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Le’Veon Bell’s decision to sit out the entire preseason puts Mike Tomlin in a tremendous bind

Behind the Steel Curtain - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 12:32pm

The Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro RB Le’Veon Bell is sitting out the entire preseason, and it isn’t helping his coach out at all.

Let’s get something out of the way first. Le’Veon Bell is Mike Tomlin’s guy. He drafted him, he was the one who nicknamed him "Juice" and is the main reason Bell never leaves the field.

And in that last point in the previous sentence lies the rub with Bell deciding to not return to the team until September 1st after their final preseason game.

Bell will be in tremendous shape, there is no denying that, but he also won’t be necessarily ready to be the every down back fans, and Tomlin, are accustomed to seeing every Sunday.

So what exactly will Tomlin do? How will he handle this situation? You know, the situation where he said there will be "consequences" for Bell’s absence.

Would he sit him Week 1 vs. the Browns?

Will he use him sparingly, and work him into a rotation of sorts?

Or will he say ‘screw it’ and run Bell out there for downs 1-3 regardless of the possible reprecussions and ramifications?

Either way you look at it, Tomlin does not have an easy decision on his hands, and although fans may believe it is as simple as putting him back on the field, it very well could be more complex than that. When a star player sits out the entire preseason/training camp, in a contract situation which literally cannot be changed at this point, the organization, not just Tomlin, could want to send their own message to Bell and his representatives.

Maybe that comes down as a minimized role for Bell when he returns, before assuming normal football operations (i.e. Bell as the full-time, all-down starter), or maybe nothing happens at all?

No one knows for sure, but one thing which is certain, Bell hasn’t made it easy on his head coach. Pick up where you left off, and Bell struggles, it is Tomlin who will feel the pinch. Sit him and watch a collection of Fitzgerald Toussaint, Knile Davis and James Conner struggle and everyone will wonder why Bell wasn’t involved more.

Not that Tomlin cares about all this, and is exactly why I think when the rubber meets the road in Week 1, it will be business as usual. Tomlin loves Bell, and will want the Juice to be loose as soon as possible.

It hasn’t been an easy preseason for the Steelers, as they deal with the ramifications of Bell’s decision to stay away, but all could be rectified in Week 1 if Bell picks up just where he left off.

Or will it? Ah, there lies the rub...

One casualty of Le’Veon Bell’s holdout: his reputation - Steelers/NFL - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 11:57am

His holdout will end Sept. 1. Now starts one of Le’Veon Bell’s biggest jobs — to rebuild his image among fans that plummeted over the past month, according to one expert.

With Todd Haley in the booth, Ben Roethlisberger is eager to experiment - Steelers/NFL - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 11:15am

For the first time since he became offensive coordinator, Todd Haley will be relaying play calls to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from the coaches booth when the Steelers play their third preseason game Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts.

Paul Zeise's mailbag: Should the Pirates try to sign Andrew McCutchen or Gerrit Cole to a long-term deal? - Steelers/NFL - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 11:09am

Welcome to Paul Zeise’s weekly mailbag, where the Post-Gazette columnist and 93.7 The Fan radio host answers your questions about sports, life and everything in between. If you want to ask Paul a question, tweet him @paulzeise or email him at This feature will run each Wednesday, so you have a whole week to submit questions.

Roster moves continue for Steelers News - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 10:57am
The Steelers signed Justin Thomas, and waived/injured Greg Ducre.

Roster moves continue for Steelers News - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 10:57am
The Steelers signed Justin Thomas, and waived/injured Greg Ducre.

James Conner's performance in his Steelers debut was beyond nice to see

Behind the Steel Curtain - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 10:50am

Steelers rookie running back James Conner made his professional football debut on Sunday against the Falcons at Heinz Field. Was his 20-carry, 98-yard performance an indication of the kind of career he'll have? Can't say, but it sure was nice to see.

James Conner had to miss his first preseason game against the Giants at MetLife Stadium on August 11, due to a shoulder ailment that had limited his practice time at training camp.

Tough break, but perhaps it was a blessing in disguise, as it allowed Conner to make his professional football debut in the same place where he wowed some of the very same fans as a member of the Pitt Panthers.

While Conner didn't start against the Falcons at Heinz Field in the Steelers second exhibition game of 2017 on Sunday, he was clearly the workhorse, as evidenced by the 98 yards he recorded on a pretty substantial 20 carries.

