5 Non-Offensive Line Questions Steelers Must Answer @ Training Camp 2021

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin training camp today as players have begun working out with their first padded practices coming in a week.

Again, as they did a year ago, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Steelers will not be able to hold training camp at St. Vincents, instead splitting activities between their facility on the South Side and Heinz Field.

  • Unless you’ve been under a rock, the offensive line is the main story line this summer.

With the retirement of Maurkice Pouncey and the departure of David DeCastro, the Steelers will feature an almost completely re-made offensive line. While the offensive line was a liability last season, at least in the running game, cohesion is critical there and any hopes for better season lie with an improve offensive line.

But the development of the offensive line, while critical, is hardly the only pressing issue the Pittsburgh must resolve. Here are 5 others.

Devin Bush,

Steelers Devin Bush on the fields of St. Vincents 2 years ago. Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo! Sports

1. Who Will Provide Depth at Inside Linebacker?

The news that Devin Bush is back and ready to practice was tempered by the surprise retirement of Vince Williams. The Steelers cut Williams and then welcomed him back on a smaller contract.

  • That move seemed to give the Steelers needed depth on the inside.

Robert Spillane did well enough to earn a starting slot along side Devin Bush, and Williams seemed to be the perfect veteran backup. Instead, he will start “Life’s Work.”

That leaves converted safety Marcus Allen, veteran journeyman Miles Killebrew, 4th round pick Buddy Johnson and Ulysees Gilbert (remember him?) as the primary contenders to replace him. Killebrew is the immediate favorite.

But the Steelers contingency plans to shore up the center of their defense just got more complicated.

2. Can Pittsburgh Escape a Tight Spot @ Tight End?

With Eric Ebron the Steelers are in a “What you see is what you get” position. Ebron is an asset in the Red Zone. He can be an effective receiver – when he catches the ball. As for blocking? Well you or I might be able to do a better job. OR at least make more effort.

With a shaky offensive line, the Steelers need a presence at tight end that can block effectively. They also need someone who can catch underneath passes once wide receivers have stretched the field.

The Steelers drafted Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth in the 2nd round and on paper he should meet that need. Kevin Radar showed himself to be a solid blocker in limited action during 2020. Zach Gentry is at the point in his NFL career where he needs to start replacing potential with production.

3. Can the Steelers Square Their Depth Chart at Cornerback?

In 2020 fielding a competitive defense means fielding 3 starting caliber cornerbacks. The Steelers said good bye to two starters this off season. Cam Sutton has been an under the radar type player for the Steelers for the last two, if not three seasons.

  • The Steelers are betting that he can make the next step.

It says here that the Steelers bet will likely payoff. What about the third and 4th cornerback slots? The Steelers brought in James Pierre last season and thought enough of him to move him ahead of Justin Layne for the playoffs. The decision to part ways with Steven Nelson was as much a vote of confidence in Pierre as it was anything else.

As for Justin Layne, he appears to have escaped legal trouble for his latest off the field incident, but one wonders if he can find the maturity he needs if he hasn’t already. If that’s the case then the Steelers need someone to emerge from the tangle of bodies below this group, be it Shakur Brown, DeMarkus Acy or Stephen Denmark.

4. Who Can Emerge as Defensive Lineman Number 4?

Officially the Steelers remain a 3-4 team, but each season sees the Steelers play in their base defense less and less. Hence, Cam Heyward is listed as a defensive tackle, even though he typically has a linebacker to his left and a defensive lineman to his right.

  • The Steelers caught a break when they got Tyson Alualu back.

But Alualu is 34. Ideally Carlos Davis, Isaiah Buggs, Henry Mondeaux or even rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk, would supplant him as the starter and allow Alualu to become the 4th man in Karl Dunbar’s rotation.

Regardless, the Steelers need to find a 4th man this summer.

