Steelers Report Card for the 2023 Season – Glad the Grading is Over Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is glad to be done with grading for a while, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 season.

T.J. Watt, Jake Browning, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jake Browning. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
Both Kenny Pickett and Mitch Trubisky disappointed. Kenny Pickett not only failed to make the “second year leap” he posted some historically anemic passing numbers. Trubisky had multiple chances both as a reliever and a starter to show why he belongs in this game, and he squandered them. The difference is Trubisky turned over the ball, Pickett did not. Mason Rudolph in contrast, elevated the entire offense. IT was a different unit with him on the field. And his performance pulls the group’s grade up. Grade: C+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren entered uncharted territory for the franchise this year, becoming the only 2 running backs to get a carry (although Anthony McFarland did catch 2 passes in the opener.) Both men earned over 1000 yards from scrimmage, with Najee Harris rushing for 1035 yards – his third consecutive 1000 yard season. We saw as the season progressed, the running backs were capable when they had the blocking. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth got hurt in the opener and then played through injuries for the first several weeks until missing several games in the middle of the season. His effectiveness was limited, but he did come on late. Darnell Washington did a respectable job for a rookie. Connor Heyward was a quality role player and his presence as a blocker was notable late in the season. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
The Steelers wideouts had their ups and downs. George Pickens flashed early in the season, but struggled in the number one role. His attitude came into question, but he closed the year with a bang. Diontae Johnson was injured early in the season, and took some time to find his stride. Calvin Austin flashed on a few plays, but otherwise was a non-factor. Allen Robinson served as a serviceable slot receiver. Myles Boykin didn’t see much action outside of special teams. Grade: B

Offensive Line
This unit was easily the biggest disappointment for the first half of the season. Pass blocking was poor and run blocking appeared to be non-existent at times. The change began when Broderick Jones entered the starting lineup. However, the rest of the line improve, particularly as Isaac Seumalo got his legs under him. The improvement was important, but the difficulty the Steelers had running the ball against Buffalo shows that this group has a long way to go. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
This group got a taste of what life could be like after Cam Heyward, and at times that was pretty scary. Early in the year it looked as if the Steelers run defense might revert to 2021 form. However, the unit improved as Keeanu Benton worked his way into the line up. Still, it would be nice to call out a few other up and comers. Grade: B-

Alex Highsmith, Steelers vs Browns, Alex Highsmith interception

Alex Highsmith intercepts Deshaun Watson out of the gate. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Linebackers
T.J. Watt authored another Defensive Player of the year worthy performance. Watt proved time and time again he is a generational talent capable of altering the course of a game by himself. Alex Highsmith’s numbers were down a bit from his previous year, but Highsmith delivered, as did outside linebacking backups Markus Golden and Nick Herbig. At inside linebacker, it took a while to jell, but the Steelers had quite a troika there in Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander. Then of course Holcomb and Alexander got hurt, as did Roberts, forcing the Steelers to look to the street for replacements. Those guys did well enough, but the absence of the starters was significant. Grade: B+

Secondary
When the Steelers opened against San Francisco, Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace were the starting corners, with Minkah Fitzpatrick, Damontae Kazee and safety Keanu Neal formed a troika while Eric Rowe sat on the Carolina Panthers practice squad. When the Steelers closed at Baltimore, Joey Porter Jr. was a starting corner, Levi Wallace was back as a starter as Patrick Peterson was playing safety alongside Eric Rowe. Yes, this unit weathered a lot of adversity. And while their numbers might not have been flashy, they had as big a part of keeping the Steelers in games as did any other unit on the defense. Grade: B

Miles Killebrew, Steelers vs Patriots

Miles Killebrew blocks his second punt of the season. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Special Teams
Miles Killebrew was a one man wrecking crew blocking 2 punts during the season. Calvin Austin may not have done much as a receiver, but he proved to be a good punt returner. Godwin Igwebuike proved to be a solid kick returner with “upside.” Steelers kick coverage could have been better at times, but it was never a liability. Pressley Harvin’s punting was inconsistent, and that brings the group’s grade down. Grade: B+

Coaching
The Steelers coaches’ score card for 2023 contains ugly, bad and good.

The ugly stems from the ill-fated decision to retain Matt Canada. None of the progress evident during the final half of the 2022 season was evident in 2023. Instead, the Steelers fielded one of the most anemic offensive efforts franchise history. Three and outs became the norm. The Steelers failed to establish the running game and Kenny Pickett did not progress.

For as disappointing as Kenny Pickett’s failure to make the “second year leap” was, the Steelers worst stretch of the season came when Kenny Pickett was out. Mitch Trubisky showed a lot of leadership, looked in command on the field, but he ultimately failed to rally the team in relief of Pickett and floundered in his first two starts.

  • Mike Tomlin had treated Mason Rudolph as a “nice to have” and he should have given him stronger consideration sooner.

The Steelers defense had its struggles early on too. But as the troika of inside linebackers found their stride, the unit perked up. Then they started to get hurt. Many Steelers fans question why Mike Tomlin extended Teryl Austin for two more years.

They should not. Austin’s defense may never have broached shut down level, but it displayed an uncanny knack for delivering big plays at critical moments. This continued throughout the season, despite the fact that Austin had to rebuild the middle of his defense, almost on a weekly basis.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

Mike Tomlin on the sidelines. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

If Mike Tomlin deserves criticism for retaining Canada and the horrid 10 quarter stretch that followed Pickett’s injury – and he does – he also earns credit. When the bottom falls out on and NFL team late in the season like that, free fall generally ensues.

