Word to the Wise: Huey Richardson Proves Even Busts Can Debut Preseason with a Bang

The rookie Steelers linebacker offered incredible promise. He arrived at St. Vincents a first round pick having been taken 15th overall. Distinct from his outspoken peers, this young man remained set on speaking with his actions instead of his words.

Playing not one, but two positions, defensive end and inside linebacker, in his preseason debut, his stat line screamed:

  • He sacked  the hottest young quarterback in the game
  • He pressured the passer on two other occasions
  • He forced one fumble and recorded another tackle

And when it was over, “I still have a long way to go” remained the rookie’s only words.

In terms of both form and demeanor, it was a preseason debut that even a noted stoic head coach like Chuck Noll could have scripted better. Unfortunately, it was also the preseason debut of Huey Richardson, the most notorious first round bust in modern Steelers history.

The date was August 17th 1991 and the opponent was the Philadelphia Eagles. And, to be 100% accurate, Richardson had seen spot duty in Pittsburgh’s previous preseason game. But his lesson remains relevant today: Preseason reveals a lot, but sometimes it can be deceiving.

Olasunkanmi, Adeiyi, Steelers vs Eagles preseason

Olasunkanmi Adeiyi Steelers preseason debut. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Several Steelers rookies stated their claim to permanent spots on Pittsburgh’s roster in the process. Receivers James Washington and Damoun Patterson made electrifying catches. Olasunkanmi Adeniyi came up with a strip-sack. Chukwuma Okorafor showed that he could perhaps serve as a legit swing tackle this season. Mason Rudolph looked poised and delivered the ball on target.

  • Such fast starts from rookies are you want to see this early in the summer.
  • But while starting strong is nice, sustaining a strong start remains essential.

As Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reminded, Terrell Watson, Doran Grant, Jordan Zumwalt and Derek Moye all authored outstanding single game preseason performances in recent years, yet none of that translated into anything of note when the games counted.

  • So how is an educated fan to know the difference between a preseason flash in the pan and the beginnings of something bigger?

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula. Stefan Logan and Isaac Redman earned a lot more with their rookie preseason than James Harrison did, but Harrison had the far better career.

  • Perhaps Huey Richardson’s experience can serve as a guide.

When the Steelers drafted Huey Richardson in the 1991 NFL Draft, the move drew praise. I remember a friend who wasn’t a Steelers fan and who knew far more about football than I did calling me telling me what a great pick he was.

Yet red flags arrived early and often with Richardson. He refused to talk with the press. The quote above which Ed Bouchette secured perhaps contains all only words Richardson ever uttered to the Pittsburgh press corps.

On the fields of St. Vincents things didn’t get much better. As Bouchette later recapped in Dawn of a New Steel Age, “Players made fun of the way he back-pedaled on pass coverage and how he ran stiffly.” In practice Richardson botched play after play.

  • Huey Richardson had even managed open training camp by breaking his nose in non-contact drills.

All of that, however, came before Richardson’s “breakout” preseason performance. But afterwards “It seemed like he was a force every once and a while” was the only praise that Ed Bouchette could muster out Dave Brazil, Richardson’s defensive coordinator.

The lesson it seems is that fans should first watch and then read between the lines when assessing a rookie’s preseason performances.

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Who Needs Dez Bryant? Steelers Rookie Damoun Patterson Shows Why Pittsburgh Stands Pat

It seems the Pittsburgh Steelers find new and unknown receivers in camp each and every summer, prompting this writer to ask “Who needs Dez Bryant?

Take two years ago, for example, when Eli Rogers, an undrafted free-agent out of Louisville who spent his entire rookie season of 2015 on Injured Reserve after suffering a foot injury in his very first training camp.

Rogers was one of the young sensations of the Steelers 2016 training camp and was rewarded by making the final 53-man roster. Not only that, but Rogers became the slot receiver and proved to be a dependable option for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, catching 48 passes for 594 yards and three touchdowns.

Eli Rogers saw a decline in production a year ago, and he suffered a torn ACL in Pittsburgh’s playoff loss to the Jaguars on January 14. After recently being re-signed, he is currently on the team’s PUP list, hoping to get a chance to see if he can still be a part of the Steelers talented receiving corps.

Damoun Patterson, Steelers vs Eagles preseason

Damoun Patterson catches a preseason touchdown from Joshua Dobbs. Photo Credit: Bill Streichner, USA Today, via 24/7 Steelers.

