All in the Family! Steelers Draft Connor Heyward, Tight End, Michigan State, in 6th Round

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin loves blood lines. He added T.J. Watt in 2017 and Terrell Edmunds in 2018. By 2020 their brothers Derek Watt and Trey Edmunds were both playing for the Steelers.

Now he has a shot at doing it again, as the Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted Connor Heyward, a tight end out of Michigan State, younger brother of Cam Heyward and son of the late, great University of Pittsburgh star Craig “Iron Head” Heyward.

Connor Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers 6th round pick 2022

Connor Heyward, the Steelers 6th round 2022 draft pick. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

When asked if he consulted Cam Heyward as a reference for Conner, Steelers tight end coach Alfredo Roberts replied, with good cheer, “I don’t mess with Cam” multiple times. When asked about the importance of bloodlines, Roberts rebuffed the idea a little, explaining, “Connor holds his own. Getting drafted into the NFL is a big deal.”

Roberts said the Steelers were attracted the Heyward because of his ability to make plays down the field or at the line of scrimmage clarifying that Heyward has “the want to and the savviness to do some other things that are really attractive to us.”

When asked of Heyward’s versatility made him similar to Derek Watt, Roberts agreed that the two player’s skill sets are similar, but cautioned that Watt is more of a “pure fullback” whereas “Connor gives you a different flex and tight end responsibilities.”

Connor Heyward Video Highlights

Here is a sampling of some of the work that Connor Heyward put on tape while with the Spartans

What really comes home with these videos is that Connor Heyward is indeed versatile, able to line up as a tight end, work as a fullback or set up like a true H-Back. As a 6th round pick, Connor Heyward is in no way guaranteed a roster spot.

Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry roster spots are set, so assuming both stay healthy, the battle for the 3rd tight end spot will be between Kevin Rader and Heyward.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Connor Heyward.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix

The big day has arrived. The 2022 NFL Draft is here.

A generation from now, will we remember Kevin Colbert’s final draft as the night the Pittsburgh Steelers found their franchise quarterback? Will this be the evening where he tried to go out with a bang and flopped instead? Or will we recall how Kevin Colbert convinced Mike Tomlin not to force things and instead drafted a future Hall of Famer at another position?

Those questions will take years to answer.

As of now, the pundits and tea leaf readers argue that the Steelers brain trust is sold on picking Malik Willis, Kenny Pickett, Matt Corral or Desmond Ridder should one be on the board when the clock strikes 20.

steelers press conference,

That may be the case. Mike Tomlin has never been coy about pre-draft crushes. His love for Lawrence Timmons, Maurkice Pouncey, Jarvis Jones (ugh), and Najee Harris was well-known long before their names reached commissioner’s desk.

Would picking Pickett, Willis, Corral or Ridder at 20 and/or trading up to get him violate rule number 3 on the Steelers Road Map for Return to the Super Bowl i.e. don’t force finding a franchise quarterback?

  • Honestly, says the guy who thought picking Ben Roethlisberger was a mistake, I don’t know.

But I can opine on what the Steelers needs are in this draft.

Over the past few weeks, with Tony Defeo’s help, we’ve broken down the Steelers needs at each position. Using the Steelers Draft Needs, we’ve clustered their needs into four tiers.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

Wide Receiver and Defensive Line clock in at High-Moderate. In other words, a guy Pittsburgh picks there could very well end up starting.

Below that we have a log jam, with Quarterback, Running Back, Inside Linebacker, Outside Linebacker and Cornerback all coming in at Moderate High. In other words, the Steelers aren’t looking for a 2021 starter here, but that could change fast.

Next, we have Offensive Tackle and Safety. The Steelers should be OK here, but could go looking for a future starter.

Finally, we have Tight End and Center/Guard aka “interior lineman,” where the Steelers really are looking for depth.

So how to sort out the pecking order, given that we’ve got apparent ties at several positions?