Mike Tomlin made sure the opposite happened, defying the odds and landing his team in the playoffs, where they made a spirited run at a Super Bowl favorite. Grade: C+

Front Office
The improvement of the Steelers in 2023 can be tied, in many respects, directly to integration of its rookie class into the starting line ups. Omar Khan and Andy Wedil’s first draft won accolades.

That was nice, but the Steelers 2023 draft class helped the team win games, which is far more important.

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals,

Chris Boswell boots it. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger

The front offense proved to be quick on its feet, as the Steelers found themselves cycling through street free agents at safety and inside linebacker. Likewise the free agents Khan brought to Pittsburgh also accounted itself well. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers offense had trouble scoring for most of the year. At times it had difficulty doing anything right. But there was one player who could be counted on to score when his number was called, and he delivered 56 times out of 59 and for that Mr. Automatic Chris Boswell wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2023 season.

 

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Steelers Report Card for AFC Wildcard Loss to Bills: Effort Isn’t Enough Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who hopes his students learned that “effort isn’t enough,” here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Wildcard loss to the Bills at Highmark Stadium.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Khalil Shakir, Steelers vs Bills, Steelers Bills AFC Wildcard 2023

It looks like Minkah Fitzpatrick has Khalil Shakir. But he doesn’t. (Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Mason Rudolph went 22 of 39 for 229 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. That interception was costly, as it took at least three points off the board for the Steelers. But Rudolph showed poise in keeping the Steelers in the game, passing for 14 first downs. Overall Rudolph’s first playoff start was “good” but the Steelers needed him to be mistake free. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
This is one instance were the “Eye test” fails. Once the Steelers offense got going, it seemed like both Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren ran pretty well. Their numbers suggest something a little different as neither man cracked 40 yards, although Warren’s 4.8 average was impressive. Both men had two catches, helping in the passing game. Still, the Steelers needed more from their running backs. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth led the Steelers with 5 receptions but he escaped disaster with a fumble that was ruled out of bounds. Connor Heyward had 1 catch for 5 yards. Darnell Washington was targeted once but did not have a catch, and committed two false start penalties when the Steelers could ill afford them. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
George Pickens had 5 catches for 50 yards and Diontae Johnson was close behind with 5 for 48 and a touchdown. Allen Robinson had 2 catches for 12 yards. Calvin Austin had 1 catch for 7 yards, but it was a touchdown. The wide receivers deserve credit for getting the Steelers back in the game, but George Pickens’ fumble helped put the Steelers in a deep hole. Grade: C

Offensive Line
The offensive line did an nice job of keeping Mason Rudolph upright, as he only suffered one sack and was hit just three other times. However, the run blocking lagged. Certainly it was better than what we saw early in the season, but it wasn’t playoff caliber. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
The Bills ran the ball efficiently, and they were very effecint when Cam Heyward was out of the lineup. Keeanu Benton is going to be a very good player for the Steelers one day, but he wasn’t a difference maker in his first playoff game. Grade: D

Linebackers
It wasn’t the same unit without T.J. Watt. Sure, Alex Highsmith and Markus Golden had sacks, but overall Josh Allen had time to throw. And the Bills tight ends tormented the Steelers during the first half. Myles Jack’s penalties hurt the Steelers at the worst possible time. Grade: D

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick provided a bit of a boost early in the game, but he missed on Khalil Shakir’s touchdown (so did several others.) The game was more about plays the secondary didn’t make. Patrick Peterson didn’t sack Josh Allen, he got close. Eric Rowe didn’t get an interception that could have changed the game, instead he only got close. Levi Wallace and Damontae Kazee didn’t tackle Josh Allen on his touchdown scrable, they got close. See a trend? Close isn’t good enough. Grade: D

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect, kicking in difficult conditions. Nick Herbig recovered a blocked field goal that got the Steelers into the game. Calvin Austin had a good punt return that set up a field goal. But Pressley Harvin’s punts were pathetic. That hardly spelled the difference in this game, but the Steelers needed every edge they could get and their punting game didn’t deliver. Grade: B-

Coaching
This is a bit of a glass-half full or glass-half empty situation.

The Bills were ready for the Steelers at the start of the game. For much of the first half, the Steelers offense looked as inept as it has all year long. On defense Buffalo’s tight ends terrorized the Steelers.

But the offense put 17 points on the board and should have had at least three more, and the defense held their own, keeping it close until the deep into the fourth quarter.

The Steelers could have folded at any number of points, but they never blinked. Mike Tomlin’s players fought for every blade of grass, even if they lost a few too many of those fights. Grade: C

Steelers vs Bills, Steelers vs Bills 2023 AFC wildcard

The Bills attempt a field goal. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
It was the biggest play of the game for the Steelers. Easily. Yet, after it happened its author got zero air time nor is there memory of the commentators even mention his name. No one, not even the Steelers team photographer got a picture of the moment, let alone its star. You have to dig deeply into the stat sheet to found out how did it, but did it he do, and for that Montravius Adams wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Pittsburgh Steelers AFC Wildcard loss to the Buffalo Bills.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Cardinals: James Connor Homecoming Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is focusing on the homecoming of a former student after a wet and ugly loss, here the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 loss to the Cardinals at Acrisure.

