Its Too Early for Results, but Steelers Strategy in 2021 NFL Draft was Sound

After months of speculation, mock drafts, rumors, Pro Day visits and Zoom interviews, the 2021 NFL Draft has finally come and gone.

  • The Steelers newest draft class is complete.

It’s obviously still too early to know how any of these NFL trainees will do, but it’s more than acceptable to talk about the approach the Steelers took in procuring their latest batch of players.

  • So, what grade would I give Pittsburgh’s strategy?

How about an A? Too strong? OK, what about a “Thumbs Up”? Is that too wishy-washy? Should I have gone with “Two Thumps Up”? Too strong, like I’m fully endorsing every pick?

  • Fine, how about a smiley face? Does that work? It does? Good.
Najee Harris, Steelers 2021 First Round Draft Pick

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

Like it often does, the Steelers’ latest draft had a theme: Starters. It was no surprise that the organization went into this past weekend’s extravaganza in search of multiple players who could possibly start as early as Week 1 of the 2021 regular season. The only question was, which positions would Pittsburgh prioritize first? Or, maybe it wasn’t the positions so much as specific players. Or, perhaps the team would emphasize both positions and players who could help improve a certain area.

The Steelers told us something with their first three selections: they want to improve the ground game, and they want to find players who can fit into new offensive coordinator, Matt Canada’s scheme.

After the selections of running back Najee Harris in the first round (24th, overall), tight end Pat Freiermuth in the second round (55th, overall) and guard/center Kendrick Green in the third round (87th, overall), I must say, mission accomplished.

Harris was the best running back on the board by most accounts; not only was he productive at Alabama — Harris was the school’s all-time leading rusher with 3,843 yards — he’s the type of versatile three-down back who can fit well in Canada’s dynamic offense.

As for Freiermuth, he’s the kind of in-line tight end who can take the place of the recently-retired Vance McDonald. While Freiermuth isn’t quite the ferocious, old-school blocker Heath Miller was back in the day, he has potential. But it’s as a pass-catching threat where Freiermuth, who is a great athlete and loves to punish defenders, can truly be valuable. Since Canada’s offense calls for a lot of 12 personnel packages (aka two-tight end sets), the Steelers will need a talented in-line tight end who can contribute right away. Freiermuth has the potential to be that.

Kendrick Green, Steelers 3rd round pick 2021

Kendrick Green has Matt Robinson’s back. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Tribune-Review

Then, of course, there’s Kendrick Green, a mean (in the best sense), nasty and physical lineman who relishes blocking for the run and is quite the athlete (he was clocked at a 4.85 at his Pro Day in March). While Freiermuth was dubbed “Baby Gronk” during his days at Happy Valley, in Green, it looks like Pittsburgh may have found the nephew that the recently-retired Maurkice Pouncey didn’t know he had.

In all seriousness, Green sort of looks like Pouncey; he definitely plays like him. He even wore the No. 53 at Illinois. Green was the third-straight player the Steelers drafted over the weekend who has a golden opportunity to walk into training camp and immediately find himself at the top of the depth chart.

It’s less likely that a team finds even future starters once it gets past the first three rounds of a draft. But in tackle Dan Moore Jr., fourth round, Texas A&M; inside linebacker Buddy Johnson, fourth round, Texas A&M; and outside linebacker Quincy Roche, sixth round, Miami, the Steelers picked up three players who could develop into major contributors — and even starters.

Again, it’s early. The draft is an inexact science, and it’s rare for a team to find more than a couple of major contributors from any particular class. All an organization can do is select quality players at positions of need and trust in their ability to scout, coach and develop.

The Steelers almost always take a sound approach to the annual draft.

2021 was no different.

 

 

 

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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 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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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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Tight Spot. Eric Ebron Signing Shows Steelers Still Struggle to Replace Heath Miller

As the dust is settling on the first phase of free agency, reaction is generally positive to the Steelers signing of Eric Ebron, a former first round draft pick at tight end who most recently played for the Colts. If reports are correct, the Steelers have signed Eric Ebron to a 2 year 12 million dollar contract.

Eric Ebron, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Terrell Edmunds

New Steelers tight end Eric Ebron gets gang tackled in 2019. Photo Credit: 937thefan.radio.com

The move comes as a mild surprise, given that Vance McDonald had been slotted as a possible salary cap casualty (and likely would have been gone had the NFLPA not ratified the CBA.)

