Steelers Bars               Listen Live to the Steelers Radio Network on Gameday

Steelers can’t let Pennywise the Quarterback beat them

Normally, this is the kind of week where we wave the caution flag about a Steelers letdown.

The Steelers take their 2-0 record to Chicago Sunday to face the 0-2 Bears, who are in the bottom 10 of the NFL in points scored and points allowed.

On one hand, the Steelers have been bitten by so many underdogs over the last half-decade that it’s hard not be a little apprehensive about this game.

On the other hand, when was the last time the Steelers lost to a really bad team?

It seemed like they did when they lost at Miami, which was 1-4 at the time, in Week 6 last season. But that was the start of a six-game winning streak for the Dolphins, who finished 10-6 and visited the Steelers in the AFC wild-card game.The Steelers didn’t lose to a team last year with a record worse than 7-9, and that was at Philadelphia in Week 3. The Eagles improved to 3-0 with that win and weren’t a bad team at the time they played the Steelers.

Last season was the first since 2011 in which the Steelers didn’t lose to a team with a record of 5-11 or worse.

But just when we think the Steelers are past the point of stumbling against inferior foes at least once a year, we’re once again haunted by a face from the embarrassing past.

No, Mike Glennon doesn’t have the “It” factor as a quarterback. But his freakish height (6’7″) and cone-shaped face make him about as scary-looking as Pennywise the clown, even if the Bears were anything but penny wise in signing him to a three-year, $45 million contract.

Glennon, you may recall, led the winless Buccaneers to a 27-24 comeback victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field in Week 4 of the 2014 season. It was one of just two wins for the Buccaneers that year.

If “It” can come back and haunt Derry, Maine every 27 years or so, Glennon could resurface after three years and torment the Steelers once again.

Is John Fox sure it isn’t time for Mitchell Trubisky to make his debut as an NFL starter?

Better yet, how about Trubisky enters the game to replace Glennon because the journeyman quarterback is no match for the Steelers defense?

DeShone Kizer and Case Keenum have combined for 326 passing yards and one touchdown against Pittsburgh. The Steelers must continue to take advantage of the fact that they haven’t faced a real quarterback yet. If another NFL bottom feeder coaxes them into the sewers like Georgie Denbrough, they could be staring .500 in the face when they head to Baltimore.

As long as Joe Flacco is healthy, losing at Baltimore is no paranormal phenomenon for the Steelers, it’s an occupational hazard. Ben Roethlisberger is just 2-6 in his career there as a starter. The Ravens’ home-field advantage will be a little compromised this year because they’ll be coming off a game at London on Sunday. They asked the league not to give them the customary bye the week after their London game, but they probably didn’t think about the possibility of the Steelers awaiting them after their trip across the Atlantic.

Still, we can’t count on wins at Baltimore when trying to map out the course of a Steelers season. The Steelers have lost there four years in a row, and if a loss there this year drops them to 2-2, they’ll look like just an ordinary team and not a Super Bowl contender.

For that matter, wins at Chicago can’t exactly be penciled in on the rare occasions that the Steelers play at Soldier Field. They’re 7-18-1 all-time against the Bears, their lowest winning percentage against any NFL team that still exists (they lost their only game against the St. Louis Gunners in 1934), and they’re 1-11 at Chicago.

The Steelers’ only win in the Windy City came in 1995, 37-34 in overtime. The players held hands on the sidelines when Norm Johnson kicked the winning field goal. It was the second of eight straight wins in a year in which the Steelers reached Super Bowl XXX.

The Steelers should win their 10th straight regular-season game Sunday without any hand-holding. This isn’t the Losers’ Club. There should be no need to stand in a circle holding hands vowing to reunite if Glennon ever again becomes the stuff of Pittsburgh nightmares.

If history tells us that it takes Super Bowl-caliber talent for the Steelers to win at Chicago, well, the Steelers can provide more evidence that they have just that.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Steelers 21, Browns 18: Ugly Steelers win is nothing to worry about

On the surface, the Steelers’ 21-18, season-opening win in Cleveland Sunday was a lot more interesting than it had to be.

The Browns encapsulated nearly two decades of misery into the first seven minutes of the game. Their first possession ended with a punt that was blocked by Tyler Matakevich and recovered in the end zone by Anthony Chickillo for a touchdown and a 7-0 Steelers lead.

Rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer was sacked twice on the Browns’ next series, and it looked like Steelers fans could once again start laughing at the Browns.

It turned out to be no laughing matter, however. The Steelers needed nearly 58 minutes to secure this win over a team they normally have no trouble beating. Does this mean that we need to pump the brakes on the lofty expectations we’ve set for the Steelers? Does this mean the Steelers aren’t Super Bowl material?

No, it doesn’t.

Steelers wins at Cleveland have pretty much been a given. The Steelers are 15-4 there since the franchise re-joined the NFL in 1999. But it doesn’t mean that a Dawg Pounding is a prerequisite for a championship season. In 2008, the Steelers squeaked past the Browns 10-6 and went on to win the Super Bowl.

No, the Steelers didn’t dismantle the Browns Sunday. They just did what they had to do to win a division game on the road, and that’s just as much a mark of a title contender as a dominating performance.

The Steelers didn’t have their best stuff. They had to reach deep into their toolbox to find what they needed to put together this win. The only Steeler to find the end zone aside from the aforementioned Chickillo was Jesse James, who caught two touchdown passes from Ben Roethlisberger. The second one didn’t exactly look planned. Like a kid trying to skim rocks on Lake Erie, Roethlisberger sidearmed the ball to the tight end from two yards out to give the Steelers a 21-10 lead in the third quarter.

James’ two touchdowns are a career high and his six receptions tied his previous mark. It would have been understandable if James were tempted to ask Mike Tomlin “Is that varsity enough for you?”

Chickillo had two sacks to accompany his touchdown. Playing in place of an injured Bud Dupree, Chickillo excelled in a next-man-up role. Newly acquired cornerback Joe Haden also had a sack in his revenge game. Any sack from a cornerback is a nice little bonus.

The Steelers also had contributions from a player who they hope is a consistent source of production. T.J. Watt became the first Steeler with two sacks and an interception in his NFL debut. Watt still needs 74 sacks to pull even with his brother’s career total, but he’s already matched J.J. Watt‘s one interception, although the latter has one pick in a playoff game.

