Steelers 2021 Preview: Roethlisberger’s Last Ride to be a Rough One?

The wait will soon end.

Its been 245 days since the Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns and a lot has happened since then. Some of it completely predictable, some of it surprising:

Through it all, Kevin Colbert managed once again to perform the salary cap equivalent of the Loaves and the Fishes. Thanks to COVID-19 the Steelers were facing their worst salary cap situation since 2012 and 2013, yet Colbert managed to put together a roster on paper that is far stronger than anyone had a right to expect on the lonely January night when Roethlisberger and Pouncey commiserated on the sidelines.

But the time for measuring roster moves on paper has ended and the time for judgement rendered on the gridiron is about to begin.

So what can we expect?

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

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

Roethlisberger’s Final Ride Likely a Rough One

Times like these force oneself to channel their inner Jesse Ventura and “Call it as I see it McMahon.” And the truth is that if this is Ben Roethlisberger’s last ride, it looks to be a rough one.

  • That’s not the call I want to make, but the one my eyes tell me I have to make.

Why?

First let’s consider what caused the Steeler once promising 2020 season to end in an unmitigated disaster:

  • Ben Roethlisberger inability to throw the long ball caught up with him.
  • The running game disappeared
  • Injuries ravaged the defense, neutering a dominant group

Word is that Ben Roethlisberger has recovered his long ball, but given his limited action in preseason we’ll simply have to wait to see if that comes true. The Steelers dumped Randy Fichtner and replaced him with Matt Canada, which should help. As for the defense and injuries, well let’s get to that.

When salary cap Armageddon loomed, the chief concerns for the Steelers were:

Can they preserve their pass rush?
Can they field a competitive secondary?
Can they rebuild the offensive line?

Let’s see where the Steelers stand on the eve of the 2021 season.

Pass Rush

So the Steelers lost Bud Dupree, but still have Alex Highsmith, resigned T.J. Watt and added Melvin Ingram. So, on paper that’s perhaps a net positive. However, Stephon Tuitt, who accounted for 11 sacks is beginning the season on injured reserve. And Tyson Alualu is also injured.

The Steelers should field a strong pass rush this year, but its doubtful they can field a better one.

Secondary

After years of being a liability, the Steelers secondary was finally a strength during the 2019 and 2020. Yet going into the 2021 off season, everyone expected a salary cap casualty to come out of the defensive backfield.

  • But few expected that casualty to be Steven Nelson instead of Joe Haden.

The Steelers plan was to go with Haden, Cameron Sutton, and James Pierre with Joe Haden and Antoine Brooks pushing as the 4th corner. Justin Layne got arrested and Brook got hurt. The Steelers sallied on during preseason, mixing and matching various configurations of their cornerbacks. Their final decision? They traded yet another draft pick for Ahkello Witherspoon.

Offensive Line

Let’s say this. No one can accuse the Steelers of standing pat on the offensive line. When the Steelers open against the Bills, Kelvin Dotson will be the only player working in the same place he was last season against the Giants.

  • But does change equal improvement?

That’s the bigger question. What isn’t a question is that this is another situation that did not evolve according to plan. Mike Tomlin’s idea was to start is experienced tackles Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor on the right and left sides. But Banner got hurt and left tackle proved to be too much for Okorafor.

Dan Moore’s performance has elicited nothing but positive commentary since he was drafted in the third round, but rookies starting a left tackle in the NFL are rare.

As it stands, on opening day the Steelers will start 2 rookies on offensive line, one sophomore who literally looks like a “rising sophomore,” a veteran who was unemployed in late June and veteran who is back at right tackle after not being able to cut it on the left side.

It might work. But would you bet your 401(k) balance on it?

Wimp Out Disclaimer

After writing 753 of gloom and doom its now time for the “Wimp Out Disclaimer.”

The red and yellow flag flying above the Steelers offensive line, secondary and pass rush are real but so has Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s reaction to them. When it became clear that Banner’s injury issues weren’t going away and Okorafor struggled, the Steelers started working Dan Moore into the line up.

The first thought here was that Mike Tomlin was planning to use Moore the way he used Kelvin Beachum in 2013, roating him in on both sides to push both starters. But Tomlin didn’t do that. He made the change immediately.

You can see a similar pattern elsewhere, from signing Melvin Ingram, to trading for Joe Schobert, to trading for Witherspoon.

The fact that the Steelers brass felt they needed to make these moves is worrisome, but their willingness to act decisively is encouraging.

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Can Kevin Dotson Be in Great Shape and Still Have Coaches Mad At Him? Perhaps.

In case you tuned out and are only now starting to tune back in now that Steelers training camp is nearing, the big news out Pittsburgh following OTAs is that Steelers insider Dejan Kovacevic, the founder and editor of DK Pittsburgh Sports, came under fire recently for writing about and then podcasting about the possibility that someone within the Steelers organization was upset with second-year guard Kevin Dotson for a supposed lack of conditioning this offseason.

