Its Too Early for Results, but Steelers Strategy in 2021 NFL Draft was Sound

After months of speculation, mock drafts, rumors, Pro Day visits and Zoom interviews, the 2021 NFL Draft has finally come and gone.

  • The Steelers newest draft class is complete.

It’s obviously still too early to know how any of these NFL trainees will do, but it’s more than acceptable to talk about the approach the Steelers took in procuring their latest batch of players.

  • So, what grade would I give Pittsburgh’s strategy?

How about an A? Too strong? OK, what about a “Thumbs Up”? Is that too wishy-washy? Should I have gone with “Two Thumps Up”? Too strong, like I’m fully endorsing every pick?

  • Fine, how about a smiley face? Does that work? It does? Good.
Najee Harris, Steelers 2021 First Round Draft Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 1st round pick Najee Harris. Photo Credit: MC NFL

Like it often does, the Steelers’ latest draft had a theme: Starters. It was no surprise that the organization went into this past weekend’s extravaganza in search of multiple players who could possibly start as early as Week 1 of the 2021 regular season. The only question was, which positions would Pittsburgh prioritize first? Or, maybe it wasn’t the positions so much as specific players. Or, perhaps the team would emphasize both positions and players who could help improve a certain area.

The Steelers told us something with their first three selections: they want to improve the ground game, and they want to find players who can fit into new offensive coordinator, Matt Canada’s scheme.

After the selections of running back Najee Harris in the first round (24th, overall), tight end Pat Freiermuth in the second round (55th, overall) and guard/center Kendrick Green in the third round (87th, overall), I must say, mission accomplished.

Harris was the best running back on the board by most accounts; not only was he productive at Alabama — Harris was the school’s all-time leading rusher with 3,843 yards — he’s the type of versatile three-down back who can fit well in Canada’s dynamic offense.

As for Freiermuth, he’s the kind of in-line tight end who can take the place of the recently-retired Vance McDonald. While Freiermuth isn’t quite the ferocious, old-school blocker Heath Miller was back in the day, he has potential. But it’s as a pass-catching threat where Freiermuth, who is a great athlete and loves to punish defenders, can truly be valuable. Since Canada’s offense calls for a lot of 12 personnel packages (aka two-tight end sets), the Steelers will need a talented in-line tight end who can contribute right away. Freiermuth has the potential to be that.

Kendrick Green, Steelers 3rd round pick 2021

Kendrick Green has Matt Robinson’s back. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Tribune-Review

Then, of course, there’s Kendrick Green, a mean (in the best sense), nasty and physical lineman who relishes blocking for the run and is quite the athlete (he was clocked at a 4.85 at his Pro Day in March). While Freiermuth was dubbed “Baby Gronk” during his days at Happy Valley, in Green, it looks like Pittsburgh may have found the nephew that the recently-retired Maurkice Pouncey didn’t know he had.

In all seriousness, Green sort of looks like Pouncey; he definitely plays like him. He even wore the No. 53 at Illinois. Green was the third-straight player the Steelers drafted over the weekend who has a golden opportunity to walk into training camp and immediately find himself at the top of the depth chart.

It’s less likely that a team finds even future starters once it gets past the first three rounds of a draft. But in tackle Dan Moore Jr., fourth round, Texas A&M; inside linebacker Buddy Johnson, fourth round, Texas A&M; and outside linebacker Quincy Roche, sixth round, Miami, the Steelers picked up three players who could develop into major contributors — and even starters.

Again, it’s early. The draft is an inexact science, and it’s rare for a team to find more than a couple of major contributors from any particular class. All an organization can do is select quality players at positions of need and trust in their ability to scout, coach and develop.

The Steelers almost always take a sound approach to the annual draft.

2021 was no different.

 

 

 

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Steelers Draft Pat Freiermuth, 2nd Round 2021, as Nittany Lion Return to Tight End Depth Chart

Well, I guess we know why the Steelers didn’t sign Jesse James, although its clear that someone on the South Side was had their ear tuned to the purr of the Nittnay Lions.

One night after playing it strictly by the book in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Steelers departed from the script and drafted Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth with their second pick.

  • Well, maybe that’s a little strong. The move should not come as a surprise, as tight end is a clear area of need.

Our Steelers Draft Needs Matrix rated it a 4th level priority, and staff writer Tony Defeo marked tight end even higher at High need. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Gerry Dulac went as far as to suggest the Steelers would draft Pat Freiermuth.