So instead of jettisoning one high-priced tight end, and going with a bargain-basement renewal of Nick Vannett’s contract, untested rising sophomore Zach Gentry and an unknown draft pick, the Steelers will field two veteran tight ends.

  • That makes sense, as the Steelers clearly need to beef up their production at tight end.

As mentioned above, Eric Ebron’s arrival in Pittsburgh has been met with qualified praise. The key is “qualified.” At the Tribune-Review, Tim Benz conceded that we should be “concerned” and “skeptical” about Eric Ebron’s attitude issues, but argued the Steelers were better for “giving him a shot.”

At The Athletic, Mark Kaboly praised Ebron’s athletic prowess, while warning of his “poor blocking, bad hands and a reputation as a diva….” Over at Steel City Inside, Matt C. Steel admits to having “questions about Ebron as a person and a player.” Yet, Steel is excited about Ebron’s arrival because of his athletic talent and because of the deeper significance that the signing suggests about the evolution of the Steelers offense.

The fact that commentators need to couch their analysis with qualifiers underlines one simple truth:

  • Four years after his retirement, the Steelers are still struggling to replace Heath Miller.

Can Eric Ebron change that? Perhaps. But history suggests fans should be skeptical.

Dependability is Hard to Replace

If you had to name 1 unsung hero of the Steelers 2nd Super Bowl era, you’d be wise to name Heath Miller. No, Heath Miller didn’t toil in obscurity in the shadow of multiple Lombardis the way, say Larry Brown did. Those spontaneous cheer’s of “Heath!” every time he caught the ball offer sufficient proof.

Jesse James.

Jesse James scores against the Panthers.

But if you had to make a list of the 4 most essential players of the Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII teams, you’d like name Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward on offense and Troy Polamalu and James Farrior on defense.

Sure, you wouldn’t have to expand the size of the list too much to get to Heath Miller’s name, but several other names would probably make it before Miller.

Heath Miller didn’t bring a lot of star power to the offense, instead he delivered something that is almost intangible: Dependability.

The Steelers drafted Jesse James in 2015, Miller’s last year, and to be honest, Jesse James did deliver some of that dependability in the passing game, albeit on a smaller scale. Knowing that James really wasn’t a viable replacement for Miller, the Steelers made a splash free agent signing of Ladarius Green.

  • Like Ebron, Green had the speed an athleticism to stretch the field and, on paper, revolutionize the Steelers offense.

The truth is, during his stint as a Steeler, Ladarius Green delivered “field flipping” capability to the Steelers offense. Unfortunately, Ladarius Green’s Steelers career lasted all of 6 games. Fast forward to the tail end of the 2017 preseason where the Steelers did the (then) uncharacteristic and traded for Vance McDonald.

But injuries kept McDonald on the sideline for much of the 2017 regular season, and he virtually disappeared in 2019. The Steelers (as well as yours truly) thought they’d developed a Xavier Grimble as a legit number 2 tight end going into 2019. They hadn’t and Kevin Colbert had to spend precious draft capital to trade for Nick Vannett.

Vannett did well given the circumstances, but clearly, he wasn’t the answer.

  • Will Eric Ebron be any different?

Maybe. But the Steelers best options at tight end since Miller’s retirement have been James and McDonald. More athletic players like Ladarius Green have struggled. Eric Ebron would fit the latter category, but as Mike Tomlin would insist, “He is writing is own story.”

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Name T.J. Watt MVP for 2019, Highlighting Balance of Power Shift from Offense to Defense

Members of the Pittsburgh Steelers closed the year by voting T.J. Watt as the MVP for the 2019 season, a move that was widely expected and an honor that is richly deserved.

Prior to the 2017 NFL Draft, Steel City Insider writer Matt C. Steel described T.J. Watt as a “unicorn” in terms of his ability to be the type of outside linebacker who could both pressure the passer and work in coverage.

At the time, the Steelers were coming off of the 2016 season, which had been saved, in part by Mike Tomlin’s decision to bench Jarvis Jones and start James Harrison in his place.

James Harrison made an immediate impact in terms of pressuring the passer and setting the edge, but his limited ability to cover receivers down the field became brutally apparent in the Steelers loss to the Patriots in the 2016 AFC Championship game. (To be fair, James Harrison was far from the only player who had his limitations exposed that day.)

OK, to be objective a look at the 29 players taken ahead of T.J. Watt in the 2017 NFL Draft does reveal some players who were picked ahead of him, but it is also safe to say the number of General Managers who’d like that draft pick is probably measured in the 20’s.