Kevin Dotson, Steelers vs Broncos

Kevin Dotson as a rookie. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

With the Steelers offensive line in total rebuild mode thanks to the release of guard David DeCastro last week, this has the potential to be a big story, especially when you consider the fact that Kevin Dotson, who had a tremendous rookie season in spot duty in 2020, was penciled in as the new starting left guard the very second Matt Feiler left via free agency in March. 

In fact, according to DK’s source, when Trai Turner was brought in for a visit during the week of mandatory minicamp, it wasn’t in an attempt to find DeCastro’s replacement at right guard; it was to possibly find someone who could play left guard in place of the seemingly undisciplined Dotson. (Turner was ultimately signed to replace DeCastro as the starting right guard for 2021.)

  • Is Kevin Dotson not taking his opportunity seriously, as DK’s source is apparently asserting?

The funny part was how quickly Steelers fans rallied around Kevin Dotson and took to social media to post pictures and videos of the guard hard at work during the offseason. Not only did the fans take up for Dotson, but his trainer —Duke Mayweather –did as well. Even other local reporters scoffed at Kovacevic’s story and said things simply did not add up.

Just because things don’t add up on the surface, that doesn’t mean there aren’t people within the Steelers’ organization who are upset with Dotson. Dotson could be taking his opportunity to be the next starting left guard very seriously — hitting the gym, hitting the film room, etc.–and yet there still could be at least one person within the Steelers’ organization — a coach, a front-office executive, freaking Art Rooney II–who is unhappy with his desire and dedication.

Think about it, why would Kovacevic, a longtime local sports reporter, want to make his job harder by fabricating a story that’s going to anger the Steelers and possibly cause him to lose access to players and coaches? Heck, Ramon Foster works for DK Pittsburgh Sports. It would be foolish for Kovacevic to make this public if it wasn’t said to him. Mark Madden, the popular and controversial Pittsburgh sports talk radio personality, has had sources within the Steelers’ organization for years. Who were/are they? A good journalist would never reveal such a thing.

Anyway, more often than not, when Madden reports something from his anonymous sources(s), it turns out to be true.

Case in point, Madden was the first person to report that running back Le’Veon Bell would be suspended at the start of the 2016 season for missing several mandatory drug tests. Nobody wanted to buy it at the time. Bell, who was suspended for the first two games of the 2015 campaign, vehemently denied this rumor.

It turned out to be true.

Again, though, I’m not saying that Dotson is out of shape and/or not taking his job as a professional football player seriously. What I am saying is that at least one person within the Steelers’ organization is probably unhappy with him for one reason or another.

Football people are weird. Coaches can be unusual birds and are often hard to please. General managers can have strange opinions on players. Even owners are susceptible to placing one of their charges in the dog house and never letting him out.

There could be any number of reasons why someone is unhappy with Dotson. Maybe it’s his draft pedigree. After all, he was a fourth-round pick from Louisiana who wasn’t even invited to the 2020 NFL Combine. Perhaps someone feels Pittsburgh could do better at left guard in terms of talent and ability.

It’s like what Keith Willis once said about making a name for himself as a defensive end in the NFL despite being an undrafted free agent from Northeastern in 1982: “For certain people, you weren’t anything but a free agent but I never fell prey to that.”

  • It could even be Dotson’s outspoken nature on social media.
  • I know that sounds crazy, but, again, coaches, executives and owners can be strange birds.

They say all it takes is one person to be your champion in order to succeed at something. The opposite can be true, as well. I think the most famous example may be the disdain former Raiders owner Al Davis continuously had for Marcus Allen, a Hall of Fame running back and one of the greatest players to ever don the silver and black. There’s never been any specific reason given as to why the late Davis had it out for his star running back –everything from Allen’s training camp holdouts to his lack of breakaway speed has been mentioned as possibilities –but there’s no question the feud was very real.

If you’re going to have someone within your organization not believe in you, the last person you’d want it to be is the one who signs your checks.

In conclusion, all the workout pictures and videos in the world aren’t going to change the fact that at least one person within the Steelers’ organization is likely upset with Kevin Dotson. Is it justified? I can’t answer that. I do know that when it comes to Dejan Kovacevic, instead of killing the messenger, you should probably be asking why a promising young guard is seemingly in the doghouse of a prominent member within the Steelers’ organization.

 

 

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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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What Will be the Fate of Steelers Matt Feiler in Free Agency?

The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line during most of the Mike Tomlin era has been a study in contrasts. For the better part of the last decade, the Steelers have fielded one of the best, if not the best offensive line in football.

  • But the route they’ve taken to get their is more circuitous than Glass Run Road

(Sorry, if you’re not from or at least familiar with Pittsburgh then Googling “Glass Run Road” it won’t cut it here. So you’ve just got to trust me on this, or otherwise go to Pittsburgh and drive it on a rainy night on a Learner’s Permit.)

