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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Adding Depth. Steelers Draft Quincy Roche in 6th Round, Outside Linebacker from Miami

The Steelers remained true to their needs late into the 2021 NFL Draft when they chose Miami outside linebacker Quincy Roche with their 6th round pick.

Roche began his college career at Temple, where he played on defensive line, before transferring to Miami where he played linebacker. He’ll remain at linebacker while in Pittsburgh.

  • Reaction to the pick this pick has generally been positive.

Draft analyst John Ledyard, who has never pulled a punch when he’s disagree with one of Kevin Colbert’s draft decision, said this:

This opinion is shared on the South Side. Steelers defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach Keith Butler confessed, “It was a little bit of a surprise, him being there. We rated him around the late third, early fourth, or all the way into the fifth.”

Quincy Roche

Steelers 6th round pick Quincy Roche. Photo Credit: Yahoo Sports

Quincy Roche Video Highlights

A Baltimore native who grew up as a Ravens fan, Quincy Roche started 10 games for Miami in 2020 and registered 14 1/2 tackles for loss. Roche made 4 1/2 sacks and totaled 45 tackles. When he was a sophomore, Roche had six sacks while starting five of 13 games. He also had seven sacks in his redshirt freshman season.

Here’s a look at his highlight reel:

https://youtu.be/BbWCztCAMmk

Looking at that, it is a bit surprising that Roche lasted to the sixth round, but we also said that about Isaiah Buggs a few years back…

How does Quincy Roche Fit In? He Provides Depth

At outside linebacker the Steelers have T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. Behind him they have Cassius Marsh, whom the Steelers added in December after Bud Dupree went down, off season undrafted futures contract free agent addition Jamir Jones.

Put in simple English, Quincy Roche will have to make more effort NOT to land a spot on the 53 man roster than he will to secure one.

Keith Butler seemed unfazed, remarking, “I think we’ll be OK at that position. A lot of stuff can happen, and we’ll wait to see before we get to training camp and how we develop in those situations.”

  • So perhaps the Steelers aren’t done making moves at outside linebacker.

Nonetheless, welcome to Steelers Nation Quincy Roche.

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Steelers Trade Up, Draft Isaiahh Loudermilk in 5th Round of 2021 NFL Draft

As Carlos Davis and Isaiah Buggs seemed poised to tussle during the Steelers season finale against the Browns, I couldn’t help but remember the words of my former wrestling coach, Wheaton High’s legendary Dave Moquin.

It was during my Junior year, and our heavyweight and our 189er were in practice. I didn’t see what happened between the two of them, but they were staring each other down, from opposite sides of the mat.

Moquin saw them and immediately reprimanded: “IF either if you was half as tough as you’re pretending to be now, you’d both be state champions. Now get back to the mat and wrestle.”

Davis and Buggs’ sideline stare down seemed to be similarly childish. But in this case Steelers head coach doesn’t need to say anything like that, because his actions speak louder than words.

The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t have a 5th round pick of their own in the 2021 NFL Draft but traded their 2022 4th round pick to the Miami Dolphins to move into the 5th to draft Wisconsin’s defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk.

Steelers defensive line coach Karl Dunbar explained Pittsburgh’s rational with uncharacteristic color, “I come from the South. What we say down there is that defensive linemen are just like pretty women. There’s not a lot of them, and everybody wants some.”

Isaiahh Loudermilk

Steelers 5th round pick Isaiahh Loudermilk. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

Isaiahh Loudermilk Video Highlights

Isaiahh Loudermilk stands 6-foot-6 senior and weighs 274 pounds and will remain as a defensive lineman – there had been speculation he could transition to outside linebacker. At Wisconsin made 26 starts while playing in a total of 40 games. He registered 63 tackles, including 11 1/2 for loss, and 7 1/2 sacks in his career.

Here’s a look at his tape:

Someone Needs to be Looking Over Their Shoulders in Pittsburgh

The addition of Loudermilk gives the Steelers a total of 12 defensive lineman on their off season roster. Clearly, all of them cannot stay. Karl Dunbar confirmed that Loudermilk will play both defensive end and nose tackle, and could challenge for a spot in the rotation to back up Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu.

Their spots are safe, but Isaiah Buggs, Carlos Davis and Henry Mondeaux should take caution to avoid signing any long-term leases to stay in Pittsburgh.

