Its Too Early for Results, but Steelers Strategy in 2021 NFL Draft was Sound

After months of speculation, mock drafts, rumors, Pro Day visits and Zoom interviews, the 2021 NFL Draft has finally come and gone.

  • The Steelers newest draft class is complete.

It’s obviously still too early to know how any of these NFL trainees will do, but it’s more than acceptable to talk about the approach the Steelers took in procuring their latest batch of players.

  • So, what grade would I give Pittsburgh’s strategy?

How about an A? Too strong? OK, what about a “Thumbs Up”? Is that too wishy-washy? Should I have gone with “Two Thumps Up”? Too strong, like I’m fully endorsing every pick?

  • Fine, how about a smiley face? Does that work? It does? Good.
Najee Harris, Steelers 2021 First Round Draft Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 1st round pick Najee Harris. Photo Credit: MC NFL

Like it often does, the Steelers’ latest draft had a theme: Starters. It was no surprise that the organization went into this past weekend’s extravaganza in search of multiple players who could possibly start as early as Week 1 of the 2021 regular season. The only question was, which positions would Pittsburgh prioritize first? Or, maybe it wasn’t the positions so much as specific players. Or, perhaps the team would emphasize both positions and players who could help improve a certain area.

The Steelers told us something with their first three selections: they want to improve the ground game, and they want to find players who can fit into new offensive coordinator, Matt Canada’s scheme.

After the selections of running back Najee Harris in the first round (24th, overall), tight end Pat Freiermuth in the second round (55th, overall) and guard/center Kendrick Green in the third round (87th, overall), I must say, mission accomplished.

Harris was the best running back on the board by most accounts; not only was he productive at Alabama — Harris was the school’s all-time leading rusher with 3,843 yards — he’s the type of versatile three-down back who can fit well in Canada’s dynamic offense.

As for Freiermuth, he’s the kind of in-line tight end who can take the place of the recently-retired Vance McDonald. While Freiermuth isn’t quite the ferocious, old-school blocker Heath Miller was back in the day, he has potential. But it’s as a pass-catching threat where Freiermuth, who is a great athlete and loves to punish defenders, can truly be valuable. Since Canada’s offense calls for a lot of 12 personnel packages (aka two-tight end sets), the Steelers will need a talented in-line tight end who can contribute right away. Freiermuth has the potential to be that.

Kendrick Green, Steelers 3rd round pick 2021

Kendrick Green has Matt Robinson’s back. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Tribune-Review

Then, of course, there’s Kendrick Green, a mean (in the best sense), nasty and physical lineman who relishes blocking for the run and is quite the athlete (he was clocked at a 4.85 at his Pro Day in March). While Freiermuth was dubbed “Baby Gronk” during his days at Happy Valley, in Green, it looks like Pittsburgh may have found the nephew that the recently-retired Maurkice Pouncey didn’t know he had.

In all seriousness, Green sort of looks like Pouncey; he definitely plays like him. He even wore the No. 53 at Illinois. Green was the third-straight player the Steelers drafted over the weekend who has a golden opportunity to walk into training camp and immediately find himself at the top of the depth chart.

It’s less likely that a team finds even future starters once it gets past the first three rounds of a draft. But in tackle Dan Moore Jr., fourth round, Texas A&M; inside linebacker Buddy Johnson, fourth round, Texas A&M; and outside linebacker Quincy Roche, sixth round, Miami, the Steelers picked up three players who could develop into major contributors — and even starters.

Again, it’s early. The draft is an inexact science, and it’s rare for a team to find more than a couple of major contributors from any particular class. All an organization can do is select quality players at positions of need and trust in their ability to scout, coach and develop.

The Steelers almost always take a sound approach to the annual draft.

2021 was no different.

 

 

 

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Ben Roethlisberger “Took One for the Team.” 3 Things Steelers Nation Learned

Ben Roethlisberger took one for the team. Making good on his pledge to do what was necessary for the Steelers to field a competitive team in 2021, the veteran starting Steelers quarterback agreed to a pay cut to the tune of about 5 million dollars and in doing so he is saving Pittsburgh 15 million dollars in salary cap space due to “voidable years.”

  • Ben will be back. The biggest question of the Steelers off season has been settled.

Now, what does it mean and what have we learned? Let’s find out.

Ben Roethlisberger, Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Saints, Coin Toss

Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

1. Big Ben is a Team Player After All

While this wasn’t the “Ben put his money where his mouth is” and take the veteran minimum salary to return scenario outlined here a few weeks ago, but this is nothing to sneeze at.