On the one hand, it has featured high-profile draft picks, such as Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro. On the other side of the spectrum, you’ve unheralded draft picks and/or undrafted free agents. Matt Feiler is the latest in the latter group, and he’s about to become a free agent. 

Will he find his fortune in Pittsburgh?

Matt Feiler,

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Unnestricted Free Agent Matt Feiler, Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Capsule Profile of Matt Feiler’s Career with the Steelers

One year after signing with the Houston Texans as an undrafted free agent out of Bloomsburg, Matt Feiler latched on with the Steelers in 2015. After spending a few seasons honing his skills under the tutelage of offensive line coach–and position guru– Mike Munchak.

Feiler got his big break in 2018 when he started 10 games at right tackle in place of the injured Marcus Gilbert. How well did Feiler do? So well, Pittsburgh felt more than comfortable trading Gilbert to the Cardinals in the 2019 offseason. Feiler justified the move that regular season by starting all 16 games at right tackle. In 2020, Feiler, who was a versatile backup before becoming a starter, was moved to left guard to take the place of the retired Ramon Foster. Feiler appeared to struggle much more at that position, however, than he did at right tackle.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Matt Feiler in 2021

2020 could have just been an off year for Feiler, 28. Either that, or it was simply a mistake moving him to the guard position, one that could easily be corrected by putting him back at right tackle in 2021. Beyond that, the Steelers, in a word, need offensive lineman.

  • They need both quality and quantity. 

Matt Feiler was part of what was still one of the best offensive lines in football in 2018. He’s a proven commodity at a position the Steelers need to strengthen.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Matt Feiler in 2021

Feiler isn’t an exclusive rights free agent or a restricted free agent. He’s now an unrestricted free agent who is free to shop his services wherever he desires. I personally feel that Feiler’s best position is right tackle and if I’m thinking that, perhaps various NFL general managers are, as well.

And if Feiler wants to really cash in, he’s surely thinking that. What could Feiler command on the open market as a tackle? If it’s anything approaching what other Steelers offensive tackles received in free agency, such as Kelvin Beachum (five years, $45 million from the Jaguars in 2015) and Chris Hubbard (five years, $36.5 million from the Browns in 2018), it will likely be much too much for the salary cap-strapped Steelers.

Besides all of that, the Steelers appear to have their left guard of the very immediate future in Kevin Dotson, last year’s fourth-round pick; Dotson did so well while starting in place of both Feiler and perennial All-Pro David DeCastro, he probably would have been the team’s rookie of the year if not for Chase Claypool.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Matt Feiler

It’s going to take much work for the Steelers to get in cap compliance this offseason. Zach Banner, a fellow free agent, is most likely returning after missing the vast majority of 2020 with a torn ACL. Chukwuma Okorafor, a third-round pick in 2018, is heading into the final year of his rookie deal and took Banner’s place at right tackle last year.

I think the Steelers are going to give those two youngsters every opportunity to win the tackle spots in 2021. As for the left guard position? Dotson appears to have a bright future. Again, I feel that Feiler would be wise to market himself as a tackle in free agency.

  • I think it’s best for the Steelers to move on.

Given that the Steelers don’t have the flexibility to make luxury signings on the offensive line, expect them to do just that.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Report Card for 2020 Season Finale Loss to Browns: Tempted to Grade on Effort Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is sorely tempted to give grades based on effort, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 season finale loss to the Browns.

Chris Wormely, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns

Chris Wormley sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
Mason Rudolph saw his first meaningful action in over a year and looked a bit rusty at times. On the negative side, his pocket presence was weak and his interception costly. On the positive side he threw with authority and didn’t simply hug the sidelines as he’d done a year ago. His two 4th quarter touchdown drives impressed. Joshua Dobbs played and completed several shovel passes and rushed for 20 yards. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had a “good” day, considering the context running for 37 yards on 9 carries. He also caught 5 passes. Benny Snell ran 3 times for ten yards and Anthony McFarland ran 3 times for 17 yards. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald took the lead and caught 5 passes on 6 targets. The run blocking also improved, slightly. Coincidence? Probably not. Kevin Rader and one pass thrown his way. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool ended his regular season with a bang, catching 5 passes for 101 yards including a combat catch for a touchdown. Diontae Johnson only caught 3 passes, but one was a 47 yard field flipper. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 passes including the 2nd touchdown. James Washington had two targets but couldn’t come down with either of them. The Steelers receivers delivered. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph was only sacked once, but faced a lot of pressure – some of that was him holding on to the ball too long. The run blocking was a little better, at times. Grade: C

Diontae Johnson, Robert Jackson, Steelers vs Browns

Diontae Johnson beats Robert Jackson for a big gain. Photo Credit: Caitlyn Epes, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt’s sack set up a 4th and long that allowed the Steelers to score their final touchdown. Chris Wormley saw extended action and helped force a punt with a sack. Tyson Alualu split time with Isaiah Buggs and Carlos Davis. Steelers did OK at containing the Browns running game, but didn’t keep Baker Mayfield in the pocket. Grade: B-

