Steelers Report Card for Win Over Broncos: Offensive Line Stops Skipping Class Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who was just as truant as the offense during the season’s first month, here is the Report Card from the Steelers win over the Broncos.

T.J. Watt, Teddy Bridgewater, Steelers vs Broncos

T.J. Watt pressures Teddy Bridgewater. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 15-25 for 253 yards two touchdowns and no interceptions in what was easily is biggest day of the season. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger had 3 “almost interceptions” but he was right on the money with his two touchdown strikes as well as the deep balls that set up the rushing touchdown. But Ben put the ball on the ground, which brings his grade down. Grade: B

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran for 122 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries and caught 2 passes for 20 more. Harris exploited holes and moved piles forward. Benny Snell dropped a pass early on and found himself on the bench, but ran hard when Harris had to leave with cramps. Kalen Ballage got several carries but had no yardage to show for it. Grade: A-

Tight Ends
All three tight ends got involved in the passing game as Pat Freiermuth and Eric Ebron caught two passes a piece while Zach Gentry caught another that set off a scoring drive. The run blocking was improved, the tight ends helped with. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool owned the Broncos, burning them for 130 yards on 5 catches and a touchdown. Diontae Johnson opened the scoring with a 50 yard scamper and had one other catch for 22 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had two carries for 3 yards and no catches before leaving the game with a season ending shoulder injury. Ray-Ray McCloud only had one catch, but made an interception saving hit. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
After spending a month mired in a morass of something worse that mediocrity the offensive line turned in a fine performance. Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and only hit on one other occasion. What’s more, he had time to throw all afternoon long. Najee Harris also had plenty of room to run. This unit must continue to improve, but if it does a lot of other good things can happen. Grade: B

Defensive Line
Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon III might not be the NFL’s 2021 equivalent of Franco and Rocky, but they’re a solid duo. Williams torched the Steelers for a 49 yard game, but that was the lone highlight of the Denver rushing attack. That starts with the line who had a solid day including Henry Mondeaux who got his first sack.

Linebackers
As The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly pointed out, you didn’t hear Joe Schobert’s name much, although he did register 5 tackles, and that’s because he was doing his job in the middle of the field. Devin Bush had the lone sack of linebackers against a Denver time that was max protecting, while T.J. Watt did work in two pressures. A solid afternoon for the linebackers. Grade: B+

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick led the team with 10 tackles and was disruptive all over the field. But the real hero of the group is James Pierre. Pierre stopped a would-be touchdown in the first half by coming from behind to tackle Javonte Williams. His interception saved another touchdown and sealed the game. Yes, he gave up a touchdown and a long gain before that, but the ability to bounce back is critical sign of a quality cornerback. Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds had passes defensed, quietly logging solid games. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made field goals of 48 and 43 yards and was 3-3 on PATs – that’s 9 points in an 8 point game for those of you at home. Ray-Ray McCloud’s kick returns were average at best and the Steelers kick coverage was sound. After getting called out by Tony Defeo, Pressley Harvin III responded with his best day punting, including a 63 yarder late in the game. Grade: B

Coaching
The Denver Broncos came into the game with one of the NFL’s top defenses, yet Matt Canada managed to piece together a game plan that saw the Steelers score early and add to that lead all while controlling the clock.

One defense Keith Butler was missing Cam Sutton and rather than put the job of replacing him on one person, he managed to divide the load and do it effectively. The fact that the Steelers went 1-3 on fourth downs is a bit disturbing, but the unit delivered when the game was on the line.

Cam Heyward, Teddy Bridgewater, Steelers vs Broncos

Cam Heyward pressures Teddy Bridgewater. Photo Credit: AP

Three game losing streaks are ugly in their very essence in the NFL. And any the pressure to hit the “panic” button is tremendous, even if a coach denies it. Mike Tomlin refused to do that, and continued to trust in his men and his methodology and that trust paid off. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero Award
The stat sheet tells us that he might not have made any “Splash” plays. But 4 of the 5 figures on his stat line directly correlate to scuttled drives and for that Cam Heyward wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Broncos.

