Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Coaching Report Card + Special Teams and Unsung Hero Award

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders if Mike Tomlin might be entering a new phase of his coaching tenure here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Coaching and Special Teams Report Card.

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Grading the Steelers 2015 Special Teams

2015 brought a decidedly mixed bag for the Steelers special teams. On the positive side, Chris Boswell was an unqualified success and in many ways the rookie saved the Steelers season. Antonio Brown showed he could still do damage as a punt returner. Danny Smith’s special teams also created a number of fumbles on kick returns, which is much needed.

  • There’s a flip side to the Steelers 2015 special teams, and it isn’t nearly as attractive.

Outside of Antonio Brown, the Steelers have no one to return kicks, with Markus Wheaton Jacoby Jones and Dri Archer both proving to be abject failures (at least Wheaton was a failure as a punt returner – he was OK returning kickoffs.) And while the Steelers special teams spared themselves from glaring disasters, a couple of scary returns were brought back on penalties. Likewise, Josh Scoobe was a disaster as a place kicker, and contributed to two of the Steelers losses.

On balance the Steelers special teams were slightly above average in 2015 – given the injuries to the offense, the Steelers needed more from the unit. Grade: C+

Grading the Steelers Coaches for 2015

Any discussion of the Steelers coaches in 2015 must begin with the defense, where Keith Butler embarked on a new era, tasked with succeeding the legacy of Dick LeBeau – no easy feat. Butler proved to be more than up to the task. The Steelers 2015 defense might have given up more yards in 2015 than it did in 2014, but it gave up fewer points, improved in sacks and takeaways – all with only minor adjustments for talent.

  • A closer look is perhaps warranted at the role of Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake.

The Steelers banked heavily on the development of Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas, and both men were disappointments. The responsibility for this doesn’t of course only lie on Lake’s shoulders, but he is their position coach, and by all accounts, Lake pushed hard for the Steelers to draft Thomas. He’s also spoken glowingly of Antwon Blake, who while he might get scapegoated far too often for the unit’s troubles, clearly was not the secondary’s strong link.

Moving over to offense, it is now clear with 20/20 hindsight that one of Art Rooney II’s best moves was to force Bruce Arians out. Mike Tomlin reacted by bringing in Todd Haley, and Ben Roethlisberger has grown and matured as a result of it. Yes, Roethlisberger’s late season “stupid interceptions” are a cause for concern, but that is something that can be corrected.

  • The naysayers might argue, “Ah, but Haley had all the weapons at his disposal.”

Yes, and any coach needs to have good players first – and having them is no guarantee of success. Don’t believe me? Look at the difference in performance between the Steelers 1991 and 1992 offenses. The 1991 was a muddling and bumbling at best under Joe Walton; under Ron Erhardt in 1992 the same talent performed much, much better.

  • Todd Haley started 3 quarterbacks, lost his all pro running back and center, lost wide receivers to injuries and suspensions and still fielded one of the NFL’s most lethal units.

And finally, there’s Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. Art Rooney II showed his faith in Tomlin by extending his contract in training camp. Many in Steelers Nation questioned the move, clinging to the “He’s still only won with Bill Cowher’s players.” Yeah, whatever.

This is Tomlin’s team or Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s team. And Mike Tomlin has done pretty damm good with the group of player’s he’s assembled. It is one thing to mouth the words, “The Standard is the Standard” and/or “Next Man Up.” It is another thing to believe it, and yet another to get your locker room to accept it.

Yes, Mike Tomlin teams might still have legitimate issues with “Trap Games” but he’s proven himself to be an excellent head coach. Tomlin himself will tell you that any season that doesn’t end in a Super Bowl Championship is a failure. Fair enough. But 2015 probably represented his best coaching job. Grade: A

Steelers Unsung Hero of 2015

Everyone knows that Ben Roethlisberger took a lot of punishment during the early part of Mike Tomiln’s tenure as head coach. Debates raged over how much of that was due to “Ben being Ben.” Some of it undoubtedly was. But the Steelers, for whatever reason, employed a “Plug and Patch” approach to offensive line building, and it showed.

Roethlisberger, Brown, Wheaton, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant, Heath Miller, and DeAngelo Williams put together a lot of ESPN highlight material in 2015.

  • But none of their fireworks would have been possible without the quality offensive line play week in and week out.

Mike Munchak lost 40% of his offensive line, yet the unit improved from 2014 to 2015. One can only imagine how much more might have been accomplished had Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum stayed healthy.

As it was, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Cody Wallace, Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva acted as a rock of stability for the Steelers offense, and for that the Steelers offensive line wins the Unsung Hero award for the 2015 season.

Part I of the Steelers 2015 Report Card graded the offense.
Part II of the Steelers 2015 Report Card graded the defense.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Offensive Report Card

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who thinks his start students learned a valuable lesson in — namely how to win games – here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Offensive Report Card, which grades the Steelers offense for the the 2015 season.

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Everything in 2015 was supposed to hinge on Ben Roethlisberger’s health. Yet Ben Roethlisberger had to leave three games due to injury and missed four starts due to injury. The Steelers went 2-2 in those missed starts, and won 2 of 3 closes in Ben’s absence. Michael Vick didn’t have much left in the tank, but he put it all on the field in the 4th quarter vs. San Diego and without that effort, the Steelers miss the playoffs. Landry Jones provides a more interesting study. He showed himself to be a competent backup in the regular season, but struggled in the post season.