Linebackers
The Steelers 2nd string linebacking crops played for most of the game and was led in tackles by Alex Highsmith, followed by Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen. Alex Highsmith’s sack helped end the Browns 2 minute drive and Jayrone Elliot’s sack helped scuttle another drive. Still, Mayfield got out of the pocket one too many times. Given that this is what doomed the Steelers vs the Bengals, it cannot be over looked. Grade: C

Secondary
Sean Davis saw his first action in over a year and looked a little rusty but did well overall and defended a pass. Justin Layne started in place of Joe Haden and struggled at times. Steven Nelson defended a pass. And Mike Hilton only had 1 tackle but it came on a critical third down. Grade: B

Special Teams
Matthew Wright was 3-3 on field goals, including two from 46 yards out. Jordan Berry punted well. The Steelers punt coverage was solid as was their kick coverage, although the Browns did get one long one in. Ray-Ray McCloud did a decent job at returning kicks, but his punt returns are well below his 13.1 pre-fumble average. Grade: B

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Browns

JuJu Smith-Schuster scores a 4th quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Coaching
On defense the Steelers game plan didn’t show any wrinkles. The big run was an execution error, but the Steelers were sound fundamentally after that point, save for Mayfield’s ability to get out of the pocket must be stopped next week.

On offense, credit Randy Fichtner and Matt Canada for devising a way to get Joshua Dobbs into the game, and credit Mike Tomlin for having the confidence to run that package of plays. Whether this is something that the Steelers can make work for them in the playoffs, if nothing else the Steelers have given Cleveland’s defensive staff something else to think of.

  • This game was a thriller, and Mike Tomlin deserves all of the credit for that.

After Nick Chubb 47 yard run put Cleveland up 7-0 in the first quarter, it would have been easy for Pittsburgh to pack it in. Other playoff bound teams would have done the same thing (think Marv Levy’s Bills – yes, I am that old.)

  • But not Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

Had you taken a time machine from 2002, the last time the Browns were in the playoffs, and watched yesterday’s game, without knowing the stakes, you could have easily thought it was the Steelers who were fighting for their playoff lives. And you would have never guessed they were down 8 starters. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
One of the reasons why the game remained competitive was because on its next drive Cleveland got to first and goal at the four, where it had a pass batted away. 3 plays later they’d lost a yard and were settling for 3. Minkah Fitzpatrick batted that pass away and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers loss to the Browns.

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Steelers Report Card for Comeback over Colts: Roethlisberger Rebound Edition

From the grade book of a teacher crossing his fingers that his struggling students are rebounding as finals approach, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Colts.

T.J. Watt, Mike Hilton, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Colts

T.J. Watt strip sacks Philip Rivers and Mike Hilton is there. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
At the half, Ben Roethlisberger had completed just over 50% of his passes for less than 100 yards. After intermission Roethlisberger let it rip 23 of 29 passes for 244 yards, including touchdown passes of 25, 34 and 39 yards. Those deep balls fueled a stunning turn around that lifted the entire team and, if sustained, will make the Steelers a championship contender. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Twenty yards rushing. That was the Steelers total for the game. That includes two victory formation kneel downs, a 2 yard sweep, six Benny Snell rushes for a net zero yards and 5 James Conner runs for 20 yards and a touchdown. As has been the case too often this season, there was nowhere to run. James Conner did catch 5 of 5 passes that were thrown his way, completions which sustained drives. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron caught 5 of seven balls thrown to him including the Steelers 3rd touchdown. Vance McDonald caught one pass for 5 yards and could be seen throwing quality blocks. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson continues to be a work in progress dropping a pass early and running the wrong route just before the first half ended. But he atoned, burning the defense for a spectacular 39 yard touchdown and turning in a strong day. Chase Claypool re-emerged, coming up with a big catch that stretched the field and changed the tempo. James Washington had two catches for 20 yards. The leader of the group JuJu Smith-Schuster had 9 catches for 96 yards on 13 targets including the go ahead touchdown. Grade: A-

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Colts

Ju-Ju Smith Schuster scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Offensive Line
So the Steelers rally included a return to road grading for the running game an diary writing for the quarterback, right? Not quite. During the first half the running blocking was atrocious. There was some improvement, on Kevin Dotson’s side, but nothing to rave about. Both of Roethlisberger’s deep strikes came out fast but he did have time to throw in the 2nd half. The line was above the line. Grade: C

