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Steelers Draft Report Card: Grades for the Mike Tomlin Era

How can we publish a Steelers draft report card before the 2018 NFL draft has even happened?

We’re not grading the upcoming draft. We’re grading the 11 Steelers drafts since Mike Tomlin was hired as head coach in 2007, and we’ll finish by spinning forward a little bit to the 2018 draft.

As soon as Mr. Irrelevant gets his No. 256 jersey on Saturday afternoon, cyberspace will be flooded with draft report cards for every team. And in five years, we’ll be laughing at a lot of those report cards. Grading these picks before any of the players have played a snap is like handing out report cards on the first day of school.

It’s too early to even evaluate the 2017 draft, although the picture on a draft becomes clearer with each passing year.

Steelers fans who are growing impatient with the team’s 10-year championship drought have criticized Tomlin and Kevin Colbert for some of their drafts, although the tandem is standing by one of its most pivotal picks by exercising the fifth-year option on 2015 first-rounder Bud Dupree.

Let’s crunch some numbers and try to objectively evaluate just how well the Steelers have drafted since 2007.

Using Pro Football Reference, we tallied how many First Team All-Pros, Pro Bowlers and starters the Steelers have drafted, and compared those numbers to the rest of the league.

We multiplied each pick by the number of years since that pick. For example, the Steelers drafted eight players in 2017, giving them eight potential player seasons from that draft. The Steelers also made eight picks in 2007. Eleven seasons have gone by since that draft, giving those players 88 potential seasons in the NFL.

We then looked at how many of those seasons were First-Team All-Pro seasons, Pro Bowl seasons and seasons in which the drafted player was the “primary” starter at his position, as defined by PFR, to come up with the percentages in the table below.

This data isn’t without flaws. PFR didn’t consider JuJu Smith-Schuster a starter last season. On the other hand, Dupree is credited with one season as a starter. Smith-Schuster looks like a better pick than Dupree so far. However, we’re not necessarily evaluating individual picks. This is a big-picture look at the Steelers’ drafts over the last 11 years. Furthermore, while the numbers don’t give the Steelers the credit they deserve for picking Smith-Schuster, they get too much credit for Dupree. So it evens out.

Also, not every First-Team All-Pro, Pro Bowl or starter season has come with the team that drafted the player. Emmanuel Sanders has been a starter for five seasons, but just one with the Steelers. However, there are plenty of these scenarios around the league and the volume of the data irons out these wrinkles. Since 2007 the number of NFL draft picks multiplied by the seasons since each player was drafted comes out to 16,786.

If that explanation isn’t satisfactory, then think of it this way. Even though Sanders has spent the prime of his career with the Broncos, he was still a good pick by the Steelers.

With that out of the way, below is a table that illustrates the numbers. The first row is an aggregate for all the drafts. The Steelers’ 91 draft picks since 2007 could have potentially played 549 seasons. During that time, those players have combined to make 26 Pro Bowls, or 4.7 percent. Meanwhile, of the 16,786 potential seasons league-wide since 2007, 600 of those have been Pro Bowl seasons, or 3.57 percent.

Looking only at 2017, the Steelers’ draft has produced no Pro Bowlers to this point, while four of the 253 picks league-wide made Pro Bowls. That’s 1.6 percent.

Here’s the chart, and we’ll follow it with some takeaways:

 

All-Pro Pro Bowl Starter
Steelers NFL Steelers NFL Steelers NFL
2007-2017 2% <1% 4.7% 3.57% 22.4% 22.6%
2017 0 <1% 0 1.6% 12.5% 16.6%
2016 0 1% 0 3.2% 28.6% 25.7%
2015 0 <1% 0 2.5% 12.5% 23.2%
2014 0 <1% 5.6% 4.4% 25% 26.5%
2013 4.4% <1% 6.7% 3.1% 22.2% 25.9%
2012 3.7% 1.1% 5.6% 4% 18.5% 26.4%
2011 2% 1.5% 2% 4.8% 20.4% 24.1%
2010 7.5% 1.5% 17.4% 5.4% 22.5% 23.8%
2009 0 <1% 1.2% 2.8% 30.9% 22.1%
2008 0 <1% 0 2.7% 7% 20%
2007 0 1.2% 2.3% 3.6% 31.8% 18.8%

Takeaways

Much of the Steelers’ drafting success has come between 2010 and 2014

The Steelers appear to have drafted First Team All-Pros and Pro Bowlers at a better rate than the rest of the league since 2007, but much of their success has been concentrated between 2010 and 2014. All-Pros Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey and Cameron Heyward all were drafted during that time. The Steelers haven’t drafted an All-Pro since 2013 and they haven’t drafted a Pro Bowler since 2014.

Not surprisingly, only one of the Steelers’ 11 All-Pro seasons have come on the defensive side of the ball. Much of their offensive core has been built through the draft between 2010 and 2013.

The supply lines have to keep moving, however. If the Steelers’ last three drafts don’t start churning out some Pro Bowl-caliber talent, the tank could empty. On the positive side, six of their eight starter seasons since 2015 have come on defense. Perhaps that bodes well for the improvement of the unit, although they’ll need to find a replacement for Ryan Shazier on Thursday or Friday to maintain any such progress.

The Steelers’ 2008 draft was awful and their 2009 draft wasn’t much better

If any number on this chart needs an asterisk, it’s the 30.9 percent starter rate from the 2009 draft.

First-rounder Ziggy Hood is considered a three-year starter for the Steelers, although during the Tomlin Era only Jarvis Jones has turned out to be a worse first-round pick than Hood.

Mike Wallace has been a starter for each of the last five years since he left the Steelers. Kraig Urbik and A.Q. Shipley are other members of the Steelers’ 2009 draft class who have been starters in other places.

Third-rounder Keenan Lewis had one decent season before leaving in free agency. Wallace had the biggest impact from the draft class, but not even he could get a second contract.

That underwhelming 2009 draft came on the heels of the Steelers’ worst draft of the last decade. First-rounder Rashard Mendenhall gave them two 1,000-yard rushing seasons, but he was gone after his age-25 season. He was followed in that draft by busts Limas Sweed and Bruce Davis. The only other member of that draft class to start anywhere was Ryan Mundy, and that was with the Bears in 2014. You never want Mundy to be the second-best player of your draft class.

The Steelers’ fortunes over the last six years can loosely be traced to the quality of their drafts from 2008 to 2014. They went 8-8 in both 2012 and 2013, when they could have used more manpower from their 2008 and 2009 drafts. Then when they started to reap the benefits of those subsequent drafts, or maybe it’s as simple as Bell rising to stardom in 2014, they returned to the playoffs and made it one round further each year before last year’s premature exit.

The jury is still out on the last three drafts

If Dupree ultimately doesn’t pan out, the 2015 draft could turn out to be almost as bad as the 2008 draft.