Ben Roethlisberger played extremely well in 2015, although his late season penchant for “Stupid interceptions” was worrisome. However, he protected the ball in the playoffs. Taken altogether, the Steelers quarterbacks had a very good 2015. Grade: B+

Running Backs
2015 was supposed to be the year Le’Veon Bell proved that the concept of “franchise running back” was not dead. And had Bell played for more than six games, he might have. However, suspension and injuy ruined his 2015 and the lion’s share of the Steelers rushing effort fell to DeAngelo Williams, who played far better than any 32 year old running back had a right to. Fullback Roosevelt Nix also proved he belonged in the backfield, as did Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman. Dri Archer was the group’s only disappointment, but that cannot bring this grade down. Grade: A

Tight Ends
There are more than a few whispers with Heath Miller could be a Steelers salary cap casualty. Word is “Heath is slowing a step.” Let’s hope that is idle chatter rather than legitimate leaks coming out of the South Side. The numbers don’t really suggest Heath Miller is slowing a step. His catches are down slightly, but his catches per-target are up. His average yards receiving is down, but that could be due to the presence of other weapons. Matt Spaeth did not figure much into the passing offense, but his blocking helped the running game. Jesse James didn’t play until mid-season, but did what was asked of him, and looks to have a bright future. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
No disrespect to Cam Newton, but Antonio Brown deserved deeper consideration for NFL MVP. Antonio Brown’s performance is approaching that of a “Generational Player” – a special player like Joe Greene or Troy Polamalu who only comes along once a generation.

  • Below Brown, the Steelers situation at wide receiver is a little more muddled.

Martavis Bryant lost 4 games to suspension. He did play well early on, but struggled late in the year, only to bounce back in the playoffs. Markus Wheaton started fairly strong, and then struggled, but also finished the year on a strong note, although he did not step up quite as well in the playoffs. Darrius Heyward-Bey played extremely well in Bryant’s absence, and then again in the playoffs in Brown’s absence. Sammie Coates didn’t get much time during the regular season, but played very well in the playoffs. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
What a difference a little bit of depth on offensive line makes? The Steelers lost 40% of their starting offensive line, yet you wouldn’t have known it save for a few games and a few isolated plays. Cody Wallace filled in admirably for Maurkice Pouncey, and Alejandro Villanueva played incredibly well at left tackle for a man who was new to the position. David DeCastro continued to emerge as a the road grader the Steelers drafted him to be, while Ramon Foster quietly played well. Marcus Gilbert vindicated the extension the Steelers gave him. Grade: A

Part II of the Steelers 2015 Report Card series grades the Steelers defense.
Part III grades the Steelers coaches and special teams.

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Steelers Sign Levi Norwood, Dustin Vaughan, Adding a Kick Returner and Quarterback to Off Season Roster

The Pittsburgh Steelers continue to add to their 2016 off season roster by signing a wide receiver and a quarterback to futures contracts. The latest development saw the Steelers sign Levi Norwood, who is nominally a wide receiver but the Steelers are likely eyeing him as a kick returner.

Levi Norwood played his college ball at Baylor, where he appeared in 49 games and caught 128 passes for 1626 yards for 11 touchdowns. Norwood returned 64 punts for the Baylor Bears for 559 total yards and an average of 8.7 yards per return and scored two touchdowns. He also 38 kickoffs for 768 yards.

Thanks to the magic of YouTube, every NCAA football player seems to have his own highlights collage on the internet, and here is a shot of Levi Norwood returning a punt against SMU from 2014

The Chicago Bears signed Levi Norwood as an undrafted rookie free agent, but he did not make either the regular season roster or the practice squad. The Steelers will undoubtedly look to pick someone in the 2016 NFL Draft that can return kicks. But the Steelers need someone to relieve Antonio Brown of his punt return duties. Dri Archer clearly wasn’t that person, nor was Markus Wheaton.

Vaughan to Provide 4th Arm at Training Camp

One of the areas that could see the most turnover during the Steelers 2016 off season is the quarterback depth chart. Ben Roethlisberger is of course going no where, but at this date no one on the depth chart below him should even consider an invitation to Saint Vincents safe.

Bruce Gradkowski spent the entire year on IR, and whisperings have it that he may not be wanted back. Landry Jones did not look good in the playoffs, and Mike Tomlin declined to give him a vote of confidence. Michael Vick appears to have thrown his last NFL pass.

The Steelers signed Dustin Vaughan a quarterback who played for Divison II’s West Texas A&M. Vaughan spent the 2014 season with the Dallas Cowboys, but saw no action. The Buffalo Bills took him to training camp in 2015, where Vaughan 35-67-343-0-2 in four preseason games.

  • Dustin Vaughan He did not make Buffalo’s final regular season roster, but did spend some time on their practice squad.

During the 1990’s a 4th or 5th quarterback who went to training camp with the Steelers had legitimate hopes of making the team. Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe gave roster spots to Mike Quinn in 1997 and Anthony Wright in 1999.

  • Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin both believe in a 3 quarterback system, but have played it more by the book.

The Steelers are likely looking at Vaughan as nothing more than a 4th arm for OTA’s, mini camp, training camp – if he makes it that far – but he will get his shot to impress.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for AFC Wild Card Win Over Bengals

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who remains incredibly proud that his star pupils  mastered the critical life lesson of never quitting, not even at the bitter end, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the AFC Wild Card win over the Cincinnati Bengals.steelers, report card, grades, Cincinnati Bengals, wild card, afc, playoffs

This will be remembered as the game where Ben Roethlisberger took the field with a separated shoulder and went so far as to adjust his throwing motion to lead his team down the field with about 1:23 remaining. An so it should.

  • Roethlisberger’s performance was nothing short of heroic.

Still, Ben Roethlisberger played 3 quarters prior to his injury, and while he left the Steelers with a 15 point lead, the offense only scored one touchdown. In 3 series, Landry Jones helped reinforce the case for bringing back Bruce Gradkowski, and unfortunately Jones brings the grade for the quarterbacks down.  Grade:  B+

Running Backs
If, prior to the season someone had said, “The Pittsburgh Steelers will play on the road in the Wild Card vs. an AFC North team, and their backfield will account for 183 all purpose yards,” you surely would have thought that Le’Veon Bell recaptured his 2014 form and entered the playoffs in full health. If you’d know Bell would be injured, you’d have thought “DeAngelo Williams had something left in the tank, and maybe Dri Archer made a sophomore leap.” If that someone had said that those rushing numbers had been authored by Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman you never would known they were smoking crack.

  • But believe it now.

