio Brown is Worth More than 2 First Round Picks

First of all, contrary to what you always think every February, March and most of April, first round picks don’t always pan out.

Secondly, how can a first round pick (or even two) possibly best what Antonio Brown has and will probably continue to produce on the football field week in and week out?

I know what you’re going to say. Yes, Antonio Brown’s stats declined last year. He made 30 fewer receptions in 2016 than he did the previous year (106) for 550 fewer yards (1,284).

  • But to point that out as a criticism of Antonio Brown while not also mentioning the probable reason is rather disingenuous.

Given that the Steelers were missing Martavis Bryant for all of 2016, Markus Wheaton for all but three games and tight end Ladarius Green for all but six, it makes perfect sense that Antonio Brown’s numbers would see a swift decline from the year before.

Remember that offense that everyone envisioned, the NFL’s equivalent of the Death Star, complete with a plethora of aerial weapons for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to pick and choose how to obliterate opposing defenses? That kind of went up in smoke (pun intended) when Martavis Bryant was suspended for testing positive for marijuana for the second time in as many seasons.

Sammie Coates, Sammie Coates drop, steelers trade antonio brown

Sammie Coates drops a pass in the Steelers 2016 win over the Jets. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

You throw in the aforementioned injuries to some other targets–Green was supposed to be the downfield threat at tight end that would compensate for Bryant’s absence as the number two receiver–as well as Sammie Coates swift decline following a promising start to his second year, and Antonio Brown was destined to produce less in 2016.

Let’s face it, when you have Demarcus AyersCobi Hamilton and Eli Rogers (no offense to those men as they appear to be developing into a fine NFL receivers) as complementary targets, who do you think defensive coordinators are going to focus on stopping, them or Antonio Brown?

  • This is why No. 84 often dealt with double and triple teams in 2016.

This might also explain why Antonio Brown’s yards after catch (YAC) dropped from 587 in 2015 to 387 last year. Sure, it only makes sense that Brown’s YAC would decrease along with his overall yards, but it also illustrates the lack of room he had to work in after making most of his 106 receptions.

And even if Antonio Brown had benefited from being complemented quite nicely by Martavis Bryant, Marcus Wheaton, Sammie Coates and Ladarius Green in  2016, this does not mean his statistics wouldn’t have taken a dip. After all, Antonio Brown averaged 125 receptions a season between 2013-2015, a pretty historic run of productivity for a receiver from any generation–even one playing in the current era of pass-happy football.

Still Want Steelers to Trade Antonio Brown? Careful for What you Wish….

Again, fans are often quick to want to cut a player loose these days, even if his talents are all-world and his transgressions aren’t of the legal nature.

  • But, whether the fantasy football mentality or something else fuels this – careful what you wish for.

Let’s not forget, Pittsburgh’s franchise quarterback hinted at retirement mere hours after the Steelers 36-17 loss to New England in the AFC Championship game. It is believed that Ben Roethlisberger’s hints were mostly out of frustration, that he was tired of the likes of Antonio Brown and his antics.

However, despite an apparent friction between No. 7 and Antonio Brown, does anyone really think that the best way to entice Ben Roethlisberger into playing longer would be to eliminate his number one target, arguably the very best in the game at his position?

Yes, Antonio Brown is apparently a high maintenance member of the locker room and maybe a little more self-centered than most receivers (and that’s saying something), but this is the man who essentially saved the Steelers season, when, despite three defenders vehemently trying to prevent him from doing so, extended his arm over the goal line with nine seconds left to give the Steelers a pulsating 31-27 victory over the Ravens on Christmas Day, which clinched the AFC North title.

Brown is also the same man who had the presence of mind to keep running across the field late in the divisional round against the Chiefs, got himself open and clinched the victory by reeling in Roethlisberger’s pass on third and three.

Steelers young money crew, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace

Steelers “Young Money” Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Tribune Review Blog

Fans have also been quick to point out that since Pittsburgh has produced a seemingly endless string of receivers in recent years–let’s not forget Antonio Brown was once part of the Young  Money trio that included Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders–he could be replaced, if not totally, then approximately.

But with 632 receptions in just seven seasons–including four-straight with 100 or more– Antonio Brown is quickly ascending up the record books of Steelers receivers  and could quite literally ellipse all of the records set by Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Hines Ward while he’s still in his early-30s.

  • Despite what you think of him, and despite his apparent need to grow up just a tad, there is only one Antonio Brown.

Part ways with Antonio Brown, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are a lesser football team.

I don’t think anyone is ready for that.

 

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2016 Season

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his students make some impressive strides during the past year, but nonetheless sees that they’re still not ready to weather the pass-fail nature of a full NFL playoff run, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2016 Season.

Le'Veon Bell, Ben Roetlisberger, Steelers vs Bills, Steelers regular season rushing record

Le’Veon Bell in his record setting performance vs. the Bills. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
By any measure, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played a fine season in 2016. Statistically speaking, Ben Roethlisberger’s quarterback rating was a one point above what it had been a year ago. But Big Ben’s 2016 campaign is not without fault. Ben Roethlisberger ‘s struggles on the road have become alarming, and his play in the later two rounds of the playoffs, while not bad, fell well short of outstanding. To be fair, Roethlisberger spent most of the season playing with a depleted wide receiver crops. Landry Jones played respectably in relief of Roethlisberger, and impressed with his overtime win. Grade: B+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2016 season

Running Backs
While this conversation doesn’t begin and end with Le’Veon Bell, it perhaps should. In playing just 13 games, Le’Veon Bell affirmed his status as one of the game’s best two way threats, broke both the Steelers single game regular season and playoff rushing record and teased at reviving the concept of “franchise running back.” DeAngelo Williams played well in relief of Bell, although he did miss most of the second half of the season due to injury. Fitzgerald Toussaint Only got 14 carries, but looked respectable. Roosevelt Nix role in paving the way for Bell is under appreciated outside of Pittsburgh. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
This was an interesting year for Steelers tight ends. When he finally got on the field, Ladarius Green showed that he had “field flipping” capability, even if his advertised the straight away speed was slower than advertised. Unfortunately, Green only made it into 6 games. In his absence, the sum of Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, and David Johnson performance in a “tight end by committee” situation was greater than the whole of its parts. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
How good is Antonio Brown? How about this? You take away any hint of a legitimate number 2 wide receiver, as well as a must respect dependable tight end and he still makes over 100 catches and brings in two more touchdowns than he did a year ago. Oh, yeah, and he consummated one of the most dramatic comebacks in franchise history on Christmas with a truly incredible play.

