Steelers 2021 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class Heavy on Defensive Backs

Mere hours after making Presley Harvin III their final pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Steelers announced that they’d come to terms with their 2021 Undrafted Free Agent Rookie class.

Shakur Brown, cornerback, Michigan State
Mark Gilbert, cornerback, Duke
Calvin Bundage, outside linebacker, Oklahoma State
Jamar Watson, outside linebacker, Kentucky
Donovan Stiner, safety, Florida
Lamont Wade, safety, Penn State
Rico Bussey, wide receiver, Hawaii
Isaiah McKoy, wide receiver, Kent State

Donnie Shell, Donnie Shell Hall of Fame, Steelers vs Dophins, 1984 AFC Championship

Like Donnie Shell before them, Mark Gilbert and Lamont Wade will try to make the Steelers as undrafted rookie free agents. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.

As they always do, the Steelers undrafted rookie free agent class closely mirrors the positions that Pittsburgh didn’t pick, or picked late in the preceding draft.

The Steelers needs on defense at outside linebacker and cornerback were arguably greater than inside linebacker or defensive line. The Steeler addressed the latter two in the 4th and 5th rounds with their picks of Buddy Johnson and defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk.

  • So its little surprise that Steelers swiftly moved to bring two cornerbacks, two outside linebacker and two safeties to St. Vincents.

Mark Gilbert brings strong ties to the NFL and to Pittsburgh football, as he is the cousin of former Pitt and Washington stand out Sean Gilbert and the nephew of Pitt’s Darrelle Revis.

While that makes for a great story, remember that those bloodlines will mean nothing to Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler when he goes out and tries intercept Ben Roethlisberger while covering cover JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool this summer at St. Vincents.

Mike Golic Jr. headlined the Steelers 2013 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent class and while he spent some time on Pittsburgh’s practice squad, he never played a down in the NFL.

  • If that sounds harsh, it should not. It is in fact the exact opposite.

Once you set foot on the campus of St. Vincents, the Pittsburgh Steelers stop caring about where you came from or how you got to Latrobe and only focus on what you can do to help the team win.

  • This mentality began with Chuck Noll and has engrained itself in DNA of the Steelers culture.

Its what allowed 10th round pick L.C. Greenwood to take his place alongside Joe Greene. Its what allowed Donnie Shell to earn a roster spot and ultimately force out two-time Super Bowl starter Glen Edwards en route to the Hall of Fame.

Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

Dwight Stone’s Steelers career ran from 1987 to 1994. Photo Credit: Amazon

Its what allowed Dwight Stone to earn a roster spot and get snaps at the expense of 3rd round pick Charles Lockett. It paved the way for Ramon Foster earn a practice squad slot, followed by a regular season roster spot, which he transformed into a decade long-career as a starter.

And looking back at that 2013 Steelers Undrafted Free Agent Rookie class, Mike Golic and Nik Embernate may have generated all of the buzz, but it was unheralded Chris Hubbard that used his opportunity to build an NFL career.

Time will tell if any of the Steelers 2021 Undrafted Rookie Free Agents set Super Bowl records like that of Fast Willie Parker in Super Bowl XL or that of James Harrison in Super Bowl XLIII.

But those men can come to St. Vincents secure in the knowledge that they will judged on what they can do, not where they come from.

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Steelers 2021 NFL Draft Needs @ Outside Linebackers, Thin Depth Behind Watt & Highsmith

The Steelers boasted one of the best outside-linebacker duos in the NFL over the past two seasons, as both T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree combined for 49 quarterback sacks. With But Dupree departing for the Titans as a much-sought-after free agent, where do the Steelers stand at the position in terms of starters and depth heading into the 2021 NFL Draft? Let’s dive in and find out.

Alex Highsmith, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

Alex Highsmith after intercepting LaMarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP.

