Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Center and Guard. Has Pittsburgh Already Done Enough?

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, Steelers vs Broncos

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.

The Steelers starter at right guard during 2021 was Trai Turner, an emergency free agent signing to replace David DeCastro. Turner brought attitude to the position, as evidenced by his ejection against the Raiders, but the Steelers have made no attempt to resign him.

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.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

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.

 

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Hold the Line! Steelers Sign Chuks Okorafor, Mason Cole and James Daniels to 3 Year Contracts

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.

Chukwuma Okorafor, Chuks Okorafor, Steelers 2022 Free Agent

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 Steelers confirmed that they extended tenders to Dwayne Haskins and J.C. Hassenauer. Montravius Adams has also been resigned.

But there’s been no word of Robert Spillane. Nor has there been any news about the Steelers top three free agents, Terrell Edmunds, JuJu Smith-Schuster or Ahkello Witherspoon.

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.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers Will (and Should) Keep J.C. Hassenauer, Exclusive Rights Free Agent

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.

J.C. Hassenauer

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.

Keep up with Steelers free agency. Click here for our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers 2021 Final Report Card: Not Too Tardy to Break Even Edition

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, Steelers vs Titans

T.J. Watt after recovering a Titans fumble. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
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-

Running Backs
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+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

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-

Wide Receivers
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-

Offensive Line
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

Defensive Line
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, Cam Sutton interception Chargers, Steelers vs Chargers

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

Coaching
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, Steelers vs Browns

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

Front Office
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

Unsung Heroes
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.

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Steelers 2021 Season Review: A Worthy Gamble that Came Up Short

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.

Ben Roethlisberger, Art Rooney II, Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field, Steelers vs Browns

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.

Their projected offensive line went Chukwuma Okorafor, Kevin Dotson, Kendrick Green, David DeCastro and Zach Banner.

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).

Stephon Tuitt, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

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

On defense, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler expected Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu to be manning a front line backed by Vince Williams alongside a fully recovered Devin Bush. Neither Tuitt nor Vince Williams ever played a down. Tyson Alualu’s season ended in the first quarter of the Steelers week 2 loss to the Raiders.

As for Devin Bush? At best he struggled in returning from his ACL tear; at worst he’s deforming himself from a former rookie of the year into one of the worst busts in franchise history.

  • 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. Watt came 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, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field

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.

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Report Card For Steelers 36-10 Loss To The Chiefs

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: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

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

 

 

 

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Reality Check: Comedy of Errors Leads Steelers 16-16 Tie with Winless Lions

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, Zach Gentry, Steelers vs Lions, Diontae Johnson fumble overtime Steelers Lions

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 Tomlin begged 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, Jared Goff, Steelers vs Lions

Terrell Edmunds sacks Jared Goff in overtime. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

It is unfortunate for their sake, that Terrell Edmunds, Cam Heyward, James Pierre, Joe Schobert and Minkah Fitzpatrick made some exceptional plays in overtime, (although Fitzpatrick’s was nullified by penalty.)

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.”

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Still Fretting over Steelers Drafting Najee Harris & Pat Freiermuth? Please, Stop.

Since we’ve actually reached the month of November (so hard to believe), and the Steelers 2021 regular season is now seven games old, you’d think most folks would have long since forgotten about what took place during the 2021 NFL Draft last spring.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns

Najee Harris goes Air Mail express into the endzone. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Wrong.

People are still fretting about how the Steelers should have drafted an offensive lineman in the first round and how running backs are a dime a dozen. And even if you’ve now grown to accept the fact that Pittsburgh decided to select Najee Harris, running back, Alabama, 24th, overall, damn it, why didn’t the team take center Creed Humphrey, center, Oklahoma, one round later when he was still ripe for the picking?

Did you see Sunday’s game, a 15-10 victory over the Browns at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium? Did you witness the powerful runs by Harris and his Walter Payton-like leap into the end zone from about the four-yard line? Did you notice who scored the other touchdown? That’s right, it was Freiermuth. Did you appreciate the body control and the concentration, as he fought off the Browns’ defender, cradled the football and got both feet in bounds before falling to the turf?

A center couldn’t have scored either one of those touchdowns. You might argue that a running back and tight end drafted much lower still may have, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

  • Those two rookies are special. Those two youngsters are studs.

The Steelers were smart in selecting them, and I get the feeling it’s going to continue to pay off for them for quite some time.