That’s the Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix comes in.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix

Here is how I see the Steelers needs playing out:

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs Matrix

Defensive line gets the nod over wide receiver simply because the Steelers two starters there are younger. But that’s close, as the Steelers do have some depth on defensive line with upside on defensive line (Isaiahh Loudermilk), whereas the cupboard is empty at wide out.

The same rational holds at running back over receiver. The Steelers need more at running back than Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland, but they’re superior to any backup wide outs.

The fact that the Steelers have Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph and only one Najee Harris is why running back is edges out quarterback. Quarterback comes in over outside linebacker because that’s a more important position, but frankly that’s close because the drop off in proven talent behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith is steep.

Likewise, the Steelers have appear to have 3 starter caliber cornerbacks, plus James Pierre, but they have more bodies at inside linebacker, even if there are long term questions about Devin Bush and no “starter in waiting” behind him and Myles Jack.

Inside linebacker is a higher priority over Offensive Tackle because the Steelers have two starters under team control for at least 3 years, and Joe Haeg can provide depth. But again, this is close.

Tackle edges out safety because both Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds are far more proven commodities than any of the tackles, and Tre Norwood has far more “upside” than Haeg.

  • Safety edges out interior line, because the Steelers four players for 2 positions.

Center-Guard comes out as a higher priority than tight end simply because Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry are better, more known commodities than any of the interior lineman.

No, Steelers Mustn’t Draft for Need

With that said, the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix is anything but a call for Pittsburgh to pick based on need. When you draft for need, Artie Burns happens.

In other words, if the Steelers can grab a play making outside linebacker who could push Alex Highsmith to the bench, by all means they should grab him. Nor should they pass on picking the next Heath Miller let alone a Gronk clone just because Gentry looked good last year.

No, the Draft Needs Matrix seeks to show where the Steelers roster needs the most help and whom they should pick if all other things are equal.

  • Which of course they never are, because success in the NFL draft is a mix of science, art and luck.

The 2022 NFL Draft will be no different, and to the young men who will hear their names called in next three days, we congratulate them on their chance to live the dream that each of us had from the first moment we touched a Nerf football and barked out a snap count!

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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Tight End – Pittsburgh Should Stand Pat

In contrast to running back, tight end is one positions whose importance and role in the modern offense has grown significantly in the 21st century.

But like running back, the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves far stronger at tight end in April 2022 than they did in April 2021. But how much stronger are they and how should that impact Pittsburgh’s plans for the 2022 NFL Draft? Let’s find out.

Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Cart at Tight End: The Starter

For six long years the Steelers have struggled to find and fill their roster with Health Miller’s replacement. A year after picking Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth in the 2nd round of the 2021 NFL Draft, it appears that the Steelers finally have their man.

Pat Freiermuth started 9 games for the Steelers and made 60 catches on 79 targets for a 76% catch rate. He also had 7 catches for touchdowns proving his value as a weapon in the Red Zone. He also caught a 2 point conversion with 1:48 left to play in the Steelers 20-19 Heinz Field win over the Baltimore Ravens.

While Freiermuth did suffer 2 concussions during the 2021 season, assuming he remains healthy the kid from Penn State shows every sign of being a keeper.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart: The Backups

Behind Pat Freiermuth the Steelers have Zach Gentry and Kevin Radar. Both players saw extended action in 2021 after joining the team as developmental projects. The Steelers drafted Gentry in the 5th round of the 2019 NFL Draft.

Gentry was a converted quarterback who was drafted as a project, and injuries limited him to 6 appearances in 2019 and 2020. However, Gentry appeared in all 17 games for the Steelers in 2021 and started in 12 of those playing 40% of offensive snaps while he caught 19 passes on 25 targets for a 76% catch rate.

  • Zach Gentry will also always hold the honor of catching the very last pass ever thrown by Ben Roethlisberger.

Behind Zach Gentry the Steelers have Kevin Radar who joined the Steelers practice squad in 2019 and appeared in one game in 2020 and returned for 6 more in 2021 including one start. During 2021 he caught 2 balls on 3 targets for 8 yards.

