Will New Young Steelers Receivers Morph into the Next “Young Money”?

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane to the days of 2010 and 2011.

  • Ah, those were innocent times, weren’t they?

Mike Wallace, a third-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, was catching 40-plus yard bombs on such a regular basis, people actually found it endearing that this was his best talent.

As for Emmanuel Sanders, the third-round pick from the 2010 NFL Draft, he was developing into a fine number three receiver and showing signs of morphing into much more. Speaking of morphing, Antonio Brown, who was picked three rounds later than Sanders in the same draft, was just starting to blossom into one of the best, young receivers in all of football.

In-fact, Antonio Brown had blossomed so much after his rookie season–a freshman campaign that included a spectacular and game-saving helmet catch vs. the Ravens in a thrilling divisional round playoff victory at Heinz Field–not only did he supplant the legendary Hines Ward in the starting lineup in 2011, he made his very first Pro Bowl.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

Will JuJu Smith-Schuster lead another “Young Money” movement for the Steelers?. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Things were looking up for the Steelers pup-like receivers, a trio that quickly dubbed itself Young Money –for both financial and clutch purposes. The future was bright for Pittsburgh’s wide-out position, so bright, in-fact, it was not uncommon for fans and even experts to proclaim the unit the best in the entire NFL.

  • Then 2012 came along, and Mike Wallace, who was in-search of a long-term deal worth lots of money, decided to negotiate by holding out of all off season activities and the start of training camp.

This, of course, alienated Mike Wallace from the fans, who quickly dubbed him a one-trick pony and didn’t find his deep-threat speed quite so endearing any longer. Mike Wallace would be gone a year later.

As for Emmanuel Sanders, he would also alienate the fans by, one, not leaving in-exchange for the Patriots 2013 third-round pick (New England had signed Emmanuel Sanders, who was a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet which the Steelers matched, rather than allowing him to walk for a fairly high draft choice).

Emmanuel Sanders would go on to further anger the fans late in the 2013 season by dropping an admittedly tough catch on a two-point try in a Thanksgiving Night loss to the Ravens (Pittsburgh missed the playoffs by a Ryan Succop field goal weeks later).

Emmanuel Sanders then went on to sign a lucrative deal with the Broncos prior to the 2014 season — but not before unethically trying to leverage teams into giving him even more money. As a member of the Broncos, Sanders further “endeared” himself to Steelers fans by saying that his new quarterback, Peyton Manning, was so much more disciplined than his old quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.

  • When it came to Antonio Brown, the man everyone would soon affectionately call “AB,” he appeared to be the working man’s wide-receiver.

He played hard and worked (as in, worked out) even harder. His work-ethic and attention to detail were second-to-none. Not only did Brown quickly become the fan favorite among the Young Money trio, he was rewarded with a five-year, $42 million contract extension in the summer of 2012 — or right when Mike Wallace was holding out of training camp.

Not only did Antonio Brown blossom into one of the best, young receivers in the NFL, he soon morphed into not only the very best in the business, but one of the best of all-time–his six-year run that includes 686 catches for 9,145 yards from 2013-2018 is unmatched in NFL history.

  • Antonio Brown was not only a huge fan favorite, he was an all-time Steelers great.

Then the 2018 season ended, and, well, you know what happened. Since I don’t want to focus on Antonio Brown much more than I have to in this piece, let’s just say he did just about everything he could to ensure that he would have the ugliest divorce of any Steelers legend in franchise history.

The question now is, how will the Steelers press on in the aftermath of Young Money? In Brown’s absence is JuJu Smith-Schuster, a third-year man out of USC, who not only became one of the most popular Steelers right out of the gate, he has become one of the new faces of the NFL.

Oh yeah, he’s also a really good wide-out, complete with over 100 receptions and a Pro Bowl bid in 2018. Smith-Schuster has all the potential to be the next in a long-line of great Steelers receivers. But will be also morph into a problem child? Will he be the next in a long-line of diva receivers who the fans can’t wait to see leave town?

  • It’s way too early to know for sure, but Smith-Schuster appears to be more Hines Ward than he does Antonio Brown.

Not only is he a fierce competitor that loves to block almost as much as he loves to catch, he has great character–and it seems genuine. He has all the makings of a team leader, someone who would rather set a good example by being on-time to meetings, than demand preferential treatment while showing up late to them.

  • Not only that, his personality and charm are contagious–like Alejandro Villanueva once said, “Everyone needs a little JuJu in their life.”

Speaking of character, there’s no question the Steelers have been targeting not only talented athletes in recent drafts, but youngsters with few red flags that may morph into the total package one day–including team leaders and captains.

The jury is still deliberating about the future of James Washington, the team’s second-round pick from a season ago. But, so far, his only off-the-field activities seem to involve farming and fishing.

It’s way too early to know the exact future of the Steelers receiving corps as a whole, but given the character of JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington, it’s hard to see the unit giving birth to more problem children.

In other words, there will be no reboot of Young Money in Steeler Nation.

