The Pittsburgh Steelers are a very inconsistent team, and nothing showed this more than the team rebounding from losses to the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders with a huge home win vs. the New England Patriots in Week 15. It doesn’t get any easier for the Steelers though, as the New Orleans Saints await in Week 16.
Today in the Black-and-gold links article, we take a look at how if the Steelers don’t have JuJu Smith-Schuster available to them in Week 16, they are more than confident in their other options. Players like Eli Rogers, Ryan Switzer and James Washington are more than ready and willing to step up and make plays when their number is called.
Let’s get to the news:
By: Chris Adamski, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Ryan Switzer interrupted a reporter’s question. Before it could be asked how the Pittsburgh Steelers planned to replace leading receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, the team’s third-leading wide receiver worked to dismiss the idea they would have to.
“JuJu is going to play. JuJu’s gonna play,” Switzer said confidently about Sunday’s game at New Orleans. “I know JuJu. I know JuJu.”
A few minutes before Switzer spoke, the other half of the Steelers’ dynamic receiver duo expressed similar assuredness Smith-Schuster would play in Sunday’s game despite a groin injury.
“I think he’ll be there for us,” Antonio Brown said.
Less than a half hour later another Steelers receiver refused to speculate about life without Smith-Schuster for the upcoming game against the team with the NFL’s best record.
“He’s a tough guy,” rookie James Washington said. “I don’t doubt that he (will) be there.”
The organization, however, still has reservations. On the league-mandated injury report released Friday afternoon, Smith-Schuster was listed as questionable.
It also said Smith-Schuster did not practice. Traditionally, that’s an ominous sign for a Steelers player when it comes to participation in a game two days later. But Smith-Schuster’s situation is not typical because he was healthy until suffering his injury during Thursday’s practice.
That means he has been through a workout this week. Skipping heavy physical work Friday could have been a sign Smith-Schuster was getting a “healing” day. He took part in the “install” portion of practice, veteran guard Ramon Foster confirmed.
Smith-Schuster was not permitted to speak with media.
“You just never know, so you’ve just got to know every position and know the roles of everyone just in case you have to step up and do other things,” Washington said.
The Steelers have six wide receivers on their roster — one more than they typically keep — so in that sense they are equipped to weather one’s absence. They also recently welcomed Eli Rogers back into the lineup. The veteran slot receiver had four catches, playing for the first time this season, during last Sunday’s win over New England.
Rogers took 24 of his 28 offensive snaps for that game lined up in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus. He, in effect, replaced Switzer in that role. Switzer played a season- high-tying eight reps as an outside receiver and had a season-high seven snaps out of the backfield. His six snaps from the slot tied a low for him over the past eight games. (For comparison’s sake, he took 42 slot snaps during the game at Denver three weeks prior.)
But the Patriots game is something of an outlier in that the Steelers used some previously unseen packages, notably a five-wide look. Washington, for example, took a career-high 18 snaps from the slot.
“Even last week, when JuJu was with us, Ben was putting us at different positions, looking for matchups,” Washington said. “So even if someone is not there, you still have got to know everything because you just never know what ‘7’ wants.”
By: Kevin Gorman, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Joe Haden knew he had elevated above Julian Edelman to pick off Tom Brady’s pass — what might be the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season-saving interception — but was even more impressed when he saw video.
It was proof that Haden still has standout skills — a 41-inch vertical leap, soft hands and the body control to stay inbounds — and can compete with one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game.
“I’ve been playing ball for awhile, and I’d never had a pick on Tom Brady,” Haden said of his fourth-quarter interception in the 17-10 victory over the New England Patriots last Sunday at Heinz Field.
“It feels good when you do something like that. I didn’t know how it looked. When I saw the video, I was like, ‘That was sweet!’ After the season, I’ll be able to soak it in. Right now, I’m trying to get another.”
Haden knows he can’t spend much time admiring his work, with the Steelers facing the NFL’s all-time leading passer, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, on Sunday at the Superdome. And the Steelers need more momentum-changing plays from the top player in their secondary, if not the defense.
Where Brady has thrown 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions, Brees has thrown 31 touchdowns against only five interceptions. But Brady isn’t the only future Hall of Fame quarterback on Haden’s checklist.
“Drew Brees is on the list, too,” Haden said. “I’m not trying to throw any shots. That guy’s a great quarterback, but I’m super excited and ready to go. He’s super-quick with where he wants to go with it. At the same time, his technique is still the best. He’s very, very aware of his surroundings in the pocket.”
Haden, meanwhile, got a reality check on his status as one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks. Not that he needed any additional motivation, but Haden received some when he was snubbed for the Pro Bowl this week.
Haden blames it on his failure to intercept passes that hit his hands in the opening tie against the Browns and the loss to the Chargers, a result of his collision with free safety Sean Davis that ended with the ball popping into the hands of Pro Bowl receiver Keenan Allen for a touchdown.