The Steelers 2022 Tight End Draft Needs

2021 was not a good year for the Pittsburgh Steelers offense, but tight end emerged as one of the only clear-cut areas of improvement. Based on their 2021 performance, in Pat Freiermuth the Steelers have appear to have found a long-term starter at tight end and a solid number 2 back up in Zach Gentry.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

Kevin Radar isn’t going to provoke any bidding wars among fantasy football owners nor will he keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night.

  • But he appears to be a solid number 3 tight end.

Could the Steelers find someone to bolster their depth at tight end or even challenge Gentry for the number 2 slot? Sure they could.

But relative to their other needs on the roster, this is one of the few areas where the Steelers could stand pat, and their draft need at tight end going into the 2022 NFL Draft should be considered Moderate-Low.

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Be Gone: Time for Steelers to Move On from Free Agent Tight End Eric Ebron

Since February 19th, 2016 the Pittsburgh Steelers have pursued a single goal at tight end: Replace Heath Miller. They’ve signed big-ticket free agents (Ladarius Green.) They’ve let home grown talent develop (Jesse James.) They’ve made both late off season and in-season trades (Vance McDonald, Nick Vannett).

  • Some of them have worked out better than others.
  • All have had their moments of praise-worth play.

But none of them have proven themselves to be even remotely worthy of the title “Heath Miller’s replacement.”

That changed in 2021. That’s bad news for Eric Ebron.

Eric Ebron, Saivion Smith, Steelers vs Cowboys

Eric Ebron leaps over Saivion Smith for six. Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images via Arizona Sports

Capsule Profile of Eric Ebron’s Career with the Steelers

In minds many, the narrative on Eric Ebron is that he’s a failed free agent. His record is more complex.

Mike Tomlin likes exceptional athletes and never hesitates to bring one to Pittsburgh, even if he has some baggage (think Mike Vick). Eric Ebron fit the bill, as a 6’4” 253 tight end.

  • Both of those tendencies were in display during 2020.

Ebron caught 56 passes for 558 yards including 5 touchdowns. And if even at his best he wasn’t a transformational player, he was effective in the Red Zone where he caught all 5 of his touchdown passes in addition to a 2-point conversion.

  • Yet despite his 61.5% catch rate, he had a 7.7% drop rate and is a unmitigated liability as a blocker.

When Vance McDonald retired, the Steelers opted to bring Eric Ebron back in 2021. Eric Ebron generally did what the Steelers asked of him – he caught another Red Zone touchdown, but his role decreased and he then missed 9 games due to injury.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Eric Ebron

The Steelers offense is young and can use a veteran presence and that will be true even if JuJu Smith-Schuster makes another surprise return. Ebron’s athletic talent is real, and he’s a stud the Red Zone. At age 29, this former first round draft pick has already made 3 stops in the NFL and isn’t likely to have many suitors – It won’t break the bank to bring him back.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Eric Ebron

The Steelers can get the post-Ben Roethlisberger era off to the right start by establishing a physical presence on offense. You don’t do that with Eric Ebron. Moreover, if there was one spot on the depth chart that finished 2021 on a decided up note, it was tight end.

Eric Ebron’s athletic talents are real, but they’re a luxury that the Steelers neither need nor should want.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Eric Ebron

Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Muuuth! The cry is now spontaneous anytime number 88 Pat Freiermuth makes a catch. Its easiest to hear at Heinz Field, but also audible on the road. The Steelers of course picked Pat Freiermuth in the 2nd round of the 2021 NFL Draft and the rookie quickly established himself as the starting tight end.

In addition, 2021 was also the year where the team’s investment in Zach Gentry began to pay off, as Gentry proved to be a capable number 2 tight end. Fantasy football owners won’t soon get into fights over who has the rights to draft Number 3 tight end Kevin Rader, but Radar’s shown he’s a good blocker.

Suffice to say, the Steelers in good shape at tight end, and while they can certainly get stronger there, bringing back Eric Ebron isn’t one of the ways that happens.

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

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

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

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Titans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception Chargers, Steelers vs Chargers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers 2021 Season Review: A Worthy Gamble that Came Up Short

The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers finished 9-7-1, followed by a one-and-done playoff exit. That looks respectable to the naked eye. But Dan Rooney’s words from 22 years back offer sobering context.