As for the offensive line that was very much in need of an infusion of young talent, Kendrick Green, the center Pittsburgh selected out of Illinois in the third round, has been starting since Day 1. Dan Moore Jr., the left tackle drafted out of Texas A&M in the fourth round, surprised everyone with his development over the summer and has also been starting since Week 1.

  • Has Green been pushed around a bit over his first seven games?

Yes, he’s undersized. He’s also green (no pun intended). He barely played center in college. But what I like about Green is that he’s not afraid to push back. Same for Moore, who clearly had his hands full on Sunday while trying to block Myles Garrett (Moore probably wished he had another pair of hands in order to deal with Garrett). But Moore survived. If he can get through a game against perhaps the best edge rusher in the NFL, he can get through anything, right?

So, just to be clear, the Steelers went into the 2021 NFL Draft in need of a running back, a tight end and multiple offensive linemen. They addressed all four areas with their first four picks and all four selections have contributed heavily to the Steelers’ offense through seven games.

  • What more could you ask for?

If that’s not enough, Isaiahh Loudermilk, a defensive lineman who the Steelers traded a 2022 fourth-round pick to the Dolphins in order to draft in the fifth round, is starting to make strides and turn heads. Tre Norwood, a Swiss Army Knife of a defensive back who the Steelers drafted in the seventh round, has been more than a valuable member of the secondary so far in his rookie season. Oh yeah, and Pressley Harvin III, the punter out of Georgia Tech who Pittsburgh also selected in the seventh round, won the job over Jordan Berry in training camp.

Throw in Buddy Johnson, an inside linebacker from Texas A&M who made the team as a fourth-round pick, and that’s quite a successful 2021 draft class. To review: the Steelers 2021 draft class consisted of nine players. Eight made the team, five are already starting (a punter is considered a starter) and seven are contributing heavily.

  • Again, how can you ask for more than that?

It’s time to stop thinking about what the Steelers could and should have done in the 2021 NFL Draft and start talking about what the players they drafted are actually doing.

The end.

 

 

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Upside of Steelers Loss to Raiders? Trai Turner Spitting Incident Proves Rivalry Still Strong

It sure was an ugly scene on Sunday, as the Steelers fell to the Raiders, 26-17, in a Week 2 clash at Heinz Field.

Trai Turner, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin restrains Trai Turner. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The Steelers injury situation on the defensive side was ugly–the team lost cornerback Joe Haden and linebacker Devin Bush to injuries before the game, as well as Tyson Alualu and T.J. Watt to ailments during it.

The defensive performance after said injuries was hideous–Raiders quarterback Derek Carr played like Kenny Stabler, particularly in the second half when he took advantage of Keith Butler‘s depleted unit and seemed to pass at will.

The offense was again pretty darn ugly–you can’t get any uglier than what the Steelers have been doing on that side of the ball for the first two games of the 2021 regular season.

It was an all-around ugly game, for sure, but at least the Steelers remained aggressive all afternoon, including linebacker Robert Spillane, who laid the wood a time or two while filling in for the injured Bush–he even drew a questionable unnecessary roughness penalty for a hard shot on Carr.

The offensive line, a beleaguered and embattled unit that is made up of mostly young guys who are trying to learn their crafts and become a part of a cohesive unit right before our very eyes, certainly was chippy on Sunday. Rookie center Kendrick Green didn’t seem to mind mixing it up with many Raiders defenders all day long.

Despite the loss, it was cool to see that so much intensity still exists between two traditional rivals whose most famous feuds took place in the 1970s.

Youngsters like Spillane and Green may one day become famous (or infamous) characters in the Steelers/Raiders mutual hatred, but it looks like veteran guard Trai Turner got indoctrinated into the rivalry two games into his Steelers’ career.

That’s right, following running back Najee Harris‘ 25-yard touchdown catch and run early in the fourth quarter, a play that brought Pittsburgh to within two points with 11:15 remaining, Turner was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. Raiders defender Marquel Lee was also penalized 15 yards, meaning the dead-ball fouls offset. No big deal, right? Only problem for Pittsburgh was that Turner was ejected, while Lee was not.

Why? CBS cameras soon revealed that Turner spat on Lee after charging through half his Steelers’ teammates to get in the face of the Las Vegas defender. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was incensed at the game-day officials and was demanding an explanation while also giving them an earful.

Turner has no defense–again, he can clearly be seen spitting in Lee’s face. But did you see how angry Turner was as he charged after Lee? What could Lee have done to anger Turner so much? According to Turner, he was only retaliating for Lee spitting on him first.