“I wish that I would have been selected to the Pro Bowl,” Haden said, “but, at the same time, if I wouldn’t have dropped that pick (against the Chargers), if I would’ve caught my other picks I’d have four of them, and it would have made it easier to get in.
“At the same time, playing in a meaningful game like this at the end of the season, trying to get into the playoffs, it’s special for me. I feel like (intercepting Brady was) something I wanted to do for this team. … I take it to heart because I want to be that dude for the defense.”
Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler took greater offense to Haden’s exclusion than the two-time Pro Bowl pick did, knowing what type of athleticism and professionalism he brings to the secondary. Haden routinely covers the opponent’s top target, from Jarvis Landry, A.J. Green and John Brown in the AFC North to Julio Jones, Mike Evans and, now, the Saints’ Michael Thomas in nonconference games.
So Haden is challenged on a weekly basis.
“Joe Haden is a great football player. I can’t see why he wouldn’t make the Pro Bowl,” Butler said. “He’s one of the best corners in the league, in my opinion. He’s the best corner I’ve been around in my 20 years of coaching in the NFL and my 10 years of playing. He’s as good as anybody I’ve been around.”
Trust that Haden’s pride was hurt when he was excluded.
“It’s definitely motivation,” Steelers cornerback Coty Sensabaugh said, “but we don’t plan on playing in that game anyways.”
That’s the primary motivation for Haden. He spent seven seasons with the Cleveland Browns, so he gets hyped for the chance to play in the postseason. With the Steelers having a shot at winning the AFC North again, Haden is facing his toughest test.
Where the Steelers avoided the likes of Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson last season because of injuries, they are running the gauntlet by following Philip Rivers and Derek Carr with Brady and Brees. Those are the types of challenges Haden craves.
“When you go against Tom Brady and Drew Brees, the ball is coming out,” Haden said. “You’re going to get opportunities. They’re going to throw it on you, no matter who you are. They feel like they get their matchups sometimes, so with those dudes you better be ready for the ball to come your way.”
By: Chris Adamski, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
One of the major storylines leading up to Sunday’s game between the New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers was Saints defensive end Cam Jordan openly questioning Ben Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame bona fides.
Fitting, because a couple of days earlier in relative characteristic anonymity, a pair of other Steelers had their Hall of Fame resumes further buttressed.
Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro were each named to the AFC Pro Bowl team for the third consecutive season. Pouncey was selected as the starting center, and DeCastro was chosen to start to his immediate right — just like those two have been for 46 of the past 50 Steelers games, including playoffs.
It was Pouncey’s seventh Pro Bowl honor. Every season he has played at least one full game, he has been named to the AFC team. For DeCastro, it was his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl berth.
Later this month, DeCastro is also expected to make it four All-Pro (first- or second-team) honors in a row. Pouncey already has four to his name.
At a position in which objective evaluation via statistics are scarce, Pro Bowl and All-Pro recognition carries weight when it comes time to consider offensive linemen for Hall of Fame enshrinement.
In their ninth and seventh NFL seasons and at age 29 and 28, respectively, have Pouncey and DeCastro already earned that sort of consideration?
“How I view Hall of Famers is, for at least a moment of let’s say three, to five to six years, were you the best at your position?” Steelers left guard Ramon Foster said. “And they have been. So I think you have to start considering that type of stuff. Absolutely.”
Foster’s correct that it’s not easy for guards and centers to get into the Hall of Fame. In the what the Hall calls its Modern Era, there are only seven pure centers who have earned induction.
There’s 11 guards — and one is Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak. He shares not only a position room with Pouncey and DeCastro, like them he was also a first-round pick and had an All-Pro running mate who was also a first-round pick in fellow Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews.
Munchak was a left guard for the Houston Oilers between 1982-93; Matthews played a variety of positions near Munchak during that time.
“(Pouncey and DeCastro) push each other in a way that is very positive,” Munchak said. “Very quietly, without them saying it, you know it’s going on. I was that way with Matthews.
“Maurkice will see Dave do something, ‘Man, that was pretty darn good. I need to do that, too.’ And Dave with Pouncey. It’s a quiet competitiveness.”
Though for their ages it’s probably fair to say DeCastro and Pouncey are on a track for Hall of Fame consideration, they each still have a long way to go. Consider Alan Faneca (nine Pro Bowls, eight first- or second-team All-Pro honors) has been passed over for enshrinement for five years now.
But if they play at a high level into their mid-30s, could DeCastro and Pouncey become the first pure guard/center pair of teammates in the Modern Era to get gold jackets? Among Hall of Fame linemen only Munchak and Matthews have any measurable experience at all playing those two positions, but for the majority of their time together they both played guard.
Each of the other five offensive lineman duos from the Modern Era includes a pure tackle. And only two other duos played together for more than five seasons and made the Pro Bowl together.
The greatness Pouncey and DeCastro are displaying — together — is something in some ways the NFL hasn’t seen in generations.