Unfortunately, Antonio Brown didn’t get a lot of help from his fellow wide outs. “Disappointment” is the only way to classify Sammie Coates second season. Coates was supposed to make us forget about Martavis Bryant, but instead reminded us of Limas Sweed.

Eli Rogers performed extremely well, although his fumble in the AFC Championship hurt the team. Ditto Cobi Hamilton. The former practice squad barnstormer came up with several clutch catches during the year, and Demarcus Ayers did the same when he finally saw action late in the year.

This improvement is both impressive and promising with an eye towards the future. However the Report Card grades on performance and results, and the Steelers didn’t have a Super Bowl caliber wide receiving corps this year. Grade: C+

Limas Sweed, Evan Oglesby, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers Ravens AFC Championship, Limas Sweed drop

Limas Sweeds drops the ball during the 2008 Steeler AFC Championship game against Baltimore. Photo Credit: Keith Spakocic, AP via NY Daily News

Offensive Line
After years of plug and patch the Steelers cemented their 4th lineman to a long term deal when they inked David DeCastro to his new contract. The Steelers 2016 offensive line did an excellent job in what is its most important task at this point in the Tomlin era – to protect Ben Roethlisberger. And the synergy between Le’Veon Bell waiting for holes to open and the line opening them was something special to behold. Still, there were times when the line struggled to open running lanes, namely on the road vs. Baltimore and of course at the goal line in the AFC Championship and their grade must reflect that. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
Let’s begin by ordering some crow with a side of humble pie. When Cameron Heyward went on injured reserve, this site declared, “Game Over.” Fortunately, that’s not what happened. Instead, led by Stephon Tuitt, everyone on the defensive line stepped up their play a notch. Nine games into the season, the Steelers defensive line looked incapable of stopping anyone. By the season’s end, the Steelers were holding feature backs to negative yardage for entire halves.

The Steelers defensive line didn’t put up a lot of sexy statistics, but they delivered time and time again by making the types of plays that don’t show up on stat sheets, but win games. Grade: B

James Harrison, Art Rooney II

Art Rooney II and James Harrison share a post-game handsake. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Linebackers
In 2016 the Steelers linebackers returned to their status as the strength of the defense. This resurgence was fueled by strong second halves by Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier, who seemed to make splash play after splash play. Bud Dupree got a late start to 2016 thanks to an injury, but Dupree came in second on the team in sacks despite only playing in 7 games and starting in four.

  • James Harrison of course came off the bench to start the Steelers final 7 games, and the improvement of the Steelers defense with Harrison in the lineup full time is by no means coincidental.

If Harrison did provide a spark to the pass rush, and made smothering tackles in run defense, his days of covering receivers downfield should be at an end.

Vince Williams, Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats all provided valuable support as backups, but the unit was clearly better when all four starters played together. And that’s not something that’s been true of the linebacking corps for a long time. While this group made a lot of progress in 2016, their struggles in the AFC Championship game show they still have another leap yet to make. Grade: B+

Secondary
The secondary was the Steelers weak link in 2015 and arguably has been a weak link for some time before. Management gambled and essentially re-wrote the depth chart, taking a huge gamble in the process. Artie Burns and Sean Davis were both at the center of this gamble. While Sean Davis was the more consistent player who was playing like an absolute stud by year’s end, Artie Burns also made impressive strides as they year went on.

Ross Cockrell likewise vindicated the faith that the coaches and front office showed in making him a starter, and Mike Mitchell didn’t provide as many splash plays as he did in 2016, but provided veteran leadership and stability. William Gay offered steady play, but it is fair to ask whether he’s losing a step.

The Steelers secondary was no longer a liability in 2016, but they remain powerless to prevent Tom Brady from having his way with them, and until that changes they must continue to improve. Grade: C+

Special Teams
Special teams coach Danny Smith is everyone’s favorite scapegoat in Steelers Nation. While the Steelers special teams did leave a lot to be desired at times, all of the blame doesn’t necessarily fall on Danny Smith’s shoulders.

Chris Boswell provided another solid year of place kicking. Whether it was kicking field goals in the snow at Buffalo or in windy Cincinnati or on the road in Kansas City, Boswell was Mr. reliable and arguably the MVP on two of those 3 contests. His counterpart Jordan Berry had a solid year, but failed to do anything to stand out.

  • The Steelers kicking and kick coverage units were the bigger area of concern.

While the NFL is trying to eliminate kick returns, the Steelers kick returners routinely trade 15 yard returns for 25 yard touchbacks. And while the Steelers avoided getting burned by a punt or a kickoff returned for a touchdown returned long return this season, there were too many close calls.

  • On the positive side, the Steelers special teams defended several on-sides kick attempts; however, 2007 remains the last time the Steelers executed an on sides kick of their own.
  • The Steelers also got caught on two fake punts.

In all fairness, the Steelers special teams rose to the occasion in the playoffs against the Chiefs, but overall their play during the course of the season was too inconsistent, and rarely “special.” Grade: C-

Coaching
One of the things that frequently gets lost in the shuffle is that Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley had far fewer weapons to work with in 2016 than he had at his disposal in 2015. Nonetheless, the Steelers offense still finished in the top ten in terms of both scoring and yards.

Todd Haley drew fire for not relying on Le’Veon Bell enough against Miami in the regular season and the perhaps for trying to rely too heavily on him in the first matchup against the Ravens.

  • But the Steelers offensive found the right balance during the second half of the season.

On defense, Keith Butler’s second full season did not start well, as the Steelers struggled at times, and at the season’s mid-point, Butler’s defense was drawing unfavorable comparisons to Tony Dungy’s 1988 Steelers defensive squad, which set franchise records for futility.

  • But during the second half of the season, the Steelers defense began playing a new tune.

And if the inserting of James Harrison and Bud Dupree helped improve performance, the absence of Cam Heyward can hardly be considered a plus. The bigger change was that Butler got his players to focus on doing their job and, equally importantly, he got production out of his 3 rookies. By the season’s end the Steelers defense was one of the best at sacking the quarterback, and also improved in creating turnovers.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers locker room

Mike Tomlin addresses the Steelers. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

By his own admission, Mike Tomlin won’t be considered a success until his team raises Lombardi Number 7. Fair enough. It is also fair to criticize Tomlin for the team’s lackluster performance in Philadelphia and also for the loss at Miami.