 

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L.J. Fort Played Well for Steelers in 2018. Can He Cash in Free Agency?

Inside linebacker has been a position of need for the Pittsburgh Steelers since December 4th 2018 when Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal contusion against the Cincinnati Bengals. The injury sent the Steelers scrambling to fill a gaping hole in the middle of their defense. In short order the Steelers have tried:

L.J. Fort was a beneficiary of all of these misfires, because they earned him his first real playing time. How well did he take advantage of that opportunity? The bottom line will reveal itself soon as L.J. Fort reaches free agency.

L.J. Fort, L.J. Fort free agency, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

L.J. Fort rushes Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, via Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of  L.J. Fort’s Steelers Career

L.J. Fort was an undrafted free agent out of Northern Iowa in 2012 and worked his way through several NFL teams–including the Browns, Broncos, Seahawks, Bengals and Patriots — before finding a more secure home with Pittsburgh in 2015.

After being used mostly as a special teams player during his first few seasons while dealing with a loaded depth chart at inside linebacker — Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams ate up the majority of snaps in 2016 and 2017 — L.J. Fort began to see more playing time near the end of 2017 in the wake of the tragic spinal injury suffered by Shazier in early December.

2018 was a minor watershed year for L.J. Fort on defense as he saw his playing time increase as the season went along and the Steelers tried desperately to find some way to replace the other-worldly athleticism Shazier once brought to the inside linebacker spot. Appearing in 15 games and starting two, L.J. Fort had his most productive season by far in 2018, recording 48 tackles, a sack and a touchdown in the Steelers win over Atlanta.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning L.J. Fort

While L.J. Fort did turn pro in 2012 and did bounce around the NFL before arriving in Pittsburgh, he only appeared in 18 games prior to 2015. Therefore, despite being 29 years old, Fort likely doesn’t have the wear and tear on his body that another player his age might.

Also, as already alluded to, of all the inside linebackers currently on the Steelers roster, L.J. Fort’s athleticism comes closest to matching that of Shazier’s prior to his injury. Jon Bostic, Tyler Matakevich and Williams certainly don’t possess L.J. Fort’s speed and quickness. In-fact, if L.J. Fort was on another team, and that team was preparing to play the Steelers during Shazier’s prime, L.J. Fort would likely be the guy pegged to emulate him in practice.

And given Fort’s age and limited tape, it’s not likely teams will be lining up for his services. In other words, the Steelers could and probably should resign him at a very team friendly price.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning L.J. Fort

While L.J. Fort does possess potential, the fact that it still has yet to be realized at this stage of his career may be quite telling. Besides, it’s not all that uncommon for an NFL player to look pretty good in limited playing time, before getting exposed as a starter. Fact is, the Steelers thought so little of L.J. Fort’s abilities after Shazier’s injury in late 2017, they signed Sean Spence off the streets and started him in the disastrous divisional round playoff game against the Jaguars.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and L.J. Fort

In reality, it is highly unlikely at this point of his career that L.J. Fort is still some diamond in the rough who will suddenly morph into a dominant linebacker in his 30s a la James Harrison.

  • But that doesn’t mean he can’t be a very good depth player–not to mention a great special teams player.

Even if the Steelers go out and sign one of the prime free agent inside linebackers or draft one in the first round, there should still be room on the depth chart for L.J. Fort. And, again, considering the price it would likely take to keep him, I think it’s a no-brainer that L.J. Fort stays with the Steelers in 2019.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Are Steelers Done with Daniel McCullers? Or Will the “Shady Tree” Plant Himself in Pittsburgh Again?

Note to aspiring Steelers bloggers who wish to channel their inner fortune teller while writing the Black And Gold:

  • Don’t quit you day job if you’re planning on predicting the future of Steelers defensive lineman

In 2015, this site was sorely tempted to do an April Fools article saying the Steelers had resigned Clifton Geathers, the defensive lineman they’d brought into “replace” Brett Keisel in late 2014. And what do you know? The Steelers not only resigned Clifton Geathers, but did it on April 1st!

Last year our free agent profile of Daniel McCullers titled “Big D = Disappointment,” took the possibility of his returning to Pittsburgh so unseriously that the article began by recounting Jr. High fantasies about Andre the Giant playing football. (Sound silly? Well it was one of the best performing articles in the series!)

Daniel McCullers is of course a free agent again? Are we deceived by the situation again? Could the Shady Tree plant himself in Pittsburgh for another year? Let’s take a look.

Daniel McCullers, RGIII, Robert Griffin III, Steelers vs Browns

Daniel McCullers closes in one RGIII in the 2016 season finale. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via BTSC

Capsule Profile of Daniel McCullers’ Steelers Career

Daniel McCullers was a fascinating prospect when the Steelers picked him the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. The Tennessee product, nicknamed “Shade Tree” for his massive size (6’7″ and 350lbs) was seen as a player with the potential to be the next great Steelers run-stopping nose tackle similar to a Joel Steed or a “Big Snack” Casey Hampton.