Steelers Depth Chart at Outside Linebacker: The Starters

T.J. Watt, the Steelers’ first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, heads into his fifth season as not only the Steelers best linebacker; he’s their best player and most valuable asset. Furthermore, he’s arguably the most dominant defensive player in the NFL today, despite coming up short in the Defensive Player of the Year voting each of the past two seasons.

With 49.5 career sacks to his name, Watt is on pace to shatter the Steelers’ all-time mark of 84.5 set by the legendary James Harrison. But Watt’s pass-rush prowess can’t just be measured in sacks; the pressure he puts on opposing linemen and quarterbacks is non-stop game-in and game-out. In fact, some credited Watt’s presence with the sudden career uptick experienced by Bud Dupree starting in 2019. Dupree, a first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, struggled with injuries and consistency through four seasons before coming on strong to close out his Steelers’ career.

With that in mind, maybe Alex Highsmith, the Steelers third-round pick out of Charlotte a year ago and the presumed replacement for Dupree as the weak-side starting outside linebacker can also benefit from playing alongside Watt. Alex Highsmith started five games in 2020 and recorded 48 tackles, two sacks and one pass defended. Highsmith also notched a game-changing interception in an important road win vs. the Ravens and M&T Bank Stadium.

Depth Chart at Outside Linebacker: The Backups

To say the Steelers’ depth at outside linebacker is sparse would be an understatement. Olasunkanmi Adeniyi left as a free agent, leaving the newly acquired Cassius Marsh, a 28-year old journeyman originally drafted in the fourth round by the Seahawks back in 2014, as the top backup.

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart is Christian Kuntz, a 2017 undrafted free agent out of nearby Duquesne University.

Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Outside Linebacker

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftI believe there is optimism that Highsmith can continue to improve and make a huge enough leap from his first to his second year that Pittsburgh should have itself a fine replacement for Dupree in 2021.

  • But, again, the lack of depth has to be a major concern heading into the draft.

While it didn’t draw much discussion, in a normal year, the Steelers likely would have found a way to keep Ola Adeniyi, who if nothing else would have secured a proven special teams contributor who was familiar with the Steelers defense. 

As the Steelers depth chart at outside linebackers stands now, one has to wonder if Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin won’t be tempted to hold Invincible like open tryouts just to fill out the roster.

OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But Pittsburgh does need to improve depth and perhaps do it with someone who can develop into a future starter so the priority of outside linebacker for the Steelers heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be: 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 Free Agent Focus 2021: Its Bye, Bye Bud Dupree

Webster’s on-line dictionary defines “Pincer” this way: “A military attack by two coordinated forces that close in on an enemy position from different directions.”

Military analogies to football often get over done, but words like “bomb,” “blitz,” “sack,” and “shotgun” describe some of its most dramatic plays. “Pincer Movement” isn’t one of those words, but it does describe the Steelers defense when its been at its best:

  • With two outside linebackers successfully pressuring a quarterback form opposite directions.

In 2020, it became unmistakably clear that Bud Dupree delivered the Steelers defense ½ of what they need to put opposing quarterbacks in a “Pincer Movement.” As free agency looms, the question remains, “Will Bud Dupree continue to do that in Pittsburgh, or will he do it for somewhere else?”

Bud Dupree, Jake Luton, Steelers vs Jaguars

Bud Dupree Sacks Jake Luton. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Bud Dupree’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers drafted Bud Dupree in the 1st round of the 2015 NFL Draft as a proverbial project. The initial returns were encouraging.

  • As a rookie, Dupree logged 4 sacks in his first 8 games
  • As a “sophomore,” Dupree came off of IR to log 4.5 sacks in 7 games

Dante Pettis, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs 49ers

Dante Pettis scores as Bud Dupree is helpless to stop him. Photo Credit: Lachlan Cunningham, Getty Images, Via SF Gate

Big things were expected of Bud heading into the 2017 season, particularly given the arrival of T.J. Watt. But instead of progressing, Bud Dupree plateaued. He only logged 6 sacks in 2017, despite playing 16 games. The Steelers flipped Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt before the 2018 season.

  • It didn’t help as Dupree’s sack total dropped to 5.5.

