Steelers Draft Buddy Johnson with 4th Round Compensatory Pick, Two ‘n a Row for Texas A&M

Last year it was Terrapins from the University of Maryland. This year its Aggies from Texas A&M. At least in the 4th round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

12 picks after calling Don Moore Jr.’s name with their own 4th round pick the Steelers went to the Texas A&M well a second time when they picked Aggies inside linebacker Buddy Johnson.

The decision to look to inside linebacker departs from the (definitive) Steelers Draft Needs Matrix which rated cornerback as a higher need, which in no way suggests that this move is a mistake. While a best case scenario for both Buddy Johnson and the team will be for Johnson to shine on special teams this year, the Steelers certainly need depth at inside linebacker.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Chris Adamski pointed out, Buddy Johnson was the leading tackler on the best defense in what is considered to be the NCAA’s toughest conference. But, Adamski reminds us that none of those statistics meant anything to Jerry Olsavsky, the Steelers inside linebackers coach.

Jerry Olsavsky, himself a former Steelers inside linebacker taken as a 10th round pick out of Pitt in the 1989 NFL Draft, explains his attraction to Johnson:

I don’t look at the production numbers, OK” I look at the film and I see production, and I say, ‘Oh, this guy’s a good player.’ I didn’t know (about Johnson’s stat superlatives). … The SEC is great football. But if you watch one game, you would be like, ‘Wow, this guy is active.’ And that’s what I’m looking for.

One would expect no less from Jerry Olsvasky. While Olsvasky has worked with superior athletes such as Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Devin Bush, he was once described by the Monday Night Football broadcast team as “One of those players who isn’t big enough, isn’t fast enough, but just simply good enough.”

Buddy Johnson, Steelers 4th round pick 2021 NFL Draft

Buddy Johnson during the LSU-Texas A&M game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

Buddy Johnson Video Highlights

So just what is that that Jerry Olsvasky sees when he looks at the tape of this 6’, 229 pound, 23 game starter for the Aggies who led Texas A&M in tackles for the last two years? Well, let’s take a look:

That’s a nice tape. What is particularly encouraging is that Buddy Johnson appears to have sound tackling technique. While the Steelers tackling has been better of late, failure on this fundamental skill has been at issue in the not too distant past.

How Buddy Johnson Fits In

The Steelers obviously have a lot invested in Devin Bush’s development, but with Vince Williams and Robert Spillane playing on one year deals, Pittsburgh clearly needs to think of the future. While Johnson will get a fair shake and a reasonable shot at earning a helmet on game day, he doesn’t need to come in and made an immediate impact.

That can change in a hurry, as Vince Williams learned during his rookie year, but for now Buddy Johnson adds depth in the present, offers potential for the future and hopefully can begin contributing on special teams immediately.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Buddy Johnson.

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Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix – Who to Pick If Need Must Drive Decision

The 2021 NFL Draft is here. The Pittsburgh Steelers have 8 picks to fill enough holes with just enough talent to give themselves an shot at making what will, perhaps, be one final Super Bowl run with Ben Roethlisberger.

steelers press conference,

Steelers in Far Stronger Shape than Expected

When the Steelers 2020 season ended in flames with the playoff loss to the Browns, things looked bleak. Pittsburgh faced salary cap Armageddon thanks to COVID-19. But they’re far stronger than expected, thanks  to Ben Roethlisberger taking one for the team with a 5 million dollar pay cut.

Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert also stepped step outside their comfort zone with voidable year contracts that kept JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton and Eric Ebron in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers have also done some free agent bargain bin hunting, to give themselves depth at offensive line, cornerback, tackle, defensive line and a few other spots. Make no mistake about it:

  • The Steelers roster is weaker than the one that got beaten badly the Browns in the playoffs.

The Steelers have real needs they must fill in the 2021 NFL Draft. So what are those needs?

Steelers Needs Heading into the 2021 NFL Draft

Over the last few weeks, with the help of Tony Defeo, we’ve reviewed each part of the Steelers depth chat, classifying steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftPittsburgh’s need using the following scale.

  • The Steelers needs tier pretty quickly into three categories: Serious needs, almost serious needs, and  “Nice to Haves.”

The Steelers serious needs come at running back, tackle, center, and tight end. Note, Tony Defeo classified tight end as “High” but for the Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix, I’m classifying that is “High-Moderate.”

What that means in plain English is that the Steelers could draft tonight or tomorrow night who could win the starting job in training camp.