Toussaint and Todman ran with power and authority on a night when torrential rains slowed the Steelers aerial assault. Toussaint also proved he’s a viable target out of the backfield. Clearly these men earned their stripes as Steelers. Grade:  A

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown lead the Steelers with seven catches on 119 yards and played an excellent game before being taken out by an illegal hit to the head from Vontaze Burfict. The week opened with Ben Roethlisberger challenging Martavis Bryant, and Bryant answered the call. Bryant’s stat line of 29 of 5 on six targets for one TD might not look like much, but his end zone catch revealed incredible concentration. Bryant also looked freakishly good on a 40 yard reverse. Markus Wheaton had 23 yards on 2 catches but he also committed a costly fumble. Grade:  A-

Tight Ends
It was a surprisingly quiet night for Heath Miller, who’d owned the Bengals in the Steelers previous two meetings, who had 2 catches for 9 yards on 3 targets in this Wild Card victory. When Miller is involved so little in the passing game that’s usually an indication that he’s been kept back to block. Neither of the Steelers other two tight ends were targeted. Grade:  B

Offensive Line
While Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman deserve every bit of credit and attention their performance earned them, the Steelers offensive line opened up some gaping holes for their running backs and they blocked Bryant’s reverse perfectly. The Steelers did give up four sacks, which isn’t good but overall protection of the quarterback was solid. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Looking at the stat sheet, one is tempted to say “The Bengals should have run more,” but if you take out Jeremy Hill’s 38 yard run, the Steelers completely stuffed Cincinnati’s running game. Stephon Tuitt led the Steelers defensive lineman with 4 tackles, followed by Cameron Heyward who had a sack, and Steve McLendon registered one tackle. Cam Thomas also had two tackles while notching a key fumble. This was a strong night for the defensive line.  Grade:  A-

Next time the Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin pass over a player who might fill a “need” to take draft someone they think can be special, remember the game that Ryan Shazier had. Shazier led the Steelers with 13 tackles, 2 of which went for losses, 2 passes defensed and one hit of A.J. McCarron. But that doesn’t do him credit. Ryan Shazier forced one Bengals fumble (and was robbed of a touchdown) that ended a probable scoring drive. And of course he forced the fumble in with 1:30 left to play that gave the Steelers one final chance.

Jarvis Jones forced the fumble that set up the Steelers third field goal, while Arthur Moats led the Steelers outside linebackers with 5 tackles, followed by James Harrison who had four plus a sack. Lawrence Timmons had four tackles as well and played well. Grade: A

The much maligned Antwon Blake came down with an interception that got the ball back after Wheaton’s fumble, and set up the Steelers first field goal. William Gay gave up his first touchdown of the season, but led defensive backs with 5 tackles. Ross Cockrell recovered the final fumble of the game. The Steelers secondary’s play wasn’t flawless, but they held A.J. Green in check and got the Bengals off the field on third downs for most of the night. They also secured turnovers when they had to. Grade:  B+

Special Teams
Markus Wheaton doesn’t look like he “has it” as a kick returner, but he only fielded one return.  Antonio Brown did not make much noise as a kick returner. The Steelers coverage units were shaky, allowing Cincinnati both long kick and punt returns, to wit a 24 yard punt return helped set up the Bengals go ahead touchdown.

  • These negatives are real, and must not be repeated in Denver.

But the Steelers special teams grade for the Wild Card game must be balanced out by the efforts of Chris Boswell. Kicking in the AFC North in January is not easy, but Boswell was 4-4, kicking field goals of 39, 30, 34, and 35 yards in a driving rain and sleet and that was the perfection that Pittsburgh needed. Grade: B-

Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley both have a pair. The Steelers offensive backfield had a total of 22 carries entering the Wild Card game vs. Cincinnati, yet Tomlin and Haley rushed the duo 28 times and threw to  Toussaint four more.

  • And the game plan worked.

One can quibble about why the Steelers had to settle for field goals on two trips inside the Red Zone, but harsh weather did slow the Steelers offense. Cincinnati has a good defense, and the Steelers offensive came in with a good game plan for attacking it and the coaches had their players prepared to execute it.

Keith Butler’s defense did what they need to succeed – pressure the quarterback and secure turnovers. McCarron looked lost for most of the night, and while you can’t let the defense off the hook for allowing those 16 4th quarter points, the Steelers offense helped Bengals plenty by turning over the ball so quickly.

For all of the flack Mike Tomlin has taken over his time management, the fact is that the Steelers still had 3 timeouts left with 1:36 left to play, forcing Cincinnati to run a play.

  • But that wouldn’t have mattered had the Steelers mindset and composure been different.

Ryan Shazier’s forced fumble of Jeremy Hill stands right up there with Rod Woodson’s forced fumble of Lorenzo White in the 1989 Wild Card upset at Houston, or Troy Polamalu’s interception of Joe Flacco in the 2008 AFC Championship game. All three were championship-caliber plays that combined athleticism, determination, focus and yes, a little luck, to change the course of the game.

If any sideline had the right to outrage after Roethlisberger’s final pass it was the Steelers, who’d just seen their team MVP KOed on an illegal it. Yet it was the Bengals who launched a raucous while Pittsburgh kept its cool and that cost Cincinnati dearly. Grade:  A

Unsung Hero Award
Look at his stat line on ESPN, and you’ll see 3 tackles, 2 solos, and one for a loss. He’s the last of the linebackers in terms of stats, but perhaps that’s more of a reflection on how well his peers played as opposed to being a measure of his efforts. The fact is that while he didn’t record any Splash plays, Bud Dupree helpled set the tone by stuffing  Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill and he of kept AJ McCarron running for much of the first half, and for that Bud Dupree win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers Wild Card win vs. the Cincinnati Bengals.

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Steelers Bengals Playoff Preview – Backup Running Backs Carry Pittsburgh’s Hopes

The last time the Cincinnati Bengals won a playoff game, Dan Quayle remained a heartbeat away from the presidency, David Letterman still worked for NBC, “car phones” were luxury items, Coke still sold in 16 oz glass bottles and Chuck Noll was still the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach.