Defensive Line
The Steelers rally started with Stephon Tuitt’s sack of Philip Rivers. Cam Heyward ended their first drive of the 4th quarter with a sack of his own on a drive when he and Tyson Alualu set up the 3rd and long by stuffing Jonathan Taylor. The stats for this group were fine, but what stands out is the plays they made when it counted. Grade: A-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt set up the Steelers first score with a strip sack and added another tackle for a loss and two more QB hits for good measure. Vince Williams returned and logged 5 tackles. The real star of the unit? Avery Williamson. He stuffed Johnathan Taylor at the goal line for a 1 yard loss and then sacked Philip Rivers on the Colts next possession after the Steelers touchdown. Grade: A

Avery Williamson, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Colts

Avery Williamson closes in on Philip Rivers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick not only led the team in tackles, his coverage also set up Heyward’s sack and he deflected a late ball. Steven Nelson had a strong game although a PI penalty converted a 4th down for the Colts. Joe Haden gave up a touchdown while Terrell Edmunds and 5 tackles. The real star of the show was Mike Hilton who returned a fumble to the 3 and picked off Philip Rivers. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Matthew Wright was fine in relief of Chris Boswell and Jordan Berry punted well. Ray-Ray McCloud return averages weren’t exceptional, but he seem to recover some of the confidence he was lacking since his fumble against Washington. The Steelers kick coverage was OK but punt coverage was a bit shaky. This trend cannot continue in the playoffs. Grade: C

Coaching
At this point in his tenure, what you see is what your get from Randy Fichtner. You’re not going to see hand-crafted Joe Gibbs-like game plans nor will you see Kyle Shanahan’s innovations. His play calling might be predictable. Generally that’s a bad thing.

  • But you know what? Tom Moore’s play calling was plenty predictable.

Against the Colts it did not matter as the Steelers were able to out execute. The turn around authored by the Steelers defense was just as important. Every time they had to, Keith Butler’s boys step up and made plays in situational football. They were able to do so because guys were where they needed to be.

Facing the most punishing losing streak of since the four game skid of mid-2016 many were calling for Mike Tomlin to make changes. After a putrid first half change had to be tempting. But at halftime Mike Tomlin told CBS his plan was to “get the guys on the grass going.”

Alex Highsmith, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Colts

Alex Highsmith pressures Philip Rivers. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, Herald Bulletin

  • In doing so Tomlin stuck to one of his core coaching principles: But the game in the hands of your best players.

Tomlin did that, and those players delivered, snapping a 3 game losing streak in the process. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
Splash plays. Bit hits. Stats. Those drive conversations about defensive football. But defensive players often make impact that isn’t covered on the stat sheet. Twice Philip Rivers faded back to pass in attempting a comeback and twice his pass flew errant due to pressure. Both times it was Alex Highsmith on the pass rush and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Colts.

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Chase Claypool Arrives in Steelers 38-29 Win Over Eagles. Can He Off Set a Defensive Drop Off?

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 38 to 29 to open their season with a 4-0 record. As commentators quickly noted, the last two times the Steelers opened 4-0, where 1978 and 1979 – seasons that ended with Lombardi Trophy presentations in Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV.

That’s an encouraging trend, but the way in which the Eagles game unfolded reveals that the 2020 Steelers still have much to improve upon if they’re to emulate the Super Steelers.

Chase Claypool, Chase Claypool 4 touchdowns, Steelers vs Eagles

Rookie Chase Claypool scores the first of four touchdowns vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers-Eagles First Half Shows Why You Play on the Field and Not Madden

There’s a reason why you play games on the field instead of simulating them in Madden, and Eagles game shows why. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia both brought aggressive, quarterback harassing defenses into the game.

  • So it follows that the game would be a low-scoring defensive slugfest. Right?

Nope. During the final 20 minutes of the first half, the Steelers and Eagles alternated between 5 straight scoring drives. Officially, the Steelers got in the last word with Chris Boswell’s field goal, but the Eagles reached Pittsburgh’s 12 with an impressive two minute drill and would have scored had time not expired.

The first half’s “expect the unexpected” theme carried over until the end of the 2nd half.

Knock Out Punch Eludes the Steelers. Again.

Even when Mike Tomlin’s Steelers have been at their best, they’ve still struggled to put teams away. To their credit, the Steelers began the 2nd half against the Eagles determined to land that knockout blow.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Eagles

Ben Roethlisberger passes against the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

After feigning with a few chink-and-dink passes, Randy Fitchner dove right into his bag of tricks with jet sweep to Ray-Ray McCloud who streaked for 58 yards down to the Philadelphia 5. Two plays later, Fitchner was at it again when bunched Vance McDonald, Trey Edmunds and James Conner to the weakside only to have the trio act as blockers instead of receivers as Ben Roethlisberger hooked up with Chase Claypool for his 2nd touchdown of the day.

Steven Nelson ended the Eagles next drive after just two plays when he reclaimed possession for Pittsburgh at Philly’s 23 by picking off Carson Wentz. A quick pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster brought the Steelers to the goal line where James Conner marched into the end zone behind Kevin Dotson.