It’s too early to tell if T.J. Watt is anything close to his brother, but one player who has proven to be just as valuable as J.J. Watt is Antonio Brown. The guy who embarrassed the Steelers on Facebook Live in January saved them from an embarrassing loss Sunday with 11 catches for 182 yards.

The Steelers were mired in a 7-7 stalemate when Brown jump-started the offense with a 50-yard reception late in the first half. It was the Steelers’ first play of 20 or more yards. Five plays later, Roethlisberger threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to James to give the Steelers a 14-7 halftime lead.

The defense couldn’t close the deal on this win, allowing the Browns to pull within 21-18 on a Kizer touchdown pass to Corey Coleman and a two-point conversion with 3:40 left in the game. So Brown was the closer, with the help of an offensive line that gave Roethlisberger enough time on the play to keep pondering retirement.

Brown caught a 38-yard pass in triple coverage that essentially burned the Browns’ last two timeouts with two and a half minutes left. After stopping the clock, Hue Jackson unsuccessfully challenged Brown’s catch. Then it was kneel-down time after Le’Veon Bell‘s 15-yard gain before the two-minute warning.

That was Bell’s longest run of the day, and his rusty performance is one of the reasons the Steelers had to fight tooth and nail for this victory. Bell gained 32 yards on 10 carries and earned a knuckle-lashing from a ruler-wielding nun at Saint Vincent College for missing training camp. Another authority clad in black and white — the officials — punished the Steelers for their 13 penalties, docking them 144 yards.

Assuming Bell regains his sea legs and the Steelers clean up their play, they should win games a lot more convincingly.

Sometimes, however, you just have to win ugly, and that’s what the Steelers did Sunday.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Predicting each game of the Steelers’ 2017 season

The Steelers already are entering the 2017 season with high hopes, and what we saw on Thursday night did nothing to diminish those expectations. We caught a glimpse of an AFC landscape in which the Patriots aren’t invincible.

Now that the countdown to the Steelers’ season opener can be measured in hours and not days or weeks, it’s time to take a look at each game and predict a win or a loss.

In other words, it’s time for The Win-Loss Game.

The consensus has been a lot more wins than losses for the Steelers in 2017, and a few more wins in January. But there are a few “ifs.”

The Steelers’ offense will be just about unstoppable if Martavis Bryant can stay clean. The defense will be better if Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Javon Hargrave and T.J. Watt turn out to be good draft picks and if Ryan Shazier can stay healthy.

Some unexpected holes forced the Steelers to acquire cornerback Joe Haden, tight end Vance McDonald and safety J.J. Wilcox in last-minute moves.

The Steelers are sure to face other unforeseen hurdles in their quest to win their seventh Super Bowl, but at least they didn’t have the top overall pick in the draft and use that pick on a player who will miss the first few weeks of the season with a high-ankle sprain.

And that brings us to …

Week 1: at Cleveland

Myles Garrett will have to wait a little while before he can “chop down” Ben Roethlisberger as he vowed to do after the Browns took him with the No. 1 pick in the draft. DeShone Kizer, however, will make his debut. The Steelers didn’t fare well against rookie quarterbacks last year. Unless Kizer is another Dak Prescott or Carson Wentz, however, the Steelers should have little trouble in their season opener. Look for a pick-six from Joe Haden in his revenge game.

Steelers, 27-14 (1-0)

Week 2: Minnesota

The Steelers go from facing a rookie quarterback in Week 1 to Sam Bradford in Week 2. It won’t always be this easy. In general, the opposing quarterbacks will get tougher and tougher as the season goes on.

Steelers, 31-23 (2-0)

Week 3: at Chicago

It was Week 3 when Carson Wentz and the Eagles shredded the Steelers last season. Mitchell Trubisky probably won’t be starting by Week 3, so the Steelers should improve their all-time record at Chicago to 2-11 against Mike Glennon.

Steelers, 19-17 (3-0)

Week 4: at Baltimore

The Steelers go to Baltimore after their first 3-0 start since 2010. It was the Ravens who foiled their first 4-0 start since 1979 with a 17-14 win in Week 4. Jeremy Maclin is now paired with a quarterback who knows how to throw the ball down the field. That spells trouble for the Steelers.

Ravens, 17-16 (3-1)

Week 5: Jacksonville

The Jaguars’ defense could surprise some people this season, and they keep this game close. Let’s not forget that Blaine Gabbert and the 5-11 Jaguars came within a Hail Mary of beating the Steelers at Pittsburgh in 2011.

Steelers, 16-13 (4-1)

Week 6: at Kansas City

In the divisional playoffs at Kansas City in January, Chris Boswell kicked six field goals and the Steelers won. This year, he’ll kick seven field goals and they’ll lose. Or maybe the Steelers will just score three touchdowns.

Chiefs, 23-21 (4-2)

Week 7: Cincinnati

Marvin Lewis is entering his 15th season as the Bengals’ head coach. Yes, you read that right.

Steelers, 35-17 (5-2)

Week 8: at Detroit

From Joe Flacco to Blake Bortles to Alex Smith to Andy Dalton to Matthew Stafford. Even if the Steelers’ defense starts to fulfill its potential by this point in the season, it will have its hands full. This will just be the Steelers’ fifth trip to Detroit since Chuck Noll was hired. They’re 2-2 in the previous four with both losses coming on Thanksgiving. This will be two days before Halloween. Fans will be treated to a Sunday-night shootout.

Steelers, 43-38 (6-2)

Week 10: at Indianapolis

The Steelers will come off their bye week and face the Colts for the third straight season. In three of their last four games against them, they’ve faced Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter, Matt Hasselbeck, Charlie Whitehurst and Scott Tolzien. Andrew Luck could miss a few games to start the season, but chances are he’ll be back in time to face the Steelers for the second time in his career. The Steelers won 51-34 at Heinz Field the previous time in 2014. Get ready for another shootout.

Steelers, 41-35, OT (7-2)

Week 11: Tennessee

If Marcus Mariota proves that all the offseason hype was warranted, this will be no reprieve for the Steelers’ defense after facing Matthew Stafford and Andrew Luck. But the offense will score 40 for the third straight week on Thursday Night Football. It’s a short week for the Steelers, but they play just two more road games the rest of the season.