Those are the types of losses that can sink a season. But Mike Tomlin kept his team from riding the emotional rollercoaster, and they went on a 9 game winning streak, with the team seemingly getting stronger with each win.

Trying to stack two Super Bowl eras on top of each other is very hard to do, and the Steelers still have a ways to go before they accomplish that goal. But the Steelers took another step closer in 2016. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
Losing a player like Heath Miller is never easy, and it becomes all the more difficult if the high profile free agent you sign to replace him only manages to play 6 games.

But the Steelers transition away from the Heath Miller era at tight end was largely successful, and Jesse James was a big reason for that. James’ blocking improved as the season wore on, and he found himself making several critical catches for the team during December and January, and for that Jesse James wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2016 season.

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Wanted in Pittsburgh: Steelers Red Zone Receiver to Step Up in AFC Championship vs. Patriots

Reality unfolds at its own pace.” – Jerry Brown

While this site maintains a strict “No politics” rule there is no better quote and Jerry Brown’s to illustrate the key lesson that the Steelers take from their win over Kansas City to the AFC Championship against New England. And what, pray tell, is that lesson?

  • The Steelers need a Red Zone receiver to step up if they’re to bring Lombardi Number 7 back to Pittsburgh.
Eli Rogers, Steelers red zone receiver, AFC Championship, AFC Divisional playoff, Ron Parker, Steelers vs. Chiefs

Ron Parker tackles Eli Rogers in the AFC Divisional Playoff game. Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel, AP via Honolulu Star-Advertiser

There you have it Steelers Nation. While concern about the need for someone to step up alongside Antonio Brown dates back to Markus Wheaton’s going on injured reserve, this concern more or less faded as the Steelers stacked wins in November and December.

  • Just two weeks ago Steel Curtain Rising declared the Steelers Super Bowl hopes depended on the defense.

That remains true, but two playoff games of Sean Davis breaking up critical passes, Bud Dupree pressuring quarterbacks into throws that Ryan Shazier intercepts, and James Harrison being James Harrison show that the Steelers defense is delivering.

But Pittsburgh need to have Chris Boswell boot them over the Chiefs reveals that the Steelers offense has an issue.

Steelers Tough Between the 20’s

A quick glance at the statistics the Steelers offense amassed in the playoffs against the Chiefs and you can be excused for thinking this game must have been a blow out.

  • Antonio Brown broke the 100 yard mark
  • Le’Veon Bell broke the Steelers playoff rushing record. Again.
  • Jesse James caught 5 passes for 83 yards on 6 targets averaging 16.6 yards per carry.
  • The Steelers dominated time of possession to the tune of 34:13

Those numbers are nice, but they’re largely neutered by the Steelers going 0-4 in the Red Zone. To that end, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell offers some revealing statistics. While Antonio Brown has scored 14 touchdowns this season, only four have come in the Red Zone, and Brown has only scored 2 Red Zone touchdowns in the last 10 games, including the Immaculate Extension against the Ravens.

  • It says here that Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t suddenly forget to look Antonio Brown way in the Red Zone.

But its logical to assume that keeping Brown confined inside the 20 makes efforts to double and triple team Brown more effective. And that’s really where the Steelers are missing another receiving threat.

antonio brown, justin houston, antonio brown vs justin houston, Steelers vs. Chiefs, steelers red zone receiver

Antonio Brown smokes Justin Houston in the AFC Divisional Playoff game. Photo Credit: Medley, USA TODAY Sports via Steel City Insider

Eli Rogers has some on strong late in the season, and has come up with several clutch catches, but his end zone drop against the Chiefs shows that he still must prove he can make the leap from number 3 to number 2 wide receiver in the NFL. Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers only got 1 target a piece and Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates didn’t see Ben Roethlisberger look their way all night.

  • Those statistics reflect the Steelers run-oriented approach in the playoffs thus far than any lack of confidence in those receivers

But it also means that no one is stepping to and demanding that opposing defensive coordinators respect them in the passing game.

Solution to Steelers Red Zone Issues Must Come from Within

Jim Wexell argues “Run the thing when you’ve got them by the throat in these seemingly guaranteed situations.” Fans old enough to remember Chan Gailey calling two goal line pass plays that turned into Kordell Stewart interceptions instead of handing it to Jerome Bettis in the 1997 AFC Championship game would agree.

  • And I have no objections if we saw Roosevelt Nix, Chris Hubbard and the rest of the Big Boy package check into the game in “Whatever and Goal” situations.

But at the end of the day, the Steelers can’t win beat the New England Patriots with a one-dimensional Red Zone offense. Ladarius Green is practicing and that’s positive news, but Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley know they can’t count on him leaving the concussion protocol.

And that means that someone, be it Eli Rogers, Jesse James, DHB, Cobi Hamilton or even Sammie Coates must step up in the Red Zone.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Overtime Win over the Browns

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is proud to see average, everyday students rise to the occasion with the star pupils out, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the overtime win over Cleveland.

DeAngelo Williams, DeAngelo Williams touchdown Browns, Marcus Gilbert, Jesse James

DeAngelo Williams celebrates his touchdown against the Browns with Jesse James and Marcus Gilbert. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Quarterback
The game’s very first series made it clear that Landry Jones wasn’t going to get the same protection that Ben Roethlisberger got, and Landry Jones struggled for much of the first half. And Landry Jones’ interception at the end of the 3rd quarter was as ugly as it gets. But Jones pushed on, and led the Steelers to two touchdowns in the 4th quarter and another in overtime. Jones also deserves credit for his heads up play in recovering a fumble in the end zone. And Jones did all of this with the Steelers top weapons on offense sitting on the bench. If we apply the same standard we applied last week to Ben Roethlisberger, there’s only 1 grade for Landry. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers vs. Browns

Running Backs
One of the big questions heading into the game was how well DeAngelo Williams would respond after 9 games on ice. Fantasy Football owners who started Williams are probably suffering from buyer’s remorse. Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley, however, are not. On the surface, Williams 1 yard rushing in the first half and his overall 67 yards on 22 carries remain unimpressive. But Williams ripped off runs of 12, 10 and 8 in the second half, scored the Steelers first two touchdowns. He also did an incredible job in avoiding safety when the Steelers were backed into their own end zone.

