The Pittsburgh Steelers made final cuts reducing their roster to 53 members, but had to do some addition to complement their subtraction.
To shore up the thin depth behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers traded a 6th round pick from the 2023 NFL Draft to the Denver Broncos for outside linebacker Malik Reed and Denver’s 7th round 2023 pick.
They also traded a conditional 7th round pick to the Miami Dolphins for offensive lineman Jesse Davis, strengthening what is the weakest area on the depth chart going into the season.
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.
Some Surprising Cuts
To get to 53 men the Steelers made a number of surprising cuts Joe Haeg, John Leglue, Buddy Johnson, Marcus Allen, Anthony McFarland, and Justin Layne all got visits from The Turk. As expected, Marcus Allen returned to the 53 man roster after the Steelers put safety Damontae Kazee on the short-term injured reserve list. Anthony McFarland and John Leglue have returned via the practice squad.
Still, considering how versatile he was last season and how frequently he was called into action, Joe Haeg’s departure is a minor surprise as is their decision to part ways so quickly with Buddy Johnson. What’s most surprising about Justin Layne’s dismissal isn’t that the Steelers said goodbye, but rather that he was picked up off of waivers by the New York Giants.
Offensive Line Kendrick Green Kevin Dotson Mason Cole James Daniels Chukwuma Okorafor Jesse Davis J.C. Hassenauer – Will “New” = “Improved”?
Defensive Line Cam Heyward Tyson Alualu Larry Ogunjobi Chris Wormley Isaiahh Loudermilk Montravius Adams DeMarvin Leal – Hopefully Alualu’s health holds
Outside Linebacker T.J. Watt Alex Highsmith Derrek Tuszka Malik Reed – Clutch those rosary beads and ask for intercession for Watt and Highsmith’s health
Inside Linebacker Devin Bush Myles Jack Robert Spillane Mark Robinson Marcus Allen – Make or break year for Devin Bush
Cam Sutton Ahkello Witherspoon Levi Wallace James Pierre Arthur Maulet – Steelers have invested heavily here. Time to for it to payoff
Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick Terrell Edmunds Tre Norwood Miles Killebrew – Losing Kazee is a blow. But let’s hope Norwood can shirk the sophmore slump.
Specialists Chris Boswell (K) Pressley Harvin (P) Christian Kuntz (LS) – You didn’t remember Kuntz’s name did you? That means he’s doing his job.
Steelers 2022 Practice Squad
Anthony McFarland, Running Back
John Leglue, Offensive Line Carlos Davis, Nose Tackle Cody White, Wide Receiver Hamilcar Rashed, Outside Linebacker William Dunkle, Offensive line Ryan McCollum, Offensive line Elijah Riley, Safety
During COVID-19 the NFL expanded practice squads to 16 and has kept that size, so the Steelers should be adding new players soon.
You’ve heard that before? I’m not surprised. It has been a popular refrain over the past two seasons whenever the Steelers and their potential problems are discussed.
Mitch Trubisky at the line of scrimmage. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.
Of course, there is no use putting the word “potential” in front of the world “problem” when talking about the Steelers’ offensive line. It was a problem in 2020. It was a problem last year.
What about this year? Even though the Steelers have only played two preseason games so far, the offensive line still appears to be quite offensive.
Yes, despite adding free agents James Daniels (right guard) and Mason Cole (center) to the interior of the offensive line in March, the line has struggled through much of training camp and all of the exhibition season.
In spite of the fact that Dan Moore Jr., a fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M in the 2021 NFL Draft, started 16 games at left tackle as a rookie, he may need a little more seasoning before he’s fully developed.
As for Kendrick Green, a third-round pick out of Illinois in 2021 who played center as a rookie and has been switched over to guard — his more natural position in college — during the 2022 training camp? Yikes.
Let’s just say Green is still incredibly raw and that no amount of seasoning and time in the oven may turn him into a professional offensive lineman.
Having said all that I’ve said up to this point, there’s still time for this line to gel and find some cohesion.
Believe it or not.
I know it’s hard to believe after witnessing two-plus years of the same level of play along the offensive line, but as I alluded to earlier, the guys doing the playing aren’t the same.
The Steelers almost completely overhauled their entire offensive line during the 2021 offseason; gone were left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (a free agent the team decided to move on from); left guard Matt Feiler (a free agent the team couldn’t afford to bring back); center Maurkice Pouncey (retirement); and right guard David DeCastro (released due to injury).
File photo of the 2019 Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive
What about Dotson’s sophomore campaign? Dotson didn’t turn as many heads despite winning a starting job in camp. A rumored lack of commitment seemed to sour some Steelers coaches on Dotson during the 2021 offseason, while injuries hindered him in the regular season as he tried to make the transition over to left guard in place of the departed Feiler.