Moreover, reports that, “Dupree’s sack total might be low, but he’s excelling in pass coverage” started to circulate, just as similar reports of Jarvis Jones’ ability against the run had surfaced when he struggled to pressure the passer.

Under Keith Butler’s tutelage, Bud Dupree’s careear has taken off. In 2019 Bud Dupree logged 11.5 sacks and just as importantly, he force 4 fumbles. He continued in 2020, logging 8 sacks on the year and was going strong all the way up until he tore his ACL in the home game against the Ravens.

For all of the sound and fury generated by Ben Roethlisberger’s struggle’s with the long ball and the absence of a running game, it should be noted that the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers remained undefeated until they lost Bud Dupree.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Bud Dupree in 2021

It took a decade following Super Bowl XLV, but the Steelers defense returned to dominance in 2019, as the unit carried a team with an offense forced to start its 4th string quarterback to an 8-8 record.

  • The Dominance came in no small part due to Bud Dupree’s development.

For the first time since losing LaMarr Woodley in the 2011 win over the Patriots, the Steelers defense finally had two dominate outside linebackers. With that in mind, resigning Bud Dupree is a no brainer.

Alex Highsmith showed flashes in 2020, but when asked to assume the starting role he floundered. If the Steelers are serious about fielding a dominating defense in 2021, they need Bud Dupree. Period.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Bud Dupree in 2021

X’s and O’s might spell out one type of reality, but the hard math of salary cap calculations tell a very different story. The Steelers might not be facing salary cap Armageddon anymore, but they are facing salary cap Purgatory. Under normal circumstances, the Steelers could probably manage to sign Bud Dupree to a long-term contract, just as they once inked Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley to long term deals.

  • But circumstances are hardly ordinary.

Second contracts for top outside linebackers start at about 15 million per year, and trend to 20 million. The Steelers are at least 20 million over the projected 2021 salary cap. And if Bud Dupree is one of the best outside linebackers in the game today, T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick have flashed generational level play making talent.

The fact is, the Pittsburgh Steelers cannot afford to bring Bud Dupree back in 2021.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Bud Dupree

The only true “X Factor” in equation outlined above is Bud Dupree’s ACL tear. It is possible that teams might shy away from giving Bud Dupree big payday because of it.

  • That’s the only realistic scenario that sees Bud Dupree back in Pittsburgh in 2021.

It is also an unlikely scenario.

Sports medicine has evolved tremendously when it comes to ACL tears and players routinely rebound from them in a full off season, which is what Dupree will have to rehab. The Curtain’s call on the Steelers and Bud Dupree is to expect him to finish his career outside of Pittsburgh.

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 2021 Free Agent Focus: Ola Adeniyi – Will “Mr. Preseason” Get an RFA Tender?

The digital era has changed the way the NFL presents its product. By in large, those changes have been for the better, bringing fans closer to the game they love. Preseason football has not aged well in the digital transition.

  • Once upon a time, preseason football was an oasis. 

Football starved fans who’d been suffering a long off season could finally get their fill of gridiron action. It was enough, even if it didn’t feature top talent (although starters did get a fair number of preseason snaps well into the 1990s). Today, YouTube, Twitter and Tiki Toki fill that void from February to August. Preseason football is now perceived as a painstaking rite to be endured, rather than a welcome appetizer that precedes the main course.

  • Yet preseason remains an invaluable experience for unknown players to prove themselves.

Yet names like Donnie Shell, Dwight Stone, Merril Hoge, Lee Flowers, James Harrison, Willie Parker, Isaac Redman and Ramon Foster might ring a bell for Steelers fans. That’s because these “training camp roster spot holders” parlayed preseason performances into careers with the Steelers.

Ola Adeniyi was another no pedigree preseason standout in 2018 and is now a restricted free agent. Has he done enough to earn him that coveted “second NFL contract?” Let’s find out!

Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, Ola Adeniyi, Steelers preseason

Ola Adeniyi closes in for one of his patented preseason sacks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Ola Adeniyi’s Career with the Steelers

An undrafted free agent out of Toledo in 2018, Ola Adeniyi quickly made a name for himself when he recorded several sacks that preseason. While Adeniyi did make the Steelers roster during his rookie campaign, he was unable to capitalize on his preseason success thanks to an injury that forced him onto the Injured Reserve list for the majority of the season.

Adeniyi made the Steelers roster in 2019 and again in 2020, but the outside linebacker was afforded very few defensive snaps playing behind the dynamic pass-rushing duo of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Adeniyi’s primary role during his Steelers career has been on special teams.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Ola Adeniyi in 2021

Adeniyi is a restricted free agent but one without much of a resume. It should be fairly easy and inexpensive to retain his rights for at least one more season. Besides, with Bud Dupree likely gone in free agency, the Steelers depth at outside linebacker will be a primary concern heading into 2021. It appears that the Steelers may have found themselves a suitable replacement for Dupree in one Alex Highsmith, a third-round pick in 2020. However, Adeniyi, 23, is still really young and perhaps has room to grow as a player. He knows the system and, again, is a major contributor on special teams.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ola Adeniyi in 2021

The Steelers coaches know more than we do. While Adeniyi’s rookie preseason was eye-opening, it did primarily come against players of his level. Perhaps the coaches realized this right away, which is why they really haven’t given Adeniyi much of a chance to be a major player on defense.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ola Adeniyi

Again, it should be fairly inexpensive to retain Ola Adeniyi’s services. I see no real problem in him remaining on the Steelers roster in 2021. If he does still have some upside, maybe someone like Highsmith won’t be able to block it as easily as Dupree did. 

With that said, Ola Adeniyi is a restricted free agent, and restricted free agent tenders will clock in at around 2.3 million dollars. The Steelers need every salary cap penny they can get, and could very well opt not to tender Adeniyi yet still bring him back at a veteran minimum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Painful Picture: Browns Bludgeon Steelers in Wild Card, Likely Ending an Era

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

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

Let’s begin with an exercise. Look at the image above. What three words come to mind?

Take a moment. Think. Reflect. Feel.

  • These are my three: Power. Poignancy. Punctuation.

Even if you know nothing about the sport the rest of the world calls “American Football” the power of this image is unmistakable. So too is its poignancy: Something has been lost. The third word is the only one that allows a bit of interpretation: Does this poignant and powerful image punctate something definitive, or does it only capture a moment in time?

Intellectually, it is possible, perhaps even plausible to rationalize scenarios that see the current era of Steelers football continuing. But emotionally, the image Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey together following the playoff loss to the Browns feels like an open and shut case.

These types of images have a way of conveying finality.

And in that, they differ from action shots. Action shots freeze transformational moments forever. Think:

Still shots bear a different breed of power. They communicate something that’s happened in the past that establishes a path for the future. Think of how the shot of Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw sneering at each other on the sideline reveals the tempestuous nature that would torture their relationship from the day the Blonde Bomber arrived in Pittsburgh until The Emperor was laid to rest in 2014.

Seeing the image of Ben and Pouncey on the bench at Heinz Field brought to mind another image shot at the same locale.

Jon Witman, steelers fullback jon witman, 2001 steelers afc championship loss patriots

A distraught Jon Witman after the Steelers 2001 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

That is of course former Steelers fullback Jon Witman, sitting on the bench following the 2001 AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots. Take a look at the photo, and consider what followed:

Sure, plenty of players on that ’01 team would bounce back to join Jerome Bettis on the dais at Super Bowl XL, but that AFC Championship loss would be the closest mainstays of the 1990s, guys like Jason Gildon, Lee Flowers and Mark Bruener would ever get to a Super Bowl.

None of that was apparent that day, but glance again at Witman’s drooping head and it all seems so obvious now, acting as a sort of Rosetta Stone for translating Roethlisberger’s and Pouency’s non-verbal language. Let’s look at why.

