The Steelers Must Improve @ Running Back in the 2021 NFL Draft. Period.

Art Rooney II once described the running game as “The foundation of the franchise.” Rooney is right. While they may not hold the record anymore, if memory serves at some point early in the 2nd Super Bowl era, the Steelers lead the rest of the NFL in total yards rushing since the NFL-AFL merger.

  • Yet in 2020 the Steelers reached historic lows in rushing.

Drafting a running back early, perhaps even in the first round, would seem to be logical. Yet, there are no shortage of Pro Football Focus mock drafts that don’t have the Steelers addressing running back until the middle of the draft. Which begs the question, just how badly do the Steelers need to get a running back in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Steelers Depth Cart at Running Back: The Starters

The Steelers go into the 2021 NFL Draft without a starting running back. James Conner held that position in 2020, but Conner is now an Arizona Cardinal.

  • It says here that when healthy and with a strong line, James Conner was a very good running back.

Perhaps he couldn’t have been a starter in the mold of some of the Hall of Famers such as John Henry Johnson or Jerome Bettis who’ve manned the position for Pittsburgh in the past, but behind a strong line it would have been easy to see [a healthy] Conner emerging as a Steelers number 1 running back in the mold of Merril Hoge.

Alas, that was not to be.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

Fortunately, the Steelers cupboard at running back is far from empty. The proverbial “Next man up” for Pittsburgh is Benny Snell. The Steelers drafted Benny Snell in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and Snell has looked good and won praise from Mike Tomlin at times.

Still, Snell has done nothing to show that Pittsburgh can count on him developing into a viable number 1 running back.

  • And with the injuries that James Conner suffered in 2019 and 2020, Snell’s had chances.
Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Behind Snell, the Steelers have Anthony McFarland and Jaylen Samuels. Jaylen Samuels was a 5th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and led the Steelers to victory over the New England Patriots by rushing for 142 yards. However, Samuels hasn’t done much but show he’s a niche back since then, although on Steel City Insider, Craig Wolfley went as far as to suggest he’s the answer for the Steelers at running back.

The Steeler used another 4th round pick on Anthony McFarland during the 2020 NFL Draft. McFarland only played 2 years at the University of Maryland and is seen as both a project and as a change-of-pace back rather than someone to shoulder the full load. As a rookie McFarland looked good at moments, but never looked like an RB number 1 in waiting.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Running Back

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftShould we be so quick to write off those mock drafts that show the Steelers passing on running back in the first round? After all, of the 5 first rounders they’ve used on running backs in the modern era, Franco Harris was a home run, Greg Hawthorne was a bust, Walter Abercrombie disappointed, Tim Worley blew his signing bonus up his nose and Rashard Mendenhall didn’t have the passion to match his talent.

  • Those lessons are important, but another type of history is important here.

Speaking after the 2020 season, Art Rooney II remarked:

We’ve got to be a lot better in running. Certainly we don’t want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers being last in the league in rushing again ever. I think it’s something our coaches are focused on and we’ll be looking for ways to improve in the draft. It’s something we’ve got to fix, and we are working on it.

Art Rooney II doesn’t say a lot. But what he does say, he means.

See Art II’s comments about drafting a quarterback in January 2018 and the Steelers picking Joshua Dobbs in the 2018 NFL Draft. See Chris Boswell having to earn his roster bonus during training camp/preseason in 2019.

For all of the Sound and Fury generated by Ben Roethlisberger’s late season struggles, the astute eye will observe that his Big Ben difficulties began when the running game floundered.

If the Steelers are serious about making a final run with Roethlisberger, they need to beef up their running game, and they need to do it big time. The names of Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams, and especially that of Najee Harris have been associated with the Steelers.

Whether one of those will wind up in Pittsburgh or whether it will be someone else, the Steelers Need at running back going into the 2021 NFL Draft can only be described as High.

 

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James Conner Signs with Cardinals. His Steelers Career is Case of Stars Not Lining Up

Former Steelers running back and proverbial home town hero James Conner made his departure from Pittsburgh official yesterday when he signed with the Arizona Cardinals. This move was not as surprise, as all indications were that the Steelers had no interest in offering James Conner a second contract.

