The Steelers Are 4-0 for First Time Since Welcome Back Kotter Was On. Let that Sink In…

I don’t know what you were doing in 1979, but I know what I was doing –I  was not caring one bit about the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I don’t know what happened between then and the days before Super Bowl XIV — Pittsburgh was looking to cap off the ’79 season with its fourth Lombardi trophy of the decade in a match-up against the Los Angeles Rams in January of 1980 — but my seven-year-old heart and soul were suddenly so emotionally invested in the outcome of this game that a loss would have surely brought me to tears.

  • Anyway, the Steelers did triumph in that game, 31-19, and a lifelong fan was born.

I’ve seen it all in the four-plus decades since deciding that the Steelers were the greatest team in the history of the universe. I’ve witnessed three head coaches, countless playoff appearances, 16 division titles, nine AFC title games, four Super Bowl appearances and two more Lombardi trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

I’ve witnessed Mean Joe Greene and Cam Heyward; Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger; Lynn Swann and Hines Ward; John Stallworth and Antonio Brown; Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and Le’Veon Bell; Jack Lambert, James Farrior and Ryan Shazier; Jack Ham, Mike Merriweather, Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, James Harrison and T.J. Watt; Mel Blount and Rod Woodson; Donnie Shell and Troy Polamalu; and Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field.

  • However, despite “seeing it all” over the course of 41 years of fandom, I’ve never seen Pittsburgh win its first four games.

That all changed on Sunday at Heinz Field, when the Steelers defeated the Eagles, 38-29, to begin the year 4-0 for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

It’s just hard to fathom for me that this is the first time Pittsburgh has started a season so successfully since I was in elementary school, since I believed in Santa Claus, since disco was a thing.

Yet, here we are. What’s the lesson to be learned from this? I think one such lesson is that it’s never too late to be amazed by a sport, a team or a player. Take receiver Chase Claypool, for example, who scored four touchdowns in the victory over the Eagles–three receiving and one rushing–becoming the first rookie in franchise history to do so.

  • Much like the 4-0 start, I can’t believe I — or even much older Steelers fans — had never witnessed such a feat.

There’s a lot not to like about the 2020 calendar year–although, I’d be a fool to tap into any of that mess on here–but there are some bright spots.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 4-0 for the first time since Welcome Back, Kotter was on the air.

Welcome back, indeed.

 

 

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13 Games in a Row? No Problem for the Pittsburgh Steelers

“We do not care.”

That was Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s response during a virtual question and answer session with reporters on Thursday when asked his thoughts on the possibility of his team playing 13-straight games to end the season, thanks to the Week 4 game against the Titans being postponed due to 11 members of that organization testing positive for COVID-19.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

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

You know what?

  • I say kudos to Tomlin for quickly throwing a tarp over any potential excuse-making breeding ground before it even has any time to grow.

Not to sound old — and I am a member of Generation-X, which means I’m now getting there — but I remember the days when teams played 16-straight regular season games without a bye. Nobody thought anything of it. Nobody rattled off stats about how teams that had their byes after a certain point in the season had a greater chance of winning a Super Bowl than teams who had them much earlier.

  • Teams just fulfilled their schedules and either went to the playoffs or to a tropical destination.

I realize this is a new era, and the physical toll the game of football takes on players is far too extensive to ignore. I know the health and safety of these athletes is paramount. I do have a heart. I’m not rotten to the core.

But that’s not what everyone is really worried about when they suddenly “concern” themselves with the brutality these Steelers players will potentially be putting themselves through over the course of thirteen weeks.

They’re worried about how it will affect Pittsburgh’s chances if it makes the postseason for the first time since 2017, something that seems quite likely now, thanks to a 3-0 start to the 2020 regular season.

I get it, but I also know of a lot of people who get concerned when a team earns a postseason bye— “Oh no, it’s going to ruin their momentum!”

There are folks who simultaneously worry about a team playing on a Thursday night because they think the quick turnaround from the previous Sunday will hinder its chances of winning and also worry that the team will be rusty for the next game thanks to the extra days off.

It’s not just the fans, either. Yes, at the moment, Coach Tomlin and his players may say they’re not worried about playing 13 weeks in a row, but let’s see what their attitude is, come January, when game number 14 is of the playoff variety.

  • My guess is someone will care by then.