Okorafor and Turner were steady if uninspiring on the right side. Moore had his issues at left tackle, but, again, he did enough to start 16 games as a rookie.
Kendrick Green’s stint at center was an epic failure.
What did this all add up to in 2021? An offensive line that was just as bad, if not worse, than it was in 2020.
At least youth was on its side, though, right?
Not if you were Dotson and Green.
Mason Cole was brought in to be an upgrade over Green at center in 2022. James Daniels was a highly-touted free agent who Pittsburgh signed to sort of act as the new anchor of the line at right guard, a la DeCastro.
Green was thrown into a position battle with Dotson during training camp, while Moore and Okorafor remained as the starting tackles.
That’s a lot of upheaval for one unit in a short period of time. It’s kind of unrealistic to expect everything to be going smoothly at this point in time. Should there be individual improvements? Yes, and I’m still excited about DAn Moore despite his struggles during the preseason.
As for the center position? If Cole can simply be steady and reliable, that would be a stark improvement over what even Pouncey gave the unit in his final season.
It’s no secret that James Daniels has struggled a bit at right guard, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt while he finds his bearings with his new coach and co-workers.
And that last part really is the most important, right? These guys have to be given time to gel together and perfect the techniques their new offensive line coach has taught them.
Those in the know in terms of offensive line play say that chemistry, trust and learning to work together are just as important as winning individual battles when it comes to developing an effective offensive line.
Should the Steelers go out and sign a free agent or make a trade? I doubt you’ll find much in terms of quality this late into the offseason.
Many say that the Steelers should have used more premium draft choices to address the line in recent years. Yeah, but in place of whom? Would you rather have an offensive lineman over Najee Harris, a running back the Steelers selected with the 24th pick of the 2021 NFL Draft? How about tight end Pat Freiermuth, selected one round after Harris?
What about the 2022 draft? You’d rather have a tackle over Kenny Pickett, who looks like he could be a more than credible replacement for Ben Roethlisbergerat quarterback? What about George Pickens, a second-round pick in 2022 who might be a superstar receiver the moment he plays in his first regular-season game?
Fact is, the Steelers have been transitioning from a veteran offense to a more youthful one over the past few years, and you’re not going to be able to address every position with premium picks. Focusing on one position means kicking the can down the road on the others.
I’ll admit that I’ve always been adamant that every unit needs at least one stud — a player with a high pedigree — but the Steelers seemed to find that guy in free agency when they signed James Daniels in March.
James Daniels wasn’t a first-round pick by the Chicago Bears, but he was selected in the second round in 2018 and started 48 games in four years.
Seems like a high-pedigreed stud to me.
The Steelers may just have to continue to endure the growing pains along the offensive line until they get it right. It’s not going to happen overnight. Heck, they’re more than a few nights into this rebuild and still in search of some answers.
Finally, the Steelers have a young team, complete with a young offensive line.
There still may be time for that young line to mature into something formidable.
Preseason football isn’t what it used to be. (Or perhaps, as staff writer Tony Defeo suggested on BTSC, perhaps the good ole days of preseason weren’t all that good.)
Be that as it may, preseason football gives unproven players a chance to test their mettle in live fire circumstances. It gives coaches a evaluate unit cohesion. And, best of all, it gives fans a chance to evaluate young player with their own eyes.
With that in mind, here are 6 observations from the Steelers 16-15 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Kenny Pickett scan for a receiver. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review
With those disclaimers in place, it is hard not to like what we’ve seen from Kenny Pickett.
His debut against the Seahawks was nice, but it is easy to see that as a varsity first round pick dominating JV competition. But against the Jaguars, Pickett was going up against NFL veterans.
He looked like he belonged. He made good decisions. Perhaps most impressive was his poise.
For the second time in two weeks, he took the reigns in a 2 minute situation and calmly went down the field. When asked about it, Mike Tomlin suggested that “…its probably who he is” before concluding “Some things people are born with.”
Leading touchdowns in the 2 minute drill against the Jaguars and Seahawks in August isn’t quite the same as doing on the road it against the Cincinnati Bengals or Baltimore Ravens in the 4th quarter of a rainy December night with the AFC North on the line, but we can now dare to dream.
2. Trubisky’s Mobility Will Be far More than a “Nice to Have”
So several times last season as it became clear that Ben Roethlisberger was about to ride into the sunset, Mike Tomlin mused about the importance of having a mobile quarterback, although it was clear he was thinking more along the lines of Steve Young than Kordell Stewart.
Against the Jaguars Mitch Trubisky showed his Steve Young-like mobility.
Mitch Trubisky shows off his mobility against the Jaguars. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review
Its good that he has that mobility, because he’s gonna need it….