The Steelers had gone up by 17 points by scoring a touchdown, securing a turnover, and transforming that turnover into another touchdown. Mike Hilton opened the next series by sacking Carson Wentz to put Philadelphia further behind the 8 ball and barely 5 minutes had elapsed in the first half.

Finally it seemed, Pittsburgh had landed a knockout blow….

Eagles Exploit Steelers Secondary, Claw Their Way Back

….Except they hadn’t. Two plays later, Carlton Wentz converted a third down by finding Travis Fulgham for a field flipping 31 yard gain. A pass interference penalty on Joe Haden put the Eagles in the Red Zone, setting a Philadelphia touchdown and two point conversion that was all too easy.

Carson Wentz and Travis Fulgham continued to use and abuse the Steelers secondary and scored on their next possession, cutting the Steelers lead to two. The Steelers responded with a workman like, clock consuming drive, but unfortunately Eric Ebron scuttled it by coughing up the ball to the Eagles at mid field with 6 minutes left.

Not only had the Steelers failed to knock out the Eagles, they appeared to be supplying them smelling salts….

Chase Claypool Closes It for Steelers, But Cleveland to Offer True Test

Fault the Steelers for letting the Eagles back into the game, but slamming the door shut with fantastic efforts on both sides of the ball. They also had help from Doug Pederson who tried a failed 57 yard field goal – towards Heinz Field’s open end no less – rather than punting to pin the Steelers inside their own 20.

Bud Dupree, Carson Wentz, Steelers vs Eagles

Bud Dupree sacks Carson Wentz in the 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Philadelphia seemed poised to get another shot as the Steelers quickly found themselves at 3rd and 8, but Ben Roethlisberger saw linebacker Nathan Gerry lined up over Chase Claypool in the slot, called an audible and watched Claypool slice through the middle of the Eagles secondary for a 35 yard touchdown that put the Steelers up 38 to 29.

Carson Wentz tried to rally the Eagles for one final last gasp, but the Steelers answered with a Bud Dupree sack, a T.J. Watt pressure and another Steven Nelson interception.

  • 4-0 is a very good place to be in the NFL and very rarely happens by accident.

But all is not rosy. Against the Eagles, the Steelers defense again proved it can end drives with Splash plays when necessary. But that same defense is also giving up just under 13 yards every time a pass is caught. As Jim Wexell points out on Steel City Insider, those are numbers characteristic of bottom feeders rather than championship contenders.

On the flip side, rookie Chase Claypool became the first Steeler since Roy Jefferson to score four touchdowns in one game, establishing himself as a difference maker. Can Claypool become a consistent enough weapon to make up for a drop off in defense?

Time will tell, the Steelers certainly cannot be complacent when Cleveland comes to town next Sunday.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Broncos, 2-0 but Room to Grow Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who sees his class at 2-0 with room to grow, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Broncos.

Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Broncos

Jeff Driskel an instant before he’s smashed by T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger was harshly critical of himself after the game and it is true that his interception and the Steelers 2-12 3rd down conversion rating disappoint. But Roethlisberger was equally impressive on both of his touchdown strikes, neither of which were easy throws. And Ben continues to spread the ball around. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner ran strong, even if you take out his long run and by no means should that final run be discounted. Conner also caught two passes out of the backfield. Benny Snell had a bad day. He caught one pass for a loss and had 3 carries for 5 yards and a fumble which put Denver back in the game. Jaylen Samuels had 1 catch for 4 yards. In the end, Conner’s long run helps compensate for Snell’s fumble. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron had 3 catches for 43 yards and is quickly working himself into offensive weapon. Vance McDonald had one catch for 3 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 8 catches for 92 yards including two key receptions which he had to adjust to make. JuJu Smith-Schuster wasn’t far behind with 7 catches of his own. The cumulative total of two of Chase Claypool’s 3 catches amounts to 4 yards, the other one went for 84 and a touchdown. Another weapon is emerging on the Steelers offense. James Washington had a quiet day of 3 catches for 22 yards. A good afternoon for the Steelers wide outs. Grade: B

Offensive Line
The beginning of 2020 has been starkly different from the beginning of 2019. With one exception. If there was one positive coming out of last September, it was that the pass blocking of the Steelers offensive line remained stout, even if its run blocking seemed to be slipping.

