Definition of “At a Crossroads” The Steelers Mason Rudolph and Free Agency

What difference does 365 days make? For Mason Rudolph, everything.

Last year when Mason Rudolph reached free agency, I debated over whether it was worth the time to do a free agent profile on him or not. Omar Khan’s comment about “keeping the door open for Mason” nudged the scales in his favor.

  • But felt like an academic exercise.

But of course Mason Rudolph returned to Pittsburgh. He authored another strong preseason. Yet he remained nothing more than a clipboard holder until, wait for it, the eve of Christmas Eve when Rudolph began leading the franchise to the playoffs.

Now Mason Rudolph is a free agent again, and this time he’s the one holding… well at least some of the cards. Let’s take a look at how this could play out.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Capsule Profile of Mason Rudolph’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers and Mason Rudolph have reached a cross roads. And they took a unique route to get here. So instead of focusing on the nuts and bolts of Mason Rudolph’s journey with the Pittsburgh Steelers, we’ll instead focus on how that journey started.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2022 Draft Class, Kevin Colbert last draft

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their final press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Early in the 2018 off season Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell was working into his pre-draft profiles and devoted some time to Oklahoma’s Mason Rudolph, mentioning that Tomlin and Colbert had shown real interest.

In the comment’s section a reader shared a picture noting “Went to the osu game at Heinz Field. Colbert was never more than 5 feet away from him entire pregame.”

Yet, when the 2018 NFL Draft came the Steelers passed on Lamar Jackson and took Terrell Edmunds in the first round and then picked James Washington in the 2nd round (ouch!). But Kevin Colbert also robbed er um traded Martavis Bryant to the Raiders for a third round pick. And with that extra pic, the Steelers took Mason Rudolph.

Then two interesting factoid’s leaked: 1. The Steelers had a first round grade on Rudolph; 2. Rudolph was described as a “compromise pick.”

While Steel Curtain Rising has no access to sources on the South Side, the translation of the above into simple English is this: Kevin Colbert was Mason Rudolph’s champion.

  • If this is true then Rudolph’s career arc with the Steelers becomes easier to understand.
Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs, Steelers developing quarterbacks

Mason Rudoph and Joshua Dobbs square off @ St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It easier to see why Mason Rudolph became the first quarterback of the Tomlin era to get benched for performance. The same can be said for Tomlin’s decision to bring back Joshua Dobbs, sign Dwayne Haskins, Mitch Trubisky and draft Kenny Pickett. Likewise, Tomlin’s decision to look past Rudolph’s strong performances during the 2022 and 2023 preseasons take on a different light.

  • That doesn’t necessarily mean that Tomlin mishandled Rudolph’s development.

In a non-football context you’d say, “the business drivers” of each of those decisions were strong. And in both 2022 and 2023, Rudolph only had one year remaining on his contract. Pickett and Trubisky had multiple years so it made perfect sense to focus precious practice and preseason snaps on that duo.

Now Mason Rudolph’s contract is about to expire. Mike Tomlin, Omar Khan and Art Rooney II all say they want him back.

But just how badly do they want him?

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

The Tomlin era has seen the Golden Age of Steelers third string quarterbacks. So when Rudolph resigned last spring, he seemed destined to get a start. He got four, including one in the playoffs.

  • And Mason Rudolph was undisputed best quarterback on the roster.

The Steelers fielded a different, more dynamic offense with number 2 at the helm. George Pickens exploded. Diontae Johnson did his damage. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren had some of their best games. The defense, freed from the obligation of carrying the team, also played some of its best ball despite being critically short-handed.

The only question is, what is Omar Khan waiting for?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

Yes, Mason Rudolph looked good. He elevated the team. Everything about his four game audition, complete with the way he maintained his poise after the interception vs Buffalo says the Steelers would be insane to let him walk.

Yet, before cutting a check, the Steelers brass would be wise to remember a few names: Brock Osweiler, Matt Flynn, Rob Johnson and Scott Mitchell.

These are four NFL quarterbacks who parlayed varied amounts of success in a limited number of starts into mammoth free agent contracts to be starters elsewhere.

  • For those four, the grass truly was greener on the other side.

But none of these quarterbacks proved be worthy of their fortune, fame or salary cap space for the teams that signed them.