  • The move is nonetheless disappointing because Hollywood couldn’t have scripted the beginning of his story better.

The Steelers drafted James Conner in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Although Le’Veon Bell had just broken the Steelers single-game regular season and post-season rushing records – records that neither Hall of Famers John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis nor Super Bowl record holder Fast Willie Parker ever touched – it was clear that the Steelers needed someone to share the load with Bell.

  • James Conner seemed tailor made to fit that role.

James Conner didn’t just hail from Erie and hadn’t just played his college ball at Pitt, but he’d beaten cancer and a ACL injury to log a 1,000 yard season with the Panthers. His injury history allowed him to fall. It seemed like the Steelers were getting a starter-capable running back for a 3rd round compensatory selection.
Nice story, except things rarely work out as scripted.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns

James Conner delivers a stiff arm in his final 100 yard game. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

James Conner only carried the ball 32 times as a rookie, his blocking ability limiting his ability to serve as a complementary back to Le’Veon Bell (or maybe the coaches just wanted to feed Bell the ball.)

Unfortunately, fate did not smile more kindly on Conner following his rookie year.

The Steelers erred badly by placing the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, as Le’Veon Bell held out. At first that seemed like a boon for the Steelers. James Conner ran with authority, prompting fans to throw together all sorts of stats that implied that the Steelers were better with Conner.

When it became clear that Bell was going to hold out, coaches started cutting back on Conner’s work load in the interests of preserving his health. When Bell’s hold out became permanent, this site observed that:

Today the Steelers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders; a serious injury to James Conner immediately downgrades them to a team that, with a few breaks, could win perhaps win a playoff game.

The Steelers, fate would have it, struggled and missed the playoffs. The following year James Conner had a shaky start to 2019, as the offense struggled to adjust from the absence of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown while defenses stacked the box daring Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges to throw.

  • Injuries was strike Conner down, forcing him to miss five games and parts of several others.

In 2020, just when it seemed like Benny Snell might be eclipsing him in the offense, James Conner responded with 3 one hundred yard games between weeks 2 and 5. But Conner would find himself on the COVID-19 list, then suffered a minor injury. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s run blocking regressed to the point where it became downright pathetic.

  • 2021 brought Conner one last chance at capturing glory for his hometown.
Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and James Conner after Maurkice Pouency’s high snap. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via The Altoona Times.

The Steelers had a home playoff game against their historic rivals, the Cleveland Browns. It’s the opportunity every kid who, after unwrapping a football under the Christmas tree got admonished, “I don’t want to see yinz throwing that in the house” dreamed of.

For what its worth, James Conner caught the game’s final pass, a two point conversion that followed Chase Claypool’s touchdown. Good for him to end things on a high note. James Conner, giving it has all to the bitter end his who he is.

  • But on balance, James Conner’s Steelers career shows that sometimes the stars just don’t line up.

Steel Curtain Rising thanks James Conner for his 4 years with the Steelers and wishes him nothing but the best in Arizona.

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 2020 Season Final Report Card: Summer Started Too Soon Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Washington, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, f bomb

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


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

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

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

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

  • Injuries ultimately doomed this defense.

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

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

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Bengals: No Christmas Reprieve Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who fears it might be time for his star pupil to graduate to his “Life’s Work” and is in no mood to offer a Christmas reprieve here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 loss to the Bengals a Paul Brown Stadium.

Ben Roethlisberger, Carl Lawson, Steelers vs Bengals

Carl Lawson sacks Ben Roethlisberger in the first half. Photo Credit: Michael Conroy

Steelers, Report Card, grades,Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger played what were perhaps his worst 30 minutes of football during the first half against the Bengals. Officially he went 7 for 16 for 19 yards 1 interception and one fumble. But there were 2 if not at least 3 more interceptions the Bengals should have had. Worse yet, Roethlisberger was tentative, timid and unsure. He played much better in the 2nd half, but by then the Steelers were doomed. Grade: F