Eric Ebron

Eric Ebron makes a catch in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Here in 2020, the same can be said. The Steelers offensive line with Kevin Dotson and Chukwuma Okorafor for the first time provided Ben Roethlisberger with pretty good protection. The run blocking wasn’t there however. This must improve. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
The Broncos had some success rushing the ball early in the game, but credit the Steelers defense for making the necessary adjustments. Tyson Alualu had a sack and continued to prove that he probably brings more bang for the salary cap buck and Javon Hargrave would have. Cam Heyward 4 tackles and split a sack while Stephon Tuitt had 1. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt was T.J. Watt with 2.5 sacks in four tackles. Even when he wasn’t sacking the quarterback, he was taking up two defenders, freeing up Bud Dupree to do his damage, as he did on his strip-sack that knocked Drew Lock from the game. Devin Bush led the unit in tackles and batted away a pass but still runs hot and cold in terms of coverage. Vince Williams dropped 3 defenders behind the line of scrimmage. Grade: B

Secondary
Man, are the Steelers going to miss Mike Hilton next year, as he led the team in tackles, recorded a sack, recovered a fumble and defensed a pass. Minkah Fitzpatrick has been quiet this year, and while that’s generally a good thing this unit relies on him for big plays. Fitzpatrick, like Joe Haden and like Terrell Edmunds committed pass interference penalties on drives that ended in scores. While it is too early to worry, the secondary hasn’t jelled the way it did a year ago. Grade: C

Special Teams
Dustin Colquitt’s net punting average was a bit low. And that’s the worst you can say about special teams this week. Kick and return coverage was solid. Ray-Ray McCloud had a 49 yard return showing him to be a legit home run threat. Diontae Johnson had a return for a touchdown negated by penalty, but still managed a zig zaging 18 yard return and tacked on a 24 yard kickoff return.

Chris Boswell was 4-4 on kicks. Against the Broncos Danny Smith’s special teams were a differentiator. Grade: A-

Mike Tomlin, f bomb

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

Coaching
In two weeks the Steelers offense has scored more touchdowns than the offense managed in the last 5 weeks of 2019. The exit from the “One Offensive Touchdown a Game” club is welcome.

Going 2-12 on third down conversions is not. This only one game and the 2nd week of the season, but Randy Fichtner’s offense cannot afford to fall into the habit of letting teams hang around that otherwise can be put away.

There’s a similar story on defense. For a second straight week Keith Butler‘s boys have shown they can come up big in the Red Zone when they need to, but they also left opportunities to put the Broncos away on the field.

Two weeks into the season Mike Tomlin has a team that is 2-0 but has yet he is fully aware that his team isn’t firing on all cylinders. That’s wise. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
The two biggest plays of the 2nd half were arguably the blocked punt for a safety and James Conner’s long run inside the two minute warning. One man was at the center of them both and for that Derek Watt wins the Unsung Hero Award of Steelers 2020 home opening win against the Broncos.

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Is Cam Sutton Really Challenging Mike Hilton for the Starting Slot Corner Position?

As the Steelers unique Heinz Field training camp begins to ramp up this week, complete with padded practices, there aren’t many starting jobs up for grabs.

There’s the battle for the starting right tackle spot between Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner, along with…….that’s really about it.

  • Seriously, try naming another starting position that’s up for grabs, as the Steelers, a team that’s missed the playoffs the previous two years, prepare for the 2020 regular season.

There is still intrigue–including the continued progress of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger following major elbow surgery that snuffed out his 2019 campaign; the development of second-year inside linebacker Devin Bush, a talent that could take an already explosive defense to a whole new level in 2020; the overall abilities of a rookie class that includes receiver Chase Claypool, outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, guard Kevin Dotson and running back Anthony McFarland; and, oh yes, the progress of third-year quarterback Mason Rudolph, just one season after he turned in mixed results–at best–while filling in for an injured Roethlisberger.

  • But, to reiterate, starting jobs?

Not much news there, not unless you’re talking about the starting slot corner position that has been occupied the past three seasons by Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent — a diamond in the rough, if you will — who Kevin Colbert plucked out of nowhere in 2017 (the Patriots practice squad, actually) to make the Steelers roster and fill the void at a position that had been seriously neglected for many years.

Mike Hilton, Mike Hilton interception Buccaneers, Joe Haden, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams

Mike Hilton’s Red Zone interception. Photo Credit: Mark LoMoglio, AP via Tribune-Review

Not only did Hilton instantly fill a void, he became one of the better slot corners in the entire NFL, as the product from Ole Miss — or the same school that failed and oft-injured second-round pick (and believed to be slot-corner extraordinaire) Senquez Golson hailed from two years earlier–finished his rookie campaign with two interceptions, six passes-defensed and a whopping four sacks — including three in a blow-out victory over the Texans on Christmas Day.

  • Hilton has remained the Steelers starting slot corner–and one of the better ones in the league–ever since.

So who is supposedly coming for his job? How about Cameron Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee in the 2017 NFL Draft. That’s right, Sutton is believed to be a serious contender for the slot corner role, this summer.

And far be it for me to contradict “they” two summers in a row, but if you think about it, why would you take a player like Hilton, again, someone who is considered to be one of the better slot corners in the NFL, and bench him in his fourth season? That was a rhetorical question, because you wouldn’t.

And the Steelers won’t, either. This is just my theory (my conspiracy theory, if you will), but I think Pittsburgh is hoping Sutton makes the competition for the supposed open slot corner position close at training camp, but not close enough that he wins.

  • Why? Because both Hilton and Sutton are unrestricted free agents, next spring.