The 2000 Steelers finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs for the 3rd straight year. To many, this confirmed that the Steelers were mired in mediocrity. Dan Rooney demurred.

Instead, Rooney pointed to the 2000 AFC Championship game, which saw the Ravens defeat the Raiders. Rooney reminded willing listeners that the Steelers had beaten both teams, arguing that those wins were a true gauge of the Steelers nascent contender status.

Now, measure the 2021 Steelers with Dan Rooney’s yard stick. Pittsburgh looks pitiful. Both the Bengals and the Chiefs spanked the Steelers. Twice. And it was a simpler task for both teams the second time.

  • Why did the Steelers 2021 season end this way?

It is tempting to think of Milton Bradley’s board game “Life,” where a player who reaches the end with little money puts what they have on a number and spins the wheel. Hit their number and they win as a Tycoon. Otherwise, they lose.

Yeah, it kinda feels like Art Rooney II put his aging franchise quarterback on a number and spun the wheel. But that’s not what happened.

  • The Steelers had a strategy for winning in 2021. And one that was plausible, if not probable.

Did their strategy hinge on several calculated risks – call them gambles if you will – Yes! absolutely. Did the gamble ultimately fail? Yes. But if you want to understand why they made it, just take a look the lay of the land back in May 2021.

Ben Roethlisberger, Art Rooney II, Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field, Steelers vs Browns

Art Rooney II and Ben Roethlisberger embrace. Photo Credit: Steelers.com, Karl Roser

Who the ’21 Steelers Thought They Had

Start by looking at who the Steelers thought they had after the 2021 NFL Draft.

Their projected offensive line went Chukwuma Okorafor, Kevin Dotson, Kendrick Green, David DeCastro and Zach Banner.

David DeCastro never played a down. Zach Banner never fully recovered from his ACL tear. That combined with other concerns pushed Chuks Okorafor to right tackle. The Steelers lost Dotson mid-season, and then within three weeks, they were starting their 6th string guard John Leglue.

  • Anyone still wonder why Najee Harris got hit before reaching the line of scrimmage so often?

At wide receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s surprise return lasted all of 5 weeks (plus the playoffs).

Stephon Tuitt, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

Stephon Tuitt sacks Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

On defense, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler expected Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu to be manning a front line backed by Vince Williams alongside a fully recovered Devin Bush. Neither Tuitt nor Vince Williams ever played a down. Tyson Alualu’s season ended in the first quarter of the Steelers week 2 loss to the Raiders.

As for Devin Bush? At best he struggled in returning from his ACL tear; at worst he’s deforming himself from a former rookie of the year into one of the worst busts in franchise history.

  • Someone still want to speculate on why the Steelers runs defense was terrible?

So, do these “could haves” add up to enough “would haves” to equal a roster talented enough help Ben Roethlisberger retire with the elusive 3rd ring?

  • Uh… I wouldn’t bet my 401(k) on it either.

But think about it. Remember the ugly implosion the Steelers suffered at the end of 2007? How many went into 2008 saying, “This is a Super Bowl team!” Not many. Yet, they won Super Bowl XLIII.

But the bottom line is that after weathering salary-cap Armageddon, the roster the Steelers assembled in May 2021 was a lot stronger than the one that took the field in late September.

’21 Steelers Channeled Their Inner Jimmy Hendrix

If you had to pick a theme song for the 2021 Steelers, Jimmy Hendrix’s “Manic Depressive” would fit the bill. The Steelers finished 9-7-1. Yet they needed 7 fourth-quarter comebacks to pull that off. The Steelers got their teeth kicked in by quality teams such as the Bengals, Chiefs, and Packers. Yet, they beat playoff teams like the Titans and Bills.

They staged two dramatic “almost comebacks” against the Chargers and Vikings. Those comebacks were needed because you have to go back to the 1940s to find a worse first-half offense and worse run defenses.

  • But those Manic-Depressive symptoms were products of a bipolar roster.