Below that we have “almost serious needs” where we place Cornerback as High-Moderate, Inside Linebacker as Moderate-High, Outside linebacker as Moderate (although that could easily go Moderate High). Those are followed by Safety, Defensive line an guard which are both “Moderate.”

  • In simple terms, its is less likely that the Steelers could draft a starter here, but possible.

And even if that player isn’t a starter, he could end up providing critical depth at the position. Guard might be the outliner there, particularly depending on what happens at center.

  • Finally, you have our “Nice to Haves” which are wide receiver and quarterback.

With Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins AND Joshua Dobbs under contract, the Steelers really don’t have room for a quarterback, unless a 1983 type situation unfolds and it won’t. Likewise, with JuJu back, and Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson still having plenty of “upside” using a premium pick on a wide out is a luxury the Steelers don’t have in 2021.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix

So how do you determine the Steelers pecking order in terms of needs? Well, for that we give you the Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix

Running back gets the nod over offensive tackle because the Steelers have two starters, albeit unproven ones, at tackle, whereas they do not have a legitimate number 1 NFL running back. Tackle gets preference over center because you need field two tackles an only one center. Center gets the nod over tight end because Eric Ebron is a better tight end than either B.J. Finney or J.C. Hassenauer is a center.

  • And there’s a chance that Kevin Radar can be a legit number 1 NFL tight end, at least in terms of blocking.

Tight end beats cornerback because the Steelers have two starter-capable players there, and cornerback trumps inside linebacker because someone could come in and beat out either Robert Spillane or Vince Williams.

But the Steelers have no one behind them, so outside linebacker trumps safety, where the Steelers do have some younger depth. But the depth at safety is even more untested than it is at defensive line so that gets the next nod. Guard comes in next because the Steelers should be OK there, but it is clearly a higher need that wide receiver or quarterback.

As always we offer our caveat, the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix does not suggest that Steelers should reach to fill needs.

But the needs matrix is intended to act as a sort of tie breaker for when and if the Steelers turn comes to pick and two men have the same draft grade (not that Mike Tomlin or Kevin Colbert will ever read this – nor should they.)

Finally, while more hype and hoopla surrounds the draft than their needs to be, but let’s keep in mind Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr.’s words, “Everyone’s a winner on draft day.” While the The Chief’s words were more of a compliant than an aspiration, the truth is that the NFL draft is the day a dream comes true for 250 or so young men.

Let’s give them there day, hope they enjoy it and, in turn, let their enthusiasm fuel our own hopes for the Steelers 2021 season and beyond.

 

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Steelers Draft Needs @ Inside Linebacker – Betwixt & Between at an Evolving Position

Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebackers “evolve.”

Pittsburgh’s first player at the position was Jack Lambert, who “evolved” from a middle linebacker to an inside linebacker. Both Mark Barron and Miles Killebrew the Steelers last two free agent signings at the position started as safeties and “evolved” into inside linebackers.

In between, Huey Richardson was drafted and listed as an inside linebacker, but in 2014 the Steelers Media Guide suddenly started listing him as a defensive end.* So this Steelers most infamous 1st round bust managed to evolve at his position 22 years after Bill Cowher traded Huey Richardson in a fire sale.

Injuries and COVID-19 infections forced the Steelers to evolve on the fly at inside linebacker multiple times in 2020. But how will that unpleasant experience impact their plans in the 2021 NFL Draft.

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 Chart at Inside Linebacker: The Starters

Who, other than Ben Roethlisberger, was the Steelers most indispensable player in 2020? Prior to the season, the Athletic’s Mark Kaboly argued it was Devin Bush.

  • What happens if Devin Bush goes down?

The ominous answer was that Robert Spillane would have to play. He did. And he played well. In the battle of the undefeated he Derrick Henry at the goal line play that could ONLY have reminded his position coach Jerry Olsavsky of a similar stop he made of Christian Okoye back in 1989. The next week he took one of Lamarr Jackson’s passes to the house providing Pittsburgh with a critical point differential.

Robert Spillane might not be a superstar in the making, but his play was solid enough to convince the Steelers to cut Vince Williams, the starter opposite him.

Devin Bush’s sophomore season only lasted 5 games, but that was long enough to register 2 half sacks, pat down 3 passes and log 3 quarterback hits.

