Resist the Restructure: Steelers Should Start Post-Roethlisberger Era with Sound Salary Cap Management

The Pittsburgh Steelers in a new era. With Ben Roethlisberger retired, the Steelers face a time of uncertain, risk and opportunity. Few choices are easy. Make the right decision on a quarterback, and Super Bowls could come soon. Err on the wrong signal caller and you set the franchise back for half a decade.

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert,

Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Fortunately, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin do have a tool for mitigating risk, if not for creating opportunity.

  • And that tool is to return to sound salary cap management.

A year ago, the Steelers faced salary cap Armageddon. They’d projected a salary cap increase in 2021 of around $20 million. Instead, thanks to COVID-19, it dropped by about $16 million. Players took pay cuts, the Steelers added voidable years and starters became cap casualties.

  • Things are different this year.

Instead struggling to get into cap compliance, the Steelers are staring at a cap surplus of at least $28 million and perhaps as much as $32 million. That number could grow. The Steelers could shed the salaries of underperforming Joe Schobert and seldom used Derek Watt. Stephon Tuitt could either retire or be cut.

  • Might the Steelers find even more money?

Of course. As The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly reminds us, “…they could get that number to around $64 million with simple restructures of existing contracts, according to Over the Cap’s Nick Korte.” Ah, $64 million for Kevin Colbert to spend as he walks out the door.

  • That’s one hell of a retirement party budget, isn’t it?

No doubt, it is tempting. But restructuring is a temptation the Steelers are right to resist.

Sound Salary Cap Management Should Once Again Be Part of “The Steelers Way”

NFL Salary Cap dynamics are of little interest and/or go over the heads of most NFL fans. But the salary cap is a fundamental part of the NFL’s competitive structure and its “rich get richer” business partnership model.

  • For a long time, the Steelers employed one of the NFL’s most conservative salary cap management strategies.

This started in the 1990’s in part out of necessity. Locked in a bad lease at Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers simply didn’t have the money to compete with the Jerry Jones and Eddie DeBartlo’s of the NFL.

The Steelers resigned essential stars like Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson, Greg Lloyd and Carnell Lake. They brought in under the radar free agents like Kevin Greene, Ray Seals and John Williams.

  • But they never joined the free-for-all bidding wars that so many teams started in hopes of buying a Lombardi.
Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

And while the Steelers remained competitive, they also couldn’t afford to keep many good players – think Leon Searcy and Yancey Thigpen. In 2001 that changed when Heinz Field opened. And for the next decade and change, the Steelers kept almost everyone they wanted to keep.

  • The Steelers spent up to the cap, but contract restructures were uncommon.

That changed in 2011 with the new CBA, that ushered in several years of a near flat salary cap. Suddenly, contract restructures became a staple of necessity. Yet, when the cap began to rise again in about 2014, the Steelers continued making restructures.

  • These weren’t necessarily bad moves, and they were all done in the name of “Reloading while we’ve still got Roethlisberger.”

But using contract restructures to create salary cap space is kind of like using one credit card to pay off another – sooner or later the bill comes due.

The Steelers were forced to eat a ton of dead money on LaMarr Woodley and Antonio Brown’s contracts thanks to restructures. And the Steelers sticky salary cap situation of a year ago was made all that more complicated Roethlisberger’s repeated restructures.

  • It is good that the Steelers start the post-Roethlisberger with ample salary cap space.
steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

And if the determination is that guys like Scobert and Watt aren’t delivering good bang for their salary cap buck, then the Steelers should move on. The Steelers have holes to fill. There isn’t a slot on the depth chart that they can’t upgrade with the right free agent signing.

  • The Steelers face a time of a lot of unknown and uncontrollable forces.

Do you draft a quarterback at 20 in 2022, or do you let the Mason Rudolph experiment run its course and maybe get a better quarterback lower in the 2023 NFL Draft?

No one knows.

But the Steelers do know and can control how they spend their money in March of 2022, and they should do so by sticking to sound salary cap management practices.

 

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

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

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Titans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception Chargers, Steelers vs Chargers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Browns: Sad to See a Star Student Graduate Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teary teacher who is sad to see his start student soon begin his “Life’s Work,” here is the Steelers Report Card for Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger in command in his Heinz Field finale. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Quarterback
In his final outing at Heinz Field, Ben Roethlisberger went 24 for 46 for 123 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Ben didn’t get a lot of help from his receivers, but this game is a solid signal that it is indeed time for him to hang it up. Grade: B-