First Quarter: The Titanic Hits an Iceberg in Just 16 Seconds

As you well know on the very first play Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball way over Ben Roethlisberger’s head. Some of criticized Ben Roethlisberger for not pouncing on it, but it looked like it was more of an issue of confusion between him James Conner as to who “had it.”

Karl Joseph suffered no such confusion and within 16 seconds the Cleveland Browns had a touchdown.

Teams can effectively respond to debacles like this in two ways:

  • Patch together a slow steady scoring drive
  • Or light up the opposition with a big play

The Steelers did the opposite. Three plays later Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Benny Snell. His pass was way too high and went right to M.J. Stewart. Three plays an a 40 yard Jarvis Landry reception later and the Browns were scoring again.

  • 4 minutes and 14 seconds had elapsed. The Browns led 14 to 0.

Things got worse.The Steelers got the ball back. They punted after 3 plays. The Browns only need 5 plays, three of which went for double digit yardage, to score again.

  • 11 minutes and 20 seconds had elapsed. The Browns led 21 to 0.

Four plays later, on 2nd and 20 Ben Roethlisberger tried to hit Diontae Johnson. The pass was a tad bit high but catchable. It hit both of Johnson’s hands. But instead of pulling it down and in, the ball bounced off and back. Sheldrick Redwine caught it and returned it 30 yards. Three  plays later the Browns were in the end zone again.

  • 13 minutes and 4 seconds had elapsed. The score was 28-0.

That high snap was akin the iceberg that ripped a hole in the hull of the Titanic. Before the Steelers could even slow the flow of water, they were already down four touchdowns.

As the Titanic Sinks, the Hindenburg Responds Distress Signal

As pointed out in our Rapid Reaction, if you only look at the contest’s final 32 minutes, Pittsburgh played pretty well, out scoring the Browns 30-20. Say one thing – Mike Tomlin’s team refused to quit.

  • But it is hard to do much serious evaluation given that the Browns were playing with such a lead.

Clearly however, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington made some incredible plays. So did JuJu Smith-Schuster. As did James Conner, practically willing himself into the end zone for the final two point conversion. If this was their last game in Pittsburgh, they both left it all on the field.

  • The Steelers defense, in contrast, left much, far far too much on the field.

Cam Heyward was going up against an offensive lineman who’d met his quarterback hours before the game, yet you’d never know it. T.J. Watt, who has terrorized quarterbacks with relish, never touched Mayfield Baker.  “Minkah Magic” was missing the entire night.

Nick Chubb, Cassius Marsh, Steelers vs Browns

Nick Chubb scores and all Cassius Marsh can do is watch. Photo Credit: Matt Starkey, Browns.com

Not after the turn overs, at the goal line, not in the 4th quarter when the Steelers desperately needed a 3 and out. Instead, the defense allowed the Browns to stitch together a 6 play 80-yard touchdown drive.

A big play or two, a series of sacks, a forced fumble, an interception or a pick six could have made all of the difference.

  • None of those were to be had.

Instead of acting as the cavalry, the Steelers defense looked more like the Hindenburg responding responding to the Titanic’s distress call. If Steelers Wild Card Loss to the Browns does mark the end of the Roethlisberger era, it is a bitter end indeed.

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Consequences: Steelers 19-14 Win Over Ravens Carries Costly Repercussions

The Steelers-Raven game was supposed to be on Thanksgiving. COVID-19 pushed it to Sunday. And then to Tuesday. And then to Wednesday. By the time they actually played, the Baltimore Ravens had called up 11 players from their practice squad.

  • Everyone expected a JV-Varsity game.
  • Stephon Tuitt, himself out on the COVID-19 list, tweeted about padding stats.
  • We did see a JV-Varsity effort.

Except the Baltimore Ravens brought their Varsity game, while Mike Tomlin labeled the Steelers’ effort as “J.V.” As they’ve been many times this season, the Steelers were below the line in all three phases. And, just like in other outings this year, Pittsburgh prevailed 19-14 despite that.