  • This summer another UDFA, Damoun Patterson, a youngster who played his college ball at Youngstown State, has thrown his hat into the ring to be 2018’s Eli Rogers.

Damoun Patterson is now a true contender to be a part of the receiving corps after catching six passes for 77 yards and one dazzling touchdown in the Steelers preseason-opening 31-14 victory over the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on Thursday night.

Patterson showed great body control as he spun around to catch a laser-strike from third-string quarterback Joshua Dobbs and great balance as he got one foot down in the end zone and then the other.

  • Both Patterson’s body control and balance, were on display as the rookie celebrated his touchdown heroics by doing a back-flip.

With Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and likely Darrius Heyward-Bey all locks to make the squad, the fifth receiver position could be up for grabs.

Obviously, when he’s ready to depart from the PUP list Eli Rogers is a candidate, as is Justin Hunter, the veteran receiver the Steelers signed as a free agent in the 2017 offseason. However, Justin Hunter, despite his obvious physical attributes, has never truly broken out during his time in the NFL.

Another contender for that fifth-receiver spot is former University of Pittsburgh standout, Quadree Henderson. Henderson didn’t do much on Thursday, but he’ll obviously have ample time to impress his coaches between now and the final cut-down date.

But Damoun Patterson, who isn’t even listed on the Steelers official team depth chart (for what that’s worth in the preseason), has certainly done something to at least make his bosses take notice.

  • And this is why all that talk about the still unsigned Dez Bryant possibly coming to Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago seemed ridiculous at best.

The Steelers obviously know how to find receivers to round out their depth chart–guys who have actually contributed during crucial moments (Cobi Hamilton caught a touchdown pass in the 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots).

This summer, if it isn’t Patterson, Rogers or Henderson who rounds out the receiver depth chart, it will surely be another diamond in the rough we may not even be talking about right now.

The Steelers know their away around unknown wide receivers.

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Steelers Eagles Preseason Report Card

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their 2018 preseason campaign against the defending Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles. Here is their Report Card.

Damoun Patterson, Damoun Patterson preseason touchdown, Rasul Douglas, Steelers vs Eagles Preseason

Steelers hopeful Damoun Patterson preseason touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Matt Rourke, AP via Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
As has become the custom the past few summers, 15-year and future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn’t start the Steelers preseason opener against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on Thursday night.

Backup quarterback Landry Jones got the start, playing three series and completing four of four passes for 83 yards and a 71-yard touchdown strike to second-year receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Second-year quarterback Joshua Dobbs played the rest of the first half and completed nine of 13 passes for 91 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Joshua Dobbs led Pittsburgh on two touchdown drives in the second quarter. Dobbs set up the first scoring drive with an 18-yard run As for the second score, it was a sensational 29-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Damoun Patterson. Rookie Mason Rudolph took over the reins in the second half and completed seven of 12 passes for 101 yards. Grade: B-

Running Backs
Training camp holdout or not, star running back Le’Veon Bell wasn’t going to play, Thursday night. In his place, were a host of running backs, including veteran Stevan Ridley, who led all Steelers backs with 10 carries but for only 14 yards. Fellow veteran Fitzgerald Toussaint led the way with 29 yards and a touchdown on seven carries, while second-year man James Conner tallied an impressive 25 yards on just four carries. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
The youngster, Damoun Patterson, was the receiving star of the night, as he was targeted 10 times, while pulling down six catches for 77 yards and the touchdown grab that was every bit as sensational as Dobbs’ pass. Smith-Schuster tallied only one catch for the aforementioned 71-yard score, while rookie James Washington grabbed two passes for 44 yards–including an impressive combat catch near the sidelines in the second half. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Nothing newsworthy from this group. Veteran Jesse James caught just one pass for two yards. Vance McDonald sat out with an injury, while Xavier Grimble was shutout in the box score. Grade: Incomplete

Offensive Line
Missing several key starters–including Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro due to injury prevention and veteran Ramon Foster due to an actual injury, Jones and Company weren’t afforded with the best protection. Sure enough, both Jones and Rudolph were sacked twice each. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward didn’t play at all, Stephon Tuitt played very little, while Javon Hargrave saw the most action out of the starters. The Eagles were held to 106 yards rushing, which is perhaps a testament to the backups and how they’re learning under first-year defensive line coach Karl Dunbar. Grade: C

