Steelers 2022 NFL Draft Needs: Examining Pittsburgh @ Wide Receiver

The receiver position has long been considered one the Steelers have excelled at in terms of drafting players, developing them and getting decent-to-great production out of those players.

  • When was the last time the Steelers didn’t have a receiving corps that was considered to be deep and talented?

It might be right now, thanks to so many free-agent defections this spring. But are those defections enough to make the position a high priority heading into the 2022 NFL Draft?

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bears, Steelers vs Bears MNF

Chase Claypool converts a 3rd down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Wide Receiver Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Starters

With JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ray-Ray McCloud and James Washington all defecting as free agents this spring, the Steelers currently have two legitimate starters on the roster. Diontae Johnson, the fourth-year man out of Toledo who caught a career-high 107 passes for 1,161 yards and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl in 2021, is one. Chase Claypool, who regressed a bit last season after a rather-spectacular and explosive rookie campaign, is the other. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess as to who’s going to fill the role of slot receiver in 2022.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Wide Receiver Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Backups

Anthony Miller, a second-round pick by the Bears in 2018, is currently listed as the starting slot receiver on the Steelers’ depth chart. Miller had some promising years in Chicago before being traded to the Texans prior to the 2021 season. After being released by Houston last October, Miller was signed to the Steelers practice squad before being promoted to the active roster in late November. Miller caught just one pass for two yards for Pittsburgh last season and has 140 receptions for nearly 1,600 yards and 12 touchdowns during his first four seasons in the NFL.

Cody White, a 2020 undrafted free agent out of Michigan State, showed a flash of promise a season ago. Tyler Vaughns, Steven Sims and Rico Bussey, three totally unproven players, round out the receiver depth chart, while Gunner Olszewski, a free-agent pickup from the Patriots, has just been a return specialist, albeit a relatively successful one, up to this point in his career.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Wide Receiver

With little in proven depth behind both Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, the Steelers could certainly use an infusion of talent at the receiver position.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

And let’s not forget that neither Johnson or Claypool has truly established himself as a sure-fire number one receiver in the NFL.

Factor in the conventional wisdom that the 2022 NFL Draft appears to be flush with quality prospects at the receiver position. All things considered, I’d say the Steelers’ draft need at wide receiver is High-Moderate.

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Cost-Benefit Analysis: Steelers Sign Gunner Olszewski to Replace Ray-Ray McCloud

What price can you put on special teams ball security? I don’t have the answer. But the Pittsburgh Steelers decision to let Ray-Ray McCloud walk to San Francisco while replacing him with Gunner Olszewski will come to the difference between 0.25% and $6,200,000.

  • That might sound complicated, but it’s not.

Success in the salary cap era comes down to getting the biggest bang for your salary cap buck. Ray-Ray McCloud handled the Steelers return duties for the last two years. Ray-Ray did a good job, but he wasn’t going to remind Boomers and Generation Xers of the return men of yore.

Gunner Olszewski, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers vs Patriots 2019, Gunner Olszewski first game

Gunner Olszewski’s first was against the Steelers in 2019. Photo Credit: David Butler II, USA Today, via Bemidji Pioneer

Think of guys like Mel Gray, or to keep this Steelers centric, Rod Woodson or Dwight Stone. Actually, Stone’s return numbers with the Steelers weren’t that great, but as Tony Defeo reminded us, he deserves to be remembered for more than his “Hands of Stone.”

Actually, stony hands or lack thereof is what the Steelers decision between Ray-Ray McCloud and Gunner Olszewski comes down to.

  • If you look at their career kick and punting return averages, McCloud and Olszewski are pretty similar.

Ray-Ray McCloud has more reps in both categories, so his sample size is larger. McCloud has a 22.6 kickoff return average and a 9.5 yard punt return average. That ranks him well among his peers.

Gunner Olszewski, who began his career against the Steelers 2019 season-opening loss to the Patriots, has a 23.2 yard kick return average and an 12.6 yard punt return average. He also has more a touchdown on one his punt returns, something McCloud hasn’t been able to do.

The San Francisco 49ers signed McCloud to a 2 year, 10.6-million dollar contract (good for you Ray-Ray, mange it wisely, and you’ll have financial security for life, even if you only play for one season.) The Steelers deal Olszewski with is also for 2 years, but for only 4.2 million dollars.

Taken at face value, Kevin Colbert appears to have gotten the same thing for 6.4 million less.

  • But there’s one number that just might make that 6.2 million worth it.

And that’s 0.25%. During his 2 years with the Steelers, Ray-Ray McCloud fumbled 6 times on 130 returns. That gives him a fumble rate of 4.6%. In three years with the Patriots, Gunner Olszewski fumbled the ball 5 times on 107 returns, giving him a 4.85% fumble rate.