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Steelers Beat Broncos 27 to 19 with +100 Yards from Najee Harris & James Pierre Late Interception

The Denver Broncos opened the season with 3 straight wins, until losing last week to Baltimore Ravens. The Pittsburgh Steelers opened the season with a win, and then lost their next 3 games.

  • Pittsburgh prevailed in the battle of 3-1 vs. 1-3 to the tune of 27 to 19.

And the irony of it is, the Steelers were successful because, for once, things went as they were scripted.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Broncos

Chase Claypool scores a touchdown in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

How Things were “Supposed” to Work for the Steelers

In mid-August my wife asked what the Steelers prospects were for the coming season. I assured her that, despite a fairly strong showing in preseason, the Steelers still “Needed a lot of things to go right.”

So what were those things that had to go right?

  • Ben Roethlisberger needed to throw less than 40 passes a game, his ’20 average
  • Najee Harris needed to revive the Steelers rushing attack
  • The offensive line had to to improve
  • Gambles on players like James Pierre had to pay off
  • Players like Chase Claypool would need to make that “2nd year leap”

Almost nothing has gone according to plan for the Steelers in 2021.

The last three weeks saw Ben Roethlisberger thr0w 40, 58, and 40 passes. In week one Ben got it done with 32 passes. Funny how that one ended in a win. The offensive line struggled, and if it hadn’t been worse than it was in 2020, it wasn’t showing signs of getting better.

Injuries hobbled the defense and young players whom the Steelers were counting on performance spanned from, “He might be taking a step back” to “he’s improving, but only marginally.”

Tried and True Yields a Fresh Start

“Throw to score, run to win” was the credo of Bill Cowher’s first offensive coordinator, Ron Erhardt. In today’s pass-happy, Fantasy Football driven NFL such thinking is passé.

  • Winning is never passé and relying on your running game remains a winning formula.

And so it was that the Steelers opened with two straight runs to Najee Harris. One 3rd and 1, with the defense forced to respect the threat of another Harris rush, Ben Roethlisberger hit Chase Claypool for 23 yards. The Steelers followed with a Jet Sweep to JuJu Smith-Schuster and two plays later Ben Roethlisberger was hooking up with Diontae Johnson on a 50 yard touchdown.

  • Opening drive touchdowns have been spare for the Steelers for a long, long time.

So an early TD was welcome, but as the loss to the Packers proved, how you begin isn’t nearly as important as how you finish. But by sticking to a tried and true formula for “Steelers Football,” Pittsburgh had given itself a fresh start.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Broncos

Najee Harris hits the open field. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Harris Grinds it Out

The next two drives saw the Steelers run 19 plays. The first drive ended in a fumble, the second one in a field goal. Pittsburgh rushed the ball on 11 of those 19 plays. While you’d like to see a little more from you offense, the Steelers were accomplishing something important:

  • They were establishing the run.

The offensive line might not have been engaging on road grading quality run blocking, but they were opening holes and Najee Harris was exploiting them. That allowed plays like Chase Claypool’s 59 yard hook up from Ben Roethlisberger, that got them into the Red Zone and paved the way for Najee Harris air mail express 1 yard touchdown leap.

The trend continued in the second half, as the Steelers set themselves up for success by creating manageable third downs and stitched together a 14 play 88 yard drive that consumed 7 minutes of the clock and ended with Chase Claypool going over the top to put the Steelers up 24-6 with 2:41 left to play in the 3rd quarter.

By that point, Najee Harris had logged his first 1 yard game and the Steelers first 100 yard rushing effort in 16 games.

But the game wasn’t over yet.

Defense Corrals Broncos Offense for 3 Quarters

The Steelers defense dominated the Broncos offense for 3 quarters. Their efforts early in the game were critical to victory. After an early Ben Roethlisberger fumble gave the Broncos the ball at Steeler 29 yard line.

  • It was early in the 1st quarter and a Broncos touchdown would tie the game and fundamentally alter its dynamic.

Vic Fangio called Javonte Williams number on 3 straight plays. And on three straight plays Minkah Fitzpatrick, Isiah Buggs, T.J. Watt, Robert Spillane and Terrell Edmunds ganged up to neutralize him. Denver was forced to settle for 3.