The short answer: No. In his first four seasons in Pittsburgh, Daniel McCullers appeared in just 42 games — starting two –while recording 29 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Daniel McCullers

Despite the lack of progress over his first four seasons, the Steelers did re-sign McCullers to a one-year “show me” contract prior to the 2018 campaign.

And, truthfully, McCullers did make some progress last season under the watch of new defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, who replaced John Mitchell after he assumed the sole responsibility of assistant head coach.

Appearing in 15 games and starting one, McCullers recorded five tackles and one sack. At age 26, he’s still young enough to develop into a solid veteran (or maybe even more), and unless he’s eager to test the free agent waters, he could probably be kept around with a deal similar to the one he inked last spring (the league minimum).

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Daniel McCullers

Yes, Daniel McCullers is still only 26 years old and, yes, he can likely be kept around at a very low price.

  • But how often do football players suddenly “get it” six seasons into their careers?

That was a rhetorical question because the answer is “not often.” Instead of a hole-clogging nose tackle, McCullers may actually be a roster clogger at this point and preventing younger players with more potential from making the Steelers 53-man roster.

Maybe it would be wise to allow Daniel McCullers to go out and see what kind of deal he can fetch on the open market, and if he doesn’t find something to his liking, maybe Pittsburgh can give him yet one more chance at training camp this summer.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Daniel McCullers

While it seems highly unlikely Daniel McCullers will ever develop into much more than what he is right now–a nondescript veteran nose tackle — he does know the system and he is a “safe” backup in the event that Javon Hargrave has to miss time due to injury.

And, again, how much do you really have to pay to keep him around? Yes, another rhetorical question because the answer is “tot much.” It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the Steelers kept Daniel McCullers around for at least one more season.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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He’s Steelers Success Story, But Should Ramon Foster Seek a Home Outside Pittsburgh?

Everyone loves a “Rags to Riches” undrafted rookie free agent does good story. Kevin Colbert’s a knack for finding undrafted rookie free agents played a big part in adding Lombardi’s Number Five and Six to the trophy case. Think I’m exaggerating? 

The sad thing about undrafted rookie free agent success stories is that they have to end at some point. Which brings us to veteran left guard Ramon Foster. Could it be time for his story in Pittsburgh to end? Let’s take a look.

Ramon  Foster, Steelers vs Jaguars

Ramon Foster lines up against Jaguars in 2017. Photo Credit: PennLive.com

Capsule Profile of Ramon Foster’s Steelers Career

As an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee, Foster signed with the Steelers in 2009. He started four games during his rookie campaign including Super Bowl XLV and another eight in his second season. And in 2011, Foster started 14 games at left guard and since has become a permanent fixture at the position.

The process was not seamless, however. When the Steelers drafted David DeCastro in the 2012 NFL Draft and moved Willie Colon from tackle to guard, it appeared that the Steelers were trying to replace Ramon Foster. However, Ramon Foster continued to start in the face of injured to both Colon and DeCastro, and Ramon Foster has started 14 games or more in every season since.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Ramon Foster

Ramon Foster not only survived the influx of offensive line talent, starting with the drafting of perennial Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey in the 2010 NFL Draft, he has emerged as one of the most consistent and durable members of the unit. Furthermore, Ramon Foster has established himself as a team leader and a calming presence in a Steelers locker room that sorely needs such things as of late.

He’s also a popular player as far as offensive linemen go and a bit of a pillar in the Pittsburgh community.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ramon Foster

B.J. Finney. A year ago Foster’s fellow undrafted rookie free agent signed a one-year contract extension with the Steelers. Now B.J. Finney is reaching restricted free agency. But while B.J. Finney has spent the majority of his time with the Steelers playing the role of utility lineman (he’s started games at guard and center), he’s shown more than enough potential to be promoted to the role of starter.

Furthermore, B.J. Finney, 27, is six years younger than Ramon Foster, who will be 33 by the time he plays in his next NFL game of consequence. And let’s not forget Foster, who has never really cashed in on a big deal, has gone on record to say that if the Steelers want to keep him around for a few more years, they’re going to have to pay him.

  • What that tells me is that he’s willing and eager to shop his services on the open market.

In other words, no “Home Team Discount” for Ramon Foster. Given the alternatives, the Steelers best course of action would be to lock B.J. Finney down to a long-term deal, and allow Ramon Foster to walk. 

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ramon Foster

With so many needs at so many other positions–including at wide receiver (in case you haven’t heard, Antonio Brown is headed out of town….), inside linebacker and, as always, in the secondary — keeping a player like Ramon Foster around — as consistent as he is — just seems like a luxury at this point.

That’s especially the case for an offensive line that has been able to find and then develop so many undrafted and lower round prospects into productive offensive linemen under the tutelage of the legendary Mike Munchak and his successor, Shaun Sarrett.

Therefore, I think it’s time for the Steelers to thank Ramon Foster for a wonderful 10 seasons and wish him well on his future endeavors.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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The Weakness Of The AFC East Has Contributed To The Patriots Dynasty

When I first started writing about football on a regular basis–almost a decade ago now–I wrote about how the Patriots ongoing status as a Super Bowl contender could be linked somewhat to the ongoing incompetence of the AFC East, New England’s divisional home.