When it comes to too much time off vs. playing too many games in a row, you can always find an excuse for poor play with either scenario if you really want to.

The fact of the matter is, if someone wouldn’t have pointed out on Thursday how potentially damaging it could be to the Steelers if they didn’t get some time off between now and the end of the season, it never would have crossed my mind that it could be detrimental to their health and/or their chances at a playoff run.

If the Steelers really want to guarantee themselves some time off right before the playoffs, they need to keep winning and earn that precious number one seed—the only one that now comes equipped with a bye.

Wait a minute, what if that extra week off leaves them rusty for the divisional round…….? 

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Time for James Conner Critics to Eat Crow? Not so Fast

“I hope you’re willing to eat a little crow,” is something sports fans say when someone has an opinion about a player or team they don’t agree with.

As it pertains to Steelers running back James Conner, perhaps I should prepare to do a little crow hunting for my dinner. Why? Because my strong opinion heading into Pittsburgh’s Week 2 match-up against the Broncos at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon was that Conner should play second fiddle to Benny Snell, Jr.

James Conner, Alejandro Villanueva, Steelers vs Broncos

James Conner rushes as Alejandro Villanueva blocks. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Benny Snell, the Steelers fourth-round pick out of Kentucky in the 2019 NFL Draft, rushed for 113 yards on 19 carries after coming in for an injured Conner in a 26-16 Week 1 victory over the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Monday Night Football just six days earlier.

Conner, who rushed for just nine yards on six carries before exiting the Week 1 contest, showed all of his critics, including me, that we were wrong in doubting him, as he carried the football 16 times for 106 yards and a score in Pittsburgh’s 26-21 victory over the Broncos last Sunday.

Conner looked poised, healthy and strong as he put the finishing touches on Sunday’s win with a 59-yard scamper right after Pittsburgh took over on downs with 1:51 remaining.

As for Benny Snell, he did nothing to reward the faith those who had any in him, and he followed up what appeared to be a breakthrough performance six days earlier by gaining just five yards on three carries and almost breaking the Steelers’ back with a fumble early in the fourth quarter that allowed Denver to get back into the game.

  • Now, the critics of James Conner’s critics are saying, “See? You were wrong! That’s what you get for making snap judgments.”

Whoa, I can’t speak for most of his critics, but I know I didn’t make any snap judgments about James Conner after Week 1. Those judgments and opinions were based on an entire body of work, mainly going back to late in the 2018 season, when multiple injuries forced him to miss several games down the stretch during a year in-which Pittsburgh barely missed the playoffs.

  • James Conner missed six more games in 2019 due to various ailments and, to reiterate, his 2020 debut in New York was filled with more of the same.

As for my opinions on Snell, they weren’t formed based on just one game. In addition to Snell’s impressive 2020 debut, I based my opinion on how well he played down the stretch of the 2019 campaign, when he nearly caught Conner to become the team’s leading rusher on the season.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell’s rushing was one of the true bright spots for the Steelers against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP via PennLive.com

I based my reasoning on Snell’s offseason conditioning program that saw him report to training camp 12 pounds lighter than his rookie campaign. I used that knowledge to wonder if Snell’s explosive running style in Week 1 could have been attributed to his sleeker look.

  • But mostly, I based my judgments and opinions on Conner and his unreliable health.

I mean, how silly would it have looked for me to call for James Conner to be benched after one game if he was coming off of back-to-back injury-free and Pro Bowl seasons? Pretty darn silly.

Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Conner wasn’t coming off of back-to-back injury-free and Pro Bowl seasons. Sure, he made the Pro Bowl in 2018 while filling in for Le’Veon Bell, who spent that entire year holding out in a contract dispute with the Steelers, but as I mentioned already, that season wasn’t devoid of injuries for Conner.

Fact is, Conner may have answered his critics this past Sunday, but is he going to continue to answer them on a consistent-enough basis over the course of the season? Make no mistake, when James Conner has been healthy and in the lineup, he’s generally been a really good running back for the Steelers, someone who would have made fans utter a collective “Le’Veon Who?” a long time ago.

But the fans haven’t forgotten about Bell, or at least the record breaking production he provided during his five seasons as the Steelers starting running back.

Sure, Bell had his problems with injuries and suspensions, but in terms of overall health and reliability, he was an Ironman on par with the late Mike Webster compared to James Conner.