To understand just how profoundly bipolarity was hardwired into this Steelers’ roster, let’s draw an analogy between the Steelers’ projected starting front five and a 1980’s WWF Survivor Series team.

Mike Tomlin thought he had a fivesome of Owen Hart, Hulk Hogan, Arn Anderson, Bruiser Brody and Ric Flair. Sure, Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt came through as the Hulkster and the Nature Boy, but they ended up teaming with the Blue Blazer, Randy Mulkey and Steve Lombardi.

Keith Butler, Matt Canada and Mike Tomlin all shoulder some blame, but Craig Wolfley was right when he concluded after the 2nd Bengals’ game, “It’s not about the X’s and the O’s, it’s about the Jimmys and the Joes.”

A Few Pieces in Place for the Future

With Ben Roethlisberger retiring, the Steelers face a long, challenging road. But they also start their journey with a few good players.

Najee Harris is a real find at running back. In Pat Freiermuth, the Steelers finally appear to have replaced Heath Miller. Zach Gentry has grown into solid number 2 tight end. Dan Moore, John LeGlue and Montravius Adams appear to be serviceable lineman. The Steelers trades for Isaiahh Loudermilk and Ahkello Witherspoon look a lot better today than when the trades were made.

The Gamble Was Worth It

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

Ben Roethlisberger gives thanks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The cold, hard football Realpolitik conclusion will always be that Art Rooney II shouldn’t have gambled on a final shot at Lombardi Number 7 with Ben Roethlisberger.

  • I’m not so sure that’s correct conclusion.

Without Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers would have been lucky to have won more than 4 games. And if Ben Roethlisberger was clearly on the decline in 2021, also he had more left in the tank than Peyton Manning had in his final year. With the right roster it would have been an extreme long shot, but still a shot.

  • But those are hypotheticals whose answers will remain forever unknown.

The reality of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 is concrete and will last forever: Ben Roethlisberger retires without his third ring. But before he walked away, he shared some final moments of magic with Steelers Nation as he ended his time at Heinz Field in the victory formation.

And that alone makes Art Rooney II’s gamble worth it.

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Steelers (Late) Report Card for Playoff Loss to Chiefs: F’s Aren’t for “Farewell” Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who will miss the man who has been his star pupil for 18 years, here is the Steelers Report Card for the AFC Wild Card Loss to the Chiefs.

Ben Roethlisberger, Alex Okafor, Steelers vs Chiefs, Ben Roethlisberger final game

Alex Oakfor’s commits a roughing the passer penalty on Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
Ben Roethlisberger was 4 of 11 (or something like that) at the half and frankly had not played well. He finished the game going 29 of 44 for 215 and two touchdowns. Sure, his last two touchdown drives started from 35 points behind, but you’d never have known that given the way Ben was working the huddle. Grade: C+

Running Backs
Najee Harris did not have a good night, going 29 yards on his 12 carries. Worse yet, his fumble extinguished any chance a Steelers comeback. Benny Snell got work in garbage time and made the most of it. Kalen Ballage got some work too, but didn’t look quite as good. Grade: D

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught four passes for 25 yards but ran the wrong way on a critical route early in the game. Zach Gentry caught 4 passes, including Ben Roethlisberger’s final toss. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
When asked if his wide receivers could have stepped up and made more plays, Mike Tomlin’s response was, “Ya think?” Such candor is as brutal as it is uncharacteristic. And it is accurate. Diontae Johnson had several drops, including 1 on third down. Chase Claypool also did not distinguish himself. Sure, some of the passes were not catchable, but reading Roethlisberger’s body language the WR’s were just as much at fault. Grade: F

Offensive Line
The Kansas City Chiefs defense got 7 hits on Roethlisberger and sacked him three times. There looked to be a little push in the running game early on, but that dissipated quickly. A junior varsity performance. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward played well, helping force the fumble and while the unit didn’t get gouged on the ground, it did help give up containment on Mahomes several times and got out foxed in the goal line. Grade: D