Fitzgerald Toussaint had 3 carries for 14 yards including a 12 yarder, and Roosevelt Nix had 2 catches for five yards. Grade: B+

Tight Ends
Jesse James had two catches for 16 yards on 3 targets. Neither Xavier Grimble nor David Johnson had a carry. The Steelers tight ends had a solid, if not spectacular performance against the Browns. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Eli Rogers led the team with 6 catches for 61 yards taking another important developmental step forward. As did, Cobi Hamilton who caught the game winner as well as a critical completion during the 3rd quarter. Demarcus Ayers looked good in his second NFL game, finding his way to the end zone for a go ahead score in the 4th quarter. Darrius Heyward-Bey saw his first action in 9 weeks, and came away with on reception for 46 yards. Overall a very good day for the Steelers wide receivers. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
B.J. Finney made several starts at right guard for Ramon Foster this season and played well enough that some bloggers suggested his comparative salary cap value might make Foster expendable during the 2017 off season.

  • No one is going to say that about his performance in place of Maurkice Pouncey.

It is probably unfair to scapegoat Finney, but the truth is that the Browns got pressure on Landry Jones on several third downs, and each time it looked like they came right up the middle. Indeed, the line struggled to protect their quarterback for the first time in recent memory, and the rushing lanes weren’t quite as solid. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Injuries left the Pittsburgh Steelers playing their 3rd string defensive line for most of the day. The truth is that the Browns ran the ball a little too easily. OK, a big part of this has to do with James Harrison being out (who essentially plays a defensive end in the Steelers nickel alignment), but if the Standard is the Standard, then the Steelers defensive line fell a little short, although Daniel McCullers did get a sack on Robert Griffin III. Grade: C-

Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, George Atkinson

Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree sandwich George Atkinson in the Steelers overtime win vs. the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Linebackers
Does anyone still debate why the Steelers rushed to pick Ryan Shazier instead of a defensive back in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft? Ryan Shazier led the Steelers linebackers securing an interception at the 5 yard line, and helping ensure that the Browns would lose 14 yards when on 3rd and Goal at the Steelers 2 in overtime. Jarvis Jones had his best game as a Pittsburgh Steelers, sacking RGIII once, forcing another fumble as the Browns threatened to score, and batting away a pass in overtime. Bud Dupree had another sack, and another tackle for the loss. Lawrence Timmons had 6 tackles.

While the Steelers linebackers had a strong day, they too bear some of the responsibility for the breakdowns in the run defense so their grade must reflect that. Grade: B+

Secondary
Sean Davis led the unit and the Steelers defense overall with 9 tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss and another QB hit. Mind you, the man is playing safety. Artie Burns had 8 tackles, and batted away a pass that he almost intercepted. Ross Cockrell’s name wasn’t heard much, and that’s good for a cornerback. William Gay had a key pass defense, while Mike Mitchell had 8 tackles and a fumble recovery. A solid day for the Steelers secondary, particularly in the Red Zone. Grade: B+

Ross Cockrell, Seth Delvalve touchdown steelers, steelers vs. browns overtime

Seth Delvalve scores for the Browns as Ross Cockrell attempts to stop him. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 3-3 on his extra points and Jordan Berry had an excellent day punting on an afternoon where the Steelers found themselves backed up in their own end zone too often.

Eli Rogers returned 3 punts for a total of 15 yards with a long return of 10 yards. While that’s nice, he did bobble one return – which cannot happen during the playoffs. Cobi Hamilton returned 3 kick offs for 44 yards which is as unimpressive as it looks.

  • The real concern here is the Steelers kick coverage.

The Browns averaged 30 yards on their kickoff returns, or five more than they’d get in touchbacks, and Mario Alford returned 3 punts for 26 yards including one return of 17 yards. Those are the types of return yardage numbers that can tip a close playoff game in the wrong direction…. Grade: C-

Coaching
Mike Tomlin’s Christmas present to Todd Haley was to ask him to devise a winning game plan after taking away his top 4 offensive players. The truth is that Haley’s offense sputtered for much of the day, but once they got in a groove, they scored 21 points in less than two quarters.

  • Keith Butler didn’t have the same “excuse” as only James Harrison was held out of the game.

That alone made it clear just how much James Harrison means to the Steelers running game. Had the stakes in the game been higher, Butler likely would have played the Steelers nickel less. While the Steelers defense likely made some Fantasy Football owners happy, the fact is that they secured two Red Zone turnovers in addition to stuffing a 3rd down attempt for a 14 yard loss defending their own two.

  • I’ll take that.

Finally, Mike Tomlin sent an important signal when he benched the Steelers top players. But he also insisted it would be “Business as normal” for everyone who did suit up. Tomlin lived true to his word. It would have been easy for Tomlin to either intentionally coach towards a tie or to make other decisions that would have left Cleveland with a win, particularly in overtime.

Instead, Mike Tomlin played to win, and his players responded by delivering a win. This is exactly what the mentality and level of execution Pittsburgh needs heading into the playoffs. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
When Landry Jones threw his interception at the end of the 3rd quarter and Briean Boddy-Calhoun streaked to the end zone for an apparent pick-six that looked to doom the Steelers for the afternoon. But one player continued to hustle, never gave up, and ended up catching Boddy-Calhoun and knocking out the ball before he scored a touchdown.

  • The play saved a touchdown, and sparked the Steelers rally.

This is exactly the type of hustle at all times mentality a team needs in the playoffs, and for that Darrius Heyward-Bey wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers overtime win over the Browns.

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6 Take Aways for the Playoffs from Steelers Comeback Win Over the Browns

The Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Cleveland Browns for yet another regular season finale at Heinz Field in a game that had zero impact on the Black and Gold’s post-season fortunes. With Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Maurkice Pouncey out and James Harrison not playing, this figured to be an exam of sorts for the Steelers backups.

  • The Cleveland Browns, not having won a game in Pittsburgh since 2003, showed themselves as willing examiners.

The Steelers prevailed in a teeter-totter style game and, while the 7th straight win only adds window dressing to the 2016 regular season record, the comeback win over the Browns does reveal 6 key take aways that tell us something important about these Steelers as we head to the playoffs.

