Steelers Report Card for Loss to Patriots: Reverting to Old Habits Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is dismayed to see his students revert to the poor study habits that doomed them last year, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2022 home opening loss to the Patriots.

Malik Reed, Mac Jones, Steelers vs Patriots

Mac Jones evades Malik Reed. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Mitch Trubisky looked more comfortable back there, the Steelers improved on third down, and he was sharp at the goal line. But his decision making was poor, on the interception and on other critical throws as he continues to force the ball while other receivers are open. Worse yet, the Steelers went 3 and out twice late in the 4th quarter. Grade: D

Running Backs
The Steelers lead running backs averaged 3.8 and 3.3 yards per carry. Pedestrian numbers to be sure, but a step in the right direction. Jaylen Warren looked good in his series and Derek Watt converted a 3rd and 1 with a 2 yard carry. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth only had 4 catches but one of those was for a touchdown. Zach Gentry didn’t have pass thrown his way. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson continues to shine, making an excellent catch on the 2 point conversion. Chase Claypool had 4 catches and George Pickens added 1 for 23 yards. Gunner Olszewski 18 yard reverse helped set up a score. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Offensive Line
The Patriots sacked Tribuisky 3 times and hit him two other times, but he generally had time to throw. There were also signs of life in the run blocking game. This unit has a long way to go, but it showed improvement. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Mac Jones had all day to throw. Worse yet, the Patriots ran at will in the 4th quarter when they had to kill the clock. That was eerily reminiscent of 2021. Grade: D

Linebackers
The Steelers saw what life without T.J. Watt looked like, and this unit will have to step up. Alex Highsmith got a QB hit in on Mac Jones, as did Malik Reed. Robert Spillane led the unit in tackles. Grade: D

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s interception essentially erased Mitch Tribuisky’s own. Cam Sutton dropped an interception which indirectly set up the muffed punt. Beyond that, the Patriots moved the ball far too easily during their first half 2 minute drill and that touchdown came back to haunt the Steelers. Grade: D+

Special Teams
Chris Boswell went 2-2 on Field Goals of 26 and 52 yards. Boomed off punts for a 51.8 yard average. Those were good. But New England logged several good kick returns as well as one nice punt return. Gunner Olszewski muffed a punt that set up New England’s 2nd half touchdown. This was a special teams error in a game where the Steelers could ill afford one. Grade: F

Coaching
It would be hard to call Matt Canada’s offense a success – and we won’t do that here. But we will acknowledge that the Steelers showed some improvement on third down and there were signs, if however faint, of life from the running game.

  • But as the 2019 experience showed, you won’t beat many people with one offensive touchdown per game.

Nor will you win many games when you’re 3 points behind in the 4th quarter, your defense forces 2 punts, and all you can muster is 2 three and outs.

If the offense took/may have taken an infants crawl forward, the Steelers defense took a giant “Mother May I” step backwards. Without T.J. Watt the Steelers generated precisely zero pass rush. Worse yet, with the game on the line the Patriots offense rushed the ball at will, advancing down the field and killing the clock.

Did Bill Belichick see some sort of systematic weakness he could exploit? Or did the Steelers simply lose a series of 1-1 battles?

  • Regardless, the ease with which the Patriots ran the ball looked all too much like 2021.

    Najee Harris, Steelers vs Patriots, Devin McCourty

    Najee Harris leaps Devin McCourty in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin, Karl Dunbar and Brian Flores had better answer that question – quickly. Because unlike last year, 4th quarter comeback look to be pretty spare. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He didn’t have the kind of game that will make fantasy football owners happy. Nor did he make any of those spectacular plays that fall off of fantasy football owner’s radars. But he scrapped and scraped and managed to make piles forward, giving the Steelers running game some semblance of life, and for that Najee Harris wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2022 opening day loss to the Patriots.

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Surprise! Steelers Upset Bengals 23-20 in Overtime as Defense Dominates

The Pittsburgh Steelers launched the Mitch Tribisky era Sunday with a 23-20 overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium.

  • The win came at a cost with several marquee players leaving the field early with injuries.

But an upset road win over a division rival and defending conference championship is always good. And the win confirmed a lot of what we thought we knew about these Pittsburgh Steelers, and that’s both good and bad.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers 2022 Opening Day,

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts Joe Burrow’s first pass. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Defense Still Wins Games

The old adage used to be, “Defense wins championships.” In this era of big gambling, Fantasy Football fueled football, the game has been legislated to tilt heavily towards the offense. Does defense still “win championships” in the National Football League?