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

Little did I know way back when that, not only would the Patriots still be a Super Bowl contender in 2019–they just won their sixth Lombardi trophy with a 13-3 victory over the Rams in Super Bowl LIII–the rest of the teams in the AFC East would be even worse now than they were then.

As a Steelers fan who is somewhat jealous and a little resentful of New England’s success, you might say I’m just looking for excuses when I state that the Patriots’ have benefited from a very weak division.

  • But how can that be so easily dismissed?

When you look around the NFL, how many teams have benefited from a continued lack of competitiveness from not just one, not just two, but all three divisional opponents?

Since the Patriots run started in 2001, the other three teams that remained in the AFC East after divisional alignment in 2002 — more on that later — have combined to make the playoffs 10 times. And only the Jets (2002) and Dolphins (2008) have managed to unseat New England as divisional champs. New York actually managed to make the playoffs six times over the first decade of the Patriots’ run, but haven’t been back to the postseason since 2010. As for Miami, only three playoff appearances since 2001–including just one since 2008. And what about the Bills?

  • My goodness, they’ve been so bad, they’ve only made the playoffs one time since Bill Clinton’s second term as President of the United States.

If you calculate the win-loss totals of every other AFC East team since 2001, the Patriots have been dealing with a 7-9 opponent, which is pretty much on par with what the Steelers have had to contend with in the AFC North over that same period of time.

  • If that’s the case, where is the advantage for the Patriots?

The numbers are a little misleading. First of all, every team in the AFC East has been inept, with only the Jets and Rex Ryan managing to put up a fight (remember the “I didn’t come here to kiss the Patriots rings” comment when Ryan was first hired to coach the Jets)? And, again, that was a decade ago.

As for the AFC North, the Browns have been so bad since 2001 — a grand-total of 90 wins–it totally skews the numbers. While Cleveland has been the laughingstock of the NFL since coming back into the league as an expansion team in 1999, Pittsburgh’s other two opponents in the AFC North — the Ravens and Bengals — have done what most other teams do when one particular divisional opponent has had the upper-hand too long: they’ve made it their goal to stop it.

To be fair, the Bengals overall record since 2001 has been on par with New England’s divisional opponents, but Cincinnati has managed to make the playoffs seven times since 2005 and has captured the AFC North title four times.

As for Baltimore, now we’re talking about a legitimate foe, one that simply refused to sit back and allow the Steelers to reign supreme. Equipped with a great infrastructure — including the owner, general manager and two excellent head coaches — the Ravens have made the playoffs 10 times, won the division five times and won the Super Bowl one time since 2001 (and it would be disingenuous to discount Baltimore’s Super Bowl victory following the 2000 season, which makes what the Steelers have had to contend with over the past two decades seem even more arduous).

Following the Steelers incredible comeback victory over Baltimore in the divisional round of the playoffs after the 2010 regular season, the Ravens made it their offseason mission to upend the black and gold in 2011. What followed was a two-game sweep, which enabled the Ravens to capture the AFC North and a bye on a tiebreaker, while Pittsburgh had to travel to play Tim Tebow and the 8-8 Broncos on Wildcard Weekend (you remember how that ended).

One year after suffering a heartbreaking loss to New England in the AFC title game, the Ravens captured their second Lombardi trophy with a victory over the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.

Bottom line, the Steelers, like very other team in the National Football league, have been held in-check and been held accountable by their divisional foes (and then some).

  • With very few exceptions, the Patriots haven’t had to deal with accountability from their AFC East foes.

While Drew Brees and the Saints must contend with Matt Ryan and the Falcons and Cam Newton and the Panthers just to escape the NFC South every year, for example, New England begins each season with five or six divisional wins essentially in the bank.

If you’re married, you know how your work can suffer when things are tough to deal with at home. The Patriots have had nothing but domestic bliss since the day they became serious contenders almost two decades ago.

And it’s pretty ridiculous that the other teams in their division have been so bad for so long. Where’s the pride? Where’s the willingness to build a program to take New England down a notch or two? Just because you must deal with the great Bill Belichick and the GOAT Tom Brady twice a season doesn’t mean you have to play like garbage in your other 14 games.

Do you think the Packers, Eagles, Giants or Broncos would sit back and allow a divisional opponent to walk all over them for so long? It’s almost like the rest of the AFC East is just waiting for the Patriots run to end so they can come out from hiding.

Speaking of GOATs, Peyton Manning and the Colts were still in the AFC East in 2001 before divisional realignment moved Indianapolis to the newly-created AFC South a year later. Had the Patriots been forced to deal with Manning and the Colts juggernaut twice a year over the next decade-and-a-half, it seems unlikely that their run would have been as sustained and successful.

  • We’ll never know for sure, of course. But we do know what the Patriots have had to deal with in Manning’s absence in terms of formidable divisional foes.

Not much.

