Friend-Foe Axis Updates: Steelers Sign Arthur Maulet; Villanueva Runs to Ravens

In the “Watch what we do, not what we say” department, the Steelers made their first personnel addition following the 2021 NFL Draft when they signed former New York Jets safety Arthur Maulet to a one year contract.

Sean Davis, who was the number one back up at both positions last season, signed with the Colts. The team has Antoine Brooks, who was their 6th round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, but Brooks only appeared in four games during 2020. He began the season on the practice squad and was activated in November and saw his first action in the win over the Bengals.

  • This is bad news for Jordan Dangerfield, who served as a backup safety and special teams captain.

The move suggests that the Steelers were looking to address safety earlier in the draft than they did, when they picked Tre Norwood with their first 7th round pick.

The move also suggests, against logic, that the Steelers are comfortable with the depth they have behind Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt.

Arthur Maulet, James Washington, Steelers vs Jets 2019

Aruthur Maulet horse collars future teammate James Washington. Photo Credit: Adam Hunger, AP via Jets Wire.

From Foe to Friend Arthur Maulet

Arthur Maulet broke into the NFL in 2017 as an undrafted rookie free agent with the New Orleans Saints. He appeared in six games for the Saints in 2017. In 2018 he made the active roster for New Orleans, but was cut, was signed by the Colts where he saw action in 5 games. The Colts cut him, and he was resigned by the Saints and he played one game for them.

  • The Saints cut him in late January and the New York Jets signed him immediately.

During 2019 and 2020, Maulet appeared in 23 games for the Jets, making 11 starts, and participating in about 1/3 of the defensive snaps, while also being active on special teams. During his NFL career, he has made 2 interceptions and one sack.

During the Steelers 2019 loss to the Jets, Maulet made 4 tackles, and his illegal contact penalty against James Washington set up a Mason Rudolph to Diontae Johnson touchdown one play later, with 9 seconds remaining in the first half. (He was also fined for a horse collar tackle, picture above.)

From Friend to Foe Villanueva Signs with Ravens

In the from friend to foe department, former Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva signed with the Baltimore Ravens for two years. The move was widely reported prior to the draft and was expected.

Steel Curtain Rising will have more on this move later.

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Steelers Draft Tre Norwood, Cornerback, Safety, “Swiss Army Knife” in 7th Round

With their first pick in the 7th round of the 2021 NFL Draft the Steelers bolstered their secondary by drafting cornerback/safety Tre Norwood, who played his college ball at Oklahoma.

The NFL’s draft site labeled Tre Norwood as a cornerback the Steelers announced him as a safety, but Mike Tomlin called him a “Swiss Army Knife/utility back/safety.”

  • The Sooners listed him as a “defensive back.”

Early in his career he played cornerback but gravitated to safety later in his career. As far as it concerns the Steelers, it really doesn’t matter – Pittsburgh is desperate for backups at both cornerback and safety.

Tre Norwood

Steelers 7th round pick Tre Norwood. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Tre Norwood Video Highlights

The 6 foot 192 pounder Norwood caught the attention of scouts thanks to his ball skills, as he intercepted 5 passes during the 2020 season, tying for 3rd national and leading the Big 12. Here’s a look at his highlight tape:

Looks good. He won’t find NFL quarterbacks throwing passes that are that easy to pick off, but he does know how to catch a ball.

How Tre Norwood Fits in with Steelers

The Steelers look to field a strong front four in their secondary, with Cameron Sutton, Joe Haden, Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick. The team is likewise high on James Pierre as a number 3 corner.

That latter of has proven nothing in 2 years in the NFL and Antoine Brooks is untested. But at the end of the day, Tre Norwood, the Swiss Army Knife, is a 7th round pick. 7th round picks can make a difference as rookies – just look at Kelvin Beachum in 2012. And in 1992 8th round pick Darren Perry won the starting job.

  • But the best case scenario for Tre Norwood is for him to contribute on special teams.

Hopefully, they’ll be no demand for his services in 2021 beyond that. Welcome to Steelers Nation Tre Norwood.

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Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Safety – Depth Unsafe beyond Minkah, Edmunds

The Steelers spent countless years trying to shore up their secondary. So many years, in fact, it seemed like it would never happen.

  • That all changed in 2019 when the Steelers added the final piece to their complicated puzzle.

Unfortunately, after two seasons of some of the best secondary play the team had seen in a long time, there are now questions at cornerback, following the free-agent departure of Mike Hilton and the seemingly sudden release of Steven Nelson. But what about the safety position? Are there some questions that need to be answered in the form of a premium draft choice or two? We shall find out.