So the Steelers calculation is that 0.25% greater chance of a fumble is worth the 6.4 million dollars in salary cap savings. (This ignores Ray-Ray McCloud’s serviceable skills as a backup wide out – something that Gunner Olszewski has yet to prove.)

  • For my money that’s a prudent calculation for Pittsburgh.

However, when you factor in that but 3 of Gunner Olszewski’s fumbles came in 2021, should Gunner Olszewski fumble a return the 4th quarter fumble of a close game, that 6.4 million could seem like a bargain.

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

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Its Probably Best for Steelers, James Washington to Part Ways in Free Agency

A second-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2018, James Washington arrived in Pittsburgh as someone Steelers fans hoped would continue the team’s tradition of excellence at the receiver position that started with Hines Ward many years earlier.

But while James Washington had to initially bide his time behind the likes of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, he could never quite break through as a breakout star, even after Brown was traded in the 2019 offseason and JuJu Smith-Schuster spent the majority of 2021 — the final year of Washington’s rookie deal — on the Injured Reserve list. As James Washington enters free agency for the first time, the question is, should he and the team continue their relationship?

James Washington, Steelers vs Bengals

James Washington en route to a 79 yard touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of James Washington’s Steelers Career

During his rookie preseason, James Washington showed glimpses of the deep-threat and combat-catch receiver the Steelers hoped he would be when they drafted him the previous spring, but, as I alluded to earlier, targets were hard to come by during the regular season, and Washington only caught 16 passes for 217 yards for one touchdown in 2018.

James Washington certainly didn’t endear himself to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin in a late-season loss to the Broncos when he dived and failed to catch a deep pass that, had he stayed on his feet, would have gone for a touchdown. Despite what I said earlier, Washington did seem to initially thrive following Brown’s departure and, believe it or not, he did it while mostly catching passes from Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges in 2019, while Roethlisberger was out with major elbow surgery injury. Washington pulled in 44 passes for a team-high 735 yards and three touchdowns — including a 79-yard catch-and-run against the Bengals in which he displayed both his deep speed as well as his physicality by stiff-arming a Cincinnati defensive back on the way to the end zone.

Unfortunately for James Washington, he couldn’t parlay his 2019 success into greater heights over the next two seasons, as he caught a combined 54 passes for 577 yards and seven touchdowns.

The Case for the Steelers Re-signing James Washington in 2022

There’s no question that Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool are the Steelers’ top two receivers (at least that are currently under contract). With JuJu Smith-Schuster likely set to explore free agency in search of the lucrative multi-year deal he couldn’t find on the open market last offseason, James Washington could finally get his chance to shine as the number-three receiver. He’s not likely to command much once free agency kicks off, and he could probably be retained on the cheap — even on a one-year “prove it” deal.

The Case Against the Steelers Re-signing James Washington in 2022

There were rumblings that James Washington went to his bosses last summer and asked to be traded because he didn’t feel there was room on the roster for him to shine, especially after JuJu Smith-Schuster surprisingly re-signed with the team last March.

James Washington declined to refute those rumors, which probably meant there was likely some truth to them. Also, Washington garnered little playing time over the last 12 regular-season games following the injury to Smith-Schuster. Instead, Ray-Ray McCloud became a bit of a favorite target for Roethlisberger down the stretch.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Washington in 2022

I’d personally keep James Washington around because, again, I believe he could be had on the cheap.

But it’s probably a moot point, considering he likely wants to go somewhere where he can be more of a focal point for an offense. As Mike Tomlin says, “Its free for us, free for them,” and with that in mind it’s probably best for the two parties to go their separate ways.

Stay on top of Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agency focus articles.

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Fallback Guy – Steelers Free Agent Returner Ray-Ray McCloud Only as Last Resort

“You can’t hope to stop him, you can ONLY hope to contain him,” went ESPN’s Tom Jackson innumerable times on ESPN’s NFL PrimeTime before introducing highlights of players like Mel Gray, Mike Nelms, Clarence Verdin or Vai Sikahema.

These guys may have had WR, RB or even CB listed besides their names, but make no mistake about it:

  • They forged their NFL careers as return men.

Ray-Ray McCloud arrived too late for that era, but maybe he’s lucky. His return skills are good but not great, but they were enough to earn him both a roster spot and reps at wide receiver with the Steelers. Has he done enough to extend his stay in Pittsburgh?

Ray-Ray McCloud

Ray-Ray McCloud (almost) takes it to the house. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

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

The Steelers signed Ray-Ray McCloud in 2020 after fumbling issues led both the Bills and the Panthers to part ways with him. McCloud got off to a strong start for the Steelers as both a punt and kick returner, while adding a spark on offense fueled in part by a 58 yard Jet sweep that helped cement the Steelers lead over the Eagles.