T.J. Watt made an immediate impact as a rookie, logging 7 sacks and making 1 interception. In his second season he exploded for 13 sacks and added 6 forced fumbles. With one game to play in the 2019 season, T.J. Watt already has 14 sacks, 2 interceptions, 7 forced fumbles, and 34 hits to the quarterback.

Those statistics are excellent, but they fail to capture the true value that T.J. Watt brings to the Steelers defense.

T.J. Watt, Sam Darnold, Steelers vs Jets, T.J. Watt 2019 Steelers MVP, Steelers 2019 MVP

Plays like this strip-sack of Sam Daronold are why T.J. Watt is the Steelers 2019 MVP. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Great defensive players don’t simply make great plays. They change games by making them at critical moments. Think:

T.J. Watt has delivered this level of playmaking to the Steelers throughout 2019. To see a recent example, look no further back than last week against the Jets. Mason Rudolph had just come off the bench for Devlin Hodges and gotten the Steelers on the board near with 1:22 left to play.

The Jets remained aggressive, and got to midfield with 0:36 when T.J. Watt hit Sam Daronold with one of his patented strip-sacks. 5 plays later and Mason Rudolph was hooking up with Diontae Johnson to tie the game.

There’s no better example of T.J. Watt’s timely playmaking, a tendency which was on display throughout the season.

T.J. Watt MVP Selection Highlights Shift in Balance of Power of Steelers Roster

T.J. Watt’s selection as Steelers MVP should surprise no one. While the Steelers don’t reveal the vote tally, it is likely that Watt’s closest competition was Minkah Fitzpatrick.

And assuming that’s the case, this highlights a dramatic shift in the balance of power within the Steelers roster. The Steelers are an organization that prides themselves on defense, but T.J. Watt’s 2019 MVP selection marks the first time a defensive player has earned those honors since Troy Polamlau won it in 2010.

The winners through the rest of the decade alternated between Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, with Heath Miller winning in 2012 and JuJu Smith-Schuster winning last year. While Cam Heyward would have been a worthy winner in 2017, the Steelers MVP choices accurately reflect a decade dominated by offense and book-ended by stout defense.

Congratulations to T.J. Watt for being the Steelers 2019 MVP.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs The New York Jets

At first glance, the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets are two teams that share little history. They’ve only played 25 times. For comparison’s sake, the Steelers and Saints have played 17 times.

  • For the record, the Steelers own a 20-5 advantage over the Jets, 10-1 at home and 10-4 in New York

What the Steelers and Jets history might lack in quantity is made up in quality. Many meetings between these two teams have been steeped in significance, although that fact wasn’t always eveident at the time.

Click on the links below or scroll down to relive some of the key moments in Steelers-Jets History.

Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Dewayne Robertson, Steelers vs Jets, Steelers history vs Jets

Jerome Bettis hurdles guard Alan Faneca evading Dewayne Robertson in the Steelers 2004 AFC Divisional playoff win. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

1969 – Super Bowl III, The Most Important Steelers Game in History – Not Involving the Steelers?

“I Guarantee Victory” – Joe Namath, prior to Super Bowl III

You know the story. The NFL and AFL were merging, and the brash young quarterback of the upstart New York Jets guaranteed victory despite being an 18 point underdog.

The Jets took an early lead, Don Shula of course waited too long to put Johnny Unitas in, and the biggest upset in Super Bowl history was on.

On the Colts sidelines that day was a young assistant named Charles Henry Noll. Who knows what happens if the Colts win? Does the added notoriety lead to a better offer for Chuck Noll? Does perhaps stick around hoping to repeat? We’ll never know. One thing we do know is this:

  • Noll learned that the Colts were too tense prior to Super Bowl III felt it cost them the game.

Chuck Noll avoided the same mistakes when he led the Steelers to Super Bowl IX. The rest, as we say, is history.

1983 – The End of Eras

December 10, 1983, Shea Stadium
Pittsburgh 34, New York 7

A moment far more bitter than sweet for Steelers fans. The Steelers snapped a three game losing streak, but the price, as Myron Cope would write a decade later, was “the last throws that were left in Terry Bradshaw’s arm.”
Bradshaw opened with a pass touchdown pass to Gregg Garrity and followed with another touchdown pass to Calvin Sweeney. And that was it.

  • Not just for the game. Not just for the season. But forever.

It was the last NFL game at Shea Stadium. It was the last pass of the last game of Terry Bradshaw’s career. It was the last time the remnants of the Super Steelers would ever contend.