Still the expectation was that the Steelers would stick to the offensive line during round two, drafting either a center or an offensive tackle. However, two of the tackles Pittsburgh purportedly coveted were off the board before they could pick, and Kevin Colbert stuck to his pledge not to sacrifice draft picks to move up.

Steelers tight end coach Alfredo Roberts explained the decision to pick Freiermuth: “He’s going to be a kind of throwback tight end. He can play different positions, do multiple things. His position flexibility will allow us to do a lot of different things.”

And the Steelers do need a tight end who can “do a lot of different things.”

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers second round draft pick 2021

Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth out foxing Maryland defenders. Photo Credit Abby Drey, via Central Daily

Pat Freiermuth Video Highlights

At 6-5, 251 pound and having worn 87 for Penn State, Pat Freiermuth certainly fits the bill of a two way, throwback tight end. Here’s a look at his tape.

He certainly has good hands and definitely does not shy away from after the catch contact. Doing it in the NFL won’t be quite as easy as it was doing it in the NCAA, but he offers a lot of promise. It would be nice to see video on his blocking, but I guess that doesn’t generated page views.

How Pat Freiermuth Fits into the Steelers Scheme

Vance McDonald, Chris Conte, Vance McDonald stiff arm Chris Conte, Steelers va Buccaneers

Vance McDonald stiff arms Chris Conte into oblivion. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

The Steelers have been wandering in the wilderness at tight end since Heath Miller. Heath Miller was a picture of dependability in the passing game, a strong blocker and a quiet force who led by example in the locker room.

Since Miller departed, Pittsburgh has thrown money at Ladarius Green, whose ankle and concussion injuries limited him to a handful of games and qualified him as one of the Steelers all-time free agent busts.

They traded for Vance McDonald, who was injured most of his first year in Pittsburgh. Vance McDonald had a strong season in 2018, was inconsistent in 2019, and used sporadically in 2020. Things got so bad in 2019 that Kevin Colbert had to trade for Nick Vannett and Mike Tomlin started him that very week. (Nick Vannett played well in that first game, then disappeared.)

For a while there, it looked liked Xavier Grimble might have worked himself up from the practice squad to a competent number 2 tight end, but that was not to be either.

They signed Eric Ebron as a free agent last spring, and while Ebron did some nice things, particularly in the Red Zone, his blocking skills are non-existent and he had trouble holding on to the ball. As for Zach Gentry he hasn’t done much other than get injured.

Suffice to say, Pat Freiermuth doesn’t even need to complete the run test at St. Vincents to immediately upgrade the Steelers depth chart at tight end.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Pat Freiermuth.

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Steelers in Tight Spot @ Tight End Heading into 2021 NFL Draft

The Steelers entered 2020 in great shape at the tight end position, thanks to the free-agent signing of veteran Eric Ebron. But after the sudden retirement of Vance McDonald this offseason, what kind of shape is Pittsburgh in at tight end heading into the 2021 NFL Draft?

Eric Ebron, Steelers vs Colts

Eric Ebron scores a touchdown in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

The Steelers Draft Needs at Tight End: The Starters

A number-one choice by the Lions in 2014, Ebron spent his first four seasons in Detroit before signing with the Colts as a free agent in 2018. After two years in Indianapolis, Ebron signed a two-year deal with the Steelers last March.

At 6’4″ and 253 pounds, Ebron didn’t come to Pittsburgh as a traditional Steelers tight end in the mold of a Heath Miller, but he certainly appeared to be their most explosive talent at the position since perhaps the days of Eric Green. Ebron caught 56 passes for 558 yards and five touchdowns a year ago.

However, he did have his share of drops and was one of the league leaders in that category. There was speculation early in the offseason that Ebron would be a cap casualty, but he restructured his deal and will return for 2021 as the team’s only proven commodity at the position.

The Steelers Draft Needs at Tight End: The Backups

Zach Gentry, the fifth-round pick out of Michigan in 2019 NFL Draft, has barely made a dent as an NFL player over his first two seasons. To put that in perspective, he has as many season-ending injuries as he does receptions (one). The same can be said for Kevin Rader, Charles Jones and Dax Raymond, former UDFAs who round out Pittsburgh’s tight end depth chart.