The 2015 grade is hurting right now with busts in the second round (Senquez Golson), third round (Sammie Coates) and fourth round (Doran Grant). The only saving grace so far are the contributions from late-rounders Jesse James and Anthony Chickillo.

The 2016 draft will hinge on whether Artie Burns can fulfill the promise he showed as a rookie after going sideways in his sophomore season. Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave have at least proven to be serviceable starters, with Davis in particular showing the potential to break out.

The 2017 draft could turn out to be a home run for the Steelers. T.J. Watt and Smith-Schuster showed Pro Bowl potential as rookies, and third-round cornerback Cameron Sutton showed flashes of promise.

Conclusion

One of the reasons the Steelers are championship contenders is the talent at the skill offensive positions and offensive line that they drafted between 2010 and 2014. But they still have to get past the Patriots and now the Jaguars if they are more than a one-year wonder. There’s still a good chance that players from the 2015 and 2016 drafts can help the Steelers get over those hurdles. But the Steelers also will have to follow a strong 2017 draft with a 2018 draft that provides the same kind of immediate impact.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

2018 Steelers mock schedule

The NFL has turned its annual schedule release into yet another offseason event that steals headlines from sports that are actually playing regular-season and playoff games.

According to Pro Football Talk, the 2018 NFL schedule is expected to be released sometime this week. Even if it’s not released this week, it almost surely will be before the draft begins on April 26. The league has turned the unveiling of the schedule into a prime time event as sort of a draft appetizer.

We already know the Steelers’ 2018 home and road opponents. As always, they’ll play each of their AFC North rivals at home and on the road. They’ll also face every team in the AFC West and NFC South and also the AFC East and AFC South first-place teams.

In a few days we’ll finally know where these games land between September and December. So let’s try to do the work of hundreds of computers in the league offices and take a crack at predicting the Steelers’ 2018 schedule.

Week 1

Sept. 10: Kansas City (Monday), 7 p.m.

The Steelers have opened the last three seasons on the road. The last time they opened four consecutive seasons on the road was 1960-1963. It wouldn’t be surprising if they lobbied for a Week 1 home game in 2018. The problem is the Pirates are home on Sept. 9. They hit the road the next day, however, which opens up Monday night.

The NFL has had a Week 1 Monday Night Football doubleheader every year since 2006. This would be the 7 p.m. game. Patrick Mahomes will make his second career start, but his first in a meaningful game as the Steelers and Chiefs square off for the fifth straight year. They played each other six straight seasons between 1984 and 1989.

Week 2

Sept. 16: at Jacksonville, 8 p.m.

The Jaguars were left off the NFL’s prime time schedule for the first time in their history last season, but after their run to the AFC title game they return to the big stage against the Steelers on Sunday Night Football. The Steelers have started the last two seasons 2-0. They haven’t started three straight seasons with a 2-0 record since 1978-1980. Starting the 2018 season 2-0 won’t be easy against two of last year’s AFC playoff teams.

Week 3

Sept. 23: at New Orleans, 1 p.m.

For the second straight week, the Steelers will have a chance to improve their all-time regular-season record against an opponent to .500. They slipped to 11-12 against the Jaguars last year and are 7-8 against the Saints. In this scenario, the teams will meet in September for the first time.

Week 4

Sept. 30: Atlanta, 1 p.m.

According to CBSSports.com, the Steelers’ strength of schedule is tied for 25th in the league. But it sure doesn’t seem like it in this mock schedule with the Steelers facing four 2017 playoff teams in September.

Week 5

Oct. 7: at Oakland, 4 p.m.

Jon Gruden is 0-4 in his coaching career against the Steelers. Mike Tomlin, however, is 0-2 in his career at Oakland. The last two Steelers teams to win at Oakland were the 1995 and 1974 teams. Both went to the Super Bowl.

Week 6

Oct. 14: Cincinnati, 4 p.m.

Vontaze Burfict will be back in time for this game after serving his four-game PED suspension. If this mock schedule comes true, it would be the first time since 2012 that the Steelers don’t play any AFC North opponents in the first five weeks of the season. This would be the first of three straight division games surrounding a bye.

Week 7

Bye

Week 8

Oct. 28: Baltimore, 1 p.m.

The Steelers face their third straight opponent that didn’t make the 2017 playoffs, but who are we kidding? It’s the Ravens. In this imaginary schedule, the Steelers better rest up during their bye week.

Week 9

Nov. 1: at Cleveland (Thursday), 8 p.m.

The Steelers would have just three days to heal up from all the bumps and bruises that come with playing the Ravens. You heard it here first. The Steelers and Browns wear color rush jerseys on Thursday Night Football, with the Steelers in all black and the Browns in all orange the night after Halloween. Do it!

Week 10

Nov. 11: at Denver, 4 p.m.

About a week or so after the actual 2018 schedule comes out, we’ll know which teams draft Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson and Mason Rudolph. In this spot, it’s quite possible the Steelers visit two of those rookie quarterbacks in consecutive weeks.

Week 11

Nov. 18: Patriots, 8 p.m.

The Steelers’ rematch against the Patriots comes 10 months later than they thought it would, and NBC gets it on Sunday Night Football. It would be nice if the Steelers could refrain from referring to this game as “Round One.”

Week 12

Nov. 25: at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

The Steelers are 8-2 all-time against the Buccaneers. But both of those losses have been infamous. In 1998, Kordell Stewart cried on the sidelines when he was benched during a 13-3 loss at Tampa Bay. In 2014, Mike Glennon led the winless Bucs to a last-second victory at Heinz Field. Of course, the Buccaneers never beat the Steelers in their old Bucco Bruce creamsicle uniforms. Did someone say throwback jerseys?

Week 13

Dec. 2: at Carolina, 1 p.m.

Perhaps the Steelers stay in the South between these games to cut down on travel fatigue. It would be a nice reprieve after a brutal four-week stretch that includes their obligatory Monday-Thursday turnaround, a game in Denver’s high altitude and a showdown against the Patriots.

Week 14

Dec. 9: Cleveland, 1 p.m.

If the Steelers’ schedule actually pans out like this, their defense could face Jameis Winston (the 2015 top overall draft pick) followed by Cam Newton (the 2011 top overall draft pick) and then whoever ends up being the 2018 top overall draft pick. In a six-week span, they could encounter five quarterbacks drafted in the top five and Tom Brady.

Week 15

Dec. 16: at Baltimore, 8 p.m.

And that aforementioned six-week stretch would be bookended by games against the Steelers’ most familiar rival. This would be the Steelers’ first prime time game at Baltimore since 2014, and their first Sunday Night Football game there since 2010. This would be the Steelers’ fifth prime time game, with the possibility of a sixth being flexed.

Week 16

Dec. 23: Los Angeles Chargers, 1 p.m.

This is another place where the Steelers’ schedule could be tougher than it looks. The Chargers missed the playoffs last season, but won six of their last seven.