Running Backs
Benny Snell was perhaps the lone bright spot to come out of the Bengals game. Snell carried 18 times for 84 yards. There were times, such as the 4th and 1 that he converted, where he made yards where none were to be found. Most impressively was the determination and drive he showed. Both Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland had 1 catch and 1 carry each, doing what was asked of him. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron left the game with an injury, leaving the tight end duties to Vance McDonald. McDonald’s block was critical to the Claypool catch and run that sparked the 2nd half mini-rally. He didn’t have any balls thrown his way, but showed up at other times in the blocking game. Grade: C+

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool can’t come down with the ball. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had a strong game, logging 8 catches for 59 yards including a 23 yard touchdown. Chase Claypool put the Steelers back in the game with his 2nd half 37 yard scamper. JuJu Smith-Schuster only had 3 catches and he did fumble one of them, putting the Bengals firmly in control of the game. James Washington was targeted 3 times with no catches, but that’s hardly his fault. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Statistics can be deceiving. Just look at the rushing numbers and it seems like there was some quality run blocking going on. At times there were. But when the Steelers needed it the most, it wasn’t there, particularly in the 3rd quarter when someone missed a block and Benny Snell got dropped for a 2 yard loss on 3rd and one. Cincinnati’s lone sack might make it seem like pass blocking was good, but Ben Roethlisberger was hit 9 times as Alejandro Villanueva and Chukwuma Okorafor were dominated.

Now we know why Ben Roethlisberger has been throwing it so quickly all season…. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Steelers run defense ran hot and cold against the Bengals. Stephon Tuitt was strong in the pass pressure game netting a sack and 3 quarterback hits but could have been stronger against the run. Tyson Alualu had 5 tackles. Grade: C+

Linebackers
Stripped of 3 of its starters and its primary backup the Steelers linebackers did what they could. Which wasn’t enough. T.J. Watt had a sack, 1 QB hit and 3 tackles for losses. He played like a man possessed early in the game. Alex Highsmith got a pressure on Watt’s sack. Inside linebackers Avery Williamson led the unit with 7 tackles and Marcus Allen had 7. This unit struggled to contain Ryan Finley and that was a difference maker in the 2nd half. Grade: C-

Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Ryan Finley waltzes to a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Secondary
The Bengals were 4-14 on third down conversions, which is a credit to the Steelers secondary. Steven Nelson deflected 2 passes while Joe Haden deflected one. The secondary did a good job of keeping the Steelers in the game as long as they could. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long enough. Grade: B

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud’s kick and punt return numbers might not dazzle, but he seemed to regain the confidence he’d been lacking since the fumble against Washington. Steelers punt coverage was solid. Chris Boswell made all of his kicks and Jordan Berry had a fantastic night. Grade: B

Coaching
The Steelers offense had more turnovers than it did first downs in the first half. A damning statistic if there every was one. Randy Fichtner’s offense might be predictable but honestly, predictability or schematics weren’t at issue against the Bengals.

Keith Butler’s defense did well to keep the score to 17 points – OK that doesn’t account for the quality of opposition – in the first half, but got snookered in the 2nd half time and time again by Ryan Findley.

    • It says here that much of what happened isn’t Mike Tomlin’s fault.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, Tyler Boyd, Joe Haden, Steelers vs Bengals

Minkah Fitzpatrick bats a pass away from Tyler Boyd. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It also says here that the Steelers showed a lot of fight. But it’s also evident that the Steelers lack the moxie that they once had. Mike Tomlin might night be “to blame” for much of what ails the Steelers, but he certainly is the person to deliver the remedy. Thus far the remedy eludes him. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Ryan Findley was killing the Steelers – and with only 7 completions to his name. Possession downs would start with the Steelers defense smelling blood in the water, and they would end with Ryan Finley burning the Steelers with his legs. One player put a stop to it, and it was the same player who deflected a touchdown pass and the same one who led the team in tackles and for that Minkah Fitzpatrick wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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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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Steelers Report Card for Win over Titans: Learn the Right Lesson Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who hopes his students don’t learn the long lesson from their experience of starting strong, stumbling badly and still passing, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2020 win over the Titans.