Steelers, 41-21 (8-2)

Week 12: Green Bay

We’ll see just how much this defense has grown when Aaron Rodgers comes to Heinz Field for a Sunday-night game. The Packers won at Pittsburgh in each of Chuck Noll’s first two seasons as Steelers coach. They’ve lost all four of their games in Pittsburgh since then, but they won’t lose this one. Including Super Bowl XLV, these teams have averaged a combined 66 points in their last three meetings.

Packers, 35-31 (8-3)

Week 13: At Cincinnati

The Steelers return to AFC North play for a couple of weeks and get a semi-breather in terms of opposing quarterbacks. This is the fourth straight year the Steelers visit Cincinnati in December. Steelers wins at Cincinnati have become just as much a part of December as egg nog and reindeer.

Steelers, 13-9 (9-3)

Week 14: Baltimore

The Steelers eliminated the Ravens from playoff contention in Week 16 last year. This win might do the job in 2017.

Steelers, 24-21 (10-3)

Week 15: New England

Unless what happened on Thursday night is the first sign of a decline, Tom Brady will be the final exam for the Steelers’ defense, at least for the regular season. The No. 1 seed in the AFC could be at stake here. The last time the Steelers beat the Patriots was the last time LaMarr Woodley had two sacks in a game. That’s how long it’s been. Once again, the Steelers will probably have to win at New England in January to get to the Super Bowl.

Patriots, 27-21 (10-4)

Week 16: at Houston

Santa Claus will deliver sacks of toys to children all over the world, and the Watt brothers will be reunited on Christmas Day. Speaking of sacks, it might be too much to ask T.J. Watt to have as many sacks this season as his big brother, J.J. Watt. But it’s realistic to expect T.J. Watt to match in his rookie season the six sacks that another J.J., Jarvis Jones, had in his entire career. The Steelers might need this game to clinch a first-round bye. They’ll have to grind out a win against this defense.

Steelers, 16-10 (11-4)

Week 17: Cleveland

Hopefully, the Steelers won’t need to win this game and we see lots of Landry Jones and James Conner. That would mean Myles Garrett might have to hope Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t retire before he gets his chance to chop him down.

Steelers, 24-7 (12-4)

Playoffs

Divisional round: Oakland

We’re going to take a stroll down Narrative Street here to create more text so it’s harder for the eye to look down and take a peek at the result.

First, the non-spoiler stuff. The Steelers finish 12-4 for the first time since 2011 and get a first-round bye in the playoffs for the first time since 2010. In this scenario, they get the No. 2 seed and host the third-seeded Raiders in the divisional round. Despite wins over both the Patriots and Steelers, the Chiefs have to settle for the No. 5 seed because the Raiders win the AFC West.

Starting with the Immaculate Reception, the Steelers and Raiders faced each other in the playoffs six times in a 12-year period, but this will be their first postseason meeting since 1983.

Let’s face it. Steelers fans are spoiled. The Steelers have had a lot of success but also a lot of breaks. The biggest break of them all was the aforementioned Immaculate Reception. It’s been 45 years since Franco Harris scooped up the ball and scored the game-winning touchdown against the Raiders to give the Steelers their first-ever playoff win, and it can be argued that the Steelers have had a legitimate shot at winning the Super Bowl in at least 30 of those seasons. This is one of those seasons.

Fueling the optimism is the fact that the Steelers have advanced one round further in the playoffs in each of the last three years. There’s also a sense that as long as Ben Roethlisberger is around it’s only a matter of time before the Steelers get back to the Super Bowl. They haven’t made it in seven years, but that still gets overshadowed by the three Super Bowl appearances they made in Roethlisberger’s first seven seasons. Among the breaks they’ve had this century is that other teams have taken care of the Patriots every year they’ve made the Super Bowl.

Will that happen again this year? It won’t matter, because the Raiders will take care of the Steelers in the divisional round. The storyline just seems too tidy and too good to be true for the Steelers to go from the wild-card game in 2014 to the divisional round in 2015 to the conference championship last season to finally conquering the Patriots and getting to the Super Bowl this season.

Heck, even the 12-4 regular-season prediction assumes that Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell stay healthy. Those are far from givens.

Ten years ago, the Steelers overcame a 28-10, third-quarter deficit only to fall to the Jaguars 31-29 in a wild-card game at Heinz Field. That Jaguars team was coached by current Raiders coach Jack Del Rio. The Raiders are a team on the rise, and as Roethlisberger again ponders his future, Steelers fans might have to come to grips with the fact that 2005, 2008 and 2010 was as good as things will get during the Roethlisberger Era.

Raiders, 28-24

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Steelers will need Le’Veon Bell if Ben Roethlisberger retires

Le’Veon Bell has generated a lot of debate over the last few months, but at this point everyone can agree that he was a steal in the second round of the 2013 draft.

However, the Steelers might have been too smart for their own good when they used the 48th pick on Bell. It’s nice to have the best running back in the NFL, but it creates a sink-or-swim situation.

Bell has helped make the Steelers championship contenders, but he hasn’t finished any of the last three seasons healthy. When he’s gone down the Steelers’ title hopes have gone down with him.

If the Steelers had more of a committee approach at running back, they wouldn’t be so dependent on Bell. On the other hand, who knows if two or three running backs can average 157 all-purpose yards per game like Bell did last year. That’s the third-highest average for a running back in NFL history.

Bell’s pay in 2017 will reflect that when he signs his franchise tender. He’ll make $12.1 million, more than any other running back. He could get a lot more than that on the open market if he remains healthy for as long as the Steelers play this season.

In a perfect world, the Steelers would play until Feb. 4 and win Super Bowl LII. Then they could set themselves up for the same kind of sustained success the Patriots have enjoyed by letting another team give Bell the megadeal he wants and start building a running back committee with James Conner as the first building block.

Sure, the Patriots won the Super Bowl last year with LeGarrette Blount running the ball 299 times for 1,161 yards and a league-leading 18 touchdowns. But James White was the man in the Super Bowl, and the Patriots already have re-made their backfield by letting Blount go in free agency and adding Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee.