Steelers Depth Cart at Inside Linebacker: The Backups

The story for the Steelers here changed dramatically for the better last week when Vince Williams announced he was rejecting other offers and returning to Pittsburgh on a reduced salary. While that may seem odd, as few if any Steelers have ever done that, Vince Williams will likely slide into the role he played earlier in his career as part-time starter.

In 14 games during 2020, Vince Williams sacked the quarterback 3 times, recovered 2 fumbles and generally laid in the wood when it needed to be laid in.

The Steelers also signed Miles Killebrew, who as mentioned above, began his career as a safety before moving to inside linebacker. Killebrew played for 5 years in Detroit, appearing in 78 games but only starting 5. He did log two interceptions at safety early in his career, and could become a “Dime Linebacker” that the Steelers have been seeking.

The Steelers also have Marcus Allen, yet another converted Safety who started two games this past season, registering 2 tackles for losses and hitting the quarterback twice while struggling against the run.

Finally, Ulysees Gilbert III the Steelers 3rd 6th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft who has only appeared in 11 games.

Steelers Draft Needs @ Inside Linebacker in 2021

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftThe Steelers are betwixed and between at inside linebacker.

On the one hand, they’re blessed with 1 up and coming starter and two starter capable players alongside him. That’s a good thing.

  • But both Spillane and Williams are upgradeable, and Pittsburgh has little proven depth behind them.

Miles Killebrew came out of the free agent bargain bin, Marcus Allens’ play there was hardly convincing and Ulysees Gilbert has done little more than get injured during his time in Pittsburgh. Given that the Steelers draft needs at Inside Linebacker must be considered Moderate-High.

*The plan was to use Richardson at inside linebacker and defensive end. He played there in his strong preseason debut, but his career imploded immediately after that. Now you’re ready if you get “Steelers Draft Busts” as a Final Jeopardy category – so get back to work.

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Its Official: Steelers Resign Joshua Dobbs, Notify Haskins He Won’t Be Handed Roster Spot

Yesterday the Steelers made official the news that broke last week by resigning reserve quarterback Joshua Dobbs. This move follows the second signing announced last week, that saw the return of Vince Williams to Pittsburgh, just weeks after the Steelers cut him for salary cap reasons.

Taken together, the latter move shores up depth at a critical position prior to the 2021 NFL Draft while Joshua Dobbs signing sends an important message to the quarterback’s room.

And, for the second time in a month, the Steelers again show that sometimes it is best when bloggers are slow at the switch.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Panthers preseason

Joshua Dobbs scores touchdown in preseason. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Haskins Shouldn’t Doubt Dobbs’ Ability to Defy Odds

One of the Steelers first moves this off season was to take a flyer on former first round pick from Washington, Dwayne Haskins. Haskins added a third quarterback to the Steelers roster, making it the first time the Steelers have had two former first round quarterbacks on their roster since Ben Roethlisberger and Tommy Maddox held spots in 2005.

  • And, to the uneducated eye, Haskins’ arrive seemed to complete the Steelers quarterback room.

With Ben Roethlisberger returning and Mason Rudolph backing him up, why would the Steelers really need another quarterback, right?

Wrong. The Steelers like Joshua Dobbs, the quarterback who moonlights as a rocket scientist. The coaches like him and so do the players – notice Dobbs sitting with a tablet next to Ben Roethlisberger thought the 2020 season.

When the Steelers drafted Mason Rudolph in 2019, everyone assumed that Joshua Dobbs was the odd man out, going into preseason. After all, they’d sent 5 years developing Landry Jones to be a back up, and Mason Rudolph was set to learn below him.

Yet, as Joshua Dobbs was one of the players who Mike Tomlin praised for “leaning in” during the 2018 preseason finale and earned himself a roster spot.

Word is that the Steelers like Haskins talent, and they’re taking a flyer on him to see if he can match that talent with the discipline needed to succeed in the NFL. But had the Steelers followed the conventional wisdom and stood pat with their 3 quarterbacks, only adding the proverbial 4th arm, Haskins could arrive at St. Vincents in comfort.

  • With Joshua Dobbs in the quarterback room, he will not have the luxury.

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have served notice to Dwayne Haskins that he will have to earn is roster spot.

Vince Williams Breaks Precedent

The Steelers don’t often cut home grown players in salary cap moves. As Steel City Insider’s Ian Whetstone has pointed out, they lead the league in fulfillment of 2nd and 3rd contracts for drafted players.

But when they do do it, there almost always the caveat: He could come back for less.

  • Except they never do.