The Steelers Draft Needs at Tight End

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftAgain, Eric Ebron is the lone returning starter. And while Ebron brings his assets to the offense, particularly in the Red Zone, his blocking leaves a lot to be desired (and that’s being generous.)

With nobody even remotely ready to take McDonald’s place atop the depth chart, the tight end position is one the Steelers really need to invest in during the 2021 NFL Draft.

After Kyle Pitts, Florida’s highly-rated prospect, there doesn’t appear to be another tight end the Steelers could realistically take in the first round. But considering they didn’t address the position with even a journeyman free-agent signing, they should certainly make tight end a priority in one of the next two rounds.

No matter how you split it, the Steelers needs at tight end heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered High

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Ben Roethlisberger “Took One for the Team.” 3 Things Steelers Nation Learned

Ben Roethlisberger took one for the team. Making good on his pledge to do what was necessary for the Steelers to field a competitive team in 2021, the veteran starting Steelers quarterback agreed to a pay cut to the tune of about 5 million dollars and in doing so he is saving Pittsburgh 15 million dollars in salary cap space due to “voidable years.”

  • Ben will be back. The biggest question of the Steelers off season has been settled.

Now, what does it mean and what have we learned? Let’s find out.

Ben Roethlisberger, Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Saints, Coin Toss

Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

1. Big Ben is a Team Player After All

While this wasn’t the “Ben put his money where his mouth is” and take the veteran minimum salary to return scenario outlined here a few weeks ago, but this is nothing to sneeze at.

  • “Oh, but wait, he’s already cashed $253 million checks from Dan and Art Rooney.” Yes he has.

When was the last time you gave up $5 million dollars? Perhaps better yet, when was the last time you went to your boss and said, “You know what? I’ll take 5 thousand dollars less this year so that you can give raises to the rest of the team. ” Yeah, I’ve never done that either. Enough said.

Ben Roethlisberger gave back 5 million dollars, 5 million that almost certainly go to resigning other players in the Steelers locker room. Ben does have his faults, he might not be a perfect team player, but he’s a team player.

2. The Steelers Relationship with Roethlisberger is Changing

One of the more interesting and disturbing narratives circulating around Steelers Nation has been that Ben Roethlisberger is somehow hostile to running the ball and insists on running an offense that sees him throw the ball 50 times a game.

Those criticisms were legitimate and by definition debunk the “Ben is anti-run” argument. But that doesn’t change the fact that Ben Roethlisberger has had a lot of say in how the offense has been run. He’s had a lot of autonomy, perhaps too much autonomy. He forced Todd Haley out and Randy Fichtner was hired in part to keep him happy.

Matt Canada’s promotion to offensive coordinator was a sign that this is likely changing. And the fact that the Steelers made no bones about the fact that Ben Roethlisberger would need to bend to meet their needs says a lot.

What says more is that the contract contains voidable years, which in pure business terms means this is a one year deal.

3. Salary Cap Hell Likely Becomes Salary Cap Purgatory

Between the retirements of Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald, Cam Heyward’s restructure and Ben Roethlisberger’s pay cut, the Steelers now are under the projected salary cap of 280 million dollars.
That’s good, but the team only has 33 players under contract for 2021.

More work, in the form of restructures, or perhaps moves to waive veterans such as Vince Williams, remains to be done. Resigning Bud Dupree likely means that other teams will shy away form his torn ACL. JuJu Smith-Schuster won’t be back either.

But the specter of the Steelers fielding an opening day roster that features multiple undrafted rookie free agents starting appears to have been averted.

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Tracker – Pittsburgh Navigates Rough Waters

2013’s Steelers Free Agent Focus article started with a quote and a clip from the Dark Knight Rises. The Steelers were coming off of an 8-8 finish, their first no-winning effort of the Tomlin years, and Kevin Colbert had committed to change. Moreover, the Steelers were in salary cap purgatory, forcing them to attempt addition by subtraction.

  • While the context is different this year, the Steelers salary cap situation is actually worse.

So perhaps a stroll down memory lane is in order:

There’s a storm coming Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches.

The final number of the 2021 NFL salary cap remains undefined. Its floor is 180 million and some suspect it could go up by 2 or 3 million more. The Steelers need every penny they get, having planned for a salary cap of a about 220 million.