Running Backs
Najee Harris was on fire rushing for 188 yards including a 37 yard scamper that iced the game. His hustle was evident from the word go to the last snap. Big Ben is leaving the offense in good hands. Benny Snell had one carry for 2 yards and Derek Watt converted a fourth and one. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth returned and caught 5 passes on six targets while Zach Gentry was targeted once for no catches. The run blocking was solid, which they helped with. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
Diontate Johnson had 8 catches for… 31 yards and a touchdown. Chase Claypool had 3 for 17 and was more notable for the catches he didn’t make (although there was simply some good DB work.) Ray-Ray McCloud had 4 catches for 35 yards, leading the team in receiving yardage. James Washington had one target an no catches. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Steelers enjoyed their best run blocking of the season by far. Holes opened and piles fell forward for the first time since the leaves started falling in October. Pass blocking was solid, but Ben did take two sacks. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was his usual lights out self, batting away two passes and sacking Baker Mayfield on third down. Isaiahh Loudermilk batted away a pass. The line did a good job in containing the run. Grade: B

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Najee Harris en route to 188 yards. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Linebackers
T.J. Watt strengthened his stake to be league MVP with 2 passes defensed, 3 tackles for losses, 4 sacks and 5 QB hits. Alex Highsmith added 2 sacks and made a key stop for a loss. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles. Grade: A

Secondary
Not a lot of fireworks here, but Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden each defensed a pass, as did Tre Norwood who also came up with an interception. The Steelers registered 9 sacks and that only happens if the coverage was good. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 4 for 4 on field goals, including a 48 and a 50 yarder. Corliss Waitman did an excellent job punting. Ray-Ray McCloud was OK as a returner, although he did fumble one which he recovered. Kick coverage was OK, but Justin Layne’s two penalties were negatives. Grade: B

Coaching
The Steelers offense was hardly a juggernaut, but Matt Canada got the running game going and because of that the short passing game was effective.

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin embrace. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers authored a dominant defensive performance, the late touchdown notwithstanding. While Kevin Stefanski decision to de-emphasize the run AND put the game in an injured Baker Mayfield’s hands with a hapless rookie left to tangle with T.J. Watt is a head scratcher, the Steelers defense took advantage.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were singularly focused throughout the night from start to finish. The team wanted to win and played with the will to win. Yes, this was fueled by the emotion of it being Ben Roethlisberger’s last game in Pittsburgh, but that singular focus is a product of the locker room culture Mike Tomlin has cultivated. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
COVID and other injuries robbed the Steelers of their starting inside linebackers and area where the team was already weak. But Marcus Allen and Ulysees Gilbert III stepped up to do an effective job in the middle and for that they win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Browns in Ben Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field.

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Rally Around Roethlisberger: Steelers Defeat Browns 26-14 in Ben Roethlisberger’s Final Game @ Heinz Field

Citizens of Steelers Nation: It doesn’t get any better than this. In Ben Roethlisberger’s (likely) last game at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh rallied behind their leader as the Steelers defeated the Browns 26-14.

It was an emotional night for Roethlisberger, the City of Pittsburgh, Steelers Nation and the team’s global fan base. In the end it was special, not just because of the win, but because of the way the Steelers secured victory: Hollywood could not have scripted it better.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger gives thanks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Roethlisberger Breaks the Template, Again

Ben Roethlisberger built his career at going against the grain. Quarterbacks are supposed to go down easy. Roethlisberger never relented. Defensive contact with a quarterback is supposed to disrupt his passing. Not Roethlisberger, especially early in his career, when he became more accurate after being touched by a defender.

  • And so it is at the end.

It’s easy for fans to lose sight of the fact that precious few football players get to leave the game on their own terms. Yes, a finite few like Jerome Bettis go out hoisting the Lombardi. Others pick their own time. But of the few that choose when they leave the game, fewer yet choose how they leave the game.

  • As he has throughout his career, Roethlisberger proved he stood apart from most other football players.

Which isn’t to say that Ben Roethlisberger dominated against the Browns. He did not. Yes, he hit Diontae Johnson with laser like precision to get the Steelers their first, first half touchdown in 4 games. Yes, he helped connected with Pat Freiermuth and Ray-Ray McCloud to convert Ahkello Witherspoon interception into a Chris Boswell field goal late in the first half.

But on this night, Ben Roethlisberger’s deep passes were either off target or his receivers just couldn’t hold on to them (see Chase Claypool – although credit Cleveland’s DBs.)

But you know what? I didn’t matter.

Everyone’s Hand in the Pile

When asked about how his horrendously and historically bad run defense shut down Cleveland’s potent rushing attack, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin explained, “…we played a lot of people and everybody put their hand in the pile and made the necessary plays.”

The key phrase above is “everyone put their hand in the pile.” Everyone did, but the usual suspects struck first.

Cam Heyward helped end two Browns drives by deflecting passes when the score was 0-0. Later, ended the Brown’s first drive of the second half with a sack.