  • With that said, neither of Kevin Colbert’s last two mid-round trades worked out so well.

In 2013 he traded up to grab Shamarko Thomas and in 2012 he did the same to grab Ta’amu Alameda. Shamarko Thomas contributed on special teams but never even came close to sniffing his status as heir apparent to Troy Polamalu.

Ta’amu likewise had been seen as a potential successor to Casey Hampton and instead was best known for his drunken rampage through the South Side.

Still, Loudermilk figures to push everyone else harder. Welcome to Steelers Nation.

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Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line: Time to Inject Youth into “The Over the Hill Gang?”

Tyson Alualu’s change of heart and decision to return to Pittsburgh was a welcome surprise.

  • It also did something that wasn’t quite as welcome.

He raised the average age of Steelers defensive line to 31.3 years. Defensive line is a young man’s game in the NFL, and while hitting the big 3-0 might not be the foreboding milestone it once was, you still don’t want too many people on the wrong side of that number.

The Steelers haven’t invested a premium pick on their defensive line since 2016. Youth is clearly needed. Will Pittsburgh get it in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt

Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are two of the NFl’s best. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP, Via Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Cart: The Starters

On the eve of the 2020 season the Steelers knew the COVID-19 salary cap crisis was looming. Yet that did not deter Art Rooney II from personally ensuring that Cam Heyward got his contract extended and would remain in Pittsburgh.

Cam Heyward was a workhorse for the Steelers and while his stats might have dipped a bit, he continued to make the kind of plays that don’t show up in Fantasy Football algorithms but that do help teams win games. Opposite Heyward was Stephon Tuitt, who played like a man on fire, logging 11 sacks, batting down 3 passes, forcing 2 fumbles and tackling 10 ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage.

  • In the middle of it all was Tyson Alualu.

In his first full season as a Steelers starter, Tylson Alualu’s numbers might not impress. But he clogged up the middle and was crucial in the Steelers ability to stop the run. The chinks in the Steelers defensive armor opened not when Devin Bush went down, but when Tyson Alulau got hurt against Baltimore and then missed the game in Dallas.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart: The Backups

Behind Heyward, Tuitt and Alualu, the Steelers have veterans Chris Wormley, Isaiah Buggs, Carlos Davis and Henry Mondeaux. Wormely brings the group experience, but did little to distinguish himself in 2020 and one has to wonder if the Steelers would have resigned him had Alualu accepted their initial offer. Buggs, outside of his spectacular stop of Lamarr Jackson struggled. Mondeaux looked respectable, but saw little more than spot duty.

Carlos Davis, whom many see as a future starter at nose tackle, did little as a rookie outside of his sideline scuffle with Buggs.

Rounding out their training camp roster, the Steelers also have Abdullah Anderson, T.J. Carter and Demarcus Christmas.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftThe Steelers have a very strong group of starters on defensive line, but it is an aged group. They also lack a 4th lineman who can rotate in the way Alualu could when Javon Hargrave was here.

But, if their current crop of backups lacks “the wow factor,” to quote Simon Cowell, Buggs, Morndeaux and Davis all offer some legitimate “Upside.” With that said, the Steelers would do well to draft a lineman who can develop into a starter at nose tackle, if for no other reason than Alualu will be 34 on opening day.

Make no mistake about it, by giving into his change of heart Alualu greatly simplified the Steelers situation at defensive line for 2021. But Pittsburgh must also look to the future, and with that in mind, the Steelers need at defensive line going into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

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Reverse! Tyson Alualu Resigns with Steelers & Sometimes Its Good to Lag Behind the News Cycle

Nose tackle Tyson Alualu has reversed course and resigned with the Steelers for two years. Just 12 days ago, word broke that Tyson Alualu was returning to Jacksonville, the team that had drafted him, on a two year deal.

  • Not only was this a surprise, but it also amounted to majorish blow to the Steelers depth chart.

This was a done deal. The Steelers responded by resigning Chris Wormley to a two year deal, a move they otherwise may not have made. On “Asked and Answered,” Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola rationalized the Wormley resigning and tried to put Alualu’s departure in context.

  • But apparently a failed COVID-19 test and the quarantine that followed forced Alualu to reconsider his decision.