Thanks to Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald’s retirements, Cam Heyward‘s contract restructure, Ben Roethlisberger’s new contract that gives the Steelers an additonal 15 million dollars in salary cap space this year, the Steelers might not need to cut players just to get into compliance.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Steelers 2021 Free Agents

JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner in September 22, at Levi Stadium. Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

So fortunately, life will not imitate art here: They’ll be no literal blowing up of the Steelers roster to mimic the cinematic destruction of Heinz Field.

  • But the Steelers have a horrendously long list of free agents, and must say good bye to far too many of them for comfort.

Free agency is almost here and staff writer Tony Defeo and I are doing profiles of each player.

Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus Profiles

Bud Dupree, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
– Signs with Tennessee Titans, 3/15/2021
J.C. Hassenauer, Center, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Hassenauer to 1 year deal, 3/09/21
Robert Spillane, Inside Linebacker, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Robert Spillane to one year deal, 3/12/21
Ray-Ray McCloud, Wide Receiver/Returner, Restricted Free Agent
– Steelers sign McCloud to 1 year deal, 3/11/21
Ola Adeniyi, Outside Linebacker, Restricted Free Agent
– Steelers decline to offer RFA tender to Adeniyi
Marcus Allen, Safety/Inside Linebacker, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Marcus Allen to 1 year deal, 3/09/21
James Conner, Running Back, Unrestricted Free Agent
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Reciever, Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers resign JuJu for 1 year contract, 3/19/21
Cam Sutton, Cornerback Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers Resign Cam Sutton, 3/15/21
Alejandro Villanueva, Offensive Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Zach Banner, Offensive Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers resign Zach Banner to 2 year deal, 3/17/2021
Matt Feiler, Offensive Guard/Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Jordan Dangerfield, Safety/special teams, Unrestricted Free Agent
Sean Davis, Safety, Unrestricted Free Agent
Jayrone Elliot, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
Tyson Alualu, Nose Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Signs 2 year deal with Steelers, 3/27/21
Avery Williamson, Inside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback, Unrestricted Free Agent
Mike Hilton, Cornerback, Unrestricted Free Agent
– Signs contract with Bengals, 3/18/21
Chris Wromley, Defensive Tackle, Unrestricted free agent
– Signs 2 year contract with Steelers, 3/22/21
Cassius Marsh, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted free agent
– Signs 1 year contract with Steelers, 3/24/21

Here is the list of Steelers free agents we’ve yet to profile:

2021 Unrestricted Free Agents

Jerald Hawkins, Offensive Tackle
Danny Isidora, Guard
Jordan Berry, Punter

With his back against the wall, Kevin Colbert did a respectable job at managing the Steelers free agency situation and put together a decent opening day roster. However, injuries would ravage that roster where it could least afford them, leading to a 2-6.

That 2-6 start however led to a 6-2 finish, which set the franchise up for its second, albeit failed Super Bowl run of the Roethlisberger era. But many of those personnel moves set the team up for its late season comeback.

Can Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, and Mike Tomlin do something along those lines that allows the Steelers to contend for a Super Bowl in 2021?

The odds are against it, but try they will, and we will cover it as they do.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Should Steelers Sign J.J. Watt? No, They Must Address More Pressing Needs

J.J. Watt, one of the faces of the NFL and the best player in the history of the Houston Texans’ franchise, was released by the team on Friday per Watt’s request.

If you’re a Steelers fan, that likely means you want Pittsburgh to bring Watt to town so he can be reunited with his younger brothers, T.J. Watt and Derek Watt.

  • Would it make sense for the Steelers to sign Watt? Duh.

He’s a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and while he’s clearly already played his best football, at 31, Watt is the same age as Cam Heyward and appears to have some good years left. But would it work schematically? I don’t know much, but I do know that any defensive coach worth his salt BETTER make Watt fit into his system. Otherwise, he probably shouldn’t be a defensive coach in the NFL.

  • Of course, J.J. Watt would be a great fit for the Steelers defense.

For that matter, the eldest Watt brother would be a great fit for Pittsburgh and would arguably be the biggest sports star in town the moment he arrived.

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

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

In terms of charisma, T.J., someone who seems to be more James Harrison than he is Joey Porter, pales in comparison to his big brother. No, J.J. would be great for the Steelers and Steeler Nation…in theory.

But there is the matter of finding the creative financing to make such a deal work. As you know, the Steelers find themselves firmly in salary cap hell and are still millions above the projected number for 2021, this despite only having 30-plus players under contract.