You can call it an excuse and maybe it is, but there is no question the Patriots historic run has been aided greatly by a division that has done very little to stand in their way.

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Steelers Safety Morgan Burnett Is Reportedly Seeking His Release

 

It was first reported on Saturday by Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network and NFL.com that Morgan Burnett, the veteran safety the Steelers signed last March, wants released from his three-year deal in time to shop around for another team in free agency this March.

“Spoke with #Steelers S Morgan Burnett, who tells me he wants released from his deal before free agency. During his time in Pittsburgh, he felt he played out of position as a dime LB. Burnett, with 2 yrs left on his contract, wants a new start & a chance to play safety again.”

That Tweet from Rapoport obviously means his source isn’t a Steelers insider or just an anonymous source. It’s Burnett, himself, which means the report is legit.

  • Does this mean the Steelers will grant Burnett his wish?

It’s easy to see where the veteran safety is coming from, especially after Pittsburgh unexpectedly drafted Terrell Edmunds, also a safety, in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft just weeks after Burnett was brought into the mix. However, Burnett, who just turned 30 on January 13, certainly didn’t help his cause for playing-time, missing five games due to injury during the regular season–including Week 1 vs. Cleveland.

  • Burnett, a strong safety by trade, wants to find a team where he can play the role that best suits him.

Burnett seemed destined for the strong safety position last year, which ultimately led to Sean Davis, in his third season out of Maryland, switching to free safety, following the release of Mike Mitchell last spring.

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

But following the drafting of Edmunds, the Steelers made no secret of their plans to utilize their safeties more in dime linebacker roles, especially after failing to land one of the young, stud inside linebackers who could have taken the place of Ryan Shazier after Shazier suffered a catastrophic spinal injury near the end of the 2017 campaign.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, by releasing Burnett, who signed a three-year, $14.3 million deal, the Steelers would free up over $3 million in cap space, while also taking a $2.8 million hit in dead cap money.

To his credit, Edmunds did start 15 games in his rookie season, and while he did appear to struggle a ton and was mostly unspectacular, it’s hard to envision the Steelers holding him out of the lineup in 2019 in favor of a veteran who also made little impact in 2018.

Therefore, it’s easy to envision the Steelers granting Burnett his wish of being released.

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The Steelers Took a Step Back in 2018. Can They Take One Forward in 2019?

As our 2018 Steelers season review concluded, Pittsburgh took a step back last year, today we look at whether the Steelers can take a step forward in 2019. That certainly seems like a strange question to ask here on the weekend of Super Bowl LIII, but consider:

  • Who saw the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII a year earlier after an ugly playoff loss to the Jaguars?
  • How many pundits predicted a 15-1 ’04 season that ended in the AFC Championship after a 6-10 2003?
  • Did anyone think the ’01 Steelers would finish 12-4 following a playoff-less 9-7 finish in ’00?
  • Heck, the 1989 Steelers suffered their 3rd shut out just before Thanksgiving, but finished a fumbled snap away from the AFC Championship

Yet, if the “Steelers can take a step forward in 2019”storyline seemed promising going into the Bengals game, Antonio Brown‘s meltdown and impending trade complicates things, to say the least.

We ask the question nonetheless. Examine the situation below.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Shazier, Steelers vs Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Shazier after the Steelers win. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA Today, via 937TheFan.com

Rejuvenated Running Game?

Le’Veon Bell is on his way out of Pittsburgh. That means that, assuming the Steelers don’t do anything stupid like trying to use the franchise or transition tag on him, you’re going to hear lots of Gloom and Doom stories about the devastation wrought to the Steelers over the loss of one of their best players.

  • Don’t fall for it Steelers Nation.

Yes, it probably would have been better had Le’Veon Bell signed the deal his agent and the Steelers agreed to in the summer of 2017. And as detailed, franchising Le’Veon Bell a second time was a mistake. But what’s done is done.

We’ll say it again here and in the future, the Steelers absolutely must commit to finding a better third running back in 2019. But both men not only showed that they can rush the ball effectively, they’re also double threats.

  • Another thing to ignore is all of the talk of the Steelers resisting the rushing revolution.

Yes, the Steelers did pass at an insane rate in the 2nd half of 2018, but they almost certainly did so by necessity, not by choice, because the Steelers didn’t want to run James Conner into the ground.

Improvements on Defense (No, that’s not a Misprint)

Don’t let the headline lead you to think I’ve gone delusion. The Steelers defense still has a long way to go even to approach its mid-2017 form, let alone progressing beyond that. And the stark truth is that there are roadblocks in the Steelers way that don’t include finding some way to replace Ryan Shazier.

  • The Steelers defense gave up 4th quarter touchdowns with alarming regularity.
  • The pass rush, while overall strong, couldn’t deliver at critical moments.
  • Artie Burns looks like a total loss, and Cameron Sutton did not appear to take a step forward.

Yet, if those warts are real, the 2018 Steelers defense did make some legitimate improvements.