Yet after fumbling against the Ravens and then against Washington, his punt return average sunk, as he appeared tentative. In 2021, Ray-Ray McCloud returned to the team as the primary returner and 4th down wide receiver.

Although he did fumble twice, losing one of those, his return average remained steady, and his role in the offense grew, as he logged 39 catches over 20 from the year before.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Ray-Ray McCloud

Ray-Ray McCloud will never be a star. But he’s shown himself to be an above average punt returner, a competent kick returner and a serviceable 4th wide receiver. The Steelers are going to want some experience behind Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, and Ray-Ray McCloud will provide that – at a very reasonable cap number.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ray-Ray McCloud

With quarterback a big question mark going into 2022, the Steelers need dynamic players elsewhere in their offense. Ray-Ray McCloud isn’t dynamic and never will be.

So why bring him back?

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

The Steelers are going to need to upgrade at wide receiver.

Ray-Ray McCloud might provide decent depth against a rash of injuries at the position, but he’s not someone you want to have penciled in as your number 4 wide out for 3rd and long situations going into the season. And while the Steelers have struggled to find a solid returner for the past several seasons, that’s a role that younger players with legitimate upside can play.

If the Steelers can’t manage to find that in free agency or the draft, then Ray-Ray McCloud could be a fallback option, but only that.

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

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Steelers 2022 Free Agent Tracker – Follow Pittsburgh Through Uncharted Waters

The 2022 off season has arrived and with that the Steelers enter uncharted waters. Ben Roethlisberger has retired so for the first time since 2004, Pittsburgh has no franchise quarterback.

They are also coming off their 3 straight one-and-done playoff appearance where they again were embarrassed. This came on the heels of a 2021 season that saw the Steelers run defense and first half offense reach historic lows, with futility levels not seen since the 1940s.

  • And don’t look now, but the Steelers have 24 free agents, setting another franchise record.

But all news is not grim. The Steelers enter this bold new era with between 28 and 32 million dollars in salary cap space, and that number could rise depending on the fates of players like Stephon Tuitt and Joe Schobert.

steelers press conference,

The Steelers 2022 Free Agents Signings and Profiles

Click below on the player’s highlighted name for a full-free agent profile.

Steelers 2022 Free Agent Signings

Mitch Trubisky, Quarterback
3/14/2022, Steelers sign Trubisky to a 2 year contract
Chukwuma Okorafor, Offensive Tackle
3/14/2022, Steelers resign Okorafor to 3 year contract
Miles Killebrew, Linebacker
3/11/2022, Steelers resign Killebrew to 2 year contract
Arthur Maulet, Cornerback
3/12/2022, Steelers resign Maulet to a 2 year contract
J.C. Hassenauer, Center/guard
3/15/2022, Steelers offer exclusive rights tender
Dwayne Haskins, Quarterback
3/15/2022, Steelers offer restricted free agent tender
3/16/2022, Haskins signs restricted free agent tender
Mason Cole, Center/Guard from Minnesota Vikings
3/14/2022, Steelers sign to 3 year contract
Chukwuma Okorafor, Offensive tackle
3/15/2022, Steelers resign to 3 year contract
James Daniel, Center/Guard, Chicago Bears
3/15/2022, Steelers sign to 3 year contract
Levi Wallace, cornerback, Buffalo Bills
3/15/2022, Steelers sign to 2 year contract
Montravius Adams, Defensive Lineman
3/15/2022, Steelers resign Adams to 2 year contract
Marcus Allen, Inside Linebacker
3/15/2022, Steelers offer restricted free agent tender
Robert Spillane, Inside Linebacker
3/15/2022, Steelers offer restricted free agent tender
Myles Jack, Inside Linebacker, Jacksonville Jaguars
3/16/2022, Steelers sign to 2 year contract
Ahkello Witherspoon, Cornerback
3/18/2022, Steelers resign him to 2 year contract
Gunner Olszewski, KR/PR, Wide Receiver from the New England Patriots
3/18/2022, Steelers sign to 2 year contract
Genard Avery, Outside Linebacker, Philadelphia Eagles
3/28/2022, Steelers sign to 1 year contract
Karl Joseph, Safety
4/1/2022, Steelers resign Joseph to 1 year contract
Terrell Edmunds, Safety
4/23/2022, Steelers resign Terrell Edmunds to 1 year contract

Steelers 2022 Free Agent Losses

Ray-Ray McCloud, Wide Receiver
3/18/2022 – Signs 2 year contract with San Francisco 49ers
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Receiver
3/18/2022 – Signs 1 year contract with the Kansas City Chiefs
James Washington, Wide Receiver
3/18/2022 – Signs 1 year contract with the Dallas Cowboys
Taco Charlton, Outside Linebacker,
4/5/2022 – Signs 1 year contract with New Orleans Saints
Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback
4/8/2022 – Signs 1 year contract with Cleveland Browns

Unrestricted Free Agents


Joe Haden, Cornerback
Trai Turner, Guard
Eric Ebron, Tight End
B.J. Finney, Center
Kalen Ballage, Running Back

Exclusive Rights Free Agents

Demarcus Christmas, defensive line
DeMarkus Acy, Cornerback

Restricted Free Agents

Christian Kuntz, Long Snapper (signed)

That’s a daunting number and there is no way the Steelers can keep all of those players, even with their salary cap surplus.