  • “Oh, but wait, he’s already cashed $253 million checks from Dan and Art Rooney.” Yes he has.

When was the last time you gave up $5 million dollars? Perhaps better yet, when was the last time you went to your boss and said, “You know what? I’ll take 5 thousand dollars less this year so that you can give raises to the rest of the team. ” Yeah, I’ve never done that either. Enough said.

Ben Roethlisberger gave back 5 million dollars, 5 million that almost certainly go to resigning other players in the Steelers locker room. Ben does have his faults, he might not be a perfect team player, but he’s a team player.

2. The Steelers Relationship with Roethlisberger is Changing

One of the more interesting and disturbing narratives circulating around Steelers Nation has been that Ben Roethlisberger is somehow hostile to running the ball and insists on running an offense that sees him throw the ball 50 times a game.

Those criticisms were legitimate and by definition debunk the “Ben is anti-run” argument. But that doesn’t change the fact that Ben Roethlisberger has had a lot of say in how the offense has been run. He’s had a lot of autonomy, perhaps too much autonomy. He forced Todd Haley out and Randy Fichtner was hired in part to keep him happy.

Matt Canada’s promotion to offensive coordinator was a sign that this is likely changing. And the fact that the Steelers made no bones about the fact that Ben Roethlisberger would need to bend to meet their needs says a lot.

What says more is that the contract contains voidable years, which in pure business terms means this is a one year deal.

3. Salary Cap Hell Likely Becomes Salary Cap Purgatory

Between the retirements of Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald, Cam Heyward’s restructure and Ben Roethlisberger’s pay cut, the Steelers now are under the projected salary cap of 280 million dollars.
That’s good, but the team only has 33 players under contract for 2021.

More work, in the form of restructures, or perhaps moves to waive veterans such as Vince Williams, remains to be done. Resigning Bud Dupree likely means that other teams will shy away form his torn ACL. JuJu Smith-Schuster won’t be back either.

But the specter of the Steelers fielding an opening day roster that features multiple undrafted rookie free agents starting appears to have been averted.

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus: Ray-Ray McCloud – Does the Returner Deserve to Return?

Nothing can break open a game like a dramatic kick return. Think Santonio Holmes punt return for a touchdown in 2008 playoff win against the Chargers. Or Diontae Johnson‘s punt return for a touchdown against the Cardinals in 2019.

  • The problem is, Steelers fans would have to dig a lot deeper to find many more examples.

Return specialists have never been the franchise’s hallmark. Louis Lipps dominated as a rookie but that was about it. Rod Woodson was devastating as a return man when he was young but was merely “good” as the 80’s faded into the 90’s. 

Ray-Ray McCloud added some dynamism to the Steelers return game early in 2020. Does this Steelers restricted free agent deserve a shot at recapturing this in 2021? Let’s find out.

Ray-Ray McCloud, Steelers vs Texans

Ray-Ray McCloud evades Phillip Gaines. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of Ray-Ray McCloud’s Career with the Steelers

Ray-Ray McCloud, a sixth-round pick by the Bills in the 2018 NFL Draft, spent a season in Buffalo before being waived at the end of the following season’s training camp. After a brief stint with the Panthers and again with the Bills, McCloud was signed by the Steelers last August.

Ray-Ray McCloud was brought to Pittsburgh to be a return specialist and filled that role quite well in 2020. McCloud averaged just over 23 yards on kickoff returns, but it was his punt-return prowess that showed the Steelers that they may have found a true replacement for the dynamic Antonio Brown. McCloud tallied 298 yards on 29 punt returns–including one for 57 yards. Ray-Ray McCloud was a bit of a fifth wheel as a receiver, posting just 77 yards on 20 receptions.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Ray-Ray McCloud

The Steelers should be able to retain McCloud’s services rather cheaply, and he could be quite the bargain if he continues to show promise as a return specialist. Furthermore, there could be room in the Steelers’ offense for McCloud, considering JuJu Smith-Schuster is all but gone. McCloud showed some flashes when he was featured in Matt Canada’s motion offense in 2020. Now that Canada has been promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator, perhaps he will find a way to flesh out McCloud’s potential.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ray-Ray McCloud

Ray-Ray McCloud is a restricted free agent, so unless some team comes calling with the offer sheet of his dreams that Pittsburgh simply couldn’t match, I don’t see any negatives in bringing McCloud back, other than some character issue that has yet to be disclosed. The Steelers could tender McCloud or they could even bypass that option and with little risk and resign him as an unrestricted free agent.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ray-Ray McCloud

Ray-Ray McCloud is young (24), he’s a restricted free agent, he can be retained on the cheap and he has potential to be a dynamic return specialist. Oh yeah, there could be an opening in the Steelers receivers room. I see no downside in bringing back Ray-Ray McCloud. Expect the Steelers to bring him back, albeit without offering him a restricted free agent tender, due to salary cap restrictions.