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

 

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2021 NFL Draft: The Starters

While he was certainly a surprise first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft (28th, overall), that hasn’t kept Terrell Edmunds out of the starting lineup. In-fact, Edmunds has started a total of 43 games at strong safety since his rookie season. While his production and progress haven’t always impressed, he’s been reliable, and it appears that he has steadily improved each and every season.

  • 2020 may have been Edmunds’ finest campaign, as he tallied two interceptions and eight passes defensed.

Maybe Edmunds’ progress can be attributed to the addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick at free safety. It’s no stretch to say that Fitzpatrick, a former first-round pick who was acquired in a trade with the Dolphins early in the 2019 season, is the Steelers’ most dynamic defensive back since Troy Polamalu. That’s certainly debatable. What isn’t debatable is that Fitzpatrick’s mere presence in the secondary forces opposing offenses to account for him on every play–just like they once did with Polamalu. Fitzpatrick has back-to-back First-Team All-Pro honors under his belt and is heading into his fourth season with the look of a man who will earn a huge payday sooner rather than later.

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2021 NFL Draft: The Backups

Veteran Sean Davis recently signed with the Colts, while 2020 special teams captain, Jordan Dangerfield, remains unsigned. Pittsburgh inked a deal with Miles Killebrew, who spent his first five seasons with the Lions. Much like Dangerfield, Killebrew was more special teams contributor than he was safety in Detroit and registered zero defensive snaps in two of his past three seasons — including none a year ago. The Steelers also list Kilebrew as a linebacker.

Antoine Brooks  a sixth-round pick out of Maryland a season ago, only appeared in four games in 2020 and didn’t make much of an impression.

The Steelers 2020 Safety Draft Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftThis one is a bit tricky. Obviously, Edmunds and Fitzpatrick are locked in as starters for 2021. However, both have reached the points of their rookie deals where the Steelers must decide if they will pick up their fifth-year options. It seems likely that Pittsburgh will pick up both — that is almost a certainty with Fitzpatrick — but as of this writing, no announcement has been made about either player. 

  • Again, Fitzpatrick is destined for a huge, multi-year deal, and the Steelers will have a lot of work to do to get one done.

As for Edmunds, he isn’t going to cost them as much, but he’s not going to be cheap, either. I don’t think it’s a done deal that either or both will be Steelers through their second contracts. With Killebrew and Brooks mostly unknowns, and with former Penn State safety Marcus Allen playing more inside linebacker, these days, there could be room on the roster for another young safety. Draft need: Moderate

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Sean Davis Signs with Colts: Steelers Depth Takes Hit, with Ironic, Bilingual Play on Words

Pittsburgh Steelers reserve free agent safety Sean Davis has signed with the Indianapolis Colts. Davis’ defection unites him with fellow University of Maryland alumni Frank Reich, and deals the Steelers an unsurprising, if slightly disappointing blow.

  • The move also leads us to a rather ironic, bilingual play on words.

Sean Davis, Ezekiel Elliot, Steelers vs Cowboys

Sean Davis can’t stop Ezekiel Elliot. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via The Steelers Wire.

More on the play on words in a minute. In football terms, With Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds entrenched as starters, Sean Davis had no shot at earning a spot on the first string. As staff writer Tony Defeo argued, Sean Davis could theoretically work a bit in the slot, has he did as a rookie. Perhaps he could have even carved a role for himself as the “Dime Linebacker.”

  • Those roles were hypothetical.
  • There was nothing hypothetical about his real value to the Steelers: Depth.

And that’s where the bilingual play on words comes in.

The Spanish equivalents for American football terms represent a strange breed. Some, such as “Esquinero” for cornerback are quite literal. Others, like “Ala cerrada” for tight end are less obvious. “Ala” is wing in Spanish and “cerrada” means closed. Then there’s quarterback, which is termed “Mariscal de Campo” in Spanish.
The literal translation of Mariscal de campo” is Field Marshal.

There’s one case where you could argue that Spanish term expresses the concept behind the role of quarterback more precisely than the English one.

  • So at this point you’re saying:  “Ok, that’s interesting. But what the hell does it have to do with Sean Davis?”

Well, Sean Davis plays safety. The Spanish term for an American football safety is “Profundo.” And the literal meaning for “Profundo” is depth. And that’s where the irony comes in. Sean Davis’ free agent defection to the Colts tells the Steelers story thus far this off season: Free agency is ravaging this team’s depth.

While the franchise has question marks on the offensive line, tight end and running back, on paper the team is setting itself up to field a quality starting lineup. But outside of quarterback, wide receiver, arguably defensive line, and perhaps running back, the Steelers have no depth. None.

The answer to all of the above is “Marcus Allen.” And that’s not a good place to be.