Week 17

Dec. 30: at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

Since divisional games for Week 17 were mandated in 2010, the Steelers have closed against the Browns seven times, hosting them four times including 2016 and 2017. The only exception came in 2014, when they hosted the Bengals in Week 17. The Steelers probably never host the Ravens in Week 17 because the networks fear that one of their most prized matchups turns out to have no playoff implications. The Steelers have won a December game at Cincinnati each of the last four seasons. So why not play there in Week 17? Maybe the Bengals will rest Burfict.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Steelers 2018 7-round mock draft: Pittsburgh makes stunning Day 1 trade

There’s always a lot of wheeling and dealing that happens at the NFL draft, but the Steelers aren’t usually a part of it. They might make some trades in the later rounds, but they’ve only traded up in the first round twice this century. They moved from 27 to 16 in 2003 to get Troy Polamalu and from 32 to 25 in 2006 to get Santonio Holmes.

Those moves yielded a Hall of Fame candidate and a Super Bowl MVP. Do they feel that a player in this draft class will have enough of an impact to move up in the first round for the first time in 12 years?

(NFL.com was used for scouting reports, and Rotoworld was used as a resource for heights and weights.)

2nd round (No. 38)

Ronald Jones, RB, USC

The answer to the question in the lead-in is no, the Steelers don’t trade up. Instead, they trade out of the first round in this mock draft and then send the message that they are preparing for life after Le’Veon Bell.

This assumes inside linebackers Rashaan Evans and Leighton Vander Esch are off the board by the time the Steelers pick at No. 28.

In this scenario, the Steelers trade back 10 spots and get a fourth-rounder (No. 102) and fifth-rounder (No. 144) from the Buccaneers. In this running back class, there’s Saquon Barkley and there’s everyone else, so even if Derrius Guice is still on the board the Steelers figure they might as well see who they can get early in the second round and beef up their supply of middle-round picks. Currently, they are without a fourth-round pick.

The 5’11”, 200-pound Jones was eighth in the nation with 1,550 rushing yards in 2017 and fifth with 19 rushing touchdowns.

There’s some concern that Jones might not be able to handle a workhorse role in the NFL, but that’s not a problem even if the Steelers move on from Bell after 2018.

Even though Jones would be drafted 10 spots higher than Bell in 2013, he wouldn’t necessarily be Bell’s successor. He could be a complementary piece as the Steelers follow the model of last year’s conference champions, the Patriots and Eagles, and build a stable of backs that share the workload. The Steelers began this process when they drafted James Conner last year. As great as Bell is, the Steelers’ championship hopes sank in 2014, 2015 and 2016 when he couldn’t finish those seasons healthy. With a productive tandem or trio at the position, they can better absorb an injury to one back.

The Steelers haven’t been without a first-round pick since 1967. It might not seem like a good idea to do anything that was done pre-Chuck Noll, but the circumstances are different. The Steelers had a habit in those days of trading away early-round picks for veterans who were past their prime, and as we all know it didn’t work out too well.

In this mock trade, the Steelers aren’t dealing away the future. They’re addressing their running back situation while adding some flexibility on Day 3 of the draft.

2nd round (No. 60)

Darius Leonard, ILB, South Carolina State

The Steelers draft another USC guy with their original second-round pick.

No, not Southern California. Another school commonly referred to as USC is South Carolina State.

Leonard would re-join former USC South Carolina State teammate Javon Hargrave. Like Hargrave, Leonard won two straight MEAC Defensive Player of the Year Awards. He earned the honor last season with 113 tackles, eight sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble.

The 6’2″, 234-pound Leonard forced eight fumbles in college and is the all-time leading tackler for a program that also produced three-time All-Pro Steelers safety Donnie Shell.

The Steelers signed inside linebacker Jon Bostic in free agency, but that could turn out to be just a depth signing as he’s had health issues in the past. Inside linebacker remains the Steelers’ biggest draft need, and the Steelers address that in the early rounds.

3rd round (No. 92)

Anthony Averett, CB, Alabama

Anthony Averett would become the sixth cornerback the Steelers have drafted on Day 1 or Day 2 since 2015.

The Steelers are in better shape at cornerback than they have been in recent seasons, but Joe Haden hasn’t played 16 games in a season since his rookie year and while Artie Burns and Cameron Sutton have shown some promise, they still have a lot to prove.

The 5’11”, 183-pound Averett had just one interception and eight pass breakups in three years at Alabama. But remember when the Steelers drafted Senquez Golson and Gerod Holliman in 2015? Holliman led the nation the year before with 14 interceptions and Golson was second with 10. How did those picks turn out?

4th round (No. 102, from Buccaneers)

Marquis Haynes, OLB, Mississippi

As it stands now, the Steelers are without a fourth-round pick. That means they have little margin for error on Day 1 and Day 2 because 47 picks will go by before the Steelers draft on Day 3. In the aforementioned mock trade, the Steelers get the second pick of Day 3 and use it to try to improve their pass rush.

The 6’3″, 225-pound Haynes was consistently productive in his four years at Ole Miss with 32 sacks in four seasons, including 7.5 last season. He forced 12 fumbles, three each season. He had 11 tackles for loss in both 2016 and 2017 and according to Sports Reference his 48 career tackles for loss are tied for third on the all-time SEC list, one more than Jadeveon Clowney.

Haynes wouldn’t have to be Clowney to fulfill his value as a fourth-round pick, but draft analyst Tony Pauline did say that people are “sleeping” on Haynes.

5th round (No. 144, from Buccaneers)

Geron Christian, OT, Louisville

A fourth- and fifth-round pick might seem like a lot for the Buccaneers to give up, but moving into the first round and from Day 2 to Day 1 doesn’t come cheap.

Jerald Hawkins, a fourth-round pick in 2016, is the heir apparent to Chris Hubbard as the Steelers’ backup tackle. Hubbard, who started 14 games in 2016 and 2017, signed with the Browns. Hawkins spent his rookie year on injured reserve and played 47 snaps last season. He hasn’t shown enough to simply inherit Hubbard’s role. The Steelers need to find someone to compete with him.

Christian could be gone by the fifth round, but if he drops he could turn out to be a steal at this spot. The 6’6″, 318-pounder can play both tackle spots and started all 13 games at left tackle in 2017, earning an honorable mention all-ACC nod.

5th round (No. 148)

Marcell Ateman, WR, Oklahoma State

The Steelers keep the supply lines moving at wide receiver, drafting one for the seventh year in a row.

The 6’4″, 216-pound Ateman could probably fit right into Martavis Bryant‘s old uniform if and when Bryant leaves as a free agent.

Ateman caught 59 passes for 1,156 yards and eight touchdowns last season. He’ll have to adjust to life in the NFL coming from the defensively challenged Big 12.

5th round (No. 165)

Joshua Kalu, S, Nebraska

The mock trade gives the Steelers nine picks in this draft. They still wouldn’t have any sixth-round picks, however. So this is the last pick before the total crapshoot that is the seventh round.