Just about any backfield philosophy can work when Tom Brady is your quarterback, and it seems like Brady can play forever.

It doesn’t look like Ben Roethlisberger will play forever, though, and that’s why running Bell into the ground this year and letting him become a free agent might not be wise.

There was a lot of optimism about the Steelers’ championship prospects heading into this season, but their defensive showing during the preseason has tempered those expectations.

Whether the Steelers win the Super Bowl or not, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if Roethlisberger retires after the 2017 season. If that happens and Bell leaves in free agency, an offense that’s supposed to be lighting up scoreboards will barely be able to light a match. The Big Three of Roethlisberger, Bell and Antonio Brown would become The Big One, and Brown has caught just 24 passes with no touchdowns in five games without Roethlisberger since 2015.

Unless Landry Jones or Joshua Dobbs are ready to sit at the grown-ups table if and when Roethlisberger retires, the Steelers’ offense will have to revolve around Bell until they find their next franchise quarterback.

Even though Roethlisberger is signed through 2019, it’s hard to see him playing three more years the way he’s been flirting with retirement. The Steelers are 2-3 in the five meaningful games Roethlisberger has missed over the last two seasons. Their championship window would slam shut if he retires without a ready-made successor, but Bell would at least give the Steelers a shot at respectability in a post-Roethlisberger world.

If it weren’t for Bell, the Steelers would have been no better than 1-4 in those games without Roethlisberger. He single-handedly won the game in Week 5 at San Diego in 2015 with his goal-line stretch out of the wildcat as time ran out.

The Steelers seemed to recognize Bell’s importance when they offered him a five-year contract worth more than $12 million a year before the July 17 deadline. Bell turned down that deal, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, because as he expressed in a rap song last year he wants $15 million a year.

A player who has been suspended twice, sits out the preseason and raps his contract demands isn’t exactly face-of-the-franchise material. But without Roethlisberger, the Steelers won’t have a quarterback who’s worth the industry standard of $20 million a year. It would free up the cash to give Bell the money he wants. It would be an expensive pill to swallow, a pill that wouldn’t ease the headaches that Bell would probably still cause.

Since Roethlisberger won’t commit to more than a year at a time, the Steelers can’t base their plans for Bell on Roethlisberger. They just have to realize that at this time, they’re not prepared for life without both of them.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Six former Steelers we didn’t know were still in the NFL

How many times have you heard an NFL player’s name and thought to yourself, “I didn’t know he was still in the league.”

It turns out there are plenty of former Steelers who are now toiling in obscurity for other teams. It’s not like the Steelers made a mistake letting any of these guys get away, but considering their lack of an impact in Pittsburgh it’s hard to believe they’re still getting an NFL paycheck.

Tony Hills

Who would have thought that the last remaining member of the Steelers’ 2008 draft class would be Tony Hills?

An offensive tackle drafted in the fourth round, Hills signed with the Lions this month. Left tackle Taylor Decker could be out for most of the season after a standout rookie year, and the Lions are bringing in just about any live body they can to create a competition to replace Decker.

The Lions, according to MLive.com, are Hills’ 11th team. He’s only appeared in games for five of his previous 10 teams. He didn’t get on the field for the Steelers until 2010, when he played in four games. Hills played in one game for the Broncos in 2011 and made his only career start for the Colts in 2012. He was a Cowboy in 2014 and made it into 19 games for the Saints in 2015 and 2016.

The Steelers needed offensive line help in the 2008 draft, but chose Rashard Mendenhall after he unexpectedly dropped to No. 23 in the first round. Then they thought they were getting a steal in the second round when they drafted Limas Sweed. He was a flat-out bust. In the third round, they were enamored with linebacker Bruce Davis and his 24.5 combined sacks at UCLA in 2006 and 2007. He never started a game in his four-year career.

The 32-year-old Hills has outlasted them all and holds the torch for the Steelers’ worst draft of the Kevin Colbert era.

Evander Hood

Evander “Ziggy” Hood wasn’t exactly a bust, at least not as much of a bust as Jarvis Jones. Hood had 11.5 sacks in five years for the Steelers while Jones, who’s now a Cardinal, had six in four years.

Hood never missed a game during his Steelers career. He was drafted with the last pick in the first round in 2009. He started 30 games in 2011 and 2012, but was never anything special.

Two years after drafting Hood, the Steelers drafted another defensive lineman late in the first round and that time got it right. Cameron Heyward eventually made Hood expendable and in 2014 Hood signed with the Jaguars. He faded into oblivion after going on injured reserve in 2015 and getting released. Hood caught on with the Bears in 2015 and appeared in two games, then landed with the Redskins last season.

Hood played in the season opener last year against the Steelers and started 14 games. Despite being one of the worst run defenders in the league last year according to Pro Football Focus (h/t Rotoworld), Hood was re-signed for another year.

A first-round draft pick needs to be more prominent than Hood has been less than a decade later.

A.Q. Shipley

The Steelers knocked it out of the park when they drafted Maurkice Pouncey in 2010, but the only other center drafted by Mike Tomlin also was a starter in the NFL last season even if his journey to a starting job was a lot longer than Pouncey’s.

A.Q. Shipley was drafted in the seventh round by the Steelers out of Penn State in 2009. His short arms, which are less than 30 inches long, is one of the reasons he lasted that long, and that “short-armed” label has followed Shipley throughout his career.

Shipley spent 2009 on the practice squad before the Eagles picked him up and put him on their practice squad in 2010 and 2011. He finally got on the field with the Colts in 2012. He was traded to the Ravens in 2013 then picked up by the Colts after the Ravens released him in 2014.

As he is wont to do, Bruce Arians picked up a former Steeler when the Cardinals signed Shipley in 2015. He won the starting job in 2016 and played all but five snaps.

The 31-year-old’s performance earned him a two-year contract. If he plays for another year or two like he did last year, it will be hard to forget he’s still in the league.

Chris Scott

Not only is it easy to forget that Chris Scott is in the NFL, it’s easy to forget he was ever a Steeler.

The Steelers drafted the guard in the fifth round in 2010 out of Tennessee.

Scott played in two games, both on special teams, in 2011 and was released that season. He surfaced with the Bills in 2012 and has been with the Panthers since 2013. He started eight games that year and four last season.