James Conner, Steelers vs Cardinals

James Connor rushes for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett’s numbers of 7 of 10 for 70 yards are solid and he did start the game strong, but 2 of his three incompletions came on third down including one in the Red Zone. Mitch Trubisky was 11 of 17 for 117 yards and a garbage time touchdown, but the Steelers were still 4-11 on third downs. Grade: C-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran for 63 yards on 16 carries and Jaylen Warren ran for 59 on 9. Both enjoyed some long runs but neither man got into a rhythm. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth had 3 catches on 12 targets for 29 yards. Connor Heyward had zero catches on 2 yards. Darnell Washington didn’t get a target, but then again, the answer to what ails the Steelers offense clearly isn’t to force-feed the tight ends. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
George Pickens had a solid game with a deep catch to open things up and a few difficult ones on the sideline finishing the day at 4 for 86. Diontae Johnson also had 4 catches for 33 yards including a touchdown where he channeled his inner Bobby Shaw. Calvin Austin had 3 catches for 19 yards – so much for taking the top off the defense, while 3 catches for 19 yards. Grade: C

Offensive Line
Mason Cole had at least 3 bad snaps, one of which helped scuttle a drive that started with promise another which caused a turnover. Unacceptable. Overall the Steelers run blocking wasn’t enough to take advantage of the Cardinals weak run defense. Nor was pass protection particularly tight. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Keeanu Benton had a tipped pass as did Larry Ogunjobi. The defensive began the day stuffing the run. That changed as the day progressed. Grade: D

Linebackers
Again, early in the day it looked like T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith were going to feast on Kyler Murray and the Cardinals running backs. However as the day wore on the opposite happened. Losing Elandon Roberts hurt. With Mykal Walker and Mark Robinson on the field the Steelers were down to their 4th and 5th string tight ends. But we don’t grade on a curve and the Cardinals carved up the middle of the Steelers defense. Grade: F

Secondary
Joey Porter Jr. committed a pass interference penalty in the end zone on a third and 8 incompletion. The Cardinals scored a touchdown. The Cardinals were 10 of 17 on third down conversions and Minkah Fitzpatrick still managed to lead the unit in tackles despite being out for part of the game due to a broken hand. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed a field goal. Miles Killebrew was flagged 3 times on punt returns, the last of which set up the Cardinals final touchdown. Calvin Austin did have an 11-yard punt return, but that’s not enough to bring this group’s grade up. Grade: F

Coaching
So firing Matt Canada in season wasn’t a panacea. To quote Myron Cope, “Whoever would have thunk?”

The Steelers offense got off to a good start, but then couldn’t finish in the Red Zone. When it couldn’t get into the end zone through the air the first time, it tried and failed again on the ground. Pass protection was weak, bone headed penalties cost the team a couple of first down conversions and the offense lacked “coordination” as it had under Canada.

The performance of Teryl Austin’s defense performed in direct proportion to the presence of Elandon Roberts on the field. With him they were good. Without him they were terrible.

  • Austin couldn’t make the adjustment.

One might say, “Oh, it’s too harsh to throw all that onto a coach who is down to his 4th and 5th string inside linebackers.” Yeah, right. Bill Belichick might be down, but you’d better believe he’s licking his chops thinking of ways he can jumpstart his offense by exploiting the middle of the field.

Trap games tripped up Mike Tomlin’s teams throughout the Ben Roethlisberger era. Some suggested, with some merit, that this was in part due to Roethlisberger being an “adrenaline junkie.” Well, Ben’s been gone for two years. Can’t blame this one on him. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Deciding on an “Unsung Hero” after an awful, ugly game like this is a challenge. So today we think outside the box. Sunday’s lost might have been a bad day for the Steelers, but it was a good one for Pittsburgh football, as Western Pennsylvania native and Pitt Panthers alumni made his home coming to the Steel City to the tune 105 yards on 25 carries in an afternoon that saw him get better with each carry, and for that James Conner wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers loss to the Cardinals at Acrisure Stadium.

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Ugly Afternoon @ Acrisure as Steelers Choke, Losing 24-10 to the Cardinals

After an ugly afternoon of football at Acrisure Stadium the Pittsburgh Steelers dropped a 24-10 decision to the Arizona Cardinals.

  • After the game Mike Tomlin declared “That was a horrible day at the office.”

Tomlin hit the nail on the head. The Cardinals arrived in Pittsburgh as a 2-10 team that hadn’t won on the road in close to a year. The Steelers were 7-4 and in the thick of the AFC North race.

Yet the Steelers suffered an ugly loss because they failed to heed the lessons that carried them through several ugly wins this season: Win the weighty downs, don’t turn over the ball and above all else, don’t lose the game.

Kenny Pickett, Johnathan Ledbetter

Kenny Pickett scrambles for the end zone in vain. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

What Went Right (no, that’s not a misprint)

With the New England Patriots coming to town in just four days, the Steelers don’t have the luxury of self-pity. (They also may not have the luxury of letting injuries heal, but we’ll get to that later.) Nor should they seek comfort in silver linings.

But if that’s true, its also true that the Steelers started the game by doing a lot of things right.

In just three plays the Steelers were at the Arizona 11, and then there came a big “BUT.” But before we get to that “BUT” let’s move on to other things that went right.

T.J. Watt and Larry Ogunjobi opened by stuffing James Conner for no gain, setting up a quick three and out. On Arizona’s next possession it fell to Watt and Keeanu Benton to stuff Conner for no gain in a drive that saw the Cardianls settle for 51 yard field goal.

Arizona’s next possession ended with a three and out in large part to Alex Highsmith’s sack of Kyler Murray. After a Steelers three and out, it fell to Nick Herbig to stuff Connor and T.J. Watt to drop Murray for a loss.

The Steelers got the ball back and went on a 12 play, 79 yard drive that consumed nearly 8 minutes of clock time. In truth this drive contained much of what had been missing on Matt Canada’s watch.

  • The Steelers made 4 first downs.
  • Both Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris ripped of double-digit runs
  • They also made shorter runs to set up manageable 3rd downs
  • Pat Freiermuth converted one of those with George Pickens picking up another through the air.