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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After Offense Goes South, Steelers Hire Matt Canada as Offensive Coordinator

Mike Tomlin wasted little time in dismissing offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner following the Steelers “Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic” playoff debacle against Cleveland. Fichtner’s bags were not even packed before reports circulated that Mike Tomlin was going to replace him with quarterbacks coach Matt Canada.

  • Days passed, and Canada didn’t get the job, instead interviewing in Miami.

The Steelers interviewed former Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and then San Diego er um Los Angeles Chargers quarterback coach Pep Hamilton, but ultimately hired Canada. The timing seemed a bit odd, and as Ed Bouchette of The Athletic suggested it was almost like the Steelers forgot they needed to obey the Rooney Rule when making the hire.

Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Canada

Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Canada. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Matt Canada Inherits an Offense in Free Fall

A year ago Mike Tomlin opted to re-fill the slot of quarterbacks coach that had been vacated when he promoted Randy Fichtner to offensive coordinator, replacing Todd Haley. At the time, speculation abounded as to Matt Canada’s role.

Matt Canada was known for his use of motion, play action and Jet sweeps during his stops at Pitt, the University of Maryland, Northern Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, elements which were not part of Fichtner’s offense.

He was also widely seen as being brought in to mentor Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges, Paxton Lynch and ultimately Joshua Dobbs who returned via the waiver wire.

How he would relate to Ben Roethlisberger was an open question. Roethlisberger has enjoyed wide-spread autonomy in the running the offense and prefers to play under center and does not like to execute play action.

Early on, Matt Canada’s influence was evident in the jet sweeps that players like Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool ran. And word was that Ben Roethlisberger was seen practicing his footwork under the tutelage of Matt Canada.

David DeCastro, James Conner, Steelers vs Falcons

David DeCastro obliterates a hapless Falcons defender. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Whether it was due to Canada’s influence or the lack thereof, the Steelers offense which had started of strong in September and October, sputtered in November and ultimately went completely south in December.

  • Matt Canada has his work cut out for him as offensive coordinator.

If Ben Roethlisberger returns, he needs to design an offense around a 39 year old quarterback who is seeing his mobility leave him and struggles to throw the long ball. A Roethlisberger return will also force him to build an offense without the services of veterans like James Conner, Alejandro Villanueva, the retired Vance McDonald and JuJu Smith-Schuster are all but certain to flee as free agents. Other starters such as Eric Ebron and David DeCastro could also become salary cap casualties.

And Maurkice Pouncey, a perennial Pro Bowler, is said to be ready to retire.

Steelers Replace James Daniel with Alfredo Roberts as Tight Ends Coach

The Steelers replaced recently retired tight ends coach James Daniels with Alfredo Roberts who most recently coached with the San Diego er um Los Angeles Chargers. Roberts had also coached running backs for the Chargers and prior to that had coached for the Jaguars, Browns, Buccaneers and Colts.

The Steelers still must hire an offensive line coach and possibly a quarterbacks coach.

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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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Batted Away! Steelers Defeat Ravens 28-24, as Roethlisberger Rally Fuels Comeback

During the 21st century, Steelers and Ravens have delivered the very best football that the AFC can offer. Proponents of the Tom Brady vs Peyton Manning narrative will protest, but they will be wrong.

  • Steelers vs. Ravens is physical, intense and nasty.
  • Their games ultimately gets decided by who hits the hardest.

The Steelers 28-24 win over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium lived up to the rivalry’s pedigree. The win improved the Steelers standing to 7-0 alone atop the AFC North. But what’s perhaps most encouraging about the win is that in leading the comeback, the Steelers signal caller showed something that we haven’t seen thus far in 2020.

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

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

1st Half: No, A Win over the Ravens Really Couldn’t Come So Easily

The Steelers have already had marquee showdown with an AFC North Rival, the Browns. That game started with a pick six authored by all-world safety Minkah Fitzpatrick 3 plays into Cleveland’s first drive. And so did this one.