  • Moving Sean Davis to free safety has helped limit the long plays that doomed the ’17 Steelers
  • Tackling and yards allowed after catch/contact dropped dramatically
  • T.J. Watt looks to be budding into a legitimate threat as a defensive playmaker
  • Javon Hargrave also made some noise and the coaches appear to be finding ways to get him in the game
  • Terrell Edmunds revealed tremendous athleticism and flashed potential

Moreover, if “Heinzsight’s” film analysis from 247 Sports Pittsburgh is accurate, the Steelers defense was much more sound schematically this year than in prior years, even if execution continues to be an issue.

Emerging Weapons on Offense

The Steelers offense also offers promise for 2019. Vance McDonald emerged as a legitimate weapon and, equally importantly, was able to stay healthy. Eli Rogers arrived late, but made almost an immediate impact. JuJu Smith-Schuster showed that his rookie season was no fluke. James Washington started slowly, but his work ethic is spectacular and he began flashing late in the season.

The offensive line will undergo changes, without a doubt, as Ramon Foster could be gone, and Marcus Gilbert is likely gone. Losing Mike Munchak is a blow without a doubt, but the Steelers have a strong core, and Shaun Sharret shouldn’t be sold short.

Most importantly, while Ben Roethlisberger‘s play was hardly flawless, he showed few, if any signs of losing a step to father time.

Filling In The Blanks For A Better 2019

The Steelers certainly have some holes to fill before the 2019 season.

And there may be even more holes, if the organization really goes through with its reported desire to trade Antonio  Brown.

As for Brown’s mindset, and whatever it is that has been going on in his life from a personal and professional standpoint since before the start of the 2018 campaign, he also appears to desire a new home in 2019. Will the two sides work things out? Will the Steelers trade their star receiver–a man who has caught over 100 passes for six-straight seasons?

  • The answer to that question will determine just what actions the Steelers will take in order to improve their fortunes for next year.

Let’s face it, if Brown is no longer the focal-point of Pittsburgh’s offense, that would leave the unit without both he and Bell, two of the game’s top play-makers in recent years. As much as fans may want to see those guys gone, it directly contradicts their long-held desire for Super Bowl success. If Brown does join Bell as an ex Steeler, will Smith-Schuster, a man who caught over 100 passes and made his first Pro Bowl in just his second season, be able to carry the torch for Pittsburgh’s offense?

That’s one problem. Another is finding a play-maker for a defense that finished 2018 with just 15 takeaways. Yes, the unit did show signs of improvement at times, but it’s hard to be a truly great defense if you can’t take the football away. Maybe the answer lies in really going for it in free agency and finding a true replacement for Shazier. With more room to work with under the cap during the upcoming free agency period, we may get the answer.

  • Finally, can the Steelers take a step forward in 2019?

If you’re looking for solace, for comfort in the future, just know that the organization will do just about everything in its power to take that step forward. Some organizations are fine with some of the issues Pittsburgh is dealing with right now. The Steelers aren’t one of those organizations.

 

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Hits Keep Coming. Mike Munchak Bolts to Broncos. Steelers Promote Shaun Sarrett to Offensive Line Coach

The NFL’s 2019 off season hasn’t even officially started, yet the hits keep coming for the Pittsburgh Steelers. When the Denver Broncos passed on signing Mike Munchak as their head coach, Steelers Nation breathed a sigh of relief.

  • Yesterday, that sign became a gasp of desperation as the Broncos named Mike Munchak as their offensive line coach.

The Steelers moved swiftly to fill the position, naming offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett who had formerly served as Munchak’ s assistant. Shaun Sarrett has worked with the Steelers since 2012 as an offensive assistant.

Mike Munchack, Shaun Sarrett, Steelers offensive line coaches

Shaun Sarrett & Mike Munchack at the 2018 Pro Bowl. Photo Credit: 247 Pittsburgh

The Munchak Legacy in Pittsburgh

Mike Munchak was easily the highest regarded assistant coach on Mike Tomlin’s staff. And his record shows why.

When Mike Munchak arrived in January 2014, the Steelers offensive line seemed to be in a natural state of chaos. Whether it was because of injuries or ineffectiveness, offensive lineman shuffled in and out of the Steelers lineup from game to game, sometimes even during games themselves.

  • Mike Munchak changed that.

While the Steelers had been moving away from the “Plug and Patch” offensive line philosophy that characterized the early Tomlin era, it was Mike Munchak who ensured that those draft picks paid dividends.

A look at the development of Marcus Gilbert is telling, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizik observed shortly before Munchak’ s arrival, “…Gilbert maintained his starting role at right tackle all season but allowed 11 of the 43 sacks of Roethlisberger and 30 quarterback hurries.”

  • While is career has been hobbled by injuries, under Munchak, Marcus Gilbert grew into one of the NFL’s better right tackles.

While Maurkice Pouncey was already flourishing before Munchak arrived and David DeCastro probably would have flourished as well, Mike Munchak’ s real genius showed in his work with players like Kelvin Beachum, Chris Hubbard, B.J. Finney, Matt Feiler and especially Alejandro Villanueva, who didn’t even play offensive line in college.