The only thing worse for the Steelers than losing Mason Rudolph would winning a bidding war to keep him. Mason Rudolph has shown he’s worth of an NFL starter’s contract, but light years away from earning a franchise quarterback deal.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mason Rudolph

Everyone wants Rudolph back and Rudolph seems open to it.

  • But there are three “but’s” at work here.
Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 Training Camp, Steelers St. Vincents 2022

Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett in 2022 at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

On the numbers side, you can take it at face value that the Steelers want to keep Rudolph in Pittsburgh. But you can also be sure that the Steelers have a number in mind and won’t go much beyond that (see Cam Sutton last spring.)

Then there’s a trust issue. Mike Tomlin has confirmed that Kenny Pickett will arrive at St. Vincents as the number 1 quarterback but assures that “He’ll have competition.” And Tomlin sounded serious. But he also sounded great to Melvin Ingram, Morgan Burnett and LeGarrette Blount who came to Pittsburgh as free agents and left disgruntled feeling that Tomlin promised them something he didn’t deliver.

  • This phenomenon isn’t limited to outsiders. Just ask James Harrison.

Finally, there’s Russell Wilson. The conventional wisdom has been that the Steelers would bring Mason Rudolph back to Pittsburgh to provide “competition” and if they couldn’t, they’d fall back to a veteran free agent such as Ryan Tannehill or Jacoby Brissett. But Russell Wilson has already visited the Steel City and talked with the Steelers brass.

  • Maybe this Russell Wilson flirtation is Omar Khan and company pressuring Rudolph to sign…
  • …but maybe it’s a signal that Tomlin doesn’t see Rudolph as a long-term starter and never will.

Mason Rudolph is good guy to have in the locker room. His teammates love him. He takes his preparation seriously. He puts the team first. He will elevate any quarterback room he joins.

In an ideal world for the Steelers, Rudolph would elevate the quarterback room in Pittsburgh. But if Russell Wilson’s visit to the Steelers is anything more than a “kick the tire” due diligence exercise, then that’s a clear signal that in Rudolph’s ideal world his NFL career will continue elsewhere.

Keep up with Steelers Free Agency. Click here for all of Steelers 2024 coverage.

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Multiplicity? New Steelers OLB Markus Golden’s Stats Nearly Identical to Bud Dupree’s

When the 2023 off season began, Steelers fans were unanimous about one move they wanted the team to make: Bring back Bud Dupree. Omar Khan tried, but Dupree declined.

  • Last week Steelers fans just might have gotten what they wanted anyway.

Last week the Steelers came to terms with Markus Golden, a free agent outside linebacker who has spent his career with the Arizona Cardinals sans a 23 game stint in 2019 and 2020 with the New York Giants.

Markus Golden, Le'Veon Bell

Markus Golden (far left wearing number 44) tackles Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Shelley LIpton/UPI

Let me state at the outset that I know next to nothing about Markus Golden and stress that he deserves to be considered as is own man.

  • But statically speaking he appears to be Bud Dupree’s clone.

Just glance at some stats compiled by Carlos Ortega, founder of the Mexican site Steelers Tres Sesenta.

Bud Dupree Markus Golden Stats

Stats compiled from Pro Football Reference by Carlos Ortega

In football you often times hear that “so and so is a mirror image of such and such player.” Heck, In talking about Jack Lambert and Jack Ham, George Perles used to say, “There’s a lot of Ham in Lambert and a lot of Lambert in Ham.” Chuck Noll endorsed that idea in Dan Rooney’s self-titled autobiography.

  • But the statistical similarity between Markus Golden and Bud Dupree is uncanny.

Assuming that Golden is OK with playing third fiddle behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers should enjoy the best depth at outside linebacker since 2020, when Highsmith backed up Watt and Dupree.

But is that safe assumption?

Perhaps Fourth Time Is the Charm for Pittsburgh?

Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan can be forgiven if they’re crossing their fingers and clutching their Rosary Beads hoping that Markus Golden works out. Because the Steelers have followed the beg, borrow or steal routine to build depth at outside linebacker.

In July 2021 the Steelers signed Melvin Ingram, and it looked like a minor steal. Ingram played well given his role, but it was a role he was unhappy to play. He demanded a trade. Mike Tomlin complied, later explaining “He did not want to be here.”