The Arizona Cardinals 1 yards line lie at the end of those 79 yards, where the next big “BUT” reared its ugly head.

About Those “BUTS”

The success of the Steelers first three plays was almost uncanny. In the blink of an eye, Kenny Pickett and company was just 16 yards away from an opening drive touchdown. Once there Najee Harris ran for 5 only to see Pickett fail to connect on his next two passes, bring up a Chris Boswell field goal.

On that second, picture perfect drive, the Steelers tried four times to punch starting from the Arizona 7, but couldn’t make it into the end zone.

  • Pittsburgh left 11 points on the field on those two drives along.
  • Chris Boswell missed a field goal in the second half.
  • Make that 14 points the Steelers left on the field.

It is tempting to conclude “You can’t leave points on the field like that and expect to win in the National Football League.” Which is generally true. But we’ve seen the Steelers win in spite of their offense for most of the season. But against the Cardinals, something else was different.

Back to Ball Security

The Steelers defense opened the second half down 10 to 3 after having given up a 99 yard touchdown drive to close the first half. The Black and Gold’s response was to force an Arizona three and out.

Pittsburgh’s rebound was short-lived as 7 plays later Mason Cole wobbled a snap to Mitch Trubisky’s shoe laces and the Cardinals recovered. Unlike Pittsburgh, Arizona was able to convert in the Red Zone and put the Cardinals up 17 to 3.

Giving up that touchdown might not have ended it for the Steelers, but Boswell’s missed field goal came on Pittsburgh’s next possession and his miss effectively ended things.

Another Twist in a Long, Strange Season

Two weeks ago the Steelers loss of a winnable game in Cleveland carried ominous overtones. Mike Tomlin reacted by firing Matt Canada, and last week it felt like the team had turned a corner in Cincinnati. Instead they dropped a game, at home to one of the league’s worst teams.

What to make of it? Well, there are a couple of things:

  • This Steelers team really has no margin for error as it lacks the talent to overcome mistakes.
  • Injuries may not be an excuse, but they are an explanation.

Seriously.

The Steelers did everything they could give this game to the Cardinals, including 2 illegal formation penalties that negated first downs, a pass interference penalty in the end zone on a 3rd and 8 incompletion, in addition to twin personal fouls on punt returns and a too many men on the field — after a time out.

The Steelers defense started the game shutting down the Cardinals in stunning fashion but ended up unable to stop them at critical points. But by that point an inside linebacking corps that had lost Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander had also lost the services of Elandon Roberts, who’d arguably been the defense’s MVP over the last several games.

And on offense the Steelers lost Kenny Pickett and Isaac Seumalo just before half time. And Minkah Fitzpatrick broke his hand during the first half (but was able to return).

  • Yet, for all of that, had the Steelers not left 14 points on the field they’d have scored enough to tie the game.

This reality excuses nothing. But it reminds us that the Steelers stole a couple of wins early in the season by taking advantage of other teams’ mistakes. Now they’ve had one stolen from them in the same fashion.

Mike Tomlin and company have 3 days to figure out how to prevent the Patriots and Bill Belichick to be the next to benefit from the law of averages. They have their work cut out for them.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Browns: Nightmares Like its 1999 Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher worrying that he hasn’t seen a quarterbacking nightmare like this since 1999, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 road loss to the Browns.

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Browns

Too high! Diontae Johnson reaches for a poorly thrown pass. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett went 15 of 28 for 106 yards. In this case “…at least he didn’t turn over the ball eh” does not apply. Pickett inaccurate and especially so on third downs. The lion’s share of his 15 completions were safe, check down route. The Steelers haven’t seen type of timid, 3 yard passing plays since the days for Kordell Stewart in 1999. Grade: Fsteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2018season

Running Backs
Jaylen Warren ran for 129 yards, and while the biggest chunk of that came on his 74 yard explosion, he had several other good runs. Najee Harris had 35 yards on 12 carries, with half of that coming on one carry. The Steelers could not afford “Sludge Ball” when Harris was carrying, but that’s what they got. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth’s much ballyhooed return resulted in one catch for 7 yards. Darnell Washington had a catch for 8. It wasn’t that the tight ends were necessarily bad, but they weren’t an asset. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
George Pickens led the team with 4 catches for 38 yards. Again this is not a misprint of a Charles Lockett stat line from the 1980s. Allen Robinson was next with 3 catches for 20 yards. Diontae Johnson had 2 catches for 16 yards and was misaligned with Pickett on another play. He’s now claiming on social media that he ran the right route and openly griping in the locker room. Ouch. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was only sacked 3 times, but the first one set the tone for the game (and should have been a safety) the second one came on third down, and the final one helped force a field goal when a touchdown would have given the Steelers the lead. He was only hit 4 other times, but he was under pressure for much of the game. The run blocking was good at times. Run blocking took a step back. Sometimes holes were there, other times both Warren and Harris were either getting hit behind the line of scrimmage or met walls when they got there. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Steelers limited the Browns running backs to sludge ball of their own with Cam Heyward and Keeanu Benton making their presence known. More pressure on Dorian Thompson-Robinson would have been nice. Grade: B

Linebackers
Elandon Roberts stepped up in the absence of the other two members of the starting troika and led the team with 15 tackles including 2 for losses. T.J. Watt only had one sack but that helped get the ball back for the Steelers in a tie game. Mykal Walker didn’t stand out in his first start, which is good. Grade: B

Secondary
Joey Porter Jr. and Patrick Peterson both had tipped passes while Chandon Sullivan had two with Sullivan coming down with a very difficult interception. Damontae Kazee looked solid. The Browns were 4-17 on third down conversions – worse than the Steelers, if you’ll believe. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect, Calvin Austin was strong as a punt returner, Pressley Harvin had one bad one that went off the side of his foot, but other than that was strong. Punt coverage was a little leaky. Grade: B-

Coaching
The Steelers came into the week starting a raft of practice squanders on defense, and at times early in the game that was painfully obvious. However, once the Steelers defense settled down, they started making Dorian Thompson-Robinson look like a rookie.