This time the hero was unsung inside linebacker Robert Spillane, who took it to the house from 33 yards out with less than a minute elapsed in play.

  • The Steelers pick-six against the Browns signaled a blowout — could history repeat?

Miles Boyken, Vince Williams, Steelers vs Ravens

Miles Boyken smokes Vince Williams for a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Alas, it would not, and could not.

The Cleveland Browns, as Tony Defeo has pointed out, are a pretenders because they think they can gain respect by demanding it. The Baltimore Ravens are contenders because they know how to earn respect.

  • And during the next 30 minutes the Baltimore Ravens flourished instead of flinching.

Following the lead of Lamarr Jackson, the Ravens did everything that opponents haven’t been able to do to the Steelers thus far in 2020:

  • They converted third downs
  • They stitched together long drives
  • They compiled over 100 yards rushing in a single half
  • They forced the Steelers to punt three times and recovered a Chase Claypool fumble

Sure, the Ravens had their hiccups in the first half. Bud Dupree stripped the ball from LaMarr Jackson when the Ravens were in the Red Zone, but 5 plays and a mere 18 yards later, Jordan Berry was out punting it away for Pittsburgh.

Justin Tucker split the uprights from 51 yards away as time expired to close the first half.  The Ravens held a 17-7 lead over the Steelers, but Baltimore was in full control of the game, and nobody held any illusions to the contrary.

Big Ben Delivers on What He Does Best

The Baltimore Ravens had rendered Ben Roethlisberger ineffective in the first half. The Steelers had logged just 20 plays and pass interference penalties seemed their offense’s most potent weapon. JuJu Smith-Schuster started the Steelers 2nd half off right with a 24 yard catch but, true to form, the Steelers were punting three plays later.

  • One play later rookie Alex Highsmith rebooted the Steelers 2nd half by intercepting Lamarr Jackson.

After a 1 yard James Conner run, Ben Roethlisberger and Eric Ebron hooked up to take advantage of a miscue by former Steeler L.J. Fort for an easy touchdown. Suddenly, the Steelers were only down by 3, contesting control of the game.

  • Ben Roethlisberger has accomplished a lot since his return from 2019’s season-ending elbow surgery.

He’s shown he can still throw the ball with the same zip as before. He’s shown he can adjust his game to focus more on shorter-higher percentage passes. He’s shown that he can eliminate, thus far (and for the rest of the season, God willing,) the “one dumb interception a game” that once seemed obligatory. He’s shown that he can still move in the pocket to make things happen. He’s shown he can take instruction on details like footwork from Matt Canada.

  • But going into Baltimore, he still hadn’t shown whether he could still takeover a game.

During the 2nd half against Baltimore, Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner decided to give Ben Roethlisberger a chance to do just that. Ben Roethlisberger just didn’t work out of empty sets. HE didn’t simply run the no hurry up offense and call his own plays. He was MAKING his own plays in the huddle at the line of scrimmage.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Ravens 2020

Chase Claypool scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

As he told Chris Admanski of the Tribune-Review, “I know everybody says, I do well in playground, backyard football. Today it was in its truest form.” And today at least, playground Ben meant Big Ben at his best as he connected with:

  • Eric Ebron twice
  • James Conner twice
  • Ray-Ray McCloud once
  • Chase Claypool 3 times
  • JuJu Smith-Schuster 5 times

That’s 13 completed passes with just 3 incompletions, along with two pass interference penalties, as Ben Roethlisberger authored two drives that retook the lead twice, setting up an epic, Steelers-Ravens end of game stand.

Defense Delivers for Steelers

Statistically speaking this wasn’t the best day for Keith Butler’s defense. He saw his unit lose Tyson Alualu and Cam Heyward, which can’t have helped as the Ravens ran up over 265 yards on the ground on the legs of J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. Willie Snead IV added 106 yards and a touchdown through the air in a game that saw the Ravens convert 8 of 15 third downs.

  • And, if this story were being written according to Fantasy Football rules then owners of the Baltimore Ravens would have been happy.

But this tale is being told in Reality Football terms where outcomes are fought out in the trenches instead of spreadsheets. And so it was, with 3:48 left to play the Ravens reached the Steelers Red Zone.

