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Kingerski: Why Penguins Coach’s Challenges Succeed but Steelers Fail

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This article originally appeared on Pittsburgh Hockey Now.

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has never had a losing record. In 11 seasons, the Steelers head coach has consistently won everything, except coach’s challenges. Tomlin’s abysmal record with coach’s challenges has never been more apparent than his 0-for-10 record challenges since January, 2017. Across the river, Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan has won three straight challenges and four this season.

It’s about process. The Penguins have one. Apparently, the Steelers do not.

The Penguins have a set of dedicated eyes in the sky which belong to Andy Saucier.

“Sauce is an all-star,” said Sullivan on Dec. 15 after yet another successful challenge which denied the Penguins’ opponent a goal.

Last Sunday, Tomlin refused to challenge an incomplete pass which likely would have been overturned to a turnover in the Steelers favor. Tomlin reasoned, “(the officials) were definitive about it and we moved on.”

Oh, well if the stripes say so. By all means, trust the same referees which took the ball from the Steelers via erroneous pass interference calls after the Steelers defended crucial fourth down attempts, or as Tomlin put it, “won the situation.”

Sure, trust those guys.

NFL games have between 12 to 20 cameras which are able to show blades of grass bend beneath tapping toes and slightly deflected footballs which would otherwise negate pass interference, all in high definition and super slow motion.

And yet Mike Tomlin’s gut is more than an arbiter weighing input from specialists. Tomlin’s gut seemingly is the Steelers replay team.

“(Saucier) is terrific at breaking down those situations because we don’t get a good enough look on the bench,” said Sullivan. “We sat as a coaching staff before the season started and we defined a criteria on what we’re going to challenge and what we’re not.”

“And so we try to define a criteria as clearly as we can. And now everybody has a role and a responsibility,” Sullivan continued. Some of those responsibilities fall on Penguins goaltending coach Mike Buckley who weighs in on goaltender interference. Other challenges such as offside fall on Saucier to quickly review tape and communicate with the coaches and Sullivan.

But Mike Tomlin’s wishful thinking and a jumbotron are OK, too, right?

Baseball teams have numerous monitors each with numerous angles set up in the clubhouse for replays. Challenges are not left to the whims or hopes from the bench. As Sullivan admitted, the view from the bench and certainly the sidelines sometimes over 50 yards away isn’t good enough.

Goaltending interference is every bit as confusing or nebulous as the NFL catch rule(s), so each sport has its potential reviews without a clear answer, but the Penguins have managed to win four of their last six challenges, regardless.

The Penguins have won playoff games because they’ve taken opponents’ goals off the board. It is easier to wonder if Tomlin were just 1-4 instead of 0-5 this season if the Steelers would be resting starters, Sunday instead of playing and hoping for their playoff lives.

“I just think (Saucier) is an all-star,” repeated Sullivan. And the have Penguins reaped the rewards in big moments and small. Despite not having the tens of millions of dollars which flows through NFL teams at their disposal, the Penguins not only have a system in place but a video replay setup, too.

And imagine, Mike Sullivan’s success rate is only in the middle pack in the NHL. Somehow, NHL teams with far fewer cameras and grainy looks at the play are overturning calls and setting right the games. Conversely, the Steelers rely on emotion and perception from 150 feet away, which is just not good enough.

Nor is taking the officials word for it.

That is why the Penguins challenges have been successful, and the Steelers are 0-5 this season and 0-10 over the past 23 months.

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Steelers Now Staff 2020 Season Predictions

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Here are our Steelers Now staff predictions for the 2020 season. Think you know better than we do? Leave your prediction in the comments.

NICK FARABAUGH, STEELERS NOW ANALYST, REPORTER

The Steelers boast an impressive defense. They return most of the guys from last year except Javon Hargrave and Mark Barron, but they do add back in Stephon Tuitt. This is still a defense that has playmakers at every level. From T.J. Watt and Heyward to Devin Bush to Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden, this is a defense that offensive coordinators do not want to face, period. This team had an astonishing 38 turnovers forced last year, and I have to think while they may not repeat that number, they’ll get close to it. It was a nice depth signing to bring on Sean Davis as well in case of any injuries to the safety group. I don’t see this defense taking much of a step back.

However, the offense should take a step forward. After a year without Ben Roethlisberger, he is back and by all reports looks great. The additions of Eric Ebron and Chase Claypool give him an even more expansive group of weapons than he had coming into last year. The offensive line depth looks fantastic thanks to the signing of Stefen Wisniewski and picking Kevin Dotson in the 4th round. This team has a lot of schematic flexibility. With Matt Canada bringing his motion and play-action concepts with him as well, this offense has a lot of upside to it. I think this offense takes a big step up this year, especially in the red zone.

The Steelers prediction is not too tough on paper. The NFC East is an OK division, and while the NFC South has some tough teams, the Steelers are very capable of winning all those games. Not pulling the Chiefs is a pretty nice bonus, too.