Team president Art Rooney II has already stated that the Steelers can’t have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back for 2021 under his current deal. At first, it appeared that a simple restructuring, something the Steelers’ executives have become experts at, would be the compromise between team and player. Now, it appears that the smart money is on Roethlisberger agreeing to take less money if he wants to come back next year.

If the Steelers figure all that out with their aging franchise quarterback and are able to free up enough cap space to sign J.J. Watt, why not use that money to address more pressing areas of the team?

For example, if the Steelers could get J.J. Watt to sign with them for $10 million a year, couldn’t they convince Tyson Alualu, a pending free agent, to stay in Pittsburgh for much less? The Steelers would still have a more than formidable defensive line and, oh yes, they could perhaps use that extra money to sign slot corner Mike Hilton.

  • What about signing another tight end in free agency following the retirement of Vance McDonald?

Speaking of retirements, long-time center Maurkice Pouncey finally announced his on Friday after 11 mostly glorious years. Pouncey’s departure weakens an offensive line that was already in decline. Wouldn’t it be smarter to use that J.J. Watt money to shore up the center position?

There could be other factors involved, don’t get me wrong. Maybe Pittsburgh feels the need to lure J.J. to town just so it will be easier to lock T.J. into a lock-term deal when the time finally comes.

  • Finally, I hate to call a player of J.J. Watt’s caliber and legacy a luxury signing, but I think his addition to the team would be just that.

The Steelers have more pressing needs than another great defensive lineman. If they’re going to open up a new line of credit in the form of contract restructurings and player releases, perhaps they should use it more responsibly.

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After Offense Goes South, Steelers Hire Matt Canada as Offensive Coordinator

Mike Tomlin wasted little time in dismissing offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner following the Steelers “Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic” playoff debacle against Cleveland. Fichtner’s bags were not even packed before reports circulated that Mike Tomlin was going to replace him with quarterbacks coach Matt Canada.

  • Days passed, and Canada didn’t get the job, instead interviewing in Miami.

The Steelers interviewed former Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and then San Diego er um Los Angeles Chargers quarterback coach Pep Hamilton, but ultimately hired Canada. The timing seemed a bit odd, and as Ed Bouchette of The Athletic suggested it was almost like the Steelers forgot they needed to obey the Rooney Rule when making the hire.

Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Canada

Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Canada. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Matt Canada Inherits an Offense in Free Fall

A year ago Mike Tomlin opted to re-fill the slot of quarterbacks coach that had been vacated when he promoted Randy Fichtner to offensive coordinator, replacing Todd Haley. At the time, speculation abounded as to Matt Canada’s role.

Matt Canada was known for his use of motion, play action and Jet sweeps during his stops at Pitt, the University of Maryland, Northern Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, elements which were not part of Fichtner’s offense.

He was also widely seen as being brought in to mentor Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges, Paxton Lynch and ultimately Joshua Dobbs who returned via the waiver wire.

How he would relate to Ben Roethlisberger was an open question. Roethlisberger has enjoyed wide-spread autonomy in the running the offense and prefers to play under center and does not like to execute play action.

Early on, Matt Canada’s influence was evident in the jet sweeps that players like Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool ran. And word was that Ben Roethlisberger was seen practicing his footwork under the tutelage of Matt Canada.

David DeCastro, James Conner, Steelers vs Falcons

David DeCastro obliterates a hapless Falcons defender. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Whether it was due to Canada’s influence or the lack thereof, the Steelers offense which had started of strong in September and October, sputtered in November and ultimately went completely south in December.

  • Matt Canada has his work cut out for him as offensive coordinator.

If Ben Roethlisberger returns, he needs to design an offense around a 39 year old quarterback who is seeing his mobility leave him and struggles to throw the long ball. A Roethlisberger return will also force him to build an offense without the services of veterans like James Conner, Alejandro Villanueva, the retired Vance McDonald and JuJu Smith-Schuster are all but certain to flee as free agents. Other starters such as Eric Ebron and David DeCastro could also become salary cap casualties.

And Maurkice Pouncey, a perennial Pro Bowler, is said to be ready to retire.

Steelers Replace James Daniel with Alfredo Roberts as Tight Ends Coach

The Steelers replaced recently retired tight ends coach James Daniels with Alfredo Roberts who most recently coached with the San Diego er um Los Angeles Chargers. Roberts had also coached running backs for the Chargers and prior to that had coached for the Jaguars, Browns, Buccaneers and Colts.