After the Steelers tried and failed to convert on 4th down, T.J. Watt sacked Baker Mayfield for a 10 yard loss on third down (oh, and Watt deflected a pass on the previous play.) Later, when the Browns were sniffing scoring range at the end of the first half, Watt sacked Mayfield on 3rd and 2.

  • Chris Boswell knocked in field goals of 30, 50 and 48 yards.

All excellent plays made at critical moments from the players you’d expect to make them. But they got plenty of help.

  • Corliss Waitman boomed off punts and staked a claim to pushing Pressley Harvin off the team
  • Alex Highsmith came up with 2 sacks and tackled Nick Chubb for a loss on a critical drive
  • J.C. Hassenauer stepped in at center and the Steelers saw their best line play since October
  • Derek Watt converted a 4th and 1
  • Isaiahh Loudermilk batted down a pass
  • Forgotten players like Ulysees Gilbert III came off the bench to contain Cleveland’s rushing attack
Alex Highsmith, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Alex Highsmith sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The rushing attack? Yes, you might remember that. It once provided the foundation for 5 Steelers Super Bowls and  formed a potent part of the “Killer Bees.” After making guest appearances in fits and starts during October, the Steelers rushing attack has been AWOL since.

Reestablishing the run was one of Art Rooney II’s chief goals this season, and the Steelers have struggled to comply. But even at its bleakest moments, rookie Najee Harris has shown that, behind a competent offensive line, he can be special.

Najee Harris was special against the Browns, turning would-be losses into gains, and ripping off runs of 13, 14, 30 and 10 yards, and he was only getting warmed up – and this was on a night where he rushed for 188 yards on 28 carries.

And Ending to Treasure

When the Steelers went up 19 to 7 with 5:28 left to play in the 4th quarter, the game seemed to be well in hand. When the Steelers hit Baker Mayfield with back-to-back sacks on 2nd and 3rd down, it seemed to be official.

But then the Browns got a pass interference penalty called against Joe Haden. Another one in the Red Zone brought them to the one. The Browns scored, but Minkah Fitzpatrick collected the on-sides kick.

  • The Browns had two time outs, but the Steelers only needed one first down.

Najee Harris ran for 4 yards on 1st and 4 yards on second. Cleveland could not stop the clock and a first down would seal the game for the Steelers. Harris cut to his right, it was clear he would get the two yards. But then he broke out to the second level and didn’t stop until he reached the end zone.

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s last play would be a handoff for a touchdown….

…Except it wouldn’t. The Browns got the ball back, only for Baker Mayfield to bounce a pass off of Austin Hooper that Tre Norwood intercepted.

Ten seconds remained on the clock, allowing Ben Roethlisberger to step on to Heinz Field one last time, taking a knee in the Victory Formation.

No, Hollywood could not have scripted it any better.

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Steelers Report Card for Tie with Lions: Peaking vs “Learning Experience” Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who hopes his students can use this as a learning experience but fears they may have just hit their peak, here is the Steelers Report Card for the tie against the Lions.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, Devin Bush, Steelers vs Lions

Oh, what could have been. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Anyone still wonder why the Steelers opted to bring back a dismissed Ben Roethlisberger? Mason Rudolph did not play poorly, completing 30 out of 50 passes for one interception and another touchdown. But Rudolph also missed on some throws the Steelers needed him to make. Grade: C-

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran for 105 yards on 26 carries. While 26 carries perhaps a few more than you’d like to see his four yards per carry average indicates that perhaps they should have leaned on him more. If Benny Snell’s lone carry for four yards is any indicate, he could have been used to spell Harris. Derek Watt actually caught a pass for nine yards. Grade: B

Tight End
Mason Rudolph largely avoided the middle of the field, limited the tight ends a bit. Eric Ebron caught 2 passes for 13 yards while Pat Freiermuth caught 5 passes for 31 yards, but he unfortunately fumbled the ball away in overtime. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
The Steelers have done well in combat catches this season, but both Diontae Johnson and James Washington lost contested balls. Ray-Ray McCloud showed why Mike Tomlin kept him after his fumble as he pulled in 9 catches. Johnson showed impressive presence of mind getting out of bounds during overtime, but this happened after he fumbled the ball on a field-flipping play. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph was neither sacked nor hit during the entire game, per ESPN’s statistics. And, as mentioned, Harris had good room to run. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
For about 20 minutes, the Detroit Lions ran through the Steelers defense like they were indeed live lions charging through lines of Christians in the Coliseum. That is decidedly NOT the fault of the line, but it starts there. Cam Heyward came up with a monster sack at the end of regulation and another one in overtime. Grade: C-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt was awfully quiet in this game until sacking Jared Goff for a 6 yard loss – a play on which he got hurt. Alex Highsmith came up big with two big tackles for losses late in the 4th quarter. Still, the Lion ran at will for a time and Devin Bush and Joe Schobert don’t deserve all of the blame for that, they duo is charged with guarding the middle of the defense. Grade: D

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick symbolizes what this game could have been. His nullified interception should have decided overtime, yet his missed tackles helped dig the Steelers into the hole. James Pierre did well in place of Joe Haden. Terrelll Edmunds overtime sack should have turned the game. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Kalif Raymond 48 yard punt return awakened the Lions and set up their first touchdown, a 28 yard romp that would get Detroit believing they could win the game. That wasn’t a lone play as averaged over 11 yards on his next returns. Steelers kick coverage was shaky too.