Season Prediction: 11-5

Three other predictions that I will throw out:

• Eric Ebron will lead this offense in receiving touchdowns. He’s going to be a huge threat in the red zone for this team.

• Steven Nelson gets 3+ interceptions this year. It was a bit of a down year in terms of ball production for him last year, but that changes this year.

• James Conner stays healthy enough and gets his first 1,000-yard rushing season.

ALAN SAUNDERS, STEELERS NOW MANAGING EDITOR, BEAT WRITER

With a very, very weird offseason, I think the beginning of the 2020 season is going to be tough, even for good football teams. We’ve already seen that through Week 1, with the San Francisco 49ers dropping a game to the Arizona Cardinals and the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles finding ways to lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Washington Redskins.

But the Steelers have been blessed with a very light open to their season. They’ll get the New York Giants, fresh off a coaching change, followed by the listless Denver Broncos and DeAndre Hopkins-less Houston Texans, setting the team up for a potential 3-0 start before facing a pair of playoff teams in the Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles. Later non-division games at Jacksonville, against Washington, at Buffalo and against Indianapolis all seem very winnable.

Divisional play should also lean the Steelers’ way, as Cleveland has not significantly improved, and while Cincinnati will be much better, they were so bad last season, it would hard to be worse. They should be favored in four of six division games.

From a team standpoint, they certainly got better than last year, simply by the addition of Roethlisberger. If this defense can drag the offense to an 8-8 record without Roethlisberger, how good can they be with him? Truly, the sky is the limit, as there isn’t a single game on the Steelers’ slate that seems unwinnable at the outset of the season.

The lone stumbling block will be a Baltimore Ravens team that defeated Pittsburgh twice last year and also got better in the offseason, adding defensive lineman Calais Campbell and five top-100 draft picks from the 2020 NFL Draft. The Ravens are the best team in the division, and even Roethlisberger won’t be a sure thing to change that math in the Steelers’ favor.

Season prediction: 11-5, No. 5 seed in AFC, loss in AFC Championship Game

Bonus Steelers predictions:

• Diontae Johnson will be the team’s leading receiver.
• Three Steelers will have more than 10 sacks.
• Chase Claypool will score more than four touchdowns.

Bonus NFL predictions:

• The New England Patriots will have a better record than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
• The New York Jets will finish in last place.
• Joe Burrow will win Offensive Rookie of the Year.

MIKE VUKOVCAN, CO-FOUNDER

12-4. The Steelers will win the AFC North and will play the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl. The team’s biggest offensive weapon will be Ebron.

MIKE ASTI, DIGITAL CONTENT MANAGER

11-5. I have Steelers winning AFC North because of actual stability at quarterback and another year together for the defense. Roethlisberger will also be more efficient than he’s been because of the addition of Ebron in particular, who will be among best offseason additions throughout league.

CALE BERGER, DIGITAL CONTENT PRODUCER

11-5. Win AFC north. lose to Chiefs in AFC championship. Defense will be stellar. Diontae Johnson team MVP

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Vukovcan: Fitzpatrick Trade Sign Steelers Plan to Contend in 2019

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The Pittsburgh Steelers have earned the reputation of being an organization that’s conservative and don’t make a habit of making off-the-field moves that involve risk, which makes the moves they’ve done in the last six months shocking.

First, they traded up into the top ten of the 2019 NFL Draft in order to acquire linebacker Devin Bush. Then Monday night, they shocked everyone by trading a 2020 first round pick for Miami Dolphins defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick.

How unusual is this trade? This will be the first time since 1967 –before Chuck Noll — that the Steelers won’t have a first round pick in the NFL Draft.

The fact that Kevin Colbert made this trade after learning that Ben Roethlisberger will miss the remainder of the 2019 due to elbow surgery is what has many people around the league and the city scratching their heads.

The thought by many is that the Steelers are going to be one of the worst teams in the league and traded away a possible Top 10 pick.

Why in the world would the Steelers do something like this? Another bad move by Colbert, right? I actually think it’s a brilliant move and I love it. Unlike their neighbors on the North Shore, the Steelers have always prioritized winning.

On paper and even without Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin is coaching a talented roster. Offensively, they have a talented, veteran offensive line along with two emerging stars in JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner. Defensively, with the addition of Fitzpatrick, Keith Butler is now coaching 10 former first round picks (Bush, T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Cam Heyward, Joe Haden, Terrell Edmunds, Mark Barron, Artie Burns and Tyson Alualu).

The Steelers don’t operate in the world of rebuilding plans and believe that even without Ben, they’re talented enough to compete for a playoff spot and the division title.

It’s no doubt a risky move but one that I believe is a risk worth taking.

Fitzpatrick is a 22-year-old proven commodity in the NFL. Last year, PPF rated him as the top slot cornerback in the entire NFL. Anyone that’s paid attention to the Steelers for the last five-plus years, knows that their defensive backfield has been a trouble area.

In today’s pass-happy NFL, you need to be strong on the backside and now with Fitzpatrick, Edmunds, Haden and Steven Nelson, the team believes that area can now become a strength.