3. The Time to Worry about the Offensive Line Begins Now
…Throughout training camp, veteran beat reporters such as Jim Wexell and Mark Kaboly have warned their readers that the Steelers offensive line has been shaky. It is hard to know what that really means, even if the Steelers remain one of the few NFL teams to have live hitting during training camp.
The Steelers offensive line was atrocious.
The line’s decline began in 2019, became obvious in 2020 and accelerated in 2021. The conventional wisdom was that with the maturation of Dan Moore and Kendrick Green, and the free agent additions of Mason Cole and James Daniels, the Steelers offensive line couldn’t get any worse. Could it?
The performance against the Jaguars suggests that the Steelers offensive line IS capable of regressing even further in 2022.
4. Gunner’s Good, But Watch Those Fumbles
There’s a lot to like about Gunner Olszewski. When the Steelers signed him, it almost seemed like a steal when comparing his contract to what the 49ers had given Ray-Ray McCloud. Everything we’ve seen or heard since then has been a positive, with all signs indicating he can be a good return man and a viable 4th wide receiver on game day.
After making a really smart kick return, Gunner Olszewski fumbled the ball in the 4th quarter, allowing Jacksonville to take the lead. That’s easy to forgive in preseason. When the games count? Not so much.
I don’t pretend to have the savvy to do an X’s and O’s analysis of Devin Bush’s role in what was a very shaky run defense. But one image stands out is that of Bush getting turned so that he’s facing backwards as a running is cutting through to the second level behind him.
I’m pretty sure that’s not how Brian Flores and Jerry Olsavsky had Bush’s responsibilities for that play drawn up. When asked earlier this week if this was his “Make or break” year in the NFL, Bush offered sanguine words. Talk is cheap.
It is now time for Bush to put up or shut up.
6. NFL GamePass Condensed Games Have Their Limits
As I did last year, I opted not to watch the game live and instead watch it via NFL Game Pass’ condensed viewing option, which not only cuts out commercials, but also pauses between plays with very view replays.
While that sure beats slogging through 3 hours’ worth of commercial breaks, you really do miss something watching games in such condensed fashion. Not only do you lose the flavor of the game, it is also hard to hone in on its ebb and flow.
For almost a decade Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro provided stability for the Steelers at guard and center. In the span of just over 15 months, all three have proceeded to their “Life’s Work.”
Is it any wonder that the Steelers offensive line flipped from a team strength to an obvious liability in the blink of an eye?
Accordingly, the Steelers have invested both draft capital and made priority free agent signings since then. How have these investments impacted the Steelers interior lineman needs going into the 2022 NFL Draft.
Kevin Dotson as a rookie. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
Steelers Depth Cart at Center and Guard: The Starters
The Steelers entered uncharted waters in 2021 when they drafted Kendrick Green in the 3rd round and essentially installed him as a starter. Mike Tomlin has never been a head coach whose wont to anoint rookies, yet he did that with Green.
Green had his moments at center, but struggled down the stretch and found himself replaced by J.C. Hassenauer for the final 3 games of 2021.
To take his place the Steelers signed James Daniels, who brings 54 games and 48 starts worth of experience to the left guard position. Officially Kevin Dotson is the Steelers other starter at guard. Dotson won the starting job in 2020 and flashed potential as a bright spot, but disappointed coaches during the 2021 training camp.
Still, the offensive line appeared to be broaching respectability at midseason in 2021 until Dotson went out injured.
Steelers Center and Guard Depth Chart: The Backups
The Steelers have given themselves options at in the middle of their line. They signed Mason Cole, who brings starting experience at center and some experience at guard. They also have John Leglue who started 5 games at right guard. Exclusive rights free agent J.C. Hassenauer has signed his tender and will return to Pittsburgh.
The Steelers also have “General” Joe Haeg who can do spot duty at guard.
The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Center and Guard
The Steelers off season strategy at center and guard has been clear – cover your bases while keeping your options open. James Daniels appears to be set as one of their starting guards while Green, Cole and Dotson appear poised to fight for the starting center and guard positions.
The loser will provide depth, with the Steelers have several other backups who boast starting experience.
The adage goes that you can never have enough good starting offensive lineman and should they get a chance to draft another Alan Faneca or David DeCastro type guard let alone another Mike Webster or Dermontti Dawson type center, they should by all means draft him.
But that would be true in almost any year, and in 2022 the Steelers draft needs at center and guard should be considered Moderate-Low.
Say this about the Steelers brain trust here in 2022, they’re not trying to sweep their weaknesses under the rung. After opening free agency by signing Mitchell Trubisky, the Steelers moved quickly to protect him.
First they came to terms with center/guard Mason Cole, who most recently played for the Minnesota Vikings. Then word came that they resigned tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, for 3 years. And now they’ve added Chicago Bears center/guard James Daniels.