Who knows?

Mike Tomlin and his players proved that defense can still win games for the Pittsburgh Steelers here in 2022. And they did this from the very beginning of the game.

Cam Heyward opened up the game, rag dolling Joe Burrow with a 5 yard sack. Minka Fitzpatrick struck next with a 31 yard pick six. Less that three and a half minutes had elapsed, the Steelers offense had punted once after earning just 8 yards.

Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Bengals

Cam Heyward opens game by sacking Joe Burrow. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

  • Yet, the Steelers were up 7-0.

Alex Highsmith struck next, sacking Burrow for a 7-yard loss on third down, although a record setting 59 yard field goal by Evan McPherson got Cincinnati on the board. Highsmith wasn’t done, because four plays later he strip sacked Burrow with Cam Heyward recovering. Pat Freiermuth did his part with a 31 yard reception.  But the Steelers offense sputtered at the goal line, settling for a Chris Boswell field goal.

Not that it really mattered, because T.J. Watt picked off Joe Burrow 8 plays later. This time Zach Gentry did the honors of getting the Steelers in position to score, and Najee Harris finally found the end zone on the team’s 5th shot from the goal line.

Lovers of defense only needed to wait for six more plays for Cam Sutton to short-circuit another promising Bengals drive with an interception.

And that was only the first half. In the second half Ahkello Witherspoon intercepted Burrow again while Arthur Maulet sacked him in overtime forcing a final punt. T.J. Watt and Robert Spillane added sacks of their own, Myles Jack stepping up with a critical pass defense, as did Cam Sutton in the end zone.

After the game, this was the word from Cincinnati:

Then this:

Anyone wonder why?

SOSO – Same Old Steelers Offense

If the Steelers defense played as well as optimist felt it could, their offense played as poorly as pessimists (or realists) feared it would. Here’s some harsh reality: Only 2 critical Cincinnati special teams errors separated the Steelers from losing a game in which they enjoyed a 5 point turnover differential.

  • You almost have to try to lose a game in which your defense secures 5 turnovers.

And the worst part about it? The Steelers offense wasn’t trying to lose the game, they were trying their best. And their best almost wasn’t good enough. Sure, both tight ends came up with big catches in the first half with Pat Freiermuth adding another in overtime.

  • Matt Canada employed some smoke and mirrors to get a running game going with Chase Claypool.

Diontae Johnson set up what should have been the game winning field goal in overtime with what was perhaps his best catch as a Steeler.

But Steelers running backs managed 2.3 yards per carry behind an offensive line that had ZERO push. And Pressley Harvin punted 8 times. Mitch Trubisky made a few nice throws and his mobility limited his sack total to one.

But the Steelers offense was just as in effective as it has been since early 2020, scoring only 2 field goals without the help of turnovers.

Chase Claypool, Germaine Pratt, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool stiff arms Germaine Pratt. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review.

The Difference – Special Teams and the Run Defense

And the one field goal the Steelers did score was set up in part by Gunner Olszewski 20 yard punt return. The Steelers special teams also blocked an extra point and the Bengals missed a field goal in overtime. That’s four points special teams kept off the board and three more that they added. Subtract Boswell’s miss, and you still have a 1 point differential.

  • But what made all if it meaningful was the Steelers run defense.

Last year Joe Mixon embarrassed the Steelers, averaging 5.5 yards per carry against them, and making it look easy. That success loosened the defense and allowed Burrow to abuse the Steelers secondary at will.

Today the Steelers held him to 3.0 yards on 27 carries, and if you take out the one, ugly 31 yarder that the Steelers defense did allow, that average drops to almost 2 yards a carry.

Running the ball might be passé in today’s NFL, I’d argue it is not, but even if I’m wrong, being unable to stop the run is positively lethal. The Steelers defense stopped the run, giving their play makers a chance to do their damage, and that was the difference.

Keeping It in Perspective

This win, in all its ugliness, came with a cost. T.J. Watt is rumored to have torn a pec. If that’s true, he’s done for the year, and the Steelers defense will become decidedly mortal. Najee Harris reportedly left the stadium in a walking boot. Levi Wallace and Robert Spillane also left the game with injuries.