As I’ve said many times, James Conner’s story, one that includes overcoming cancer, is a great and admirable one. But until he proves otherwise, Conner’s story must include a chapter about his problems with injuries.

Until he proves over and over again that he can be a reliable running back for the Steelers, only then will that chapter be edited out of his story.

And only then will his critics truly have to sit down and eat a little crow.

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Debate Ended: Steelers Should Start Benny Snell Jr. at Running Back

If you’re a Steelers fan, you have to admire all that running back James Conner has had to overcome to even be in the NFL.

A star running back at the University of Pittsburgh, Conner suffered a season-ending ACL tear in 2015, an injury that actually led to doctors discovering that he had cancer. Conner battled through all of that adversity to not only defeat cancer and the injury but to become a third-round pick by the Steelers in the 2017 NFL Draft.

  • James Conner’s story is a great one, truly inspirational, something that should warm the hearts of even the most cynical.

But even such a heartwarming story only has so much traction in the very cynical world of sports, and Conner has said himself that he doesn’t want to be defined by his battle with cancer. He wants to be defined as an NFL running back.

Much like a lot of things about James Conner, I can respect that. But if he is sincere in that sentiment, he must respect the opinions of folks –many of whom are admirers of his — who no longer think he should be the Steelers starting running back.

Benny Snell, Darnay Holmes, Steelers vs Giants

Benny Snell smokes Darnay Holmes in the Steelers win over the Giants. Photo Credit: AP via the Tribune Review

That should be Benny Snell Jr., and that should be as soon as this Sunday’s Week 2 match-up against the Broncos at Heinz Field.

Conner looked timid and unsure of himself in the early moments of Pittsburgh’s 26-16 Week 1 victory over the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Monday Night Football. After gaining just nine yards on six carries, Conner was removed from the game and never returned. It was later revealed that he suffered an ankle injury.

In his place, Snell, a fourth-round pick out of Kentucky in the 2019 NFL Draft, rushed for 113 yards on 19 carries.

Back to Conner.

  • When you really get to the heart of James Conner’s professional story, his problems with injuries are at the forefront.

Conner suffered an MCL tear late in his rookie season. OK, fine, Le’Veon Bell was the bell cow running back in those days, and Conner barely saw the field on offense prior to his injury. But in 2018, after the Steelers had grown used to Conner’s tremendous production in the wake of Bell’s season-long contract holdout, the Pro Bowl-bound second-year back missed several games down the stretch due to a concussion and an ankle problem.

James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Browns

JuJu Smith-Schuster watches as James Conner scores. Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker, USA Today, via SB Nation

And in 2019, when the Steelers really needed to lean on a workhorse running back following the season-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Conner once again proved to be unreliable, as he battled a myriad of injuries and missed a total of six games.

  • As per Triblive.com reporter Chris Adamski, Conner has either been injured in or missed 17 of his past 21 games with the Steelers.

If you’re the Steelers, how can you work with that?

Conner did lead the Steelers in rushing yards a year ago with 464. But Snell finished with 424 yards and didn’t start to see an increased workload until late in the season.

Snell built on that late-season momentum by losing 12 pounds this past offseason and looked fast, quick and explosive during most of his 19 carries on Monday night. The sentiment held by many in the local Pittsburgh sports media is that Snell really is the best running back the Steelers currently have, but that Conner will get the starting nod this Sunday, provided he’s healthy.

  • That’s a mistake.

If you’re the head coach, it’s your job to put the best players on the field in-order to give your team the greatest chance to win. I don’t know how Tomlin can possibly say Conner is his best running back at the moment.

It’s so obvious that it’s Snell.

  • Benny Snell Jr. should be the starter this Sunday and for the foreseeable future.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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If David DeCastro Misses the Start of 2020, Steelers in Good Hands with Stefen Wisniewski

Sexy signings – the Steelers rarely make any during the NFL’s annual spring free agent frenzy.

  • Such was the case in March 2020.

Sure, tight Eric Ebron was intriguing, but not so much that Steelers fans immediately declared the team the favorite to win Super Bowl LV.

No, like most offseason

s, the Steelers concentrated on adding role players and depth pieces during the 2020 free agent period. One such depth piece was Stefen Wisniewski, a veteran interior lineman with position flexibility. That’s right, according to Pro Football Reference, Wisniewski has started 103 games during a nine-year career that began in 2011 when he was a second-round pick out of Penn State by the Oakland Raiders. Stefen Wisniewski started 61 games in four seasons with Oakland–including 45 at center and 16 at left guard.