  • On 3rd and 5 Isaiah Buggs stoned LaMarr Jackson who tried to rush it up the middle
  • On 4th and Isaiah Buggs stuffed Jackson again with an assist from Minkah

James Conner and Diontae Johnson did manage to get the Steelers to 3rd and 1, but the Ravens held. Fortunately, Jordan Berry boomed off a 45 yard punt. With no time outs remaining, Lamarr Jackson moved Baltimore 40 yards in 46 seconds, delivering Baltimore to Pittsburgh’s 23.

Here’s what happened next:

https://twitter.com/SportsCenter/status/1323013477506666499

Minkah Fitzpatrck and Justin Layne were perfect on the play, as Fitzpatrick pushed the pass from Willie Snead’s hands while Layne drilled him, delivering Pittsburgh’s first 7-0 start since 1978.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Browns – Who Didn’t Get an A Edition?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is proud to see his student diligently working until the bell, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2020 home win over the Cleveland Browns.

James Washington, Steelers vs Browns

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

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger struggled a bit early with the RPOs. But once he settled down he played efficient football and continued to take care of the ball completing 14 of 22 for one touchdown and, most importantly, no interceptions and no fumbles. Mason Rudolph competed his 1 pass in mop up duty. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner hit the holes hard putting the Browns on notice that this was a going to be a physical game. He finished the day with 101 yards on 20 carries while adding in another catch. Benny Snell only got 17 yards, but he helped close the game. Anthony McFarland had 3 carries and 1 catch. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron had quiet day with two catches for 9 yards and Vance McDonald was not targeted. Cleveland’s front seven is a stout group and Ben Roethlisberger was clean and running backs had room to run and the tight ends certainly contributed to that. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool followed up on his breakout game with a 36 yard reception that set up one touchdown and a run that scored another touchdown. The Browns decided they didn’t need to worry about James Washington, and Washington made them pay with 4 catches including a 28 yard touchdown reception. JuJu Smith-Schuster had 2 catches for 6 yards. Grade: A

Offensive Line
5.1 yards rushing, 4 quarterback hits and 2 sacks – all against one of the NFL’s best front seven groupings and with their best player, David DeCastro, out injured. An excellent day for the Steelers offensive line. Grade: A

Bud Dupree, Stephon Tuitt, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns

Bud Dupree and Stephon Tuitt sack Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
He might not get ink that some of the other players on this unit get, but Stephon Tuitt is quietly piecing together a monster season. Against the Browns he had a half sack, two and half tackles behind the line of scrimmage 2 QB hits and a forced fumble. Cam Heyward led the team in tackles and pushed more than one pile back to deny conversions. Officially Tyson Alualu had one half of tackle behind scrimmage, but the Browns inept rushing numbers tell a different tale. Chris Wormley only had one tackle, but he stuffed his man. Grade: A

Linebackers
Vince Williams was next with 6 and 1 for a loss. Devin Bush only played a half before tearing his ACL, but that was enough for half of a sack, a QB hit and a five tackles. Bud Dupree had two sacks while T.J. Watt clocked in with 1.5 tackles behind scrimmage. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick started the game with a tone setting pick six that the Cleveland offense never really overcame. Terrell Edmunds name wasn’t heard much, which is a good thing, but he did bat away a pass. How good were Joe Haden and Steven Nelson? Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. combined for 5 catches for 65 yards. Cam Sutton had an interception. That Browns were 1-12 on third down. Grade: A

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud and one kick return for 28 yards and 3 punt returns that averaged 12 yards. The Browns averaged 3 yards on two punt returns and 20 yards on kick returns, due in no small part to Chris Boswell pinning the Browns inside their own 20. Dustin Colquitt averaged 41. Yards on 5 punts. Grade: A-

Coaching
Throughout his tenure Mike Tomlin has responded to challenges about the lack of balance on his offices by explaining that balance on offense for him is the offense becoming what it needs to be.

  • In the win against the Browns Randy Ficthner’s offense achieved that goal.

The Steelers dominated time of possession, established a rhythm rushing the ball effectively, pivoted away from RPOs that weren’t working, converted turnovers and used deep passing to set up two touchdowns. They also kept their quarterback clean when they were down a lineman.

Joe Haden, Jarvis Landry, Steelers vs Browns

Joe Haden bats a pass away from Jarvis Landry. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The Steelers defense has been a step behind the offense thus far in 2020, but against the Browns Keith Butler‘s boys virtually eliminated 3rd down conversions correcting a major flaw. The defense must sustain this against stiffer competition, but it stands as clear positive.