Chris Boswell was 3-3 on field goals including a 51 yarder in the rain, which pulls the grade for Danny Smith’s group up. Grade: C-

Coaching
For the first time this season, Matt Canada’s play calling led to some head scratching. We can accept that the reads on RPOs in the Red Zone were correct based on 5 Detroit defensive lineman on the field.

  • But does that explain throwing the ball 50 times when Najee Harris is running reasonably well?

Was Canada trying to do more through the air because he thought Rudolph was more capable (with fewer receivers BTW?) Did he want to see Rudolph prove himself? Regardless of his motive, his game plan was questionable in theory and failed in practice.

  • Keith Butler must find a way to coax more consistency out of his rushing defense.

The Lions running game was unstoppable for a quarter. Most of this was due to poor tackling, but that is hardly an excuse.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Lions

Najee Harris in overtime. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Finally, this column has credited Mike Tomlin when his players refused to “blink” with the game on the line. In overtime his defense did the same in this game. The offense? Not so much. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers lost four starters in this game, including 2 on offensive line. Yet the unit continued chugging along with backups in the game and for that J.C. Hassenauer and Joe Haeg win the Unsung Hero Award for the tie with the Lions.

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“Marginal” Best Describes Steelers MNF Win over Bears. …But Maybe That’s Good

The Steelers 29-27 win over the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football conjures many different descriptions.

  • Intense. Last second. Frantic. Heart Rendering. Barn burner. Lucky.

Do you agree with these descriptions? Good. So do I. But there’s another, better word we can use: “Marginal.” Marginal certainly isn’t as colorful. “Marginal” also holds a neutralish if negative connotation. But Bears win on Monday night shows us that the 2021 Steelers might actually be able to use that to their advantage.

T.J. Watt, Justin Fields, Steelers vs Bears, T.J. Watt Fields Pass Block

T.J. Watt blocks Justin Fields’ pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Canada Sets Offense Up for Strong Start

Given this win’s last second nature, it is easy to forget the Steelers left a lot of positive takeaways in this game, especially early on.

  • One of those is that Matt Canada has a sharp offensive mind.

He’s clearly gaining a feel only for his player’s abilities but he’s also adept at applying those strengths to exploit opposing defense’s weaknesses. On their first possession, the Steelers marched down the field, literally just as Canada had scripted it.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Najee Harris scores a first quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Canada’s formation set up Ben Roethlisberger’s 3rd and 7 conversion to Chase Claypool. Later in the Red Zone put Claypool in motion and deployed Derek Watt to block allowing Najee Harris to march into the end zone untouched.

And if the drive following Cam Heyward’s interception wasn’t quite as smooth, it did only take ten plays for Ben Roethlisberger to find Pat Freiermuth in the end zone for another touchdown to start the 2nd quarter.

Sure, the Bears eked out a field goal late in the second quarter, but as the Steelers entered the locker room at half time, one couldn’t help but imagine Mason Rudolph taking the field in the early 4th quarter….

Failure to Control Line of Scrimmage (almost) Dooms Steelers in 2nd Half

…Instead of seeing Mason Rudolph taking snaps, Steelers Nation got to witness Ben Roethlisberger’s 39th 4th quarter comeback and 50th game winning drive.

  • After such a strong start, these heroics shouldn’t have been necessary. Alas, it was for very understandable reasons.

If the first quarter proved that Matt Canada can scheme with the best of them, the next three quarters proved that his offensive line remains a work in progress. The Steelers offensive line lost the battles up front, leaving Najee Harris no where to run.

Credit Canada for innovating and using jet sweeps to gain yards on the ground. James Washington, Diontae Johnson and Claypool carried the ball 6 times and gained 37 yards in the process. While this helped keep the defense honest, the Steelers offense couldn’t put the game away because their offensive line was getitng manhandeled.

To recap, with about 7 minutes left to play, T.J. Watt had sacked Justin Fields. Even if the Steelers run 3 plays for zero yards, Pittsburgh probably burns at least 2 and a half minutes off of the clock. A single first down in that situation could seal victory.