Teammates Cam Heyward and Joe Haden lobbied Alualu to stay and ultimately swayed the nose tackle. Thus the Steelers have their third major surprise of the off season, the first being JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return the second being Steven Nelson’s departure.

The move helps the Steelers, but it also reveals a hidden benefit to lagging a step (or several) behind the 24/7 Steelers News cycle.

Tyson Alualu, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals, Tyson Alualu sacks Andy Dalton

Tyson Alualu sacks Andy Dalton. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

A Day Late, But This Time Not a Dollar Short

The conventional wisdom driving sports-focused sites is to publish “Content” immediately after news breaks. That wisdom isn’t lost on this site and in some form or fashion we try to do that. When possible.

  • But the realities of the digital workplace and the 12 hour plus days that come with it, are not conducive to timely blogging.

Usually this hurts the site. Being late to the punch means not getting on social media when a topic is hot and being absent on Google when search volumes spike. But sometimes there’s an upside. James Harrison’s messy divorce with the Steelers was one of them. This is another.

  • When news broke of Tyson Alualu’s departure, the mental outlines of an article titled “Soft in the Middle” immediately formed.

The argument that the strength of the Steelers defense is measured up the middle, from nose tackle, to inside linebacker, to safety came to fore. Those arguments gelled with memories of Alualu anticipating his first playoff game against the Jaguar.

  • The situation seemed too ironic to be true.

Alualu and the Steelers playoff implosion against the Jaguars came in large part because the middle of their defense was soft. Yet no one could argue that since then Tyson Alualu has strengthened the center of the Steelers defense.

The 2020 season offered no better example. The Steelers defense had started the season rock-solid against the run. It remained stout after losing Devin Bush, but faltered when Alualu went down. The question was going to be, could Alualu’s departure defy conventional wisdom and transform itself into addition by subtraction?

Woulda been an interesting article. Might have generated lots of clicks. Alas, there was no time.

  • But no fuss, no muss. That storyline is now moot.

Alualu is back, and that’s a good thing – if taken in context.

Alaualu’s Return Delivers Depth and Flexibility

In Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt the Steelers have two spectacular defensive ends. Tyson Alualu showed last year he’s more than capable of manning the middle. With that said, let’s keep in mind that Alualu turns 34 next month.

  • Players can quickly lose a step to Father Time at that age.

The Steelers have high hopes for Carlos Davis. Isaiah Buggs struggled more than he flashed, but he did have his moments. Lamarr Jackson concurs. Henry Mondeaux also showed some moxie in his limited work last season.

Isaiah Buggs, Lamarr Jackson, Robert Spliane, Steelers vs Ravens

Isaiah Buggs stops Lamarr Jackson at the goal line on 4th down. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The best-case scenario for the Steelers on defensive line would be for Buggs or Davis to step forward and claim the starting nose tackle role. That would allow Alualu to become the 4th defensive lineman, the role he was brought to Pittsburgh to play. Whether that happens or not will be determined on the fields at St. Vincents (hopefully) or during preseason games.

  • Today the idea that defense line could be a position of stability, if not strength in Pittsburgh is plausible.

Two days ago, this was fantasy. The Athletic’s Ed Bouchette opined the Steelers were an injury away from ” a problem” on defensive line. He was right, and the only thing Pittsburgh could have done to change that was invest a premium pick in a nose tackle or defensive end during the 2021 NFL Draft – picks that the Steelers must use on offensive line, running back and/or cornerback.

Now they don’t need to do so. And that’s a good thing.

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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Steelers Report Card for 2020 Season Finale Loss to Browns: Tempted to Grade on Effort Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is sorely tempted to give grades based on effort, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 season finale loss to the Browns.

Chris Wormely, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns

Chris Wormley sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
Mason Rudolph saw his first meaningful action in over a year and looked a bit rusty at times. On the negative side, his pocket presence was weak and his interception costly. On the positive side he threw with authority and didn’t simply hug the sidelines as he’d done a year ago. His two 4th quarter touchdown drives impressed. Joshua Dobbs played and completed several shovel passes and rushed for 20 yards. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had a “good” day, considering the context running for 37 yards on 9 carries. He also caught 5 passes. Benny Snell ran 3 times for ten yards and Anthony McFarland ran 3 times for 17 yards. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald took the lead and caught 5 passes on 6 targets. The run blocking also improved, slightly. Coincidence? Probably not. Kevin Rader and one pass thrown his way. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool ended his regular season with a bang, catching 5 passes for 101 yards including a combat catch for a touchdown. Diontae Johnson only caught 3 passes, but one was a 47 yard field flipper. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 passes including the 2nd touchdown. James Washington had two targets but couldn’t come down with either of them. The Steelers receivers delivered. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph was only sacked once, but faced a lot of pressure – some of that was him holding on to the ball too long. The run blocking was a little better, at times. Grade: C