The Steelers really didn’t need Scott because his former teammate, Ramon Foster, has worked out just fine at guard after going undrafted in 2009.

Chris Carter

Chris Carter‘s most memorable play as a Steeler is one he didn’t make.

A linebacker taken in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, Carter started the first three games of the 2012 season in place of James Harrison, who was recovering from knee surgery. In Week 3 at Oakland, he could have intercepted a Carson Palmer pass in Raiders territory with a legitimate shot at a pick-six, but the ball bounced off his hands. The Raiders, who finished 4-12 that year, won the game 34-31.

The Steelers finished 8-8 that season, two games out of a playoff spot. Had Carter held onto that pass, it doesn’t necessarily mean the Steelers would have made the playoffs. It probably would have changed his history more than the Steelers’, because he’s still looking for his first interception. And his first sack.

Carter was released before the 2014 season and since then has played primarily special teams for the Colts, Bengals and Ravens. A player termed “Von Miller Lite” by Rotoworld when he was drafted could only get a one-year deal with the Redskins for 2017.

B.W. Webb

B.W. Webb was a fringe player on the 2014 Steelers, and he’s still hanging on in the NFL.

The cornerback wasn’t good enough to crack the rotation of a secondary that ranked 27th against the pass. He played just four snaps on defense that year and 35 on special teams.

A fourth-round pick by the Cowboys in 2013, Webb will play for his fifth team in five years this season. He has two career interceptions, one with the Titans in 2015 and one with the Saints last year. He also broke up 11 passes last season after breaking up just three in his career before that.

Webb was signed as a free agent by another defensively challenged team, the Bears. It’s the first time since 2013 that he’s joining a new team in the spring instead of being picked up after getting cut just before the season.

It would be nice to think that every cornerback that makes the Steelers’ 53-man roster this year is better than Webb, but considering the riff-raff that has populated that position in recent years, that’s not a guarantee.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

 

Steelers 2017 draft report card

The 2017 NFL draft is in the books, and the report cards are in.

This is the first time the Steelers’ 2017 draft will be graded. It could take five years or longer before we can give this draft a final grade in ink.

Based on what we know know, these grades are penciled in for each individual pick and the Steelers’ overall draft.

(NFL.com, NFL Draft Scout and Pro Football Focus were used for scouting information.)

Round 1 (No. 30)

T.J. Watt, OLB, Wisconsin

The Steelers go defense in the first round for the fifth straight year, tapping into the Watt bloodlines and drafting T.J. Watt. The younger brother of J.J. Watt had 11.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in 2016. The bad news is that was Watt’s only injury-free season at Wisconsin. A converted tight end, the 6’4″, 252-pound Watt missed the 2014 season after having surgery on his right knee, then injured his left knee in the spring of 2015 and had just seven total tackles, 1.5 sacks and two passes defended. In his breakout 2016 season, Watt had a 17-yard pick-six, four passes defended, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He placed in the top three among outside linebackers at the combine in the vertical leap, broad jump, 3-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle. He was the top outside linebacker in the 60-yard shuttle. Is he a workout warrior? Is he a one-year wonder? We do know he’s a hard worker and a team player, and if he takes those traits into the NFL he’ll have a chance to become a finished product.

Grade: B

Round 2 (No. 62)

JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC

Not surprisingly, the Steelers make a “We don’t trust Martavis Bryant” pick. It is a little surprising, however, that they drafted a receiver this early. Even though Bryant’s been reinstated, the Steelers keep the supply lines moving at wide receiver with JuJu Smith-Schuster. It’s the fifth year in a row the Steelers have drafted a receiver, but the first time they’ve taken one in the second round since Limas Sweed in 2008. How’d that go? The Steelers must really like Smith-Schuster if they put their need for a cornerback on hold to take him. He has the potential to be a bigger, more physical version of Eli Rogers.

Grade: B

Round 3 (No. 94)

Cameron Sutton, CB, Tennessee

The Steelers had to get a cornerback in an early round. They need cornerbacks who can cover man-to-man, and Sutton can do that. He intercepted seven passes and broke up 30 in four years at Tennessee. He also made 13 tackles for loss even though he’s not the most physical tackler. Run support isn’t his strength. Then again, Artie Burns wasn’t strong against the run and his career is off to a nice start. Sutton was durable in his first three years at Tennessee then missed six games with an ankle injury last season. He recovered enough to impress at the Senior Bowl. NFL.com’s comparison to B.W. Webb is a little bothersome. Webb has played for four teams in four seasons. Sutton had career highs in interceptions (three) and passes defended (13) in 2014. The Steelers better hope that wasn’t his peak.

Grade: C-plus

Round 3 (No. 105)

James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh

James Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in December of 2015, overcame it and returned to rush for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. The 6’1″, 233-pound Conner broke Tony Dorsett‘s school record for touchdowns in a single season with 26 in 2014. Conner ran for 1,765 yards that year. The first player the Steelers have drafted out of Pittsburgh since Hank Poteat in the third round of the 2000 draft, Conner is a physical runner who’s hard to bring down. He has a chance to fill the Steelers’ need for a productive backup to Le’Veon Bell or be part of a committee behind him.

Grade: A-minus

Round 4 (No. 135)

Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee

The Steelers need to start investing in quarterbacks, because whether or not Ben Roethlisberger retires will be the hot topic every February and March until he actually does retire. The 6’3″, 216-pound Dobbs has the huddle presence and intelligence (he majored in aerospace engineering) that teams want in a quarterback, and he can work through his progressions. Not every rookie quarterback can do that. Dobbs threw 42 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions in his two years as a starter. His yards per attempt went from 6.7 in 2015 to 8.3 last season. He also ran for 1,502 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2015 and 2016. Dobbs uses his feet fine when he runs with the ball, but his footwork and passing technique are the reason he’s pegged as a developmental quarterback with a ceiling as a backup in the NFL.

Grade: B-minus

Round 5 (No. 173)

Brian Allen, CB, Utah

This is the sixth time the Steelers have drafted a cornerback in the fifth round since Mike Tomlin became head coach in 2007. The only one that has worked out is William Gay, who was drafted in 2007. Will Brad Allen be the latest in a long line of fifth-round busts that includes Joe Burnett, Crezdon Butler, Terry Hawthorne and Shaquille Richardson? The 215-pound Brian Allen is one of just four 6’3″ cornerbacks in the draft class. He had four interceptions and six passes defended last year, but he only started playing defense in 2014 and is still raw.