Instead, the Steelers let the Bears right back in the game.

And Chicago was only too happy to take them up on their invitation.

Limiting Fields Carried Costs for Defense

Chicago’s comeback did not happen in a vacuum. Justin Fields, after struggling for much of the first half, played lights out late in the game. The Steelers defense struggled to slow the Bears.

When asked why Arthur Maulet was left in single coverage so often with Minkah Fitzpatrick roaming instead of helping with double coverage, Mike Tomlin explained, “Quarterback mobility challenges you from that standpoint. So, yes, there’s not only Arthur, but a lot of people are in single coverage when dealing with quarterback mobility.”

That’s both good and bad for the Steelers.

  • Its good because it suggests that Chicago wasn’t exploiting a systemic weakness
  • Its bad because the Steelers have to play Lamarr Jackson twice more this season.

Its also worrisome because the Steelers gave up the house to draft Devin Bush in part to have a player capable of containing Jackson. Bush, who left the field on third downs, doesn’t appear to be capable of that at this point.

A “Marginal” Victory? Yes. But History is Made in the Margins

To a man, Mike Tomlin, Cam Heyward and Ben Roethlisberger all admitted that, victory notwithstanding, things must improve. And the hard truth is, that if you take a hard dispassionate look at the struggles at the line of scrimmage, Ben Roethlisberger’s difficulty throwing down field and the ease at which the defense gave up points late, its difficult to envision this team sustaining a playoff run, much less hosting the Lombardi.

But if that’s true, then think back to some of the outlying plays that the game turned on:

  • Chris Boswell making not one, but two 50 yard field goals, recovering a fumble, yet missing a PAT
  • T.J. Watt batting a way a pass at the line of scrimmage
  • Cairo Santos 65 yard field goal – at Heinz Field no less – banging off the lower upright

Football is a game of inches. That’s another way of saying that victory or defeat often comes down to which team can master the little things, that fall in the margins.

This Pittsburgh Steelers team might be developing a knack for doing just that. Which is good. Because history is made in the margins.

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Should Steelers Sign J.J. Watt? No, They Must Address More Pressing Needs

J.J. Watt, one of the faces of the NFL and the best player in the history of the Houston Texans’ franchise, was released by the team on Friday per Watt’s request.

If you’re a Steelers fan, that likely means you want Pittsburgh to bring Watt to town so he can be reunited with his younger brothers, T.J. Watt and Derek Watt.

  • Would it make sense for the Steelers to sign Watt? Duh.

He’s a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and while he’s clearly already played his best football, at 31, Watt is the same age as Cam Heyward and appears to have some good years left. But would it work schematically? I don’t know much, but I do know that any defensive coach worth his salt BETTER make Watt fit into his system. Otherwise, he probably shouldn’t be a defensive coach in the NFL.

  • Of course, J.J. Watt would be a great fit for the Steelers defense.

For that matter, the eldest Watt brother would be a great fit for Pittsburgh and would arguably be the biggest sports star in town the moment he arrived.

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

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

In terms of charisma, T.J., someone who seems to be more James Harrison than he is Joey Porter, pales in comparison to his big brother. No, J.J. would be great for the Steelers and Steeler Nation…in theory.

But there is the matter of finding the creative financing to make such a deal work. As you know, the Steelers find themselves firmly in salary cap hell and are still millions above the projected number for 2021, this despite only having 30-plus players under contract.

Team president Art Rooney II has already stated that the Steelers can’t have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back for 2021 under his current deal. At first, it appeared that a simple restructuring, something the Steelers’ executives have become experts at, would be the compromise between team and player. Now, it appears that the smart money is on Roethlisberger agreeing to take less money if he wants to come back next year.

If the Steelers figure all that out with their aging franchise quarterback and are able to free up enough cap space to sign J.J. Watt, why not use that money to address more pressing areas of the team?

For example, if the Steelers could get J.J. Watt to sign with them for $10 million a year, couldn’t they convince Tyson Alualu, a pending free agent, to stay in Pittsburgh for much less? The Steelers would still have a more than formidable defensive line and, oh yes, they could perhaps use that extra money to sign slot corner Mike Hilton.

  • What about signing another tight end in free agency following the retirement of Vance McDonald?

Speaking of retirements, long-time center Maurkice Pouncey finally announced his on Friday after 11 mostly glorious years. Pouncey’s departure weakens an offensive line that was already in decline. Wouldn’t it be smarter to use that J.J. Watt money to shore up the center position?

There could be other factors involved, don’t get me wrong. Maybe Pittsburgh feels the need to lure J.J. to town just so it will be easier to lock T.J. into a lock-term deal when the time finally comes.

  • Finally, I hate to call a player of J.J. Watt’s caliber and legacy a luxury signing, but I think his addition to the team would be just that.