One can criticize Teryl Austin’s group for giving up the final field goal drive, but with the game tied the defense delivered the ball to the offense twice in the game’s final six minutes.

  • The Steelers offense, outside of the play of Jaylen Warren, was an unmitigated disaster.

Pressley Harvin punted four times in the first half alone. And if the touchdown to open the second half was good, And although a touchdown to open the second half was nice, it is yet another case of Matt Canada’s offense being able to drop an random a pure big play into a bucket full of raw sewage.

If it is true that Kenny Pickett NEEDED to make some of those passes with the game on the line why wasn’t Jaylen Warren given a carry at clutch time when the Steelers needed to both move the ball and get a score?

Worse yet, sniping started almost immediately in the locker room after the game. Mike Tomlin needs to fix this. Fast. Grade: F

Trenton Thompson, Steelers vs Browns

Trenton Thompson bats away a pass on third down. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Unsung Hero Award
Going into the game Mike Tomlin made a distinction between practice squad players who were “developmental” and “capable” with Mykal Walker falling into the latter category. However, it was it was the “developmental” guy who kept a lid on the top of the Steelers defense was stepping up twice to bat away passes, once in the Red Zone and once on third down and for that Trenton Thompson wins Unsung Hero Honors for the Steelers loss to the Browns at Cleveland.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Packers: Work to Do and Bills to Pay Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is late in making his marks thanks to “work to do and bills to pay,” here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Green Bay Packers at Acrisure.

Jaylen Warren, Steelers vs Packers

Jaylen Warren in route to his first 100 yard game. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Kenny Pickett started sharp helping touchdown drives on the team’s opening two possessions. However, Pickett was shaky after that. He avoided the middle of the field and barely missed two turnovers. Pickett’s numbers 14-23-126 appear to be economical, but he was dreadful on third down. At his weekly press conference Mike Tomlin said he needs to “see more” from Pickett. He is right. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Wow. Both Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris ran with authority and determination. Both scored touchdowns and both ripped off multiple double-digit runs. Jaylen Warren had 101 yards on 15 carries while 82 yards on 16 carries. Excellent work for both. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Darnell Washington logged another 6 yard catch while Connor Heyward caught 3 passes, tying him for the team lead, for 32 yards. Washington’s presence was evident in run blocking plays. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
George Pickens led the unit with 3 catches for 45 yards. No that’s not a misprint from some 1980’s newspaper. Diontae Johnson had 1 catch for 17 yards, losing a few combat caches. Calvin Austin had one catch for 3 yards and another reverse for 6. Green Bay was playing with a depleted secondary. But you’d never have known. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was sacked once and hit 4 other times, a sign of progress. And the offensive line opened some incredibly wide holes for the running game. This offensive line still hasn’t earned the use of terms like “road grading” or “imposing their will” yet, but this represents a tremendous improvement. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line had a quiet day by some measures. Green Bay is known for its rushing attack, yet those running backs were largely neutered save for a 40 yard run. Take away that, and the Packers ground attack was pretty spare. That starts with the defensive line. Grade: B

Linebackers
With Kwon Alexander going down early, it fell to Elandon Roberts to carry the weight, and Roberts led linebackers in tackles. Mark Robinson saw his first action and had 3 tackles, but also over pursued on AJ Dillon’s 40 yard run. T.J. Watt led the team in tackles and recorded the team’s lone sack. Grade: B

Secondary
On the downside, the secondary gave up two long touchdown passes. However, Joey Porter Jr. and Elijah Riley both had tackles for losses, while Patrick Peterson had a tippled ball that Keanu Neal intercepted in the end zone while Damontae Kazee sealed the win with an end zone interception of his own on a play called at the sidelines by Minkah Fitzpatrick. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect, again. Pressley Harvin punted well, including downing three punts inside the 20. The Packers had some nice returns, one of which set up a score, but Anthony McFarland set up a score with an above average return of his own. And Patrick Peterson’s blocked extra point dramatically altered the dynamic of the game. Grade: B

Coaching
Has it been fear of Matt Canada on the sidelines or Broderick Jones slipping into the starting line up, but for two straight weeks the Steelers ground attack has been effective. The pass protection has been strong too.

The Steelers also scored a touchdown on their opening drive in the one that followed, showing that Canada’s scripting was smart. It was rough sledding after that, but given Kenny Pickett’s third down performance, it is hard to chalk that up to play calling.

It is easy to fault Teryl Austin’s defense for making lots of Fantasy Football owners who started Packers players happy. But the truth is that his unit contained Green Bay’s rushing attack, kept them out of the end zone in the second half, and secured 2 turn overs in the games final minutes.

Keeanu Benton, Steelers vs Packers

Kennau Benton tackles Aaron Jones. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Which brings us to Mike Tomlin. This team fails “the eye test” in so many ways. However, his players “run to big moments” and that is to his credit. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
For the last two weeks pockets have been getting a little cramped and running space has become a bit more spare against the Steelers defense. That’s because rookie Keeanu Benton is steadily making his presence known and for that he wins Unsung Hero Honors for the Steelers 2023 win against the Packers at Acrisure Stadium.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Rebound Win over Ravens: Baby Steps and Big Plays Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is oscillating between baby steps and big plays here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 rebound win over the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium.