T.J. Watt, Ryan Tannehill, Robert Spillane, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs Titans

T.J. Watt sacks Ryan Tannehill. And then some. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger started this game as he had so many others this year – on fire. By Jim Wexell’s calculation’s Big Ben had a passer rating of 99.4 in the first half, and 17.0 thereafter. His interceptions alone accounted for a 6 point swing. To his credit Roethlisberger manned up after the game, but that doesn’t count as “extra credit for showing your work.” Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Back
James Conner had 82 yards on 20 carries and ran strong in addition to 3 catches for 29 yards. Benny Snell only had 2 carries, but found paydirt on one of them with a touchdown. Jaylen Samuels returned to the offense and got 5 yards on his only carry. Anthony McFarland 6 yards on one carry. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald had two catches for 14 yards while Eric Ebron had 6 catches for 50 yards, while Jerald Hawkins sealed the corner on Snell’s touchdown playing as the third tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson did something that not easily measured by statistics – they showed that the can and will make opposing defenses pay for double-teaming Chase Claypool. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 9 catches for 85 yards and they were combat catches. Diontae Johnson also had 9 catches for 80 yards, but he also scored two touchdowns. Ray-Ray McCloud had 2 catches for 12 yards. The one combat catch that JuJu missed was the end zone touchdown, and that brings this group’s mark down. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked the entire day and he was only hit 3 times per ESPN’s stats. James Conner and the other running backs ran very well in the first half and the line had a lot to do with that. Their rushing average plummeted in the 2nd half, which contributed to two very short drives when clock milking was in order. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Derrick Henry is, daresay, a running back cut out of the Jerome Bettis mold, yet agaisnt the Steelers he only managed 3.8 yards a carry. Certainly some of that is due to the Titans playing from behind, but part of the reason they were behind late was because Henry couldn’t get started early. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt’s stat sheets are slim, but they impact was deep. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had a sack and dropped Henry for losses twice the second of which was a key play in forcing a punt. Bud Dupree’s name doesn’t appear on the stat sheet, which is strange, but he was tasked in part with helping ensure Henry remained contained. The real hero of the day is this unit’s work horse, Vince Williams who led the team with 10 total tackles, a sack and another tackle for a loss. Grade: B+

Cam Sutton, Corey Davis

Cam Sutton deflects a pass against Corey Davis. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Secondary
Joe Haden, Cam Sutton, and Terrell Edmunds all batted away passes at critical moments. Joe Haden made some critical stops on the final drive. Steven Nelson’s name was seldom heard which is very much a good thing. However, the secondary gave up a 70 yard touchdown which came early enough to allow Tennessee to get back in the game. Minkah Fitzpatrick either slipped or perhaps hesitated and A.J. Brown outran the rest of the secondary. These types of slips hurt. Grade: C

Special Teams
In his return to Pittsburgh Jordan Berry averaged 50 yards on two punts, delivering an immediate improvement. The Steelers kick and punt coverage remained strong. Chris Boswell was 3 for 3 on PATs and hit two field goals. The special teams also quashed an impromptu fake punt attempt. The real star was Ray-Ray McCloud, whose 57 yard punt return gave the Steelers an easy score inside the 2 minute warning. That’s 9 points score by special teams and another 6 directly set up by special teams. Excellent. Grade: A

Ray-Ray McCloud

Ray-Ray McCloud (almost) takes it to the house. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Coaching
Randy Fichtner’s offense did what it had not done in 24 games, score a touchdown on its opening drive. This immediately knocked the Titans off of their game, which is to ride Henry from ahead. The Steelers offense authored drives of 9, 7 and 7 and a half minutes.

Keith Butler was forced to play without two critical players, in Mike Hilton and Devin Bush, and knew his run defense would be tested by the NFL’s best rusher. The Steelers defense proved to be up to the task, and their early shut downs of the Titans offense were critical to establish and padding a lead which would become quite slim by the end of the afternoon.

  • It is true that Butler’s defense did suffers its share of hiccups, on the long pass play and the goal line, but they delivered.