Too many eras ended that day.

1988 – So Far, Yet So Close

October 10, 1988, Giants Stadium
New York 24, Pittsburgh 20

The 1988 Steelers had started 1-6, but on the previous week, led by Rodney Carter, Gary Anderson and Rod Woodson, the Steelers had thumped the Broncos to snap a six game losing streak. Could Chuck Noll’s boys make it two in a row?

The Steelers jumped to a 10-0 lead but, as was the case many times during the 1988 season, the Steelers saw that lead evaporate in the second half.

1989 – The Shadow (and Promise) of Things to Come

December 10, 1989, Giants Stadium
Pittsburgh 13, Jets 0

Steel Curtain Rising discussed this Steelers-Jet’s match up in the tribute to the 1989 Steelers, celebrating Greg Lloyd’s announcement to the NFL that he was a force to be reckoned with, as he knocked Pat Ryan out of the game, caught an interception, and WWE-style three counted a concussed Al Toon.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

  • Jet’s fans jeered “Joe Must Go!” calling for their coaches head. Joe did go.

Unfortunately he arrived in Pittsburgh; hiring Joe Walton became Chuck Noll’s fateful mistake.

1990 – IF Only this Could Have Been a Divisional Game…

November 25, 1990, Giants Stadium
Pittsburgh 24, Jets 7

This victory was sandwiched in between losses to the Cincinnati Bengals. The 1990 Steelers would finish 9-7. Unfortunately, only one of those victories came against an AFC Central team.

One more divisional win would have put the Steelers into the playoffs….

1992 – Cowher Power’s Second Victory – Barry “Bananas” Foster Romps

September 13, 1992, Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 27, New York 10

Rookie head coach Bill Cowher’s Steelers shocked the NFL in defeating the Oilers the week before. Chris Berman remained unconvinced, predicting that Brownie Nagel would lead the Jets to victory.

  • Barry Foster had other ideas, as he ran for a then team record 190 yards.

The Steelers revival under Bill Cowher was was on!

2000 – Vinny Testaverde – New Uniform, Same Result

October 8, 2000, Giants Stadium
Pittsburgh 23, New York 3

The Steelers had tormented Vinny Testaverde in Tampa, Cleveland, and Baltimore. Would things be different in New York?

Afraid not. One week after upsetting the Jacksonville Jaguars in a game that set the tone for a decade, the Steelers showed they were for real. The Steelers did not intercept Testaverde because he got only one pass off before getting knocked out of the game.

2001 – Hines Ward’s First 10 Catch, 100 Yard Game

December 6, 2001, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 18, New York 7

It is hard to believe that the Steelers had one of the NFL’s best-kept secrets and it is hard to believe that his name is Hines Ward. The previous week the Steelers had lost Jerome Bettis, who had been dominating the league in rushing, and were in need of leadership.

Hines Ward delivered posting his first 10 catch game while breaking the 100 yard barrier for the first time.

2003 – 40 Passes, in the Snow….?

December 14, 2003, Giants Stadium
New York 6, Pittsburgh 0

Ok, it was 38 passes not 40, but the Meadowlands are a difficult place to throw in December, let alone in a blinding snow storm. That didn’t stop Mike Mularkey from throwing the ball, which did stop the Steelers from winning.

During the next draft that proved to be one of Kevin Colbert’s wiser non-decisions

Jerome Bettis broke Franco Harris record that day, causing Mike Prisuta to plead for the Steelers to part ways with the Bus. 1,309 yards and 22 touchdowns and a Super Bowl later, Bettis would prove Prisuta wrong.

2004 – Regular Season – Rookie Roethlisberger’s 11th Victory

December 12, 2004, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 17, New York 6

The Jet’s played this one closer than the score might indicate, as Curtis Martin crossed the 13,000 yard barrier, marking the first time that 13,000 rushers faced off against each other.

Rookie Ben Roethlisberger won his 11th consecutive game, in route to setting the rookie record.

2004 Playoffs – Steelers Football at Its Best: Pure Power Rushing Carries the Day

January 15, 2005, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 20, New York 17

People remember this as the game where Ben Roethlisberger started playing like a rookie. They remember it for the Jet’s Doug O’Brien missing 2 field goals that cost his team the game. But the real beauty of the game was the effort put forth by the Steelers running back crops.