Last year the Steelers traded for Malik Reed at the end of August. Reed had performed well while backup in up Von Miller in Denver, but he was invisible while T.J. Watt was injured.

After the Steelers traded Ingram to the Chiefs, they signed Taco Charlton. He didn’t work out. They had Derrek Tuszka on their roster for 15 games in 2021, not that you’d remember.

They signed Genard Avery in 2022, then cut him in preseason. They’ve brought Tuzar Skipper back only to release him as injured/waived. They’ve drafted, cut and resigned Quincy Roche. Jamir Jones has been on an off the roster, even getting a couple of exclusive and/or restricted free agent tenders. He’s gone.

Hopefully, with Markus Golden the fourth time will prove to be the charm for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Not Necessary: Steelers Shouldn’t Tender Jamir Jones, Exclusive Rights Free Agent

The Pittsburgh Steelers are still looking for their next James Harrison.

Literally. Harrison first caught the Steelers eye as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2002. He got an invite to training camp but spent the next 2 years going on and off the roster and practice squad. Then Joey Porter got tossed in a pre-game scuffle at Cleveland, giving Harrison a chance to play defense and well, you know the rest.

Since then the Steelers have had several unheralded outside linebackers flash during the summer at St. Vincents and each time “they” ask, “Is this the next James Harrison?” You might remember some of their names Ola Adeniyi, Tuzar Skipper and finally Jamir Jones who is now an exclusive rights free agent.

Jamir Jones,

Jamir Jones in 2021. Photo Credit: USA Today via the Rams Wire.

Capsule Profile of Jamir Jones Career with the Steelers

The Steelers signed Jamir Jones as an undrafted rookie free agent in the spring of 2021. Jones played well in preseason, and earned a spot on the Steelers regular season roster. He saw action in the 2021 opening day win over the Bills, got a quarterback hit in the home opening loss to the Bengals, and even got a start in the home opener loss to the Raiders.

  • The Steelers cut him after that.

He got picked up by the Los Angeles Rams where he played 10 games before getting cut. He was then picked up by the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he played 2 games. Jacksonville cut him at the end of camp, but the Steelers picked him up off of waivers.

Jones appeared in all 17 games for the Steelers, logging 57% of the special teams snaps but only logged 86 snaps on defense, although he did defend a Joe Burrow pass intended for Joe Mixon during the 2022 season opening upset of the Bengals.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Jamir Jones

At this point in the spring of 2004 was there anyone who was saying, “The Steelers MUST bring back James Harrison no ifs ands or buts?” Point made.

The Steelers outside linebacker depth behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith has been a liability for years. The Malik Reed, Melvin Ingram and Taco Charlton experiments have all failed each in their unique way. Steelers coaches saw enough in Jones to give him a second chance. They should let him finish it.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Jamir Jones

88%, 83% and 8%. Those are the snap count totals for Alex Highsmith, T.J. Watt and Jamir Jones. Clearly you want to former two playing as much as possible. But you also want a player behind them who is capable of giving them a breather, the way Arthur Moats did a few years back.

Jamir Jones hasn’t shown a hint of being able to do that. It is time to move on.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Jamir Jones

Jamir Jones isn’t the next James Harrison. Could he grow into another Arthur Moats? Um… maybe.

But no one will throw money at Jamir Jones, so the Steelers shouldn’t offer him an Exclusive Free Agent Tender and can bring him back to St. Vincents at their convenience and at a lower salary cap cost.

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Steelers Free Agent Taco Charlton May Be a Failed First Rounder, But He’ll Be a Good “Next Man Up”

Is there a single position that’s more important to the Steelers defense than outside linebacker? It is hard to argue to the contrary. In 2019, Pittsburgh’s defense returned to elite status thanks to the late blooming emergence of Bud Dupree.

And you can pinpoint the moment the unit lost elite status to Dupree tearing an ACL during the 3rd quarter of the December 2nd 2020 “win” over the Ravens.

  • Depth at outside linebacker therefore is critical for the Steelers.

During the latter part of 2021, Taco Charlton served as the “next man up” at outside linebacker for the Steelers. Does his tape warrant him staying in Pittsburgh for another season?