Stefen Wisniewski

The Steelers 2020 free agent Stefen Wisniewski. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Since leaving Oakland following the 2014 season, Wisniewski, 31, has bounced around the league a bit–including stops in Jacksonville, Philadelphia and Kansas City. But despite evolving into a journeyman lineman, Wisniewski has managed to start 52 games since 2015.

Wisniewski was also a starter for the Eagles in their Super Bowl LII victory over the Patriots following the 2017 season. Wisniewski signed with the Chiefs prior to the 2019 season, and even though he only started two games during the regular season, he was named a starter for Kansas City’s Super Bowl LIV victory over the 49ers.

  • What’s this all mean?

It means that Steelers fans should take comfort in the fact that the team has a player like Wisniewski as their primary backup at both guard and center.

That should be especially comforting heading into Pittsburgh’s Week 1 match-up against the Giants. Why? Because David DeCastro, the Steelers decorated veteran right guard, has been dealing with some sort of injury all throughout training camp and wasn’t able to go during the Steelers last day of padded training camp practices on Friday.

But if DeCastro can’t go against the Giants, it says here that the team will be just fine with the veteran Wisniewski at right guard. Is this to say he’s anywhere near the player DeCastro is? No, of course not. DeCastro is this era’s Alan Faneca. He’ll be no worse than a borderline Hall of Fame guard the moment he becomes eligible after retirement.

If the Steelers had to be without DeCastro for an extended period of time, there’s no doubt the drop-off in play would eventually prove to be detrimental. But for a game or three? This is why you sign players like Wisniewski. This is why you go out and get veterans with position flexibility. This is why those sexy free agent signings that garner the huge headlines aren’t always the ones that prove to be the most fruitful during the course of the regular season.

Nobody cares all that much about free agent depth until it’s needed. Here we are, the season is about to start, and the Steelers might be in need of some valuable free agent depth along the offensive line.

Stefen Wisniewski has never looked sexier.

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Is Cam Sutton Really Challenging Mike Hilton for the Starting Slot Corner Position?

As the Steelers unique Heinz Field training camp begins to ramp up this week, complete with padded practices, there aren’t many starting jobs up for grabs.

There’s the battle for the starting right tackle spot between Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner, along with…….that’s really about it.

  • Seriously, try naming another starting position that’s up for grabs, as the Steelers, a team that’s missed the playoffs the previous two years, prepare for the 2020 regular season.

There is still intrigue–including the continued progress of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger following major elbow surgery that snuffed out his 2019 campaign; the development of second-year inside linebacker Devin Bush, a talent that could take an already explosive defense to a whole new level in 2020; the overall abilities of a rookie class that includes receiver Chase Claypool, outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, guard Kevin Dotson and running back Anthony McFarland; and, oh yes, the progress of third-year quarterback Mason Rudolph, just one season after he turned in mixed results–at best–while filling in for an injured Roethlisberger.

  • But, to reiterate, starting jobs?

Not much news there, not unless you’re talking about the starting slot corner position that has been occupied the past three seasons by Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent — a diamond in the rough, if you will — who Kevin Colbert plucked out of nowhere in 2017 (the Patriots practice squad, actually) to make the Steelers roster and fill the void at a position that had been seriously neglected for many years.

Mike Hilton, Mike Hilton interception Buccaneers, Joe Haden, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams

Mike Hilton’s Red Zone interception. Photo Credit: Mark LoMoglio, AP via Tribune-Review

Not only did Hilton instantly fill a void, he became one of the better slot corners in the entire NFL, as the product from Ole Miss — or the same school that failed and oft-injured second-round pick (and believed to be slot-corner extraordinaire) Senquez Golson hailed from two years earlier–finished his rookie campaign with two interceptions, six passes-defensed and a whopping four sacks — including three in a blow-out victory over the Texans on Christmas Day.

  • Hilton has remained the Steelers starting slot corner–and one of the better ones in the league–ever since.

So who is supposedly coming for his job? How about Cameron Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee in the 2017 NFL Draft. That’s right, Sutton is believed to be a serious contender for the slot corner role, this summer.