Former second-round pick Sean Davis is a free agent after the season and with the team’s spotty recent history of drafting defensive backs, the acquisition of Fitzpatrick eliminates the further need of trying to fix that position. Plus, they have his manageable contract for at least the next three seasons.

Maybe the biggest thing this trade does is send a signal to the players in the locker room and in particular Rudolph that the organization believes that all their 2019 goals are still attainable.

After receiving the news that he was the new starting quarterback, Rudolph’s life changed big time. He inherited the pressure of leading one of the highest profile organizations in the NFL. By executing a win-now move like trading for Fitzpatrick, Rudolph can’t help but believe that despite his inexperience, the organization believes they can win now with him under center.

I realize that Rudolph might not be ready and the rest of the roster and Steelers’ coordinators could continue to under-produce but the organization should be commended for going for it.

The window for this veteran group of players is closing and the futures of both head coach Tomlin and Colbert are uncertain.

Will this be a move that haunts the organization for years to come or will it be viewed as brilliant and one that jumpstarted the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers?

We’ll start to find out this Sunday in San Francisco.

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Saunders: Steelers Leaders’ Show True Ability in Response to Tragedy

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UNITY TWP., Pa. — When a football team goes through any type of struggle, players will naturally look to their leaders for guidance.

That’s particularly the case when the leaders of the team are among the longest-tenured and most-respected around the league at their positions.

But according to the narrative that surrounded the Pittsburgh Steelers over the last nine months, the team’s leaders — most notably quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin — were responsible for the drama and dysfunction that surrounded the team. For many, it was an indictment of their abilities as leaders of men.

We now have overwhelming evidence that narrative was shortsighted, if not completely incorrect. First, Antonio Brown has shown completely and without any shadow of a doubt that he was the cause of most, if not all, of the drama that surrounded him with his continued antics, disruption and legal issues while with the Oakland Raiders.

But more importantly, the Steelers’ leaders were faced with a far more difficult challenge during this year’s training camp than dealing with an acting-out wide receiver. The death of coach Darryl Drake on Sunday hit the team hard, particularly those that were closest to him.

That group certainly included Roethlisberger and Tomlin. Tomlin had known Drake for years before they became coworkers and was visibly upset when talking about his former friend this week.

“Professionally, obviously, the loss is significant, but personally, it’s even bigger,” Tomlin said Those of us that knew and had personal relationships with Coach Drake all feel that way.

“In ’97, I was a young wide receiver coach at Arkansas State. He was viewed as one of the top wide receivers coaches in the college game. I was politely aggressive in building a relationship with him. He probably didn’t have a choice, or that’s how he’d described it, in being my friend. I was too persistent.

“He extended courtesies to me like he does to a lot of young guys like myself in the profession and that’s why we talked about him the way we do. He sent me drill tape and things of that nature. We developed a rapport and things went from there.

“Coaching was Coach Drake’s platform for ministry. He wore many hats. Coaching was his vocation, but he was a father, a mentor, a brother, an advisor, like we all are in a lot of ways, to the men that he worked with, not only now, but over the course of his career, which spanned decades.”

Roethlisberger, similarly, spoke of how deeply he was effected by Drake’s influence.

“I only knew him for a year and a half, but in that year and a half, he meant more to me than some people that I’ve know my whole life,” Roethlisberger said Thursday. “I know he was an amazing football coach, but he was an even better man, better husband, better father and better man of God than he was a football coach. So, what he brought to this team and our relationship together, is truly something that could never be replicated and he will be very dearly missed, but we know that he is with us and we know that he’s in a better place.”

But despite their personal relationships with Drake, and the individual pain they have been going through, Roethlisberger and Tomlin have bought into their role as healers and leaders on the squad. Photographer Ed Thompson caught a glimpse of Roethlisberger consoling JuJu Smith-Schuster in the rain during practice on Tuesday.

He spoke Thursday about the importance of that job.

“Just try to be there,” he said of his role. “Listen. I think that’s sometimes the best that you can do with grief is just to listen. So many times, we get caught trying to talk and telling people that it’ll be OK. But grief isn’t about being OK. It’s about grieving and talking and communicating, so I’m just trying to be a good communicator and listen.”

Tomlin led the team forward, saying “we intend to march” through the grief and pain to continue to fulfill the team’s professional obligations, while also recognizing that the pain needed real, professional healing. Tomlin brought in grief counselors, saying such methods were “not for the weak, but the wise.”

And so it went up and down the veterans of the Steelers’ locker room, from soft-spoken voices of experience like Alejandro Villanueva to the raw emotion of Ryan Switzer, all following the examples laid before them of acknowledging their grief and the importance of open communication and togetherness in times of trouble.

A star wide receiver that wants the ball more and can’t control his own ego? That’s a first-world problem, and an invented problem at that.

The death of a friend, a co-worker, a mentor and an important member of an organization? That’s as real as it gets.

When the Steelers’ leaders were tested with a real issue, they showed their true ability.

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