But Vince Williams did. Vince Williams took less money to stay in Pittsburgh, and that’s good for the Steelers. Its also good for this blogger, because yours truly never got around to writing an article on his departure and documenting his career as a Steeler.

The article was to be titled, “I Only Realized Vince Williams was the Steelers Linebacker I’ve Been Waiting for Until he Was Gone.” And for the second time in the off season, the last one being Tyson Alualu’s reversal and return to Pittsburgh, delays in getting “Content” published has its upsides.

Even better than that, Vince Williams still has more to add to his Steelers story.

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Zach Banner Stays, Tyson Alualu Leaves, Vince Williams a Cap Casualty

On the first day of “legal tampering” the Steelers opened free agency by signing Cam Sutton. Cam Sutton was their most important “signable” free agent. On day two Pittsburgh addressed the man who was arguably their 2nd most important “signable” priority by resigning offensive guard Zach Banner to a two year contract.

  • All of the news was neither good, nor entirely expected.

Tyson Alualu got a 2 year contract to return to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team that had drafted him in 2010. As mentioned in Alualu’s free agent profile, Alualu delivered excellent “bang for the salary cap buck” for Pittsburgh and was the unsung hero on the Ste

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

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

elers defensive line in 2020. Moreover, if reports are correct, the deal he got in Jacksonville is only slightly larger than the one he could have expected in Pittsburgh, showing just how cash strapped the Steelers are.

  • The Steelers also made another move, this one while not a surprise, it was disappointing.

To create salary cap space, the Steelers decided to part ways with eight year veteran Vince Williams, presumptively clearing the way for newly resigned Robert Spillane to assume duties as a full-time starter at inside linebacker. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are far more qualified than this scribe to make this “bang for the buck” calculation, but Vince Williams will be missed. More to come on this front.

Finally, Mike Hilton appears to be signing with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Banner and Another Two Year Deal…

Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that Zach Banner’s new deal is for $9.5 million and includes a $3.25 million signing bonus. Unlike Cam Sutton, the amount of money that Banner got wasn’t a suprise, given Banner’s more limited resume and his recent ACL tear.

  • Like Cam Sutton’s deal, Zach Banner’s is also for two years….

Again, this is slightly out of character for the Steelers, who typically give 2nd year contracts that last for 3 years, or more. Moreover, veterans like David DeCastro, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson are all heading into the final year of their contracts, leading to speculation that the Steelers Brain Trust has penciled in 2021 as the final year it will make a run with this core of veterans, including Ben Roethlisberger.

It is too early to tell, but at this point we can say “Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence….”

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

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus: Bring Back Marcus Allen? Why Not?

On March 5th,2018 Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell made it his mission to “Bring back Marcus Allen.”

Ah, yes, of course Wexell was trying to unmake the Steelers status as victims of circumstance when they missed on drafting USC’s Marcus Allen by two slots in the 1982 NFL Draft and instead had to settle for Baylor’s Walter Abercrombie. Right?

  • Well, no, not even close.

Wexell was doing a pre-draft profile on the a multi-talented Penn State safety named Marcus Allen, whom he thought would be a good fit for the Steelers. Pittsburgh indeed drafted Marcus Allen, who is now and Exclusive Rights free agent, and today we look at his future.

Marcus Allen, Steelers vs Buccaneers preseason

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

Capsule Profile of Marcus Allen Career with the Steelers

The Steelers indeed drafted Marcus Allen in the 5th round of the 2018 NFL Draft. And the truth is that the notebook on him remained pretty thin for his first two years. He made the final roster but only saw appearances in two games, logging a total of 20 plays, and giving up completions on two of 3 passes he was charged with covering.

Allen failed to make the final roster in 2019, but returned to the practice squad, getting activated for 1 game where he played on special teams. In 2020, the Steelers moved him from safety to inside linebacker. This allowed him to get in on a full 20% of the defensive snaps, thanks to injuries to Devin Bush, Robert Spillane and Vince Williams.

  • The truth is Allen looked mismatched at inside linebacker.

He struggled against the run, and still gave up 8 of 10 passes that he was charged with covering. It would be unfair to scapegoat Allen for the defensive disaster that was the loss to the Bengals, but he certainly contributed.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Marcus Allen in 2021

The truth is that the Steelers neither have depth at inside linebacker nor do they have it at safety and the team clearly is looking to transition to hybrid linebacker-safety type players. (See Morgan Burnett’s displeasure at having to play such a role.)