Taco Charlton, Steelers vs Browns

Taco Carlton in Ben Roethlisberger’s Heinz Field Finale. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today, via BTSC

Capsule Profile of Taco Charlton’s Steelers Career

Taco Charlton was a decorated outside linebacker at Michigan and a prospect often linked to the Steelers in the months prior to the 2017 NFL Draft. Charlton was selected with the 28th overall pick by the Dallas Cowboys, who were drafting just two spots ahead of Pittsburgh.

After two underwhelming seasons in Dallas, Charlton was released early in the 2019 campaign. After playing for the Dolphins and Chiefs in the 2019 and 2020 seasons, respectively, Charlton was signed to the Steelers practice squad early in the 2021 season. Charlton was ultimately promoted to the active roster on November 2. Charlton appeared in 11 games for the Steelers in 2021 and recorded 18 tackles and a half of a sack.

The Case for the Steelers Re-Signing Taco Charlton In 2022

Despite having just 11.5 career sacks to his name, there’s no question Charlton has a great draft pedigree and is quite talented. Depth at outside linebacker was an issue in 2021 and it reared its ugly head multiple times, as both T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith missed time. The Steelers paid Charlton $550,000 in 2021, and if they can get him for around that amount in 2022, I see no harm in bringing him back, even for just one more season.

The Case Against the Steelers Re-Signing Taco Charlton in 2022

As a recent first-round pick, Charlton may still have designs on being a starter in the NFL. While certainly not on the same level in terms of accomplishment, do the Steelers want to bring back Charlton and have a repeat of the messy situation that developed with veteran Melvin Ingram, who apparently was unhappy with playing time?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Taco Charlton in 2022

To tell you the truth, I really can’t think of a legit case against bringing back a player like Charlton in 2022. He’s the proverbial low-risk, high-reward player, and if the Steelers can flesh out the talents that made him a first-round pick five years ago, everyone wins.

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Running Back Depth is a Need, but Steelers Can (and Will) Do Better than Kalen Ballage

Running back depth, or lack thereof has been the Achilles Heel for the Steelers during the latter part of the Ben Roethlisberger era. Just how bad has the problem been?

Well, consider that after their 2014 Divisional Playoff loss to the Ravens at Heinz Field, none of their top 3 running backs, neither Ben Tate, Josh Harris nor Dri Archer ever saw another NFL carry.

A year later, the Steelers went into the playoffs starting their 5th and 6th string running backs, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman. Thin running back depth hobbled the Steelers a year later in the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, with Le’Veon Bell leaving early and DeAngelo Williams ineffective.

In 2021 the staffed quantity on the depth chart behind starter Najee Harris and that included Kalen Ballage. Did he show enough quality during that time to earn a second contract?

Kalen Ballage, Pittsburgh Steelers free agent

Kalen Ballage during the Steelers 2021 preseason. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire.

Capsule Profile of Kalen Ballage Career with the Steelers

Kalen Ballage came to the Steelers as a former Miami Dolphins 4th round pick who’d bounced around to four teams in his first 3 years in the NFL. Ballage earned a spot in training camp at least in part due to an injury to Benny Snell.

  • Here’s where memory plays tricks.

Kalen Ballage seemed like the “next man” up after Harris, but the record shows he only had 12 carries and only saw 65 offensive snaps. That was good for 36 yards in 12 carries along with 2 catches on 7 targets. If the offensive line didn’t give him a of help, Ballage did little to help himself in spot duty.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Kalen Ballage

Yeah. This is a tough one. The Steelers need depth behind Najee Harris and Ballage gives them a veteran presence. And he’s only fumbled twice in four years in the NFL. And you can get him dirt cheap. Plus he played 20% of special teams snaps.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Kalen Ballage

If you’re not convinced by the above you shouldn’t be. Kalen Ballage was a bargin-basement free agency signing for a reason. His limited sample size has been large enough and representative enough for the Steelers to see what they have in Ballage and that is: Not much.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Kalen Ballage

A key priority for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2022 off season is finding not only a number 2 but a number 3 running back to work behind Najee Harris.

It says here that, unless the Steelers stumble on the next Tom Brady with of their 6th round pick (ooh, wouldn’t that make the Melvin Ingram experience worth it), Pittsburgh will not field a Super Bowl team in 2022. But its still instructive to remember that the last time the Steelers won a Super Bowl, its running backs depth chart was four players deep.