Two possession later, Javonte Williams torched the Steelers offense for 49 yards as James Pierre barley saved a touchdown. That set up Denver at the Steelers 5 yard line, but Devin Bush dropped Teddy Bridgewater for a 12 yard sack, effectively forcing them to settle for 3 again.

But as the third quarter ended the Broncos offense found their stride and gave the Steelers defense a run for its money.

Defense Finally Bends, Breaks but Bounces Back in a Big Way

When the Denver Broncos got the ball with 2:14 left in the 3rd quarter they were down 24 to 6 and things looked pretty hopeless. But they stitched together a 14 play, 76 yard touchdown drive that saw them convert 3 fourth downs.

While you never want to see something like that happen, the Steelers don’t have the shut down defense they had in 2019 or 2020 and such efforts are to be expected, if not accepted 2021 in the NFL.

  • But the Steelers had to punt on their next drive and worse yet, they lost Najee Harris.

This gave Denver the ball back with 7:40 left to play and it was in those seven minutes and 40 seconds that the Broncos would test one of the Steelers biggest gambles of the season to the limit.

First, Denver reached midfield by picking on James Pierre for a 15 yard completion. Two plays later Pierre bit a little too hard on the inside to Courtland Sutton as Sutton burned him for a 39 yard touchdown pass.

The Steelers defense nixed the 2 point conversion and the offense tacked on a field goal to keep it an 8 point game, but Denver got the ball back with 2 and a half minutes to play. As soon as he got in scoring range, Teddy Bridgewater wasted little time in picking on James Pierre. Pierre deflected it but could have ended things with an interception.

  • Two plays later he did hook up with Kendall Hinton to bring Denver to the 9 yard line.

Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds knocked away passes on 1st and 3rd downs with Joe Schobert tackling Melvin Gordon short of the goal line on second.

One 4th and 9 Bridgewater again tried to pick on Pierre. Here’s Pierre’s response:

The story of the first three quarters was that, for one game at least, the Steelers offense functioned the way it was “supposed to.”

The story of the fourth quarter was that, when the game was one the line, the gamble the Steelers made in James Pierre paid off in spades.

No NFL team wants to start the season at 2-3, but 2-3 beats the hell out of 1-4. As Mike Tomlin reflected: “Time will tell the story. We are appreciative of the efforts and the win we got today, but those type of perspectives and things of that nature will be revealed to us as we continue to play.”

Amen to that.

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Upside of Steelers Loss to Raiders? Trai Turner Spitting Incident Proves Rivalry Still Strong

It sure was an ugly scene on Sunday, as the Steelers fell to the Raiders, 26-17, in a Week 2 clash at Heinz Field.

Trai Turner, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin restrains Trai Turner. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The Steelers injury situation on the defensive side was ugly–the team lost cornerback Joe Haden and linebacker Devin Bush to injuries before the game, as well as Tyson Alualu and T.J. Watt to ailments during it.

The defensive performance after said injuries was hideous–Raiders quarterback Derek Carr played like Kenny Stabler, particularly in the second half when he took advantage of Keith Butler‘s depleted unit and seemed to pass at will.

The offense was again pretty darn ugly–you can’t get any uglier than what the Steelers have been doing on that side of the ball for the first two games of the 2021 regular season.

It was an all-around ugly game, for sure, but at least the Steelers remained aggressive all afternoon, including linebacker Robert Spillane, who laid the wood a time or two while filling in for the injured Bush–he even drew a questionable unnecessary roughness penalty for a hard shot on Carr.

The offensive line, a beleaguered and embattled unit that is made up of mostly young guys who are trying to learn their crafts and become a part of a cohesive unit right before our very eyes, certainly was chippy on Sunday. Rookie center Kendrick Green didn’t seem to mind mixing it up with many Raiders defenders all day long.

Despite the loss, it was cool to see that so much intensity still exists between two traditional rivals whose most famous feuds took place in the 1970s.

Youngsters like Spillane and Green may one day become famous (or infamous) characters in the Steelers/Raiders mutual hatred, but it looks like veteran guard Trai Turner got indoctrinated into the rivalry two games into his Steelers’ career.