5. Who Will Be QB Number 3?

Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph

Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph on the sidelines at Heinz Field in 2019. Photo Credit: AP via

IF the Steelers are to have ANY chance of making a run at a Super Bowl this season, Ben Roethlisberger quite simply must get more comfortable with the “bionics” of his new arm and thereby improve on his deep and intermediate passes.

  • It really is that simple.

Armed with a new contract, Mason Rudolph will be the Steelers backup quarterback this season. The big question this summer is whether Dwayne Haskins and prove he was worth the flyer the Steelers took on him or whether he becomes a footnote in Steelers history.

This is important, because of Haskins can show himself to be worthy of a roster spot, then he has the physical tools to challenge Mason Rudolph next summer (regardless of whether Roethlisberger retires.)

Haskins was just in the news. Again. At this point there’s nothing to suggest Haskins did anything illegal, but he’s making headlines for the wrong reasons. Again. Something tells me Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are happy they hedged their bets here.

 

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Steelers Draft Pat Freiermuth, 2nd Round 2021, as Nittany Lion Return to Tight End Depth Chart

Well, I guess we know why the Steelers didn’t sign Jesse James, although its clear that someone on the South Side was had their ear tuned to the purr of the Nittnay Lions.

One night after playing it strictly by the book in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Steelers departed from the script and drafted Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth with their second pick.

  • Well, maybe that’s a little strong. The move should not come as a surprise, as tight end is a clear area of need.

Our Steelers Draft Needs Matrix rated it a 4th level priority, and staff writer Tony Defeo marked tight end even higher at High need. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Gerry Dulac went as far as to suggest the Steelers would draft Pat Freiermuth.

Still the expectation was that the Steelers would stick to the offensive line during round two, drafting either a center or an offensive tackle. However, two of the tackles Pittsburgh purportedly coveted were off the board before they could pick, and Kevin Colbert stuck to his pledge not to sacrifice draft picks to move up.

Steelers tight end coach Alfredo Roberts explained the decision to pick Freiermuth: “He’s going to be a kind of throwback tight end. He can play different positions, do multiple things. His position flexibility will allow us to do a lot of different things.”

And the Steelers do need a tight end who can “do a lot of different things.”

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers second round draft pick 2021

Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth out foxing Maryland defenders. Photo Credit Abby Drey, via Central Daily

Pat Freiermuth Video Highlights

At 6-5, 251 pound and having worn 87 for Penn State, Pat Freiermuth certainly fits the bill of a two way, throwback tight end. Here’s a look at his tape.

He certainly has good hands and definitely does not shy away from after the catch contact. Doing it in the NFL won’t be quite as easy as it was doing it in the NCAA, but he offers a lot of promise. It would be nice to see video on his blocking, but I guess that doesn’t generated page views.

How Pat Freiermuth Fits into the Steelers Scheme

Vance McDonald, Chris Conte, Vance McDonald stiff arm Chris Conte, Steelers va Buccaneers

Vance McDonald stiff arms Chris Conte into oblivion. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

The Steelers have been wandering in the wilderness at tight end since Heath Miller. Heath Miller was a picture of dependability in the passing game, a strong blocker and a quiet force who led by example in the locker room.

Since Miller departed, Pittsburgh has thrown money at Ladarius Green, whose ankle and concussion injuries limited him to a handful of games and qualified him as one of the Steelers all-time free agent busts.

They traded for Vance McDonald, who was injured most of his first year in Pittsburgh. Vance McDonald had a strong season in 2018, was inconsistent in 2019, and used sporadically in 2020. Things got so bad in 2019 that Kevin Colbert had to trade for Nick Vannett and Mike Tomlin started him that very week. (Nick Vannett played well in that first game, then disappeared.)

For a while there, it looked liked Xavier Grimble might have worked himself up from the practice squad to a competent number 2 tight end, but that was not to be either.

They signed Eric Ebron as a free agent last spring, and while Ebron did some nice things, particularly in the Red Zone, his blocking skills are non-existent and he had trouble holding on to the ball. As for Zach Gentry he hasn’t done much other than get injured.