As a fan of both Pitt and the Steelers, it was nice to see Conner have such a great performance, yes, even if the bulk of his yards came against Atlanta's third and fourth-string defenders.

And it wasn't because I think Conner can possibly replace the now kind of unpopular Le'Veon Bell, who has yet to sign his franchise tag and is nowhere to be found at the moment.

It wasn't because I am confident Conner will go on to have a career similar to fellow Pitt Panther and running back Curtis Martin, who was drafted in the same round and went on to make the Hall of Fame.

Also, it wasn't because of Conner's tremendous story about overcoming a couple of epic gut punches while at Pitt, one which threatened his professional career (a torn MCL suffered in the first game of the 2015 season) and the other which threatened his life (cancer).

It had nothing to do with Conner showing up Bell, who, again, has been labeled a selfish football player for his refusal to accept the Steelers reportedly lucrative deal back in July.

No, I think the main reason Conner's debut at Heinz Field on Sunday was so nice and special is because it was totally organic.

How often do we try to contrive stories in sports these days, especially in the age of social media?

Four years ago, when long-suffering Pirates fans converged on PNC Park and became a singular and very tangible force in the National League Wildcard game against the Reds, it was an amazing scene.

Early in the game, when they chanted Reds' pitcher Johnny Cueto's name in unison and in a menacing fashion, they seemingly forced him to drop the baseball. Seconds later, catcher Russell Martin went deep to get the Buccos off and running towards a memorable night

After that, similar chants at opposing pitchers became the norm in subsequent postseason games, but, by then, the magic was lost.

Back to Conner and his debut on Sunday.

Let's face it, preseason games can be a drag, and it's hard to find reasons to stay invested in the action.

In Game 1 in New York, first round pick T.J. Watt gave us a nice glimpse of what he's capable of, when he recorded two sacks.

What's next? Will second round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster do something this Saturday night that gives the fans a reason to come up with a cool and organic nickname to chant?

Perhaps third round pick Cameron Sutton will finally make his debut against the Colts and come up with a few plays that will give fans hope for a secondary that's still very-much in transition.

Preseason action isn't about Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown.

It's often about the new guys, and when they perform like James Conner did on Sunday, again, it's just really nice to see.

Roethlisberger expects to play News - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 10:20am
Ben Roethlisberger expects to see his first playing time of the preseason this week.

Roethlisberger expects to play News - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 10:20am
Ben Roethlisberger expects to see his first playing time of the preseason this week.

Le'Veon Bell might not be in 'football shape,' says Ben Roethlisberger - Steelers/NFL - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 9:45am

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he does not know if Le’Veon Bell will be in good enough “football shape” to play all the time and immediately be a large part of the offense when he returns to the Steelers.

Ben on Bell and playing vs. the Colts Videos - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 9:29am
Ben Roethlisberger confirms he's ready to go Saturday vs. the Colts and talks about RB Le'Veon Bell's potential return date.

Ben on Bell and playing vs. the Colts Videos - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 9:29am
Ben Roethlisberger confirms he's ready to go Saturday vs. the Colts and talks about RB Le'Veon Bell's potential return date.

Ben Roethlisberger will make his preseason debut Saturday - Steelers/NFL - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 9:13am

Ben Roethlisberger said he will make his first appearance of the season Saturday at Heinz Field when the Steelers play the Indianapolis Colts in their third preseason game.

Three glaring offensive observations from the Steelers preseason game against the Falcons

Behind the Steel Curtain - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 8:30am

Because the Steelers’ starting offense is already pretty much locked in, many backups and hopefuls are getting extended looks this pre-season. Here are three observations of them from the Steelers’ matchup against the defending NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons.

Now that we have two preseason games in the books, it’s easy to start seeing the development of some players. That’s been especially true this year for the Steelers, as many veterans have yet to suit up for a game due to injury or, in the cases of some, a simple lack of need to get them playing time and risk injury. It’s given coaches the chance to get extended looks at some players, and for the fans, we can start to get an idea of who has a realistic shot at making the team.

For the Steelers, the starting offense is pretty much already set in stone, so the coaches have been giving potential backups a lot of opportunities to see actual playing time. Here are three observations of the offense after week two. Not surprisingly, none of them have anything to do with starters.