Safety is lower on the Steelers’ list of draft priorities after they signed Morgan Burnett, but they’re still dangerously thin at the position with J.J. Wilcox, Malik Golden and Jordan Dangerfield backing up Burnett and Sean Davis.

The 6’1″, 190-pound Kalu intercepted seven passes and broke up 27 in four years at Nebraska. He was second among safeties in both the high jump (41.5 inches) and broad jump (11 feet, 2 inches) at the combine. He moved from cornerback to safety in his senior year, so he could bring some versatility.

7th round (No. 220)

JoJo Wicker, DE, Arizona State

The Steelers drafted a JuJu last year, and in this mock they take a JoJo and address all three levels of their defense in this draft.

The 6’3″, 273-pound Wicker had 13 tackles for loss and six sacks last season.

7th round (No. 246)

Phillip Lindsay, RB, Colorado

Lindsay might be just 5’8″, 190 pounds, but his 301 carries last season were tied for the most in the NCAA. He gained 1,474 yards on those carries and ran for 14 touchdowns. He also ran for 1,252 yards in 2016.

With nine picks in this mock, the Steelers have the luxury of drafting a second running back and trying to add a smaller back to the committee if they have to replace Bell in 2019.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Morgan Burnett will try to restore Steelers’ tradition at safety

The torch has been passed to Morgan Burnett.

What torch is this, exactly?

It’s a torch that was first carried by Ryan Clark, who the Steelers signed in 2006. In eight years with the Steelers, Clark helped them win Super Bowl XLIII and reach Super Bowl XLV.

When the Steelers moved on from Clark in 2014, the torch was passed to Mike Mitchell. The torch wasn’t carried quite as well during Mitchell’s four seasons with the team. Mitchell dropped it a few times and occasionally burned both himself and the Steelers.

Now, Burnett takes the torch and assumes the role of the free agent safety who comes to the Steelers in mid-career and hopefully helps bring home a championship.

The Steelers signed Burnett to a three-year contract Tuesday, according to the team’s website.

This situation isn’t exactly like that of Clark in 2006 and Mitchell in 2014. Both Clark and Mitchell were coming off breakout seasons. Clark made a name for himself with the Steelers. Mitchell did too, but more on social media than on the field.

Burnett, on the other hand, already is an established safety in the NFL. The Steelers don’t usually make a splash in free agency, but there is something splashy about this move.

Since the Packers drafted him in the third round in 2010, Burnett has nine career interceptions, 46 pass breakups, eight forced fumbles and 7.5 sacks.

According to Pro Football Focus, Burnett missed just two tackles last season and was the most efficient tackler among safeties with at least 200 snaps.

The Steelers allowed 4.4 yards per carry last season, tied for fifth-worst in the league. Burnett should provide some much-needed help in that area as long as he can stay healthy.

And that’s the buyer-beware part of this deal.

Clark and Mitchell both were 26 at the time that they signed with the Steelers. Burnett is 29, and with that added mileage comes an injury history.

Burnett hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2012. He missed four games with hamstring and groin injuries last season. His three passes defended were his lowest total since his rookie season.

Inside linebacker Jon Bostic, the Steelers’ other free-agent addition, also has been in and out of the trainer’s room. He missed the entire 2016 season with the Lions after breaking his foot and played 14 games for the Colts last season before missing the last two games with a knee injury.

The Steelers have to accept some injury risk because with Le’Veon Bell‘s $14.5 million franchise-tag cost taking up so much salary cap room, they’re working on a budget in the free agent market. They’ve stretched those dollars to try to fill their two biggest holes on defense.

Like Clark in 2006 and Mitchell in 2014, Bostic is at that ripe age of 26. He’s at the point at which he could make himself a household name if he helps the Steelers’ defense improve. He can do that without doing everything that Ryan Shazier did, and he expressed to the Pittsburgh media that he knows he could never really replace Shazier.

Sounds like a guy who won’t rile up playoff opponents with bold statements on social media.

The same can’t be said for Mitchell, who was released last week. He didn’t intercept a pass last season and broke up just two. He had four interceptions in his four years with the Steelers. He had that many in 2013 for the Panthers. After making 7.5 sacks in the first five years of his career, Mitchell had no regular-season sacks and one postseason sack as a Steeler.

Unlike Bostic, Burnett won’t have to show any such deference to the man who played the position before him. He can replace Mitchell, but should aim higher than that.

At his age, the Steelers can’t expect to get eight years out of Burnett like they got from Clark. But the Steelers aren’t looking to win a championship in eight years. They’re looking to win at least one more in however many years Ben Roethlisberger has left in his career.

Burnett is coming from another franchise where anything short of a championship is a disappointment.

That disappointment was especially sharp in 2014. In the NFC championship game at Seattle, Burnett had two sacks, recovered a fumble and made an interception with five minutes left that would have sealed the win if it weren’t for Mike McCarthy’s conservative play-calling.

The Packers went three-and-out on the possession that Burnett provided them, and the Seahawks came back from a 19-7 deficit and won 28-22 in overtime.

Both Burnett and the Steelers have experienced their share of playoff heartache, and together they can try to take care of some unfinished business.

 Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

10 players on the Steelers’ radar at the NFL scouting combine

The NFL scouting combine is always a special time of year for Steelers fans.

It’s when we can see Steelers scout Mark Gorscak on the NFL Network instructing prospects who are about to run the 40-yard dash.

The Steelers’ 2018 offseason came a lot earlier than expected, but the sight of Gorscak is always a nice reminder that the next Steelers game is only about six and a half months away.

OK, maybe that’s not such a pleasant thought because six and a half months is an awfully long time. The combine, however, starts Tuesday and all the running, lifting, jumping and interviewing that goes on over the next week will bring the Steelers’ draft board into focus.

These 10 players could be available when the Steelers are on the clock with the 28th pick in the first round. Some of them might even be there in the second round.

(NFL.com and CBSSports.com were used for scouting reports.)

Roquan Smith, ILB, Georgia

The Steelers can leave a light on for Ryan Shazier, but they can’t expect him to return to action in 2018, so inside linebacker is probably their biggest draft need.

At this early stage of the pre-draft process, it doesn’t look like Smith will still be on the board at No. 28, but the combine has a way of shuffling eveyone’s draft stock. So the Steelers need to have Smith on their radar.

Smith had 6.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss in 2017. He had 137 tackles, including 13 in both the SEC Championship Game (a 28-7 win over Auburn) and the College Football Championship (a 26-23 loss to Alabama). In between, Smith made 11 tackles in a 54-48 win over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. He’s shown he can rise to the occasion even if he is a little undersized at 6’1″, 225 pounds.

Derwin James, S, Florida State

If James slides, he could fill another glaring need for the Steelers. He comes with a medical red flag after missing all but one game of the 2016 season with a torn ACL. If he stays healthy, however, the 6’3″, 215-pounder has the potential to be a game-changer like Troy Polamalu with Kam Chancellor’s size.