Suffice to say, Pat Freiermuth doesn’t even need to complete the run test at St. Vincents to immediately upgrade the Steelers depth chart at tight end.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Pat Freiermuth.

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin similarly beamed about his first round pick:

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

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

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

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

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

Najee Harris, Steelers 2021 First Round Draft Pick

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

Najee Harris Video Highlights

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

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

Clearly, there’s a lot to like.

How Najee Harris Fits into Steelers Scheme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Steelers Draft Running Backs 1st, Good Things Happen

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

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

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

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

So welcome to Steelers Nation Najee.

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

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

steelers press conference,

Steelers in Far Stronger Shape than Expected

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Needs Heading into the 2021 NFL Draft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix

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

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Steelers in Tight Spot @ Tight End Heading into 2021 NFL Draft

The Steelers entered 2020 in great shape at the tight end position, thanks to the free-agent signing of veteran Eric Ebron. But after the sudden retirement of Vance McDonald this offseason, what kind of shape is Pittsburgh in at tight end heading into the 2021 NFL Draft?

Eric Ebron, Steelers vs Colts

Eric Ebron scores a touchdown in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

The Steelers Draft Needs at Tight End: The Starters

A number-one choice by the Lions in 2014, Ebron spent his first four seasons in Detroit before signing with the Colts as a free agent in 2018. After two years in Indianapolis, Ebron signed a two-year deal with the Steelers last March.

At 6’4″ and 253 pounds, Ebron didn’t come to Pittsburgh as a traditional Steelers tight end in the mold of a Heath Miller, but he certainly appeared to be their most explosive talent at the position since perhaps the days of Eric Green. Ebron caught 56 passes for 558 yards and five touchdowns a year ago.

However, he did have his share of drops and was one of the league leaders in that category. There was speculation early in the offseason that Ebron would be a cap casualty, but he restructured his deal and will return for 2021 as the team’s only proven commodity at the position.

The Steelers Draft Needs at Tight End: The Backups

Zach Gentry, the fifth-round pick out of Michigan in 2019 NFL Draft, has barely made a dent as an NFL player over his first two seasons. To put that in perspective, he has as many season-ending injuries as he does receptions (one). The same can be said for Kevin Rader, Charles Jones and Dax Raymond, former UDFAs who round out Pittsburgh’s tight end depth chart.

The Steelers Draft Needs at Tight End

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftAgain, Eric Ebron is the lone returning starter. And while Ebron brings his assets to the offense, particularly in the Red Zone, his blocking leaves a lot to be desired (and that’s being generous.)

With nobody even remotely ready to take McDonald’s place atop the depth chart, the tight end position is one the Steelers really need to invest in during the 2021 NFL Draft.

After Kyle Pitts, Florida’s highly-rated prospect, there doesn’t appear to be another tight end the Steelers could realistically take in the first round. But considering they didn’t address the position with even a journeyman free-agent signing, they should certainly make tight end a priority in one of the next two rounds.

No matter how you split it, the Steelers needs at tight end heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered High

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Big Ben @ His 11th Hour. But Steelers Won’t Seek His Replacement in the 2021 NFL Draft

“Stability.” “NFL” = not-for-long meaning stability is in short supply. Pittsburgh Steelers are the NFL’s most stable team, and they’ve enjoyed unprecedented stability at the quarterback position, thanks to the presence of Ben Roethlisberger.

  • Pittsburgh’s passion once rose and fell on news of Roethlisberger’s health.

This is no exaggeration. During his sophomore season, KDKA interrupted regular programing for updates on a minor Roethlisberger knee injury. When Roethlisberger first uttered the “R” word following the 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, he sent Steelers Nation into an anxiety attack.

That’s changed.

The Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff debacle against the Browns marked a turning point. For the first time management question whether Ben Roethlisberger would be back, while large segments of the press and the fans questions whether Roethlisberger should return.