Diontae Johnson, Robert Jackson, Steelers vs Browns

Diontae Johnson beats Robert Jackson for a big gain. Photo Credit: Caitlyn Epes, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt’s sack set up a 4th and long that allowed the Steelers to score their final touchdown. Chris Wormley saw extended action and helped force a punt with a sack. Tyson Alualu split time with Isaiah Buggs and Carlos Davis. Steelers did OK at containing the Browns running game, but didn’t keep Baker Mayfield in the pocket. Grade: B-

Linebackers
The Steelers 2nd string linebacking crops played for most of the game and was led in tackles by Alex Highsmith, followed by Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen. Alex Highsmith’s sack helped end the Browns 2 minute drive and Jayrone Elliot’s sack helped scuttle another drive. Still, Mayfield got out of the pocket one too many times. Given that this is what doomed the Steelers vs the Bengals, it cannot be over looked. Grade: C

Secondary
Sean Davis saw his first action in over a year and looked a little rusty but did well overall and defended a pass. Justin Layne started in place of Joe Haden and struggled at times. Steven Nelson defended a pass. And Mike Hilton only had 1 tackle but it came on a critical third down. Grade: B

Special Teams
Matthew Wright was 3-3 on field goals, including two from 46 yards out. Jordan Berry punted well. The Steelers punt coverage was solid as was their kick coverage, although the Browns did get one long one in. Ray-Ray McCloud did a decent job at returning kicks, but his punt returns are well below his 13.1 pre-fumble average. Grade: B

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Browns

JuJu Smith-Schuster scores a 4th quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Coaching
On defense the Steelers game plan didn’t show any wrinkles. The big run was an execution error, but the Steelers were sound fundamentally after that point, save for Mayfield’s ability to get out of the pocket must be stopped next week.

On offense, credit Randy Fichtner and Matt Canada for devising a way to get Joshua Dobbs into the game, and credit Mike Tomlin for having the confidence to run that package of plays. Whether this is something that the Steelers can make work for them in the playoffs, if nothing else the Steelers have given Cleveland’s defensive staff something else to think of.

  • This game was a thriller, and Mike Tomlin deserves all of the credit for that.

After Nick Chubb 47 yard run put Cleveland up 7-0 in the first quarter, it would have been easy for Pittsburgh to pack it in. Other playoff bound teams would have done the same thing (think Marv Levy’s Bills – yes, I am that old.)

  • But not Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

Had you taken a time machine from 2002, the last time the Browns were in the playoffs, and watched yesterday’s game, without knowing the stakes, you could have easily thought it was the Steelers who were fighting for their playoff lives. And you would have never guessed they were down 8 starters. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
One of the reasons why the game remained competitive was because on its next drive Cleveland got to first and goal at the four, where it had a pass batted away. 3 plays later they’d lost a yard and were settling for 3. Minkah Fitzpatrick batted that pass away and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers loss to the Browns.

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

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

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

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

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

  • Except players kept testing positive.

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

Stephon Tuitt, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The NFL only has itself to blame for this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers-Ravens Scheduling Mess Shows NFL Must COVID Pod. Now.

The COVID-19 outbreak that has now delayed the Steelers and Ravens game twice continues to spread unabated. First,we learned that several Ravens players had tested positive. NFL doctors assured us the spread had stopped. Then, we learned that those players included Lamar Jackson. NFL doctors again assured us the spread had stopped.

Again, NFL doctors reassured us the spread had stopped. Now James Conner and Matt Canada have tested positive, with Danny Smith out “sick.” So aren’t related to the outbreak in Owings Mills, but Willie Snead’s positive test most certainly is.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns

James Conner delivers a stiff arm. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

As of the morning of Monday November 30th, at least 12 Baltimore Ravens players and 8 team staff have tested positive for COVID 19. Baltimore has 18 players on its COVID-19 reserve list – not counting Willie Snead. Out west, Denver Broncos had all 3 quarterbacks ineligible due to COVID-19 concerns.