As an exclusive rights free agent, the Steelers can have Marcus Allen back at essentially the same salary cap charge as an undrafted rookie free agent. Allen also is experienced on special teams.

Who would you rather have as a role player at inside linebacker, safety and special teams? A guy with 3 years of experience under his belt or an inexperienced rookie?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Marcus Allen in 2021

The Steelers have seen Marcus Allen for 3 years at multiple positions and he’s not delivered much at either. In fact, it took injuries to both starting inside linebackers AND the number one backup to get Marcus Allen his first sustained snaps with the defense, and opposing offensive coordinators were only too happy to oblige.

  • Sure, Marcus Allen’s salary cap charge is negligible, but you get what you pay for.

The Steelers have seen enough to know there’s nothing to indicate that Marcus Allen is the next Lee Flowers – another 5th round Safety who sat on the bench in obscurity for 2-3 years before emerging as a serviceable starter.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Marcus Allen

Expect this one to be a non-event. The Steelers will give Marcus Allen and exclusive rights free agent tender and allow draft picks and/or rookie free agents to push him during training camp and, assuming it is played, preseason. This is a no-risk move for the Steelers.

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

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Steelers Free Agent Focus 2021: Robert Spillane – He’ll Be Back. Count On It.

Serious fans have always known their team’s rosters inside an out. This has always been true, but its truer in the digital age. Still, there are names that appear on a roster that prompt a “WHO?” from even the most fanatical followers.

  • Steelers fans with long memories will recall running back Rodney Carter.

Rodney Carter exploded out of nowhere to spark the 1988 Steelers upset win over the Denver Broncos with a 100 yard, 2 touchdown game. He even completed a pass. When asked about Carter’s surprise role in the game, Chuck Noll joked that the idea came via a letter from a fan. Carter went on to be an unsung hero of the 1989 Steelers. Bob Labriola once described him in the Steelers Digest as the player who “made a career of ‘Going out and getting open.’”

Two years ago Devlin Hodges fit that bill, and this season that honor feel to Robert Spillane who is now and Exclusive Rights Free Agent. Today we look at his chances of staying in Pittsburgh.

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 Spillane’s Steelers Career

After making the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted rookie free agent, Robert Spalaine joined the Steelers in February of 2019. He got a visit from The Turk on cutdown day but returned to the practice squad a day later. The Steelers cut him in late September, but brought him back in early October and was promoted to the active roster in November, seeing action in 8 games on special teams.

  • Going into 2020, inside linebacker was seen as the one position the Steelers could ill afford and injury at.

In the Steelers win over the Tennessee Titans, seeming disaster struck as Devin Bush tore his ACL. Spillane  stepped up, delivering a devastating goal line tackle recording 5 on the day.

The following week, Spillane opened the road game against the Ravens with a 33 yard pick six of Lamar Jackson, a pivotal play in a game that went down to the wire.

Spillane registered sacks in the Steelers wins over Cincinnati and in their loss to Washington, before getting injured for the rest of the regular season. He returned for the Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff disaster against the Browns.

The Case for Steelers Resigning Robert Spillane in 2021

Robert Spillane is an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, meaning he’s not going anywhere unless the Steelers decide otherwise. That also means he’s cheap, incredibly cheap and the Steelers need every penny of salary cap space they can scrounge.

Robert Spillane might not quite have proven himself as “Starter Capable” but if he hasn’t, he’s certainly close. Clearly, he’s a competent backup.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Robert Spillane in 2021

The aim of this section is to lay out the strongest possible case against bringing a player back. When it comes to Robert Spillane that simply is not possible.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Robert Spillane in 2021

This is a no brainer. Not only will the Steelers bring back Robert Spillane, he played well enough that he could Vince Williams a salary cap casualty. Should Williams stay, Spillane would provide depth at a critical position for the Steelers.

One way or another Robert Spillane will be wearing Black and Gold for the Steelers in 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Washington, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, f bomb

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


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

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

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

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

  • Injuries ultimately doomed this defense.

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

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

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

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

  • And you know the frustrating part?

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

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

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bengals

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

Steelers Strong Start on Offense No Optical Illusion

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

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

  • You don’t sustain that level of play through 10 NFL games by stringing together a series of “On Any Given Sunday” performances.
Benny Snell, Darnay Holmes, Steelers vs Giants

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

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

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

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

Failure on Fundamentals Unravels Offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Receivers started dropping passes.

