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Steelers’ first win of 2018 is collection of breakout games

The Steelers no longer are among the huddled masses of the NFL’s winless teams after their 30-27 win at Tampa Bay Monday night. They stay out of the AFC North basement, they have a better record than the Patriots and we will not have to re-live the horror of 2013’s 0-4 start.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the Steelers (1-1-1) will have to win at least eight more games to make the playoffs, and they needed every fiber of their being to get that win Monday night. They almost blew a 20-point lead for the first time in franchise history. They allowed 455 yards on defense. They committed 13 penalties and Chris Boswell missed an extra point and a 47-yard field goal attempt.

Do the Steelers really have what it takes to pull this off eight, nine or 10 more times?

They just might if certain players can reproduce their breakout performances.

Like Vance McDonald.

The tight end caught four passes for 112 yards and a touchdown. Those 112 yards matched the career high he set in the playoff loss to Jacksonville in January. Most of those yards, however, came in garbage time. McDonald’s yardage last night packed a lot more punch.

Almost literally.

If the Steelers do win more games this season, McDonald’s stiff arm could turn out to be the defining moment that turned the season around.

The Steelers trailed 7-0 in the first quarter and weren’t looking a whole lot better than they looked in the opening minutes of their Week 2 loss to the Chiefs. They already had committed two penalties. Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception and nearly fumbled a snap. The Steelers faced a third-and-10 at their own 25 when Roethlisberger completed a pass to McDonald near midfield and McDonald stiff-armed Bucs’ safety Chris Conte to the ground and rambled into the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown.

McDonald caught just 14 passes for the Steelers last season after he was acquired in a trade from the 49ers. He’s never caught more than 30 passes in a season, but on Monday night he actually looked like an athletic tight end. If he keeps that up he has a real shot at being a legitimate threat to opposing defenses.

He caught another third-down pass for 12 yards to set up Boswell’s 36-yard field goal that gave the Steelers a 9-7 lead early in the second quarter.

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Steelers can’t overcome another slow start at home, fall to Chiefs

When did the Steelers start thinking that they could just roll out of bed and win games at home?

The Steelers lost their second straight game at Heinz Field Sunday going back to last year’s AFC divisional playoff loss to the Jaguars.

The Chiefs defeated the Steelers 42-37. In this defeat and in the aforementioned 45-42 loss to the Jaguars, the Steelers started the game as if they were still in their pajamas.

The Chiefs became the second team in history to score 21 first-quarter points on the Steelers in Pittsburgh, jumping out to a 21-0 lead less than 13 minutes into the game. The Jaguars nearly hung 21 on the Steelers in the first quarter in January, taking a 21-0 lead less than four minutes into the second quarter.

Visiting teams are scoring 21 points before the Heinz Field public address announcer has a chance to say that patrons must be 21 to purchase alcohol.

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Tie looks better on Browns than it does on Steelers

Perhaps you’ve heard a million or so times that the Steelers have had only three head coaches since 1969.

Well now, they’ve had three ties during that same time period after playing to a 21-21 stalemate with the Browns in Sunday’s 2018 season opener at Cleveland.

Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher both have one tie on their resumés, and now Mike Tomlin can put himself in the same class as those coaching legends.

He must be thrilled.

Rare as they are, when ties do happen they leave us wondering how we’re supposed to feel. It’s not a win. It’s not a loss. It’s quite literally something in between.

In this case, it’s a lot closer to a loss for the Steelers and it’s a lot closer to a win for the Browns. Read the rest of this entry »

Predicting each game of the Steelers’ 2018 season

Let the real games begin.

Not that there isn’t value in NFL preseason games. After all, if you watched the Steelers’ 39-24 win over the Panthers in Thursday’s preseason finale, you saw Shawn Hochuli, son of retired referee Ed Hochuli, officiating the game. You can rest assured knowing that even though Ed Hochuli’s theatrics are a thing of the past, there still will be a Hochuli wearing stripes in 2018.

But how will the Steelers do in 2018? It’s time once again for everyone’s favorite game, the Win-Loss-Win-Loss game.

This Steelers blog predicted a 12-4 record, a No. 2 seed and a four-point divisional-round loss at this time last year.

Ignore the rest of this article at your own risk.

Week 1

Sept. 9: at Cleveland

This is not a guaranteed win. Remember the Steelers beat the 0-16 Browns by just three points in Week 1 last year. This will be the first time Ben Roethlisberger and Myles Garrett play in the same game, and that should concern Steelers fans. Last year’s top overall draft pick looks ready to make a big leap this season. But Roethlisberger and the Steelers will escape the Dawg Pound with a hard-earned win.