Notice a trend?

Credit the NFL’s Roger Goodell, the NFLPA’s DeMaurice Smith and their medical staffs and logistics teams for getting the 2020 season this far. The nature of the game and the size for the NFL make “socially distancing” almost logistically impossible.

  • Yet we’ve had 11 weeks of uninterrupted football.
  • Major disruptions due to COVID-19 have been minimal.

Until now.

But what every epidemiologist has predicted has come true: As colder temperatures force more people indoors, people breathe more recirculated air and more people get infected with COVID-19. Physics, biology and Earth Sciences conspire to give COVID-19 its perfect breeding ground.

That means what has gotten the NFL to Thanksgiving won’t get it through December and through the playoffs.
IF the NFL is to make it to the Super Bowl without the type of months-long-delays that hit MLB, the NHL and NBA its going to need to adopt the latter two league’s strategy of bubbling. Clearly, the idea of moving and isolating the entire NFL within NBA-style COVID pods in a select group of 2-3 cities isn’t realistic, as Amy Trask pointed out in The Athletic last spring.

Building in-city COVID pods would be a challenge, but it should be doable.

For the record, yours truly is neither a Dr. nor a logistics specialist, so I don’t offer this as an expert opinion. But in my mind, an in-city COVID pod would look like this:

  • All players and all coaches would live in a designated hotel
  • So all scouts, doctors, trainers, front office staff and support staff who interact with players
  • Team personnel in the COVID pod would be confined to the hotel or team headquarters
  • Staff working at the hotels in question would isolate within the COVID pod
  • So would the workers who would transport team members to and from the facilities
  • Staff for the team’s charter flights would either isolate within the pod or quarantine several days before transport
  • In each NFL city, a hotel for visiting teams would be designated and run as a COVID Pod

Would this be complicated? Absolutely. Would it be possible to create 32 “air-tight” pods that completely insulated the NFL COVID contagion? No, it would be impossible. Would this cause hardship and disruptions for players whose families live with them in Pittsburgh and the other 31 cities? Certainly. Would the NFLPA accept this? Not without a fight they wouldn’t.

If that is clear then it is also clear that the NFL’s current virtual bubble strategy that worked well enough in August through October, is no longer sufficient.

Let’s repeat the stat from above:

  • The Baltimore Ravens have 18 players on their COVID 19 list.
  • The Steelers have 5, plus at least 2 coaches.
  • Both numbers could increase before Tuesday’s game.

The cost and practical implications building 32 COVID pods cannot be underestimated. NFL players are not going to isolated inside a Red Roof Inn. But the NFL’s 2019 annual revenue was pegged at 8.1 billion dollars. And given unemployment rates and the general state of the economy, something tells me the NFL could find hotels willing to be bought out for several weeks, and staffers willing to isolate.

  • The disruption to player’s lives is more problematic.

NFL players need to get their kids to school, prepare meals, and help with homework just like any other parents. That’s hard enough under normal circumstances. Perhaps one solution would be to give families the option to join players inside the COVID Bubble.

  • Players without families would pose another challenge.

Back in June when the NBA was looking at bubbling, Yahoo! Sports columnist Doug McIntyre brought up one concern voiced by Dr. Dara Kass to argued: “You’re literally taking a bunch of virile athletes and saying, ‘You will be celibate for six weeks.’” Doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.

In fact, it sounds downright impractical. Until you consider that Ohio Class nuclear submarines typically operate on a 70 day patrol cycle. So until recently, all male submarine crews routinely survived 70 tours under the water in the ultimate COVID pod for decades – and for a lot less money and glory than their NFL brethren.

If they did it, then I’m sure Ben Roethlisberger, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt will too.

Pivoting to in-city COVID pods is a disruptive, drastic measure, but these are drastic times.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Cowboys – 8-0 ≠ Perfection Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who hopes his class realizes that 8-0 does not equal perfection, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Dallas Cowboys.