Grade: C

Round 6 (No. 213)

Colin Holba, LS, Louisville

Colin Holba must be a damn good long snapper if the Steelers drafted him. But he is just a long snapper. How about a tight end? How about some offensive line depth? How about another cornerback dart throw? For this pick to be worth it, Holba will need to be a reliable long snapper for the next decade after Greg Warren retires.

Grade: D

Round 7 (No. 248)

Keion Adams, OLB, Western Michigan

The Steelers double up on their two biggest needs, taking two cornerbacks and two outside linebackers. The 6’2″, 245-pound Adams had 7.5 sacks, 18 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles in 2016. He’s a seventh-round pick for a reason, however, and he’ll have to make an impression on special teams to make the Steelers as a rookie. The grading curve gets a little easier for late-round picks.

Grade: B

OVERALL

The Steelers covered a lot of bases in this draft. Half of their picks were used on their biggest need, outside linebacker and cornerback. They drafted a wide receiver because even though they have Martavis Bryant back, the depth chart consists of Antonio Brown, Bryant and a bunch of fourth and fifth receivers trying to fill the No. 3 role.

James Conner can compete with Knile Davis as Le’Veon Bell’s relief pitcher. If the Steelers get for an entire season what they got from Bell in the second half of last season, they can think about a first-round playoff bye. But Bell needs to be healthy for the playoffs and needs a breather every now and then.

Joshua Dobbs is the fourth quarterback the Steelers have drafted since they drafted Ben Roethlisberger and the first since Landry Jones, who was also taken in the fourth round in 2013. The best the Steelers can hope for in 2016 is that Dobbs turns out to be a better No. 3 quarterback than Zach Mettenberger.

It would have been nice to see a cornerback drafted a little earlier and someone who plays offense or defense drafted instead of a long snapper.

Grade: B-minus

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

Steelers’ 2017 seven-round mock draft

The Steelers have come a step closer to the Super Bowl every year since 2014.

They reached the wild-card round of the playoffs two years ago, the divisional round in 2015 and the conference championship game last year.

The next step is the most difficult. The Steelers have to find a way to get past the Patriots. That might require beating Tom Brady at Gillette Stadium for the first time.

There are players in the 2017 draft who can help with that. Gone are the days when the Steelers felt they could afford to just draft the best player available regardless of position. If they’re going to beat the Patriots, they’re going to have to fill specific needs. They have to improve their pass coverage and they haven’t had a player with double-digit sacks since 2010, the last year they reached the Super Bowl.

Coincidence?

This mock draft starts in the seventh round to build up the suspense before the unveiling of the Steelers’ first-round pick.

(NFL.com, NFL Draft Scout and Pro Football Focus were used for scouting information.)

Round 7 (No. 248)

Jeremy Clark, CB, Michigan

Jeremy Clark tore his ACL in the third game of the 2016 season, but the Steelers are willing to take a flier on him this late in the draft. No cornerback who was invited to the scouting combine is taller than the 6’3″ Clark, and at 220 pounds Clark is the heaviest corner who took part in the combine even if all he could do was bench press. His 20 repetitions in the bench press was third among cornerbacks. This doesn’t mean the Steelers will wait until the seventh round to draft a cornerback, but how early will they choose the other one?

Round 6 (No. 213)

Dan Skipper, OT, Arkansas

The Steelers draft someone who Alejandro Villanueva can look up to. Literally. If the Steelers draft Skipper and he makes the team, he won’t necessarily take over for Villanueva at left tackle, but he’ll beat him out as the tallest player on the team. The 6’10”, 309-pounder started 39 games at left tackle since 2014. While offensive line is a strength, the Steelers could use some depth. Jerald Hawkins, a fourth-round pick last year, sat out the season with a torn labrum. He’ll have the chance to be the third tackle in 2017, but Skipper could be an asset on special teams. He used his height to block three field goals at Arkansas.

Round 5 (No. 173)

Rayshawn Jenkins, S, Miami

Robert Golden is a nice role player, but the Steelers need more safety depth behind Mike Mitchell and Sean Davis. In four seasons at Miami, Rayshawn Jenkins intercepted nine passes and broke up 15, including a career-high seven last season. The 6’1″, 214-pounder placed in the top five among safeties at the combine in the bench press, vertical leap and broad jump. There’s a chance the Steelers have to trade up a few spots to get Jenkins, possibly giving up a draft pick next season.

Round 4 (No. 135)

Ryan Anderson, OLB, Alabama

Ryan Anderson probably will be the fourth defensive player drafted from Alabama this year, but don’t expect the first three to needle him about that. “Everybody in the locker room at Alabama respects him and is afraid of him,” one scout told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Anderson isn’t the most physically gifted linebacker, but he improved every year in several statistical categories. In four seasons at Alabama, Anderson had 19 sacks, 39.5 tackles for loss, six forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries. Anderson seems like an AFC North kind of guy, and one NFC specifically told NFL.com that he would be a good fit in Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

Round 3 (No. 105)

Tanoh Kpassagnon, DE, Villanova

Pronounced (Tawn-o Pass-N-Yo), this 6’7″, 289-pounder was sixth in the FCS with 21.5 tackles for loss and tied for fifth with 11 sacks. He had a sack, two hits and a hurry at the Senior Bowl. Intelligence wouldn’t be a problem with Kpassagnon. He was an accounting-finance double major. Kpassagnon boasts 35 5/8″ arms and 10 5/8″ hands. Drafting physical freaks like this doesn’t always work out. Kpassagnon has been compared in a couple of places to Margus Hunt, a 6’8″, 277-pounder who the Bengals took in the second round of the 2013 draft. Hunt had 1.5 sacks in four seasons and is now in Indianapolis. The Steelers are willing to take the risk after addressing needs with their first three picks, using their compensatory pick on a player who they don’t need to contribute right away. The Steelers went the FCS route with Javon Hargrave last year and he’s heading in the right direction.