Joey Porter Jr., Steelers vs Ravens

Joey Porter Jr. gets his first interception. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
The stat sheet says Kenny Pickett went 18 of 32 for 224 yards and one touchdown. But those numbers fail to tell the story of how Pickett improved as the game wore on, who his accuracy got better, and how he made a key audible to burn the Ravens. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Here’s another case where the stat sheet simply isn’t sufficient to judge a player. Jaylen Warren only had 40 yards on the ground on 9 carries and 3 catches for another 39. But he imposed his will to earn those yards, setting up a score. Najee Harris had 14 carries for 37 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Darnell Washington got his first start and was targeted twice. Connor Heyward moved into the number 2 tight end role and caught 3 passes for 23 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Allen Robinson but one converted a third down on the touchdown drive. Calvin Austin got one target in limited activity due to concussion concerns while Miles Boykin got a target. The real start of the unit was George Pickens. Everyone in the stadium knew that Pickett would target Pickens. He did it anyway. And Pickens came away with the ball every time it counted. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was sacked 3 times and hit 5 other times while the Ravens made 3 tackles for losses. Overall the line play was a little better than it has been, but was still far from what the Steelers need it to be. Grade: D

Defensive Line
The Steelers were down two defensive lineman so this was a game where the Ravens likely expected to run well. And they started off running well. But the Steelers defensive line held its own as Keeanu Benton led the team in tackles and Larry Ogunjobi made a downfield tackle to force a fumble. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt helped stall a scoring drive with one sack, recovered Alex Highsmith’s strip sack which should have ended the game. When it didn’t Watt sacked Jackson on Baltimore’s final possession. Grade: A

Secondary
Yes. Baltimore dropped two sure touchdowns in the end zone and another all but sure touchdown later in the day. But another scene that repeated itself several times during the game was Lamar Jackson slamming his helmet to the bench. And that’s because as the game wore on, Jackson had nowhere to pass leading to abortive runs. Damontae Kazee recovered a fumble, and of course Joey Porter, Jr. made his first career interception covering Odell Beckham in the end zone. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was again perfect, and Brad Wing kicked well enough to make people wonder why he’s been out of the league so long. The Steelers return coverage was solid. Gunner Olszewski made some nice returns, but almost cost Pittsburgh the game with yet another fumble. The real stars of the unit were Miles Killbrew who blocked a punt and Rodney Williams, who saved a touchdown after Olszewski’s fumble. Grade: A-

Coaching
It took 8 quarters, but Matt Canada’s offense finally scored a touchdown. But it looked good doing it. Seriously, Canada’s offense took some baby steps, those were evident in the field goal drive that followed the blocked punt.

Productivity on the Steelers offense remains the exception when it must become the rule. Baby steps are nice, but leaps beyond the occasional big passing play are in order.

If Matt Canada has been a lightning rod for criticism, Teryl Austin’s has gotten a pass, although his defense’s deficiencies have been on display. They were in display again in the first quarter, but his unit tightened down and held the Ravens scoreless for nearly 3 quarters.

  • Sure, the Ravens made some dumb decisions and dropped 2 if not 3 touchdowns.

But that’s how football works. You take advantage of mistakes and if possible you force them. Teryl Austin’s defense forced those – Lamar Jacksons’ frustration made that evident.

A loss as lopsided as the humiliation the Steelers suffered in Houston can break the will of a football team. Fans and the press demanded dramatic changes. Tomlin made a few minor ones visible to the public and likely made more in private.

Elandon Roberts, Justice Hill, Steelers vs Ravens

Elandon Roberts stuffs Justice Hill late in 4th quarter. Photo Credit, Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But most importantly, he kept his team on an even-keel and prepared them for a physical AFC North football and they prevailed. Grade: C+

Unsung Hero Award
The middle of the Steelers defense has been a mess. They’ve been flashes from this group of players, but too often the errors have outweighed them. Yet against the Ravens, Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander stepped up to make several critical plays at critical junctures and for that Inside Linebackers win the Unsung Hero Award for the 2023 win over the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Raiders: Glimpsing of Ron Erhardt’s Ghost Edition

From the grade book of a teacher who is using “work to do and bills to pay” as an excuse for his late grade sheet and not the fact that he thinks he caught a glimpse of the late Ron Erhardt, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the road win vs the Raiders.

Cole Holcomb, Davante Adams, Steelers vs Raiders

Cole Holocomb throttles Davante Adams. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Pundits are parsing this as Kenny Pickett’s best game. Was it? Pickett threw 16-28 for 235 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. This was his first multi-touchdown pass game and the Steelers did lead in time of possession. Nonetheless, their 6-15 third down conversion rate must improve. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris earned a gritty 65 yards on 19 carries, with a long run of 17 on the Steelers touchdown drive, showing that it was rough sledding up front for most of the night. Connor Heyward got his first carry of the season for zero yards. ON the night, Steelers running backs rushed for 94 yards, a season high which, while still too low represents and improvement. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 3 passes for 41 yards including a perfectly executed play action pass during the Steelers first trip into the Red Zone. That play was set up in no small part by a 14 yarder that he caught two plays before. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
This week it was Calvin Austin’s turn to get open deep in the middle of the field. And Austin delivered by burning the Raiders secondary for a quick six points. George Pickens only had 4 catches but they went for 75 yards and either converted third downs or otherwise set up scores. Allen Robinson had 4 catches, including a third down converter that iced the game. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
Kenny Pickett was only sacked once. But don’t let that stat deceive you, he took some vicious hits after the pass. And while the running game did enjoy more success this week, the Raiders still recorded 5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Not good enough. Grade: D