When a team is on the road, goes negative 3 in the turnover category, gives up a 70 yard touchdown pass and STILL wins to remain undefeated, you suspect the coaching staff is doing something right. But when that team’s players exit the game with a humble, rather than triumphant attitude you simply have to credit head coach Mike Tomlin. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
OK. We’ve given the coaches their due. But there’s another reason why a team can turn the ball over so many times, give up long touchdowns and still win. It’s because of plays like this:

Sure, the Titan’s scored two plays later. It doesn’t matter. Good things happen to teams who see their heretofore no-names take on NFL All Pros head on and win and for that Robert Spillane wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Titans.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Texans – DeCastro Makes a Difference Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is please to see his students stepping it up homework gets tougher, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2020 Watt Bowl win over the Texans at Heinz Field.

Eric Ebron, Steelers vs Texans

Eric Ebron goes up to catch a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger continued to look sharp in his third game back throwing 36 passes for 23 completions for 237 yards two touchdowns and no interceptions. Those are pretty good numbers and Roethlisberger suffered several drops. He also struggled to connect with wideouts on deep patterns, which isn’t entirely his fault. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had his 2nd 100 yard game in as many weeks and this time it hinge on one long burst. He also caught four passes for 40 yards. Anthony McFarland Jr. got his first action and provided the perfect change of pace. Benny Snell Jr. was back and held on to the ball. His stat line isn’t impressive, but his third down conversion was critical. Jaylen Samuels ran once for 1 yard. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Last week we noted that Eric Ebron was developing a rapport with Ben Roethlisberger and this week the duo took a step forward as Ebron led the team in receptions and made an end zone play to secure a touchdown. Vance McDonald was more active in the passing game, making a crucial 3rd down conversion and making a difference in the blocking game. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster led all receivers with 4 catches for 43 yards, including a walk off touchdown. That’s not impressive, but he also secured a 2 point conversion. James Washington was next with 5 catches for a very economical 36 yards. Diontae Johnson was targeted twice with zero catches and had one reverse for 8 yards.

James Conner, Steelers vs Texans

James Conner scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Chase Claypool had a mixed day. On the one hand, he failed to catch some catchable balls and he fumbled the ball away. On the other hand, he made a crucial 3rd down conversion and drew a pass interference call. Receivers are doing OK on short and medium routes but struggling on long ones. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
David DeCastro made his return and the difference was obvious as the Steelers collective rushing average was 4.4 yards per carry and Ben Roethlisberger was only hit 4 times. The telling stat line of the Watt Bowl was J.J. Watt’s – 1 solo tackle and 4 assists. The Texans chose to keep Watt lined up across from  Chukwuma Okorafor, and the first year starter proved to be up to the task. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward, who has been a veritable house of fire this season, had a quiet game as the Texans double teamed him all day. For this strategy to be effective, you must contain Stephon Tuitt. They couldn’t as Tuitt had 4 tackles, 4 QB hits and a key third down sack. Tyson Alualu continued his stout play up the middle as the Texans averaged 1.9 yards a carry. Grade: A

Linebackers
T.J. Watt led linebackers in tackles, had a tackle for a loss, 4 QB hits and a critical sack on the Texan’s final possession – making the Watt Bowl one of his quieter games of the season, until you factor in that his sack came on the Texan’s final possession.… Bud Dupree had a sack and a half plus two more QB hits. Devin Bush had an outstanding pass break up in the end zone while splitting a sack. Alex Highsmith saw enough spot duty to get a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: A-

Devin Bush, Darren Fells, Steelers vs Texans

Devin Bush breaks up a touchdown pass intended for Darren Fells. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Secondary
It was a tale of two halves for the Steelers pass defense. During the first half Deshaun Watson picked Pittsburgh apart. During the second half the Steelers defense completely shut him down. The only drive in the second half that didn’t end in a punt for Houston was the one that Mike Hilton ended with an interception. Minka Fitzpatrick led the unit in tackles and Joe Haden got a hand on a ball he perhaps should have caught. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Dustin Colquitt had his best day punting on the year, for those of you who keep track. The Steelers punt and kick coverage was exceptionally strong. Ray-Ray McCloud did well on both kick and punt returns while Diontae Johnson fair caught a punt he probably should have let bounce into the end zone. Chris Boswell was 2-2 on field goals and 2-2 on extra points. Grade: B

Coaching

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

Randy Fichtner has an diverse arsenal of weapons at his disposal and with each week he’s attempting to make the Steelers offense more versatile. For the moment, the deep passing game remains a sore spot, but the Steelers are pretty effective in the short-and-medium range game, and against the Texans they ran the ball effectively.