Linebackers
Inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich led the way with four solo tackles, while Jon Bostic collected three. However, neither really distinguished themselves in the battle for the starting job alongside Vince Williams. As for outside linebackers, Anthony Chickillo recorded one sack, while rookie Olasunkanmi Adeniyi made the defensive play of the night, with a strip-sack early in the third quarter that set up a field goal. Grade: B+

Secondary
Despite missing a good bit of training camp battling injury, Morgan Burnett, the strong safety acquired via free agency in the offseason, looked really good, same for rookie first round pick Terrell Edmunds. Coty Sensabaugh and Cam Sutton each recorded an interception, while Dashaun Phillips provided the low-light for the night when he was burned badly on a 63-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. Grade: C

Special Teams
Nothing much of note on special teams, as rookie Quadree Henderson only had one chance to return a kickoff, while Justin Thomas totaled just 12 yards on three punt returns. Kicker Chris Boswell converted all three of his field goal attempts and both extra points. As for the punters, veteran Jordan Berry averaged 41.7 yards on three punts, while the unknown Matt Wile totaled 96 yards on two punts. Grade: C

Coaches
It was the first preseason game, complete with vanilla game-plans that were executed by a lot of guys who won’t be around in a few weeks. Grade: Incomplete

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Got the Preseason Humbug? Steelers Mike Hilton’s Story Is the Perfect Cure

The Pittsburgh Steelers preseason tonight against the Philadelphia Eagles. Most fans will welcome the return to the gridiron after a 2017 that ended so abruptly.

  • However, every year the “enduring preseason football” griping gets louder.

Taking our cue from the late Ken Beatrice, season ticket holders who must pay major league prices to see minor-league talent have beef. As for the rest of us? Well, that’s why we have our annual “Eat your liver and your Brussels sprouts and enjoy preseason football” article.

So if you have a case of the preseason football humbug, Mike Hilton’s story will cure what ails you.

Mike Hilton, Rashard Higgins, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers prseason

Mike Hilton breaks up a pass for Rashard Higgins. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via PennLive.com

The Other Cornerback from Ole Miss

Unless you’ve been under a rock, cornerback has oscillated between being an urgent and major area of Steelers need since Super Bowl XLV. No need to look it up, that was in January, 2011.

Sadly, Senquez Golson never played an NFL down. But in late 2016 Kevin Colbert chanced that that Bill Belichick’s garbage might be his treasure when he signed Senquez Golson’s former teammate Mike Hilton to Pittsburgh’s practice squad.

However, Mike Hilton caught Jim Wexell’s eye during OTA’s, earning reps with the first unit with back-to-back pass breakups. Days later, Hilton ended a two minute drill by intercepting Landry Jones in the end zone, prompting praise from Ryan Shazier and landing Hilton on Wexell’s training camp dark horse list.

Here our story takes a hypothetical turn….

The Problem with Cutting (or Eliminating) Preseason Football

The conventional wisdom holds that preseason is too long. Perhaps from marketing perspective that’s true as the NFL is not showcasing its top talent.

Fearing injury, coaches are loath to play starters in preseason. And when stars do suffer injuries, the howls to shorten preseason get louder. Michael Vick’s broken leg in the 2003 preseason offers a perfect example.

  • And seeing starters injured in preseason, as happened to David DeCastro and Sean Spence, is difficult.

But that doesn’t change the fact that calls to shorten or eliminate preseason games are short sighted, and Mike Hilton shows why.

Mike Hilton’s 2017 Preseason Campaign

Doing it on the practice field and doing it under game conditions are two different things. Word was at the end of 2013 that wide receiver Justin Brown was an up and comer based on his work on the Steelers practice squad. Brown did earn a 2014 roster spot, but couldn’t produce in games and was gone before Christmas.

  • Justin Hunter is another player who practices well, but still hasn’t proven it in games.

As Mike Hilton illustrates, preseason gives coaches a live-fire antidote to curing this ill

All of this begs the question: Would Mike Hilton have gotten these chances in a shortened preseason schedule?

Maybe, maybe not.

If Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake only had two preseason game might their focus have been on getting reps for Ross Cockrell and Coty Sensabaugh, their prospective numbers 2 & 3 corners? If not, health allowing, reps for draft picks like Cam Sutton and Brian Allen would get priority over street free agents like Mike Hilton.

Fortunately, Mike Hilton got those reps, proved he belonged on Pittsburgh’s roster so much that a case could have been made that Hilton, and not T.J. Watt deserved the Steelers rookie of the… er um the Joe Greene Great Performance award.