Chucks Okorafor in the Steelers 2021 win over the Bears. Photo Credit: Emilee Chinn/Getty Images via StillCurtain.com
The moves address what was a chronic and historically bad for the Steelers in 2022, and they also put Kendrick Green and Kevin Dotson on notice that they’ll need to fight for playing time, if not their roster spots.
The decision to bring back Chuck Okafor, and to do so as a priority in free agency must count as a bit of a surprise. Okafor does bring the Steelers 35 starts, but terms of his contract suggest that his deal is structured as more of a “prove it” contract.
According to Aaron Wilson of the NFL network, Okafor’s 3 year contract three years, will give him a 9.25 million dollar signing bonus, with base salaries of 1.25 Million, 6 million and 4.75 million. It also calls for 4 million dollar roster bonuses to be paid on the 5th day of the league year in 2023 and 2024.
For those readers not fluent in salary cap speak, this is a deal the Steelers can easily bail on this time next year.
According to internet reports, James Daniels contract is for 3 years and 26.5 million dollars. Mason Cole is said to have signed a 3 year contract, the terms of which have not yet been leaked.
Too Quiet for Comfort on the South Side?
If news of newcomers to Pittsburgh has been prolific, word on who might be staying on the South Side has become a little worrisome.
The glass half full way to look at this is that none of these three has come to an agreement with another team. But the glass half empty conclusion is that had any of these three players been a priority for Pittsburgh, the Steelers already would have resigned them.
Word has leaked that the Steelers have come to terms with cornerback Levi Wallace, which we’ll have more to say about later.
A player who reaches Exclusive Rights Free Agency status in the NFL has probably already slogged a hard road, including cycling through training camps for multiple teams and stints on various practice squads. Despite that, the Exclusive Rights Free Agent is still 2 seasons away from his chance at that coveted 2nd contract.
Such is the story of Steelers center/guard J.C. Hassenauer who is an Exclusive Rights Free Agent.
Steelers center J.C. Hassenauer. Photo Credit: AP
Capsule Profile of J.C. Hassenauer’s Career with the Steelers
J.C. Hassenauer came to the Steelers in the summer of 2019 after going to training camp in 2018 with the Atlanta Falcons, playing in 4 preseason games and spending time on their practice squad. And it was on the practice squad he would stay through 2019 for the Steelers, until earning a promotion to the regular season roster for the season finale in Baltimore.
Hassenauer earned a spot on the 53 man roster in 2020, appearing in 15 games and starting four at guard beginning with the Steelers Tuesday win over the Ravens. In 2021 J.C. Hassenauer appeared in 13 games, starting one at guard and closing out the season with two starts at center, including Ben Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field.
The Case for the Steelers Resigning J.C. Hassenauer
J.C. Hassenauer gives the Steelers strong, experienced position flexibility at center and guard. As an Exclusive Rights Free Agent there’s no risk in bringing him back for 2022.
The Case Against the Steelers Resigning J.C. Hassenauer
The Steelers fielded their worst offensive line in maybe a generation last year. They must exploit every opportunity for improvement. As Mike Tomlin says, free agency is “Free for them, free for us,” which is a polite way of saying that the team has the ability to shed itself of players who are “Below the Line.”
J.C. Hassenauer may not be terrible, if between free agency, the 2022 NFL Draft and the undrafted rookie free agent pool the Steelers can’t find a better number 4 guard and/or backup center then Art Rooney II needs to be replacing someone other than just Kevin Colbert.
Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and J.C. Hassenauer
While no one will ever confuse him with Dermontti Dawson, J.C. Hassenauer’s experience and ability to swing between center and guard are true assets. The Steelers line was in fact a tad bit better when Hassenauer took over for Kendrick Green to close the season.
Offering an Exclusive Rights Free Agent tender is really a no-brainer, no-risk move for the Steelers.
They can both bring J.C. Hassenauer back, and improve their starters and other back ups at center and guard in free agency and the draft.
Taken from the grade book of a teacher who isn’t too tardy to break even, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2021 Season.