Keith Butler’s defense has some issues in the first half, allowing as many touchdown drives as they forced punts. But credit “The Butler” (and Tomlin) for making the necessary half time adjustments to pressure Deshaun Watson while keeping him contained and completely smothering the run.

  • Mike Tomlin took the Steelers 2-0 start to the season in stride, acknowledging both the victories and areas that needed improvement.

He took that same attitude into this game, and his locker room followed his example. To use Tomlin’s words, “There was no blink in this group.” Most importantly, on two separate occasions during the Steelers final possession Tomlin remained aggressive when he could have played it safe and in both cases his players delivered. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers defense started slow in the second half, as noted above. There was one player who was full speed from the get go who started off one series with the first sack of Watson and then began another by dropping David Johnson for a loss, and for those efforts Vince Williams wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Texans.

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James Washington and Jaylen Samuels Added to Steelers COVID-19 List. 8 Other Cut

Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 “training camp” isn’t a week old yet, but two more players have been placed on the leagues COVID-19 reserve list – James Washington and Jaylen Samuels. The offensive duo joins cornerback Justin Layne, a third round pick from the 2019 NFL Draft. Aaron Springs, a fellow defensive back, was already on the list.

James Washington, Jaylen Samuels, Steelers COVID-19 List

Happier times. James Washington and Jaylen Samuels celebrate during the 2019 preseason. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The NFL instituted the COVID-19 reserve list in response to the pandemic. Being put on the list does not necessarily mean a player has tested positive for COVID-19, it can also mean that they’ve been in contact with someone else who has tested positive for the virus.

  • The NFL’s COVID-19 list contains asymptomatic and symptomatic designations.

Asymptomatic players are able to come off the list 10 days after their first positive test OR 5 days have passed since their first positive test AND two consecutive negative tests are completed separated by 24 hours within a five-day period.

  • All returns must be approved by a team’s physician whom must consult with ICS and NFL’s chief medical officer.

Symptomatic players must see 10 days pass after their first COVID-19 symptom and must have a full 72 hours pass since their last symptoms last occurred. Their return must be approved by their team’s doctor in concert with both the ICS and the NFL’s chief medical officer.

  • On top of that, local regulations and requirements are satisfied.

The health and safety of the players impacted must be of paramount concern, and it is Steel Curtain Rising’s sincere concern that James Washington and Jaylen Samules, (and Justin Layne and Aaron Springs for that matter) remain COVID free and return to the practice field in full health at Heinz Field.

  • But even in the pre-COVID era, attrition formed a fundamental part of football.

Put in simple English, injuries are part of the game. In that light, James Washington’s absence shouldn’t impact the Steelers wide receiver corps much. JuJu Smith-Schuster remains the leader, with Diontae Johnson returning to build on his strong rookie year. Chase Claypool, the Steelers 2nd round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft will perhaps get a few more reps, but he was always going to make the team.

Potentially, Dion Cain could benefit (as could Ryan Switzer), but a best-case scenario would see James Washington returning to the Steelers roster before padded practices start on August 17th.

  • Jaylen Samuels situation is a bit more complicated.

James Conners and Benny Snell Jr. are roster locks, and Anthony McFarland Jr.’s status as this year’s 4th round picks doesn’t give him a lock on a roster spot, but a slot is basically his to lose. The Steelers also like Kerrith Whyte.

  • For the past several seasons the Steelers have kept 3 running backs plus a fullback.

Even prior to landing on the COVID-19 reserve list Jaylen Samuels was going to need to fight for a roster spot. Now that fight just got more difficult.