Steelers Football’s Back – Enjoy It

Times change. A generation ago preseason served as the water fountain sitting at the end of a football desert. Today YouTube, Steelers.com, Twitter and Facebook feed us our year round football fix.

  • That doesn’t change the fact that preseason remains a valuable proving ground for young men seeking to live a dream.

Preseason projections aren’t perfect (see Jarvis Jones in 2013), and 90% of the guys playing in the 4th quarter of the 1st preseason game will never see and NFL practice squad, let alone a roster. But preseason is the place where players like Merril Hoge, Greg Lloyd, Darren Perry, James Harrison, Willie Parker, Ramon Foster and Antonio Brown began making names for themselves.

The same thing will happen tonight night against the Eagles. So watch and enjoy.

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Why Steelers Chukwuma Okorafor is Probably Pittsburgh’s Most Important 3rd Round Pick in 2018

If you’re like most Pittsburgh Steelers fans, you’re surely super-excited about what quarterback Mason Rudolph, their third-round pick out of Oklahoma State, will look like all throughout training camp and during the preseason action that kicks off next Thursday evening in Philadelphia against the Super Bowl champion Eagles.

But while Mason Rudolph might be the most watched Steelers third string quarterback in history (can Mason Rudolph be a true heir apparent to Ben Roethlisberger?), it’s that the Steelers other third round pick–offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor out of Western Michigan–who people should probably be paying attention to this summer, as his early development could save the Steelers bacon in 2018.

After the departure of super-swing tackle Chris Hubbard, who left as a free agent after saving the Steelers bacon the previous two seasons while filling in for the injured/suspended Marcus Gilbert, Pittsburgh’s tackle depth seemed especially thin behind Gilbert at right tackle and Alejandro Villanueva over on the left side.

And when 2016 fourth-round pick Jerald Hawkins suffered a season-threatening torn quadriceps during offseason OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and was placed on Injured Reserve, the uncertainty was palpable.

  • After all, injuries happen in the NFL, and the offensive line is certainly not immune to it.

That’s why it’s encouraging to see Chukwuma Okorafor getting so many first-team reps in-place of an injured Villanueva early on at training camp, and when you get first-team reps on a line as accomplished as Pittsburgh’s, rookie or not, you better make the most of it.

“When you are playing with such a good unit, raise your game up a little bit more,” Okorafor revealed to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Chris Adamski.

One of the questions some scouts reportedly had about Chukwuma Okorafor coming out of college was that he lacked a mean-streak. And this is why it was so impressive to hear about the scuffle he had with reserve outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo on the first day in shoulders pads last weekend.

  • If it’s toughness people are questioning, maybe they shouldn’t question it anymore?

But mean and tough or nice, but can Chukwuma Okorafor take his raw potential that includes a 6’6″ and 320 pound frame and hone it into a good to great NFL offensive lineman?

“He’ll be fun to watch,” said Mike Munchak, the legendary Houston Oilers offensive lineman who may actually have an even greater reputation as an offensive line coach. “He can improve in so many areas because he hasn’t been exposed to a lot of things we do. So far, so good. He’s got the demeanor, the size, long arms.”

  • And in Mike Munchak, Chukwuma Okorafor will have the very best in the business teaching him the finer points of offensive tackle play at the professional level.

With Mike Munchak as his teacher and a decorated group of offensive lineman also showing him the way, Okorafor could be the Steelers 2018 draft pick that has the biggest impact on their success.

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By Nurture or Nature Steelers Must Develop Defensive Talent This Summer

Going into January’s playoff debacle vs the Jaguars, the Steelers had invested 9 of their last 12 premium draft picks on defense. Yet with 8 them on the field, Blake Bortles and Leonard Fournette still hung 45 points on the Steelers defense….

In other words, assuming good health and no production drop off for Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and, yes, Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes rest in the development of Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Javon HargraveTerrell EdmundsJon Bostic and/or Tyler Matakevich.

Terrell Edmunds, Steelers 2018 training camp

Steelers 2018 1st round draft pick Terrell Edmunds. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • But what exactly does “Develop talent mean?”