Linebackers
T.J. Watt deflected a pass that Devin Bush intercepted and returned fumble for a touchdown. He also sacked Mahomes to save a final score and allow the Steelers to end the game with the ball in Ben Roethlisberger’s hands. Alex Highsmith had a sack. But those Splash plays on that stat sheet mask a unit that got fooled at in the Red Zone once and then gave up touchdowns on two more gadget plays. Grade: D

Secondary
It took Patrick Mahomes 20 minutes to warm up, but then he basically did want he wanted, when he wanted. And the Steelers were powerless to stop him. After the Chiefs scoring run started, Kansas City didn’t punt until there was 4:35 left in the Roethlisberger era. Grade: F

Special Teams
Mecole Hardman had a 48 yard kick off return, but that amounted to nothing as the Steelers intercepted the next pass. Beyond that coverage units were solid and Ray-Ray McCloud did a respectable job of returning. Presley Harvin III punted often and punted well. Chris Boswell was perfect. Honestly, special teams really had no chance to make an impact. Grade: C

Coaching
Mike Tomlin’s response to the first question of the night said it all: “Game plans are irrelevant man. We didn’t execute nearly well enough.”

  • It says here that talent and not coaching drove the Steelers to defeat.

IT also says here that this game shows that the Steelers did not belong in these playoffs to begin with, confirming that the 3rd Wild Card slot is all money and zero competition.

James Washington, Charvarius Ward, Steelers vs Chiefs, Ben Roethlisberger's Last Game

James Washington makes a combat catch against Charvarius Ward. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

But the Report Card grades on performance and results, and both of those were terrible. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He was invisible for almost 3 quarters. He was only targeted 3 times and made two catches yet still led the Steelers receivers in receiving yardage. While that says more about the rest of the receiving corps that it does him, James Washington was giving his all, making combat catches till the very end and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Ward for the 2021 AFC Wild Card Playoff Loss to the Chiefs.

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

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

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

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

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

  • That didn’t happen.

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

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

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

Steelers Start with Intensity Worthy of a Playoff Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Adrenaline Rush Hangover Hits Hard

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

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

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

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

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

One in 381….

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roethlisberger Finishes Fighting to the End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Playoff Bound! Steelers Beat Ravens 16-13 as Ben Roethlisberger Leads Overtime Comeback

Last week’s Steelers win over the Browns was perfect. After such an emotional, dramatic close to Ben Roethlisberger’s career at Heinz Field, one wondered whether the Steelers had left it all on the field, whether the season finale would be anything more than disappointing denouement.

  • Oh, but underestimate these 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers at your peril.

The Steelers not only had “something” left to take to Baltimore, but they topped the Browns game for drama with a 4th quarter comeback and an 16-13 overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens.

How did the Steelers pull this off? Because, as Mike Tomlin describes Ben Roethlisberger is “…The same when everyone else gets funny.”

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season game

Ben Roethlisberger fades back. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Slow Starting Steelers Hold True to Form

If it’s the Steelers vs the Ravens you know the game will be won and lost either the trenches or by the team that creates its own opportunity with a big play. The close to the 2021 season was no exception. After a bobbled snap,  a strip by T.J. Watt and a recovery by Henry Mondeaux the Steelers had a chance to prove both points.

A quick pass to Zach Gentry, followed by two strong runs from Benny Snell and another catch by Diontae Johnson gave the Steelers a 4th and 1 on the Ravens five. Mike Tomlin opted to go for it, but an illegal procedure  penalty robbed Pittsburgh of a shot at imposing its will.

The Steelers offense couldn’t do much for the rest of the first half, as the Ravens answered Terrell Edmunds interception with one of their own, but the Steelers defense held, followed by 7 straight series that resulted in an exchange of punts.

  • But Pittsburgh’s tenacity in the trenches would pay off.

The Ravens reached the Red Zone, but a Cam Heyward sack resulted in a personal foul, bringing Baltimore to the 3. T.J. Watt struck next, with an NFL record tying sack of Tyler Huntley, and the Steelers DBs did the rest, forcing Baltimore to settle for a field goal.