Eric Ebron, Saivion Smith, Steelers vs Cowboys

Eric Ebron leaps over Saivion Smith for six. Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images via Arizona Sports

Quarterbacks
Ben Roethlisberger struggled, again, for much of the first 30 minutes and was completely ineffective. Then he came alive to lead 3 touchdown drives all while protecting the ball. Roethlisberger remains unable to connect with receivers deep. Mason Rudolph came in at the end of the first half and looked like a QB doing mop up work when more was warranted. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner, Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland all saw action. None of the men were particularly effective rushing the ball, and James Conner’s two catches lost yards. The running backs didn’t get much help rushing the ball, but you’d still like to see more. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron only caught 3 passes for 22 yards but one of those was for the go ahead touchdown. Vance McDonald caught 1 pass for 2 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster continues to prove his worth with 9 catches for 93 yards and a tough touchdown. James Washington hasn’t been asked to do much this year, but he’s delivered when called upon as he did when scoring the first touchdown. Diontae Johnson had 6 catches for 42 yards. Chase Claypool had 8 catches for 69 yards but slid with the Steelers needed a first down. Grade: B

Offensive Line
On the plus side, Ben Roethlisberger was not sacked and only hit twice, although he got injured on one of those hits. On the negative side, the Cowboys run defense completely smothered the Steelers rushing offense. That created long third downs and forced the Steelers to be one dimensional in the 2nd half. This must not continue. Grade: C-

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Garrett Gilbert, Steelers vs Cowbosy

Cam Heyward after sacking Garrett Gilbert. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Look at the stats and you’ll see that Cam Heyward only had a half sack and a tackle and a half for a loss. But that sack he split was a monster play that should have ended the game. Stephon Tuitt had four tackles and one for a loss. Isaiah Buggs and 3 tackles and Henry Mondeaux had one that went for a loss. Dallas didn’t run over the Steelers, but they did better than they should have. Grade: B

Linebackers
Robert Spillane had 8 tackles. T.J. Watt might have “only” split half a sack with Heyward, but he had 3 QB hits and batted 3 passes down. Bud Dupree had a tackle and a QB hit. Alex Highsmith continues to see his playing time increase and had 3 tackles and a sack. Dallas had more success converting third downs than they should have. Grade: B

Secondary
The Cowboys made some long completions, but overall Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and Terrell Edmunds had solid games. Cam Sutton forced a fumble. But the real star of the game was Minkah Fitzpatrick, whose fumble recovery set up a field goal and whose interception took at least a field goal off of the board for the Cowboys, while setting up another Steelers field goal – that’s a nine point swing. Which doesn’t even factor in his final pass deflection. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Where to start? The Steelers got suckered on a lateral during a punt return. OK. That’s understandable if not excusable. But Chris Boswell placed the ball exactly where he wanted to and Dallas still got a 64 yard kick return. Now throw in a missed extra point, a missed field goal and a blocked extra point. Easily the worst day ever for a Danny Smith-coached Steelers special teams unit. Grade: F

Mike Tomlin, Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Cowboys

Mike Tomlin and Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

Coaching
It is clear that the loss of both Devin Bush and Tyson Alualu is taking its toll on the Steelers defense. Yet Keith Butler continues to scheme to minimize those losses and to adjust during games. While they may be giving up yards, the Steelers defense continues to deliver with big plays at critical moments.

  • Randy Fichtner’s got a different set of challenges.

Outside of Derek Watt, he hasn’t lost any starters, yet he continues to start slowly. The Steelers struggle to establish the run, while the deep ball fails to be a factor. But like Butler, Fichtner continues to make adjustments on the fly, and while the Steelers offense might be “boring” it is putting points on the board when it counts.

  • Credit Mike Tomlin for being smart enough to understand that 8-0 equals not perfection in the NFL.

Being smart enough to realize you don’t know everything is a virtue in life and the NFL and it is one that Tomlin possess. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
The “usual suspects” on the Steelers defense made ESPN highlight-reel Splash Plays. And make no mistake about it, those plays were critical to the game’s outcome. But so were bread-and-butter plays turned in down after down, and no one epitomized that more than the defense’s leading tackler who dropped two players for losses, which is why Vince Williams wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Cowboys.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Ravens: Flunk Multiple Choice, Ace the Essay Edition

Taken from the grade book of a tardy teacher whose students flunked the multiple choice section but aced the essay part of the exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 win over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Isaiah Buggs, Lamarr Jackson, Robert Spliane, Steelers vs Ravens