But the critical question is, how much longer can continue to do that?

RGIII, Steelers vs Ravens 2020

RGIII is off to the races on 3rd down late in the 2nd half. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

First Quarter Foreshadows Things to Come

The Steelers and Ravens began by exchanging punts, then on the first play of Baltimore’s second possession, a failed exchange between Robert Griffen III and his running back landed on the grass with Vince Williams pouncing on it to give Pittsburgh the ball at Baltimore’s 22.

In other words, things happened exactly as they were scripted to.

Lack of practice had reduced the Ravens to struggling with fundamentals, as Pittsburgh looked poised to go up early and easily. But instead of capitalizing, the Steelers stumbled. Sure, Ben Reothlisberger and  Benny Snell had a nice 13-yard hookup that brought the ball to the Ravens 6, but the rest of the drive consisted of 1 and 2 yard runs by Snell and piecemeal catches by Eric Ebron.

  • Unable to score on 3rd down, the Steelers went for it on 4th and 1.

As he’s done too many times this season, Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception in the end zone. The Steelers squandered an opportunity to go up by an easy 7.

But that didn’t seem to matter. The script that destiny had drafted for this game continued to impose its own inertia. On the Ravens very next possession, RGIII looked to convert a very easy 3rd down to James Proche, but Joe Haden read him all the way, picking off the ball and taking it to the house.

  • What the Steelers offense couldn’t do, the defense did for it.

It took about a minute and a half longer, but the Steelers still got their early touchdown. Except the score was only 6-0 instead of 7-0 because Chis Boswell missed the extra point, foreshadowing things to come.

Ravens Force Role Reversal, Steelers Oblige

Had the Steelers offense scored its easy touchdown AND had the defense brought home its pick six, it is easy to imagine the game evolving very differently. No, John Harbaugh’s team would NOT have quit on him. But often times when inexperienced teams get behind early in big games, they start trying too hard.

  • Balls get loose.
  • Blocks get missed.
  • Easy catches bounce off hands.
  • Simple tackles slip and big gains ensue.

And that is exactly how things evolved following Chris Boswell’s missed extra point. Except the Baltimore Ravens rejected the role of method actor, opting to go improv and the Steelers willingly obliged by flipping the script.

You can pin-point the Steelers somersault with precision. With the help of a Cam Heyward sack, Pittsburgh seemed to be slamming the door on the Ravens by forcing a quick punt.

Marlon Humphery, Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Ravens

Marlon Humphery bats away touchdown pass from Chase Claypool. Photo Credit: Shawn Hubbard, Ravens.com

Unfortunately, Ray-Ray McCloud fumbled the return, giving Baltimore the ball at Pittsburgh’s 16. 6 plays later, the Ravens were up 7-6 and Steelers Nation was primed for what is perhaps the sloppiest 48 minutes of play in recent history. It was JV football at its most mediocre. Here are the low lights:

  • The Steelers had to settle for Red Zone field goals, twice
  • Eric Ebron, Diontae Johnson, James Washington and Chase Claypool all either had Red Zone drops or passes batted away
  • RGIII gored the Steelers defense with a 39 yard run on 3rd an 11
  • The Steelers failed to convert a 4th and 2
  • Minkah Fitzpatrick dropped an easy interception/pick six
  • Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick missed tackles allowing Trace McSorley (who) to connect with Marquise Brown for an easy touchdown.

Yet, in spite of all that, the Steelers to eeked out a win. Let’s look at why.

JuJu and Snell Gamers to the End

Athletes who are good enough to reach the pros generally give it their all. But “gamers” are athletes who give it their all but manage to find a little something extra when the game is on the line. Franco Harris in the Immaculate Reception and James Harrison in Super Bowl XLIII are two easy examples.

  • But true gamers find ways to deliver that something extra on bread and butter plays.