It is the position of this Steelers Bengals playoff preview that Pittsburgh’s hopes of prolonging Bengals playoff drought likely depend on two Steelers playoff running backs – Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman– that no one in Steelers Nation had ever heard of when the Black and Gold’s initial 53 man roster was set.

  • Yes, how quickly we forget!

News that Kevin Colbert cut not one but two members of the Steelers 2015 Draft Class make way for wavier wire pickups sent Steelers Nation up in arms in a case of collective 2008 draft Déjà vu. Colbert and Mike Tomlin had fumbled away yet another draft. Or so it seemed.

One of Kevin Colbert’s wavier wire pickups was running back Jordan Todman, who could easily lead the Steelers in rushing in the Wild Card game vs. the Bengals. A day later Colbert added Fitzgerald Toussaint to the practice squad who will start tonight for the Steelers.

This could change should Pittsburgh advance DeAngelo Williams may return, but right now the Steelers playoff running backs are Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman. Ben Roethlisberger still has Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant and Heath Miller to throw to, but the Steelers success might hinge on Toussaint and Todman’s ability to put in an “above the line performance.”

  • Mike Tomlin’s “The Standard is the Standard. Next man up” philosophy is about to get another test.

When DeAngelo Williams name first appeared on the Steelers injury report, Steel Curtain Rising observed that not only was the Steelers running back depth preciously low, but that the Steelers had made a conscious choice to go into the season with a backfield that was two men deep (its obvious no one on the South Side was counting on Dri Archer).

Who are Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman?

Of the two men, Jordan Todman is a much better known commodity.

Todman has been in the NFL since 2011 having spent time on the rosters of Minnesota and San Diego that season. After that, he spent three years in Jacksonville, where he appeared in 33 games and made 3 starts.

  • Jordan Todman has authored precisely one 100 yard game, a 104 yard effort that came against the Buffalo Bills in December 2013.

For his career, Jordan Todman has rushed for 472 yards on 117 carries for an average of 4.1 yards a carry and 3 touchdowns. In Pittsburgh, Todman has carried the ball four times, for 22 yards. Todman’s carries have come in the Steelers home wins against San Francisco, Cleveland and Oakland.

The Baltimore Ravens gave Fitzgerald Toussaint his NFL break in 2014, where he appeared in 4 games and rushed 6 times for 12 yards. The Steelers activated him from the practice squad several weeks ago, perhaps to keep Baltimore from claiming him, and since then the Steelers have rushed Toussaint 18 times for 42 yards.

  • That average is unimpressive, but most of that came against Cleveland, and DeAngelo Williams wasn’t doing much better.

Fitzgerald Toussaint also scored his first points in Cleveland, when he caught a Ben Roethlisberger 2 point conversion pass. Taking our cue from the Pittsburgh sports writers, who while they can’t reveal what they see in practice do nonetheless find ways to signal important information to readers, we know a little more the Steelers plans for their playoffs running backs.

Commenting on the Steelers running game going into the Wild Card vs. Cincinnati, Dale Lolley of the Observer-Reporter offered this observation “Every time somebody in the organization mentions Fitzgerald Toussaint, they add what a solid blocker he is.”

Other writers have reported similar comments. Answering a question about an NFL running back by talking about his pass blocking ability is kind of like saying the blind date you were on was “nice.”

Steelers Relying on Backup Running Backs in Playoffs the 21st Century Norm

Hats off to Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review for connecting some rather obvious dots. When DeAngelo Williams went down vs. the Browns, the image of Le’Veon Bell hyper-extending his knee in the season finale vs. the Bengals flashed through everyone’s mind. As well it should.

  • But as Adamski indicates, the Steelers starting backup running backs in the playoffs is nothing new.
  • Neither are late-season injures to starters, for that matter.

In 2011 Isaac Redman got the start in the Tebowing at Denver (and fans forget, Redman racked up over 100 yards) after Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL late in the season. In 2007 Willie Parker broke his leg in week 16, leading to Najeh Davenport to start for the 2007 playoffs. And as Adamski reminds us, the trend goes back to Bill Cowher’s days, when Amos Zereoue started for Jerome Bettis, although Bettis had been out for several weeks.

  • The Steelers playoff record with backup running backs starting isn’t promising.

Zereoue, only a nominal backup at that point, led the Steelers to victory in the 2001 Steelers Divisional Playoff victory over the Ravens. Other than that, the Steelers are 0fwers or winless when starting backups.

Most of the analysis of the Steelers post-season prospects, including Steel Curtain Rising’s, has focused on Ben Roethlisberger and Martavis Bryant playing better and Keith Butler and the Steelers defense getting pressure and turnovers. That analysis is sound.

  • But for all of its potency, Pittsburgh’s offense still needs some production out of its running backs.

Against the Bengals it least, it appears that the Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 playoff hopes will go as far as Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman can carry them.

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Watch Tower: Gerry Dulac on Dri Archer, Lolley on Shamarko Thomas, Coolong Returns to Steelers Wire & More

It has been a long time since the Watch Tower has shown its lights, but that is because of lack of time and certainly not a lack of material. Today’s edition focuses on some odds and sods from previous months, as well as more recent developments and changes from the Steelers press box.

Gerry Dulac (Almost) Right on Dri

The Pittsburgh Steelers ended the Dri Archer experiment two weeks ago when they cut their 2014 3rd round pick in favor of Jacoby Jones. The move was anticipated, at least in part, by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac, who indicated that the Steelers were trying to trade Dri Archer in order to create space for Le’Veon Bell.

The Steelers of course didn’t trade Dri Archer, but the fact that they cut him almost as soon as the trading deadline passed lends a lot credibility to Dulac’s report.

Lolley Gets the Scoop on Shamarko Plus Odds and Sods

One of the biggest disappointments of the Steelers 2015 season is the failure of Shamarko Thomas to emerge into anything but a solid special teams player. While it was clear that he was struggling in preseason, he still remained the starter. That changed once the Steelers began preparing for the Patriots, when they decided to bench Shamarko Thomas, and Dale Lolley beat the rest of his colleagues to the story.

  • The Watch Tower will also take this opportunity to recognize several other writers who beat their competition to the punch.