Do you believe Turner? I do. I mean, Lee plays for the Raiders. This is the same organization whose mantra used to be, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” Actually, that is probably still the Raiders’ mantra. Remember when George Atkinson sucker-punched Steelers receiver Lynn Swann away from the play in a game between the two teams back in the 1970s? Whether you remember it or not, it happened. Chuck Noll was even sued by Atkinson after the legendary head coach accused the defensive back of being part of the criminal element of the NFL.

I’m not saying the Steelers are innocent; they’ve obviously had their share of maniacs who have contributed to this 50-year rivalry between the black and gold and the silver and black. What I’m saying is that Lee likely spat first and deserves just as much of the public flogging as Turner has been on the receiving end of since Sunday.

Anyway, I don’t want to get into the Immaculate Reception or anything like that–Lord knows that gets brought up every time the two teams meet–but isn’t it nice to see that this rivalry is still so down and dirty after all of these years?

Maybe these two proud organizations will do it right and finally meet up in the postseason again.

That’s when the real spit (and blood and punches) will start flying.

 

 

 

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Doomed? Steelers Cut David DeCastro as Infamous “June Curse” Returns

Just when you thought that the Steelers news cycle was about to grind to a near halt for the next month, the brain trust on the South Side decides to drop a bomb:

The move, while a surprise, does not come as a total shock. David DeCastro was absent from OTAs and only attended one day of the mandatory mini-camp. He watched in street clothes did not participate in any drills.

Mike Tomlin declined to explain why DeCastro was not participating, and when asked if it was because of injury, he issued a quasi non-denial-denial. The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly pointed out that David DeCastro was the only Steelers starter who was not made available to the press via a Zoom call.

Then, as OTAs drew to a close, word leaked that the Steelers had worked out Trai Turner, a five time Pro Bowl player with 89 starts to his name.

When asked about it in his mail bag, The Athletic’s Ed Bouchette responded “You don’t bring in a vet of Turner’s resume — a five-time Pro Bowl guard not yet 30 — just to kick the tires,” after downplaying the likelihood of injury, he continued, “There’s some smoke here, though.”

This is one case where smoke clearly meant fire. The only question now is whether that fire will consume whatever the 2021 Steelers already meager Super Bowl dreams.

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line quite simply needs to step it up. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Steelers Were Depending on DeCastro. Are They Doomed Now?

For the record, the Steelers waived DeCastro with a non-football injury designation, which frees them of any injury settlement obligations. The Steelers also gain around $8.75 million in salary-cap space, although the extra space is of little consolation

  • Because complete upheaval on the Steelers offensive line has just become official.

Assuming he starts and remains healthy, Zach Banner will be the only starting offensive lineman from the Steelers 2020 opener against the Giants to return in 2021. (OK, Kevin Dotson started in place of DeCastro, so he’ll be back too.) Chuks Okorafo now becomes the “veteran” leader with all of 19 starts to his name.

While David DeCastro has been one of the NFL’s best offensive lineman for much of the last decade. He missed the 2020 opener and his return helped spur James Conner to his first 100 yard game. Still, it is generally acknowledged that his play slipped in 2020, and the entire line suffered because of it.

  • But there is no calculus that results in the Steelers offensive line becoming stronger without DeCastro.

NFL Network reporter Mike Garafolo suggests that persistent ankle injuries are an issue and hints that DeCastro is “evaluating his future.” Regardless of whether this was a solely a Steelers decision, it came at DeCastro’s request or it was a mutual choice, this was clearly not in the Steelers plan.

  • To replace DeCastro, the Steelers have indeed reportedly signed Trai Turner.

That’s good. But Turner only played 9 games last year and has not played more than 13 games in a season since 2016.

The Steelers of course drafted Kendrick Green in 3rd round of the 2021 NFL Draft and also brought back B.J. Finney both of whom are potential replacements for DeCastro, although both were seen as contenders to start at center…

And for good measure, the NFL today told the Steelers they could not hold training camp at St. Vincents. Just to keep things interesting.

…Repeat, this was NOT in the plan.

Steelers June Curse Continues

Before the NFL pushed OTAs and mini-camps into June a few years ago, it was the only real period of dead space on the league calendar. News was sparse, as millennials and Generation Zers learned what the NFL off season was like prior to the Freeman McNeil verdict which brought free agency.

  • Yet the month of June has not been kind to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

While it has been dormant for the past few years, the Steelers June Curse has struck back with a vengeance. Consider:

And of course Chuck Noll died in June of 2014. While only a few days in the month remain, June can’t end fast enough for the Steelers.

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