Cobi Hamilton, steelers vs. browns, steelers 2016 regular season finale browns

Cobi Hamilton catches the game winning pass in overtime as the Steelers comeback to beat the Browns. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

1. Landry Jones Has Grown into a Legit Backup

Going into this game, the pundits who weren’t labeling this “Landry Jones’ last game with the Steelers” instead suggested Mike Tomlin start Zach Mettenberger.

  • Landry Jones showed them how foolish they were.
  • Let’s be clear: If Ben Roethlisberger goes down, he takes the 2016 Steelers Super Bowl hopes with him.

If all goes well, the last image we have of Landry Jones during the 2016 season (other than him holding a clipboard) will be of him hitting Cobi Hamilton from 26 yards out in overtime to give the Steelers the win. Contrast that with his deer-in-the-headlight performance in the Steelers playoff win a year ago vs. the Bengals.

Landry Jones, Jesse James, Steelers vs. Browns

Landry Jones throws a pass as Jesse James blocks during Steelers 2016 season finale win over the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers drafted Landry Jones to grow into a competent NFL backup quarterback. The only thing that his 2013 and 2014 preseason performances inspired was job security for Bruce Gradkowski. Landry Jones made strides in closing out wins vs. the Raiders and Cardinals in 2015, and looked respectable in the Steelers loss to the Patriots.

  • Against the Browns, Jones showed he could overcome a costly interception, rally his team in the 4th quarter, and lead it to victory in overtime.

That marks and important step for the signal caller. Granted, Landry Jones wasn’t playing against the 85 Bears defense, but Steelers best offensive lineman and skill players were in street clothes. Salary cap math might prevent the Steelers from bringing Jones back in 2017, but he’s proven he’s a capable backup.

2. Darrius Heyward-Bey Is Back

It is no secret that Antonio Brown had to scratch and claw for his catches as the season wore on. And while Eli Rogers has stepped up his play late in the season, as had Hamilton, the Steelers still haven’t had a reliable deep threat to take heat off of Brown. Darrius Heyward-Bey may have only had one catch, but he brought it down for 46 yards.

If this is any indication of what he is capable of, the Steelers offense can be lethal in the playoffs.

3. Steelers Can’t Survive without Stephon Tuitt

When the Steelers lost Stephon Tuitt in the first series against the Bengals, things did not look good. Cincinnati ran the ball well against the Steelers in the first half, punctuated by Jeremy Hill’s powering his way into the end zone in the second quarter. Yet the Steelers run defense clapped down, and held Hill to negative yards in the second half.

  • Against the Ravens, the Steelers performance against the run was mixed.

The Steelers run defense held its own in the first half, but it struggled to stop the run at times during the second half. To be blunt about it, Isaiah Crowell looked like the Jim Brown running against the Steelers defense.

L.T. Walton has played well, as has Ricardo Mathews when healthy. Johnny Maxey has looked good as for a practice squader. But the Browns game clarified a that healthy Stephon Tuitt is essential to a successful Steelers Super Bowl run.

4. Sean Davis is Simply a Stud

When was the last time a rookie Steelers defender excelled to the level that Sean Davis has reached?

Sean Davis, Robert Griffin III, Steelers vs. Browns, Sean Davis sacks Robert Griffin III, Sean Davis RGIII

Sean Davis sacks Robert Griffin III in Steelers 2016 win over Browns at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Like Sean Davis, Troy Polamalu and Bud Dupree both won Joe Greene Great Performance awards, but neither of them made the type of impact plays that Sean Davis is making. You’d arguably have to go back to Kendrell Bell to find a rookie Steelers defender who made the type of impact that Sean Davis made.

  • Did someone tell Sean Davis the Browns game was supposed to be “meaningless?”

Apparently not. Davis dominated leading the team in tackles, sacking the quarterback, and recovering a bad snap to set up the Steelers first touchdown. It is usually a sign of desperation for a team to go into training camp counting on draftees to make a difference.

However, as Pittsburgh pivots to the playoffs, the Steelers can be confident that their 2016 draft class can contribute to a Super Bowl run with Sean Davis leading the way.

5.  DeAngelo Williams Isn’t Showing Any Rust

The Steelers haven’t seen much of DeAngelo Williams since his injury against Miami. Indeed, journalist David Todd went so far as to suggest that he might have made his last carry for the Steelers. On the surface, Williams numbers of 67 for 23 do not look good.

  • Numbers do not lie, but often times they fail to tell the full story and such was the case of DeAngelo Williams.
DeAngelo Williams, David DeCastro, Steelers vs. Browns, DeAngelo Williams touchdown Browns

David DeCastro leads DeAngelo Williams into the end zone as Steelers comeback against Browns.

Williams, like the rest of the Steelers offense started sluggishly, but he picked up steam as the game wore on. And it was DeAngelo Williams who got the Steelers on board to close the second half and who tied the game in the 4th quarter. Moreover, DeAngelo Williams used every ounce of his skill as a runner to save the Steelers from taking a safety on several occasions.

Injuries have forced the Steelers to start their 4th and 5th string running backs in their last two post season appearances. Pittsburgh’s offensive backfield will look a little bit different on this playoff trip.

6. These Pittsburgh Steelers WANT It

How many opportunities did this Steelers team have to mail it in against the Browns? Make no mistake about it, football is a brutal sport, and if your heart is not in it, that will show pretty quickly? How many times have we seen the Browns fold against the Steelers in a season ender after Pittsburgh puts up a two score lead?

  • The Browns went up by two touchdowns, but the Steelers fought back
  • Late in the 4th, Cleveland tied the game,and threatened to score at the Steelers 5, but the Jarvis Jones forced a fumble
  • The Browns won the toss in OT and marched to the Steelers two, but Ryan Shazier helped force a 14 yard loss

When the Steelers finally got the ball they came up to a 4th and 2 at their own 32-yard line. It would have been so easy for Mike Tomlin to send in Chris Boswell for a 49-yard field goal attempt, figuring Cleveland could not score in 3 minutes.

Instead, he went for it and Demarcus Ayers converted the third down. One play later, Cobi Hamilton was sealing the Steelers win in OT.
As Mike Tomlin said, fight won’t bring home a seventh Lombardi trophy, and some of the sloppiness the Steelers displayed vs. the Browns will doom them. But overall, the Steelers win over the Browns offers a lot of promise as Pittsburgh head to the playoffs.