There’s already so much tape on Hilton that, even if he loses his starting job in 2020, interested teams will know enough about him to offer him a fat contract in 2021. As for Sutton, the only way he will truly be on anyone’s radar is if he starts in 2020–and excels.

If you’re the Steelers, why would you risk it? They already know what they have in Hilton. They thought enough of his abilities to tender him and pay him $3.2 million for the 2020 season. However, the whole tender thing won’t work for Hilton, next season. He’ll be able to shop his services to the highest bidder–and the highest bidder is likely to pay him much more money than the Steelers and their ongoing salary cap restrictions (restrictions that are about to get worse due to the revenue-shrinking pandemic)–would ever seriously consider.

With that in mind, you let Hilton start one more year at slot corner. In the meantime, you can keep Sutton in the same versatile role he’s been in since his rookie season.

Starting next season, the Steelers let Hilton walk and offer Sutton a team-friendly multi-year contract and hope that he settles for an annual salary on par with the $3.2 million Hilton is making in 2020.

  • But if Sutton becomes the starting slot corner this season, chances are, Pittsburgh won’t be able to afford to retain either him or Hilton in 2021.

Sound logical? I think so. The Steelers have a good thing going on defense, especially in a secondary that has seemingly found all the right parts after many years of struggle.

  • No sense in upsetting the apple-cart now, not when the unit looks poised to have another dominant season.

Let Hilton do his thing for one more season. After that, give the starting slot corner job to Sutton.

That’s my plan.

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Matt Feiler Moving to Left Guard for the Steelers? Surprising? Perhaps, but it Makes Sense

While on a virtual conference call with the media on Tuesday, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin announced that Matt Feiler, who started 26 games at right tackle over the previous two seasons — including all 16 regular season games in 2019 — will open up training camp next month taking snaps at left guard.

  • When I first heard the news, I’m not going to lie, I was a bit shocked.

After all, I’m a practical and pragmatic guy–two words I’d also use to describe Tomlin–so when Ramon Foster retired after 11 years of very consistent left guard play, it just made sense to me to plug Stefen Wisniewski, a long-time veteran Pittsburgh signed as a free agent in the spring, into that spot for at least the start of the 2020 campaign.

Matt Feiler,

Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 Restricted Free Agent Matt Feiler, Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

With so many people high on Kevin Dotson, a fourth-round pick out of Louisiana in the 2020 NFL Draft, perhaps he could assume the starting role at left guard sooner rather than later.

  • Why disrupt two positions along the offensive line, when you only have to find a replacement for one?

However, after hearing Mike Tomlin’s explanation, it now makes sense to me on more than one level.

“We don’t have time to mess around in this environment,” said Tomlin in a quote courtesy of Steel City Insider. “We lost 900 snaps like everybody did with the virtual offseason. You’ve got to give the benefit of the doubt to people that have been here at least as a basis to begin, and that’s the way we’re going to begin the training camp process, knowing that the process is going to be an abbreviated one.”

  • Matt Feiler is a versatile lineman, one who is capable of playing both guard and tackle.

Therefore, if you have to move someone to another position, why not the guy who knows the system even better than the older veteran you just signed?

Also, as Tomlin explained during his talk with the media, moving Feiler to guard opens things up for a competition at the right tackle spot between Chukwuma Okorafor, a third-round pick out of Western Michigan in the 2018 NFL Draft, and Zach Banner, a fourth-round pick by the Colts in 2017 who came to Pittsburgh in 2018 after spending some time with the Browns.

Both players are at the points of their careers where the Steelers need to find out if they have what it takes to be starters. In fact, if neither shows that potential during training camp, it may be time to wonder if either ever will.

  • Okorafor has some experience as a starter, while Banner spent most of 2019 reporting as an eligible receiver in jumbo packages.

If one or both step up in 2020, that could bode well for the Steelers’ future at both tackle spots. Let’s face it, as much as Steelers fans love him, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva isn’t getting any younger. While he’s fairly young in a professional football sense, he’ll be 32 in September, an age that’s never young in a professional athlete sense.

Besides, Alejandro Villanueva signed a four-year, $24 million contract in 2017, a deal that’s set to expire after the 2020 season. With the Steelers facing so many tough financial decisions regarding their superstar players over the next few seasons, it may not be the worst thing in the world for both Okorafor and Banner to step up and show they can be reliable starting tackles in the NFL.

At the very least, if one of those youngsters claims the starting right tackle spot at training camp, that frees up Wisniewski, like the recently-departed B.J. Finney, someone capable of playing both guard and center, to be the versatile veteran backup interior lineman who can step in and start in a pinch.

So to sum it up, thanks to Matt Feiler’s position flexibility and ability to play both guard and tackle at a high level, the Steelers are really only disrupting one position along the offensive line, even while creating a situation for two new starters.

Now it’s up to Chuks Okorafor and/or Zach Banner to jump up and seize the opportunity.

 

 

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