Ben will be back, but his contract voids after the Super Bowl. Big Ben is rapidly reaching his 11th hour. So how should this impact the Steelers strategy for the 2021 NFL Draft?

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger replacement, Steelers 2021 NFL Draft

Ben Roethlisberger on September 15th 2021. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images

Steelers Depth Cart at Quarterback: The Starter

Ben Roethlisberger’s story is well known. With Pittsburgh on the clock in the 2004 NFL Draft, Bill Cowher was leaning towards Shawn Andrews, but Dan Rooney cocked his arm back imitating a throwing motion and Paul Tagliabue made it official a few minutes later.

  • It’s rare that a franchise quarterback falls into the lap of team with a championship roster.
  • But when it does the team had better capitalize on it. Fast.

Like Steve Young and the 49ers, Ben Roethlisberger delivered, leading the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. But like Dan Marino and the Dolphins, as those Super Bowl veterans aged and retired, the Steelers have struggled to rebuild their roster around Roethlisberger.

  • Many fail to appreciate just how close Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin came to pulling it off.

Steelers Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell

The Steelers Killer Bees were too true to their name. Photo Credit: pegitboard.com

Injuries and ego colluded to prevent The Killer Bees from reaching their potential, while Ryan Shazier’s injury ripped a gaping hole in the middle of the defense.

  • In many ways Ben Roethlisberger’s 2020 season mirrors that same story arc.

No one knew how Roethlisberger would play following elbow surgery. But in the first months of the season, Ben Roethlisberger played some of his best football ever. His release as lightning quick, his short and medium passes exited with laser-like precision.

He was even in the league MVP conversation.

  • Sure, the long ball was an issue.

But Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and James Washington all grew pretty adept at drawing pass interference penalties downfield. But then the running game imploded into oblivion. Defenses took away the short pass. Receivers (and tight ends – Eric Ebron) started dropping passes.

  • ACL injuries and COVID-19 ravaged the defense.

As he always did, Roethlisberger’s response was to try to take the team on his shoulders. Something he no longer has the talent to do.

Art Rooney II made it clear he wanted Ben Roethlisberger back, but only at a discount. Ben Roethlisberger agreed, and he took one for the team.

The salary cap has stripped the Steelers of their depth, opening the question of whether Pittsburgh has enough pieces to make a Super Bowl run, but it says here that Ben Roethlisberger showed enough to justify a return in 2021.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart: The Backups

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Drafted with an extra 3rd round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Mason Rudolph arrived as a potential successor to Roethlisberger. Since then Mason Rudolph has started nine games and logged snaps in 3 more.

  • Results have been mixed.

At times, like during the first half of the Dolphins game or the 2nd Bengals game, Mason Rudolph looked as lost and clueless as Kordell Stewart did in his lowest moments. At other moments, such has his starts against the Rams in ’19 and the Browns in ’21, he looked like a signal caller who could develop into a Neil O’Donnell like starter.

  • The Steelers brass clearly isn’t hanging its hat on the latter scenario coming to fruition.

Otherwise they wouldn’t have brought Ben Roethlisberger back, nor would they have taken a flyer on Dwayne Haskins, a failed former first rounder out of Washington.

The Steelers 2021 Quarterback Draft Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL DraftIn abstract football terms, the Steelers need for a quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft should be Moderate-High. They’re going to need a starter perhaps as early as 2022, and no sane person would commit to that starter being Rudolph or Haskins.

But, with usual “unless someone falls” caveat, the Steelers aren’t finding that starter drafting so late in the first round.

  • And drafting one in the middle rounds would be akin to drafting another Rudolph or Haskins.

The Steelers have two of those. And really, taking another Tee Martin or Dennis Dixon like flyer in the 5th or 6th round would mean using a pick on a player who can’t help in 2021. Therefore the Steelers need at quarterback going into the 2021 draft should be considered as Low.