Isaiah Buggs stops Lamarr Jackson at the goal line on 4th down. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger struggled during the first half, completing just four passes, although he protected the ball. In the second half, Ben Roethlisberger did what he does best – freelancing, and led the Steelers on 3 touchdown drives. Finishing the day going 21 of 32 for an economical 182 yards passing and 2 touchdowns. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had a tough day, only rushing for 47 yards on 15 carries, and added 3 catches for 13 yards. James Conner did score a critical, go ahead touchdown. Anthony McFarland had 1 carry for 1 yard, but he did well in avoiding a loss. Jaylen Samuels was targeted twice and did not catch a pass. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron only caught 4 passes for 48 yards, which looks pedestrian, but his touchdown was critical to getting the Steelers back into the game. Later, he made two drive-sustaining catches on series that ended with touchdowns. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool made 5 catches for 42 yards, including a picture perfect route on the final go ahead touchdown. Claypool also fumbled the ball, which is becoming a recurring issue. Ray-Ray McCloud and Diontae Johnson each made 1 catch for 6 yards, but he drew a pass interference penalty on a touchdown drive. James Washington was targeted once and drew a pass interference penalty. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Baltimore sacked Ben Roethlisberger twice and hit him 6 times, but Big Ben seemed under duress less than he would for a typical Ravens game. The line also gave up several tackles for losses and run blocking remains a challenge. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt was a monster, earning AFC Defensive player of the week for his 2 sack 3 tackles for a loss and 3 quarterback hits effort. Cam Heyward had 5 tackles and had to leave the game twice due to injuries. Tyson Alualu left the game early, and was replaced by Isaiah Buggs who struggled against the run early on. But Buggs made good on the penultimate drive of the game, stoning Lamarr Jackson twice, forcing a fumble on his second try. Grade: B

Stephon Tuitt, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

Stephon Tuitt sacks Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Robert Spillane continues to impress, leading the team in tackles, defensing 2 passes, and making a pick six that was a critical difference maker for the team. Bud Dupree had four tackles and a strip sack that wiped at least 3 points off the board for Baltimore. T.J. Watt “only” had a sack and 5 QB hits. Vince Williams had five tackles and recovered a fumble. Alex Highsmith made a leaping interception to start the 2nd half, which helped turn the game for Pittsburgh. The linebackers had a part in allowing Baltimore’s massive rushing total, but their critical plays at critical moments were essential. Grade: B+

Secondary
Joe Haden had 7 tackles and Steven Nelson had 4, while Cam Sutton and Justin Layne had 2 tackles apiece as did Terrell Edmunds. The real star of the unit was Minkah Fitzpatrick whose pass defense proved once again he was worth every bit of the 1st round pick the Steelers gave up to get him. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud had a respectable day on kick returns and returned 1 punt for 5 yards. The Ravens kick returns were nothing special, but they did have a 15 yard punt return. Jordan Berry had a spare 42.2 yards per punt, but he did boom off a 48 yard punt and a 56 yard punt. Chris Boswell was perfect on extra points. Grade: B

Coaching
The Ravens have a tough defense that figured to test Pittsburgh’s offense. In the first half, they shut the Steelers down easily. But Randy Fichtner made the necessary half time adjustments. It might not have been the greatest show on turf, but 21 2nd half points on the road after such a rough outing is nothing to sneeze at.

  • The Baltimore Ravens rushed for over 250 yards. Going into the game, teams that do that 215-1-1.Now they’re 215-2-1.

Yardage aside, the Steelers defense limited the Ravens to 7 points in the 2nd half. While its probably more of a credit to the players rather than any scheme or strategy, the Steelers defense stopped Lamarr Jackson at every critical juncture that they had to stop him at.

In the last 8 quarters, the Steelers have gone from orchestrating a blow out in their first two tries, getting blown out in their next four, and rallying in their second 2, coming out victorious. Never at any moment has panic been evident in Pittsburgh’s play. That’s a credit to coach Mike Tomlin. Grade: B

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster Makes the tough catches against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Unsung Hero Award
He hasn’t seen the end zone since September and he has yet to post a 100 yard or 10 catch game. That didn’t change against the Ravens, but this player make drive sustaining, combat catch after combat catch and for that JuJu Smith-Schuster wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Baltimore Ravens.

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