  • Jerome Bettis ran 27 times 101 yards and a TD
  • Duce Staley ran 11 times for 54 yards

That might not be an overwhelming total, but both backs had to come out due to injuries at critical times, and the Steelers ability to beat the Jets into submission with two power rushers was a sight to remember.

2007 – Tomlin’s First True “Trap” Game?

November 18, 2007, Giants Stadium
New York 19, Pittsburgh 16

During Mike Tomlin’s rookie season the knock on him was that his Steelers “played down to the competition.” No where was this more apparent than against the Jets. New York was 1-9 in route to 4-12, but the Steelers struggled all day, as Bob Ligashesky’s special teams gave up a 33 yard punt return that allowed the Jets to send the game into overtime where they won by a field goal.

2010 – Jets Out Fox Steelers

December 19th, 2010, Heinz Field
New York 22, Pittsburgh 17

The New York Jets stumbled into this game and seemed prime for the picking. However, Al Everett’s special teams, which had been a strength all season long, gave up a touchdown on the opening kickoff. The Steelers fought back with a workman like performance and tied the game at the half.

  • But the miscues continued in the 2nd half.

First Mark Sanchez scored on a 7 yard bootleg after the rest of the Jets offense executed a perfect play fake up the middle. Then Sanchez faked a perfect drop back while LaDainian Tomlinson took a direct snap that converted a third down and burned previous time off of the clock. Rex Ryan’s Jets outfoxed the Steelers.

Finally, when the Steelers were trying to mount a come back Jason Taylor ran unblocked on a tackle of Mewelde Moore, giving the Jets a safety at the 2:38 moment.

2010 AFC Championship – Steelers Defeat Jets, Head to Super Bowl XLV

Sunday January 23rd, 2011, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 24, New York 19

It was a tail of two halves. During the game’s first 3 minutes, the Pittsburgh Steelers played two of the best quarters of football in franchise playoff history. Running back Rashard Mendenhall took over the game in the first half, running for 97 of his 120 yards during the game’s first 3 minutes.

Rahsard Mendenhall, Steelers vs Jets, Steelers history vs Jets

Rashard Mendenhall had a career game vs the Jets. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via ESPN

Ben Roethlisberger capped off the Steelers offense’s scoring run at the 2:00 warning of the first half, putting the Steelers up 17-0. 47 seconds later, Ike Taylor strip-sacked Mark Sanchez and William Gay recovered the ball and put the Steelers up 24-0.

The Jets, to their credit, managed to get on the board with a field goal before the half, but it only appeared to be window dressing at the time…

  • Except it wasn’t. That Nick Folk field goal sparked a 19 point New York rally.

In the second half, New York harassed Ben Roethlisberger relentlessly, and shut down Rashard Mendenhall. On offense a 45 yard strike to Santonio Holmes started the scoring for the Jets, followed by a safety and a Jerricho Cotchery scored in the bottom half of the 4th quarter.

  • Unfortunately for the Jets, the safety was set up by a failed 4th and goal attempt at the 1.

Those two series gave New York 9 points when it needed 14, and left Pittsburgh with the ball with 2:56 left to play. That series saw Ben Roethlisberger connect on his first two consecutive passes of the afternoon, first hooking up with Heath Miller for 14 yards on 2nd and 9 and then hitting rookie Antonio Brown for 14 on 3rd and 6.

Going into the game, Peter King had profiled how Rex Ryan had implored his General Manager to get him the players he needed to get past the Colts and Patriots in the playoffs. Rex Ryan fulfilled his goal, and so did the Steelers who were AFC Champions and off to Super Bowl XLV.

2012 – Steelers Workman Like Effort Rebounds from Opening Day Loss

September 16th, 2012, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 27, New York 10

The Steelers had open the 2012 season severing as fodder for Peyton Manning’s debut with the Broncos in a defeat raised troubling questions about the Steelers defense. And the defense didn’t do much to answer those as the Jets put 10 points on the board quickly while the Steelers offense could only manage two 45 yard Shaun Suisham field goals.

But the Steelers defense kept the Jets off the board for the entire 2nd half, while Ben Roethlisberger led 3 clock consuming drives that ended with Heath Miller, Mike Wallace and Isaac Redman touchdowns.

2013 – Steelers Snap 0-4 Start

October 13, 2013, MetLife Stadium
Pittsburgh 19, New York 6

The Steelers started 2013 by going 0-4, the franchise’s worst start since Bill Austin’s tenure in 1968. Unfortunately, as their game against the Jets began, things looked startlingly familiar as the Steelers lost a player during warm ups, lost tight end David Johnson early on, failed to protect Ben Roethlisberger and started each drive deep in their own territory.