James broke up 11 passes in 2017 with two interceptions (including a pick-six), 5.5 tackles for loss and a sack.

Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech

Tremaine Edmunds won’t turn 20 until May 2. He’s one of just five players with a grade of 7.0 or better on NFL.com, which puts him in the “Pro Bowl to All-Pro ability” category.

Edmunds has 30.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks over the last two seasons along with five pass breakups and three forced fumbles (all in 2017). He’s a physical freak, the tallest linebacker in the draft class at 6’5″. He might have to add buik to his frame and one of the few knocks on him is that he needs to be more of a student of the game and not rely so much on his athleticism.

Rashaan Evans, ILB, Alabama

Now we get to the players who are projected to be available when the Steelers pick in the first round. There’s been some chatter that the Steelers will bring back Lawrence Timmons if the Dolphins release him. Even if Timmons returns to Pittsburgh, inside linebacker will remain a draft need because Timmons is 32 and was ineffective in his one year with the Dolphins.

It just so happens that NFL.com’s player comparison for Rashaan Evans is Timmons. Playing behind 2017 first-round pick Reuben Foster, Evans had to wait his turn at Alabama. He did play in three national championship games, recording 2.5 sacks, four tackles for loss, 22 total tackles and a pass breakup. The only senior on this list, Evans would be the first player the Steelers draft from Alabama since Deshea Townsend in 1998.

Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa

The Steelers have a pair of promising young cornerbacks in Artie Burns and Cameron Sutton and they uncovered a hidden gem in Mike Hilton. Still, the Steelers need help at the position and it looks like a lot of corners will be available late in the first round.

A 6’1″, 192-pound junior, Josh Jackson led college football with eight interceptions last season and was third in the nation with 18 passes defended. Most of his career production came in one season, but it was a first-team All-America season.

Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State

A former teammate of 2017 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore, Ward tied Lattimore for the team lead with nine passes defended in 2016. Ward broke up 15 passes last season, eighth in the nation, and had two interceptions to earn first-team All-America honors.

At 5’10”, 191 pounds, the junior might be a little undersized. But he has the physical tools to boost his stock at the combine.

Leighton Vander Esch, ILB, Boise State

If Roquan Smith and Rashaan Evans are off the board, there’s a good chance Leighton Vander Esch will be there if the Steelers want to address inside linebacker in the first round.

The 6’4″, 240-pound junior is one of several inside linebackers in this draft class with uncommon length for the position. Vander Esch was second in the nation with 91 solo tackles in 2017 and led the Mountain West Conference with four forced fumbles. He also had three interceptions, four sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. There’s a chance that Vander Esch might need a couple of years to develop. If that’s the case, the Steelers might want to keep that in mind. Their championship window won’t be open forever, and they need to improve their defense instantly with this draft.

Isaiah Oliver, CB, Colorado

Isaiah Oliver is another player who might need a little time to develop. His pro player comparison is Artie Burns. That’s nice. The Steelers have done a lot worse than Burns in the early rounds, but if they draft another cornerback in the first round they might want him to have more of an impact in his first two years than Burns.

The 6’1″, 195-pound Oliver has only three interceptions in three years at Colorado, though he did have 25 pass breakups during that time.

Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama

After Derwin James, there’s a major dropoff in the draft stock of the safeties, at least pre-combine.

The 6’3″, 214-pound Ronnie Harrison would bring size to the position. The junior had 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, three interceptions and four pass breakups last season. According to one scouting report, Harrison doesn’t have the football smarts to direct traffic on defense but he does what he’s told.

There’s a chance Harrison could even be available to the Steelers in the second round.

Derrius Guice, RB, LSU

If the Steelers can’t sign Le’Veon Bell to a long-term deal and franchise him for another year, it might be time to look for his successor or try to build a stable of backs that share the workload similar to the ones that helped the Patriots and Eagles get to the Super Bowl.

Derrius Guice led the SEC with 1,387 rushing yards in 2016. That was with Leonard Fournette still on the team. Fournette battled injuries in 2016, which gave Guice more work. Last season, it was Guice who dealt with injuries, although he still managed 1,251 yards.

The Steelers can forget about landing Saquon Barkley, but the 5’11”, 212-pound Guice is the top running back in the draft class not named Barkley.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

Steelers shouldn’t fire Mike Tomlin, at least not this year

It’s one thing for basement bloggers to call for the firing of Mike Tomlin, but it’s quite another when accomplished businessmen who own a piece of the Steelers say that.

According to Pro Football Talk, some of the Steelers’ minority owners plan to petition owner Art Rooney II to give Tomlin the pink slip in the aftermath of the Steelers’ 45-42 divisional-round loss to the Jaguars Sunday at Heinz Field.

Ultimately, it’s up to Rooney. And no, he should not fire Tomlin.

Where was the outcry to fire Tomlin after two straight 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013? You’d probably need more than two hands to count the number of teams that would have fired their head coach in that situation.

At least until Feb. 4, the Steelers are the only franchise that has won six Super Bowls, and there are a lot of franchises that can learn from the Steelers’ patience with head coaches.

Let’s just rattle off a few points that have been mentioned time and again, but apparently need to be reiterated for a few people who happen to have enough money to own a piece of the Steelers:

  • Tomlin has won one Super Bowl and coached in another one.
  • The Steelers have had only three head coaches since 1969. Stability at the position is just part of a very successful business model.
  • Tomlin has never had a losing season.
  • Tomlin has more wins in his first 11 seasons than any coach except Don Shula.

Tomlin had to deal with a lot this year, but one thing he didn’t have to deal with was an early-season or midseason slump like he did in each of the last four seasons.

The 2013 Steelers recovered from an 0-4 start to finish 8-8.

The 2014 Steelers started 3-3 and finished 11-5.

The 2015 Steelers, who were without Ben Roethlisberger for four games and Le’Veon Bell for 10 games and Maurkice Pouncey for the entire season, won four of their last five, finished 10-6 and reached the divisional round of the playoffs.

The 2016 Steelers bounced back from a four-game losing streak and won nine games in a row, including playoffs, without Cameron Heyward.

Over the last five seasons, Tomlin’s teams are 20-3 in regular-season games in December and January.

Yeah, the 2017 Steelers went 13-3 and had the talent to at least give the Patriots a run for their money in the AFC championship game. It’s fair to say that Tomlin didn’t get enough out of this team. On the other hand, he’s matched Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher in leading the Steelers to four straight double-digit win seasons.

Tomlin hasn’t won a championship during this span, but neither did Cowher from 1994-1997. Was his job in jeopardy? Cowher really didn’t have a quarterback, but Tomlin really hasn’t had a defense for the last five years.