The point isn’t that Kalen Ballage isn’t even 2022’s version of Mewelde Moore, it’s that he’s not even Gary Russell.

Expect the Steelers to move on.

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Did Le’Veon Bell Pave the Way for the Steelers Trade of Melvin Ingram to the Chiefs? Maybe.

Perhaps the best take away out of Stephen King’s On Writing is his argument that compelling stories are never scripted. Instead, they evolve through the actions of their characters.

  • And so it is with Pittsburgh Steelers blogs.

When the Steelers signed Melvin Ingram on July 19th, the article the photo that yours truly picked for the post discussing his signing was one of him tackling Le’Veon Bell in the 2015 game against the Chargers.

Melvin Ingram, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Chargers

Melvin Ingram tackles Le’Veon Bell in 2015. Photo Credit: Donald Miralle, Getty Images, via Zimbo

As it turned out, it was quite a fitting photo, because it Le’Veon Bell may have blazed the trail that led the Steelers to trade Melvin Ingram to the Kansas City Chiefs for a 6th round pick after just 6 games in the Black and Gold.

When asked to explain the decision, Mike Tomlin conceded that “I enjoy working with Melvin. It just didn’t work out the way we envisioned, the way he envisioned.” Then he clarified, “And sometimes it happens in free agency and that’s really, you know, culturally, why we build our team primarily through the draft.”

  • Rumors have circulated for weeks that Ingram wanted out.

The Steelers had an offer from the Chiefs, but wanted to send him to the NFC. Ultimately they couldn’t. “What the team needs is first and foremost,” Tomlin insisted, before pivoting “Also, it’s better to have volunteers as opposed to hostages, so that’s good for the team as well.”

If the “hostages” and “volunteers” colocation sounds familiar (OK, it’s not a true collocation, but how many ESL teachers are gonna read this anyway?) it should.

Nearly 3 years ago, almost to the day, Mike Tomlin explained to ESPN’s Dianna Russini “We need volunteers, not hostages,” when asked about whether the Steelers needed Le’Veon Bell to end his holdout.

  • The decision confirms a shift the franchise’s policy and attitude in these situations.

Four summers ago Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell raised eyebrows when they suggested James Harrison was a candidate for the waiver wire. Social media decried the story as “click bait” but Harrison neither played nor practiced at St. Vincents. And when the season started, some Sundays he didn’t get a helmet and he seldom played when he did.

  • Much of this happened outside the public eye but privately James Harrison was furious and did little to hide it when the cameras weren’t rolling.

The Steelers of course cut James Harrison just before Christmas, the Patriots signed him, started him, Harrison got a few sacks on national TV and a trip to the Super Bowl.

The Steelers suffered their worst public relations debacle since Chuck Noll’s “Franco Who?” comment that ended with the ghastly sight of Franco Harris wearing a blue No. 34 Seattle Seahawks jersey.

The Ingram trade depletes the depth behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith leaving the Steelers with only Derrek Tuszka and Taco Charlton was backups. An injury to either Watt or Highsmith could derail the Steelers season just as James Conner’s injury derailed the 2018 season.

But that’s a gamble the Steelers are willing to make in exchange for locker room harmony, which might be the lasting lesson that Le’Veon Bell left to the team.

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Steelers Report Card for Raiders Loss – Arriving @ School with No Pencil Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who fears that a lack of paper and pencils might scuttle the semester, here is the Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Raiders.