But Brett Keisel and Cam Heyward in his debut as an official starter, helped force Jets to settle for field goals after a long drive. The Steelers then assembled 3 straight Shaun Suisham field goal drives.

Ben Roethlsiberger and Emmanuel Sanders added a touchdown to open the 2nd half, and just when the Jets looked to make it competitive again, Ryan Clark netted the first turn of the season. When the dust settled the Steelers finished with a 19 to 6 victory which, while not impressive, did get Pittsburgh in the win column for the first time in 2013.

2014 – Another Tomlin Team Gets Tripped up in Trap Game

November 9th 2014, MetLife Stadium
New York 20, Pittsburgh 13

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin on Steelers sidelines. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

The Pittsburgh Steelers ended their two year playoff drought in 2014 but it took and up and down ride to get there. Sure, the Steelers noticed some impressive wins, like the victory over the Ravens in Joe Greene’s Jersey retirement game, but also struggled against inferior teams.

  • And the loss to the Jets is probably the best, or worst example of that.

After giving up a field goal on the opening drive, the Steelers could do nothing on their first procession, allowing Mike Vick to hook up with T.J. Graham for a 67 yard touchdown on the Jets next play from scrimmage. Ben Roethlisberger responded by hooking up with Antonio Brown who promptly fumbled away the ball at Pittsburgh’s 21. It only took Mike Vick 6 plays to hook up with Jace Amaro for 5 yards.

  • The first quarter wasn’t even over, and the Steelers were down 17 to 0.

Things didn’t get much better for the Steelers, who saw Ben Roethlisberger throw a Red Zone interception on their next possession. The Steelers defense held the Jets to just one field goal on the rest of the day, but Steelers offense could only muster two Shaun Suisham field goals until Ben Roethlisberger hit Martavis Bryant for an 80 yard touchdown with 1:16 left to play.

The 2014 Steelers would rebound for a strong finish to the regular season, but 2014 loss to the Jets counts as one of Mike Tomlin’s worst trap games.

2016 – This Steelers Win over the Jets Came at a Cost

October 9, 2016, at Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 31, Jets 13

The final score makes this game look like a slam dunk for the Steelers, but the truth is that much more up or down event than the naked eye suggests. Nick Folk put the Jets on the board first with a field goal, but Ben Roethlisberger quickly hooked up with Sammie Coates to when he converted a 3rd and 7 with a 72 yard touchdown pass.

However, the New York Jets scored 10 unanswered points and appeared to be set to take a 13-7 lead into the half when they scored a touchdown at the 2:11 mark.

Ben Roethlisberger engineered a masterful 2 minute drill that saw him hit Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Sammie Coates and Xavier Grimble before connecting with Jesse James at the 0:44 mark for the go ahead touchdown.

  • The Steelers dominated the second half, shutting the Jets out and scoring two touchdowns.

But victory came with costs. Sammie Coates, who otherwise had a career game with six catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns, needed stitches at half time, and never, ever approached that level of play again. The game also represented the end Markus Wheaton’s season, which set up a Steelers playoff run where Cobi Hamilton and DeMarcus Ayers would become defacto starters.

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Another Wolverine to Pittsburgh! Steelers Draft Zach Gentry, Tight End, Michigan in 5th Round of 2019 NFL Draft

It must have been déjà vu all over again in the Steelers draft room during the 5th round. Except this time it wasn’t a surprise. Four years ago when it came time for the Steelers to pick, they drafted Jesse James.

  • The Steelers followed form in the 5th round of the 2019 NFL Draft by picking Michigan’s Zack Gentry.

The move counted as a bit of a surprise, as Heath Miller was still going reasonably strong, and the team had just resigned Matt Spaeth. The move turned out to be a wise one, as Heath Miller retired in after the 2016 season, and injuries to Ladarius Green and Vance McDonald made Jesse James the defacto starter at tight end in 2016 and 2017.

  • The Steelers released 2018 practice squader Bucky Hodges just days before the draft, prompting many to think Pittsburgh would address the position sooner.

Instead, the Steelers drafted inside linebacker Devin Bush, wide receiver Dointae Johnson, cornerback Justin Layne, and running back Benny Snell before turning to Zack Gentry in the 5th round.