Round 3 (No. 94)

D’Onta Foreman, RB, Texas

Le’Veon Bell needs a backup and DeAngelo Williams‘ work in Pittsburgh is done. The 6’0″, 233-pound Foreman broke out for 2,028 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2016. Foreman isn’t a finished product. He fumbled six times in 2016 and he’s not a good pass protector. But like Kpassagnon, the Steelers wouldn’t need him to contribute right away. They just need someone who gives Bell enough rest to make it through a full regular season and postseason for the first time in his career.

Round 2 (No. 62)

Jordan Willis, OLB, Kansas State

The Steelers are going to pick an edge rusher in one of the first two rounds. Jordan Willis is the 2016 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. That has to be taken with a grain of salt. Kansas State went 6-3 in the conference but twice allowed 38 points and allowed 43 points in one game. The only defensive player from Kansas State to make the Pro Bowl since 2000 is cornerback Terence Newman. That’s why the Steelers buffer their pass-rushing haul in this draft with the SEC guy in the fourth round.

Despite the risk of drafting defensive players from the Big 12, Willis won’t last until Day 3. He had 11.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss last season, both career highs. He had three passes defended, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in both 2015 and 2016. The 6’4″, 255-pound Willis was second at the combine among defensive ends and outside linebackers in the 40-yard dash (4.53), vertical leap (39 inches) and third in the 3-cone drill (6.85). Bud Dupree‘s arrow is pointing up, but James Harrison won’t play forever. The Steelers need to keep the supply line moving at outside linebacker.

Round 1 (No. 30)

Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU

The Steelers hope to achieve with cornerbacks what they did with offensive linemen. They drafted four offensive linemen in the first two rounds of the draft between 2010 and 2012. That line now includes two Pro Bowlers and Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 37 times in the last two seasons. There have been six single seasons when he’s been sacked more than that.

Tre’Davious White would be the Steelers’ third cornerback drafted in Rounds 1 or 2 since 2015 and the second consecutive one chosen in the first round. White’s interception numbers don’t stand out. He had six interceptions in four years at LSU, two each in 2013, 2014 and 2016. Last season was a bounceback year for White after a disappointing 2015, and he broke up a career-high 14 passes. Steadiness and consistency seem to be a theme with White in the scouting community. According to Pro Football Focus White allowed a completion rate of 41.7 percent last season. White isn’t the most physical tackler, but neither was Artie Burns coming out of college and so far he looks like a thumbs-up pick. “He’s kind of soft, but he can cover,” one NFC scout told NFL.com about White.

The 5’11”, 192-pound White has been pegged as a second-rounder in some places, but the Steelers are picking so late in the first round that this wouldn’t exactly be a reach.

White wore the No. 18 jersey at LSU in 2016. Not just anyone wears No. 18 at LSU. The tradition of that number began when quarterback Matt Mauck wore it in 2003 and led LSU to a national championship. Since then, it’s been worn by a player who’s successful both on and off the field and displays a selfless attitude.

Whatever number White wears in Pittsburgh, the Steelers hope no one else wears it for a long time.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

Steelers 2017 mock schedule predicts make-or-break midseason, late-season prime time games

This is the time of year when we take a short break from mock drafts and try some mock schedules.

The 2017 NFL schedule is set to be released Thursday night. Let’s try to do the work of a supercomputer and predict the Steelers’ 2017 schedule.

Week 1

Jacksonville, Sept. 10

The Steelers are 0-2 against the Jaguars in season openers, losing at Jacksonville in 1996 and 2001. Tom Coughlin was the head coach both times. Now after 15 years away he brings his two Super Bowl rings to Jacksonville, this time as executive vice president of football operations. If he ends up firing Doug Marrone and hiring himself as head coach, it probably won’t happen by Week 1.

Week 2

At Detroit, Sept. 17

This will be the Steelers’ fifth trip to Detroit since Chuck Noll became coach. Two of the four previous visits came on Thanksgiving, and the Steelers lost both of those. They fell 45-3 on the holiday in 1983 and 19-16 in the Phil Luckett game in 1998. They won non-Thanksgiving games at Detroit in 1989 and 2009.

Week 3

At Cleveland, Sept. 21

The Steelers play two road games in their obligatory Sunday-Thursday turnaround, but it’s their two shortest trips of the season. The only other time the Steelers went to Cleveland on a Thursday night, they lost 13-6 to the 1-11 Browns for their fifth straight loss in 2009. The Steelers finished that season 9-7 and despite that losing streak would have made the playoffs with just one more win. There’s little chance the wind chill in Cleveland will be minus-6 in September like it was in that December game in ’09.

Week 4

Green Bay, Oct. 1

The last time the Steelers played the Packers this early in the season was 1992. It was Bill Cowher‘s first career loss.

Week 5

Bye

The Steelers better rest up, because the next four games are brutal.

Week 6

Cincinnati, Oct. 15

After their epic playoff battle in 2015, it was surprising to see the Steelers and Bengals play two 1 p.m. games last season. The rivalry returns to Sunday Night Football in 2017.

Week 7

Baltimore, Oct. 22

The Ravens will be looking to end their uncharacteristic two-year playoff drought. This won’t be an easy win regardless of records. This could be on the 4 p.m. stage on CBS. If he hasn’t already, Tony Romo could announce his first Steelers game here.

Week 8

At Cincinnati, Oct. 29

The Steelers have won 15 of their last 17 games at Cincinnati, including playoffs. The Steelers’ schedule is tied for the fifth-easiest according to CBSSports.com. That’s based on 2016 opponent records. The Ravens and Bengals combined to go 14-17-1, but the Steelers won’t feel like they have a soft schedule in the midst of this four-game, post-bye stretch.

Week 9

At Kansas City, Nov. 5

The Steelers beat the Bengals 18-16 at Cincinnati in the 2015 playoffs. They beat the Chiefs 18-16 at Kansas City in the 2016 playoffs. In this schedule scenario, they revisit both cities on back-to-back weekends.

Week 10

Tennessee, Nov. 12

The Steelers face Marcus Mariota for the first time. If he makes a big leap in his third season, then this won’t be a reprieve coming off the Cincinnati-Baltimore-Cincinnati-Kansas City leg of the Steelers’ schedule. This also is the first time Mike Mularkey will coach against the Steelers since the 2004 regular-season finale when the Steelers won at Buffalo.