Henderson Leads Steelers Cuts

To meet the NFL’s 80 man roster limit the Steelers cut 8 players, including:

Quarterback, J.T. Barrett
Running Back, Ralph Webb
Wide Receiver, Quadree Henderson
Offensive Line, Christian Montani
Linebacker and Long Snapper Christian Kuntz
Linebacker, Dewayne Hendrix
Safety, Tyree Kinnell
Defensive End, Josiah Coatney

While it is no surprise, J.T. Barrett’s departure ends any speculation that he had a shot at competing with Paxton Lynch and Devlin Hodges for the third slot behind Mason Rudolph and Ben Roethlisberger.

Of the rest of the cuts Quadree Henderson is the most prominent. The Pitt graduate spent the summer of 2018 with the Steelers and turned in an strong preseason effort, but that wasn’t enough to land him a roster spot.

From there he spent time with the Giants, Jets, Jaguars and Panthers before returning to Pittsburgh last winter via the practice squad.

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Second Guessing Steelers Picks of Chase Claypool and Alex Highsmith? Join the Club

Every year, the Steelers draft players in the second and third rounds, and every year, the most audible reaction in Steelers Nation tends to be something along the lines of, “Why did they pass on that other guy?”

The second and third rounds of the NFL Draft are always the best places for those sort of reactions from the fans and media because so many prospects — known names — who were projected for months to go in the first round wind up sliding down the draft board.

Chase Claypool, Steelers 2nd round pick 2020

Chase Claypool scores a touchdown in the Camping World Bowl. Photo Credit: Stephen M. Dowell, Orlando Sentinel via AP

Considering the Steelers first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft wouldn’t come until midway through the second round (49th, overall), the reactions figured to be more pronounced and audible this year than usual.

Sure enough, not long after the Steelers made Chase Claypool, the big, fast and strong Notre Dame receiver, their first pick on Friday, objections immediately began to pop up all over social media to the tune of:

  • Why not Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins, who went six picks later to the AFC North-rival Ravens?
  • Why not Baylor receiver Denzel Mims, who went 10 picks later to the Jets?
  • Why not an offensive lineman? How about that depth at outside linebacker?

Speaking of outside linebackers, who’s this Alex Highsmith kid the Steelers drafted in the third round? A former walk-on from Charlotte, a program that didn’t begin to play FBS football until the previous decade? Sure, he dominated the competition in the Conference USA. Sure, he was voted First-Team All-Conference in both 2018 and 2019. But he seems raw. He needs work.

  • Is he going to ultimately replace Bud Dupree in the starting lineup?

Furthermore, will receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster get a second contract after this year? How about running back James Conner? And what about the depth along the offensive line? For that matter, what about the starters along the offensive line? They’re getting a little long in the tooth, aren’t they?

While we’re at it, what about the depth at safety? What about that starter at safety? I’m talking about strong safety Terrell Edmunds, the 2018 first-round pick who hasn’t really made his mark despite two-full years as a starter?

That’s the thing about the Steelers 2020 NFL Draft. They entered it with many questions and few draft picks (only two picks in the first 102 selections) to try and answer them.

  • And that’s why they weren’t going to please everyone.

All they could do was use their first two picks to address specific needs with specific players and do so without reaching.

Did they? We obviously can’t answer that question yet. But, again, NFL Draft history is filled with “Why not draft that other guy?” reactions. It’s also filled with “sure thing” prospects who busted out (Huey Richardson anyone?) and unknown prospects who made it big (ever heard of Brett Keisel?)

It’s easy to say the Steelers added a player to a position of strength — wide receiver. But you could have also said that about running back, a position that includes a former Pro Bowl player in Conner, as well as Jaylen Samuels (fifth round, 2018) and Benny Snell Jr. (fourth round, 2019).

It’s easy to say the Steelers neglected their offensive line with their first two selections, but you can also say Chukwuma Okorafor (third round, 2018) and Zach Banner (fourth round, 2017) are fairly high-end tackle prospects.

Perhaps if the Steelers had more draft capital this season — instead of having just six picks, total — they could address more needs at more positions.

  • But it’s like that old saying: You’ve got to give in order to get.