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Vote Now Steelers Nation: Steelers Game Ball Winners for Browns Game

Apologies to everyone for getting this up so late, but this site has had some security issues to deal with which have taken priority. As we do after every Steelers win, we invite this corner of Steelers Nation to vote game ball winners for the win over the Browns.

landry jones, eli rogers, joe haden, steelers 2016 finale vs. browns,

Joe Haden can’t stop Landry Jones from connecting with Eli Rogers in Steelers comeback win over the Browns. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Landry Jones earns top ballot position, for his 3 touchdown performance and his come from behind overtime victory effort. Next comes DeAngelo Williams, whose overall number might not offer a lot of sex appeal, but he ran stronger as the game wore on, and he scored the team’s first two touchdowns.

[yop_poll id=”47″]

Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey all get ballot positions, as each man made critical plays.

Sean Davis leads balloting for the Steelers defense, as he lead the Steelers in tackles, had a sack and recovered a fumble. He’s followed by Mike Mitchell who recovered a fumble and was next in tackles for the Steelers. Bud Dupree, Daniel McCullers and Jarvis Jones all get nods on the ballot as each man recorded a sack, (a strip-sack in the case of Jarvis Jones.)

  • Ryan Shazier has the last ballot slot for the defense, but he certainly is not the least deserving.

Shazier had an interception in the Red Zone, and made a spectacular play in overtime to force a field goal.

Write In Votes Not only Allowed, but Encouraged

Remember however, these Steelers game ball winner polls aren’t about who I think should get them, they’re about how you think should win them. So if you think that Jesse James or Demarcus Ayers deserves a game ball, write their names in. Ditto Roosevelt Nix.

Same goes for the defense. If you think that Lawrence Timmons, Artie Burns or even William Gay deserves to win a game ball, write their names in! Better yet, write their names in and leave a comment stating your case!

Thanks for voting and thanks for your patience. Please check back for our full analysis of the overtime win over the Browns.

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A’s for Excellence, Not Effort: Steelers Report Card for Christmas Comeback vs. Ravens

Taken from the grade book who has seen his failing student earn straight A’s since getting a failing mid-term progress report, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Christmas comeback win over the Baltimore Ravens.

Bud Dupree, Joe Flacco, Bud Dupree sacks Joe Flacco, Steelers Christmas comeback over Ravens

Bud Dupree sacks Joe Flacco during the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Quarterback
How do you grade this one? Ben Roethlisberger got off to a strong start, then sputtered a little in the first half, only to throw two Kordell Stewartesque interceptions in the third. That would normally be enough to earn the signal caller an “F.” Then came the 4th quarter, where Ben Roethlisberger completed 14-of-17 passes for 164 yards for two touchdowns while hitting 6 different receivers. Players grades come as a product of performance and results. Do the results of Ben’s 4th quarter play outweigh earlier performances? Yes they do. Grade: A

steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers vs. RavensRunning Backs
Coming into the game the Baltimore Ravens had the NFL’s second best rushing defense that only allowed 3.5 yards per carry. Moreover, this is a rush defense that smothered Le’Veon Bell just two months before.

  • But in the Steelers Christmas comeback against the Ravens, Le’Veon Bell reminded everyone that ball players and not bean counters determine the outcome of games.

Le’Veon Bell rushed for 122 yards on just 20 carries (that’s an average of 6.1 yards per carry), scored 1 touchdown on the ground and another through the air, where he made 3 catches for 15 yards. Roosevelt Nix only appeared in 19% of the snaps, which is perhaps a surprise, but he blocked well when he was in the game. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
The big question going into the game was how much Ladarius Green’s absence would impact the passing game. The answer was that the men below him on the depth chart stepped up. Xavier Grimble caught the game’s first touchdown pass holding on to the ball when he knew he would get drilled. Jesse James came up big late in the game, catching 3 of his four passes in the 4th quarter. David Johnson didn’t have a target, but was a force in as a blocker, as were the other two Steelers tight ends. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown was quiet for much of the first three quarters, but exploded in the 4th quarter, catching 6 passes for 73 yards in the final 15 minutes.

  • However, if Brown’s only catch had been his last one, the touchdown catch, he’d have had a great game.

Eli Rogers put on another strong performance, catching a couple of field-stretching that set up scores, including a 20 yarder that put the Steelers in the Red Zone. Cobi Hamilton only had on catch, but it came on the game’s final drive.

You wouldn’t think that Antonio Brown, plus a 7th round pick playing his first game and two undrafted rookie free agents would be the recipe for success in a playoff-defining game but was it ever. Grade: A

Offensive Line
If you really want to see how much the Steelers have grown since their last loss to the Ravens, then offensive line provides the perfect gauge. Sure, the offensive line kept an injured Ben Roethlisberger clean down at M&T Stadium, but the Steelers rushing offense went nowhere, on a day when Pittsburgh needed it to.

  • The Steelers came out of the gate intending to run the ball, and dared the Baltimore Ravens to stop them.

Back-to-back Le’Veon Bell runs for 23 and 13 yards to start the 4th quarter for the Steelers show just how badly Baltimore failed. Ramon Foster also deserves extra credit for making sure Bell got into the end zone on the penultimate touchdown. Grade: A+

Defensive Line
This game looked to be a tough one for the Steelers defensive line, with Stephon Tuitt out and Ricardo Mathews nursing an injury. Suffice to say, no one envisioned the Steelers starting L.T. Walton, Javon Hargrave and Mathews on Christmas with the playoffs on the line.

  • The Steelers defensive line did encourter some rough sledding against the Ravens.

While the Steelers bottled up Terrance West, Kenneth Dixon and Kyle Juszczyk ran with authority, often times not going down on either the first or second contact. Still, while the Ravens did establish the run, their running backs never came close to taking over the game. Grade: C

Linebackers
James Harrison led the Steelers with 11 tackles. For all of the ink that Harrison generates as a pass rusher, he is perhaps even stronger against the run. Lawrence Timmons had 10 tackles, and a key sack of Flacco that put the Ravens out of field goal range. Ryan Shazier was next, with 10 tackles and a pass defense. Bud Dupree had another drive ending sack of Joe Flacco and got a hand on a pass on third down.