  • Even if the news on Watt is better than expected, the Steelers offense must improve. Period.

But if that’s true, its also true that the Pittsburgh Steelers played their first game without Ben Roethlisberger demonstrating the same resilience that defined the Roethlisberger Era.

That alone is a sign of hope.

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Steelers Draft Mark Robinson, Linebacker from Ole Miss in 7th Round

With their first pick in the 7th round of the 2022 NFL Draft the Pittsburgh Steelers picked Mark Robinson, an inside linebacker from Ole Miss.

  • Robinson has played running back for most of his career, only switching to linebacker as a senior.
Mark Robinson, Steelers 7th round pick 2022 NFL Draft

Mark Robinson closes in in Rocko Griffin. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

However, Steelers linebackers coach Brian Flores said that was one of the things that made him attractive to Pittsburgh, detailing, “That’s part of what we liked about him, there’s some upside here. This is somebody who hasn’t played the position for a long time, but he shows speed, he shows athleticism, he shows toughness, physicality. He does a lot of things we like. He’s a fun guy to watch on film.”

Flores also offered that Robinson’s experience as running back, perhaps helped him make the transition to the other side of the ball.

Flores confirmed that while Robinson faced a learning curve in making this position change, his improvement was evident throughout the season. Last year he played in 13 games for Ole Miss, making 91 total tackles, 5.5 for losses and registered 3 sacks.

  • When asked about whether he had a chance to make it on to the field as a rookie, Flores responded, “Its up to him.”

7th round picks by definition have to fight to find a way onto the 53 man roster. But Robinson might benefit from the fact that the Steelers depth at outside linebacker is thin. Behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith the Steelers have Genard Avery, journeyman John Simon, along with futures contract signees Tegray Scales, Delontae Scott on their roster.

With that said, his draft card from ESPN listed him as an outside linebacker, but the Steelers will apparently play him on the inside. The situation is far more crowded at inside linebacker with Devin Bush, Myles Jack, Robert Spillane and Marcus Allen.

But these situations are often fluid. The Steelers initially drafted Lawrence Timmons as an outside linebacker and didn’t move him to the inside until his second year.

Beyond that, like all rookies, Robinson’s surest way to cement a roster spot is to prove that he can play and contribute on special teams. Brian Flores has some background in special teams, and promised to steer him in the right direction.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Mark Robinson.

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Steelers 2022 NFL Draft Needs @ Safety – Is Pittsburgh Primed for Another Shock?

Just days shy of the 2022 NFL Draft find the Pittsburgh Steelers with 3 safeties on their roster who were first round picks.

So, then it must be safe to say that safety is not a priority for Pittsburgh in the draft? Not so fast.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens, Minkah Fitzpatrick end zone interception

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts Lamarr Jackson in the end zone. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Cart at Safety: The Starters

Shocking.

That single word precisely defines the arrival in Pittsburgh of both the Steelers starting safeties. The Steelers opened the 2018 NFL Draft by shocking the pundit class by picking Terrell Edmunds out of nowhere.

And if it is true that Edmunds hasn’t delivered the level of splash play that you’d expect from a first round pick, he has started for four straight years, missing only one game. Moreover, Edmunds has gotten better with each passing year.

The fact that Edmunds was on the free agent market over a month is a little bit surprising, as is the 2.5 million dollar deal he signed to return – which is less than what Marcus Allen and Robert Spillane are getting.

  • But his having an NFL safety with 60 starts play for you for 2.5 million something to complain about? I think not.

If drafting Terrell Edmunds was a shock in the spring of 2018, then trading 2020’s first round pick – after knowing that Ben Roethlisberger faced major elbow surgery – to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick was a super charged shock.

It didn’t take long to see why Art Rooney II broke from 50 years of franchise tradition in trading away a first round pick, as Minkah Fitzgerald had an interception in his first game as a Steeler. During the 2019 season, Fitzgerald arguably changed the course of 3 if not 4 games in the Steelers favor.

  • Fitzpatrick had another stealer year in 2020, helping seal a number of critical wins.

Critics have said that Minkah Fitzpatrick had an off year in 2021. Its true. His “Splash” play count was down. But the Baltimore Ravens come to Heinz Field and go the length of the field and you have a player who can kill a drive with an end zone interception, are you really going to complain?