Trayvon Mullen Jr. , Steelers vs Raiders

Trayvon Mullen Jr. intercepts Ben Roethlisberger early in the 1st quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
To his credit Ben Roethlisberger repeatedly took the blame for this loss. And it is true that his 40 for 27 for 295 yards and 1 touchdown and one interception hides the fact that too many of his deep throws were off. Roethlisberger is right, he does need to play better. But he has plenty of company. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Najee Harris had 10 runs for 38 yards and 5 catches for 43 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers look pedestrian. And they are. But they’re not Harris’ fault. Outside of his 14 yard burst – which not coincidentally sparked the Steelers first touchdown drive – Harris had no room to run. Benny Snell had two carries for one yard. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 4 passes on four targets and came ooh so close to converting a third down. He also contributed with some quality blocks. Eric Ebron had zero catches on 2 passes. Zach Gentry had 14 snaps. Moving forward success on offense might require more Freiermuth and less Gentry. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson lead the team with 9 catches for 105 yards including a 41 yarder that set up a score. But he also broke off a route way too early that lead to an interception. Chase Claypool had 3 catches including a 52 yarder that set up another touchdown. Still Claypool was targeted 6 more times to no avail. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 of 7 passes thrown his way for 41 yards. Claypool and Johnson must go the extra mile to make plays for their quarterback. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
Where to start? Against the Raiders, the 2021 Steelers offensive line was the 2020, except with the good qualities stripped out. Run blocking was nonexistent and Ben Roethlisberger was hit 10 times including 2 sacks. To borrow on our opening metaphor, good line play is to quality offense as paper and pencils are to quality education. And the Steelers offensive line isn’t even showing up to school with their erasers.  Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was a one man wrecking crew breaking up passes and dropping players for losses in 3rd down doing more than you’d expect to make up for the loss of Tyson Alualu. Chris Wormley and Isaiahh Loudermilk didn’t put up a lot of stats, but the Raiders couldn’t run. Still, defensive line could have done more to make its presence felt in the pass rush. Grade: B-

Linebackers
For a while, it seemed like T.J. Watt might beat the Raiders all by himself, logging 3 tackles, a strip sack and a QB hit in a quarter of play. But then he got hurt. Melvin Ingram, Alex Highsmith, Robert Spillane and Joe Schobert all had their moments, but David Carr had too much time to throw in the first half. Grade: B-

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Raiders, Derek Carr

T.J. Watt strip sacks Derek Carr during the Steelers 26-17 loss to the Raiders on September 19th 2021 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Secondary
As Jim Wexell pointed out, on the critical play of the game, Minkah Fitzpatrick cheated up to the line of scrimmage Troy Poalmalu style in an attempt to shut down Darren Walker. Alas, the gambit failed, and Henry Ruggs streak through the secondary. Minhak Fitzpatrick tried to recover but fell short and Ahkello Witherspoon never had a chance.

The secondary, sans Joe Haden, and sans Devin Bush, T.J. Watt and Tyson Alualu in front of them held the Raiders in check for the first half. But the unit gave up two touchdowns in the 2nd half. Grade: D

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud had a nice 15 yard punt return and 2 respectable kick returns. The Steelers kick coverage was solid, but they did give up more punt yardage than desirable. Grade: C+

Coaching
Mike Tomlin knows his team.

Many fans and journalists want to make hay of Tomlin’s decision to punt on 4th and 1 with 9 minute left. But let’s be honest, the Steelers offense simply isn’t physical enough go for that one yard with any confidence.

(For those of you with long memories, think of Bill Cowher calling a fea-flicker on 4th and 1 vs. the Jaguars during the Dark Days of September 1999.)

On defense, Keith Butler kept the Steelers in the game with smart play in the first half, but his unit gave up one long drive, followed by a quick strike and then a field goal drive in the 2nd half. As for the offense, we glimpsed the potential of what Matt Canada can do on the two touchdown drives. But until the offensive line can muster the physicality to breathe live into those schemes, the Steelers will go no where. Grade: C-

Unsung Hero Award
Alas, it didn’t alter the outcome, but lining up for a 56 yarder at Heinz Field is never easy. Doing it when just under 4 minutes remaining and facing an 11 point deficit only adds to the fun. It was the longest kick in Heinz Field history and Chris Boswell not only made it, but he split the uprights. And for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the loss to the Raiders.

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Raiders Prevail over Pittsburgh 27-17 as Depleted Depth Sinks Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland-Los Angeles-Oakland-Las Vegas Raiders met for the 24th time yesterday at Heinz Field, as the men in Silver and Black prevailed 27-17.

The two teams may have now faced off 2 dozen times, but the game marked this citizen of Steelers Nation 2nd Steelers game in 2 years viewed from his native abode in suburban DC. It is only fitting then to begin the analysis of why Las Vegas won by borrowing the words of legendary WMAL/WTEM sports radio journalist Ken Beatrice, who reminded listener: “Injuries are as much a factor as talent and coaching in the NFL.”