    Von Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Bengals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Injuries Ravage Steelers 2020 Defense

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

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

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

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Cowobys

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

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

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

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

The Road from Here

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Report Card for 2020 Season Finale Loss to Browns: Tempted to Grade on Effort Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is sorely tempted to give grades based on effort, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 season finale loss to the Browns.

Chris Wormely, Baker Mayfield, Steelers vs Browns

Chris Wormley sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
Mason Rudolph saw his first meaningful action in over a year and looked a bit rusty at times. On the negative side, his pocket presence was weak and his interception costly. On the positive side he threw with authority and didn’t simply hug the sidelines as he’d done a year ago. His two 4th quarter touchdown drives impressed. Joshua Dobbs played and completed several shovel passes and rushed for 20 yards. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner had a “good” day, considering the context running for 37 yards on 9 carries. He also caught 5 passes. Benny Snell ran 3 times for ten yards and Anthony McFarland ran 3 times for 17 yards. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald took the lead and caught 5 passes on 6 targets. The run blocking also improved, slightly. Coincidence? Probably not. Kevin Rader and one pass thrown his way. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Chase Claypool ended his regular season with a bang, catching 5 passes for 101 yards including a combat catch for a touchdown. Diontae Johnson only caught 3 passes, but one was a 47 yard field flipper. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 6 passes including the 2nd touchdown. James Washington had two targets but couldn’t come down with either of them. The Steelers receivers delivered. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph was only sacked once, but faced a lot of pressure – some of that was him holding on to the ball too long. The run blocking was a little better, at times. Grade: C

Diontae Johnson, Robert Jackson, Steelers vs Browns

Diontae Johnson beats Robert Jackson for a big gain. Photo Credit: Caitlyn Epes, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt’s sack set up a 4th and long that allowed the Steelers to score their final touchdown. Chris Wormley saw extended action and helped force a punt with a sack. Tyson Alualu split time with Isaiah Buggs and Carlos Davis. Steelers did OK at containing the Browns running game, but didn’t keep Baker Mayfield in the pocket. Grade: B-

Linebackers
The Steelers 2nd string linebacking crops played for most of the game and was led in tackles by Alex Highsmith, followed by Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen. Alex Highsmith’s sack helped end the Browns 2 minute drive and Jayrone Elliot’s sack helped scuttle another drive. Still, Mayfield got out of the pocket one too many times. Given that this is what doomed the Steelers vs the Bengals, it cannot be over looked. Grade: C

Secondary
Sean Davis saw his first action in over a year and looked a little rusty but did well overall and defended a pass. Justin Layne started in place of Joe Haden and struggled at times. Steven Nelson defended a pass. And Mike Hilton only had 1 tackle but it came on a critical third down. Grade: B

Special Teams
Matthew Wright was 3-3 on field goals, including two from 46 yards out. Jordan Berry punted well. The Steelers punt coverage was solid as was their kick coverage, although the Browns did get one long one in. Ray-Ray McCloud did a decent job at returning kicks, but his punt returns are well below his 13.1 pre-fumble average. Grade: B

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Browns

JuJu Smith-Schuster scores a 4th quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Coaching
On defense the Steelers game plan didn’t show any wrinkles. The big run was an execution error, but the Steelers were sound fundamentally after that point, save for Mayfield’s ability to get out of the pocket must be stopped next week.

On offense, credit Randy Fichtner and Matt Canada for devising a way to get Joshua Dobbs into the game, and credit Mike Tomlin for having the confidence to run that package of plays. Whether this is something that the Steelers can make work for them in the playoffs, if nothing else the Steelers have given Cleveland’s defensive staff something else to think of.

  • This game was a thriller, and Mike Tomlin deserves all of the credit for that.

After Nick Chubb 47 yard run put Cleveland up 7-0 in the first quarter, it would have been easy for Pittsburgh to pack it in. Other playoff bound teams would have done the same thing (think Marv Levy’s Bills – yes, I am that old.)

  • But not Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

Had you taken a time machine from 2002, the last time the Browns were in the playoffs, and watched yesterday’s game, without knowing the stakes, you could have easily thought it was the Steelers who were fighting for their playoff lives. And you would have never guessed they were down 8 starters. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
One of the reasons why the game remained competitive was because on its next drive Cleveland got to first and goal at the four, where it had a pass batted away. 3 plays later they’d lost a yard and were settling for 3. Minkah Fitzpatrick batted that pass away and for that he is the Unsung Hero of the Steelers loss to the Browns.

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