The 2020 season is still young and tough tests await them, but the Pittsburgh Steelers played their toughest opponent thus far in the Cleveland Browns and they delivered their best performance. They started out decisively on defense, refused to blink when things didn’t go right on offense and even when they were up by 31 points they play as if the game could still be decided by a field goal – all to Mike Tomlin’s credit.

Unsung Hero Award
“We don’t have backups, just starters in waiting.” There’s another cliché that became true with two minutes left to play in the 2nd half against the Browns when Devin Bush went down. His replacement stepped in and actually led the linebackers in tackles, registering 6, including 1 for a loss. Teams will certainly start targeting him early and often, but he answered the call against Cleveland and for that Robert Spillane wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Browns.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Eagles – Pulling it Out with All Nighter’s Edition

Taken from the grade book of teacher who worries his defense students are getting too comfortable pulling things out with all nighters, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Eagles.

T.J. Watt, Carson Wentz, Steelers vs Eagles

T.J. Watt sacks Carson Wentz. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via PennLive

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went threw 34 passes for 27 completions for 239 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Steelers converted 11 of 15 third downs and Roethlisberger took care of the ball. His audible on 3rd and 8 in the 4th quarter with the game in the balance was a veteran move that sealed the win. Grade: ASteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
The Eagles have ones of the strongest front 7s in the league so it figured this would be tough sledding. And it was. None of the Steelers running back’s rushing averages impress. But if you look beyond the numbers and at the tape, you’ll see that James Conner  and Anthony McFarland all had some respectable runs. Benny Snell gained tough yards to kill the clock at the end. Conner also added 3 carries and scored the go ahead touchdown. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron was having a nice day for himself with a 5 catches for 43 yards but he coughed up the ball at a critical time. He also failed to pull in a pass that was incorrectly ruled as an interception. Vance McDonald had one catch for 4 yards, but was an asset in the blocking game. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington had pedestrian games with 4 and 3 catches for 28 and 25 yards respectively. Ray-Ray McCloud had 3 catches but did his damage on two “Jet Sweeps” one of which went for 58 yards. But that wasn’t the big story of the day.

After looking solid in the first 3 games Chase Claypool announced his presence to the NFL with a bang with 7 catches for 110 yards and 3 touchdowns in the air plus another touchdown on the ground. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The only team that had sacked the quarterback more than the Steelers coming into this game was the Eagles. Yet Ben Roethlisberger was only dropped once the entire afternoon and he was only hit two more times per ESPN’s statistics. Run blocking could have been a little stronger, but overall it was a good day for the line, especially considering that David DeCastro was lost for most of the game. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had two sacks, defensed a pass and logged another quarterback hit while Tyson Alualu added another two tackles. Take away Miles Sanders 74 yard run and the Eagles managed 1.33 yard per carry, and that starts with the defensive line. Grade: B+

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had another “quiet” day with “only” 3 tackles for losses in between a sack early on and a key pressure that helped force an interception. Bud Dupree also came up big with a half sack on the Eagles final drive. Vince Williams and Devin Bush had 2 and 3 tackles apiece. Steelers linebackers made their plays, but also must shoulder the blame for the long run given up along with the Eagles ease with 3rd down conversions. Grade: B

Travis Fulgham, Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Eagles

Travis Fulgham used and abused the Steelers all day. Photo Credit: Keil Leggere, PhiladelphiaEagles.com

Secondary
Who is Travis Fulgham? Mike Tomlin claims the fellow Virginian was on his radar but can the same be said for anyone else? Who knows? We do know is that smoked the Steelers for 10 catches and 152 yards and a touchdown. Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton and Joe Haden all had their issues with the kid. Hilton also missed a tackle on Miles’ touchdown run. Minkah Fitzpatrick also missed a tackle because he failed to rap, leading to a 3rd down conversion. The Steelers pass defense did secure two turnovers, but it is allowing just under 13 yards per pass catch – far too much. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud averaged 24 both his punt returns and Diontae Johnson had 6 yards on two punt returns. The Steelers punt and kick coverage was excellent, helping secure excellent field position. Chris Boswell was perfect, while Dustin Colquitt was OK. Overall a good day for special teams. Grade: B+

Coaching

Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Eagles, John Hightowewr

Steven Nelson 2nd interception of the day. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Whether it is because of Matt Canada’s influence or not, Randy Fichtner continues to find ways to innovate, as the Steelers neutralized the Eagle’s stout front seven with bunch formations and Jet Sweeps. The Steelers offense scored 4 touchdowns on its own, converted another turnover into a touchdown, and killed the clock when it had to.