Defensive Line
Josh Jacobs looked normal, rushing for just 62 yards and a long of only 10 – much better than what we saw the last two weeks. Overall the line authored a strong game, Keeanu Benton breaking through to make a phenomenal sack which saved a touchdown. Grade: B

Linebackers
A glance at the stat sheet suggests “off night” for T.J. Watt, who only had 2 sacks and 3 other QB hits. But those sacks wrecked drives. Kwon Alexander led the unit with 7 tackles, while Cole Holcomb delivered a thunderous hit on Davante Adams that scuttled the Raider’s opening drive of the second half. Marcus Golden also got a sack. Grade: B+

Secondary
No the plus side, Levi Wallace and Patrick Peterson both came down with interceptions. On the flip side, the secondary got caught on a deep route on 3rd and 1 and was again fooled on a two- point conversion. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 3-3 for field goals of 42, 43 and 57 yards. Pressley Harvin averaged 53.8 on 6 punts, pinning the Raiders inside their own 20 on 3 occasions, although his penultimate punt was a short 41 yarder that had terrible hang time. The Steelers return coverage was solid, although they did give up a penalty on a field goal. Grade: B

Coaching
We have a mixed bag on both sides of the ball.

The Steelers defense was sound. It took away the ball 3 times, sacked Jimmy Garoppolo 4 times, contained Josh Jacobs, limited the Raiders to 4 of 15 on third down and opened the 4th quarter by forcing a turnover on downs.

But the unit got caught with its pants down twice on running plays, and the Raiders moved the ball far too easily on their 2 fourth quarter scoring drives. Yes, you can say Minkah Fitzpatrick’s roughing the passer call was bogus. But the Steelers defense had 2 chances to make a stop and failed then allowed a 2 point conversion.

Matt Canada certainly succeeded at one thing in the season’s first two weeks: He got Steelers Nation to forget Randy Fitchner and Todd Haley.

And for much of the game against the Raiders, he did little to jog their memories. As the Steelers offense vacillated between three and outs and field goal drives with one quick strike sprinkled it to keep things interesting.

But at two points in the game, it was almost as if Ron Erhardt’s Force Ghost* appeared to Matt Canada and the entire Steelers offense instructing, “Use the Force.” Seriously. The Steelers third quarter touchdown drive couldn’t have been scripted with better precision. And if the unit followed that with 2 back-to-back three and outs, it responded at the very end to kill the clock.

Mike Tomlin saw to it that the horrific performance against the 49ers had no ripple effect. After the Cleveland win he kept the team focused on a short week, ensuring that it didn’t go to their heads. Grade: C

Jaylen Warren, Robert Spillane, Steelers vs Raiders

Former Friends: Robert Spillane tries to tackle Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

*Truthfully, on that series the Steelers looked more like a Ken Whisenhunt offense than an Erhardt one, but Whiz is still with us and God willing will be for a long time.

Unsung Hero Award
A week ago this player missed his block, causing a sack on third down. This week the same player met Maxx Crosby head on and bought his quarterback time setting up a deep strike. He also ripped of a number of long runs and pass receptions to set up scores and for that Jaylen Warren wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Las Vegas Raiders.

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win over Browns: No All Nighters for This Teacher Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who is late with his marks because he refused to pull an all nighter, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2023 win over the Browns on Monday Night Football.

George Pickens, Steelers vs Browns,

George Pickens scores the Steelers lone offensive touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett went 15-30-1-1 for 222 yards. On the surface that look “OK.” Although Pickett made completed a few nice throws within tight windows, he didn’t look comfortable out there. Worse yet he didn’t improve as the game progressed. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 43 yards on 10 carries. Jaylen Warren had 20 yards on 6, while adding 66 more through the air. The running backs didn’t have much room to run but made the best with what they had. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught one pass for 2 yards on one target. The other two tight ends were invisible. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
George Pickens took it to the house on a 71 yard pass from Pickett. He also caught 3 other passes for a 4 of ten targets. Allen Robinson caught 2 passes while Calvin Austin, Gunner Olszewski and Myles Boykin each caught 1 pass. Pickett checked down early and often. Was that because guys weren’t open or he was just more comfortable close to home? Grade: C+

Offensive Line
The Cleveland Browns had 5 tackles for losses, 2 sacks and 9 quarterback hits. Worse yet, the line failed to move bodies when it counted the most, such as on the failed 2-point conversion effort. Deeply disappointing. Grade: F

Defensive Line
DeMarvin Leal got a sack, Montravius Adams forced a fumble, Keeanu Benton had two tackles while Armon Watts showed he belonged. Grade B

Linebackers
Don’t look now, but T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith are tied as the Steelers number 2 scorers thus far this season. Both men authored All Pro worth performances as Highsmith won AFC Defensive Player of the week while Watt simply became the Pittsburgh Steelers all time sack leader. Cole Holcomb forced a fumble, Kwon Alexander and Elandon Roberts looked stout against the run. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick tipped the pass that Highsmith intercepted and was one of the leading tacklers despite leaving early with an injury. Joey Porter Jr. had limited snaps, but defensed two passes just the same. Patrick Peterson batted away one pass. For the second straight week Levi Wallace came up short in run defense and it cost the Steelers. Again. That brings the grade down. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect, hitting 52 and 50 yards – the Steelers need both. Calvin Austin had a punt return for 14 yards. Pressley Harvin banged off some really impressive punts and pinned the Browns down inside their 20 four times. Gunner Olszewski fielded a kick he should have let go out of bounds. Grade: B

Coaching
We will pull no punches here: Something is rotten in the State of Pennsylvania and the odor makes it clear that it is the Pittsburgh Steelers offense.

2 weeks into the season and the Steelers are once again charter members of the “One touchdown per game” club. In the second half of 2022, they would move the ball, control the clock but settle for field goals. Now they’re not even doing that, averaging 10 points per game.