That four point differential would come in handy later on….

Run Defense? What Run Defense?

One has to wonder why any offensive coordinator would do anything other than call run plays against the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers. Baltimore got the message at half time, as it only took them 5 plays to put Latavius Murray in position to rip off a 45 yard touchdown run.

  • Yes, Steelers Nation. We have seen this movie before. Too. Many. Times.

The Steelers answered with a field goal, but Baltimore held the lead. Two series later the Ravens circled in on making Pittsburgh pay for settling for a simple field goal. Latavius Murray gouged them for runs of 22 and 27 yards on consecutive plays. Sticking with what was working, Murray ran for 3 and then 6 yards bring up 3rd and 1 at the Steelers 17 yard line. The first down and eventual touchdown appeared to be formalities.

  • By Henry Mondeaux and Miles Killebrew stuffed Mark Andrews for no gain.
Cam Sutton, Mark Andrews, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season game

Cam Sutton intercepts a pass to Mark Andrews. Photo Credit: Ravens.com

The Ravens went for it on 4th. This time Huntley ran it, and got 2 yards. Williams added another 4. Then, John Harbaugh opted to take to the air. Tyler Huntely threw a lazy pass towards Mark Andrews. Cam Sutton read it all the way and picked it off.

In two Red Zone situations, the Steelers defense had knocked 11 points off the Ravens board. They were creating their own opportunities.

A Patented Ben Roethlisberger 4th Quarter Comeback

Ben Roethlisberger went to work. He completed 5 straight passes with Benny Snell taking the last one 24 yards into the Red Zone. But a face mask penalty drove the Steelers back 15 yards, and two plays later, the Steelers punted.

But Roethlisberger was just getting warmed up, and the Steelers defense had come alive. Baltimore tried to kill the clock by shoving it down the Steelers throat, but Joe Schobert, Arthur Maulet and Cam Heyward each came up with critical stops.

Ben Roethlisberger would throw 9 passes over the next 5 minutes and 13 seconds, converting 2 third downs along the way before connecting with Chase Claypool from the six yard line to put Pittsburgh ahead with 3:54 remaining.

Three minutes and fifty four seconds is a long time in football, and even longer when your opponent has Justin Tucker. The Ravens tied the game, and the Steelers moved the ball.

  • But on 3rd and short Pat Freiermuth came up just short of the first down. Pittsburgh punted.

Tyler Huntley connected with Mark Andrews for 12 yards before throwing 3 straight incompletions. A punt and a kneel down later and the Steelers and Ravens were in overtime.

Overtime Atonement

The Ravens won the toss, got the ball. They earned a 1st down before Cameron Heyward stoned Murray for a one yard gain, leading to 2 Huntley incompletions. It was time for Ben Roethlisberger to do what he has done best for 18 years:

  • Author a game winning drive at the gun.

 

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season

Najee Harris starts overtime with 1 handed catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Najee Harris set the tone on 1st down by transforming a seemingly broken play by making a one handed catch – with his left hand, and rushing it 11 yards.

Or 3rd and 7, Ben Roethlisberger gunned it to Pat Freiermuth who got the 1st down a 7 more yards. On 3rd and 9, Roethlisberger found Diontae Johnson, who made an 11 yard catch. On 4th and 8 Roethlisberger wanted to hit Freiermuth again, but had to target to Ray-Ray McCloud. McCloud had missed a 3rd down conversion before.

  • This time Ray-Ray McCloud made good, gaining 11 yards.

The Steelers had the ball at the Raven’s 31. 48 yards is in Chris Boswell’s range, but in January, in the rain? In the end, it didn’t matter. Najee Harris, carrying the ball in his left arm, ripped off a 15 yard gain to put the ball at the 16.

  • Roethlisberger closed his chapter at M&T Bank just as he’d closed it at Heinz Field – he took a knee.

One play later, the Chris Boswell knocked in a 36 yard field goal. Thanks to major upset by the Jacksonville Jaguars, and a win by the Las Vegas Raiders the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers were going to the playoffs!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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