The Steelers still must hire an offensive line coach and possibly a quarterbacks coach.

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Steelers 2020 Season Final Report Card: Summer Started Too Soon Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Washington, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, f bomb

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


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

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

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

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

  • Injuries ultimately doomed this defense.

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

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

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Steelers Vance McDonald Retires: Tight End Wasn’t Great, but He Beat the Odds

Steelers’ tight end Vance McDonald announced his retirement from the NFL on Friday after eight seasons.

Vance McDonald, who came to Pittsburgh in 2017 via trade, was a second-round pick by the 49ers in the 2013 NFL Draft. Big, fast and athletic, McDonald seemed to fit the mold of that Rob Gronkowski-type tight end that had become all the rage, the kind of matchup problem that had given the Steelers’ defense fits for years.

Vance McDonald, Chris Conte, Vance McDonald stiff arm Chris Conte, Steelers va Buccaneers

Vance McDonald stiff arms Chris Conte into oblivion. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

The emergence of George Kittle, a fifth-round pick in 2017, made Vance McDonald expendable to the 49ers, while less-than-desirable performances by their tight ends during that summer’s training camp made McDonald desirable to the Steelers. It also didn’t hurt that McDonald had just recently inked a deal with the 49ers and would be under Pittsburgh’s control for a few years.

Unfortunately for McDonald and the Steelers, he never quite realized his full potential during the entirety of his eight-year career but especially his four seasons in Pittsburgh.

Sure, he showed flashes, like on Monday Night Football in Week 3 of the 2018 campaign when he stiff-armed Buccaneers’ defensive back Chris Conte into retirement in the Steelers MNF win. Here it is again:

 

After an injury-plagued first season with the Steelers, McDonald’s stiff arm actually signaled his best year in 2018, as he caught 50 passes for 610 yards and four touchdowns. He and Ben Roethlisberger seemed to be developing the kind of rapport that the veteran quarterback had been longing for from a tight end since his buddy, Heath Miller, retired a few years earlier.

Sadly for McDonald, Roethlisberger’s elbow injury prevented the on-field relationship with his quarterback from developing further in 2019. As for 2020? With only 15 catches for 99 yards, McDonald was barely a factor in the passing game, even with a returning Roethlisberger, who seemed to fancy a new tight end, free agent pick-up, Eric Ebron.

  • For his career, McDonald caught just 181 passes for 2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns.

It’s sad for the Steelers that McDonald never morphed into their version of Gronk, but kudos to him for beating the odds.

  • That’s what any NFL player who lasts in the league for nearly a decade does, ya know?

According to the NFLPA, the average length of an NFL career is 3.3 years. Not only did McDonald beat the odds on the field, but he also beat them in a financial sense. According to Spotrac.com, McDonald made over $28 million during his eight-year career. That’s not chump change, especially for a profession that often chews people up and spits them out before they can start making any serious money (by NFL standards, of course).

McDonald never made his mark in the NFL. He wasn’t an all-time great. He wasn’t even an all-time Steeler. But he’s now 30 years old and, assuming he makes sound financial decisions moving forward, is set for life.

It’s hard to say what motivates NFL players when they first get into the league, but it’s the kind of business that is always looking to replace them if they can’t meet a certain standard. It’s highly competitive. It’s dog-eat-dog. Most don’t last. Even fewer profit from it.

Vance McDonald did both during his eight seasons in the NFL. Good for him. Good for any player who has that kind of career.

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Steelers Report Card for Wild Card Loss to Browns: F for the Final Exam Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher sorely disappointed to see his students fall completely flat on their faces in the final exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Wild Card Loss to the Browns.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and James Conner after Maurkice Pouency’s high snap. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via The Altoona Times.

Quarterback
To borrow from Jim Wexell’s number crunching, after his 3rd interception, Ben Roethlisberger went 38-51-3-1 for 435 yards. The problem is that those 3 interceptions led to 3 Browns touchdowns on top of the 1 gifted to them at the game’s start. And his 4th interception killed any chance of a comeback. Big Ben simply didn’t get it done. Grade: FSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
52 yards total rushing reads as damning epitaph to a historically bad rushing year. But really, when you start the game down 28-0 before the 1st quarter is over you don’t exactly lean on your running game even if you have Jerome Bettis in your backfield. Benny Snell looked good on his two carries. Derrik Watt actually got a carry and converted a 1st down. His second time he had no room to run. James Conner played his heart out and willed himself to that final 2 point conversion. Still, he like Roethlisberger failed to jump on the errant snap and that cost the team dearly. Grade: D