Marcus Allen, Steelers vs Buccaneers preseason

Marcus Allen makes a tackle in the Steelers 2019 preseason game against Tampa. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Credit Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan, through Ben Roethlisberger’s restructuring, and the use of “Voidable years” for players like Cam Sutton and JuJu Smith-Schuster, for helping the Steelers avoid Salary Cap Armageddon.

Things could look a lot worse. And while the Steelers can shore themselves up a bit in the 2021 NFL Draft, in a lot of areas on the depth chart the franchise will be walking a tightrope without a net.

  • The last time that really happened was 2013, and we know how that year turned out….

Sean Davis was never going to be a show stopper for the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers. But he could have provided depth at a critical position. However, that is not to be.

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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The Steven Nelson Trade News was the Type of Surprise Steelers Fans Dread

Going into the free-agency phase of the Steelers offseason, there really wasn’t much that would surprise this fan and writer, someone who had long-since accepted the team’s fate as it pertained to a salary cap purgatory situation that had to be dealt with.

  • Only $6 million under the cap, Pittsburgh’s moves were likely going to be unspectacular.
  • Departures figured to sting anywhere from a little to a lot.
Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Not surprisingly, the first week of free-agency went about as expected — or, should I say the first few days of the first week of free agency? The Steelers lost Bud Dupree, Mike Hilton, Matt Feiler and even Tyson Alualu fairly quickly. While some may have hurt more than others, only the most optimistic — and naive (let’s be real) — Steelers fans should have been totally taken aback by anyone that departed.

But the news on Friday, however, was quite shocking, and it came at you in one, giant good news/bad news wave. First, the good news: The Steelers signed receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to a one-year deal for $8 million.

Next, the bad news: ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Steelers had granted cornerback Steven Nelson permission to seek a trade.

While you may have been pleasantly surprised to hear about the Steelers re-signing of Smith-Schuster, the news about Nelson had to rock you a little.

After all, even when it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Smith-Schuster would depart after receiving a huge, multi-year deal, the consensus was that Pittsburgh would still be fine at receiver; third-year man, Diontae Johnson and second-year man, Chase Claypool have already shown a ton of potential, as has fourth-year, man James Washington, a youngster who may just simply need a real opportunity to show what he can do. Besides, the Steelers have been fantastic at drafting and developing receivers for over a decade now; therefore, why would it be any different if they decided to take another one in the 2021 NFL Draft?

  • The secondary, on the other hand, may not be so easy for Pittsburgh to restock and reload.
  • There’s no sugar coating it:  The Franchise as struggled for a decade to draft and develop cornerbacks and safeties.

After that mostly didn’t work — and, “mostly” may be kind (anyone remember Cortez Allen or Senquez Golson?) — the Steelers had to go outside of the organization to find major talent, including cornerback Joe Haden, a post-cut free-agent signing in 2017; cornerback Steven Nelson, an unrestricted free agent in 2019; and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, a trade acquisition early in the 2019 regular season. Yes, while Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent, who made the team in 2017, can be considered a homegrown talent, same with 2017 third-round pick, Cam Sutton, the Steelers obviously couldn’t rely on their own resources when it came to turning the secondary from a liability into a strength.

Considering how hard it is to find blue-chip defensive backs in the area of the first round where the Steelers normally draft–this year, that area of the first round will be 24th–I doubt they really want to have to try again.

  • With all that in mind, I don’t think the Steelers really want to trade Nelson.

In my opinion, this is mostly a one-sided issue with Nelson and his agent forcing things. Think about it, why would the Steelers want to part with Nelson, who is in the final year of his contract and is slated to make $8.25 million in base salary? The Steelers would be hard-pressed to find another free-agent cornerback who can play the position as well as Nelson has the past two years, and at such a bargain rate. As for the draft? See above.

Ah, but that’s probably where the problem lies. Nelson likely feels that he’s severely underpaid, and when the two parties presumably had talks about a contract extension on the eve of free agency, Nelson was looking for a deal similar to what the top cornerbacks were earning–including a boatload of guaranteed money–and he wanted it asap.

  • You know how the Steelers are about guaranteed money, at least past the first year of a deal.

I don’t know what offers the Steelers will get for a trade involving Nelson. I also don’t know what’s going to happen if they don’t receive any offers that they deem worth it. Short of a contract agreement or trade that really works for Pittsburgh, I’d like to see Nelson stick around for at least one more year.

  • I seriously hope the Steelers don’t simply release the veteran if they can’t trade him.

Can a Steelers’ secondary that really just came into its own in 2019 absorb the losses of both Hilton and Nelson in one offseason? I don’t think so. I know Sutton has been retained and is capable of playing on the outside and in the slot, but he’s only one guy.