T.J. Watt after recovering a Titans fumble. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review
In in final season, Ben Roethlisberger went 390-605-3,740-22-11 for a passer rating of 86.8. At times he flash Hall of Fame caliber play, at others he looked like he was struggling to be average. Overall his play was solid, and without his gravitas the Steelers would have been lucky to have won 4 games. Still he was slipping. Mason Rudolph looked “OK” in his one start. Grade: B-
As a Steelers running back struggled more break the 1000 yard mark than Najee Harris did in 2021? Maybe Jerome Bettis in 1999. Maybe. Harris had no help from the line and seldom enjoyed Derek Watt’s escort services. Yet Harris got it done. Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage saw little more than spot duty and neither showed themselves capable of spelling Harris for long periods of time – not behind this line. Grade: C+
Tight Ends Eric Ebron was splitting snaps fairly evenly until he got hurt vs the Chargers. At that point Pat Freiermuth stepped with Zach Gentry and together with Kevin Rader made tight end to be one of the few bright spots on offense. Grade: B-
On balance, Diontae Johnson showed he is a good but not great receiver. Chase Claypool flashed promise and frustration in equal parts as consistency eluded him. JuJu Smith-Schuster was lost early in the season. James Washington was never more than just sort of “there.” Ray-Ray McCloud had a decent time as a number 4 wide out. The Steelers needed more from this unit. Grade: C-
Yes injuries, surprise retirements, starting rookies too soon and inconsistent coaching were all factors. The bottom line is Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 38 times and the run blocking was atrocious at times. Grade: F
How do you grade a unit like this? Cam Heyward authored a Hall of Fame worthy season playing alongside… practice squaders. Seriously, guys like Chris Wormley and Montravius Adams may have shown that they’re serviceable, but they are not starters. Grade: D
Linebackers T.J. Watt authored a NFL MVP worthy season suggesting generational talent. Alex Highsmith had his issues, but got better as the season went along. On the inside it was a different story. Robert Spillane is strong against the run but can’t cover the pass. Joe Schobert was decent against the pass. Devin Bush, well let’s just hope his ACL was really bothering him. Watt brings this group’s grade up. Way up. Grade: C-
Cam Sutton intercepts the ball. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
Secondary Cam Sutton authored a strong year in his first season as a starter. Joe Haden showed he has something left, but his body is beginning to brake down while Ahkello Witherspoon came on strong at the end of the year. Terrell Edmunds might not make many splash plays, but he did play in 98% of the snaps and continued to improve. Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have put together the highlight footage he did in years past, but make no mistake about it, he’s the best player on the defense not named Watt. Grade: B
Special Teams Chris Boswell had a spectacular season. Ray-Ray McCloud showed himself to be a decent return man after a shaky start. Coverage was generally solid. Pressley Harvin had his ups and downs, but the team stuck with him in the face of personal tragedy. Grade: B
On offense, the Ben Roethlisberger was clearly not a good fit for Matt Canada’s system and the progress that the unit saw came to a dead stop when Kevin Dotson got hurt and Kendrick Green hit the rookie wall.
So Canada’s off the hook right? Not so fast.
Canada isn’t responsible for the personnel he has to work with, but he certainly is in charge of how they are used. The worst sin an offensive coordinator can commit is to try to force a system on players unsuited. Worse yet, is when the coordinators insist on forcing even after it is clear the players are unsuited. Canada appears to have done that in 2021, which is not a good sign for his return.
Mike Tomlin at Paul Brown Stadium. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
On defense Keith Butler quickly discovered he had a hole in his middle that he didn’t have the personnel to plug. How does one judge a coaching job when one could easily argue that 3 if not 4 of the defense’s front seven need replacing?
Injures, retirements and COVID fueled salary cap limitations left Mike Tomlin the NFL’s most manic depressive roster. On the defensive line alone it was like seeing Hulk Hogan alongside the Batten Twins.
And if Tomlin does deserve some of the criticism for those talent deficiencies – and he does – he also deserves credit for finding a way to eek 9 wins out of this roster. Grade: C
As mentioned in our Steelers 2021 Season Review, Pittsburgh actually had a decent plan for fielding a competitive team despite weathering salary cap Armageddon. But injuries and retirements wiped 3 starters off of the board before summer’s end with 2 more losses before the leaves had fallen. And if some of the “next men” up faltered, other replacements fared better. The Front Office faced a potential devastating salary cap situation and fought it to a draw. Grade: C
The Steelers 2021 roster had a lot of holes, holes where the proverbial “Next man up” failed to plug. But a look back at the season finds two non-first line players making consistent contributions doing “the little things” that help win games, and that’s why Arthur Maulet and Tre Norwood are the Unsung Heroes of the 2021 Season.
The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers finished 9-7-1, followed by a one-and-done playoff exit. That looks respectable to the naked eye. But Dan Rooney’s words from 22 years back offer sobering context.
The 2000 Steelers finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs for the 3rd straight year. To many, this confirmed that the Steelers were mired in mediocrity. Dan Rooney demurred.
Instead, Rooney pointed to the 2000 AFC Championship game, which saw the Ravens defeat the Raiders. Rooney reminded willing listeners that the Steelers had beaten both teams, arguing that those wins were a true gauge of the Steelers nascent contender status.
Now, measure the 2021 Steelers with Dan Rooney’s yard stick. Pittsburgh looks pitiful. Both the Bengals and the Chiefs spanked the Steelers. Twice. And it was a simpler task for both teams the second time.