Zach Gentry, Steelers draft Zach Gentry 5th round 2019

Steelers draft Zach Gentry in 5th round of 2019 NFL Draft. Photo Credit: Mike Mulholland via MLive.com

Draft analyst Lance Zierlein (son of former Steelers offensive line coach Larry Zierlein) described Zack Gentry this way:

With his size and background at Michigan, teams might be tempted to play him as a combination tight end with run-blocking duties, but he’s much better-suited in space than in the trenches. Gentry runs pretty well and moves fluidly as a route-runner, but his hands and focus can be maddening. He showed flashes of what he could do with a more capable quarterback last year, but his disappointing workouts and testing might have pushed back and out of the draft.

Is is the case with Dontae Johnson and perhaps Benny Snell, the Steelers appear to value Zack Gentry a little more highly than do the pundits.

Zack Gentry Highlight Tape

Zack Gentry actually played quarterback during his freshman year for the Wolverines, sat out 2016 presumably due to injury, and was back as a tight end in 2017 and 2018. During that time he caught 49 passes for four touchdowns.

Here is a look at some of his highlights:

IF nothing else Zach Gentry appears to have good hands. Welcome to Steelers Nation Zach Gentry.

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Remember Jesse James Steelers Career for More than the Patriots Touchdown that Wasn’t

Jesse James Steelers career ended last week when he signed with the Detroit Lions. Second string Steelers tight ends don’t occupy much space Steelers lore, and Jesse James as a player won’t change that.

However, Jesse James authored the most pivotal and controversial play of the Steelers post-Super Bowl XLV rebuilding phase.

  • People will remember the Jesse James Play for a long time.

And it is paradoxically unfortunate and appropriate that Pittsburgh will remember Jesse James for that one play.

 

Jesse James, Jesse James Patriots touchdown

Jesse James touchdown that wasn’t vs Patriots. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

It is unfortunate because instant replay robbed Jesse James of what would have been one of the most sensational touchdowns in Steelers regular season history. It is appropriate because had it worked, the play would have perfectly embodied the type of player Jesse James was for the Steelers.

Revisiting the Fateful Steelers-Patriots 2017 Encounter at Heinz Field

Let’s go back to that fateful day. The Steelers, with a Ryan Shazierless defense and with Antonio Brown injured, had actually led the Patriots for most of the game, until Brady-to-Gronk decimated Pittsburgh in the 4th quarter. All hope appeared lost until JuJu Smith-Schuster transformed a sideline pass into a 69 yard gain that brought the Steelers to the New England 10 with 34 seconds left to go.

Here’s what happened next:

It is hard to know who were Ben Roethlisberger’s primary reads on this play. Ben looks and pumps towards Darrius Heyward-Bey but that could have been an intentional fake. JuJu Smith-Schuster could have been his primary receiver, but he was covered. So instead he looked to Jesse James.

  • As well he should have.

Because by that point in his career, Jesse James had developed himself into a dependable receiver who delivered catches when they counted. For those tempted to roll their eyes, take a look at the numbers.

Jesse James, Jesse James Steelers, Jesse James statistics steelers

Jesse James stats with the Steelers

Just how good Jesse James catch rate, how does he stack up against Heath Miller? Heath Miller’s dependability was legendary, and his catch rate was 72%. Jesse James’ catch rate clocks in at 69.4%

Running backs and tight ends catch percentages tend to be higher than receivers because they’re catching higher percentage passes closer to the line of scrimmage. But Jesse James’ catch percentage trended up in Pittsburgh even as did the length of his average reception. In other words, Jesse James no stats compiler who benefited from check down passes.

  • Numbers don’t lie, but statistics sometimes fail to paint an accurate picture.

Both Kordell Stewart and Neil O’Donnell have higher passer ratings than Terry Bradshaw. Anyone want to take either of those over the Blonde Bomber in an all-time Steelers draft? Nope, I didn’t think so. In terms of tight ends, a high catch percentage doesn’t mean much if you drop the ball when the game is on the line (just ask Bert Jones of Super Bowl XIII fame). While he didn’t get a lot of attention for it, Jesse James delivered.

  • In 2016 vs Dallas, Jesse James set up the should have been Roethlisberger-Brown game winner with a 24 yard catch.
  • Jesse James also helped set up Antonio Brown’s game winner against the Ravens on Christmas going 3-3 on targets including nailing a key 3rd down conversion.
  • In the Steelers 2017 win over the Ravens, Jesse James went 10 for 12 on targets, making drive-sustaining catch after drive-sustaining catch, including going 3-3 to set up Chris Boswell’s winner at the buzzer

I wanted to see Jesse James stay in the Black and Gold. But Kevin Colbert made it pretty clear the Steelers weren’t going to offer Jesse James the kind of money he thought he could get on the open market.