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron caught 7 passes, at least four of which created and/or converted 1st downs. Vance McDonald, after a strong performance late in the season, only saw the ball thrown his way twice. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
James Washington played his heart out catching 5 of six balls thrown his way, going 4 for 4 on the Steelers first score. Chase Claypool 5 catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns might seem pedestrian, but he historical expectations for a Steelers rookie wide out in the playoffs. Diontae Johnson showed that he can be special with his 11 catches for 117 yards. But he dropped a high, but catchable pass that led to Ben Roethlisberger’s 2nd interception which set up 21-0. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked and was only hit 4 times. To the extent that the running game was a factor, the running backs had some room to run. Yet, the line got ZERO push on the second 3rd and 1 hand off to Derek Watt. A conversion certainly would have helped. The bottom line is the opening snap sailed way over Roethlisberger’s head and things snowballed thereafter. It was exactly the wrong error at the absolute worst time. Grade: F

Sheldrick Redwine, Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron, Steelers wild card Browns

Jan 10, 2021; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cleveland Browns strong safety Sheldrick Redwine (29) returns an interception against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first quarter of an AFC Wild Card playoff game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Line
Baker Mayfield wasn’t hit the entire night and the only reason why Browns running backs didn’t put up dominating numbers is that Cleveland didn’t run more. Given that Cam Heyward was going up against an offensive lineman who hadn’t even met his head coach, one would expect more. Grade: F

Linebackers
T.J. Watt made a couple of nice plays at scrimmage but failed to pressure the passer. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles but got burned by Jarvis Landry – something which might not have been his fault. The Browns got to the 2nd level and then some throughout the night and the linebackers were part of the problem. Grade: F

Secondary
The Steelers offense gave Baker Mayfield a short field to start the game – to say the least – an Mayfield treated it like the Turkey Shoot in the Marianas (Google it.) Terrell Edmunds deflected a pass. As did Cam Sutton and James Pierre. But really that’s window dressing. But Browns recievers and running backs ran through the Steelers secondary with reckless abandon almost all night. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell made his one field goal attempt and connected on his two PATs. Jordan Berry punted well enough, but his 59 punt was a touch back when the Steelers needed to pin the Browns down. The Browns averaged 27 yards on kick returns and had an 8 yard punt return. Hardly devastating numbers, but below the line none the less. Ray-Ray McCloud put up decent return numbers, but they were nothing special. A big special teams play at any number of points could have shifted the momentum. The Steelers needed that and didn’t get it. Grade: C-

Jarvis Landry, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns wild card

Jarvis Landry puts the Browns up 14-0. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Coaching
Let’s address the 3 main issues with the coaching right off of the bat.

First, the decision to punt on 4th and 1 at the Steelers 46 looks weak in hindsight. But consider:

  • The Steelers offense had just logged 3 straight scoring drives
  • Pittsburgh had cut the margin to 12 points with a full quarter to play
  • The Steelers defense had forced 3 straight Browns punts

The bottom line is this: If your defense can’t get a stop under those conditions, you don’t deserve to win.

Mike Tomlin’s decisions to go for 2 point conversions cost the team 2 points – hardly a definitive difference. Word is that Mike Tomlin, and not Keith Butler, called the defensive plays. Perhaps there are play calls that one can quibble about, but the play calling genius of Dick LeBeau, Bud Carson and George Perles combined couldn’t have compensated for some of those execution errors.

As for Randy Fichtner, after his offense stopped turning over the ball they put up some impressive numbers. This is fact, albeit one that won’t even warrant a footnote in Steelers history.

It says here that Mike Tomlin didn’t cause the high snap, nor did he throw the interceptions, drop passes, take bad angles or miss tackles. But when disaster struck at the beginning, the Steelers offense stumbled for a full quarter. The defense stumbled for an entire half, then regained their footing, only to lose it when it was need the most.

The head coach might not be at “fault” for the errors that dug his team such a deep hole, but he and his staff certainly failed to provide solutions to get them out. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He caught 13 for 157 yards including a touchdown. He made tough catches and played until the bitter end. It was (likely) the finale of his Steelers career, and JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t leave a single play on the field and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Wild Card loss to the Browns.

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