Why did the Steelers 2021 season end this way?
It is tempting to think of Milton Bradley’s board game “Life,” where a player who reaches the end with little money puts what they have on a number and spins the wheel. Hit their number and they win as a Tycoon. Otherwise, they lose.
Yeah, it kinda feels like Art Rooney II put his aging franchise quarterback on a number and spun the wheel. But that’s not what happened.
The Steelers had a strategy for winning in 2021. And one that was plausible, if not probable.
Did their strategy hinge on several calculated risks – call them gambles if you will – Yes! absolutely. Did the gamble ultimately fail? Yes. But if you want to understand why they made it, just take a look the lay of the land back in May 2021.
Art Rooney II and Ben Roethlisberger embrace. Photo Credit: Steelers.com, Karl Roser
Who the ’21 Steelers Thought They Had
Start by looking at who the Steelers thought they had after the 2021 NFL Draft.
David DeCastro never played a down. Zach Banner never fully recovered from his ACL tear. That combined with other concerns pushed Chuks Okorafor to right tackle. The Steelers lost Dotson mid-season, and then within three weeks, they were starting their 6th string guard John Leglue.
Anyone still wonder why Najee Harris got hit before reaching the line of scrimmage so often?
At wide receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s surprise return lasted all of 5 weeks (plus the playoffs).
Someone still want to speculate on why the Steelers runs defense was terrible?
So, do these “could haves” add up to enough “would haves” to equal a roster talented enough help Ben Roethlisberger retire with the elusive 3rd ring?
Uh… I wouldn’t bet my 401(k) on it either.
But think about it. Remember the ugly implosion the Steelers suffered at the end of 2007? How many went into 2008 saying, “This is a Super Bowl team!” Not many. Yet, they won Super Bowl XLIII.
But the bottom line is that after weathering salary-cap Armageddon, the roster the Steelers assembled in May 2021 was a lot stronger than the one that took the field in late September.
’21 Steelers Channeled Their Inner Jimmy Hendrix
If you had to pick a theme song for the 2021 Steelers, Jimmy Hendrix’s “Manic Depressive” would fit the bill. The Steelers finished 9-7-1. Yet they needed 7 fourth-quarter comebacks to pull that off. The Steelers got their teeth kicked in by quality teams such as the Bengals, Chiefs, and Packers. Yet, they beat playoff teams like the Titans and Bills.
They staged two dramatic “almost comebacks” against the Chargers and Vikings. Those comebacks were needed because you have to go back to the 1940s to find a worse first-half offense and worse run defenses.
But those Manic-Depressive symptoms were products of a bipolar roster.
To understand just how profoundly bipolarity was hardwired into this Steelers’ roster, let’s draw an analogy between the Steelers’ projected starting front five and a 1980’s WWF Survivor Series team.
Mike Tomlin thought he had a fivesome of Owen Hart, Hulk Hogan, Arn Anderson, Bruiser Brody and Ric Flair. Sure, Cam Heyward and T.J. Wattcame through as the Hulkster and the Nature Boy, but they ended up teaming with the Blue Blazer, Randy Mulkey and Steve Lombardi.
Keith Butler, Matt Canada and Mike Tomlin all shoulder some blame, but Craig Wolfley was right when he concluded after the 2nd Bengals’ game, “It’s not about the X’s and the O’s, it’s about the Jimmys and the Joes.”
A Few Pieces in Place for the Future
With Ben Roethlisberger retiring, the Steelers face a long, challenging road. But they also start their journey with a few good players.
Najee Harris is a real find at running back. In Pat Freiermuth, the Steelers finally appear to have replaced Heath Miller. Zach Gentry has grown into solid number 2 tight end. Dan Moore, John LeGlue and Montravius Adams appear to be serviceable lineman. The Steelers trades for Isaiahh Loudermilk and Ahkello Witherspoon look a lot better today than when the trades were made.
The Gamble Was Worth It
Ben Roethlisberger gives thanks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
The cold, hard football Realpolitik conclusion will always be that Art Rooney II shouldn’t have gambled on a final shot at Lombardi Number 7 with Ben Roethlisberger.
I’m not so sure that’s correct conclusion.
Without Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers would have been lucky to have won more than 4 games. And if Ben Roethlisberger was clearly on the decline in 2021, also he had more left in the tank than Peyton Manning had in his final year. With the right roster it would have been an extreme long shot, but still a shot.
But those are hypotheticals whose answers will remain forever unknown.
The reality of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 is concrete and will last forever: Ben Roethlisberger retires without his third ring. But before he walked away, he shared some final moments of magic with Steelers Nation as he ended his time at Heinz Field in the victory formation.
And that alone makes Art Rooney II’s gamble worth it.