Ed Bouchette was the first writer, to suggest that the Steelers had prior knowledge of Martavis Bryant’s drug issues. That has since been confirmed, but Bouchette broke it so he gets Watch Tower kudos. The Watch Tower likewise gives a nod to Bouchette for being one of the first journalists to suggest that Steelers Nation would see more of Landry Jones in action shortly after Ben Roethlisberger went down, but before Michael Vick’s struggles became apparent under center.

Likewise, Neal Coolong, then writing for DKPittsburghSports, also had the first full-length feature story on the Steelers signing Michael Vick, although ESPN’s Adam Schefter Tweet came out moments before it was published (link unavailable.)

Coolong Leaves DKonPIttsburghSports, Kudos to Kovacevic for Transparency

Another major change in the Steelers press box occurred when Neal Coolong left DKPittsburghSports to expand his role at USA Today’s Steelers Wire. (Full disclosure, Coolong has asked yours truly to be an occasional contributed to Steelers Wire.)

The move comes as somewhat of a surprise considering Coolong only joined Dejan Kovacevic’s staff a few months ago prior to Steelers training camp. Kovacevic announced the move, expressed well-wishes for Coolong but did discuss it in greater detail. For his part, Coolong simply confirmed to the Watch Tower that his move is part of a plan by the Steelers Wire to aggressively expand the scope of the site.

  • What’s notable, and commendable, about the move is that Kovacevic announced it in the first place.

Kovacevic’s transparent attitude stands in stark contrast to the almost Stalinist-like disappearances of Alan Robinson from the Pittsburgh Tribune Review and Scott Brown from ESPN.com; in both instances, the writer’s byline simply disappeared from their respective sites without any explanation to readers.

Whether Kovacevic had these Steelers-specific examples in mind is unclear, but he did not that “Most media companies don’t share that much information about internal moves….” In contrast, Kovacevic chose to treat his readers as adults and update them on a change and for that he wins Watch Tower Kudos.

Lolley Takes From the NFL Sidelines to Observer-Reporter Site

[Note, an earlier version of this article reported that Lolley’s blog had been put behind a paywall, but that was incorrect. The Watch Tower apologizes for the mistake and thanks Mr. Lolley himself for pointing out the error.]

The Steelers on-line community saw another change in early October when veteran journalist Dale Lolley announced that the Observer-Reporter was moving his “NFL from the Sidelines” on to the paper’s site, and behind its pay wall.

While the move hardly comes as a surprise – paywalls are becoming the norm as newspapers struggle to survive as advertisers migrate to digital, pay-per-click properties – it is nonetheless a disappointment.

What made Lolley’s site distinct was its no-frills approach.

  • it used a basic blogger template, provided no images,
  • had no overt attempt at SEO or backlinking to previous articles,
  • had no advertising
  • he rarely even linked to his features published on the Observer-Reporter’s site.

But what Lolley lacked in frills, he made up with succinct but highly informative summaries of Steelers related news.

Indeed, a reader on the go who lacked time to browse through major sites could simply turn to Lolley’s NFL from the Sidelines, and get readily updated whatever important was going on with the Steelers. The other nice thing about NFL from the Sidelines is that it has a chronological index, making it very easy to research past stories.

In announcing the move, Lolley also shed light on one issue that has long perplexed the Watch Tower, namely why was a print publication that had its own website hosting a blog outside its platform.

  • Lolley confirmed in a comment that the Observer-Reporter lacked the capacity to handle the traffic.

He also made the shocking revelation that NFL from the Sidelines had over a million hits per year, and astonishing number consider its lack of an apparent SEO strategy (for example, the words “Shamarko Thomas” didn’t even appear in the title, let alone the URL of the story on his benching.)

Click here to visit the new home of Dale Lolley’s NFL from the Sidelines.

A Word about Paywalls

While Dale Lolley’s NFL from the Sidelines blog is not currently behind a paywall nor do page views counts appear to be monitored/limited the way they are on the rest of the site, had his publication decided to put the blog behind the paywall it hardly would have been a surprise. As implied above, the Watch Tower, which very much wishes to see the newspaper industry survive in some form or fashion, respects that paywalls are a fact of life.

Nonetheless, they do complicate the Watch Tower’s ability to do meaningful media analysis of Steelers press coverage. For one thing, paywalls, or even limits on free views, make it hard to verify and fact check stories. It also makes it harder to read and compare nuances behind different versions of the same story.

The Watch Tower is all about attempting to understand what makes the press that cover the Steelers tick, and Kovacevic’s story was perfect, and perhaps could have been the subject of an entire Watch Tower article.

Alas, the Watch Tower had no time to write about it when it was published, and since then Kovacevic has tightened his paywall and no longer allows any free views. Its probably a wise business decision on Kovacevic’s part, but its an example of how paywalls make it difficult for the Watch Tower to do its job.

Nonetheless, the Watch Tower plans to continue offer its analysis as best it can.

Click here to read more analysis of Steelers press coverage.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Browns @ Heinz Field

Taken from the Grade Book of a teacher who feels that the bye week couldn’t come at more of an opportune time for his injury wear students, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field.steelers, report card, grades, Browns, Heinz Field

7 plays. That’s all Landry Jones second start lasted as he gave way to “backup” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger who hadn’t practiced all week. Given Roethlisberger’s performance, Mike Tomlin might consider holding him out of practice as standard operating procedure. Truthfully, Roethlisberger’s performance wasn’t flawless as he did throw an interception which opened the door, if only by a crack, to a Browns comeback. But 22 of 33 for 2 TD’s and one pick is pretty darn good. Grade: A-

Running Backs
After having his way with the Oakland Raiders, DeAngelo Williams struggled against the Browns who held him to negative yardage for much of the afternoon. Was it Williams’s foot injury or was the line not up to snuff? It is hard to tell. While the stat sheet might not show it, the Steelers could and did rely on DeAngelo Williams when they needed to kill the clock late in the game. Jordan Todman had 8 yards on two late 4th quarter carries, and Roosevelt Nix had one catch for 10 yards, showing just how versatile he’s becoming. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Heath Miller caught four passes for 40 yards on 7 targets and was credited with 1 fumble recovery. As usual, Miller made his catches count. Reserve tight end Jesse James saw his second NFL game and made an additional catch for two yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
The Cleveland Browns prepared to face Landry Jones and, in the words of Cleveland coach Mike Pettine, didn’t “know that their game plan would have been that much different if it had been Landry Jones the whole game.” So therefore, they made no adjustments when Ben Roethlisberger came in, despite missing their top two defensive backs.