That gets us briefly to Tomlin’s coordinators. If Todd Haley goes, then Keith Butler should go, too. How ridiculous would it look to fire Haley after the Steelers scored 42 points on the second-ranked defense in the NFL, and not Butler after the Steelers allowed 45 points (38 defensively) to a Blake Bortles-led offense?

Now, back to Cowher, who also couldn’t get 13-3 and 15-1 teams past the Patriots in AFC title games at Pittsburgh and before that had two straight losing seasons and three straight non-playoff seasons.

Most coaches would have been gone after going 7-9 and 6-10, which Cowher did in 1998 and 1999. But that’s not how the Steelers do things, and it shouldn’t be how they do it now.

So while Rooney shouldn’t fire Tomlin, what he should do is give him a stern lecture.

The 4th-and-1 decisions against the Jaguars, and to a certain extent the failure to have a play ready during the review of Jesse James‘ apparent touchdown against the Patriots, will fall on Haley. But Roethlisberger, in his final radio show of the season Tuesday, didn’t throw Haley under the bus. It sounded like he wouldn’t mind if Haley stayed, and for however many years Roethlisberger has left, he should have some say regarding the offensive coordinator. Roethlisberger is running out of time to win a third championship, and he doesn’t have time to learn a new system and new terminology.

The decision to go with the onside kick with 2:18 left and two timeouts on Sunday could be spun into a reason to can Butler. Tomlin didn’t trust the defense.

But the coordinators can’t be blamed for players holding court unchecked on social media and in the traditional media.

When the head coach tells Tony Dungy in November that “We should win it all,” who can blame players for guaranteeing a win in a game the Steelers haven’t yet qualified for?

Sure, Cowher’s players provided bulletin board material for playoff opponents, but Cowher never set the Steelers up for such an epic shortfall like Tomlin did by saying that they should win Super Bowl LII.

As much as Tomlin has been defended here, he’s not the best coach in the NFL right now. A better coach would have had his team better prepared for Sunday’s playoff game and for the Steelers’ Week 3 game in Chicago. That loss to the Bears ultimately cost the Steelers the top seed in the playoffs and a chance to avoid the buzzsaw that the Jaguars turned out to be. For five straight years, the Steelers have lost to at least one team that finished with a losing record.

Under a better coach, Bell wouldn’t be tweeting a threat to sit out next season three days before a playoff game. Yes, Bell was asked the question and he answered it, but after 11 years on the job Tomlin should have his players programmed to talk around such questions.

In his final press conference of the season on Tuesday, Tomlin was asked about all the social media distractions and motivational kindling for opponents that his players created this season. The Steelers coach basically said that social media is a fact of life and while he did hint that he’d like to see his players use it more positively, he generally came across as arrogant throughout the press conference. In a setting where some answers for the Steelers’ truncated playoff run would have been nice, Tomlin’s responses were typically long-winded and bland.

He better have more to say if a sit-down with Rooney ever takes place.

If Tomlin’s smugness is borne of a feeling that he’s guaranteed a job for as long as he wants, then Rooney has to make clear to him that he can’t allow some of what happened in 2017 to happen again. If the Steelers lose a playoff game because their players were openly looking ahead to the next potential opponent, or if another loss to an inferior opponent costs the Steelers a first-round bye or a home playoff game, firing Tomlin would merit more consideration.

For now, Tomlin has earned a chance to make sure none of that happens in 2018.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Steelers’ playoff loss brings anger, not heartbreak

Steelers fans have seen some heartbreaking playoff defeats.

Sunday’s 45-42 AFC divisional playoff loss to the Jaguars at Heinz Field wasn’t one of them.

Hearts weren’t broken, but rather TV screens, drinking glasses, maybe a cell phone or two. Any object that could have been kicked, punched or thrown by angry Steelers fans was in danger Sunday afternoon.

The Steelers’ wildly entertaining 2017 season has come to a premature end. We laughed and cried with this team, from JuJu Smith-Schuster chaining his bike on the sideline to Ryan Shazier fighting to walk again. We tolerated anthem controversies and flying water coolers and celebrated last-second field goals.

This team, only the fourth Steelers team to go 13-3 or better, deserved a place in history.

Until Sunday’s pitiful performance, that is.

Last year, the Steelers laid their customary egg at Gillette Stadium but at least advanced a round further in the playoffs for the second straight year.

In 2015, the Steelers squeezed every last drop they could out of an injury-ravaged team before falling to the eventual Super Bowl champions in Denver.

In 2014, the Steelers were one-and-done in the postseason but they at least ended a two-year playoff drought.

This year’s exit wasn’t so honorable.

The Steelers spent too much time guaranteeing wins over the Patriots and tweeting about contract gripes and not enough time preparing for this game. The Jaguars, meanwhile, set out to prove that their 30-9 win in Week 5 wasn’t a fluke by taking a little more than a quarter to recreate that 21-point margin.

Oh, the Steelers didn’t go down without a fight. Three times they battled back to within a touchdown, but unlike the Steelers’ wild-card loss to the Jaguars a decade ago, this wasn’t a comeback that fell agonizingly short. This was a comeback that could have been completed if it weren’t for some facepalm decisions by the Steelers’ braintrust.

Trailing 14-0 late in the first quarter, the Steelers faced fourth-and-1 at the Jaguars’ 21. Needing inches, Ben Roethlisberger tossed the ball eight yards backwards to Le’Veon Bell, who lost four yards on the play.

In the second half, the Jaguars were hearing footsteps. Their lead was just 28-21. The Steelers forced punts on the first two Jaguars possessions after halftime. The second was partially blocked by Robert Golden, giving the Steelers the ball at the Jacksonville 48. Then on fourth down and about a foot, when Roethlisberger could have dove forward for a first down just as easily as Steelers fans could have reached and grabbed their Iron City, the Steelers instead decided to challenge A.J. Bouye, who yielded a 22.5 passer rating on balls thrown his way this season.

The pass to Smith-Schuster fell incomplete, and there went the Steelers’ momentum.

Twice more the Jaguars restored their 14-point lead, and twice more the Steelers answered to pull within a touchdown.

With his players furiously attempting to catch the Jaguars, however, Mike Tomlin wanted to outdo Todd Haley’s stupidity. After Bell took a lateral from Roethlisberger and ran for an 8-yard touchdown to make the score 42-35 with 2:18 left, Tomlin ordered an onside kick instead of using two timeouts and the two-minute warning to try to get the ball back.

The Steelers might have been a 9-7 team this season without Chris Boswell, but when it comes to onside kicks, Boswell will forever be known as Mr. Rabona. He couldn’t even get this one to go 10 yards, and three Leonard Fournette plunges later Josh Lambo kicked the game-clinching field goal.

Even trailing 45-35 with 1:45 left and no timeouts, the Steelers didn’t stop trying.

And the coaching staff didn’t stop blundering.

Martavis Bryant got to the Jaguars’ 5-yard line after catching a 42-yard pass with 47 seconds left. Rather than call for a field goal that the Steelers would need anyway and then try an onside kick when it would actually be appropriate, Tomlin kept the offense on the field and officially turned the final seconds into garbage time.