What wasn’t captured in Minkah’s stats were things like the critical third down stops he made time-and-time again. If you’re really looking to understand his value to the team, look at his tackle count: It jumped from 79 in 2020 to 214 in 2021.

That’s because in a year of a historically bad run defense, Minkah Fitzpatrick served as the last line of defense time and time again.

Steelers Depth Chart at Safety: The Backups

The other first round pick the Steelers have at safety is Karl Joseph, although he is not the primary backup at the position. Joseph was signed by the Steelers at the end of summer and played on their practice squad for most of 2021.

  • He is returning to Pittsburgh in 2022 on a veteran minimum contract.

The primary backup at safety is Tre Norwood, the player whom the Steelers drafted in the 7th round of the 2021 NFL Draft. That 7th round status didn’t deter Mike Tomlin from labeling him as a “Swiss Army Knife.”

Tomlin was true to his word. Tre Norwood appeared in all 17 games for the Steelers, logging 33% of the defensive snaps, making 1 interception and defending 4 passes during the season. Indeed, it was Tre Norwood who picked off a Minkah Fitzpatrick deflection against the Browns that allowed Ben Roethlisberger to close his career at Heinz Field in the victory formation.

Veteran Miles Killebrew is also technically a safety, but only logged 44 defensive snaps last year, playing mostly on special teams. Donovan Stiner is also on their roster after having signed a futures contract.

The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Safety

A week ago mock drafts that showed Pittsburgh picking Michigan’s Dax Hill were completely plausible. The Terrell Edmunds signing changes that equation, but only so much.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

The Steelers will certainly target Minkah Fitzpatrick for a mega extension this summer, but what about Edmunds?

  • Terrell Edmunds’ contract is a prove-itdeal if there ever was one.

The critical question is, was a one-year deal Edmunds’ idea, or did the Steelers offer him say, a 2-year deal worth 8 million? Even if the Steelers do remain interested in Edmunds long term, there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t end up seeing him leave just as JuJu Smith-Schuster did.

So while we shouldn’t expect the Steelers to use one of their premium picks on a safety, it certainly would be a shock if they did.

With that said, the Steelers need at safety going into the 2022 NFL Draft should be considered as Moderate.

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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Inside Linebacker – Time to Beat Around the Bush?

Perhaps no area on the Steelers roster has seen more turmoil over the last 5 years than inside linebacker. That turmoil began with Ryan Shazier’s injury which set off a series of free agent signings, draft day trades, surprise retirements, training camp trades and more free agent signings.

The question is, have the Steelers done enough to address this position, or must they again dedicate draft capital in the position in 2022?

Devin Bush, Darren Fells, Steelers vs Texans

Devin Bush breaks up a touchdown pass intended for Darren Fells. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Cart at Inside Linebacker: The Starters

3 years ago, before COVID-19 changed our world and Ben Roethlisberger’s elbow surgery accelerated the arrival of his “Life’s Work” Kevin Colbert made a mammoth trade to get Devin Bush.

Devin Bush started his Steelers career with a bang. As a rookie he made 2 interceptions, recovered 4 fumbles and had a sack, while making 109 tackles. More importantly, he did those at critical moments in games, including his touchdown against the Chargers and his forced fumble against the Bengals that Minkah Fitzpatrick recovered, turning the tide in a critical division game.

Bush was back, starting throughout 2021, but he was clearly not the same player. While he did make two sacks and forced a few fumbles, his tackle count was only 79, a sharp drop off from his rookie year.

Expected to start alongside Bush in 2022 is Myles Jack, a free agent signing the Steelers made from the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jack brings the Steelers 82 starts worth of experience and should provide much needed stability.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart: The Backups

Behind Bush and Jack, the Steelers have Robert Spillane and Marcus Allen, both of whom are returning as restricted free agents. Robert Spillane stepped in for Devin Bush in 2020 and performed far better than anyone had a right to expect.

However, during the 2021 preseason, he struggled in pass coverage, leading the Steelers to trade for Joe Schobert, whom they’ve subsequently waived. Marcus Allen is a converted safety playing inside linebacker who has seen little more than spot duty at his new position. Ulysees Gilbert III is also in the mix, as the 2019 6th round pick finally got healthy enough to see some playing time in 2021.

Finally, the Steelers have Buddy Johnson. The Steelers drafted Johnson in the 4th round of the 2021 NFL Draft, but he only saw spot duty in 2 games.