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Like Past Steelers Wide Receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster to Find Fortune Outside Pittsburgh

Since the arrival of free agency to the NFL in 1993, the Pittsburgh Steelers have given second contracts to just two wide receivers: Hines Ward and Antonio Brown.

  • Everyone else has had to find their fortune elsewhere.

That includes Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes. That includes Super Bowl XL hero Antwaan Randle El. That includes John Stallworth record breaker Yancey Thigpen. That includes first round picks like Charles Johnson and Plaxico Burress.

When the Steelers brought JuJu Smith-Schuster to Pittsburgh, they already had Antonio Brown locked down to a long-term contract, and with questions about some of their other wide outs, they hoped they were drafting the next Hines Ward. JuJu Smith-Schuster has filled that role, in many respects. But has he done enough to earn a second contract? Today we find out.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Career with the Steelers

When the Steelers drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft a Twitter spat started between Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates over who JuJu was coming to replace. As it turns out, he replaced both of them.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

  • JuJu Smith Schuster installed himself almost as an instant weapon in the Steelers offense as a rookie.

During his first season he caught 58 of 79 passes thrown his way for 917 yards, including a 97 yarder against the Lions and a critical 69 yarder that set up the infamous Jesse James play in the loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field. Ju-Ju Smith Schuster followed that up with a 111 catch, 1426 yard, 7 touchdown sophomore season that included another 97 yard touchdown pass.

However, with Ben Roethlisberger injured, an absent running game, inconsistency efforts by Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges and his own injuries, JuJu Smith-Schuster struggled in 2019 catching just 42 passes for 552 yards.

JuJu bounced back in 2020, recording 97 catches. Critics might charge that his “Yards per catch” dropped. It did. That’s because JuJu Smith-Schuster became the go-to man when touch catches were called for.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

With all of those accolades, you’d think that the Steelers would have inked JuJu Smith-Schuster to a new deal a long time ago. JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger would like him back. There’s a reason why JuJu Smith-Schuster’s catch percentage was 15 points higher than that of Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron or James Washington:

  • He was the best receiver on the field for the Steelers.

JuJu Smith-Schuster was a men among boys. He put his heart and soul into the game. When others dropped passes, JuJu pulled them down. JuJu was physical. He yielded no quarter to any other player on the field.

You win championships with players like JuJu Smith-Schuster. If the Steelers are serious about making a final run at Lombardi number 7 with Roethlisberger, then they must keep JuJu in Pittsburgh.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vontaze Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals, JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension

JuJu Smith-Schuster stands over Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

Ah. If only it were about the X’s and O’s. Alas, It is not. A quick look at Over the Cap reveals that a wide receiver of JuJu’s pedigree could easily make 15 to 16 million per year. The Steelers have, at best 3 million under the cap.

Sure, they could free 16 million for JuJu. And JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Perhaps he’ll give “home town discount.” The stars seem aligned.

  • But it isn’t that simple. Those contracts have 40 or 50 million dollars guaranteed.

You really think JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to leave 30 or 35 million dollars guaranteed on the table to sign a one year “prove it” contract ? In a perfect world, JuJu Smith-Schuster would be a Steeler for life. But the world is far from perfect, and if JuJu has shown he’s a good, a very good wide receiver, he’s not yet shown he’s a great receiver and hence not deserving of a second contract from the Steelers.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

This one hurts. A lot. Because absent some injuries and other personnel issues, JuJu Smith-Schuster should have, could have likely would have played a key role in bring home Lombardi Number 7 during his time in Pittsburgh.

  • And in an normal year, its possible the Steelers might have found the money to keep JuJu in Black and Gold.

Although in a normal year, that money likely goes to Bud Dupree first. And there’s a simple reason why, as former Steelers scribe and Current USA Today Wire Editor Neal Coolong explains:

This, in a nutshell is why the Steelers so seldom give 2nd contracts to wide receivers. Does JuJu Smith-Schuster , like Hines Ward and Antonio Brown, bring intangibles to the table that statistics fail to capture? Absolutely. But, Ward had a Hall of Fame worth career and Antonio Brown had GOAT like talent.

JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t shown he’s in that level yet, and that’s why the Curtain’s Call is that he’ll find his fortune outside the Steel City.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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After Offense Goes South, Steelers Hire Matt Canada as Offensive Coordinator

Mike Tomlin wasted little time in dismissing offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner following the Steelers “Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic” playoff debacle against Cleveland. Fichtner’s bags were not even packed before reports circulated that Mike Tomlin was going to replace him with quarterbacks coach Matt Canada.

  • Days passed, and Canada didn’t get the job, instead interviewing in Miami.

The Steelers interviewed former Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and then San Diego er um Los Angeles Chargers quarterback coach Pep Hamilton, but ultimately hired Canada. The timing seemed a bit odd, and as Ed Bouchette of The Athletic suggested it was almost like the Steelers forgot they needed to obey the Rooney Rule when making the hire.

Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Canada

Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Canada. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Matt Canada Inherits an Offense in Free Fall

A year ago Mike Tomlin opted to re-fill the slot of quarterbacks coach that had been vacated when he promoted Randy Fichtner to offensive coordinator, replacing Todd Haley. At the time, speculation abounded as to Matt Canada’s role.

Matt Canada was known for his use of motion, play action and Jet sweeps during his stops at Pitt, the University of Maryland, Northern Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, elements which were not part of Fichtner’s offense.

He was also widely seen as being brought in to mentor Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges, Paxton Lynch and ultimately Joshua Dobbs who returned via the waiver wire.

How he would relate to Ben Roethlisberger was an open question. Roethlisberger has enjoyed wide-spread autonomy in the running the offense and prefers to play under center and does not like to execute play action.

Early on, Matt Canada’s influence was evident in the jet sweeps that players like Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool ran. And word was that Ben Roethlisberger was seen practicing his footwork under the tutelage of Matt Canada.

David DeCastro, James Conner, Steelers vs Falcons

David DeCastro obliterates a hapless Falcons defender. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Whether it was due to Canada’s influence or the lack thereof, the Steelers offense which had started of strong in September and October, sputtered in November and ultimately went completely south in December.

  • Matt Canada has his work cut out for him as offensive coordinator.

If Ben Roethlisberger returns, he needs to design an offense around a 39 year old quarterback who is seeing his mobility leave him and struggles to throw the long ball. A Roethlisberger return will also force him to build an offense without the services of veterans like James Conner, Alejandro Villanueva, the retired Vance McDonald and JuJu Smith-Schuster are all but certain to flee as free agents. Other starters such as Eric Ebron and David DeCastro could also become salary cap casualties.

And Maurkice Pouncey, a perennial Pro Bowler, is said to be ready to retire.

Steelers Replace James Daniel with Alfredo Roberts as Tight Ends Coach

The Steelers replaced recently retired tight ends coach James Daniels with Alfredo Roberts who most recently coached with the San Diego er um Los Angeles Chargers. Roberts had also coached running backs for the Chargers and prior to that had coached for the Jaguars, Browns, Buccaneers and Colts.

The Steelers still must hire an offensive line coach and possibly a quarterbacks coach.

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Steelers 2020 Season Final Report Card: Summer Started Too Soon Edition

Taken from the grade book of an again tardy teacher whose summer has started too soon, here is the Steelers Final Report Card for the 2020 season.

Ben Roethisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers loss browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey after the wild card loss to the Browns. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via USA Today for the win.

