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Have Injuries Opened Holes in Steelers Top-Ranked Defense?

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The Steelers defense has been at or near the top of the NFL for most of the 2020 season in most statistical categories, but the unit that led Pittsburgh to the top of the NFL charts wasn’t exactly the same as the one that finished the team’s last game against Washington on Sunday.

The Steelers now have two starting linebackers that are out for the season with injuries in second-year inside linebacker Devin Bush and Pro Bowl candidate Bud Dupree, who missed his first game on Monday. Both players suffered ACL injuries.

Bush’s backup, Robert Spillane, went down on the first drive of the third quarter against Washington and the defense never looked the same with recently acquired Avery Williamson in his place. Washington seemed emphatic about targeting Pittsburgh’s first-line pass defense with running backs and tight ends.

On the back end, cornerback Steven Nelson missed the game with a knee injury and fellow starter Joe Haden left the game with a concussion, putting the Steelers down a pair of top-flight defensive backs.

It added up to a unit that got carved up in crunch time by a previously toothless Washington aerial attack, even while shutting down star receiver Terry McLaurin.

It adds up to a significant series of losses, especially two big ones mid-game in Haden and Spillane, whose absence Tomlin attributed to some miscommunications on defense in the second half.

Nelson should return this Sunday, barring a setback. Whoever starts at corner opposite and at inside linebacker, the Steelers will have to be prepared for an even more potent test in the Josh Allen-led Buffalo Bills this Sunday.

“We have to understand things are gonna happen throughout the year, whether it’s injuries, COVID, personal things that might go on, we have to be ready for all of that as a defense,” defensive captain Cam Heyward said on Wednesday. “I think we do a great job rotating, so when we do have to put that stress on other guys to step up, they’re not, foreign to it. If it does happen, or when it does happen, we just have to make sure we’re ready to accommodate that.”

The Steelers still have the No. 1 scoring defense in the league, with an average of 17.6 points allowed per game, and are third in yards allowed, second in yards per play and first in turnovers. But to continue that run, they’ll either need to get healthy once again or bring another round of backups up to speed quickly.

Steelers

JuJu Smith-Schuster Asks Fans to Give him Space

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JuJu Smith-Schuster is experiencing the negative side effect of living so much of his personal life in the public eye. The Steelers receiver, who is looking for a new NFL contract, took to Instagram to ask fans to leave him alone.

This stems from allegations that fans are showing up to his family home in California while he is there. Obviously, fans have no right to show up unwelcome anywhere to stalk an an athlete or celebrity, but this is just another example of the polarization of Smith-Schuster’s career. While he’s received much criticism, most notably this past season, for his sometimes over-the-top behavior and seemingly prioritizing his brand at all times, he also has many avid supporters who would stop at nothing to defend one of their favorite players.

Smith-Schuster is set to be a free agent in March for the first time in his professional career. If the Steelers should try to bring back the receiver has become a hot debate among Pittsburgh fans, so much so Smith-Schuster himself addressed the situation during a live Twitch sessions with fans.

Even Smith-Schuster’s play on the field is often up for debate. He totaled 97 receptions, but for only 831 yards with an average of just 8.6 yards per catch, which is significantly lower than his average from past seasons, including 15.8 his rookie year and 13.1 in 2019.

When it comes to JuJu Smith-Schuster, it’s always best to just stay tuned.

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Steelers’ Vance McDonald Reflects on Stiff Arm Moment, Relationship with Ben Roethlisberger

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Steelers tight end Vance McDonald spoke to the media after officially announcing his retirement from the NFL. McDonald responded to a question about the play he’s most synonymous with by saying he embraces the famous stiff arm moment. He also detailed his interaction with Ben Roethlisberger when he told his quarterback he was planning to retire.

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Steelers TE Kevin Rader Aced Week 17 Audition, More Coming in 2021?

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The Steelers have an opening in their tight ends room, as four-year starter Vance McDonald retired on Friday.

That leaves Eric Ebron as the team’s projected starter for 2021, and that won’t be a big change, as Ebron out-snapped McDonald and started nine games to McDonald’s 12. Without another veteran option, it’s likely the Steelers will use fewer two-tight end sets, but the issue of backups will need to be addressed.

Michigan product and former fifth-round pick Zach Gentry has yet to be a factor through two seasons and missed most of 2020 with an injury, but as he’s under contract and the team is facing a salary cup crunch, he seems likely to hold onto that job.

The Steelers have options for a third tight end, securing the services of Dax Raymond and Charles Jones on reserve/future contracts for the 2021 season on Thursday. But the man that seems most likely to step up into that role is third-year pro Kevin Rader.

Rader, a Pine-Richland and Youngstown State alum spent his second season with the Steelers in 2020, but got his first taste of action in Week 17 at Cleveland with the Steelers choosing to rest starters.

He made the most of the opportunity, particularly on special teams, where he played in nearly half of the team’s snaps, made three tackles and drew praise from head coach Mike Tomlin.

“Guys like Kevin Rader had an opportunity to step up and play,” Tomlin said. “I think he had three tackles on kickoff. For an offensive player to have that type of contribution in net, in a coverage unit I think was impressive. That’s good for him. That’s good for us as we move forward.”

Rader is also on a reserve/future contract, with no guaranteed money for 2021, but if he can continue to show the ability to contribute on special teams and help as a blocker, where McDonald excelled and Ebron does not, it seems that he can certainly carve himself out a role in Pittsburgh in 2021.

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