But the truth is the Steelers don’t and shouldn’t want to keep all of them. As Mike Tomlin often says, about free agency, “Its free for them and its free for us.” While the Steelers have never been “splash” players in free agency, there are numerous times when they’ve let one player walk and quietly upgraded the position with another, under the radar signing.

As we do every year, staff writer Tony Defeo and I will be doing free agent profiles highlighting the pros and cons of signing or letting the players above walk, and updating movement as time allows.

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

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who isn’t too tardy to break even, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2021 Season.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Titans

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

Quarterback
In in final season, Ben Roethlisberger went 390-605-3,740-22-11 for a passer rating of 86.8. At times he flash Hall of Fame caliber play, at others he looked like he was struggling to be average. Overall his play was solid, and without his gravitas the Steelers would have been lucky to have won 4 games. Still he was slipping. Mason Rudolph looked “OK” in his one start. Grade: B-

Running Backs
As a Steelers running back struggled more break the 1000 yard mark than Najee Harris did in 2021? Maybe Jerome Bettis in 1999. Maybe. Harris had no help from the line and seldom enjoyed Derek Watt’s escort services. Yet Harris got it done. Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage saw little more than spot duty and neither showed themselves capable of spelling Harris for long periods of time – not behind this line. Grade: C+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron was splitting snaps fairly evenly until he got hurt vs the Chargers. At that point Pat Freiermuth stepped with Zach Gentry and together with Kevin Rader made tight end to be one of the few bright spots on offense. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
On balance, Diontae Johnson showed he is a good but not great receiver. Chase Claypool flashed promise and frustration in equal parts as consistency eluded him. JuJu Smith-Schuster was lost early in the season. James Washington was never more than just sort of “there.” Ray-Ray McCloud had a decent time as a number 4 wide out. The Steelers needed more from this unit. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Yes injuries, surprise retirements, starting rookies too soon and inconsistent coaching were all factors. The bottom line is Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 38 times and the run blocking was atrocious at times. Grade: F

Defensive Line
How do you grade a unit like this? Cam Heyward authored a Hall of Fame worthy season playing alongside… practice squaders. Seriously, guys like Chris Wormley and  Montravius Adams may have shown that they’re serviceable, but they are not starters. Grade: D

Linebackers
T.J. Watt authored a NFL MVP worthy season suggesting generational talent. Alex Highsmith had his issues, but got better as the season went along. On the inside it was a different story. Robert Spillane is strong against the run but can’t cover the pass. Joe Schobert was decent against the pass. Devin Bush, well let’s just hope his ACL was really bothering him. Watt brings this group’s grade up. Way up. Grade: C-

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception Chargers, Steelers vs Chargers

Cam Sutton intercepts the ball. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Secondary
Cam Sutton authored a strong year in his first season as a starter. Joe Haden showed he has something left, but his body is beginning to brake down while Ahkello Witherspoon came on strong at the end of the year. Terrell Edmunds might not make many splash plays, but he did play in 98% of the snaps and continued to improve. Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have put together the highlight footage he did in years past, but make no mistake about it, he’s the best player on the defense not named Watt. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell had a spectacular season. Ray-Ray McCloud showed himself to be a decent return man after a shaky start. Coverage was generally solid. Pressley Harvin had his ups and downs, but the team stuck with him in the face of personal tragedy. Grade: B

Coaching
On offense, the Ben Roethlisberger was clearly not a good fit for Matt Canada’s system and the progress that the unit saw came to a dead stop when Kevin Dotson got hurt and Kendrick Green hit the rookie wall.

  • So Canada’s off the hook right? Not so fast.

Canada isn’t responsible for the personnel he has to work with, but he certainly is in charge of how they are used. The worst sin an offensive coordinator can commit is to try to force a system on players unsuited. Worse yet, is when the coordinators insist on forcing even after it is clear the players are unsuited. Canada appears to have done that in 2021, which is not a good sign for his return.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns

Mike Tomlin at Paul Brown Stadium. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

On defense Keith Butler quickly discovered he had a hole in his middle that he didn’t have the personnel to plug. How does one judge a coaching job when one could easily argue that 3 if not 4 of the defense’s front seven need replacing?