Of the men mentioned above, only Beachum got a call on draft day, and then as a 7th round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but all of them have stepped in as starters on the Steelers offensive line and effectively provided protection for Ben Roethlisberger or opened holds for the likes of Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams or James Conner.

The details behind Mike Munchak’s decision to bolt to the Broncos remain unknown. One of Munchak’ s daughters and grand children live in Denver, and that is why Munchak is so strongly attracted to the Broncos head coaching job. Others have suggested he wishes to escape the Antonio Brown circus.

Regardless, Mike Munchak did a tremendous job in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers will miss him.

Don’t Sell Shaun Sarrett Short

While losing Mike Munchak is clearly a blow for the Pittsburgh Steelers coaching staff, it would be a mistake for Steelers fans to sell Shaun Sarrett short. Mike Tomlin’s decision to fire Jack Bicknell immediately after the 2013 season surprised many. The Steelers 2013 offensive line had started very poorly, but improved by season’s end.

As Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette observed at the time:

Curiously, the offensive line improved as the season wore on.
After allowing 36 sacks in the first nine games, the Steelers allowed just seven in the final seven games. And the running game that averaged just 3.4 yards in the first 11 games averaged 4.1 yards in the final five games.

Why would Mike Tomlin fire his offensive line coach after seeing such improvement? Because as the 2013 season wore on, the offensive assistant Shaun Sarrett, and not Bicknell, began giving the lineman their individual instruction.

  • If Mike Munchak proved anything during his time in Pittsburgh, it was that he was an excellent teacher.

Shaun Sarrett has been at Mike Munchak’s side as he has mentored and molding one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and it is fair to conclude that Munchak taught Sarrett a thing or two about coaching.

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Mike Tomlin Can’t Win With His Own Super Bowl Talent, Just Bill Cowher’s

You know the old refrain by now. Yes, Mike Tomlin, the Steelers head coach since 2007, has won a Super Bowl (Super Bowl XLIII, following the 2008 season), but he won that Super Bowl with the talent bequeathed to him by Bill Cowher, who passed on to the great network in the sky and became an NFL studio analyst for CBS.

  • You see, Mike Tomlin never has been and never will be a great coach with great game-day abilities.

He simply stepped into the perfect situation with so much stock-piled talent (and let’s not forget about a coaching staff that included Dick LeBeau as his defensive coordinator), and not only did he auto-pilot Pittsburgh to a Super Bowl in just his second season at the helm, he road the team’s coattails to another Super Bowl appearance two years later.

Mike Tomlin, Bill Cowher, Steelers head coaches

Mike Tomlin and Bill Cowher. Photo Credit: Antonella Crescimbeni, Post-Gazette

Unfortunately, after Mike Tomlin squeezed every last ounce out of Bill Cowher’s players and coaching staff, he’s been unable to duplicate the same success with his own talent and a coaching staff that he mostly hand-picked. (By the same token, Kevin Colbert is only able to win Super Bowls with Tom Donahoe’s talent, but that’s another rant.)

You know the old refrain by now. Despite having Super Bowl-level talent–the very best talent in the league, they say–all of these years, Mike Tomlin has wasted the latter portion of Ben Roethlisberger’s career by failing to bring home a seventh, eighth and possibly even a ninth Super Bowl.

Many say that Mike Munchak, the Steelers universally loved and respected offensive line coach, should replace Tomlin as head coach. Why? Look at what he did as head coach of the Titans. Over a three-year period, Munchak some how, some way managed to squeeze 22 wins out of a roster that wasn’t nearly as talented and Super Bowl-capable as the one Mike Tomlin has had to work with since he exploited Bill Cowher’s talent and then hand-picked his own awesome talent.

What about that John Harbaugh, the tough-as-nails head coach of the Ravens? Sure, he’s only made the playoffs twice and has just one postseason win since guiding his team to a Super Bowl victory following the 2012 campaign. But look at the inferior talent Harbaugh has had to work with all these years.

  • Let’s be real, has the Ravens roster been as fully-stocked with Super Bowl talent as Pittsburgh’s?

Of course not. No team in the NFL has been able to assemble the level of talent the Steelers have put together in recent years. As has already been established, Pittsburgh’s roster is really, really talented–the best in the league, they tell me.

All of these other head coaches–Harbaugh, Munchak, heck, even Bill Belichick–have been doing more with less, while Mike Tomlin has–and I simply can’t emphasize this enough–done less (much, much less) with more.

What does this all mean? I think it’s obvious. It means Mike Tomlin has been a fraud all along, and once Bill Cowher’s Super Bowl talent pool ran dry, he was exposed for his coaching incompetence, this despite once again having Super Bowl-level talent.

If Mike Tomlin can’t do more than he’s done with all of this Super Bowl talent, the Rooney family owes it to the fans to find a coach who will step right in and guide this incredible roster–the very best in the NFL, I hear–to a title.

That’s right, the Steelers need a man who can take Mike Tomlin’s players — the very best the league has to offer –and win a Super Bowl with them.