Joshua Dobbs had a rough game, but he understands the position very well

Dobbs’ stats so far in the 2017 pre-season have been anything but stellar. Let’s be honest, though: if you expected anything better than this, you were fooling yourself. He has the physical and mental tools to be a very good quarterback, but he’s exceedingly raw in a number of ways. There was, after all, a reason he wasn’t taken until the fourth round.

But it’s when you watch the little things where you see he gets it. He pretty much gets it all. There is just something about him that makes me feel it’s just going to be a matter of time and repetition, as well as some work with Quarterbacks Coach Randy Fichtner to improve some known mechanical issues, before he comes into his own. Future franchise quarterback? Probably not. Strong backup? I’m almost certain of it.

Again, it’s the little things. For instance, when he hit Martavis Bryant for a 23-yard completion early in the second quarter, he did two things that scream “veteran”: for one thing, he looked off the safety. And then, when he turned to Bryant, he identified the situation quickly and threw a little high and to the outside shoulder when the corner had inside leverage. The only one who had a shot at the ball was Bryant.

Two plays later, he throws to Darrius Heyward-Bey. It wasn’t a great pass, and was almost on the ground when it got to Heyward-Bey, but the way he keyed the pass off the defenders was a veteran move. Cornerback Damonte Kazee saw running back James Conner run a short out route and immediately charged him, leaving Heyward-Bey running a skinny post under a huge cushion from former Steeler C.J. Goodwin. He timed the throw for the moment Kazee cleared out of the lane, and would have likely had a solid completion had the throw been higher. Like I said: lots to work on, but a lot of promise in Dobbs’ ability to quickly diagnose a play after the snap.

James Conner has some things to work on

Conner had a slow start, then acquitted himself well as the game wore on. He’s always been a bit of a grinder, and I don’t expect that to change as a pro. He ended up averaging nearly five yards per carry, which is an extremely solid debut.

But there were definitely some negatives. He had two terrible drops as a receiver, and in both cases, he turned his head upfield before the ball got to his hands. That’s a huge no-no. But it’s also not at all uncommon for rookies who are trying to make plays to impress coaches. In particular, had he caught a third-down pass just after the two minute warning in the first half, he had a chance to turn a grab just one yard past the line of scrimmage into a 20 or 25 yard gain, if not more.

The other issue comes from a few easy ankle tackles that took him down. Specifically, three in the first half. On further review, the first — on Conner’s first career carry — wasn’t an ankle tackle at all, and was pretty close to being able to be called intentional tripping by the defender, as he threw his right leg out into Conner’s path. The other two, though, come down to a combination of balance, technique and anticipation. One of the reasons why fellow running back Le’Veon Bell is so hard to take down by the ankles is that he runs with high knees — i.e., his feet get good clearance, especially when rounding a corner. Conner is currently using his knees to slow down, and not enough of his hips, which generates small, quick steps, but makes him very susceptible to ankle tackles. He needs to get his rear-end lower and bend more at the waist when turning upfield, using his entire lower body as a shock absorber, and allowing him to get his feet up higher with each step.

B.J. Finney looked much better this week

Finney, a former college center, looked solid filling in for Maurkice Pouncey in 2016, but appeared to struggle at times last week against the New York Giants. Against the Falcons, though, he looked great. One play that really stood out came in the second quarter, when the Falcons ran a delayed stunt. Finney quickly identified the looping defensive lineman and was able to stand him up at the point of attack.

It’s a fairly small detail to notice, but in a game when the starting offense looked bland and disinterested, it’s nice to see Finney took his lumps from last week and turned them around. Should any of the interior linemen go down in 2017, it’s comforting to know the Steelers have someone of Finney’s caliber waiting to jump into the lineup.

Crawford signed; Brown-Dukes released News - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 8:12am
The Steelers added cornerback Antonio Crawford.

Kicking things off in style News - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 6:50am
The partnership between the Steelers and the United Way continues on game day.

Odell Beckham’s injury scare highlights the unnerving nature of preseason football

Behind the Steel Curtain - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 6:10am

The star wideout narrowly avoided a devastating injury, and in doing so, revealed the antiquity of the preseason

The NFL preseason is not important—until, of course, something important happens. But even then, the significance of a particular happenstance is subjective. Let me give you an example: James Conner rushed for 98 yards on 20 carries in a 17-13 win over the Falcons in his preseason debut. This was a very solid outing, and one that the Steelers will take from their presumptive no. 2 back.