In conclusion, the Steelers secondary may again be a liability in 2021, and that is the kind of surprise that could cause a lot of fans to have heart attacks next season.

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 Free Agent Sean Davis: Will a Third Contract be the Charm?

The Steelers Joe Greene Great Performance Award aka Steelers Rookie of the Year award but named for Joe Greene carries a curious history. 

Some winners have authored Hall of Fame careers with the Steelers, such as Alan Faneca, Troy Polamalu and at some point, Ben Roethlisberger. Others, faded into oblivion like Delton Hall (who beat out Rod Woodson), Anthony Henton and Kendrell Bell. Some had good but not quite “great” careers like Louis Lipps or Kordell Stewart.

At this time last year, 2016 Joe Greene Great Performance Award winner Sean Davis appeared to be locked into that final category – he was one of the tweeners. Then he unexpectedly returned to Pittsburgh to start the 2020 giving him a shot at moving himself into the “good category.” 

He didn’t play enough to do that in 2020 and is now a free agent again. Will Sean Davis stay in Pittsburgh to get a third shot? Let’s find out.

Sean Davis, Chris Conley, Steelers vs Chiefs 2016 AFC Divisional Playoffs

Sean Davis hits Chris Conley in the 2016 AFC Playoffs. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Capsule Profile of Sean Davis’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers selected Sean Davis out of Maryland in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Davis came to the pros with position flexibility, thanks to playing both safety and cornerback in college. Sean Davis was named the starting slot corner early in his rookie season before ultimately moving to strong safety.

Sean Davis spent 2017 at strong safety but moved to free safety in 2018 following the departure of Mike Mitchell. An injury and the acquisition of Minkah Fitzpatrick early in the 2019 season eventually made Sean Davis expendable, and he signed a one-year deal with the Washington Football Team last spring. However, Washington cut him and Sean Davis soon found his way back to Pittsburgh in 2020.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Sean Davis in 2021

Davis has started 42 games over five seasons with the Steelers. He obviously knows Keith Butler’s system and, to reiterate, has position flexibility. Speaking of which, Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton are set to enter free agency and both — particularly Hilton — figure to earn fairly substantial raises. With the cap-strapped Steelers looking to save money any way they can, maybe Sean Davis can be the surprising answer for the slot corner position in 2021.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Sean Davis in 2021

While often flashing great playmaking ability, Davis has also been inconsistent during his career in Pittsburgh. The Steelers decision to bring Sean Davis back was a telling, but what was more telling was the fact that Sean Davis almost never saw the field save for the season finale against Cleveland.

You can’t find a stronger sign that it’s in Davis’s best interest to move on and for the Steelers to do the same.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Sean Davis in 2021

Davis should be fairly inexpensive to retain. The deal he signed with Washington last year was for $4 million, and I don’t see him being able to command anything close to that in 2021.

  • The Steelers could do worse than Davis in terms of someone with position flexibility.

At the very least, he provides adequate depth in the secondary and can do double duty on special teams. The Steelers need to find their bargains this year in free agency and Sean Davis would look to be one of them. 

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 Free Agent Focus 2021: Its Bye, Bye Bud Dupree

Webster’s on-line dictionary defines “Pincer” this way: “A military attack by two coordinated forces that close in on an enemy position from different directions.”

Military analogies to football often get over done, but words like “bomb,” “blitz,” “sack,” and “shotgun” describe some of its most dramatic plays. “Pincer Movement” isn’t one of those words, but it does describe the Steelers defense when its been at its best:

  • With two outside linebackers successfully pressuring a quarterback form opposite directions.

In 2020, it became unmistakably clear that Bud Dupree delivered the Steelers defense ½ of what they need to put opposing quarterbacks in a “Pincer Movement.” As free agency looms, the question remains, “Will Bud Dupree continue to do that in Pittsburgh, or will he do it for somewhere else?”

Bud Dupree, Jake Luton, Steelers vs Jaguars

Bud Dupree Sacks Jake Luton. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Bud Dupree’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers drafted Bud Dupree in the 1st round of the 2015 NFL Draft as a proverbial project. The initial returns were encouraging.

  • As a rookie, Dupree logged 4 sacks in his first 8 games
  • As a “sophomore,” Dupree came off of IR to log 4.5 sacks in 7 games

Dante Pettis, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs 49ers

Dante Pettis scores as Bud Dupree is helpless to stop him. Photo Credit: Lachlan Cunningham, Getty Images, Via SF Gate

Big things were expected of Bud heading into the 2017 season, particularly given the arrival of T.J. Watt. But instead of progressing, Bud Dupree plateaued. He only logged 6 sacks in 2017, despite playing 16 games. The Steelers flipped Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt before the 2018 season.