The Steelers have parted with some premium draft capital over the past year in order to acquire players to help bolster their defense. During last year’s draft, Pittsburgh sent its 2019 first and second-round picks, along with a third-round pick in 2020, to the Broncos and moved into the 10th spot of the first round. With that pick, the Steelers selected Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush.

Last September, the Steelers sent their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins for the services of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Both players fit nicely into the middle of a defense that quickly ascended up the ladder to the top of the league in yards, points, sacks and takeaways.

Maybe the Steelers should have held onto all of that draft capital and taken their chances with other prospects.

  • Would it have worked out? It’s hard to say, but it’s working out right now with the players they got.

It’s seems kind of corny and a little silly for fans to say things like, “With the 18th pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select safety Minkah Fitzpatrick…..” but, in a way, it’s actually true. Not only is Fitzpatrick still young — he’s entering just his third NFL season –h e’s already emerged as one of the best safeties in the game. Therefore, it’s easy to say the Steelers really did acquire their 2020 first-round pick last September.

  • The only problem with that is dealing with restless fans on draft day.

The Steelers could only do so much with their first two picks in the 2020 NFL Draft. Did they get it right? It’s impossible to say. But they’re currently no more right or wrong than anyone else.

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Steelers 2020 Running Back Draft Needs – How High of a Priority for Pittsburgh

With the Pittsburgh Steelers first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft not coming until the second round (49th, overall), and with the team only having six picks, total, the focus will have to be quality over quantity. But where does running back sit on the pecking order for Pittsburgh as it prepares for a 2020 NFL Draft that could prove to be pivotal as it pertains to the upcoming regular season?

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starter

After a bittersweet first three seasons that included injuries and a Pro Bowl nod, James Conner is entering the final year of his rookie contract.

  • Conner’s rookie season was relatively nondescript and was ultimately snuffed out by a torn MCL.

However, his sophomore campaign got off to a very promising start, as he opened up 2018 as the starter in place of Le’Veon Bell, who ultimately held out the entire season. Fortunately for the Steelers, Conner put up some very Bell-like numbers, rushing for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns and tallied another 497 yards and a score on 55 receptions.

  • Unfortunately, Conner’s season was beset by injuries, and he missed three games down the stretch.

A season ago, with the Steelers offense struggling to remain afloat amid the absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Conner missed a total of six games and only tallied 464 yards on the ground.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Backups

Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round pick out of NC State in 2018, showed some promise in his rookie season while filling in for Conner late in the year. He only rushed for 256 yards, but 142 of them came in a critical Week 15 win over the Patriots at Heinz Field.

Jaylen Samuels took on a somewhat larger role in 2019 and acted as a bit of a security blanket as an outlet receiver out of the backfield for young quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. Samuels also often manned the quarterback position in the Wildcat formation employed by offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner to offset the absence of Roethlisberger.

  • But while Samuels caught 47 passes, he only tallied 305 yards, while adding just 175 on the ground.

Benny Snell Jr., Pittsburgh’s fourth-round pick from a year ago, had a bit of a slow start to his rookie season, before coming on fairly strong at the end.

Benny Snell started two games late in the season — including a 98-yard performance in his first start against the Bengals on November 24 — and finished the season with 426 yards on the ground. 

The Steelers 2020 Running back Draft Needs

To reiterate, James Conner is entering the final year of his rookie deal.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • When he’s on, Conner has proven to be good-to-often great.

The problem has been the injury bug, something that likely won’t get better with age and more wear and tear. With the shelf-life for most running backs–even All Pros–proving to be so short in recent years, would it make any sense to offer Conner a second contract and a substantial raise?

As for Jaylen Samuels, he is probably best suited for the Swiss Army Knife role he came into the league with–running back/receiver/tight end–and not so much as a workhorse running back.

Snell Jr., who was very productive at Kentucky, is an intriguing unknown and could possibly thrive in a workhorse role.

Kerrith Whyte Jr., a player Pittsburgh signed from the Bears practice squad late in the year, is another intriguing player, complete with speed and shifty moves.

However, is Snell or Whyte intriguing enough not to address the running back position with a premium selection? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s the Steelers top priority heading into the 2020 NFL Draft and can only be considered High.

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