Smith-Schuster was the trash collector, catching a touchdown pass from Roethlisberger with one second left to make the final score 45-42.

If someone said before the game that the final score would be 45-42, you’d think the game would be a classic. But this could turn out to be the least memorable game in NFL history in which both teams broke 40 points.

Sort of like the 2017 Steelers season. A lot happened, but the disappointing end will make most of it very forgettable.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Steelers never have easy time beating Jaguars

To get to Super Bowl LII, the Steelers most likely will have to beat Tom Brady at Gillette Stadium, something they’ve never done.

Before that, however, the Steelers will have to do something else they’ve never done: beat Blake Bortles in Pittsburgh.

OK, so it wasn’t really Bortles who beat the Steelers in their 30-9 loss to the Jaguars this season. If any quarterback beat the Steelers in that Week 5 game, it was Ben Roethlisberger by throwing a career-high five interceptions.

Assuming the Patriots handle the Cinderella Titans Saturday night, this won’t be the first time the Steelers have hosted the Jaguars in a playoff game with the Patriots awaiting the winner. Ten years ago, the Jaguars beat the Steelers in a wild-card game before succumbing to the unbeaten Patriots the following week.

While the 2017 Steelers have a lot of things going for them that the 2007 Steelers didn’t, the only previous playoff meeting between these teams typifies how much the Steelers have struggled historically against the Jaguars.

Jacksonville, which entered the league in 1995 and until 2001 was a divisional rival of the Steelers in the old AFC Central, is one of just three AFC franchises that has an all-time winning record (12-11) against the Steelers. The other two are the Broncos (14-8-1) and Raiders (12-10). The Steelers haven’t beaten the Jaguars by double digits since 2001, and they haven’t beaten a Jaguars team that had a winning record since they won 17-16 at Jacksonville in 2004, Roethlisberger’s rookie season.

Exactly one year after Bill Cowher stepped down as Steelers coach, Mike Tomlin coached his first playoff game. Just like this year, the Jaguars had beaten the Steelers at Heinz Field in the regular season. Fred Taylor scored the deciding touchdown in that 29-22 victory in Week 15. Taylor ran for 234 yards in a 34-24 win at Pittsburgh seven years earlier. No other player has run for that many yards in a game against the Steelers.

Another nemesis played a role in the Jaguars’ 2007 playoff win. Unlike this season, pick-sixes didn’t afflict the Steelers against the Jaguars in the regular season but rather in the playoffs. Rashean Mathis, who took three interceptions to the house against the Steelers in his career, picked off a Roethlisberger pass and returned it 63 yards to give the Jaguars a 14-7 lead, an advantage that eventually grew to 28-10 late in the third quarter.

The Steelers fought back and took a 29-28 lead on a 1-yard run by Najeh Davenport.

If you’re asking just who in the hell is Najeh Davenport, he was the journeyman pressed into starting duty when Willie Parker broke his leg in Week 16. As long as Le’Veon Bell stays healthy, it’s safe to assume the 2017 Steelers are better off at running back in the postseason than the 2007 squad.

One eerie parallel on the Jaguars’ side, however, is mobility at quarterback. David Garrard was no Bortles in that regard, but on fourth-and-2 from the Steelers’ 43 with 1:56 left and the Steelers clinging to that 29-28 lead, Garrard scrambled for 32 yards to set up the game-winning field goal by Josh Scobee.

When it comes to painful playoff exits in Steelers history, that 2007 loss to the Jaguars is right up there with the Tim Tebow Game in 2011, Fitzgerald Toussaint‘s fumble in 2015 and Joe Nedney boasting his acting chops when a roughing-the-kicker penalty allowed him a second attempt at a game-winning field goal in overtime in 2002 at Tennessee.

Eight years after Scobee ended the Steelers’ 2007 season, he was a Steeler and missed two field goals in an overtime loss to the Ravens. That set the Steelers on a search that led to Chris Boswell.

So in a Rube Goldberg kind of way, Scobee has earned some amnesty for breaking the Steelers’ hearts in 2007. It wouldn’t be surprising if Sunday’s game came down to Boswell’s leg considering the way the Steelers’ 2017 season has gone as well as the difficulties they’ve had against the Jaguars.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

James Harrison is just having his mid-life crisis

Hopefully any Steelers fans who saw the solar eclipse of 2017 still have those safety glasses handy, because judging from the reaction in Pittsburgh they’ll need them to bear the sight of James Harrison in a Patriots uniform.

If Steelers fans think it’s hard for them to see Harrison in those threads, imagine how the Jets are going to feel on Sunday. Lined up across from Harrison’s menacing stare, they’re going to have to keep themselves from laughing.

Harrison in a Patriots uniform shouldn’t mortify Steelers fans. It should amuse them.

He looks silly in those clothes.

Harrison, who signed with the Patriots three days after being released by the Steelers, has a game face that could make the Demogorgon in Stranger Things curl up in a fetal position. But what good does that do when it’s surrounded by a helmet decorated with that cartoonish Flying Elvis logo?

This is Harrison’s mid-life crisis.

At 39, Harrison is one of the few NFL players literally old enough to go through a mid-life crisis. Very often a divorce is part of a mid-life crisis, and that’s what happened after 14 years with the Steelers. Sometimes, a shiny new sports car will get a man through his mid-life crisis. By putting on that Patriots uniform, Harrison is the NFL version of the middle-aged guy in the bright red convertible.

In other words, he looks like a jackass.

Apparently, he also acted like a jackass in his final weeks as a Steeler.

Harrison played just 40 snaps this season and was only active in five of the 14 games he was with the Steelers. Third-year linebacker Bud Dupree said on his radio show, via CBSSports.com, that Harrison would leave the stadium when he found out he was inactive. Dupree also said that Harrison wouldn’t attend meetings, and another source told Jeremy Fowler of ESPN that Harrison would fall asleep at position meetings that he did attend and snore while linebackers coach Joey Porter was talking.

This is eerily similar to the LeGarrette Blount situation in 2014. The Steelers signed Blount as Le’Veon Bell‘s backup and he played in 11 games, but in a 27-24 win at Tennessee in which Bell ran for 204 yards and Blount didn’t get a carry, Blount walked into the locker room before the end of the game and bolted for the team bus before most of his teammates had even showered. The Steelers promptly released him and he was reunited with the Patriots. Six days after that game, he scored two touchdowns for New England.

Had Blount been a better teammate, the Steelers could have used him in the playoffs. Bell was injured in the regular-season finale, and with a backfield tandem of Ben Tate and Josh Harris the Steelers were no match for the Ravens, who beat them 30-17 in the wild-card round.

Blount, meanwhile, ran for 148 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-7, divisional-round win over the Colts and the Patriots went on to win their fourth Super Bowl.