  • It didn’t help as Dupree’s sack total dropped to 5.5.

Moreover, reports that, “Dupree’s sack total might be low, but he’s excelling in pass coverage” started to circulate, just as similar reports of Jarvis Jones’ ability against the run had surfaced when he struggled to pressure the passer.

Under Keith Butler’s tutelage, Bud Dupree’s careear has taken off. In 2019 Bud Dupree logged 11.5 sacks and just as importantly, he force 4 fumbles. He continued in 2020, logging 8 sacks on the year and was going strong all the way up until he tore his ACL in the home game against the Ravens.

For all of the sound and fury generated by Ben Roethlisberger’s struggle’s with the long ball and the absence of a running game, it should be noted that the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers remained undefeated until they lost Bud Dupree.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Bud Dupree in 2021

It took a decade following Super Bowl XLV, but the Steelers defense returned to dominance in 2019, as the unit carried a team with an offense forced to start its 4th string quarterback to an 8-8 record.

  • The Dominance came in no small part due to Bud Dupree’s development.

For the first time since losing LaMarr Woodley in the 2011 win over the Patriots, the Steelers defense finally had two dominate outside linebackers. With that in mind, resigning Bud Dupree is a no brainer.

Alex Highsmith showed flashes in 2020, but when asked to assume the starting role he floundered. If the Steelers are serious about fielding a dominating defense in 2021, they need Bud Dupree. Period.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Bud Dupree in 2021

X’s and O’s might spell out one type of reality, but the hard math of salary cap calculations tell a very different story. The Steelers might not be facing salary cap Armageddon anymore, but they are facing salary cap Purgatory. Under normal circumstances, the Steelers could probably manage to sign Bud Dupree to a long-term contract, just as they once inked Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley to long term deals.

  • But circumstances are hardly ordinary.

Second contracts for top outside linebackers start at about 15 million per year, and trend to 20 million. The Steelers are at least 20 million over the projected 2021 salary cap. And if Bud Dupree is one of the best outside linebackers in the game today, T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick have flashed generational level play making talent.

The fact is, the Pittsburgh Steelers cannot afford to bring Bud Dupree back in 2021.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Bud Dupree

The only true “X Factor” in equation outlined above is Bud Dupree’s ACL tear. It is possible that teams might shy away from giving Bud Dupree big payday because of it.

  • That’s the only realistic scenario that sees Bud Dupree back in Pittsburgh in 2021.

It is also an unlikely scenario.

Sports medicine has evolved tremendously when it comes to ACL tears and players routinely rebound from them in a full off season, which is what Dupree will have to rehab. The Curtain’s call on the Steelers and Bud Dupree is to expect him to finish his career outside of Pittsburgh.

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 2020 Season Final Report Card: Summer Started Too Soon Edition

Taken from the grade book of an again tardy teacher whose summer has started too soon, here is the Steelers Final Report Card for the 2020 season.

Ben Roethisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers loss browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey after the wild card loss to the Browns. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via USA Today for the win.

Quarterback
At age 38 and coming off of elbow surgery Ben Roethlisberger performed better than anyone had the right to expect. His passer rating was a hair above his career average and he threw only 10 interceptions. Sacks were at a career low. Yet the long ball troubled him all year and defenses exploited his one-dimensional game late in the season, when it counted the most. In the final analysis, Ben Roethlisberger was “Good, but…” which makes his grade obvious. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Back
The 2020 Steelers were league bottom feeders in rushing, put up historic lows for the franchise and couldn’t “get ONE yard when they needed it,” so obviously the running backs must have been terrible, right? Actually, that’s not right. James Conner proved that with good blocking, he can be a good but not great running back. Conner also confirmed he can be counted on in the short passing game. Benny Snell showed he can be a good number 2 running back. Anthony McFarland never grew beyond rookie flashes. Jaylen Samuels saw spot duty and did OK. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron made some nice catches and was an asset in the Red Zone. However, as Steel City Insider’s DI Davis documented, he was an absolute liability as a blocker. Nor did he gain much after the catch. Vance McDonald delivered when called upon but saw his role decline. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends. Grade: C-

Wide Receivers
JuJu Smith-Schuster authored the type of season that everyone expected of him after 2018. He made combat catch after combat catch and was easily the Steelers most reliable target. Diontae Johnson had a strong year and showed why he can be special. Still, his drops hurt the team. Badly. Chase Claypool authored and impressive year for a rookie and the Notre Dame grad has a bright future ahead of him. James Washington was the unit’s forgotten man, but he delivered when called on. Grade: B+