A little more consistent pressure on Flacco would have been nice, and perhaps a little better performance in the against the run. Nonetheless, it was a good night for the Steelers linebackers. Grade: A-

Secondary
Sean Davis made what was perhaps the most underrated play of the game when the Ravens had the ball on third down at the Steelers four, by knocking a way a touchdown and forcing the Ravens to settle for a field goal, keeping the Steelers within 10 as the 4th quarter began. William Gay led the Steelers defensive backs with 7 tackles, while Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell had 7 a piece, followed by Mike Mitchell who had 5 tackles and a pass defensed. Overall the Steelers pass defense was good against the Ravens, but Joe Flacco did complete 7 of 10 passes on the Ravens go-ahead touchdown drive. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect making his only field goal attempt and hitting on 4 extra points. However, he did get flagged twice for knocking kickoffs out of bounds, something which cannot continue.

The Steelers got little out of their return game, but their coverage units didn’t allow the Ravens much either. The same cannot be said for the Steelers punt coverage units, which allowed an average of 12.5 yards per return. That was hardly lethal, but with the top gunner Shamarko Thomas out for the year, the someone will have to step up.

The Steelers field goal until also reached on a botched snap. Those types of things usually hurt the kicking team, but if the defense isn’t on its toes, the opposing team’s kicking unit an turn a disaster into a big play. Danny Smith’s unit made sure that didn’t happen. Grade: B

Coaching
Amazingly enough, the Steelers coaching staff entered this game under attack. But the coaches answered the call.

Keith Butler was essentially forced to go into the biggest game of the season playing his 2nd string defensive line. That fact does show up on the stat sheet, but isn’t evident in the final score.

The bottom line is that Butler found a way to make it work. The Ravens did put up 27 points, but the telling statistic there is that the Ravens went 2 for 5 in the Red Zone, including one Red Zone possession that came as gift wrapped by Ben Roethlisberger.

Todd Haley also had his work cut out for them, given how well the Ravens defense has played the Steelers. The credit for the Steelers success rushing the ball lies with Le’Veon Bell and the offensive line, but Todd Haley and Mike Munchack were smart enough and confident enough to trust in those two units.

The Steelers offense put on a championship caliber performance in the 4th quarter. Again, the men who authored those plays on the field deserve credit, but they only excel in those situations on Sunday if they’ve been well-coached during the rest of the week.

  • Finally, we come to Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers entered this game fighting a lot of history and knowing that none of their previous 5 wins would mean anything if they’d lost. The Steelers came out and played focused football, daring and succeeding in attacking the strength of the Ravens, their rush defense.

  • But that wasn’t the whole story of course.

The Steelers offense sputtered for much of the 2nd and 3rd quarters, and easily could have folded or devolved into finger pointing when they began the 4th quarter down by 10. The same could have happened when they were down by 3 with 1:25 to play.

But the Steelers refused to blink and that reflects on their coach. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
There are so many candidates worthy of this honor in the Christmas win over the Ravens. All the well-placed praise lavished on the game stars, Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown, doesn’t change the fact that their heroics are only possible if their supporting cast does their job.

  • Jesse James and/or the entire Steelers tight ends receiving corps earned strong consideration.

But here we’re going to follow Mike Tomlin’s lead and give recognition to the young 7th round draft pick, how drew a 35 yard pass interference play and then blocked for Le’Veon Bell one touchdown drive. He then made 9 yard catch AND got out of bounds as the clock was ticking down towards zero.

  • All of this came in his very first NFL game, during the 4th quarter with the playoffs on the line.

This young player answered the challenge, and for that Demarcus Ayers wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers Christmas Day win over the Baltimore Ravens.

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What’s Missing from Steelers Christmas Win over Ravens? Narration from NFL Films John Facenda

The Steelers 31-27 win over the Ravens secured the AFC North, eliminated their rivals from playoffs and snapped Pittsburgh’s 4 game losing streak to Baltimore. The Steelers and Ravens fought an instant classic, featuring legendary performances on both sides of the ball.

  • Compared to the Lombardi-Landry matchups of yesteryear, the only thing lacking from the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens was narration NFL Films legend John Facenda.

Both stars and understudies stepped up at critical times to make the plays the Pittsburgh Steelers needed to prevail, but like all good Steelers-Ravens matchup, the winning team carried the day because they hit the hardest.

antonio brown, steelers christmas win over ravens, steelers vs. ravens

Four Ravens can’t stop Antonio Brown from score the game winning touchdown in Steelers Christmas win over Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Set Tempo Early, but Fail to Maintain Rhythm

Perhaps most disturbing aspect of the Ravens win over the Steelers on November 6th was the fact that Baltimore dominated the line of scrimmage. Le’Veon Bell had 32 yards on 14 carries, and DeAngelo Williams only managed a single yard on his only carry.

  • The Ravens front seven didn’t simply dominate the Steelers run blockers, they bullied them.

Mike Munchak’s offensive line has played much, much better football since then, and the Steelers lineman came out early in the game looking liked they’d taken their November manhandling personally.

In the space of just over five minutes, Le’Veon Bell ripped off runs of 10, 7, 7, 6 and 10 yards. And, foreshadowing things to come, Ben Roethlisberger hit Xavier Grimble for a 20 yard touchdown strike, giving the backup tight end his first catch since the Steelers loss to the Cowboys.

  • The Steelers first drive against the Ravens impressed by any measure

More importantly, it established the game’s tempo – this game was going to be won in the trenches, with contributions coming from across the depth chart.

Ravens Match Pittsburgh Physically, Peck Away at Lead

The Steelers wisely set the physical tone for the game, but unfortunately Pittsburgh struggled to keep pace. The Raven’s first half offense might have lacked fireworks, Steve Smith Junior’s 44 yard catch notwithstanding, but the Ravens established that Baltimore was ready, willing and able to match the Steelers physical challenge.

  • During the first half, the Steelers defense did a good job of matching the brute force of the Raven’s attack.

Both Lawrence Timmons and Bud Dupree had sacks which helped force punts, and on two other occasions, the Steelers defense turned away the Ravens offense, forcing them to settle for field goals.

But, more importantly, the Ravens defense responded to the gauntlet the Steelers had thrown down to open the game. Sure, the Steelers offense made its share of penalties during the first half, but the Ravens took advantage of those by forcing the Steelers to punt three times.