It would be the perfect situation for any head coach to step right into.

 

 

 

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Just Not in the Stars? Fate Simply Wasn’t on 2018 Steelers Side

Philip Rivers drops back to pass. It’s intercepted in the end zone by Joe Haden, what an incredible play by the savvy veteran out of Florida! The way he read River’s eyes and under-cut Keenan Allen‘s route. Simply brilliant!”

That aforementioned play–and the radio description by legendary play-by-play man, Bill Hillgrove–never took place during the Steelers December 2 game loss to  the Chargers at Heinz Field on Sunday Night Football.

Actually, it sort of almost happened, only, instead of securing an end zone interception that would have all-but secured victory–Pittsburgh led 23-7 with 1:43 remaining in the third quarter–free safety Sean Davis collided with Joe Haden, knocking the football from the veteran corner’s grasps and into the waiting arms of Allen for an easy touchdown.

Keenan Allen touchdown Steelers, Joe Haden, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chargers

Keenan Allen catches a touchdown after Sean Davis KO’s Joe Haden. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, via UPI

While the opening paragraph to this article is fiction, I believe it underscores just how unlucky and unfortunate the Steelers were in 2018, as they finished 9-6-1 and out of the postseason for the first time since 2013.

This isn’t the say the Steelers were just victims in their postseason-less January, something that was facilitated by losing four of their final six games.

  • No, Pittsburgh was its own-worst enemies in many ways.

When you finish -11 in takeaways, when you throw interceptions in the Red Zone, fumble at the goal line and commit egregious penalties at crucial moments, you deserve your share of the blame for your own demise.

But you know how some people say certain teams are destined for a championship season (“It was a team of destiny!”)? I think it’s safe to say the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers were ill-fated from the start.

In-fact, had the Steelers actually found a way to make it into the postseason and procure a championship once they got there, a fitting title for their 2018 highlight reel may have been: “Overcoming the Odds.”

It all began in week 1 when All Pro running back Le’Veon Bell decided to make the Browns game in Cleveland his first of 16 absences on the way to a season-long holdout.

James Conner had a great day in his debut as a starting running back, as he rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns, while adding another 60 receiving yards on three catches. But, leading 21-7 midway through the fourth quarter, what were the odds that Le’Veon Bell would have fumbled like James Conner did, a turnover that paved the way for a Browns comeback that ultimately led to a 21-21 final score and, dare I say, Pittsburgh missing the playoffs by one-half game?

Go back a bit further in that Cleveland game, when it appeared that a Steelers punt glanced off of the helmet of a Browns player before Pittsburgh recovered. What were the odds of an official looking at the replay and finding inconclusive evidence of the ball actually touching the helmet? I guess the odds were good enough to award Cleveland the football.

  • Either play goes in Pittsburgh’s favor that day, it’s an easy win.

Speaking of that day, what about the missed field goal in overtime by Chris Boswell that would have won the game even after those two unfortunate fourth quarter plays? It was raining, and I’m sure this caused Boswell to overcompensate, but who could have guessed that this gaffe by the Pro Bowl and now highly-paid kicker would prove to be the catalyst for a season-long slump in-which he missed a total of 11 kicks–six field goals and five extra points?

  • Yes, after bailing Pittsburgh out too many times to count in 2017, two losses and a tie were linked to Chris Boswell misses in 2018.

When you examine the course of the 2018 campaign and see how much untimely missed kicks, red zone and end zone interceptions and Red Zone and end zone fumbles directly affected games, it makes you realize how fine the line is between winning and losing from one season to the next.

And let’s not forget about two penalties that weren’t called against the Chargers–a blatant false-start and a pretty blatant block in the back during a punt return–and how two touchdowns were scored on plays that should have resulted in zero points and poorer field position. And while we’re remembering penalties that should have been called against Los Angeles, let’s not forget the two that shouldn’t have been called against Joe Haden–two pass interference penalties that were simply egregious and led directly to 14 points for the Saints in what ultimately became a season-sealing 31-28 loss on December 23.

If the officials do the right thing–and no, not just do the right thing by the Steelers–on those four plays, Pittsburgh is likely preparing for a playoff game–or even enjoying a bye–at this very moment.

And while we’re not forgetting stuff, let’s not forget about the rib injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the game against the Raiders on a lone sack by a defense that came into the day with 10. The injury forced Ben Roethlisberger to miss 25 minutes of the second half, with the Steelers leading by four points until right before he re-entered.

Given the way Ben Roethlisberger played that day, it’s a safe assumption that Pittsburgh would have won rather comfortably had the rib injury never occurred. Instead, the Steelers suffered yet another inexplicable loss to a really bad Raiders team.

Why was Roethlisberger held out by head coach Mike Tomlin? Was it really due to faulty x-ray equipment in the bowels of Oakland Alameda-County Coliseum? Was it just arrogance on Mike Tomlin’s part where he thought the defense could hold down the fort with Josha Dobbs at quarterback?

Maybe it was just bad luck.

No matter how you break things down, it just wasn’t in the stars for your 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers.

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