  • As the old SNL commercial goes: Bad Idea.

Ben Roethlisberger took advantage of mismatches in man coverage to connect with Martavis Bryant on receptions of 32, 44 and 64 yards. Antonio Brown continued “the Ben and Antoino” show making ten catches, a touchdown plus a 2 point conversion catch. Markus Wheaton had two catches on 2 targets, a modest performance but not bad from a receiver who has been shaky of late. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
It was a glass half full, half empty situation for the Steelers offensive line vs. the Browns. For the second straight week, Neal Coolong of USA Today Steelers Wire cited Cody Wallace for his poor technique. It is hard to say how much that contributed to the Steelers difficulties running the ball, but the offensive line must share blame anytime a running game is held to negative yards for three quarters. On the flip side, the Browns only sacked Ben Roethlisberger once and only added one additional hit. If ever there was a day when the Steelers could not afford to have Ben Roethlisberger beaten up, it was vs. the Browns. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward played like a man on fire, and the Cleveland Browns were unable to stop him at any time during the day.

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GIF appears courtesy of DKonPittsburgh Sports

Heyward finished with a sack, two tackles for a loss and another hit on Johnny Manziel. Stephon Tuitt was not far behind, getting a sack, a tackle for a loss and a quarterback hit. Cam Thomas and Daniel McCullers each got a tackle. The Steelers held the Browns to 15 yards rushing, and that includes 17 yards rushing by Johnny Manziel. The defensive line was doing its job. Grade: A


Lawrence Timmons lead unit with ten tackles, sacked Johnny Manziel once, and dropped two Browns behind the line of scrimmage. Ryan Shazier was next, with a sack and a tackle for a loss. Sean Spence stopped Travis Benjamin seven yards behind the line of scrimmage on an end around, helping keep Cleveland’s rushing total in the negative column. Arthur Moats had half sack and recovered the fumble. Jarvis Jones was also credited with a half sack. Bud Dupree didn’t put a lot on the stat sheet, but played well. Grade: B+

Fantasy football owners who started Johnny Manziel were likely happy cappers Saturday afternoon, as Manziel threw for 372 on a day when his team could not run the ball. Will Allen led the secondary and the team in tackles, and continues to offer stability to a unit that is sometimes erratic. Michael Mitchell gave the Steelers their third Red Zone interception in as many weeks. The Steelers secondary has a certain “bend but don’t break” quality to it. Its far from the team’s strength, but it against the Browns, it got the job done. Grade: C+

Special Teams
Why exactly did the Steelers waive Dri Archer and sign Jacoby Jones? In his first game Jones looked tentative, which was to be expected given he’d had no practice. Vs. the Browns, Jacoby Jones looked like he’d forgotten how to catch the ball, muffing one fair catch and fumbling a kick return. Cleveland’s kick return unit averaged 25 yards on four kicks. That’s hardly lethal, but it is hardly praise worthy.

Chris Boswell made three field goals which helped keep the game out of reach, but he also missed an extra point, his second miss at Heinz Field in two weeks. Jordan Berry punted once for 42 yards. Grade: C-

Mike Tomlin is a coach who believes in playing players who practice, and he stuck true to his word in starting Landry Jones. Injuries forced his hand, and the Steelers answered the call.

The Steelers offense continues to evolve under Todd Haley and it is evolving for the better. The Steelers only needed to punt once, and while they did turnover on downs in the end zone, they struck right back to get score a touchdown with just over a minute in the second half. Haley has weapons at his disposal and he knows how to use them.

Under Keith Butler, the Steelers defense appears to be giving up more yards than it did under Dick LeBeau (although that would need to be verified), but for whatever Butler’s unit gives up in yards, it keeps finding ways to make it up with splash plays. And his unit seems to be play best in the Red Zone, as the Browns knocked on heaven’s door twice and were turned away with no points on both occasions. On another occasion, the Browns made it to the Steelers 5 but had to kick. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero Award
Martavis Bryant had just fumbled away a 64 yard gain that most certainly would have set up a Steelers score. The Browns were only down by three and such turnovers can be momentum changers.

Yet on their first play from scrimmage, Isaiah Crowell scampered off left tackle looking for daylight. Steve McLendon was there, dropping him for a 7 yard loss. The Browns would make it to midfield before punting, but Steve McLendon’s play set the tone for the drive and exemplified the aggressive force with which the Steelers front seven attacked the Browns.

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DeAngelo Williams Foot Injury Highlights Thin Steelers Running Back Depth, Changing Times

As everyone knows, Ben Roethlisberger‘s name heads the Steelers injury report as Pittsburgh prepares to play the Cleveland Browns this week. That comes as no surprise after his leaving the Steelers victory over Oakland in the 4th quarter.

The next two names are linebackers James Harrison and Ryan Shazier. Clearly the Steelers are better with those two in the lineup than without, but both have a couple of three players who can take their place.

Last week the Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell to an MCL tear and this week DeAngelo Williams misses practice due to a swollen foot….? Neal Coolong of The Steelers Wire pointed out the Steelers 2015 playoff hopes might hinge on Landry Jones’ arm.

Because those are the “next men up” should DeAngelo Williams be unable to play vs. Cleveland, or at any other point in the remainder of 2015. For the record, Todman has 3 careear starts, 113 carries and 464 yards on his NFL rushing resume. He even has 3 touchdowns and has 3 receptions (although not 3 touchdowns for 3 receptions.) Pead has 19 carries for 78 yards.