That’s right, following running back Najee Harris‘ 25-yard touchdown catch and run early in the fourth quarter, a play that brought Pittsburgh to within two points with 11:15 remaining, Turner was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. Raiders defender Marquel Lee was also penalized 15 yards, meaning the dead-ball fouls offset. No big deal, right? Only problem for Pittsburgh was that Turner was ejected, while Lee was not.

Why? CBS cameras soon revealed that Turner spat on Lee after charging through half his Steelers’ teammates to get in the face of the Las Vegas defender. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was incensed at the game-day officials and was demanding an explanation while also giving them an earful.

Turner has no defense–again, he can clearly be seen spitting in Lee’s face. But did you see how angry Turner was as he charged after Lee? What could Lee have done to anger Turner so much? According to Turner, he was only retaliating for Lee spitting on him first.

Do you believe Turner? I do. I mean, Lee plays for the Raiders. This is the same organization whose mantra used to be, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” Actually, that is probably still the Raiders’ mantra. Remember when George Atkinson sucker-punched Steelers receiver Lynn Swann away from the play in a game between the two teams back in the 1970s? Whether you remember it or not, it happened. Chuck Noll was even sued by Atkinson after the legendary head coach accused the defensive back of being part of the criminal element of the NFL.

I’m not saying the Steelers are innocent; they’ve obviously had their share of maniacs who have contributed to this 50-year rivalry between the black and gold and the silver and black. What I’m saying is that Lee likely spat first and deserves just as much of the public flogging as Turner has been on the receiving end of since Sunday.

Anyway, I don’t want to get into the Immaculate Reception or anything like that–Lord knows that gets brought up every time the two teams meet–but isn’t it nice to see that this rivalry is still so down and dirty after all of these years?

Maybe these two proud organizations will do it right and finally meet up in the postseason again.

That’s when the real spit (and blood and punches) will start flying.

 

 

 

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

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

Trayvon Mullen Jr. , Steelers vs Raiders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coaching
Mike Tomlin knows his team.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Raiders

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

2 Men Short Becomes 4 Man Short, in a Hurry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Offense Stuck in 2020

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

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

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

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

Failure on Fundamentals Catches Up with Steelers in 2nd Half

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there’s the rub.

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

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

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

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Steelers 2021 Preview: Roethlisberger’s Last Ride to be a Rough One?

The wait will soon end.

Its been 245 days since the Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns and a lot has happened since then. Some of it completely predictable, some of it surprising:

Through it all, Kevin Colbert managed once again to perform the salary cap equivalent of the Loaves and the Fishes. Thanks to COVID-19 the Steelers were facing their worst salary cap situation since 2012 and 2013, yet Colbert managed to put together a roster on paper that is far stronger than anyone had a right to expect on the lonely January night when Roethlisberger and Pouncey commiserated on the sidelines.

But the time for measuring roster moves on paper has ended and the time for judgement rendered on the gridiron is about to begin.

So what can we expect?

J.J. Watt, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Texans

J.J. Watt pressures Ben Roethlisberger in 2014. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

Roethlisberger’s Final Ride Likely a Rough One

Times like these force oneself to channel their inner Jesse Ventura and “Call it as I see it McMahon.” And the truth is that if this is Ben Roethlisberger’s last ride, it looks to be a rough one.

  • That’s not the call I want to make, but the one my eyes tell me I have to make.

Why?

First let’s consider what caused the Steeler once promising 2020 season to end in an unmitigated disaster:

  • Ben Roethlisberger inability to throw the long ball caught up with him.
  • The running game disappeared
  • Injuries ravaged the defense, neutering a dominant group

Word is that Ben Roethlisberger has recovered his long ball, but given his limited action in preseason we’ll simply have to wait to see if that comes true. The Steelers dumped Randy Fichtner and replaced him with Matt Canada, which should help. As for the defense and injuries, well let’s get to that.

When salary cap Armageddon loomed, the chief concerns for the Steelers were:

Can they preserve their pass rush?
Can they field a competitive secondary?
Can they rebuild the offensive line?