To use Mike Tomlin, in his William and Mary eloquence, the Steelers had “sucked” in the Red Zone throughout the game. By the look of it, JuJu-Smith Schuster took it personally. When the Steelers reached the end zone to begin the 4th quarter, Ben Roethlisberger tagged JuJu Smith-Schuster. The stat sheet says he only went 8 yards getting stopped four yards short of the end zone.

But in truth JuJu would not be denied:

Anyone surprised that Ben Roethlisberger looked to JuJu Smith-Schuster 2 plays later? Anyone surprised that JuJu caught it? Neither am I.

The Steelers other “gamer” is Benny Snell Jr., who on that self-same touchdown drive, got the ball on a 3rd and 3, had ZERO room to run, reversed field and ripped off 10 yard run. Later, with the Steelers looking to kill the clock, Snell exploded for a 13 yard run, forcing the Ravens to use a precious time out, and then ended the game by converting a 3rd and 1.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell delivers for Steelers in 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Sloppy Play Carries Consequences

With 5:31 left to play, Trace McSorley fired off a deep pass to Marquise Brown. Minkah Fitzpatrick almost intercepted it.

  • Bud Dupree had blitzed the passer, slipped and immediately began pounding the turf.

Later, we not only saw him walking with the trainers to the locker room, but he did so under his own power. Surely, this couldn’t be serious, could it? Alas, it was serious as he’d torn an ACL.

If the Steelers had made half, perhaps even a third of the plays they’d left on the field, Bud Dupree would have been out of the game, resting up for Washington. Instead, he’s out for the year.

The Steelers had slipped but recovered enough to win, but as Dupree’s injury reveals, sloppy play has its consequences.

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Steelers 2020 Thanksgiving Honors: T.J. Watt – Giving Thanks that He Wears Black and Gold!

Thanksgiving 2020 has arrived and it is unlike any previous Thanksgiving. Not even the juggernaut that is the NFL is immune, with the Steelers-Ravens Thanksgiving game postponed with a scan 36 hours of notice.

Thanksgiving should be a time that brings together friends and family of all colors and creeds. At the very least, COVID-19 has made that far more complicated this year, upending traditions from coast-to-coast.

Fortunately, one tradition that COVID-19 can’t touch here in Steelers Nation is Steelers Thanksgiving Honors.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors, Explained

The “Steelers Thanksgiving Honors” tradition was born here on Steel Curtain Rising in 2009. The Super Bowl hung over Steelers were in the middle of 5 game losing streak that was every bit as brutal as it sounds.

Yet Rashard Mendenhall had emerged as a quality player that season and that effort, on top of the heart he showed in running to prevent a 94 yard interception return by Andy Studebaker from becoming a pick six was a true bright spot and reason to give thanks.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors was born.

Steelers 2020 Thanksgiving Honors Winner: T.J. Watt

Both rightly and wrongly, the Pittsburgh Steelers identity is defined by defense.

In the 1970s Joe Greene’s arrival signaled the franchise’s pivot from perennial loser to champion, while Mel Blount dominated so thoroughly, the NFL literally changed the game because of him. Two generations later, Aaron Smith epitomized the “defend every blade of grass” personality of the Steelers defense, while Troy Polamalu dazzled even the most casual fans.

  • But it’s the men in the middle, the linebackers, who capture the imaginations of Steelers Nation.

Think the toothless Jack Lambert on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Think of Greg Lloyd, James Harrison or Ryan Shazier pulverizing the quarterback or picking off a pass at precisely the moment Pittsburgh needs them to.

  • And today you can add T.J. Watt to that list.

T.J. Watt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers beat Patriots

T.J. Watt antagonizes Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers drafted T.J. Watt in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft with the 30th pick. Four years later, the only question is, “What were the other 29 teams thinking?” T.J. Watt, like Cam Heyward before him, goes to show that while favorable draft position is a plus, you can still pick studs late in the first round.

The rebuild of the Steelers defense was already underway before T.J. Watt arrived, but Watt immediately upgraded the Steelers at outside linebacker.

  • His talent was evident as a rookie, where he logged 7 sacks, batted away 7 passes and forced one fumble.