  • Ken was right and Sunday’s lose provided a perfect case study.

But injuries impact every NFL team, and they only partially explain why the Steelers lost to the Raiders. The loss to the Raiders revealed a fundamental flaw that the Steelers must correct if they are to similar defeats in the future.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Raiders

Soloman Thomas sacks Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

2 Men Short Becomes 4 Man Short, in a Hurry

As Mike Tomlin explained after the opening day win over the Bills, the Steelers defense is supposed to go toe-to-toe with any team in the league. He made no apologize for that. And while he won’t say it, that’s also an implicit admission that the defense will have to carry the team early on.

  • So it was cause for concern that Devin Bush and Joe Haden headed up the Steelers inactive list.

Both men would get company in the training room, fast. Tyson Alualu fell first, going onto the cart with an ankle injury early in the game. At first it didn’t seem to matter, as T.J. Watt accounted for 4 tackles on the first 9 plays including a strip sack and a drive ending run stuff on third down.

  • Unfortunately, that was about it for T.J. Watt, as a groin injury forced him from the game.

And for a while, it seemed like the Steelers could manage without Watt. Melvin Ingram teamed with Robert Spillane on a key run stuff and helped force an incompletion in the end zone. And when the Steelers second team defense wasn’t making shut down plays, the Raiders tripped over themselves, taking one touchdown off of the board due to penalties and settling for 3 field goals instead of touchdowns.

This was good, because the Steelers offense struggled to get out of 1st gear.

Steelers Offense Stuck in 2020

During 2020 the skinny on the Steelers offense was simple. When Ben Roethlisberger could hit JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson on short, 5 to 7 yard routes, things were OK. If anything else was required to win, Pittsburgh had problems.

  • During the first 3 drives of the game the Steelers offense remained stuck in 2020

Najee Harris ripped off a nice 14 yard run, but other than that, he found no daylight. Outside of a 17 yard strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster, Roethlisberger’s successes were confined to 5 or 6 yard hook ups. He misfired deep to Chase Claypool twice and Diontae Johnson cut off his route way too early on another occasion leading to a Trayvon Mullen interception.

Fortunately, Roethlisberger and Johnson found their groove late in the 2nd quarter as they hooked up for a 41 yard catch, that set up a 6 yard JuJu Smith-Schuster touchdown on a Jet Sweep. It felt good to see the Steelers score a non-garbage time TD at Heinz Field again, but they were still down 9-7.

Failure on Fundamentals Catches Up with Steelers in 2nd Half

A two point half-time deficit does not an unscalable wall make, as Yoda might remind us. And when the visiting team goes up by nine with 20 minutes left to play, you are still very much in the game. But in the 2nd half injuries on defense conspired with failures on fundamentals on offense to do the Steelers in.

The Steelers defense has been a pass rushing juggernaut since 2015 at least. And if all of the pressure on the passer didn’t necessarily result in turnovers until recently, it kept opposing quarterback honest and at least helped limit long completions.

Cam Heyward, Alex Highsmith and Melvin Ingram made some fine plays, but in the end the Steelers defense couldn’t compensate for the loss of four starters as the Raiders exploited them for several deep gains including a 61 touchdown pass that saw Tre Norwood and James Pierre get torched.

  • The Steelers couldn’t overcome that because of failures on fundamentals on offense.

The good news is that Najee Harris has proven he is a legitimate weapon for the Steelers. Its no coincidence that Pittsburgh’s first touchdown drive started with a 14 yard carry by Harris, and its second end zone encountered ended with a 25 yard catch and run that featured a twisting goal line dive by Harris.

Unfortunately, the Steelers offensive line couldn’t block well enough to make Harris a factor in the game. That forced Ben Roethlisberger to look deep. He found Chase Claypool on one occasion for 52 yards to set up Harris’ score, but he misfired on his other 3 attempts.

And there’s the rub.

After the game, Ben Roethlisberger took the blame, admitting that “I need to play better.” That’s true. To a degree.

But Ben can’t do it by himself anymore. Ben Roethlisberger has shown he can be a winning quarterback if he’s playing in a balanced offense. But until the Steelers can mount a competent running game, they will depend on pitching shut outs on defense.

And as today’s game shows, all it takes to neuter the Steelers defense is a few inopportune injuries.