Certain segments of Steelers Nation will no doubt wish to pick up the pitch fork and man the barricades to condemn Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert for allowing such a situation to come to pass. But the truth is that DeAngelo William’s swollen foot merely highlights the precarious nature of the Steelers thin running back depth, which simply a symptom of a larger, league wide problem.

Steelers Running Back Depth Long a Franchise Hallmark

Throughout Steelers history, the franchise has long boasted depth charts that were at least three deep at running back.

In 1976, the Steelers had two 1,000 yard rushers in the form of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Six years later the Steelers had three 1st round running backs on their depth chart as they did in 1982 with Harris, Greg Hawthorne and Walter Abercrombie along with work horse Frank Pollard.

The trend of the Steelers fielding a deep bullpen of running back depth continued through 80’s and into the 1990’s. In 1991 the Steelers running back depth chart had Merril Hoge, Barry Foster, Tim Worley, Warren Williams and Leroy Thompson. In 2000, the Steelers running back depth chart boasted Jerome Bettis, Richard Huntley, Amos Zereoue, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala, and Jon Witman with Dan Krieder on the practice squad.

As recently as 2008, the Steelers opened the season with Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Cary Davis, and Gary Russell for depth at running back. Even in 2012, the Steelers still had Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer – hardly three super stars, but the threesome gave Pittsburgh more running back depth than they currently enjoy.

Those days ended then and there, however.

2013 a Turning Point for Running Back Depth for the NFL and the Steelers

The Steelers picked Le’Veon Bell in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Assuming the Bell makes a full recovery from his injury and resumes his stratospheric performances fans will someday wonder how a back of his talent fell out of the NFL Draft’s first round. Or they won’t.

  • The 2013 NFL Draft marked the first draft since 1936 that no running back was taken in the first round.

The trend continued in 2014 and, while the San Diego Chargers took Melvin Gordon in the 1st round of the 2015, NFL Draft, 2013 marks milestone for running back depth for both the Steelers and for the NFL.

2013 saw Bell’s early season sacrificed to a Lis-franc injury, and Redman ailing due to an undisclosed neck injury, so it fell to Dwyer and Felix Jones to carry the Steelers load at running back. The duo did not do well. By comparison’s sake, in Isaac Redman 2012 out-rushed and out received the combined ’13 rushing and receiving totals of Dwyer and Jones.

Choices Lead to Thin Steelers Running Back Depth in 2015

The Steelers thin depth at running back in 2013 was largely a product of accident, but in 2014 it became more a product of choice.

The Steelers of course signed LeGarrette Blount in the off season to back up Bell. But behind Blount the Steelers only had Dri Archer, whom they envisioned as a utility back/wide receiver, and fullback Will Johnson. (Josh Harris was on the practice squad.) LeGarrett Blount discipline problems cost him his roster spot, forcing the Steelers to sign Ben Tate after Bell went down vs. the Bengals.

  • The Blount dismissal aside, the Steelers made a conscious choice to enter 2014 only two players deep at running back.

And the made the same choice in 2015, opting to go with Bell and Williams, only picking up Todman on waivers after Josh Harris failed to impress during preseason. The NFL is a passing league, and no one argues with the Steelers giving Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates roster spots.

  • But every roster choice involves an opportunity cost.

And with Bell down for the count, and DeAngelo Williams nursing a swollen foot, the potential opportunity cost of the Steelers opting to staff such a thin depth chart at running back has just gone up.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Raiders Win @ Heinz Field

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders how long his absentee list can grow before classroom performance takes a permanent hit, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Oakland Raiders at Heinz Field.

Quarterbacksteelers, report card, grades, Raiders
During the early portions of the game, Ben Roethlisberger looked to be misfiring almost as badly has he had done during the Bengals game, although he got little help from receivers not named “Brown.” He did however get a LOT of help from Brown, and when he left the field injured the Steelers were holding on to a 14 point lead in the 4th quarter. Landry Jones entered the game late and helped the Steelers regain the lead. Grade: B+

Running Back
32 year old running backs are not supposed to look this good. They’re not supposed to be threats to go the length of the field. They’re not supposed to get tough yards when the opponent knows a run is coming. Fortunately, no one told DeAngelo Williams that, as he ran for 170 yards against the NFL’s number 2 rushing defense. Jordan Todman ran for once for 3 yards. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
It was the best of times it was the worst of times. The Steelers wide receiving corps struggled early, with key drops from Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Bryant of course redeemed himself with a late touchdown run, but the other recievers were non-factors….

…Then there was Antonio Brown. Antonio Brown broke’ both Courtney Hawkins record of 14 receptions and Plaxico Burress’s 253 yards. For those of you keeping notes at home, Brown also ran for 22 yards. For as impressive as Brown was, his totals would have been higher had Roethilsberger been more on target early in the game.

The Pittsburgh Steelers report card grades on results and the Brown’s performance brings up the grade for the rest of the group considerably.  Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Heath Miller only caught 3 passes on 3 targets but helped in the run blocking game. As did Jesse James, who made his NFL debut with one touchdown catch and another block of not one, but two players to spring Martavis Bryant into the end zone. Grade: B

Offensive Line
The Steelers offensive line kept Ben Roethlisberger relatively upright, his injury not withstanding. And the managed to open up some pretty impressive holes for DeAngelo Williams against a defense that does not give up much against the run. Grade: B

Defensive Line
For the first game in recent memory the Steelers failed to pressure the passer AND gave up a lot of yardage on the ground. Although the Steelers did clamp down the Raiders rushing lanes, the Raiders had games of 12, 19, and 44 yards on the grounds. That’s way too many. Cameron Heyward led the unit with one tackle, while Stephon Tuitt was less effective with 3 tackles. Grade: D

The Raiders game was hardly a banner day for the Steelers linebackers, as the unit failed to get in David Carr’s face, and also must shoulder responsibility for Raiders early success rushing the ball. Ryan Shazier led the group with seven tackles, followed by Lawrence Timmons who had 5, with James Harrison, recording two, while Jarvis Jones and Vince Williams clocked in at 1 a piece. Grade: C-

Antown Blake led the team in tackles and has taken a lot of heat for his role in pass coverage, but he only gave up 74 yards in reception by one count. He also forced the first fumble, which he kicked out of bounds. argely because he was unable to cover Armani Cooper. Will Allen quietly defensed 3 passes in his return. Michael Mitchell forced the game’s first turnover with a devastating hit on Latavius Murray while Ross Cockrell made another end zone interception. The Steelers secondary gave up a lot of yards and a 4th quarter lead. However, their hard hitting helped set the tone for the day. Grade: C

Special Teams
Once the NFL’s trading deadline passed, the Steelers ended their Dri Archer experiment in favor of bringing in veteran Jacoby Jones. Jones fared worse than Archer as a kick returner, and was a non-factor as a punt returner. Which is better than Antonio Brown, who fumbled away a punt with the game on the line.