When the Steelers don’t sputter out of the gate and put the onus on Pickett to convert third and longs, they play physical football and set up third and shorts only to watch plays implode at the snap.

Is it Matt Canada’s fault? Isaac Seumalo the next Ladarius Green? Did Pat Meyer create a mirage with the rest of the offensive line late last season? I don’t know.

  • But I do know this: Nothing is going right.

In contrast the Steelers defense rebounded against the Browns. No they unit was not perfect. And yes the story may have been very different had Nick Chubb not gotten hurt. But Teryl Austin’s unit proved itself of capable of making a big play when it counted.

The Steelers showed up against the Browns with fire. That’s not a surprise, but its also not a given as opening day disappointments can have a spiral effect. But Mike Tomlin’s team have a history of bouncing back from big losses, and they added to that against the Browns. Grade: C-

Larry Ogunjobi, Deshaun Watson, Steelers vs Browns

Larry Ogunjobi sacks Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
With Cam Heyward out someone on the defensive line was going to need to step up. And they were going to need to do it early to prove to the Browns that Pittsburgh wasn’t going to be pushed around. This player did it, stepping up and sacking Deshaun Watson after Kenny Pickett’s gift wrapped interception. He later recovered his fumble and stopped him stone cold on another run – all in the first half. And for that Larry Ogunjobi wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Browns.

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Cam Heyward Goes on IR – Can the Steelers D Repeat the 2016 Rebound?

The ’23 Steelers opening day loss to the 49ers left virtually no positives (save for perhaps Anthony McFarland’s play.) But worse than the 30-7 drubbing, the Steelers lost Cam Heyward for what most expect to be an 8 week stretch.

This one hurts.

Cam Heyward, Cam Heyward Franco Harris Number 32, Steelers vs Raiders

Paying homage to Franco, Cam Heyward leads Steelers out of tunnel. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

With all due respect to Ben Roethlisberger and/or “The Killer Bees,” Cam Heyward has been the face of the franchise for the better part of a decade.

Without Heyward the Steelers won’t simply be losing a man who has 20.5 sacks to his name over the last two years alone, they’re losing their undisputed leader on the field and off of it.

Cam Heyward has been remarkably durable throughout his career. With the exception of 2016 you can count the games Heyward has missed due to injury on your fingers.

  • Yet, this isn’t the first time the Steelers have lost Cam Heyward for an extended stretch.

And if it looks bad to lose Heyward now, things felt far bleaker when Heyward went in injured reserve in 2016. The Steelers had just lost 4 straight games, including giving up 2 touchdowns to Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys inside the 2-minute warning.

When news of Heyward’s torn peck broke, this humble scribe channeled his Bill Paxton, posting a YouTube video declaring, “Game Over Man, Game Over!”

  • The defense was floundering and it has just lost its best and most consistent player.
  • The season truly seemed be lost.

Except the defense wasn’t done and the Steelers season would extend all the way to the AFC Championship.

Can the Steelers flip the script again?

Lessons from the Steelers 2016 Rebound

As Mike Tomlin declared this week, there is no one man who can replace Cam Heyward. And, in that respect, on paper at least the Steelers are in better position at defensive line than they were in 2016.

Yes 2023’s Larry Ogunjobi and Montravius Adams are steps down from Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave of 2016.

But Ogunjobi and Adams have far stronger supporting casts to lean on. In 2016 the Steelers backup defensive ends were Ricardo Mathews, L.T. Walton, Johnny Maxey with Daniel McCullers offering depth at nose tackle. Mathews and Maxey never played a down after 2016 and Walton and McCullers remained on the roster as footnotes for a few season afterwards.

DeMarvin Leal, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Armon Watts and rookie Keeanu Benton look like studs by comparison, although the group lacks experience.

Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler made changes in the way they deployed the Steelers defense during the back half of 2016. But the biggest change came in Tomlin’s decision to start James Harrison over Jarvis Jones. Harrison might have “only” registered 3 sacks during the rest of the season, but one of James’ underrated abilities was to seal the edge in the run game.

  • With T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers don’t have go to their outside linebacker bullpen, which is a plus.
Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs Dolphins playoffs

Ryan Shazier returns an interception at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via USA Today’s Steelers Wire

A key difference which isn’t a plus compared to 2016 is experience. The Steelers defensive line is young, as it was in 2016, but in contrast to ’16, the inside linebackers playing behind them are new to the team and to the system.

By the middle of 2016 Ryan Shazier was coming into his own, and Vince Williams had established himself as a steady, physical presence in the middle of the Steelers defense.

On the flip side, the Steelers secondary of 2016 didn’t have anyone remotely close to the caliber of Minkah Fitzpatrick, nor did they have anyone with the pedigree of Patrick Peterson. Joey Porter Jr. is a rookie, but I don’t think we even need 20/20 hindsight to say he’s an upgrade from Artie Burns who was a rookie in 2016.

So when you weigh the differences in personnel and experience between 2023 and 2016, the Steelers have about an even shot at compensating for Cam Heyward’s absence.

Interesting Insider Insight

The situation may have felt desperate from the outside looking in in 2016, but that was not the case on the South Side.

As Craig Wolfley reported in Steel City Insider the day after the 2016 loss to the Cowboys an assistant coach declared: “You’re about to see one of the greatest turnarounds in Steelers history.”

  • That prediction came from Todd Haley of all people.

Haley was right because Mike Tomlin doesn’t just mouth his “Next man up” mantra, he lives it. If he can get his players to buy into as strongly he did in 2016 then the Steelers should be able to weather the storm without Cam Heyward.

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