Let’s see where the Steelers stand on the eve of the 2021 season.

Pass Rush

So the Steelers lost Bud Dupree, but still have Alex Highsmith, resigned T.J. Watt and added Melvin Ingram. So, on paper that’s perhaps a net positive. However, Stephon Tuitt, who accounted for 11 sacks is beginning the season on injured reserve. And Tyson Alualu is also injured.

The Steelers should field a strong pass rush this year, but its doubtful they can field a better one.

Secondary

After years of being a liability, the Steelers secondary was finally a strength during the 2019 and 2020. Yet going into the 2021 off season, everyone expected a salary cap casualty to come out of the defensive backfield.

  • But few expected that casualty to be Steven Nelson instead of Joe Haden.

The Steelers plan was to go with Haden, Cameron Sutton, and James Pierre with Joe Haden and Antoine Brooks pushing as the 4th corner. Justin Layne got arrested and Brook got hurt. The Steelers sallied on during preseason, mixing and matching various configurations of their cornerbacks. Their final decision? They traded yet another draft pick for Ahkello Witherspoon.

Offensive Line

Let’s say this. No one can accuse the Steelers of standing pat on the offensive line. When the Steelers open against the Bills, Kelvin Dotson will be the only player working in the same place he was last season against the Giants.

  • But does change equal improvement?

That’s the bigger question. What isn’t a question is that this is another situation that did not evolve according to plan. Mike Tomlin’s idea was to start is experienced tackles Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor on the right and left sides. But Banner got hurt and left tackle proved to be too much for Okorafor.

Dan Moore’s performance has elicited nothing but positive commentary since he was drafted in the third round, but rookies starting a left tackle in the NFL are rare.

As it stands, on opening day the Steelers will start 2 rookies on offensive line, one sophomore who literally looks like a “rising sophomore,” a veteran who was unemployed in late June and veteran who is back at right tackle after not being able to cut it on the left side.

It might work. But would you bet your 401(k) balance on it?

Wimp Out Disclaimer

After writing 753 of gloom and doom its now time for the “Wimp Out Disclaimer.”

The red and yellow flag flying above the Steelers offensive line, secondary and pass rush are real but so has Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s reaction to them. When it became clear that Banner’s injury issues weren’t going away and Okorafor struggled, the Steelers started working Dan Moore into the line up.

The first thought here was that Mike Tomlin was planning to use Moore the way he used Kelvin Beachum in 2013, roating him in on both sides to push both starters. But Tomlin didn’t do that. He made the change immediately.

You can see a similar pattern elsewhere, from signing Melvin Ingram, to trading for Joe Schobert, to trading for Witherspoon.

The fact that the Steelers brass felt they needed to make these moves is worrisome, but their willingness to act decisively is encouraging.

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

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

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

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers vs Lions Preseason

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

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

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

  • So how did he do?

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

  • Throwing down field as more of a mixed bag.

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

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

2. Too Early to Worry about the Run Defense?

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

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

3. Welcome to Pittsburgh Paty Freiermuth

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

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

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

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

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

4. Kalen Ballage Secures Backup Slot

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Glad You’re Still Here JuJu

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

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

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

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Soft in the Middle No More? Steelers Trade for Joe Schobert

Sensing weakness, Kevin Colbert has traded for Jaguars inside linebacker Joe Schobert in exachage for a 6th round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The importance of this development should not be underestimated. A quick look at history drives this point home.

Joe Schobert. Steelers vs Browns, Mason Rudolph

Joe Schobert sacks Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: John Kuntz, Cleveland.com

The Importance of the Center of the Steelers Defense

Before he left Pittsburgh, former defensive coordinator Tim Lewis told Jim Wexell that the strength of the Steelers 3-4 defense runs through its center. Meaning, that when the nose tackle, inside linebacking and safety must be stout for the rest of the unit to excel.

The first trio solidified the Steelers as contenders in the 1990’s, while the second trio dominated as Champions in the 00’s.

The game has evolved in the last decade to the point where the Steelers are in their “base” defense less and less. But that doesn’t make the center of the unit less important. When Ryan Shazier went down in 2017 with Mike Mitchell already faltering and Javon Hargrave hurt for the playoffs things went south fast (see the Jaguars game).