James Washington, Steelers vs Browns

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

Offensive Line
How times have changed. As recently as 2018, these spots started with “one of the best offensive lines in football.” Today? Not so much. Let’s give the line credit for solid pass blocking. Even if Ben got rid of the ball quickly, he had good pass protection. Run blocking was a different story. It was “Above the line” early in the year, but the line’s performance changed as the leaves on the trees changed, and then ultimately fell. The high snap to open the playoffs was a mortal mistake. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led this unit in tackles and overall performance, even if Stephon Tuitt had 11 sacks. Overall the defensive line’s play was solid throughout the year. Grade: B

Linebackers
With T.J. Watt, Vince Williams, Devin Bush and Bud Dupree the Steelers fielded a foursome on par with the 2008 defense and those of the Blitzburgh defenses in the 1990s. Ultimately, injuries took their toll on this unit, even if Robert Spillane and Avery Williamson did well given the circumstances. Grade: B

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

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

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have had as many highlight or as many interceptions had he had in 2019, but he was still one of the best defensive backs in the league. Terrell Edmunds quietly authored another strong year as did Steven Nelson. Joe Haden was solid, although he did get burned a few times. Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton answered the call. Per Pro Football Focus ratings, the Steelers only allowed a “45.9 passer rating on throws over 10 yards downfield.” The secondary did its job. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell missed 1 field goal all year and made all but 4 extra points, which ranks him a little low. Matthew Wright did an impressive job as a stand-in kicker. Dustin Colquitt couldn’t get it done as a punter, but Jordan Berry did a respectable job. Overall, the Steelers kick and punt return coverage was strong, even if it did wane a bit as the year progressed.

  • Ray-Ray McCloud was an asset to the team early in the season, both as a kick returner and a punt returner.
  • However, following his fumble against Washington he was never the same.

Regardless of whatever else ailed them in 2020, special teams was a strong spot for the Steelers. Grade: B

Mike Tomlin, f bomb

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


Coaching
Let’s credit Randy Fichtner for fielding an offense that was tailored to his players’ strengths and unlike anything we’d seen in the Roethlisberger era before. He also showed some willingness to innovate, early on at least.

  • However, as defenses adapted, the Steelers offense failed to adapt in kind.

Some of that is execution (see the opening play in the loss to Cincinnati), but ultimately the unit could not cope. For the 2nd straight season the running game faded and then failed when the Steelers needed it the most.

Keith Butler (or was it Mike Tomlin? ) began the year by fielding a shut down defense. Sure, the unit gave up a few too many long plays for comfort, but they also had the killer instinct to slam the door shut on teams when the got into the Red Zone on more than one occasion.

  • Injuries ultimately doomed this defense.

Finally, let’s start by giving Mike Tomlin credit for weathering the most unusual years in NFL history to lead his team to an 11-0 start. Yes, the Steelers did see another December collapse and fairly or unfairly, that mark remains on Tomlin’s resume. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
“You Shall Not Run!” That was the credo that the Steelers defense lived during September and October. The Steelers defense took the running game away from opponents and allowed its playmakers to do their damage. If the T.J.’s, the Minkahs and the Heywards collectively formed the football equivalent of Gandalf the Grey, then the staff bringing it all together was Tyson Alualu. He didn’t rack up a lot of stats, but his steady presence at nose tackle are what enabled the rest of the defense to fly and for that he wins the Steelers Unsung Hero Award for the 2020 season.

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Steelers 2020 Season Summary: Start Strong, Stumble Late, as Super Bowl Slips from Reach

It has been a week, but the pain from the abrupt end to the Steelers 2020 season remains fresh. And so it should. Since losing Super Bowl XLV, going “One and Done” has been the most frequent playoff outcome for Mike Tomlin’s Steelers. But as the poignant Roethlisberger-Pouency post-game photo suggests, this Steelers early-exit playoff has an air of finality absent from the others.

  • And you know the frustrating part?

The Pittsburgh Steelers we saw in September and October, the team that manhandled the Browns, knocked the Titans out of the undefeated category, went toe-to-toe with the Ravens and ultimately started 11-0 was no mirage.

The accomplishments of that September-October team were just as real and just as enjoyable as the unraveling that Steelers Nation suffered in December was painful. Yes, this is one case where two seemingly contradictory things can be true. Let’s look at how and why.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool can’t come down with the ball. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Steelers Strong Start on Offense No Optical Illusion

Let’s start by attacking one of the key takeaways circulating both inside and outside of Steelers Nation: Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t “lost it.”