T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

And, so many other special players do, he made a tremendous leap between his rookie and sophomore year. He almost doubled his sack total while incorporating the strip-sack into the game. The trend continued in 2019, as he bettered his 2018 numbers across the board.

And, with six games remaining in 2020, T.J. Watt already has 9 sacks, 1 interception, 14 tackles for a loss and 36 quarterback hits.

  • But numbers only tell one dimension of T.J. Watt’s story.

Truly great players don’t compile stats, they change games. And that is what T.J. Watt is does. Whether it is a sack, a tackle for a loss, a tipped pass or an interception, T.J. Watt has reached the point in his career that when the game is on the line, you almost instinctively expect him to make a play.

Those aren’t Watt’s only contributions; he also brings his infectious enthusiasm to the team, along with the requisite attitude (see the “Welcoming rookie quarterbacks to the AFC North) that an ass kicking Steelers linebacker must display.

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2019 draft needs at outside linebacker

Steelers outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DKPS

Shortly before he was drafted, Steel City Insider’s Matt C. Steel mused over whether “This guy might be the unicorn they’re looking for at outside linebacker.”

I don’t know if T.J. Watt is a unicorn, but I do know that he’s a Pittsburgh Steeler, and that’s reason a plenty for Steelers Nation to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

This year, more than any other year, we offer our Steelers Thanksgiving Honors with this critical caveat: We trust and hope that all of you, have many things that have nothing to do with footballl to be thankful for.

Our sincere hope is that everyone reading this is able to enjoy Thanksgiving in a way that allows you to share it healthy with family and friends.

Click here to read stories of past Steelers Thanksgiving Honors winners

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The Steelers Are 4-0 for First Time Since Welcome Back Kotter Was On. Let that Sink In…

I don’t know what you were doing in 1979, but I know what I was doing –I  was not caring one bit about the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I don’t know what happened between then and the days before Super Bowl XIV — Pittsburgh was looking to cap off the ’79 season with its fourth Lombardi trophy of the decade in a match-up against the Los Angeles Rams in January of 1980 — but my seven-year-old heart and soul were suddenly so emotionally invested in the outcome of this game that a loss would have surely brought me to tears.

  • Anyway, the Steelers did triumph in that game, 31-19, and a lifelong fan was born.

I’ve seen it all in the four-plus decades since deciding that the Steelers were the greatest team in the history of the universe. I’ve witnessed three head coaches, countless playoff appearances, 16 division titles, nine AFC title games, four Super Bowl appearances and two more Lombardi trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

I’ve witnessed Mean Joe Greene and Cam Heyward; Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger; Lynn Swann and Hines Ward; John Stallworth and Antonio Brown; Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and Le’Veon Bell; Jack Lambert, James Farrior and Ryan Shazier; Jack Ham, Mike Merriweather, Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, James Harrison and T.J. Watt; Mel Blount and Rod Woodson; Donnie Shell and Troy Polamalu; and Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field.

  • However, despite “seeing it all” over the course of 41 years of fandom, I’ve never seen Pittsburgh win its first four games.

That all changed on Sunday at Heinz Field, when the Steelers defeated the Eagles, 38-29, to begin the year 4-0 for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

It’s just hard to fathom for me that this is the first time Pittsburgh has started a season so successfully since I was in elementary school, since I believed in Santa Claus, since disco was a thing.

Yet, here we are. What’s the lesson to be learned from this? I think one such lesson is that it’s never too late to be amazed by a sport, a team or a player. Take receiver Chase Claypool, for example, who scored four touchdowns in the victory over the Eagles–three receiving and one rushing–becoming the first rookie in franchise history to do so.

  • Much like the 4-0 start, I can’t believe I — or even much older Steelers fans — had never witnessed such a feat.

There’s a lot not to like about the 2020 calendar year–although, I’d be a fool to tap into any of that mess on here–but there are some bright spots.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 4-0 for the first time since Welcome Back, Kotter was on the air.

Welcome back, indeed.

 

 

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