Does it mean that Kevin Colbert and his scouting team simply did a good job in picking guys who have God-given talent? Or does it mean that Mike Tomlin and his staff molded that talent into NFL-caliber technique? The question is not as simple as one might think. Consider the stories of two safeties:

  • One arrived at St. Vincents unheralded, neutralized the need for a proven starter, won the starting job and led the team with 6 interceptions.
  • The other landed in Latrobe as a first rounder, failed to beat out the journeyman starter and forced 1 fumble and made 2 sacks as his “Splash” plays.

The first is Darren Perry, who in 1992 as an 8th round pick out of Penn State blew past veterans Larry Griffin and Gary Jones and allowed the Steelers to end Thomas Everett’s hold out via trade. Troy Polamalu is the second safety. He didn’t start a game and looked lost early and often as a rookie, but recovered to author a Hall of Fame career.

No one drafting today would pick Perry over Polamalu.

  • But it begs the question: Why was Perry ready to go on Day One whereas Polamalu wasn’t?

This is certainly a nurture vs. nature question that defies a definitive answer. Clearly, Polamalu was the superior athlete, but Darren Perry arrived in the NFL as the better football player. Polamalu simply needed a little more nurturing. But it isn’t always so simple.

Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher’s third draft pick was nose Joel Steed, whom they wanted to groom to replace Gerald Williams, so that Williams could move to defensive end.

However, when Gerald Williams got hurt it wasn’t Joel Steed who went in, but rather undrafted rookie free agent Garry Howe. Howe not only secured playing time at Steed’s expense, but if memory serves, he came up with a key fumble recovery.

  • Joel Steed won the nose tackle starting job the next summer and bloomed into a Pro Bowler.

As for Garry Howe? The Steelers cut him and if Pro Football Reference is accurate, he played a game for Cincinnati in 1993 and one for the Colts 1994 and was done.

  • Considering these examples, you’d be tempted to suggest that a little football skill trumps raw athleticism when a player first arrives in the NFL.

You’d be tempted, but you’d be wrong, as the career trajectories of Troy Edwards and Kendrell Bell illustrate. The Steelers picked Troy Edwards (narrowly passing on Jevon Kearse) with the 13th pick in 1999 NFL Draft, and Edwards won the starting job alongside Hines Ward and led the team with 61 receptions.

Going into his second year, facing criticism about his commitment to off season training, Edwards scoffed explaining that “You can’t race air.” Edwards never started another game for the Steelers, and had one decent year in Jacksonville but never matched his rookie production.

  • The Steelers traded for Kendrell in 2001 NFL Draft, and even as a 2nd round pick, Bell looked like a steal.

With nine sacks, 70 tackles, a forced fumble and a defensed pass on his rookie resume, comparisons to Jack Lambert seemed warranted. But that was it for Bell. To be fair to Bell, he suffered one of those dreaded “high ankle sprains” during his second year and suffered other injuries.

  • But years later word also leaked out that Bell refused to follow or learn coverage schemes and didn’t pay attention to his gap responsibilities.

It seems that raw athleticism can indeed jump start an NFL career, but that if its not developed, you’ll sputter out quickly.

Early Returns on Steelers 2018 Defensive Talent Development Experiment

What does all of this tell us about the prospects for the 2018 Steelers defense?

  • Honestly, I won’t do you the disservice of pretending resolve the nurture vs. nature question.

When Franco Harris, who struggled a bit in as a rookie camp, took his first preseason carry, discarded the play call and reversed course to go the length of the field to score a touchdown, Chuck Noll’s instruction to Dick Hoak was “Don’t over coach the kid.” Yet players like Merril Hoge and Jerome Bettis unhesitatingly sing Dick Hoak’s praises coaching ability.

  • Bruce Arians refused to try to get Ben Roethlisberger to change his style, and praising Todd Haley is taboo, Haley managed to find a way to let Ben be Ben while designing an offense that kept him from getting killed.

It seems like, with parenting, a good coach must strike a balance between offering guidance and letting players be themselves.

Jumping to concussions after the first 10 days of training camp is never wise.

  • At this point in 2010, Thaddeus Gibson looked good. But the Steelers cut him in early October.

But word is that Artie Burns daily one-on-ones with Antonio Brown are finally yielding fruit. Terrell Edmunds is also looking good, and switching sides also seems to be benefitting Bud Dupree.

It will take a few months to know more about the Steelers defensive talent development exercise. But whether its because of nurture or nature, the early returns are positive.

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Art Rooney II Says Steelers Play Too Many Night Games. Fans Living East of US Eastern Time Agree

Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II made a rather head turning statement to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “The thing that concerns me about our attendance is more related to our schedule — I would rather not have as many night games.”