  • In 2020 history repeated itself.

A lot of things went wrong for the Steelers down the stretch in 2020. Everyone focuses on Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles and while that’s understandable, the defense was struggling just as badly.

By the time of the road loss to the Bengals, the Steelers were down to Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen at inside linebacker, their 4th and 5th string inside linebackers.

  • The Steelers added quantity at inside linebacker in the off season.

But quality took a hit when Vince Williams retired. And there’ve been signs that the plan to go with Robert Spillane, Marcus Allen, rookie Buddy Johnson and “veteran” Ulysees Gilbert III was faltering. As Mark Kabloy in observed in The Athletic that the Steelers have drilled the inside linebackers on covering back and tight ends extensively in camp, concluding, “If it is drilled that much, the Steelers must realize it’s an issue.”

Apparently, the experiment has been replicated enough to convince Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert that the answer lay outside of the Steelers locker room.

The Skinny on Joe Schobert

The Cleveland Browns drafted Joe Schobert in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He led the league in tackles and earned Pro Bowl honors in 2017. He transformed that resume into a handsome payday in 2020 when he signed a 5 year, $53.7 million dollar contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Last year for the Jaguars he started 16 games, had 3 interceptions including a pick six, forced 2 fumbles and registered 2.5 sacks.

  • With that production a 6th round pick seems like a pittance to bring him to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers are well acquainted with Schobert. He’s suited up against them 8 times for both the Browns and the Jaguars and made Pittsburgh pay, pulling down 2 interceptions, batting away 6 passes, recovered 2 fumbles, recorded a sack while making 64 tackles.

Jim Wexell reminds us that prior to last year’s game against the Jaguars, Mike Tomlin admitted, “He’s gotten after us in the past. He beat us last year, quite frankly, in Cleveland. He was a significant component of that.”

Schobert did a number of the Steelers in infamous Body Bag game in November 2019, as the above photo of him sacking Mason Rudolph can attest. One has to wonder why the Jaguars were so ready to part with such a player so easily.

Schobert Instead of Watt?

In terms of salary cap ramifications, Joe Schobert will make $7 million this season, according to Spotrac.com and he has he has three years and 29.75 million remaining for 2022-24. While that’s not an exorbitant amount of money to pay for a veteran inside linebacker, the Steelers have limited salary cap space, and are still trying to resign T.J. Watt.

One has to wonder if the addition of Schobert today doesn’t signal a franchise tag for Watt next spring. Let’s hope not.

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Steelers Sign Melvin Ingram, Shoring Up Depth at Outside Linebacker

On the eve of training camp the Steelers moved to shore up a major weakness on their depth chart by signing free agent outside linebacker Melvin Ingram.

  • The Steelers signed Ingram to a 1 year deal for an as yet to be disclosed figure.

Coming out of South Carolina, the San Diego Chargers drafted Melvin Ingram with the 18th pick in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. The Chargers sent Ingram’s name to the podium six picks before the Steelers selected David DeCastro, and ironically it is DeCastro’s departure that paved the way for the signing.

At outside linebacker the Steelers have T.J. Watt, whom they’re looking to lock down to a long term deal, and 2nd year player Alex Highsmith. During free agency Pittsburgh lost Bud Dupree and Olasunkanmi Adeniyi leaving them with journey man Cassius Marsh and 6th round draft pick Quincy Roche.

Melvin Ingram, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Chargers

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

Who is Melvin Ingram?

Melvin Ingram is a 3 time Pro Bowler and has played his entire career for the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers. During that time he has started 96 games and participated in 113 games. His resume includes two 10.5 sack seasons and has made a total of 49 sacks in his career.

He has also logged 3 interceptions forced 14 fumbles and made 70 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Injuries limited Ingram in his 2nd and 3rd years in the league, but then he remained relatively healthy starting 16 games for 4 straight seasons, until missing 3 games in 2019.

A knee injury landed Ingram on the injured reserve list twice in 2020 and it was his least productive of his career.