The Steelers have more pressing needs than another great defensive lineman. If they’re going to open up a new line of credit in the form of contract restructurings and player releases, perhaps they should use it more responsibly.

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Steelers Report Card for Wild Card Loss to Browns: F for the Final Exam Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher sorely disappointed to see his students fall completely flat on their faces in the final exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Wild Card Loss to the Browns.

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.

Quarterback
To borrow from Jim Wexell’s number crunching, after his 3rd interception, Ben Roethlisberger went 38-51-3-1 for 435 yards. The problem is that those 3 interceptions led to 3 Browns touchdowns on top of the 1 gifted to them at the game’s start. And his 4th interception killed any chance of a comeback. Big Ben simply didn’t get it done. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
52 yards total rushing reads as damning epitaph to a historically bad rushing year. But really, when you start the game down 28-0 before the 1st quarter is over you don’t exactly lean on your running game even if you have Jerome Bettis in your backfield. Benny Snell looked good on his two carries. Derrik Watt actually got a carry and converted a 1st down. His second time he had no room to run. James Conner played his heart out and willed himself to that final 2 point conversion. Still, he like Roethlisberger failed to jump on the errant snap and that cost the team dearly. Grade: D

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron caught 7 passes, at least four of which created and/or converted 1st downs. Vance McDonald, after a strong performance late in the season, only saw the ball thrown his way twice. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
James Washington played his heart out catching 5 of six balls thrown his way, going 4 for 4 on the Steelers first score. Chase Claypool 5 catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns might seem pedestrian, but he historical expectations for a Steelers rookie wide out in the playoffs. Diontae Johnson showed that he can be special with his 11 catches for 117 yards. But he dropped a high, but catchable pass that led to Ben Roethlisberger’s 2nd interception which set up 21-0. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked and was only hit 4 times. To the extent that the running game was a factor, the running backs had some room to run. Yet, the line got ZERO push on the second 3rd and 1 hand off to Derek Watt. A conversion certainly would have helped. The bottom line is the opening snap sailed way over Roethlisberger’s head and things snowballed thereafter. It was exactly the wrong error at the absolute worst time. Grade: F

Sheldrick Redwine, Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron, Steelers wild card Browns

Jan 10, 2021; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cleveland Browns strong safety Sheldrick Redwine (29) returns an interception against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first quarter of an AFC Wild Card playoff game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Line
Baker Mayfield wasn’t hit the entire night and the only reason why Browns running backs didn’t put up dominating numbers is that Cleveland didn’t run more. Given that Cam Heyward was going up against an offensive lineman who hadn’t even met his head coach, one would expect more. Grade: F

Linebackers
T.J. Watt made a couple of nice plays at scrimmage but failed to pressure the passer. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles but got burned by Jarvis Landry – something which might not have been his fault. The Browns got to the 2nd level and then some throughout the night and the linebackers were part of the problem. Grade: F

Secondary
The Steelers offense gave Baker Mayfield a short field to start the game – to say the least – an Mayfield treated it like the Turkey Shoot in the Marianas (Google it.) Terrell Edmunds deflected a pass. As did Cam Sutton and James Pierre. But really that’s window dressing. But Browns recievers and running backs ran through the Steelers secondary with reckless abandon almost all night. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made his one field goal attempt and connected on his two PATs. Jordan Berry punted well enough, but his 59 punt was a touch back when the Steelers needed to pin the Browns down. The Browns averaged 27 yards on kick returns and had an 8 yard punt return. Hardly devastating numbers, but below the line none the less. Ray-Ray McCloud put up decent return numbers, but they were nothing special. A big special teams play at any number of points could have shifted the momentum. The Steelers needed that and didn’t get it. Grade: C-

Jarvis Landry, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns wild card

Jarvis Landry puts the Browns up 14-0. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Coaching
Let’s address the 3 main issues with the coaching right off of the bat.

First, the decision to punt on 4th and 1 at the Steelers 46 looks weak in hindsight. But consider:

  • The Steelers offense had just logged 3 straight scoring drives
  • Pittsburgh had cut the margin to 12 points with a full quarter to play
  • The Steelers defense had forced 3 straight Browns punts

The bottom line is this: If your defense can’t get a stop under those conditions, you don’t deserve to win.

Mike Tomlin’s decisions to go for 2 point conversions cost the team 2 points – hardly a definitive difference. Word is that Mike Tomlin, and not Keith Butler, called the defensive plays. Perhaps there are play calls that one can quibble about, but the play calling genius of Dick LeBeau, Bud Carson and George Perles combined couldn’t have compensated for some of those execution errors.

As for Randy Fichtner, after his offense stopped turning over the ball they put up some impressive numbers. This is fact, albeit one that won’t even warrant a footnote in Steelers history.