Steelers fans who live outside of the United States, and specifically those of us who are ahead of Eastern Time wholeheartedly agree.

  • Both sentiments might strike you as counter-intuitive and for good reason.

After all, going into the 2018 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are 46-24 on Monday Night Football and 26-5 at home. When playing under the lights on Sunday Night Football the Steelers record isn’t quite as strong, but is still 28-20 overall and 14-7 at home.

Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Indeed, the greatest game in Heinz Field history, the 2008 AFC Championship win over the Ravens that featured Troy Polamalu’s belief-defying pick six, came in Prime Time on Sunday night. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg:

And that’s only counting the Mike Tomlin era. Bill Cowher started 6-0 on Monday Night. With breakout performances like these, you’d expect Art Rooney II to petition Roger Goodell to schedule all the Steelers games in Prime Time, wouldn’t you?

  • Except he’s not, and he has a good reason.

As Rooney explains to Bouchette, “Last year we had three home night games almost in a row. I just don’t think our fans want to do that anymore.” The NFL is facing an issue with declining attendance, and while the Steelers still have a 20 year season ticket waiting list, they were not immune to the decline.

The problem as Rooney sees it, is asking fans to brave the cold and the commute home at night for three straight games. That’s sound business sense, but fans who live ahead of US Eastern time have a more selfish reason for agreeing:

  • Night games are pure hell, even when you’re watching on TV.

Early in the season, before the US switches its clocks to fall back, games start at 9:30 pm instead of 8:30 here in Buenos Aires. That projects to a 12:30 am finish which is manageable. But after the US switches clocks, we’re two hours behind. An 8:30 game starts at 10:30 and doesn’t end until 1:30 am at the earliest.

  • By the time you clean up, take the contact lenses out, perhaps pop up a poll and you’re lucky to have your head hitting the pillow by 2:30 am.

And if it’s a close game, featuring a lot of Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown heroics or a critical Cam Heyward sack or stop, you’ve got the adrenaline flowing and, lets face it, you’re not falling asleep right away.

  • Which means you’ve got to get up for work and start the week in sleep deprivation mode.

Night games also wreak havoc with bloggers. Traffic peaks the morning after a game, and there’s no chance to get anything but a stub up between a night game’s finish and starting work the next morning.

  • If you’re really efficient and suffer no unexpected delays in your work day you might get something up for the early evening publishing window.

Playing in Prime Time is a sign of excellence and a point of pride for both players and fans. But when Art Rooney II says he wishes the Steelers played less on prime time, the only reaction that fans living to east of the Eastern Time Zone can possibly summon is a simple “We agree.”

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Running Back by Committee? First Let’s Try Steelers Keeping RB1 & RB2 Healthy for a Full Season

The Steelers failure to reach a long-term deal with Le’Veon Bell has prompted many fans to call for Pittsburgh to lift the franchise tag, let Le’Veon Bell walk and rely on running back by committee.

Sounds feasible on paper. (Actually it doesn’t.) But even if it, there’s a problem:

  • During Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers have struggled to keep their 1st and 2nd string running backs healthy.

The tendency took root in 2007 and has continued almost unabated since then. In 2007, Mike Tomlin vowed to run Willie Parker until “the wheels fell off.” The wheels fell off in week 16, forcing the Steelers to start Najeh Davenport in the playoffs with Verron Haynes coming off the couch as a backup.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers running back injuries

Le’Veon Bell injured in the 2014 season finale vs. Bengals. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP, via SportsNet.ca

In 2008 the Steelers planned to use both Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall. A week 3 Willie Parker injury led to Mendenhall’s first start in week 4, where Baltimore broke his collar bone. Fortunately, the Steelers had solid running back depth with Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell filling the void until Parker’s return.

  • The Steelers kept their top two running backs relatively healthy in 2009 and 2010, with Willie Parker only missing a handful of games in ’09.

The Steelers streak continued in 2011 until Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the season finale against Cleveland, as Isaac Redman started in the playoff Tebowing in Denver (for the record, Redman rushed for 121 yards on 17 carries.)

In 2012 the Steelers employed a variant of running back by committee, rotating carries and starts between Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall. Injuries contributed to this situation, but Mike Tomlin also wanted one of the trio to establish himself as the starter. None of them did.

  • The Steelers unhealthy running back syndrom returned with a vengeance in 2013.