  • If all signs are encouraging on the Steelers offense and special teams, you cannot say the same about the defense.

The Steelers defense doesn’t lack for Splash plays, as their 5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 11 quarterback hits and eight tackles for losses testify. But four games into the season opponents are converted third downs with relative ease, the Steelers are regularly giving up long passes and quick touchdown drives have been too common.

Whether that’s because Joe Haden is losing a step, Devin Bush isn’t developing fast enough or opponents are exploiting the Steelers love of the blitz, Keith Butler needs to take a hard look at his pass defense.

With that said, going 4-0 in the NFL is and accomplishment. It doesn’t happen by accident. The Steelers of late have been rusty coming off of their bye week, yet even if this bye came unexpected, no rust was evident, to Mike Tomlin’s credit. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
The Eagles had scored 15 unanswered points to cut a 17 point deficit to a 2 point deficit and the Steelers had JUST fumbled the ball back to Philadelphia. It was 1st and 10 at the Pittsburgh 44. Carson Wentz had a man open down field but didn’t quite have time to release because he was sacked for a 3 yard loss.

Sure, the Eagles made 8 of those yards back, but the sack meant Jake Elliot had to try a 57 yard field goal instead of a 54 yard one and those three yards might have been the difference. Stephon Tuitt made that sack and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Eagles.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Giants: Teacher’s Too Late Edition

Taken from the grade book of a tardy teacher who is keenly aware that marrying Monday Night Football with 12 hour workdays doesn’t produce timely blog posts, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Giants.

Bud Dupree, Daniel Jones, Steelers vs giants

Bud Dupree forces Daniel Jones into a Red Zone interception. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

Quarterback
In his first game since elbow surgery Ben Roethlisberger had an efficient night throwing 32 times for 21 competitions 229 yards and 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for a key first down doing the 2 minute drill. Roethlisberger was rusty at first, but shook it off fast and played a very good game. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner came into this game with something prove, but unfortunately he proved that durability remains an issue. Fortunately for the Steelers, Benny Snell, Jr. answered the call rushing for 113 yards on 19 carries. Snell looked good, but fumbled at what could have been a costly moment. With 1 catch and 1 run for 3 yards Jaylen Samuels was a non-factor. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Balls were sparse for the tight ends against the Giants. Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron were both targeted twice with one catch apiece although Ebron’s did convert a third down on a scoring drive. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
After struggling for much of 2019, JuJu Smith-Schuster had a strong night with 6 catches on 6 targets for 69 yards and 2 touchdowns. Diontae Johnson had 6 catches on 10 targets for 57 yards. And while James Washington only had 2 catches, the sheer determination mustered to reach the end zone set the tone for the rest of the night. Grade: B

Offensive Line
The Steelers offensive line slipped in 2019 after being one of the NFL’s best, if not the very best, for the last 5 or 6 years. They were a big question mark going into the game. Unfortunately, it was a mixed bag for the line. Rushing lanes were spare early in the game, and Ben Roethlisberger had pressure for much of the night, giving up 2 sacks and getting hit 5 times. The unit was good enough against the Giants, but tougher tests will come. Grade: C

Cam Heyward, Cam Heyward interception Gaints

Cam Heyward kills a drive by intercepting Daniel Jones in the end zone. Photo Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images, via SteelersWire.com

Defensive Line
Tyson Alualu effectively manned the nose tackle position, leading the team in tackles and dropping runners for losses twice. Stephon Tuitt made his return from injury and recorded a sack. Cam Heyward had one tackle and a pass defense but hit the jackpot with his goal line interception. The unit grounded Saquon Barkley the entire night. Grade: A

Linebackers
T.J. Watt’s amazing interception set up the Steelers first touchdown and Bud Dupree’s pressure on Daniel Jones ended an 8 minute drive by setting up an interception. Vince Williams had a sack, and Devin Bush led linebackers with 7 tackles. Alex Highsmith rotated in and looked good as did Ola Adeniyi. A strong night for the linebackers. Grade: A

Secondary
The Steelers defensive game plan sold out on stopping Saquon Barkley and the Giants took advantage of that to move a little through the air and they were effective with the short passing game early in the 2nd half. Minkah Fitzpatrick bit on a run fake that exposed Steven Nelson to a 1-1 which he lost badly to Darius Slayton. Terrell Edmunds continues to struggle in coverage. This is a concern. On the positive side Mike Hilton was a force with a sack, defensed pass and 5 tackles. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Dustin Colquitt had a solid night punting. Ray-Ray McCloud had a 33 yard return that could have gone for more had he not tripped. The Steelers were 2-2 on field goals. All positives.