Week 11

At Houston, Nov. 19

The Texans’ quarterback figures to be either Tom Savage or a rookie. If it’s the latter, the Steelers better hope this quarterback class is as mediocre as the experts say it is considering who awaits the following week.

Week 12

New England, Nov. 26

This figures to be another Sunday Night Football game and the first of three prime-time games for the Steelers in the last six weeks of the season. Whether the Steelers win this game or not, they’ll probably have to get past Tom Brady and the Patriots in the playoffs to make their first Super Bowl appearance in seven years. Brady is 10-2 in his career against the Steelers. There’s no lack of familiarity between these teams, but this is the first time during the Brady Era that the Steelers will play the Patriots three years in a row.

Week 13

At Chicago, Dec. 3

The Steelers’ .288 all-time winning percentage against the Bears is their worst against any opponent except the St. Louis Gunners. The St. Louis Gunners? That’s right. The Steelers were known as the Pirates when they lost 6-0 at St. Louis in their only game against the Gunners in 1934. The Steelers are 7-18-1 against the Bears. The last time they beat them was the Jerome Bettis snow game in 2005.

Week 14

Minnesota, Dec. 10

The Steelers wrap up their interconference play with this matchup. The Steelers are 35-15 against NFC teams in Ben Roethlisberger‘s career, but haven’t swept all four games vs. NFC opponents since 2005, the year they won Super Bowl XL. They did play the NFC North that year. Then again, they played the NFC North when they started 0-4 in 2013 with two of those losses coming to the Bears and Vikings.

Week 15

Dec. 18, At Indianapolis

The Steelers play the Colts in prime time for the third straight year. They hosted them on Sunday Night Football in 2015, on Thanksgiving night last year at Indianapolis and on Monday Night Football in this mock schedule. Andrew Luck was sidelined for those two previous meetings. Who knows if he’ll be healthy for this one. On the other hand, Ben Roethlisberger’s availability hasn’t been a given over the last couple of seasons.

Week 16

Dec. 24, At Baltimore

This year, the Ravens host the pivotal holiday matchup in this rivalry. Instead of an afternoon game on Christmas Day, they play a prime time game on Christmas Eve.

Week 17

Dec. 31, Cleveland

Since Week 17 division games became mandatory in 2011, this would be the sixth time the Steelers have finished the season against the Browns. The only time they didn’t, they closed out the season against the Bengals in 2014. It would be nice if the Steelers and Ravens could hook up in the regular-season finale one of these years. But the game is such a hot TV property that the networks probably don’t want to risk one or both of these teams resting their starters in a meaningless game. So after the Steelers and Ravens throw a wrench in Christmas plans for the second straight year, Steelers fans can probably go ahead and make plans for New Year’s Eve. Unless all 11 Browns draft picks instantly become Pro Bowlers, it’s doubtful this game gets flexed to Sunday night.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

Steelers running out of time to win another title in Roethlisberger Era

Tom Brady denied the Steelers a trip to the Super Bowl for the third time in his career Sunday, leading the Patriots to a 36-17 win over the Steelers in the AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium.

This loss didn’t come with the immediate heartbreak of last year’s playoff loss or some other Steelers’ playoff losses in the last decade. There was no Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble. There was no “What just happened” overtime touchdown pass from Tim Tebow. There was no 32-yard scramble on fourth-and-2 by David Garrard.

After their playoff loss at Denver last year, when Toussaint’s fumble set up the winning drive, Mike Tomlin talked about how he was looking forward to scouting for the draft. The Steelers were three minutes away from beating the eventual Super Bowl champions without Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. There was a sense that the Steelers, if they could stay healthy, had a legitimate shot to win their seventh Super Bowl in 2016.

All that optimism seemed laughable when the Steelers were 4-5 at midseason, but then they won nine straight. It was their longest winning streak since 2004, but the Patriots terminated both of those streaks in conference title games. They beat the Steelers 41-27 at Pittsburgh in 2004, ending their 15-game run.

Even in that game, the Steelers rallied. They fell behind by 21 and pulled to within 11.

On Sunday, there was no such tease.

This was the Steelers’ biggest margin of defeat in a playoff game since they lost 28-3 to the Drew Bledsoe-led Patriots at New England in the 1996 divisional round. Unlike last season in Denver, there will be no specific plays that haunt Steelers fans for the next eight months.

Instead of a “What if?” hanging over the offseason, there’s a sense of “Now what?”

Read the rest of this entry »

Steelers still can catch Patriots in Team of the Century race

Perhaps you’ve heard once, twice or 100 times this week that the Steelers have never beaten a Tom Brady-led Patriots team at Gillette Stadium.

That’s just what they’ll have to do to win the AFC championship game Sunday and advance to Super Bowl LI.

Steelers wins over the Patriots in any circumstance have been rare since Brady took Drew Bledsoe‘s job in 2001. Steelers fans remember those wins so fondly that they seem more frequent than they really are.

Since Bill Belichick resigned as HC of the NYJ, the Steelers are 3-9 against the Patriots. That’s right, to paraphrase Bob Uecker in “Major League,” just three, um, gosh darn wins.

If there’s any rivalry at all between the Steelers and Patriots, the Patriots own the scoreboard when it comes to regular-season wins, playoff wins and championships.

Let’s just say the last 16 years are a metaphor for a football game. We could call it the Team of the Century Bowl, and the Patriots’ four championships during that time represent a two-touchdown lead over the Steelers’ two championships.

When the Steelers took a historic 55-31 whoopin’ at Gillette Stadium in 2013, it said in this space that the Steelers could forget about ever calling the Patriots rivals in this era. And that was before the Patriots won their fourth Super Bowl in 2014.

The Steelers were two years removed from their last playoff berth, began that season 0-4 and dropped to 2-6 on that day in which Shamarko Thomas, yes Shamarko Thomas, actually tried to cover Rob Gronkowski. Brady was 36 at the time. The Steelers seemed so far away from contending for a championship that if it did happen, it would be after Brady retired.

How nice it was of Brady to put off retirement long enough to meet the Steelers one more time in an AFC championship game.

Read the rest of this entry »

Older posts «