From the grade book of a part-time, substitute teacher who’d really prefer to have stuck with his day job, here is the Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Chiefs.
Quarterbacks It was another frustrating performance for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, as the 39-year old, who is presumably on his way out, completed 23 of 35 passes for 159 yards, an ugly interception early on that helped to kick off the Kansas City onslaught and a touchdown late in the game when the onslaught was official. Things were so bad for Roethlisberger that he actually gave way to backup Mason Rudolph following the aforementioned garbage-time touchdown, a 15-yard connection with receiver Diontae Johnson. Grade: D
Running backs The ground game was actually healthy enough for a win, as the team gained 130 yards on 25 carries, but one will never know if that was because the Chiefs were playing a softer defense thanks to jumping all over Pittsburgh or if it was legit. For what it’s worth, rookie Najee Harris ran hard as usual and gained 93 yards on 19 carries, while backup Benny Snell Jr. spelled Harris with 20 yards on five carries. Grade: C
Wide Receivers It was another subpar day for the Steelers receivers. The beleaguered Chase Claypool did have a series in which he made some impressive combat catches, but he only tallied 41 yards on four receptions when all was said and done. As for Johnson, who was the team’s leading receiver on the day with six catches for 51 yards and a score, he pulled an Emmanuel Sanders by fumbling without being touched early in the third quarter. The only other receiver of note was Ray-Ray McCloud, who made people notice how ineffective he was while being targeted eight times. Grade: D+
Tight Ends |Without Eric Ebron and Pat Freiermuth, this unit was about as effective as you’d expect with Zach Gentry catching four passes for 31 yards and Kevin Rader pulling in one pass for seven yards. Oh well, at least the running game was somewhat effective. I don’t know how helpful these guys were with that, but I’ll give them the benefit of doubt by not totally failing them. Grade: D
Offensive Line Another rocky and inconsistent day for the unit, especially rookie center Kendrick Green, who was benched during the game for J.C. Hassenauer. Grade: D
Defensive Line With Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu out for the year, it was another frustrating day for Cam Heyward and his understudies. The Chiefs rushed for 127 yards which wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great either. While Heyward did record one of the team’s two sacks, the pass rush was mostly ineffective. Heyward even made a mistake early on, when he jumped offsides on third and 11 and kept the Chiefs first touchdown drive alive. Grade: D
Linebackers Alex Highsmith recorded the defense’s other sack on the day. As for inside linebacker Robert Spillane, he was the leading tackler in the game with 13. However, both Highsmith and Spillane set the tone early on (in a bad way) when they teamed up to stop Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire from the one-yard line, only for Edwards-Helaire to escape their clutches for the game’s first score. T.J. Watt was actually invisible in this game unless you count the times the camera spotted him on the sidelines nursing his injuries. Grade: D+
Secondary Not much good you can say here, as Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes completed 23 of 30 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns. Nobody in the secondary really did anything of note, not Joe Haden, not Minkah Fitzpatrick. Grade: D
Special Teams Kicker Chris Boswell was one for two on field goals on the day with his miss coming from 36-yards out in the first half when the Steelers were trailing, 17-0.
As for emergency punter Corliss Waitman, who was filling in for rookie Pressley Harvin III following the sad news that his father had passed away, he didn’t do too bad, averaging 60.5 yards on two punts.
McCloud averaged 20 yards on three kickoff returns and the same amount on his lone punt return. Grade: C+
Coaching This was Pittsburgh’s second blowout loss in less than a month and the fourth time since November 19 that the team found itself down by three scores or more in a game. Just like with the 41-10 loss to the Bengals, the team looked uninspired and unprepared. I realize that the Steelers are mostly a young team, but good, young teams improve as the season goes along. This bunch looks like it’s waiting for the offseason to begin. One begins to wonder if head coach Mike Tomlin has finally lost the locker room. As for offensive coordinator Matt Canada? It was another fine mess. Grade: F
In one of the ugliest games played in Heinz Field history, the Pittsburgh Steelers fought the winless Detroit Lions to a 16-16 tie in overtime.
The story lines coming out of this game are nearly limitless.
You want to talk about injuries? You’ve got it. Questionable calls. Check! Missed opportunities. Yep. And then some. Opportunities to second guess the play calling? You bet. Failure on fundamentals? You can say that again.
In truth, neither team deserved to win this game. But if nothing else this comedy of errors offers a timely reality check for the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Diontae Johnson fumbles in overtime. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
COVID-19 Strikes Big Ben at the 11th Hour
Less than 24 hours before the game news broke that Ben Roethlisberger had tested positive for COVID-19 and was out for the game. Mason Rudolph had practiced most of the week due to Roethlisberger’s shoulder injury, so the backup would at least avoid coming in cold.