Steelers, 10-6 (1-0)

Week 2

Sept. 16: Kansas City

It’s no secret that the Steelers will have to get past the Patriots and probably the Jaguars if they want to get to the Super Bowl. Well, the Steelers have been just as much of a hurdle for the Chiefs as those teams have been for the Steelers. The Steelers beat the Chiefs 18-16 in the 2016 playoffs and handed them their first loss at Kansas City last year, 19-13. Is Patrick Mahomes the answer? Well, not in this game.

Steelers, 17-14 (2-0)

Week 3

Sept. 24: at Tampa Bay

The Buccaneers won’t have Jameis Winston, who’s suspended for three games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Ryan Fitzpatrick‘s biggest strength is looking like Jason Sudeikis. This situation seems ripe for one of the Steelers’ trademark losses to an inferior opponent, but those losses don’t tend to happen on Monday Night Football. The Steelers win a franchise-record seventh straight Monday-night game.

Steelers, 38-7 (3-0)

Week 4

Sept. 30: Baltimore

In this scenario, the Steelers are 3-0 for the first time since 2010, and just like 2010 they win at Tampa Bay in Week 3 and host the Ravens in Week 4. The Ravens foiled the Steelers’ first 4-0 start since 1979 with a 17-14 win at Heinz Field in 2010. Not this time. The Steelers’ defense will go through growing pains in a post-Ryan Shazier world, but Michael Crabtree and John Brown won’t scare their improved secondary on Sunday Night Football.

Steelers, 23-17 (4-0)

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James Washington could give Steelers scary wide receiver depth

A six-pack of Steelers thoughts, some longer than others, to crack open at the tailgate for Saturday’s preseason game against the Titans at Heinz Field:

Receivers

It doesn’t look like Martavis Bryant will win the Gruden Grinder award anytime soon.

The Raiders’ coach traded a third-round pick to the Steelers for Bryant, and according to the San Francisco Chronicle he hasn’t been thrilled with Bryant so far in the preseason.

The Steelers, meanwhile, snapped up James Washington in the second round after unloading Bryant.

Washington has seven catches for 158 yards and two touchdowns so far in the preseason. While no receiver should be expected to have the kind of career that Antonio Brown has, it’s not too much to ask Washington to have a better rookie year than Brown did. Brown caught 16 passes in 2010 before breaking out with 69 catches in 2011.

If Washington has a more productive rookie year than Brown did, if JuJu Smith-Schuster builds on his seven-touchdown rookie season and Brown remains in his prime, the Steelers could have their best wide receiver trio in recent memory.

They did have Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Brown on their roster in 2010 and 2011. But Brown wasn’t much of a factor in 2010 and Ward caught just 46 passes in 2011, which was his final season.

Brown, Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders were teammates in 2012, but Sanders had just 44 catches that year before breaking out with 67 in 2013, his contract year. By then, Wallace was gone.

Last year might be the closest the Steelers have come to having three receivers in the prime of their careers, with Brown catching 101 passes, Smith-Schuster catching 58 and Bryant catching 50.

It’s not hard to see Smith-Schuster being better than he was last season and Washington being better than Bryant.

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Is Le’Veon Bell trying to become the most disliked running back in Steelers history?

Le’Veon Bell isn’t at training camp with the Steelers, but if his teammates really miss him at least they can listen to his new rap album.

According to 247Sports, Bell tweeted about the release of his new album on the same day the Steelers held their first training camp practice.

Assuming Bell doesn’t show up until after the final preseason game, this will be the second straight year he’s skipped camp after being assigned the franchise tag.

Bell can’t be blamed for trying to get as much money as he can. Even if the Steelers fan base perceives that as greed, it’s more than just that and his impending exit after this season that’s leaving a bad taste.

The two-time All-Pro running back was suspended for the first two games of the 2015 season and the first three games of the 2016 season because of marijuana-related league violations. And this rap side gig creates an impression that his heart isn’t entirely into football. Even if it is, it’s not a good look to tweet about a new rap album on the first day of camp while he’s sitting out.

Bell is only 43 rushing yards away from passing Willie Parker for third on the Steelers’ all-time list. But he’ll never be No. 3 among running backs in the hearts of Steelers fans.

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Steelers’ young defensive players must reach their potential in 2018

All eyes will be on Bud Dupree this season. The Steelers exercised their fifth-year option on the outside linebacker, banking on a breakout season in 2018 after 14.5 combined sacks in his first three years.