Roethlisberger Send Steelers Nation Cardiac Units into Overdrive

The difference between Ben Roethlisberger’s play on the road and at home has provided one of Steelers 2016 season’s the more interesting subplots, even if Ben Roethlisberger’s road performance perked up during the second half of the season.

  • At home, Ben Roethlisberger had been virtually untouchable….

…Until the third quarter of the Ravens game. Ben Roethlisberger opened the 3rd quarter with an ugly interception, and closed it with an uglier one. Observer-Reporter scribe Dale Lolley spoke for everyone in Steelers Nation after the second pick:

Baltimore capitalized on the Raven’s first interception, scoring a touchdown and two-point conversion. Thanks to some smart play by James Harrison, Ryan Shazier and Sean Davis, the Steelers defense held the Ravens to another field goal following Ben Roethlisberger’s second pick.

  • But in just over 1 quarter, the Ravens had scored 14 points, and the Steelers only three.

More ominously, during their 8 minute 3rd quarter field goal drive, the Ravens had proven that they could run the ball on Pittsburgh’s defense, as L.T. Walton, Javon Hargrave and Ricardo Mathews seemed to struggle in Stephon Tuitt’s absence.

That did not bode well for a Steelers team that needed at least 2 scores in 15 minutes to take the lead….

Ben Roethlisberger Channels His Inner Hulkster in the 4th

In the 1980’s, Hulk Hogan transformed professional wrestling into a mainstream industry in large part by pretending  to get beaten into despair, only to rally when things looked to be their worst to secure victory.

  • While he certainly didn’t script it that way, Ben Roethlisberger did something similar against the Ravens.

Ben Roethlisberger started strong, only sputtered around for much of the first half, and then followed by playing some of the worst big-game football of his career in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, Big Ben, did what true Hall of Fame caliber quarterbacks do – elevate their play when a trip to the playoffs hangs in the balance.

When NFL Films retells this game to future generations, they’ll rightly credit Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown for their All Pro 4th quarter performances. But the performances of the players below them on the depth chart, as well as the Steelers defense were just as important to the final outcome.

  • Jesse James started it off with his impressive, 21 yard catch
  • Demarcus Ayers followed by drawing a pass interference penalty that put the Steelers in the Red Zone
  • Two plays later, Ayers blocking occupied Kyle Arrington allowing Le’Veon Bell to reach the end zone.

Let the record reflect, that when the Ravens got the ball back, they stuck with what had been working for them as Kenneth Dixon got 7 yards on two runs. But Bud Dupree stepped up and defended a pass on third down, forcing Baltimore to punt.

  • At this point, the Steelers offense was on fire.

Le’Veon Bell took the first handoff and ripped off a 23 yard run. His next carry went for 13. Then Ben Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for 21 and 26 yard receptions where Brown earned the bulk of his yards after the catch.

Then the Steelers showed what makes their offense special. As Le’Veon Bell explained to Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell:

…[Ben] was looking the other way. He said my name. I heard it. ‘L. Bell,’ that’s what he said. I’m blocking but I turned around and he was scrambling to the right but looking to the left, so when I caught it, nobody was there because he looked everybody off and he was wanting to go to me the whole time. That’s a special play but it’s stuff like that that he does all the time. In certain times in prime-time drives, when he knows we need it, he comes up huge. That’s what we need. You need that from your quarterback. You need that on your team.

With 7 minutes remaining, the Pittsburgh Steelers had pulled off a dramatic comeback to take a 24 to 20 lead at Heinz Field, having clearly put the momentum on their side. But the 4th quarter drama was only beginning….

Fantastic Fourth Quarter Finish

There wasn’t a single Baltimore Raven who was ready to back down. Baltimore got the ball at the 25, where Joe Flacco proceeded to convert 3 third downs, as he moved down the field consuming precious clicks on the clock.

  • It was at this point in the game that Baltimore’s commitment to the run paid off.

Ravens running backs had a number of impressive carries on this drive, as all of them refused to go down at first contact, and they fell forward each time. With just a minute 1:25 to play, the Ravens handed it to Kyle Juszczyk who saw a couple of Steelers bounce off of him en route to the end zone and a 27-24 Ravens lead.

Again, Dale Lolley echoed the thoughts of Steelers Nation. The lesson of loss to the Cowboys seemed to reveal that the 2016 Steelers simply weren’t that good.

If the Steelers 5 straight wins had disproved that lesson, then Kyle Juszczyk’s touchdown seemed to assure the Ravens a 5th straight win over the Steelers, hammering home the painful reality that John Harbaugh’s Ravens were simply better than Mike Tomlin’s Steelers.

  • But this group of Steelers wasn’t finished writing their story.

Working with two time outs and starting at his own 25, Ben Roethlisberger hit Jesse James twice, Demarcus Ayers once, Eli Rogers once, and Cobi Hamilton once to bring the Steelers to the 4th yard line with 13 seconds to play.

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, steelers christmas win over Baltimore Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger with Antonio Brown in Steelers Christmas win over Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

With no timeouts remaining, the easy call would have been to bring Chris Boswell on the field to tie the game and bring on overtime.

  • Instead, with the season in the balance, Mike Tomlin chose to go for all the marbles, trusting in Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger, in turn, trusted Antonio Brown to get across the goal line, even though he had two men in front of him.

  • Brown caught the ball, then squiggled, squirmed and stretched towards the goal line.
  • Before he was done, four Ravens were hitting him.

But in the end, they couldn’t hit Antonio Brown hard enough. Brown broke the plane, which ut  Pittsburgh ahead for good. The Steelers were AFC North Champions, while the Ravens would spend January at home.

Steelers in Position to Make a Run for a Ring

The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers began the season looking like sure-fire favorites to contend for a championship. Midway through the season, things looked quite differently, as rookies struggled to learn the defense, and injuries took their toll on the offense.

  • But Mike Tomlin’s team never blinked.

The Steelers scratched and clawed their way first back to respectability, getting a little better each week. Now the Steelers are headed to the playoffs for the 7th time since Mike Tomlin arrived in 2007. Can the Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers bring home Lombardi Number 7 their 7th trip to the playoffs?

  • Time will tell.

The Steelers won’t enter the playoffs as the AFC favorites, but both the resiliency and the championship caliber plays the men in Black and Gold  made against the Ravens proves that Pittsburgh is capable of proving a lot of people wrong.

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