Injures, retirements and COVID fueled salary cap limitations left Mike Tomlin the NFL’s most manic depressive roster. On the defensive line alone it was like seeing Hulk Hogan alongside the Batten Twins.

And if Tomlin does deserve some of the criticism for those talent deficiencies – and he does – he also deserves credit for finding a way to eek 9 wins out of this roster. Grade: C

Front Office
As mentioned in our Steelers 2021 Season Review, Pittsburgh actually had a decent plan for fielding a competitive team despite weathering salary cap Armageddon. But injuries and retirements wiped 3 starters off of the board before summer’s end with 2 more losses before the leaves had fallen. And if some of the “next men” up faltered, other replacements fared better. The Front Office faced a potential devastating salary cap situation and fought it to a draw. Grade: C

Unsung Heroes
The Steelers 2021 roster had a lot of holes, holes where the proverbial “Next man up” failed to plug. But a look back at the season finds two non-first line players making consistent contributions doing “the little things” that help win games, and that’s why Arthur Maulet and Tre Norwood are the Unsung Heroes of the 2021 Season.

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Fighting to the End: Chiefs Beat Steelers 42-21 in Ben Roethlisberger’s Finale, but Big Ben Gives It His All

The record will reflect that the Ben Roethlisberger Era ended with the Kansas City Chiefs 42-21 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Wild Card at Arrowhead Stadium on January 16th 2022.

  • Disappointing? Yes, absolutely. Surprising? Absolutely. Not.

IF the 2021 Steelers’ erratic nature led to eerie feelings about the franchise’s future, the Ben Roethlisberger era appeared destined to end on a bright note. The emotional farewell at Heinz Field against the Browns, the comeback win over the Ravens on the road and the surprise playoff slot all seemed to be building up to something.

The 2021 Steelers believed in themselves. JuJu Smith-Schuster came off of IR adding his momentum. Surely, even if the Steelers couldn’t upset the Chiefs, they’d take Kansas City to the wire, perhaps just falling short on the final play, Friday Night Lights fashion.

  • That didn’t happen.

That didn’t happen because as the game unfolded, it became clear that adrenaline and not belief was the Steelers secret weapon, and when the adrenaline wore off, the Chiefs’ superior talent took over. And it wasn’t pretty.

Ben Roethlisberger, Benny Snell, 2021 AFC Wild Card, Steelers vs Chiefs, Ben Roethlisberger final game

Ben Roethlisberger, fighting to the end. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Start with Intensity Worthy of a Playoff Team

Hines Ward once likened the difference in the intensity between the playoffs and the regular season to the difference between the regular and preseason. Things move faster. Hits get harder. Mistakes magnify.

  • While it will quickly be forgotten, the Steelers defense actually started this game strong.

On the Chiefs first series the Steelers forced a punt. Cam Sutton blew up a screen to Mecole Hardman for a loss and Tre Norwood followed by breaking up a pass to Travis Kelce. On the second series Chris Wormley broke up another pass headed Travis Kelce’s way, while Minkah Fitzpatrick stopped Byron Pringle a cold yard short of the 1st down marker, leading to another punt.

Really, if players like Wormley and Norwood could make plays in what Mike Tomlin calls “Situational football” alongside the likes of Minkah and the Cams, the Steelers’ defense could hang with the almighty Chiefs, right?

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Chiefs, AFC Wild Card Game, Ben Roethlisberger last game

T.J. Watt returns a fumble for a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

On the next series, the heavy hitters got into the act, with T.J. Watt tipping a pass which Devin Bush intercepted and returned 10 yards. Sure, the Steelers offense could only do what it had already done all night – punt.

But it didn’t matter. Tacho Charlton and Tre Norwood made key stops to force yet another Chiefs punt as the 1st quarter ended. As the second quarter began, the Steelers offense showed some shades of life – it advanced 20 yards before punting. The defense took its cue.

Cam Heyward forced a fumble which T.J. Watt recovered and returned 26 yards for a touchdown as the Steel Curtain seemed poised to rise….

Post Adrenaline Rush Hangover Hits Hard

…Alas, T.J. Watt’s touchdown didn’t signal the Steel Curtain’s rapture, but rather its swan song. Watt’s touchdown used up whatever opening quarter adrenaline the Steelers had left, and after that Patrick Mahomes owned the Steelers the rest of the way, and it wasn’t even close.

Mahomes answered with a touchdown drive, that included a 23-yard scramble and some devilishly clever trickery to use T.J. Watt’s aggressiveness against him. Less than a minute later he was at it again, this time taking the Chiefs into the Red Zone and scoring just under the two-minute mark.