Rookie Le’Veon Bell injured his Lisfranc in Latrobe, leaving Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Felix Jones as the running back committee. Problem? LaRod Stephens-Howling’s Steeler career ended after 8 touches and Isaac Redman was already playing with injures that would end his career before Halloween.

In 2014 the Steelers made a wise disciplinary move in cutting LeGarrette Blount, but that forced them to sign Ben Tate after Le’Veon Bell’s pre-playoff injury. In 2015 injuries and suspension limited Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams to 5 join appearances, and DeAngelo Williams season finale injury at Cleveland forced Pittsburgh to start Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman in the playoffs.

Any plans the Steelers had to spell Le’Veon Bell with DeAngelo Williams in 2016 went out the window when Williams injured his knee in week 6, limiting the tandem to 4 games together.

And of course last season the Steelers only opted to give James Conner a handful of carries, but an injury against New England in week 14 forced the Steelers to sign Stevan Ridley two weeks before the playoffs.

Calk it up to fate or chalk it up to mistake, but Mike Tomlin cannot seem to kept his top two running backs healthy, which doesn’t bode well for a shift to running back by committee. Or does it?

Counterpoint: Could Running Back by Committee Be the Cure?

In On Writing, Stephen King advises authors against plotting out stories in favor of putting characters in situations and then following them to their conclusion. King’s lesson is relevant to sports blogging, because sometimes your conclusions can morph into something else as you write.

  • This is one of those times.

Mike Tomlin has seen his running backs suffer injuries early in the season (Parker and Mendenhall in ’08, Bell and Redman in ’13, Bell in ’15 and Williams in ’16.) But the most devastating running back injuries have occurred late in the season (Mendenhall in ’11, Bell in ’14, Williams in ’15, Bell in the 2016 AFC Championship).

Both the laws of attrition and laws of probability would suggest that running back by committee could mitigate these dangers.

Moral of the Story? Better Running Back Depth In Order

In the final analysis, I’m not ready to join the chorus calling for the Steelers to rescind the franchise tag and part ways with Bell. This tweet sheds a little light on my thinking:

That isn’t to say that the Chuck Noll’s offenses struggled to run the ball with Frank Pollard, Earnest Jackson and Walter Abercrombie. They didn’t. Nor could Mark Malone and David Woodley provide the type of air support that Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown provide today.

  • But Le’Veon Bell offers more to the Steelers 2018 offense than would a modern day equivalent of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie.

And James Conners, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels have yet to prove they’re modern day equivalents of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie. But perhaps they can provide the type of quality and quantity of depth at running back behind Le’Veon Bell that the franchise hasn’t enjoyed since 2008….

…You remember, the season that ended at Super Bowl XLIII.

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One Positive for Steelers 2018 Training Camp Thus Far? A Short PUP List

Steelers 2018 training camp only two days old, but already there’s a piece of positive news: Pittsburgh’s PUP list is short. That’s something that is easy to take for granted and injuries can alter an entire team’s fortune in a blink of an eye. But for now it is a good thing.

  • The only player who begins training camp on the PUP list is Eli Rogers.
Artie Burns, Antonio Brown, Steelers 2018 Training Camp

Artie Burns intercepts a pass intended for Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

The Steelers of course signed Eli Rogers Wednesday and will keep him on the PUP list until he’s fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered in the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars. But other than that, there’s no injury of note.

Too often in recent past, training camp has arrived with surprise injury announcements.

In 2008, Casey Hampton began on the PUP list, although that was more tied to conditioning issues than injury. Back in 2015 the Steelers started training camp with 5 players on the PUP listMaurkice Pouncey, Mike Adams, Bruce Gradkowski, Shawn Lemon and Senquez Golson.

  • To fans at least, each of these announcements was a surprise, and all of them turned out to be ominous.

Maurkice Pouncey’s stint on the PUP list was short, but he fell injured in the Steelers preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. Mike Adams injury hadn’t been known, and he stayed on the PUP list all season and never returned to Pittsburgh.

Bruce Gradkowski’s injury came as a total surprise, as he’d last been seen playing very well in brief relief of Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers 2014 playoff loss to the Ravens. Like Pouncey, Gradkowski earned his PUP activation, only to injure himself in preseason leading to Mike Vick’s signing. Shawn Lemon was of course the CFL pass rusher the Steelers signed earlier. He made it of PUP only to get cut.

  • And then of course there’s Senquez Golson, whom the coaching staff had known was nursing an injured shoulder.