The Steelers 2022 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL DraftWhat do the Steelers really have in Devin Bush?

Is Devin Bush’s ACL injury, like Rod Woodson’s before him, one of those ACL injuries that takes over a year to heal completely? Or did the Steelers misjudge his talent? Or is it a compilation of both?

Looking beyond Bush, the Steelers also need to ask whether Buddy Johnson can make the 2nd year leap. Given that he was a 4th round draft pick, he wouldn’t have been expected to contribute much, but the fact that Johnson didn’t play much on special teams is worrisome.

Given that Myles Jack is playing on a two year contract and that Devin Bush and Robert Spillane are playing on their final years, the Steelers need at inside linebacker should be considered Moderate-High.

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Strengthening the Center: Steelers Sign Myles Jack, Inside Linebacker to 2 Year Contract

Free agency officially began for the NFL as Pittsburgh continued its prolific free agent spending spree that saw the Steelers sign inside linebacker Myles Jack from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

These moves carried costs, as the Steelers parted ways with Zach Banner and Myles Jack’s arrival almost certainly means that Joe Schobert will be released.

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Jack had been cut by the Jaguars, and reported signed a two year, $16 million dollar contract. Jacksonville drafted Jack in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft, and Jack went on to start 82 games for the Jaguars.

During that time with the Jaguars, he has 6 sacks, 3 interceptions, 15 passes defensed and 19 tackles for losses. That interception count doesn’t include one that Steelers fans would doubtlessly like to forget, as he picked off Ben Roethlisberger in the 2017 Heinz Field playoff loss to the Jaguars, setting up an easy score for Jacksonville and allowing them to go up 14-0. Despite being in the NFL for 6 years, Jack is only 26.

In 2021 the Steelers defense was, in a word “soft in the middle.”

While much of this weakness ties directly to the losses/absence of Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu, Devin Bush struggled in his return from his ACL, and Joe Schobert had a tough time against the run. Hopefully, Myles Jack will strengthen the center.

Tender Moments

The first official day of free agency brought some other news regarding the team’s restricted free agents. First, Dwayne Haskins signed his original round restricted free agent tender — this was proforma, as no team was going to give up a first round pick for Haskins.

The Steelers also issued restricted free agent tenders to Robert Spillane as expected, but surprisingly issued one to Marcus Allen. While he struggles in pass protection (see the Myles Jack signing), Spillane has been stout against the run. In contrast, Marcus Allen is a converted safety playing inside linebacker and has not been very effective in that role.

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

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Hold the Line! Steelers Sign Chuks Okorafor, Mason Cole and James Daniels to 3 Year Contracts

Say this about the Steelers brain trust here in 2022, they’re not trying to sweep their weaknesses under the rung. After opening free agency by signing Mitchell Trubisky, the Steelers moved quickly to protect him.

First they came to terms with center/guard Mason Cole, who most recently played for the Minnesota Vikings. Then word came that they resigned tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, for 3 years. And now they’ve added Chicago Bears center/guard James Daniels.

Chukwuma Okorafor, Chuks Okorafor, Steelers 2022 Free Agent

Chucks Okorafor in the Steelers 2021 win over the Bears. Photo Credit: Emilee Chinn/Getty Images via StillCurtain.com

The moves address what was a chronic and historically bad for the Steelers in 2022, and they also put Kendrick Green and Kevin Dotson on notice that they’ll need to fight for playing time, if not their roster spots.

The decision to bring back Chuck Okafor, and to do so as a priority in free agency must count as a bit of a surprise. Okafor does bring the Steelers 35 starts, but terms of his contract suggest that his deal is structured as more of a “prove it” contract.

According to Aaron Wilson of the NFL network, Okafor’s 3 year contract three years, will give him a 9.25 million dollar signing bonus, with base salaries of 1.25 Million, 6 million and 4.75 million. It also calls for 4 million dollar roster bonuses to be paid on the 5th day of the league year in 2023 and 2024.

  • For those readers not fluent in salary cap speak, this is a deal the Steelers can easily bail on this time next year.

According to internet reports, James Daniels contract is for 3 years and 26.5 million dollars. Mason Cole is said to have signed a 3 year contract, the terms of which have not yet been leaked.

Too Quiet for Comfort on the South Side?