In fact, he came out playing far, far better football than anyone had the right to expect of a 38-year-old quarterback coming off elbow surgery. By the time of Steelers November 22nd win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ben Roethlisberger had logged 7 out of 10 games with a 100-plus passer rating, two of the others were 98.7 and 89.7. He’d thrown 5 interceptions and been sacked just 8 times.

  • You don’t sustain that level of play through 10 NFL games by stringing together a series of “On Any Given Sunday” performances.

Benny Snell, Darnay Holmes, Steelers vs Giants

Benny Snell smokes Darnay Holmes in the Steelers win over the Giants. Photo Credit: AP via the Tribune Review

One thing that alluded Ben Roethlisberger during this 10-game stretch was the long ball. Early on, it seemed like it might just be a question of timing. But as the leaves changed color, drawing a pass interference penalty on deep targets to JuJu Smith-Schuster or Chase Claypool seemed to be as important as actually completing the pass.

The fact that the Steelers were able to get to double digit wins despite those limitations underlines how well they were playing other aspects of the game, not how weak they were.

So then, what happened as Thanksgiving gave way to Christmas?

Failure on Fundamentals Unravels Offense

You can trace the demise of the Steelers offense to two things:

  • The implosion of the running game
  • The sudden inability of the wide receivers and tight ends to hold on to passes

Comparing the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 and 2020 offenses is like comparing apples and oranges with one exception: Both seasons saw the run blocking begin “Above the line” only to see it falter by the middle of the year.

James Conner had robust rushing averages in all but 2 of the Steelers games in September and October, and Benny Snell logged a near-dominant performance in the season opener. Yet the running game sputtered in November. To take one example, Conner and Snell combined for 23 yards against Dallas. At the time it looked like an aberration. Unfortunately, it signaled things to come.

For a while, the inability to run didn’t seem to matter, just as Ben’s inability to throw the deep ball didn’t matter. The Steelers kept winning. Some were ugly wins, but wins were wins.

But something in their sloppy win over the Ravens foreshadowed things to come:

  • Receivers started dropping passes.

    Von Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals

    Von Bell rocks JuJu Smith-Schuster’s noodle. Photo Credit: Cincinnati.com

Diontae Johnson and Eric Ebron were the prime culprits, but it became a chronic problem. One that opposing defenses were only happy to exploit by bumping and blanketing receivers at the line of scrimmage. It took 3 months, but the one-dimensional nature of the Steelers offense had finally caught up with it.

Seriously it really that simple. Take the loss to Washington. If receivers can hold on to catchable passes and/or if the offense can get ONE yard on two different occasions, the Steelers win that game, despite all of the other errors.

  • Ben Roethlisberger responded as he always has: By trying to take the team on his back.

But there was a problem. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell mused, Ben Roethlisberger almost seemed to need to “Come to ‘an agreement’ with his new arm.” This lack of “agreement” was evident in his play against the Bills, against the Bengals, in the first half against the Colts and in the 1st quarter in the playoffs against the Browns.

  • When attempting anything beyond a short pass, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t seem to know if he could trust his arm.

Whether Ben Roethlisberger can ever “get the new bionics straight” (another Wexell term) at this late stage in his career is a different question for a different time. The bottom line is this: When supported by a competent running game, Ben Roethlisberger was cable of playing Super Bowl-caliber football.

But when the running game went AOWL , Big Ben simply couldn’t do it on his own, and a season that started with such promise was squandered.

Injuries Ravage Steelers 2020 Defense

While some can and will quibble with the above analysis of the offense, the post-mortem on the Steelers defense is  straightforward:

At full health, the 2020 Steelers defense was on par with franchise greats such as the 2008 team, any of the Blitzburgh teams, and yes, teams of the 1970’s.

As Matt C. Steel has pointed out: “With [Devin] Bush, the Steelers were well on their way to leading the NFL in most sacks and turnovers, and fewest yards and – most importantly – points allowed.””Indeed, Robert Spillane’s pick six to start the first game against Baltimore made it seem as if this defense had enough depth that it could plug-n-play and rumble along. Then Tyson Alualu went out, and the middle got a little soft. Then Spillane himself fell injured. Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams and Joe Haden missed time due to COVID-19 and other injuries.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Cowobys

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the ball, saves touchdown. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

  • Then Bud Dupree tore his ACL at the tail end of the Ravens game.

By the time of the debacle against Cincinnati, T.J. Watt was the only linebacker from opening day still standing. Marcus Allen, a converted safety, was playing inside linebacker.

While it’s true that the defense, even when at full health, gave up a few too many long runs for comfort. But it is also true that time and time again, players like Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick also came up with big plays in critical situations – a hallmark of a great defense.

The Road from Here

Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger face an off season defined by difficult choices.