It should be noted, however, that Conner’s first 11 carries yielded 38 rushing yards. His final nine carries, meanwhile, yielded 60 yards. Generally speaking, the level of talent on the field during preseason games tends to decrease as the game drags on, so Conner’s strong finish could be attributed to him playing against subpar competition. One could also make the case, though, that Conner himself was playing alongside a meager supporting cast.

Hence, there is no binary from which to judge Conner’s performance; it was whatever you wanted it to be. Some things are not this complex. Some things are what they are. And Odell Beckham Jr.’s injury scare on Monday night was objectively significant.

Fortunately for Beckham Jr., the New York Giants, and fantasy owners (re: me), early reports suggest that he suffered a sprained ankle, thereby avoiding a major injury. Behold:

#Giants Odell Beckham to the locker room after this hit. He stopped & dropped to his knees before getting to the locker room, too. Bad news.

— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) August 22, 2017

Let’s deconstruct this:

Right away, it becomes pretty evident that this isn’t gonna end well. Eli Manning, who is already in midseason form, delivered the ball just a tad higher than he probably needed to, forcing Beckham Jr. to leave his feet. At this point, Browns safety Briean Boddy-Calhoun (I had to look this up, but I’m pretty sure the Browns’ official site is trolling me because there is no way that this is a real person), goes low to make a tackle, making certain to operate within legal guidelines. As Beckham Jr. secures the ball, his back facing the secondary, his foot hits the ground at the exact same moment that Boddy-Calhoun makes contact with his leg. The fact that Beckham Jr. had juuuuust landed ultimately prevented him from fully establishing himself, allowing his left leg to slide out from under him with relative ease. He was also lucky that Boddy-Calhoun’s initial contact occurred juuuuust above his thigh. In other words, if Beckham Jr. had landed just a millisecond sooner or if Boddy-Calhoun had hit Beckham Jr. an inch or two lower, Beckham Jr. probably would’ve blown out his knee. This was a well-deserved fortuitous turn of events for Beckham Jr., who spent Monday afternoon staring at a solar eclipse. (It is apparent that he may not have actually been staring at the sun, but some sort of artificial light source, as a joke.) (I don’t understand the joke.) (Beckham Jr. seems like the kind of guy who would make fun of someone who spilled water on their pants by peeing in his own).

Odell Beckham Jr. is near the very top of the shortlist of the NFL’s most valuable non-quarterbacks—and arguably the only receiver in the NFL who is even in the same conversation as Antonio Brown and Julio Jones in the positional hierarchy. He is the face of the New York Giants, if not the entire NFL. At the very least, he is easily the league’s most marketable player, and hopes to follow by also being its highest paid. As such, I think it is safe to say that our view of the preseason would have shifted considerably had Beckham Jr.’s season ended in Cleveland in mid-August.

The purpose of this little exercise is not to advocate the end of preseason football—this will never, ever happen, anyway, because the NFL and its owners enjoy money, fans generally enjoy watching it, and fringe players rely on it to lock-down roster spots—but to decry its pitfalls.

Indispensable, franchise cornerstones like Beckham Jr., Brown, and Jones probably do not need the preseason. The benefits that a few series of action would confer to players of this magnitude would surely be minimal. The aforementioned All-Pros have spent the duration of their professional careers playing alongside the same quarterbacks, so it isn’t as if taking in the sights for four weeks while the special teamers duke it out would somehow subvert this continuity. As a fan of the Steelers, my favorite part of the preseason is watching Antonio Brown not play in the preseason. The same is true for Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell, the latter of whom granted my wish by neglecting to sign his franchise tender, thereby facilitating a de facto holdout.

Injuries are an unavoidable side effect of professional football, but any attempts to placate injury risk should be eagerly embraced. If this involves locking star players in plastic bubbles, switching departure times without telling them, or lighting their equipment on fire, then I’m all for it.

Steelers, Nike team up on new shoe News - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 4:00am
The Steelers and Nike have combined to create a brand new men's Nike Free Trainer V7 NFL training shoe.

Le'Veon Bell tweets he will return to the Steelers on Sept. 1 - Steelers/NFL - Tue, 08/22/2017 - 10:04pm

Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell said on his Twitter account tonight he plans to report to the team on Sept. 1 — one day after the final preseason game and nine days before the season opener in Cleveland.


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