Quarterback
At age 38 and coming off of elbow surgery Ben Roethlisberger performed better than anyone had the right to expect. His passer rating was a hair above his career average and he threw only 10 interceptions. Sacks were at a career low. Yet the long ball troubled him all year and defenses exploited his one-dimensional game late in the season, when it counted the most. In the final analysis, Ben Roethlisberger was “Good, but…” which makes his grade obvious. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Back
The 2020 Steelers were league bottom feeders in rushing, put up historic lows for the franchise and couldn’t “get ONE yard when they needed it,” so obviously the running backs must have been terrible, right? Actually, that’s not right. James Conner proved that with good blocking, he can be a good but not great running back. Conner also confirmed he can be counted on in the short passing game. Benny Snell showed he can be a good number 2 running back. Anthony McFarland never grew beyond rookie flashes. Jaylen Samuels saw spot duty and did OK. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron made some nice catches and was an asset in the Red Zone. However, as Steel City Insider’s DI Davis documented, he was an absolute liability as a blocker. Nor did he gain much after the catch. Vance McDonald delivered when called upon but saw his role decline. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster authored the type of season that everyone expected of him after 2018. He made combat catch after combat catch and was easily the Steelers most reliable target. Diontae Johnson had a strong year and showed why he can be special. Still, his drops hurt the team. Badly. Chase Claypool authored and impressive year for a rookie and the Notre Dame grad has a bright future ahead of him. James Washington was the unit’s forgotten man, but he delivered when called on. Grade: B+

James Washington, Steelers vs Browns

James Washington catches a touchdown against the Browns. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Offensive Line
How times have changed. As recently as 2018, these spots started with “one of the best offensive lines in football.” Today? Not so much. Let’s give the line credit for solid pass blocking. Even if Ben got rid of the ball quickly, he had good pass protection. Run blocking was a different story. It was “Above the line” early in the year, but the line’s performance changed as the leaves on the trees changed, and then ultimately fell. The high snap to open the playoffs was a mortal mistake. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led this unit in tackles and overall performance, even if Stephon Tuitt had 11 sacks. Overall the defensive line’s play was solid throughout the year. Grade: B

Linebackers
With T.J. Watt, Vince Williams, Devin Bush and Bud Dupree the Steelers fielded a foursome on par with the 2008 defense and those of the Blitzburgh defenses in the 1990s. Ultimately, injuries took their toll on this unit, even if Robert Spillane and Avery Williamson did well given the circumstances. Grade: B

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

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

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have had as many highlight or as many interceptions had he had in 2019, but he was still one of the best defensive backs in the league. Terrell Edmunds quietly authored another strong year as did Steven Nelson. Joe Haden was solid, although he did get burned a few times. Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton answered the call. Per Pro Football Focus ratings, the Steelers only allowed a “45.9 passer rating on throws over 10 yards downfield.” The secondary did its job. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed 1 field goal all year and made all but 4 extra points, which ranks him a little low. Matthew Wright did an impressive job as a stand-in kicker. Dustin Colquitt couldn’t get it done as a punter, but Jordan Berry did a respectable job. Overall, the Steelers kick and punt return coverage was strong, even if it did wane a bit as the year progressed.

  • Ray-Ray McCloud was an asset to the team early in the season, both as a kick returner and a punt returner.
  • However, following his fumble against Washington he was never the same.

Regardless of whatever else ailed them in 2020, special teams was a strong spot for the Steelers. Grade: B

Mike Tomlin, f bomb

Mike Tomlin reacts to live mic F-bomb. Photo Credit: Twitter


Coaching
Let’s credit Randy Fichtner for fielding an offense that was tailored to his players’ strengths and unlike anything we’d seen in the Roethlisberger era before. He also showed some willingness to innovate, early on at least.

  • However, as defenses adapted, the Steelers offense failed to adapt in kind.

Some of that is execution (see the opening play in the loss to Cincinnati), but ultimately the unit could not cope. For the 2nd straight season the running game faded and then failed when the Steelers needed it the most.

Keith Butler (or was it Mike Tomlin? ) began the year by fielding a shut down defense. Sure, the unit gave up a few too many long plays for comfort, but they also had the killer instinct to slam the door shut on teams when the got into the Red Zone on more than one occasion.

  • Injuries ultimately doomed this defense.