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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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6 “Its Only Preseason, BUT…” Observations from the Steelers 26-20 win over the Lions

The Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed in their third preseason outing of the summer at Heinz Field where they triumphed over the Detroit Lions 26-20. Although “its only preseason” the contest was not nearly as close as the final score suggests.

Here are 6 quick, “Its Only Preseason But” observations.

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers vs Lions Preseason

Pat Freiermuth catches 1 of 2 TDs. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

1. Meet the New Ben, Same as the Old Ben?

All eyes were on Ben Roethlisberger as he took the field for the first time following the Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic disaster in the playoffs against Cleveland. Since then Ben Roethlisberger agreed to take a 5 million dollar pay cut to return while admitting that his arm did not hold up well during the course of 2020.

  • So how did he do?

Pretty well. On the plus side Ben showed his old mobility in the pocket, dodging around to buy time and hitting receivers down the field. Likewise, his arm strength looks just fine, as he rifled off two touchdown passes in the Red Zone.

  • Throwing down field as more of a mixed bag.

He was right on the money in trying to hook up with Eric Ebron, but Ebron couldn’t hold on.

However, his pass to Diontae Johnson looked to be a little underthrown. Johnson noted, and slowed to adjust his route. Roethlisberger himself admitted that he put too much air into that ball. That’s good, but make no mistake, the Buffalo Bills will destroy the Steelers on that type of play when the regular season starts.

2. Too Early to Worry about the Run Defense?

The Lions top four rushers had long runs of 12, 13, 10 and 9 yards. OK, one of those was a scramble by David Blough and we are talking about an offense that didn’t get on the board until the first minute of the fourth quarter.

Sometimes these preseason tendencies are little more meaningful than an April batting average; sometimes they signal season-long problems.

3. Welcome to Pittsburgh Paty Freiermuth

Sometimes preseason stars are just that – preseason stars. Anyone even remember Matthew Thomas? Neither did I. Had to look up his name. This might jog your memory:

https://twitter.com/BlitzVideos/status/1035700924893855744

This same Matthew Thomas whom Jim Wexell reported that coaches had hopes could come in an earn playing time by the time the leaves began to fall. The same Matthew Thomas the Steelers cut on December 3rd of that year. The same Matthew Thomas Baltimore signed in January only to cut in August.

  • Then there are players who prove they are the real deal.

And here we introduce Pat Freiermuth. A lot of people questioned the Steelers decision to draft Pat Freiermuth, a tight end out of Penn State, in the 2nd round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

No one’s asking that question this morning, when Freiermuth caught not one, but two touchdown in the end zone. Both times he had double coverage, both times Ben Roethlisberger found Freiermuth. Both times he made it look easy.

4. Kalen Ballage Secures Backup Slot

Najee Harris and Anthony McFarland both put in strong nights. But if the Mike Tomlin era has taught us ANYTHING its that the Steelers need a running back depth chart that’s at least 3 players deep.

(How might 2014, 2015 and/or 2018 turned out if the equivalent of a Mewelde Moore and/or Gary Russell had been on the roster. We’ll never know. And that’s the point.)

Kalen Ballage looks like he can be that player. Ballage was one of Kevin Colbert’s unheralded free agent signings and brought a pedestrian resume to Pittsburgh. But he’s looked strong in preseason. Benny Snell, who began the summer as running back number 3, remains out with injury.

And while Jaylen Samuels looked strong against the Eagles, he didn’t play as well against the Lions.

5. T.J. Who? Well, No, Quite

Neither Melvin Ingram nor Alex Highsmith put up any gaudy stats against the Lions, but both men were around the ball. While no one is going to suggest that their performance gives the Steelers cause to stall in their contract negotiations with T.J. Watt, it looks like the Steelers have 3 viable outside linebackers.

6. Glad You’re Still Here JuJu

One of the surprises of the 2021 off season was the return of JuJu Smith-Schuster. JuJu Smith-Schuster might have only had 5 catches against the Lions, but if you looked at his tape, you’d never have known he was playing in preseason.

  • Just as you won’t have known he was playing from hopelessly behind against the Browns last January.

In terms of pure talent, Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson probably lead the Steelers wide receivers depth chart. But when it comes to heart and want to, JuJu and James Washington lead the way.

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