Senquez Golson went on IR, then got injured in both 2016 and 2017 training camp, and the second round pick has never spent a day on an active NFL roster.

  • In 2016 the Steelers PUP list was short, but made up for “quality” for what it lacked in quantity.

Ladarius Green headlined the list, as he was both nursing an ankle injury and still fighting lingering effects of a concussion from the previous season. People will forget, but Ladarius Green actually did prove to be a fairly effective weapon in his limited action, but he suffered concussion against in December, and has never played since.

As noted at the outset, a short PUP offers no guarantee. Last year the Steelers began training camp with a relative clean bill of health, but ended up seeing Joe Haden, Antonio Brown and Ryan Shazier suffer injuries at the worst possible moment.

But I’ll take the Steelers starting the summer at St. Vincents at close to full health any time I can!

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Steelers 2018 Training Camp to Test Mike Tomlin & Kevin Colbert’s Defensive Talent Evaluations

All eyes at St. Vincents are on Pittsburgh’s position battles at safety, inside linebacker, and running back. But in many ways, the die has already been cast, with the true test at this Steelers training camp will be of Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s ability to evaluate defensive talent.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers post-Super Bowl rebuilding phase has been over for some time.

Ben Roethlisberger is the only veteran who remains from Super Bowl XLIII. Only Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and Antonio Brown remain from Super Bowl XLV. The Pittsburgh Steelers have steadily improved since their nightmare 2-6 start to the 2013 season, and with each season they’ve gotten closer to climbing the Stairway to Seven.

  • Progress crashed to an abrupt halt last January in the playoff loss to the Jaguars.

And the reason for Pittsburgh’s painful playoff exit can be pinned squarely on the Steelers defense, who got manhandled at Heinz Field for a second straight time by Jacksonville. The loss sent Steelers Nation reeling, with no shortage of Black and Gold faithful seeking blood. One Twitter exchange is particularly instructive:

It might seem a bit contradictory to run a blog post questioning the Steelers collective defensive talent evaluation skills, but it is not. Losing Ryan Shazier was a game-changer for the Steelers in 2017. Everyone accepts that. Now.

But what people forget is that the Steelers decision to draft Ryan Shazier was a questionable one and many fans were labeling Shazier a “bust” as recently as 2016. In a similar vein, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin clearly made the right choices when it came to Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams (remember the guy was a 6th round pick) and Joe Haden.

  • But Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have swung and missed on the defensive rebuild.

And those misses have carried real costs. Missing on a premium pick requires you to redraft for the same position, forcing you to forgo talent elsewhere.

Shamarko Thomas never contributed outside of special teams, forcing the Steelers to invest another premium pick on Sean Davis. Jarvis Jones qualifies as the first unquestioned first round bust of Kevin Colbert’s tenure, and that move led the Steelers to draft Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt.

If you look at the key position battles that will be fought out on the fields of St. Vincents this summer, they either involve redrafts or highlight questions about key defensive talent acqusitions. Consider:

  • The Steelers are swapping T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, in a bid to jump start Dupree’s pass rush
  • Sean Davis is moving to free safety after starting for two years at strong safety
  • Artie Burns enters training camp as the incumbent starter at corner, but Cam Sutton could challenge

Then stir in the battle at inside linebacker. Tyler Matakevich and free agent Jon Bostic will vie to “replace” Ryan Shazier. Matakevich is a fan favorite, an inside linebacker in the mold of Jerry Olsavsky. The sentimentally is nice, but fails to compensate for athleticism. Bostic looks like a serviceable player – when healthy.

The Steelers coaching staff seems to understand that neither player offers the athleticism needed in the middle of the field. Talk of deploying sub packages that use Morgan Burnett and/or Terrell Edmunds in some sort of hybrid safety-inside linebacker position dominated the off season.

  • As others have observed, fans clamored for Ryan Shazier to switch to safety; now the Steelers are using safeties to try to replace him.

It is important to remember that the Steelers 2017 defense actually looked pretty good at times, broaching shut down level against Kansas City and Cincinnati and playing really tough in the Red Zone against Detroit. Ryan Shazier was a key player in making that happen, but he didn’t do it himself.

  • By sticking to their board and refusing to reach for defensive in the 2018 NFL Draft Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin implicitly acknowledge that.

If nothing else, the duo is being true to themselves, as they’ve never made personnel decisions of fear. Now its time to see how whether their self-confidence is justified or not.

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