Finally, let’s start by giving Mike Tomlin credit for weathering the most unusual years in NFL history to lead his team to an 11-0 start. Yes, the Steelers did see another December collapse and fairly or unfairly, that mark remains on Tomlin’s resume. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
“You Shall Not Run!” That was the credo that the Steelers defense lived during September and October. The Steelers defense took the running game away from opponents and allowed its playmakers to do their damage. If the T.J.’s, the Minkahs and the Heywards collectively formed the football equivalent of Gandalf the Grey, then the staff bringing it all together was Tyson Alualu. He didn’t rack up a lot of stats, but his steady presence at nose tackle are what enabled the rest of the defense to fly and for that he wins the Steelers Unsung Hero Award for the 2020 season.

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Steelers Vance McDonald Retires: Tight End Wasn’t Great, but He Beat the Odds

Steelers’ tight end Vance McDonald announced his retirement from the NFL on Friday after eight seasons.

Vance McDonald, who came to Pittsburgh in 2017 via trade, was a second-round pick by the 49ers in the 2013 NFL Draft. Big, fast and athletic, McDonald seemed to fit the mold of that Rob Gronkowski-type tight end that had become all the rage, the kind of matchup problem that had given the Steelers’ defense fits for years.

Vance McDonald, Chris Conte, Vance McDonald stiff arm Chris Conte, Steelers va Buccaneers

Vance McDonald stiff arms Chris Conte into oblivion. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

The emergence of George Kittle, a fifth-round pick in 2017, made Vance McDonald expendable to the 49ers, while less-than-desirable performances by their tight ends during that summer’s training camp made McDonald desirable to the Steelers. It also didn’t hurt that McDonald had just recently inked a deal with the 49ers and would be under Pittsburgh’s control for a few years.

Unfortunately for McDonald and the Steelers, he never quite realized his full potential during the entirety of his eight-year career but especially his four seasons in Pittsburgh.

Sure, he showed flashes, like on Monday Night Football in Week 3 of the 2018 campaign when he stiff-armed Buccaneers’ defensive back Chris Conte into retirement in the Steelers MNF win. Here it is again:

 

After an injury-plagued first season with the Steelers, McDonald’s stiff arm actually signaled his best year in 2018, as he caught 50 passes for 610 yards and four touchdowns. He and Ben Roethlisberger seemed to be developing the kind of rapport that the veteran quarterback had been longing for from a tight end since his buddy, Heath Miller, retired a few years earlier.

Sadly for McDonald, Roethlisberger’s elbow injury prevented the on-field relationship with his quarterback from developing further in 2019. As for 2020? With only 15 catches for 99 yards, McDonald was barely a factor in the passing game, even with a returning Roethlisberger, who seemed to fancy a new tight end, free agent pick-up, Eric Ebron.

  • For his career, McDonald caught just 181 passes for 2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns.

It’s sad for the Steelers that McDonald never morphed into their version of Gronk, but kudos to him for beating the odds.

  • That’s what any NFL player who lasts in the league for nearly a decade does, ya know?

According to the NFLPA, the average length of an NFL career is 3.3 years. Not only did McDonald beat the odds on the field, but he also beat them in a financial sense. According to Spotrac.com, McDonald made over $28 million during his eight-year career. That’s not chump change, especially for a profession that often chews people up and spits them out before they can start making any serious money (by NFL standards, of course).

McDonald never made his mark in the NFL. He wasn’t an all-time great. He wasn’t even an all-time Steeler. But he’s now 30 years old and, assuming he makes sound financial decisions moving forward, is set for life.

It’s hard to say what motivates NFL players when they first get into the league, but it’s the kind of business that is always looking to replace them if they can’t meet a certain standard. It’s highly competitive. It’s dog-eat-dog. Most don’t last. Even fewer profit from it.

Vance McDonald did both during his eight seasons in the NFL. Good for him. Good for any player who has that kind of career.

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