The Patriots, who somehow manage to benefit from loopholes like the Tuck Rule and the inability of the NFL to define a catch, benefited that year from the Steelers’ intolerance of a locker-room cancer.

That could turn out to be the case this year, too, and the knife would sink ever deeper into the Steelers’ back if Harrison has a hand in a Patriots’ win over the Steelers in the AFC championship game.

This possibility is why so many Harrison jerseys have been burned over the last three days. Perhaps the jersey burners should have thought things through, however, because while there’s a chance Harrison strip sacks Ben Roethlisberger to clinch a trip to the Super Bowl for the Patriots, there’s also a chance that Harrison’s days with the Patriots turn out to be as forgettable as Franco Harris‘ days with the Seahawks or Greg Lloyd‘s days with the Panthers.

When he played for the Bengals in 2013, Harrison had two sacks in 15 games. He wasn’t quite as effective in a 4-3 defense, which is the Patriots’ base formation. Sure, the Patriots mix up their defense and it stands to reason that they’ll find better ways to use Harrison than the Bengals did, and having Harrison would come in handy if the Chiefs come to Gillette Stadium for a playoff game. Harrison owns Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher. A holding call on Fisher against Harrison negated a game-tying two-point conversion in the Chiefs’ divisional playoff loss to the Steelers last year, and Harrison’s only sack this season clinched the Steelers’ 19-13 win at Kansas City in Week 6.

But what if Fisher is the only blocker that Harrison can still beat?

It could be that Harrison’s most valuable contribution to the Patriots will be intelligence on the Steelers’ inner workings. But the Patriots are 5-0 against the Steelers over the last four years. How much can he tell them that they don’t already know?

Whatever secrets Harrison does spill in New England, he’s helping the Steelers more by taking his act somewhere else.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Steelers can’t catch break in crushing loss to Patriots

One word to describe the Steelers’ 27-24 loss to the Patriots Sunday at Heinz Field?

Deflating.

A little gallows humor.

Let’s get this straight. The 6-foot-6, 256-pound Rob Gronkowski, who shouldn’t have been playing two weeks after trying to decapitate the 5-foot-11, 192-pound TreDavious White, carries the Patriots on their game-winning drive. Meanwhile, Gronkowski’s counterpart, Steelers tight end Jesse James, gets a game-winning touchdown taken away from him.

James, who unlike Gronkowski does not seem to be a complete buffoon off the field, had control of the ball and it didn’t move in his hands until it crossed the goal line. In the NFL, however, catches aren’t determined through any real rules. They’re a matter of interpretation. Let’s just have three officials sitting at a table by the goal line American Idol-style and awarding touchdowns based on how much they’re “feeling it, bro.”

That said, let’s not blame this loss entirely on the officiating. Did Ben Roethlisberger or Todd Haley watch Super Bowl XLIX? Are either of them at least aware of what happened in that game? If Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson weren’t scrubbing tire marks from their faces after their 42-7 home loss to the Rams, they’d be flashing back to Wilson’s ill-advised pass in that game that Malcolm Butler intercepted in the end zone with 26 seconds left.

Do Roethlisberger and Haley think that a team that has won five Super Bowls in this century isn’t prepared for a fake spike? Instead of letting Chris Boswell, who has won four games this season, get the game into overtime, Roethlisberger ran a play and threw a pass intended for Eli Rogers in the end zone with five seconds left.

Unlike another Eli, however, this one isn’t the Patriots’ kryptonite even though he did catch a touchdown pass in the game. Eric Rowe knocked the ball away and Duron Harmon picked it out of the air to secure the win for the Patriots.

Their late-game stupidity aside, the Steelers (11-3) played well enough to beat the Patriots for the first time since the last time they actually did beat them in 2011. During this five-game losing streak to New England, the Steelers had never even led until Sunday.

That lead was 24-16 in the fourth quarter. The Steelers had a chance to add to it or at least kill some serious clock, but a holding and a false start stalled a drive and the Patriots had the ball with 7:38 left.

The playing of “Renegade,” which has become strategic in the second half of Steelers home games, didn’t work this time. The Patriots (11-3) drove for a field goal. The Steelers went three-and-out for the first time in the game. Sean Davis dropped the game-clinching interception and Gronkowski caught three passes for 69 yards to set up Dion Lewis‘ game-winning touchdown in the stadium where he played his college ball.

The Steelers’ four previous losses to the Patriots were softened by a resignation that set in long before the final seconds. Not counting a garbage-time touchdown with two seconds left in the Steelers’ 28-21 loss to open the 2015 season, the Patriots have led by double digits in the final nine minutes in each of those games.

There was no such emotional buffer this time.

Oh, we did have an entire minute to come to terms with this defeat after Gronkowski caught the two-point conversion to make it 27-24, but then JuJu Smith-Schuster caught a pass from Roethlisberger and zig-zagged his way 69 yards to the Patriots’ 10-yard line. Then Roethlisberger threw the TD pass to James and resignation was lost in a sea of Terrible Towels. We were allowed to believe that the Steelers finally beat the Patriots until the namesake of a legendary robber was robbed of the game-winning touchdown.

Not only do the Steelers know how Carroll felt after Super Bowl XLIX, they also know how he felt almost exactly 20 years ago when he was coaching the Patriots.

For all of the Patriots’ domination of the Steelers over the last 16 years, this was the first time they had beaten them the way the Steelers beat them on Dec. 13, 1997.

Smith-Schuster was a year old, Chumbawamba was Tubthumping its way up the Billboard charts, Donald Trump was still married to Marla Maples and the Patriots played their home games at Foxboro Stadium, where the Steelers trailed 21-13 with two minutes left and no timeouts. Rather than punt from midfield, Drew Bledsoe thought it would be a better idea to throw a pass to no one in particular, and Steelers linebacker Kevin Henry intercepted it and returned it to the Patriots’ 18. The Steelers tied the game and won it in overtime on Norm Johnson‘s field goal.

That game decided the host when the teams met in the divisional playoffs three weeks later, a game the Steelers won 7-6 at Three Rivers Stadium.

Now, we might be looking at history repeating itself in reverse.

The Steelers will have to beat Tom Brady at Gillette Stadium to get to Super Bowl LII, if they can even reach the AFC championship game.

If the Steelers win their last two games, at Houston on Christmas and at home against Cleveland, they’ll have a first-round bye. But they’ll have to win those games without Antonio Brown.

When we’re done brooding about Sunday’s loss, we can wring our hands over Brown’s calf injury. The hope is that he can return for the playoffs.

With that in mind, a first-round bye would come in awfully handy.

Should we be impressed that the Steelers damn near beat the Patriots without Brown for three quarters and, for that matter, without Ryan Shazier and Joe Haden?

On one hand, it’s nice to think that the Steelers forged a mettle Sunday that will make them awfully hard to take out any time before the AFC championship game.

On the other hand, the Steelers can’t prove a thing until they beat the Patriots.

 Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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