However, Diontae Johnson muffed a punt. Chris Boswell missed an extra point. One of his kickoffs went out of bounds. The Giants had a 20 yard punt return. None of these mistakes were fatal, but they could have been far more costly. Grade: C-

Devin Bush, Steelers vs Giants,

No room to run thanks to Devin Bush. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Coaching
Matt Canada’s influence on the offense can be seen with increased use of crossing routes and jet screens and Randy Fichtner put together an efficient game plan that moved the chains, spread the ball around and put points on the board.

  • Keith Butler’s defense picked up where it left off in 2020, which is high praise.

When your special teams muff the season’s first punt and give the home team the ball on your own 3 barely 4 minutes into the season, very bad things tend to happen. But Butler’s boys refused to blink and forced a field goal.

It is true that the Giants had more success passing the ball than one would like, but by neutralizing Saquon Barkley the Steelers defense dictated the game to New York’s offense.

All of the COVID-19 induced disruptions to the off season were supposed to benefit a stable team like the Steelers. Mike Tomlin arrived at MetLife Stadium with a team ready, willing and able to execute a straight forward game plan. Special teams snafus drop this grade. Slightly. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers were down 3-0 and had already punted twice as the 1st quarter waned. From their own 33 they ran once for a 1 yard run and tossed an incomplete pass. On third and 9 Ben Roethlisberger threw into double coverage on the side line and the only rookie on the field for the Steelers offense reached up to grab a pass, taking care to tap his toes to stay in bounds and convert the first down.

It was impressive on its own merits, and it also sustained a drive the ended with the Steelers tying field goal, and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2020 season opener against the Giants at MetLife Stadium.

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Answering Need for Speed, Steelers Draft Anthony McFarland in 4th Round of 2020 NFL Draft

The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland Jr. in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft, using their first of two 4th round selections to add the running back from Maryland to their backfield.

Anthony McFarland brings just two years of NCAA experience to Pittsburgh. In two seasons with the Terrapins, McFarland rushed for over 1,600 yards, although his production dropped between his freshman and sophomore year due to injuries. With that said, McFarland did break the University of Maryland’s freshman rushing record.

Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner described McFarland as “He’s really explosive.” Faulkner continued, “He sees the crease, and it’s his ability to hit the crease — he gets from 0 to 60 quick.”

  • The highlights video below will bear that out.

What the video won’t show is some of the red or at least yellow injury flags that accompany McFarland’s arrival in Pittsburgh. The Maryland native and DeMatha Catholic graduate missed his senior year of high school with a broken leg, took a red shirt freshman year at Maryland, and then saw a high ankle sprain ruin his second year at Maryland.

Regardless, Anthony McFarland can look forward to seeing familiar faces in Pittsburgh. New Steelers quarterbacks coach Matt Canada was his coach at Maryland in 2018, Derwin Gray blocked for McFarland in 2018, and Mike Tomlin’s son Dino played with McFarland at Maryland, although according to Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, McFarland admits he never had contact with Tomlin.

Anthony McFarland Jr.

Steelers first 2020 4th round draft pick, Anthony McFarland, Jr. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports images, via NBC.com

Anthony McFarland Video Highlights

While he’s leaving College Park after just two seasons, Anthony McFarland Jr. put plenty on tape to establish his pedigree. Here is a look at his highlight reel:

https://youtu.be/thlKLUJwvUw?t=9

Anthony McFarland ran a 4.44 in the 40 and his burst of speed is more than evident. For comparison’s sake, James Conner clocked in at 4.65, Willie Parker ran a 4.28, Le’Veon Bell ran a 4.6, Benny Snell timed out at 4.65 while Dwight Stone ran a 4.25 (ah, weren’t expect a Dwight Hands of Stone reference, were you?)

So Anthony McFarland’s 40 puts him in good company, adds speed to the backfield and threatens Kerrith Whyte whose 4.36 40 speed is what made him so enticing to the Steelers last fall when Kevin Colbert did a rare bit of practice squad poaching.

Competition brings out the best and the Steelers backfield certainly must improve on its 2019 performance. Welcome to Steelers Nation Anthony McFarland.

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