There are tons of “Breakout Candidates” articles flying around the blogosphere for each team this time of year. We could do one for the Steelers, but their biggest breakout candidate isn’t necessarily one player. It’s half the defense.

And that’s the problem.

The Steelers could use a breakout season not only from Dupree, but from several other defenders who were early-round draft picks. These players haven’t been flat-out busts, but they’re not exactly standouts, either.

After taking Dupree in the first round of the 2015 draft, the Steelers took Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave in the first three rounds of the 2016 draft. Now’s the time for that draft class to bloom.

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If Le’Veon Bell wants $14.5 million per year, Steelers should pay him

The big news in the world this week is that a guy who likes to play around on social media went to a summit meeting in Singapore.

No, it wasn’t Le’Veon Bell.

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have done more negotiating than Bell and the Steelers.

It’s been a nuclear spring and summer between the two sides when it comes to Bell’s contract, but there might be some middle ground.

According to Jeremy Fowler of ESPN, Bell is asking for $14.5 million a year. If that’s true, the Steelers should sign him to a long-term deal before the July 16 deadline. If they don’t, he would play for $14.5 million under the franchise tag in 2018 and most likely become a free agent.

Now the NFL Network had reported in March that Bell wanted $17 million a year, and within the last week Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network mentioned that number again.

If Bell still wants $17 million a year, the Steelers should get one more year out of him and let some other team pay him that kind of money while surrounding with him very little talent.

If Bell is willing to “settle” for $14.5 million a year, the Steelers should sign him. If they’re prepared to pay him that much this year, why not pay him that much for a few more years and give themselves a legitimate shot at a championship as long as Ben Roethlisberger plays.

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Here’s what Ben Roethlisberger should have said about Mason Rudolph

It’s cool that the Steelers are bringing back their vintage 1970s jerseys with the block numbers and letters when they host the Browns on Oct. 28 at Heinz Field.

Since that game is three days before Halloween, however, wouldn’t it have been better if both the Browns and Steelers had worn color-rush jerseys, with the Steelers in all black and the Browns in all orange?

All kidding aside, the Steelers are eschewing their bumblebee throwbacks to commemorate the 40th anniversary of their 1978 championship team.

It’s also the 10th anniversary of the Steelers’ 2008 championship team, or to put it another way, it’s been 10 damn years since the Steelers last won a Super Bowl.

They have the talent to end that dry spell this year, but Ben Roethlisberger, the one remaining player from that 2008 team, suggested that the Steelers didn’t improve their chances of winning a championship in 2018 by taking Mason Rudolph in the third round of the draft.

Roethlisberger said that the Steelers maybe could have used someone who could help the team right away, but later backtracked on those comments and has been helping the rookie at organized team activities.

Sure, Roethlisberger says he wants to play three more years, but the bottom line is he’s 36 years old. There’s no guarantee his body will allow him to play three more years. The Steelers can’t be blamed for trying to stay ahead of the curve on the search for their next franchise quarterback.

No, Roethlisberger shouldn’t have questioned the Steelers’ decision to draft a quarterback. What he should have questioned is their decision to draft one from the Big XII.

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Can James Washington help the Steelers right away?

When the Steelers traded Martavis Bryant to the Raiders on Day 1 of the 2018 NFL draft, their priorities in the draft suddenly changed.

Yes, they still needed help on defense, which they addressed by stockpiling safeties. But with Bryant gone, wide receiver rocketed to the top of their list of needs, which is why they drafted James Washington from Oklahoma State in the second round.

The Steelers knew they weren’t going to have Bryant in 2019, so rather than lose him without getting anything in return, they swung the deal and were compensated with a third-round draft pick.

The problem is, now the Steelers don’t have Bryant in 2018. This is a field-stretching receiver who caught 50 passes last year and also caught 50 in 2015 before he was suspended in 2016.

All receivers listed below Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster on the Steelers’ depth chart have combined for 22 catches over the last two seasons.

Yeah, Le’Veon Bell essentially can be a No. 3 receiver, but he’s averaged 8.5 yards per reception in his career. He can’t replace the deep-threat element that Bryant provided.

The Steelers have a track record of success when it comes to drafting receivers. But Washington is the most urgent pick they’ve made at the position, at least during the Mike Tomlin Era. If he doesn’t make an instant impact, Brown and Smith-Schuster better get used to double coverage.