It says here that Mike Tomlin didn’t cause the high snap, nor did he throw the interceptions, drop passes, take bad angles or miss tackles. But when disaster struck at the beginning, the Steelers offense stumbled for a full quarter. The defense stumbled for an entire half, then regained their footing, only to lose it when it was need the most.

The head coach might not be at “fault” for the errors that dug his team such a deep hole, but he and his staff certainly failed to provide solutions to get them out. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He caught 13 for 157 yards including a touchdown. He made tough catches and played until the bitter end. It was (likely) the finale of his Steelers career, and JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t leave a single play on the field and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Wild Card loss to the Browns.

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For the Love of God, Cancel or Postpone the Steelers-Ravens Game

Are you ready for some Sunday Night, Monday Night er um, Wednesday afternoon football? If you’re a Steelers or Ravens fan, you answer’d better be yes. But really, this shouldn’t be an issue.

As you certainly know by now, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens were scheduled to play in Prime Time on Thanksgiving. Then Ravens players started testing positive for COVID-19. So practices were closed, players sent home and the game was moved to Sunday.

  • The NFL assured us, when the game was first moved, that positive tests had run their course.

They’d done generic analysis on the tests, they advised. That sounded logical and sensible. For all of the grousing in Steelers Nation about unfair advantage, postponing the game was absolutely the right thing to do. The plan worked on paper. Close things down, keep testing, and by Sunday we’d have several days of no positive tests.

  • Except players kept testing positive.

The positive tests continued through the weekend. They continued on Monday. And, per ESPN’s

Stephon Tuitt, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

Both Stephon Tuitt and Lamarr Jackson are on their teams’ COVID-19 Reserve list todayPhoto Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

, they continued yesterday. That’s right, one Ravens player and one Ravens staffer both tested positive yesterday. But the game is still going to go on, because well, “the Ravens ‘operated the last few days acting as though everyone is positive.’ Walk-through workouts were masked, distanced and outdoors to reduce risk, basically eliminating close contacts.”

  • Really sounds reassuring after, what 10 consecutive days of positive tests?

I’m not a doctor let alone an infectious disease specialist, but it looks like we’re getting a mini-clinic on how a highly contagious disease like COVID-19 spreads. Patient zero in Owings Mills appears to be Ravens strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders.

  • Steve Saunders apparently didn’t think it important to wear masks or use his contact tracing device.

So it seems like Saunders spread it to several members of the Ravens. Those were likely the first tests that came back positive last week, guys like J.K. Dobbins and Mark Ingram have already been on the COVID-19 for 10 days and are eligible to come off the list (if they play, that would imply that they’d travel with the team while on the list, and presumably still positive.)

But it seems like those players have gone ahead and spread it to other members of the Ravens staff.

The Ravens will be tested today. If those tests come back negative, the game will go on. This shouldn’t be an issue. Not even part of the discussion. The Steelers and Ravens game should be either postponed or canceled with Baltimore forfeiting.

  • The NFL only has itself to blame for this.

When they set the schedule, they decided to start after Labor Day and declined to add in an extra buffer week between the regular season and the playoffs. Right now that buffer could come in mighty handy. The NFL could still do that, although it would up end the rest of the playoff structure.

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

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

Sure, putting off the game would benefit the Ravens, on paper at least, as it would give them a chance to get Lamarr Jackson back, which would be an easy game changer. (Quick recap – the first Steelers-Ravens game came down to two goaline stops of Jackson by Isaiah Buggs and a pass deflection by Minkah Fitzpatrick.)

But this isn’t about playoff logistics or competitive balance or even what is “fair” or what sets the Steelers up (or not) for a Championship Run.

This is about the health and safety of the players who will suit up, the coaches who’ll coach them and the staff who will support them. In the span of a week, one case of COVID turned resulted in the number of players on the Baltimore COVID-19 list reaching the 20’s.

The same thing cannot happen to Pittsburgh. The healthy and safety of players like Ben Roethlisberger, Benny Snell, Eric Ebron, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward as well as lesser known guys playing in support roles like Derek Watt, Henry Mondeaux, or Alex Highsmith is too important. The health and safety of their families and all they have the potential to come into contact with is too important.

As argued here earlier this week, the NFL has done a tremendous job to get to this point in the season, but its clear that their current strategy has taken them as far as they’re going to go. Going to in-city COVID Pods won’t help today’s game situation, but the fact that we’re even having this discussion shows the move is necessary.

For the love of God Roger Goodell, either postpone or cancel the Steelers-Ravens game.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Bengals: A’s (and not for effort) Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his star pupil miss a full week of class due to sickness only to completely ace the exam on his first day back, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 win over the Bengals at Heinz Field.