Like Trai Turner, the guard the Steelers signed to replace David DeCastro, Ingram was looking for a job for a reason. However, he gives the Steelers experienced depth where they need it the most.

Defensive Back Next? Doubtful

If outside linebacker was unquestionably the Steelers thinnest slot of the depth chart, cornerback was second. The Steelers have Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton, but after that they’re limited to James Pierre and Justin Layne.

While the Steelers could use a boost of either quantity or quality at cornerback, the only way they’re likely to get one is via the waiver wire.

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News Flash Steelers Nation: Players Staying in Shape During Off Season Isn’t “News”

It appears we’ve reached the point of the Steelers offseason that I like to refer to as “Putting in the Work.”

The reason I say that is because of the endless amount of videos that pop up on social media in May, June and July of Steelers players hard at work at the gym and/or at some high school field. They’re squatting, lifting, sprinting, doing those cone drills, etc., etc.

  • The fans eat it up and post comments such as, “Get some!” “My man!” and, of course, “(Insert player here) is putting in the work!”

 

James Harrison, James Harrison workout, James Harrison weight room

Former Steelers linebacker James Harrison. Photo Credit: Stack.com

 

Just in the past few weeks or so, we’ve learned that second-year player, Alex Highsmith, has added a few pounds of muscle during the offseason in an effort to, among other things, rise to the occasion and capitalize on his great opportunity to win the starting job at outside linebacker, opposite T.J. Watt. Also, Marcus Allen, the former Penn State safety, has been hard at work at the gym, bulking up for his now seemingly permanent role as an inside linebacker.

I can go on and on with these examples; they’re endless and everywhere. Just about every player has some version of “Putting in the work” posted on some social media platform.

I could be wrong, but I believe Antonio Brown was one of the first well-known professional athletes to promote his workouts on social media.

Nobody seemed to be more dedicated to his craft than Brown, but maybe that was just the perception that we got thanks to him being such a tireless self-promoter. I obviously can’t speak on the dedication of all Steelers players, but I think it’s safe to assume that most have always been serious about “putting in the work.” Much like a lot of things in life, these days–including what your friends just had for dinner — we are more aware of the dedication of professional athletes thanks to the advent of social media.

Speaking of social media, the non-football activities of Steelers players often come under great scrutiny the moment they either screw up in a game or their team simply loses one. JuJu Smith-Schuster, a social media self-promoter if there ever was one, has come under fire in recent years for his “lack of focus and/or discipline” due to supposedly worrying more about furthering his brand and TikTok dancing than being dedicated to his craft. However, this was the same man who hired a trainer last offseason and put himself through hell, training twice a day for six days a week in preparation for the 2020 regular season.

  • Smith-Schuster transformed his body and looked more linebacker than receiver by the time the season started.

Yet, by the end of the year, the only thing people wanted to focus on was his logo dancing and TikTok videos, as if they were totally sapping his ability to concentrate on the football field.

Do you think anyone who can add about 10 pounds of muscle is going to let his off-the-field “playtime” distract him during a game? Furthermore, do you think his teammates, players who, like Smith-Schuster, dedicate hours to conditioning their bodies for the rigors of professional football, are going to allow themselves to be distracted by some tweet or a reporter’s question about said tweet?

  • That was a rhetorical question.

The NFL is a serious business (often too serious, in my opinion), and if a player isn’t “putting in the work” at the gym, the high school field or even the meeting room, it’s going to show up during a game. These are the elite of the elite. Even the guy sitting at the end of the bench must totally dedicate himself to his craft if he wants to keep earning a paycheck every week.

I don’t know when it became a thing that a player must focus on football 24/7/365 in order to succeed (certainly the days of Ray Mansfield taking a job as a substitute teacher to make ends meet in the off season are long gone), but that’s apparently what many fans and even a lot of media members think. It’s obviously impossible to commit yourself to your profession every second of every day, but you better believe the vast majority of athletes devote more than enough time to theirs.

Do a lot of them play video games and have fun on social media? Of course. Does it mean they’re not committed to what they do for a living? Of course not.

If you truly think that you can step on an NFL field without the proper amount of dedication and preparation, perhaps you should be committed…to an institution.

 

 

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