Washington was drafted with the 60th overall pick, two spots ahead of where the Steelers picked Smith-Schuster in 2017. If Washington has a rookie season similar to Smith-Schuster’s, the Steelers’ offense won’t miss a beat without Bryant.

But what if Washington turns out to be the next Sammie Coates or (gulp) Limas Sweed, who at No. 53 in 2008 was the highest pick the Steelers have made at the position during the Tomlin Era?

Considering those aforementioned busts, it’s fair to wonder if the Steelers really do have a knack for drafting receivers, or if Brown is just an outlier and everyone else is a crapshoot.

To look a little deeper, we applied the same method that we used in a previous article when we analyzed the Steelers’ overall draft record and applied it only to wide receivers.

With the help of Pro Football Reference, we looked at every receiver the Steelers have drafted since 2007, when Tomlin was hired as head coach. We tallied First Team All-Pro seasons, Pro Bowl seasons and “primary starter” seasons and compared it to the rest of the league.

The tandem of Tomlin and Kevin Colbert has drafted 12 wide receivers. We’re not counting Dri Archer as a receiver. He was used more as a running back.

Those 12 receivers combine for 72 potential seasons in the NFL. For example, Smith-Schuster has had one potential NFL season. Brown has had eight potential NFL seasons because he was drafted in 2010. Sweed counts for 10 potential seasons even though he only played two.

Of those 72 seasons, four have been All-Pro, all of them belonging to Brown. That’s 5.5 percent.

League-wide, 1.6 percent of potential wide receiver seasons have ended with All-Pro honors.

Steelers drafts since 2007 have yielded Pro Bowl seasons from wide receivers at a rate of 12.5 percent. League-wide, that number is 3.9 percent.

Steelers receivers drafted by the team have become starters 30.6 percent of the time compared to 18.8 percent in the league overall.

These numbers include the entire careers of Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders. Both have logged multiple seasons as a starter since leaving the Steelers and Sanders has become a Pro Bowler twice.

Taking that into account, the Steelers’ Pro Bowl rate is 9.7 percent, still more than twice the league average, and their starter rate is 18.1 percent, pretty much on par with the rest of the league.

Yes, the Steelers’ magic touch with receivers is due mostly to Brown. On the other hand, our statistical model doesn’t give the Steelers credit for Smith-Schuster’s success since PFR didn’t count him as a starter last year.

The Steelers must have some kind of an eye for receivers if they unearthed Brown in the sixth round in 2010, and there is something that Washington has in common with Brown.

Both filled up the stat sheet in college.

Washington led the nation with 1,549 receiving yards in 2017. He caught 13 touchdown passes after catching 10 in both 2015 and 2016. His reception total went up each year, from 28 in 2014 to 53 in 2015 to 71 in 2016 to 74 last season.

Going back to 1956, Washington is seventh in NCAA history with 4,472 receiving yards.

Brown caught 305 passes in three years at Central Michigan, including 110 for 1,198 yards and nine touchdowns in 2009.

Smith-Schuster was no slouch at USC. He caught 89 passes for 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015 and followed that up with 70 catches for 914 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016.

When it came to Bryant and Coates, the Steelers looked past modest college numbers and became enamored with SEC receivers with deep-threat potential.

Bryant caught just 61 passes in three years at Clemson, averaging 22.2 yards per reception. Coates caught 82 passes in three years at Auburn and averaged 21.4 yards per catch.

That draft strategy worked for Bryant, but not for Coates. Wallace was another SEC home run threat, but he was a cut above the other two in terms of his college stats. He caught 101 passes in three years at Mississippi.

Washington averaged 19.8 yards per reception at Oklahoma State, almost a yard more than Wallace’s 18.9 clip, and his 226 receptions in four years were only 18 less than Wallace, Bryant and Coates combined.

Of the 12 receivers the Steelers have drafted since 2007, Sanders is second only to Brown with his 285 college catches. Even though he’s no longer with the Steelers he turned out to be a strong third-round pick in 2010.

Markus Wheaton, a third-rounder chosen in 2013, is third on that list with 227 college receptions. He’s no success story but he wasn’t a flat-out bust, either. He did combine for 97 catches in 2014 and 2015.

Washington is right behind Wheaton with his 226 receptions at Oklahoma State and Smith-Schuster is the only other receiver the Steelers have drafted since 2007 with more than 200 collegiate receptions. He had 213.

So it appears that an emphasis on college production is a key to the Steelers’ acumen when it comes to drafting receivers, and Washington has the numbers on his side.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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