T.J. Watt, Joe Burrow, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt sacks Joe Burrow. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger missed the entire week of practice due to COVID-19 restrictions, but he hardly missed a beat against the Bengals. Roethlisberger wasn’t perfect. He’s improving on his long balls but can still improve more. But playing without a running game, Ben Roethlisberger led 7 scoring drives while going 4 four touchdown passes in 5 trips to the Red Zone. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had another rough day, rushing for just 36 yards on 13 carries. Benny Snell did well in garbage time gaining 12 yards on 3 carries. Conner did catch both passes that were thrown to him and did well in pass protection. The Bengals schemed to stop the run, Conner had little room to run before the Steelers gave up altogether. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron caught two of six passes thrown his way although both catches converted 1st downs and put the Steelers in Bengals territory on scoring drives. Zach Gentry got on the field for 14 snaps. Neither of the tight ends helped much with the run blocking. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson exploded for his first 100 yard game with Ben Roethlisberger, including a field flipper that set up his and the Steelers first touchdown. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 9 catches and kept the chains moving in short yardage situations while adding his own touchdown. After a quiet few weeks, Chase Claypool had 4 catches for 56 yards and a touchdown. James Washington had two catches for 30 yards. Grade: A

Maurkice Pouncey, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bengals

Maurkice Pouncey and Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Offensive Line
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Well, almost. Ben Roethlisberger was not sacked by the Bengals, although they did hit him 8 times. Still, Roethlisberger had time to throw. The Steelers run blocking is another question altogether as it was AOWL thought the game against Cincinnati. As the weather gets colder, the Steelers are going to need to be able to the ball. They’ve struggled to establish the run over the last two weeks against teams with weak rushing defenses. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu’s return helped the Steelers limit the Bengals rushing attack, although Bengals running backs had some success. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt had “quiet” days in terms of the stat sheet but logged 77% and 78% of the snaps on a defense that gave up 10 points. Grade: B

Linebackers
Robert Spillane led Steelers linebackers in tackles and his sack helped force a field goal, following the fake punt. That fake punt was needed in part because of a Bud Dupree sack. Vince Williams did his damage with 4 bone crushing tackles. T.J. Watt logged 4 quarterback hits and registered two sacks helping kill 2 second quarter drives when the score was close and Joe Burrow was earning his “Introduction to the AFC North.” Grade: A

Secondary
There are a lot of stats that you can pull out of the secondary play, but one stands out: 0-13 on third downs. Terrell Edmunds led the team in tackles, followed by Minkah Fitzpatrick. Steven Nelson defensed 1 pass and otherwise his name was not heard much – which is a good thing. Marcus Allen and Antoine Brooks Jr. saw their first real playing time in the secondary. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect on 3 field goal and 3 extra point attempts. Jordan Berry boomed off punts. The Steelers kick and punt coverages shut down Cincinnati, clearly benefitting from Derek Watt’s presence. Ray-Ray McCloud gives the Steelers the type of return man weapon that they’ve lacked for a long, long time. The unit did get caught on a fake punt, but its impact was negligible. Still, the grade has to come down. Grade: A-

Coaching
For the past two weeks, Keith Butler’s defense has had to rely on big plays to provide big plays to deliver victory. There’s nothing wrong with that, but against the Bengals, the Steelers defense went back to basics.
Cincinnati did enjoy a little more success than the scoreboard suggests, but you can’t really sustain success when you fail to convert 3rd downs, and the Bengals failed at that 13 times.

The Bengals loaded up the line of scrimmage and dared Ben Roethlisberger to beat them and Big Ben beat them – badly. Let’s be clear, when your offense goes 4 of 5 in the Red Zone and outscores an opponent by 36 points a lot of things are going right.

  • Still, this is the third consecutive week the Steelers have failed to establish the run.

The Steelers tried, from various formations, including their “Jumbo” package and nothing worked. That’s got to be a concern for Randy Ficthner and Shaun Sarrett.

COVID-19 hit the Steelers hard, taking Vance McDonald from the lineup and preventing 4 other starters, including Ben Roethlisberger, from practicing. This came on the heels of a brutal 3 game road stretch. Had you come down from Mars, you’d have never of known that given the way the Steelers played this week, and that is a credit to Mike Tomlin. Grade: A-

Joe Haden, Steelers vs Bengals

Joe Haden after defending a pass. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
Sometimes quarterbacks decide to “pick on someone.” Joe Burrow made his decision early, targeting Tyler Boyd, Brandon Tate and A.J. Green – a legitimate offensive weapons who happened to be covered by the same man. Not only were none of them a factor in this game because of the corner covering them, but this cornerback also batted away 3 pass and for that Joe Haden wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2020 win over the Bengals at Heinz Field.

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