And Mason Rudolph and the Steelers offense started hot.
The Steelers offense opened the game as they have many times this season: By marching down the field for a touchdown. There weren’t a lot of fireworks on this drive, just some solid runs by Najee Harris, some chink and dink short passing to Ray-Ray McCloud, James Washington and Eric Ebron.
The Lions pitched in, leaving James Washington wide open in the end zone, allowing the two Oklahoma State Cowboys to hook up for an easy touchdown. With 9:40 left to play in the first half, things were looking very good for the home team at Heinz Field.
Unfortunately, this was about as good as it was going to get.
Steelers Run Defense Does Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde Routine. Again.
After 9 games there is one thing you can say about the Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 defense: Either it is very good against the run or it is terrible.
But there IS no in between.
Early in the second quarter Jermar Jefferson ran 28 yards, going untouched for about his first 24 for a touchdown. Jefferson would suffer an injury on the play, but the Lions running game was about to roar to life.
The next time the Lions got the ball, their running backs ripped off 3 double digit wins, including a 10 yarder on 4th and one that allowed Detroit to kick a field goal to tie the game at the half. The Lions were only sharpening their claws.
Getting the ball after half time, the Lions pounced with:
12 and 16 yard runs by D’Andre Swift
14 and 42 yard runs by Godwin Igwebuike, the latter of which went for a touchdown.
Igwebuike’s touchdown gave Detroit a 16 to 10 lead, there it would stay as Ryan Santoso missed his extra point. But would it matter?
Steelers Defense Remembers to Tackle, Offense Shifts into Low Gear
On their opening drive the Detroit Lions gouged the Steelers for 85 yards and they made it look easy. Then a funny thing happened. During the rest of regulation, they totaled 47 yards, including two drives that ended with negative yards.
When asked to about the manic-depressive nature of the schematics of his run defense, Mike Tomlinbegged off explaining:
There was a guy out of place or two initially. But if you had to wrap it in a bow and talk about globally, we had to tackle better. As the game wore on, we did. And we settled it down. But the damage was the damage.
Normally, you wouldn’t think of a defense giving up 16 points with 12:09 left to play in the 3rd quarter as “damage,” but after scoring their first touchdown, the Steelers offense slipped into low gear – and there it remained.
It wasn’t so much that Mason Rudolph was playing poorly. He just wasn’t playing particularly well.
Rudolph didn’t have a ton of help from his receivers. Both James Washington and Diontae Johnson failed to come up with key combat catches. Matt Canada’s play calling was questionable. Although Najee Harris was running fairly well, Rudolph threw the ball 50 times. In doing so, he stuck with the safe routes on the side lines, which limited Pat Freiermuth’s role in the offense.
Still, Rudolph played well enough to position Chris Boswell for two field goals, earning a tie in regulation. That set up the most unusual overtime in team, if not NFL history.
Overtime – A Comedy of Errors
Terrell Edmunds sacks Jared Goff in overtime. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla
Each of those could have been and should have been the proverbial “turning” point in overtime.
They weren’t — because the Steelers kept turning the tide back in Detroit’s favor.
On their second play, Mason Rudolph hit Diontae Johnson who flipped the field, moving the Steelers into Lion’s territory. Unfortunately, he fumbled the ball. Detroit recovered. Minkah made his interception but Devin Bush got called for very questionable hold. Detroit got into field goal range, gave up a holding penalty on third down, and promptly missed their field goal attempt. The Steelers had new life.
The Steelers answered with a nice 4-yard run.
Then Kendrick Green snapped the ball way over Rudolph’s head, bringing up 2nd and 23.
The Steelers punted, and the Lions gained -13 yards on their next drive, thanks in large part to Edmunds’ sack.
The Steelers got the ball back. Rudolph hit McCloud, Ebron and Harris to move the Steelers to midfield. Then he hit Freiermuth, who got them to the Detroit 39 and ostensibly in field goal range – then Freiermuth fumbled.
Detroit got a desperation pass, but they only managed to go 14 yards.
Welcome to Your 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers
Mathematically, a tie is better than a loss. But coming at home, against a winless team that seemed determined to lose the game in overtime?
It leaves the Steelers with little to feel good about.
Sure, the Steelers lost two starting offensive lineman, lost T.J. Watt and lost Joe Haden during the game, but the Lions were playing with a skeleton crew at many spots on their depth chart.
That, and Jared Goff quarterback was clearly hurting.
After starting 1-3, the Steelers rebounded to win 4 straight. But the result of each of those games has been in doubt until late in the 4th quarter if not the buzzer itself. While no team in the NFL rides “On Any Given Sunday” to four straight wins, the question has been, “How high is the 2021 Steelers ceiling?”
After tying Detroit the answer appears to be, “Not very high.”