  • Does Ben Roethlisberger want to come back for “One final shot?”
  • Would the Steelers want him to?
  • Could the Steelers bring Ben back, given that they’re facing potential salary cap Armageddon?
  • Or would it be better for all parties to begin the rebuild a year ahead of schedule?

There are pros and cons to each option above and while the salary cap is the one item out of both the Steelers and Roethlisberger’s control, its final value remains unknown.

  • To put it in Yoda speak, “The Road from here, very hard to see clearly it is.”

But regardless of how that future takes shape, 2020 will forever be the season where the Steelers started strong, then stumbled late and ultimately saw a Super Bowl slip further out of reach.

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Does Randy Fichtner’s Firing Foreshadow Change for Ben Roethlisberger?

When asked about staffing changes at his post-season press conference, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was coy:

We haven’t had any of those discussions. Change is a part of our business. I’ll acknowledge the possibility of that. We are just beginning the process of having those types of meaty discussions that usually produce changes or non-changes. And so, it is that time of year. I anticipate those discussions happening and happening rather soon as we plot a course to move forward.

Apparently “pretty soon” must have meant “as I speak,” because less than 24 hours later news broke that the Steelers would not be renewing the contracts of (read firing) offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett and defensive backs coach Tom Bradley.

Steelers tight ends coach James Daniels also announced his retirement. None of these moves are a shock, but one might foreshadow far bigger changes to come.

Randy Fichtner, Ben Roethlisberger,

Randy Fichtner and Ben Roethlisberger during happier times. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.com

Fichtner and Sarrett – From Fixers to Problems to be Fixed

Randy Fichtner first worked with Mike Tomlin in the late 1990’s when they both coached at Arkansas State University. He joined the Steelers staff in 2007 as wide receivers coach and kept a low profile.

After the 2009 season, when Tomlin resisted pressure to fire Bruce Arians, he shifted Randy Fichtner to quarterbacks coach. At the time, he was assumed to be the offensive coordinator in waiting. But Mike Tomlin passed over Fitchner in favor of Todd Haley when Art Rooney II forced Bruce Arians out in 2011. Fichtner again faded into the background.

  • Yet in the middle of the 2017 season, an unfamiliar face appeared on the Steelers sidelines.

Who was that bearded man talking to Ben Roethlisberger when the defense was on the field? It was none other than quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner who’d come down from the booth. Word was he was there to serve as a buffer between Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley.

Whether it was because of Fichtner’s presence or not, Ben Roethlisberger went from playing the worst football of his in the first half of his career to playing the best football of his career. When the season was over and Todd Haley was fired, Mike Tomlin immediately promoted Fichtner

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Under Fichtner, the Steelers 2018 offense took some time to find its stride then enjoyed success in the middle of the season, only to falter when James Conner got injured. In 2019, Fichtner was forced to play Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges along with other 2nd line players and the unit struggled.

In 2020, the offense started strong, but the running game faltered during October, allowing defense to suffocate the short passing game.

Conspicuously enough during both 2019 and 2020 the Steelers offensive line began the season doing reasonably well in run blocking, only to see that part of their game slip well below the line by mid season.

  • That is likely the reason why Jason Sarrett also got a pink slip.

Jason Sarrett joined the Steelers in 2012 as an offensive line assistant. In 2013, the Steelers offensive line had a horrendous start to the year, but steadily improved during the season. When offensive line coach Jack Bicknell was fired at season’s end Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that it was Sarrett, and not Bicknell who’d mentored the young line along.

Sarrett didn’t get the offensive line coaching job during that off season, which went instead to Mike Munchak.

Brady’s Dismissal a Surprise

Based on performance, Tom Bradley’s dismissal is the only surprise. Tom Bradley replaced Carnell Lake who left after the 2017 season and the Steelers secondary has improved since his arrival.

Certainly, his tenure had its share of disappointments – Sean Davis’ shift to free safety was OK but he never recovered his rookie form; Artie Burns continued to regress and Terrell Edmunds, while improving, still hasn’t lived up to his first round potential.

But Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton have blossomed under his guidance, and Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and Minkah Fitzpatrick have been difference makers for this defense.

A Sign of Bigger Changes to Come?

It is no secret that the Steelers fired Todd Haley in large part to keep Ben Roethlisberger happy. Nor is it a secret that he has a close relationship with Randy Fichtner, just as he had a close relationship with Bruce Arians.

But the fact that Randy Fichtner is gone indicates at the very least that the Steelers as an organization won’t bend over backwards to keep Ben Roethlisberger happy and to entice him to keep playing. Beyond that, this move could help hasten Roethlisberger’s retirement decision.

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