  • After yet another Steelers’ one-minute drive, Mahomes was back at it again, and scoring again before the half.

Did the Kansas City Chiefs show that their offense is better than the Steeler defense during those final five minutes of the first half? Yes, it did, but during the same time span the Steelers’ offense showed it had no business being in the playoffs.

Diontae Johnson couldn’t hold on to a 2-yard pass on 3rd and 2. Ben Roethlisberger badly misfired on a deep pass to Chase Claypool. The two failed to connect another time deep, but it wasn’t clear whether the quarterback or wide out was at fault. Perhaps it was both.

One in 381….

One of the few bright spots of the Steelers’ 2021 offense has been Najee Harris. Except for a few games in October, Harris has been basically on his own, rushing the ball with no blocking support and getting hit in the backfield more often than not.

Despite that, he rushed for 1200 yards with a 3.9 yard-per-carry average that doesn’t even hint at how hard he had to work to earn those yards. He also caught 74 passes in the air, doing plenty of damage there.

So when the Chiefs opened the second half by taking took the half opening kickoff and driving 68 yards for yet another touchdown (this time on Nick Allegretti tackle eligible play) the safest player the Steelers could look to was Najee Harris.

  • Because not only is Harris the offense’s most talented player, he’s their most reliable one.

He touched the ball 381 times in the regular season without a single fumble. Ben Roethlisberger hit Harris with a pass to start the Steelers 2nd half possession, Willie Gay hit him, Harris fumbled, Frank Clark recovered for the Chiefs, and two plays later Tyreek Hill romped 31 yards for a touchdown.

Any chance the Steelers had of making a comeback ended then.

Roethlisberger Finishes Fighting to the End

Down 35-7 in a playoff game is a grim place to be. But you wouldn’t have known that by the way the Steeler offense responded. For whatever else you want to say about them, and you can say a lot, this group showed no quit.

Ben Roethlisberger last sack, Michael Danna, Steelers vs Chiefs, AFC Wild Card

Michael Danna earns the honor of making the final sack of Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Dilip Vishwanat, Getty Images via The Athletic.

Working in the no huddle, Ben Roethlisberger completed 7 straight passes to Claypool, Harris, Smith-Schuster and Pat Freiermuth before finding James Washington for a toe tapping, combat catch for a touchdown.

The Chiefs added another touchdown, and Roethlisberger responded again. This one featured some incompletions as well as an interception that was nullified by a roughing-the-passer call. It also saw Benny Snell make the most of his shot at garbage time glory. After converting a 4th and 2, Diontae Johnson caught another Roethlisberger pass for a touchdown.

The Steelers actually forced the Chiefs to punt thanks to a T.J. Watt sack, giving Ben Roethlisberger one last drive. He made the most of it, converting 3 third downs, taking advantage of the underneath routes to Benny Snell and Ray-Ray McCloud that the Chiefs were giving him.

Finally, with 11 seconds left to go and no time outs, Ben Roethlisberger hit Zach Gentry for an 11- yard pass that would see Gentry tackled 3 yards short of the goal, ending the game.

Ben Roethlisberger ended his career by giving his all to the very last second. What a fitting farewell.

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JuJu Smith-Schuster Returns for Steelers vs Chiefs! Plus Pittsburgh Must be Cautious with Najee Harris

The Pittsburgh Steelers uphill battle to upset the Kanas City Chiefs tomorrow night just got a little more level. In move that was totally unexpected as recently as five days ago, the Steelers have activated wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuter from the injured reserve list.

JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith Schuster. Photo Credit: Twittter

On Wednesday JuJu Smith-Schuster suddenly appeared in practice, with teammate Diontae Johnson confirming that he had idea this was coming until he saw JuJu putting on his cleats. Still, the expectation was that Smith-Schuster would sit this game out.

The Steelers have confirmed their decision to activate Smith-Schuster from IR while releasing backup punter Corliss Waitman.

JuJu also shared this Tweet with followers:

It is huge move by JuJu Smith-Schuster. He could have very easily opted out of playing, eyeing the calendar and his next contract and no one would have thought any less of him. Instead, JuJu opted to prove his commitment to winning.

One might ask, with the emergence of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and to a lesser extent Ray-Ray McCloud, can JuJu Smith-Schuster, who only had 15 catches for 129 yards before injury, really help the Steelers after not taking a snap in over a month?

The answer is yes, he can.

As The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly explained:

His return would be most noticeable on third downs. With Smith-Schuster in the lineup, the Steelers converted 46 percent of their third downs. Without him, they fell to 36 percent. A year ago, he was tied for second behind Keenan Allen with 24 third-down catches that resulted in first downs.