  • Jesse James bet on himself and, unlike Le’Veon Bell, his gamble paid off.

Good for him. For as much of quality, under the radar player Jesse James evolved into for the Steelers, Vance McDonald is a much more dynamic player, and a true offensive weapon. The Steelers made the right decision in terms cost-benefit trade off by declining to match the Detroit Lion’s offer.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Jesse James Steelers career deserves to be remember for the quiet dependability he delivered when the game was on the line, not for the play instant replay said he didn’t make over the Patriots.

Good luck in Detroit Jesse James. Steelers Nation will be rooting for your success – as long as it doesn’t come at Pittsburgh’s expense.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Jesse James Free Agency: Why the Steelers Should Keep “The Outlaw” in Pittsburgh

Tight ends occupy an peculiar place in Pittsburgh Steelers history. While tight ends such as Larry Brown, Randy Grossman, Bennie Cunningham and Heath Miller have made key contributions in securing the franchise’s six Super Bowls, their roles have often been unheralded.

As a (mostly) backup tight end, Jesse James has done well occupying the role of an unheralded understudy. As he is about to become a free agent, the key question is, has Jesse James done enough to secure a second contract with Pittsburgh?

Jesse James, Jesse James free agent, Steelers vs Panthers.

Jesse James scores a touchdown in the Steelers win over Panthers. Photo Credit: Phillip G. Pavely, USA Today

Capsule Profile of Jesse James Steelers Career

The Steelers drafted Jesse James in the 5th round of the 2015 NFL Draft with an eye towards grooming him to replace Matt Spaeth. James played sparingly as a rookie, starting against Oakland where he scored a 4th quarter touchdown, and playing in the subsequent win against the Colts.

Heath Miller’s retirement and Ladarius Green’s lingering health issues thrust Jesse James into the spotlight in 2016. Jesse James started 13 games and made 39 catches for 339 yards and three touchdowns.

Nonetheless, injuries to Vance McDonald saw Jesse James start 14 games and as he increased his receiving total to 43 catches. In 2018 a healthy Vance McDonald limited Jesse James to seven starts as James saw his reception count drop to 30.

Moreover, James’ role in the passing game tapered off in the later part of the year, even as Ben Roethlisberger threw more and more frequently.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Jesse James

Judged solely on the stats above, Jesse James body of work projects an image of a quality run of the mill backup NFL tight end.

  • Numbers do not lie, but sometimes the truth they tell can be deceptive.

Such is the case with Jesse James. When looking at what Jesse James has brought to the Steelers since 2015, it is better to judge him by the quality of his work, rather than the quantity. Consider:

Those plays illustrate critical contributions that Jesse James has delivered with games on the line in ways that plain numbers simply fail to measure.

With Antonio Brown heading out of Pittsburgh, the Steelers are going to need all of the offensive firepower they can get. Jesse James is not a player who will give opposing defensive coordinators fits.

But Jesse James IS a player who can come up with a critical catch when the games is on the line, and the Steelers must keep him in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Jesse James

When asked about Jesse James at the NFL Scouting Combine, Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert was quite forthcoming: “Jesse’s been a nice complementary tight end to us.”

  • While that is hardly a damming assessment, one must consider the Steelers wider context.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have an urgent need to boost their roster at inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver. They’re also facing close to 20 million dollars in salary cap dead money thanks to the impending Antonio Brown trade.

And that means that spending top dollar on a backup tight end isn’t feasible. Jesse James has had a good career for the Steelers as 5th round picks go, but his time in Pittsburgh has run his course.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Jesse James

Kevin Colbert was even more blunt when asked about the likelihood of Jesse James returning to the Steelers in 2019, when he clarified: “Any of our players that have an opportunity maybe to look elsewhere where they might have a better chance to be a starter, again, we encourage them.”

  • That seems to spell things out pretty clearly.

To keep Colbert’s comments in context, he’s clearly leaving the door open for James to return, but only after encouraging him to look around elsewhere first.

  • In my view, the Steelers are making a mistake by not trying to sign him before he becomes a free agent.

While you don’t break the bank for a backup tight end, the Steelers should be making him a competitive offer. Jesse James is never going to be a game-breaking tight end, but he’s a dependable player who helps you win.

The Steelers should keep the outlaw in Pittsburgh.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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