Chris Boswell missed a field goal, but made two more, including the game winner. Bud Dupree blocked a punt although the Steelers were not able to take advantage, the Steelers did however take advantage of the fumble that Roosevelt Nix forced.

Like it was for the rest of the team, it was an up and down day for the Steelers special teams. Grade: C+

Never let it be said that Todd Haley keeps Ben Roethlisberger from connecting with Antonio Brown. Credit Haley for devising a game plan that allowed the Steelers to rush for close to 200 yards against one of the NFL’s stingiest run defenses.

The Steelers are 9 games into the season and Keith Butler’s defense has generally exceeded expectations. However, they struggled at times first the Raiders and allowed a 14 point 4th quarter lead to evaporate. Credit Butler with make the necessary adjustment to shut down the Raiders running game, but he was never able to get pressure on David Carr and, as a consequence, the Raiders almost-comeback looked easy.

Since the day he arrived in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin has vowed that injuries will not be an excuse. After the game reporters gave him a chance to feel sorry for himself again. Tomlin minced no words:

Injuries are as much a part of the game of football as blocking and tackling. It’s unfortunate, we don’t like it, but we embrace the challenge that comes with it. We’re not looking for excuses.

The Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger yet again, but didn’t bat and eye and closed out the game with a win. It’s very easy to say the words, but Mike Tomlin has his team living them. Grade: B-

Unsung Hero Award
It is often said that “Sometimes the ball just bounces your way.” And that’s true. But a loose ball is an opportunity and players who are both attentive and hustle can ensure that they bounce the way of the ball. The Steelers margin of victory over the Raiders was very narrow, and they needed all three of fumble recoveries they secured, and that’s why Jarvis Jones, Anthony Chickillo and Vince Williams are the Unsung Heroes for the Steelers win over the Raiders at Heinz Field.

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Pittsburgh’s Archer Experiment Ends: Steelers Cut Dri Archer, Claim Jacoby Jones Off Waivers

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have apparently seen enough. Pittsburgh’s Dri Archer experiment is apparently over as the Steelers cut Dri Archer and claim Jacoby Jones off of waivers.

The Pittsburgh Steelers turned heads during the 2014 NFL draft when they drafted Dri Archer in the third round.

EVERYONE KNEW the Steelers were looking for cornerbacks and wide receivers early in the 2014 NFL Draft. They broke from the script in the first round by drafting Ryan Shazier. They did it again in the second round by drafting Stephon Tuitt. There were good cornerbacks and wide receivers left on the board in the third round.

Instead they drafted Dri Archer, who was the fastest man at the 2014 NFL Combine. The appeal of Archer’s speed was obvious, but that speed came with a real downside, his size. Archer was not only the fastest man at the combine, he was also the smallest at 5’8” 173 pounds.

Stone Offered Template for Archer

Undaunted, the Steelers saw Archer as a potential scat or utility back, in the mold of Dave Meggett or Eric Metcalf. They even gave him number 13, indicating their plans to use him as a hybrid wide receiver running back. In that sense Archer’s arch could have followed another speedy player who earned himself a spot on the Steelers roster for 8 seasons from 1987 to 1994 Dwight Stone.

The Steelers used Stone as a kick returner throughout his career in Pittsburgh, and tried him at running back in 1988 before shifting him to wide receiver. Stone was never a star, but he was a legitimate role player during Chuck Noll’s final seasons as head coach, even if his nick name of “Hands of Stone” was well earned, (at times at least).

Stone’s held on to his starting role during much of Bill Cowher’s first two seasons, but it waned with the emergence of Yancey Thigpen and Ernie Mills. Like Archer, the Steelers hoped to use Stone as a utility back in 1994, but that role never emerged.

Dri Archer Failed to Follow Dwight Stone’s Arch

Unlike Dwight Stone, Archer could never make it work. As a rookie he had 10 rushes and 7 catches. While his averages were OK, that was hardly representative sample. The Steelers actions spoke volumes when Le’Veon Bell was injured in the 2014 season finale vs. Cincinnati, as they immediately signed Ben Tate and ran Tate with Josh Harris.

Archer began to get work as a kick returner in 2015, and while his average was decent, he chose to down a kick in the end zone vs. the Bengals instead of attempting to run the ball out of the end zone. A number of reporters commented on this, and one has to wonder if they weren’t echoing frustrations they’d heard off the record from Steelers coaches.

  • The timing of the Steelers decision to cut Archer is also curious.

Early in the season when the Steelers needed create roster room for Le’Veon Bell, Gerry Dulac reported that Archer was on the trading block. A trade never materialized as the Steelers made other roster moves. However, the NFL’s trading deadline came and went this week. One has to wonder if the Steelers tried and failed to trade Archer.

So apparently the Steelers cut Dri Archer having been unable to get anything for him.

Jones to Provide Relief for Brown?

Another telling fact about Dri Archer was that Mike Tomlin and Danny Smith never felt comfortable trying him out as a punt returner, as they instead continued to use Antonio Brown in that capacity, thereby exposing one of their best players to a greater injury risk.

Jacoby Jones best days are likely behind him, but his work as a kick returner in 2015 is still solid. His work as a punt returner isn’t quite as impressive, but he has had fewer opportunities there. The Steelers would nonetheless we wise to try him.

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