If news of newcomers to Pittsburgh has been prolific, word on who might be staying on the South Side has become a little worrisome.

The Steelers confirmed that they extended tenders to Dwayne Haskins and J.C. Hassenauer. Montravius Adams has also been resigned.

But there’s been no word of Robert Spillane. Nor has there been any news about the Steelers top three free agents, Terrell Edmunds, JuJu Smith-Schuster or Ahkello Witherspoon.

The glass half full way to look at this is that none of these three has come to an agreement with another team. But the glass half empty conclusion is that had any of these three players been a priority for Pittsburgh, the Steelers already would have resigned them.

Word has leaked that the Steelers have come to terms with cornerback Levi Wallace, which we’ll have more to say about later.

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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No Need to Explain Why Robert Spillane Will Get a Restricted Free Agent Tender from Steelers

One year ago Robert Spillane was the guy who started the season that no one had even heard of and who finished the season as a critical element holding down the center of their defense. So it was a no-brainer that the Steelers would make him an Exclusive Rights Free Agent tender to keep him in Pittsburgh.

  • A year has passed, and Spillane has now added another 14 games to his tape.

He’s also eligible for restricted free agency where tenders are projected to begin at the 2.4 million mark. Has Spillane done enough to earn one? Let’s find out.

Robert Spillane, Austin Hooper, Steelers vs Browns

Robert Spillane after tackling Austin Hooper. Photo Credit: Cleveland.com via the Bradford Era

Capsule Profile of Robert Spillaine’s Career with the Steelers

Going into the 2020 season, Robert Spillane conventional wisdom held that Robert Spillane was the ONE player the Steelers could not afford to put on the field. Those fears came to fruition in the Steelers home game against the Browns when Devin Bush tore his ACL, forcing Spillane into the line up.

Spillane answered the call, and the Steelers closed out a 38-7 win. He followed the next week with a hellacious goal line stop on Derrick Henry. A week later, he snagged Lamar Jackson’s 2nd pass of the game and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown, providing crucial points in the Steelers 28-24 win.

Spillaine continued his solid steady play until he got injured in the Steeler loss to Washington, and Pittsburgh closed the season going 1-4. And while that oversimplifies things greatly to chalk that up to losing Spillaine, the Steelers defense missed him.

  • Going into training camp the hope was that Spillaine would win the starting job over Vince Williams.

When Williams retired that hope became a need. But it also became obvious that Spillane was struggling in pass coverage, leading Kevin Colbert to trade for Joe Schobert.

Robert Spillane saw plenty of playing time for the Steelers in 2021, starting 4 games while taking the field for 37% of the team’s defensive snaps. He also participated in 61% of the teams special teams snaps. All told, he made 56 tackles and was the best inside linebacker against the run.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Robert Spillane

Inside linebacker is a weakness for the Steelers and that was not something we were supposed to be able to say nearly 3 years after the Devin Bush trade.

But a weakness it is.

In two seasons worth of work, Robert Spillane has shown that while he might not be a long-term answer or a full time starter at inside linebacker, he is certainly a capable contributor. He has also proven himself to be a solid tackler and is stout against the run and this defense needs run defenders.

At 2.4 million for a season, Spillane offers and upgrade over a veteran minimum free agent and he still has some upside.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Spillane

The Steelers defense wasn’t soft in the middle. No, Pittsburgh’s defense was outright porous in the middle. Yes, Robert Spillane was better against the run, but is anyone ready to confuse him with Vince Williams circa 2015 or 2016? No.

And even if he can improve against the run, “speed is the one thing you can’t teach” and Spillane doesn’t have the speed to cover tight ends let alone wide recievers coming out of backfield. That makes him a 2 down player at best. And Jon Bostic experiment taught us if you have a starting inside linebacker who is strong against the run but can’t cover, you don’t have starting inside linebacker.

The Steelers can invest that 2.4 million elsewhere.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Robert Spillane

If anything, this decision is more of a no-brainer in this year than it was last spring. Joe Schobert could very well be a cap casualty and, for whatever reason, Devin Bush is clearly struggling to return to his pre-ACL injury form.

  • Right now Robert Spillane isn’t Steelers best inside linebacker, but he is their most consistent one.

And Spillane is certainly their most cost-effective inside linebacker. And if the Steelers secure upgrades in both free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft, Spillane has already shown he’s a reliable presence coming off the bench.

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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