Defenses will be forced to respect Smith-Schuster and even if that doesn’t directly translate in to catches for Number 19, it will allow Ben Roethlisberger to hit targets like Pat Freiermuth

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return also yields intangible benefits. Smith-Schuster is a physical receiver, as Vontaze Burfict found out when JuJu decked him as a rookie, forcing him from the field on a gurney.

While Smith-Schuster isn’t going to transform this team’s running game into well-oiled, road-grading machine, his physicality will help set the tone for blocking at the second level.

Harris Expected to Play, Steelers Must be Cautious

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return isn’t the only bit of good injury news coming out of the South Side. It was also announced that Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu were both…

…Got you, didn’t I? Alas, the Steelers aren’t getting either defensive lineman back this week, although Lord knows either man would be an instant upgrade alongside Cam Heyward.

The good news that the Steelers did get comes on the other side of the ball and involves Najee Harris. Harris of course injured his right elbow in the Steelers 2021 season finale against the Ravens. His participation was limited throughout the week and when asked about his status for the game, offensive coordinator Matt Canada admitted he was “Concerned.”

As of Friday Harris was listed as questionable, but the Steelers have removed him from the injury list and will play him against the Chiefs.

The reality is simple – with Harris, the Steelers have a chance against the Chiefs, without him they do not. Najee Harris is clearly the most talented player on the Steelers offense and his 188 yard performance against the Browns in Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field signified a changing of the guard.

  • Still, the Steelers need to be careful here.

A decade ago RGIII led Washington to the playoffs en route to earning rookie of the year honors. However he was injured during that first playoff contest, but was put back in the game. Whether this was due to Mike Shanahan’s mistake or Daniel Snyder’s meddling the world will never know. It matters little now, as RGIII never the same.

Mike Tomlin and the Steelers medical staff must avoid a similar mistake at all costs.

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Belief. It Just Might Be the 2021 Steelers Secret Weapon Against the Chiefs

Against all Odds the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers have reached the playoffs.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger celebrates. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

That in and of itself is a tremendous accomplishment and a testament to the resiliency of entire organization. Within Steelers Nation, fans are quick to cite the example of the 2005 Steelers season, were the team squeaked into the playoffs, won all of its games on the road and ultimately Super Bowl XL.

Blunt Truth Number 1:  These aren’t the 2005 Steelers.

The 2005 Steelers featured a talented roster featuring 3 Hall of Famers (Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu, Alan Faneca), one future Hall of Famer (Ben Roethlisberger) and another Hall of Fame caliber player (Hines Ward.) The roster was deep – remember Brett Keisel wasn’t even starting. And roster was healthy when the playoffs arrived.

The 2021 Steelers roster is way out of its depth in comparison.

Literally. Sure, T.J. Watt and perhaps Minkah Fitzpatrick have legit Hall of Fame potential, but when Tyson Alualu went down, Isaiah Buggs became the primary starter alongside Cam Heyward. The Steelers cut him last week. Which brings us to:

Blunt Truth Number 2:  The Kansas City Chiefs are a far more talented team.

It is no secret that Patrick Mahomes is the brightest young quarterback in the game. Often times feels like he’s the football equivalent of the Purple Rose of Cairo – as if Andy Reid walked in on his grandkids playing Madden, and off the screen walked Mahomes who turned around and immedately began putting up Madden like-stats in the real NFL.

Arrowhead Stadium is the one of the NFL’s most difficult venues, and the Chiefs schooled the Steelers there 36-10 two weeks ago in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score suggests. As Mike Tomlin has said. His team has warts. A lot of them.

Does that mean that all hope is lost? No, it does not, because the 2021 Steelers might have a secret weapon.

2021 Steelers Secret Weapon: Belief

After the Steelers win over the Ravens at M&T Stadium in Baltimore Mike Tomlin volunteered the following observation:

Najee sustained an elbow injury; was able to get himself back into the game and make significant plays for us. Pat had an opportunity to get a first down; he came up a little bit short in terms of lacking a little awareness there. We had to punt the ball and he came back and made a significant play. Ray-Ray had an opportunity to secure field goal position in the early portion of overtime; he didn’t. He came back and made a play. The growth and development of these young guys throughout this journey, and the negativity that’s usually associated with growth and development, did not take away from their efforts.

Mike Tomlin is of course commending the efforts of Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and Ray-Ray McCloud the latter two who came up short on critical plays only to bounce back big. Tomlin’s praise for his players can often be spare, but he didn’t hold back. Tomlin’s message is clear: He is seeing Iron Sharpen Iron.

That makes this next tweet all the more relevant:

The Steelers, apparently dispensed with the normal “Victory Monday” and went right back to work. The take away is clear:  Everyone is counting out the Steelers except themselves.

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

That’s a good place to be and it conjures memories of another quote.

Bob Labriola supplied it in Steelers Digest during the fall of 1991 as the Chuck Noll’s Steelers were slogged through their ill-fated trek up Walton’s Mountain. A reader asked how 1989 Steelers could shock the world while the 1991 Steelers muddled in mediocrity with essentially the same players.

Labriola pulled no punches arguing, “The 1989 Steelers weren’t really that good. But they won because they believed they were.”

This was blasphemy to a Generation X fan whose faith in the franchise had been vindicated by the 1989 Steelers. How could Labriola say about a team that was a dropped pass and/or a bad snap from the AFC Championship? But I recently watched a full replay of the 1989 Steelers upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome recently and Labriola was right:

  • The 1989 Steelers had roster that was average at best.

Sure, Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson were Hall of Famers. Greg Lloyd, Merril Hoge, Carnell Lake and others were excellent players. But you don’t see too many people wearing John Rienstra  or Derek Hill jerseys at Heinz Field on throwback weekend.

But Labriola was equally right about something else:

  • Those boys believed in themselves.

Before the Astrodome upset, Houston had shut out the Steelers in the “House of Pain,”and beat them in the snow at Three Rivers Stadium. Two months before the 1989 Steelers came within a hair of upsetting the Broncos in Mile High, Denver had spanked them 34-7.

Between those contests, Chuck Noll didn’t add any new talent, nor did Tom Moore or Rod Rust rollout any new schemes.

  • The 1989 Steelers improved in the interim because they’d learned to believe in themselves.

If the 2021 Steelers upset the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday night, they will do so for the same reason.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Browns: Sad to See a Star Student Graduate Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teary teacher who is sad to see his start student soon begin his “Life’s Work,” here is the Steelers Report Card for Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger in command in his Heinz Field finale. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Quarterback
In his final outing at Heinz Field, Ben Roethlisberger went 24 for 46 for 123 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Ben didn’t get a lot of help from his receivers, but this game is a solid signal that it is indeed time for him to hang it up. Grade: B-

Running Backs
Najee Harris was on fire rushing for 188 yards including a 37 yard scamper that iced the game. His hustle was evident from the word go to the last snap. Big Ben is leaving the offense in good hands. Benny Snell had one carry for 2 yards and Derek Watt converted a fourth and one. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth returned and caught 5 passes on six targets while Zach Gentry was targeted once for no catches. The run blocking was solid, which they helped with. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
Diontate Johnson had 8 catches for… 31 yards and a touchdown. Chase Claypool had 3 for 17 and was more notable for the catches he didn’t make (although there was simply some good DB work.) Ray-Ray McCloud had 4 catches for 35 yards, leading the team in receiving yardage. James Washington had one target an no catches. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Steelers enjoyed their best run blocking of the season by far. Holes opened and piles fell forward for the first time since the leaves started falling in October. Pass blocking was solid, but Ben did take two sacks. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was his usual lights out self, batting away two passes and sacking Baker Mayfield on third down. Isaiahh Loudermilk batted away a pass. The line did a good job in containing the run. Grade: B

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Najee Harris en route to 188 yards. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Linebackers
T.J. Watt strengthened his stake to be league MVP with 2 passes defensed, 3 tackles for losses, 4 sacks and 5 QB hits. Alex Highsmith added 2 sacks and made a key stop for a loss. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles. Grade: A

Secondary
Not a lot of fireworks here, but Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden each defensed a pass, as did Tre Norwood who also came up with an interception. The Steelers registered 9 sacks and that only happens if the coverage was good. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 4 for 4 on field goals, including a 48 and a 50 yarder. Corliss Waitman did an excellent job punting. Ray-Ray McCloud was OK as a returner, although he did fumble one which he recovered. Kick coverage was OK, but Justin Layne’s two penalties were negatives. Grade: B

Coaching
The Steelers offense was hardly a juggernaut, but Matt Canada got the running game going and because of that the short passing game was effective.

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin embrace. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers authored a dominant defensive performance, the late touchdown notwithstanding. While Kevin Stefanski decision to de-emphasize the run AND put the game in an injured Baker Mayfield’s hands with a hapless rookie left to tangle with T.J. Watt is a head scratcher, the Steelers defense took advantage.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were singularly focused throughout the night from start to finish. The team wanted to win and played with the will to win. Yes, this was fueled by the emotion of it being Ben Roethlisberger’s last game in Pittsburgh, but that singular focus is a product of the locker room culture Mike Tomlin has cultivated. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
COVID and other injuries robbed the Steelers of their starting inside linebackers and area where the team was already weak. But Marcus Allen and Ulysees Gilbert III stepped up to do an effective job in the middle and for that they win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Browns in Ben Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field.

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