And far be it for me to contradict “they” two summers in a row, but if you think about it, why would you take a player like Hilton, again, someone who is considered to be one of the better slot corners in the NFL, and bench him in his fourth season? That was a rhetorical question, because you wouldn’t.

And the Steelers won’t, either. This is just my theory (my conspiracy theory, if you will), but I think Pittsburgh is hoping Sutton makes the competition for the supposed open slot corner position close at training camp, but not close enough that he wins.

  • Why? Because both Hilton and Sutton are unrestricted free agents, next spring.

There’s already so much tape on Hilton that, even if he loses his starting job in 2020, interested teams will know enough about him to offer him a fat contract in 2021. As for Sutton, the only way he will truly be on anyone’s radar is if he starts in 2020–and excels.

If you’re the Steelers, why would you risk it? They already know what they have in Hilton. They thought enough of his abilities to tender him and pay him $3.2 million for the 2020 season. However, the whole tender thing won’t work for Hilton, next season. He’ll be able to shop his services to the highest bidder–and the highest bidder is likely to pay him much more money than the Steelers and their ongoing salary cap restrictions (restrictions that are about to get worse due to the revenue-shrinking pandemic)–would ever seriously consider.

With that in mind, you let Hilton start one more year at slot corner. In the meantime, you can keep Sutton in the same versatile role he’s been in since his rookie season.

Starting next season, the Steelers let Hilton walk and offer Sutton a team-friendly multi-year contract and hope that he settles for an annual salary on par with the $3.2 million Hilton is making in 2020.

  • But if Sutton becomes the starting slot corner this season, chances are, Pittsburgh won’t be able to afford to retain either him or Hilton in 2021.

Sound logical? I think so. The Steelers have a good thing going on defense, especially in a secondary that has seemingly found all the right parts after many years of struggle.

  • No sense in upsetting the apple-cart now, not when the unit looks poised to have another dominant season.

Let Hilton do his thing for one more season. After that, give the starting slot corner job to Sutton.

That’s my plan.

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Steelers Nation’s Lack of Love for James Washington is Puzzling

Steelers receiver James Washington appears to have all the tools necessary to become an elite receiver in the league, save for height.

But height has never kept a Steelers receiver from achieving greatness, as the likes of Lynn Swann, Louis Lipps and Antonio Brown all will attest.

Washington, a second-round pick out of Oklahoma State in the 2018 NFL Draft, is physical, he’s fast, he’s capable of making those tough combat catches, etc., etc. All of these attributes were on display during Washington’s sophomore season with the Steelers, when he led the team in receiving yards with 735.

James Washington, Micah Hyde, Steelers vs Bills

James Washington catches a pass in front of Micah Hyde. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

The fact that James Washington did this after a rather forgettable rookie season in-which he posted a miserable 217 receiving yards on an equally miserable 16 receptions was all the more remarkable considering he didn’t have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for all but six quarters of the 2019 season.

That’s right, without Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a major elbow injury that would require invasive surgery to repair, the Steelers quarterback play, well, it left a lot to be desired a season ago. Mason Rudolph had his moments, as did Devlin Hodges, but both also turned in moments that weren’t so great.

  • So why not much excitement for Washington?

Maybe because the Steelers just keep drafting receivers with high picks. JuJu Smith-Schuster, a second-round selection out of USC in the 2017 NFL Draft, is now one of the stars of the team, a leader, someone Pittsburgh is counting on to rebound after a 2019 in which he struggled both in terms of production and with his health. Then there’s Diontae Johnson, a third-round pick out of Toledo in the 2019 NFL Draft, a player that came into the pros being compared to Antonio Brown, a comparison that seemed rather apt after a rookie campaign in which Johnson pulled in 59 receptions for 680 yards.

And let’s not forget about Chase Claypool, the Notre Dame receiver the Steelers just selected in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Claypool is big, fast and strong–they haven’t dubbed the native Canadian “Mapletron” for nothing.

  • Big things are expected from Smith-Schuster, Johnson and even Claypool in 2020.

Why has James Washington gotten lost in the shuffle? Why aren’t bigger things expected of him. How come he’s not expected to make an even bigger leap in 2020 thanks to the return of Roethlisberger?

I wish I had the answer to these questions, but he has just as much of a chance to make an impact on the Steelers offense in 2020 as any other member of their receiving corps.

As the saying goes, I wouldn’t sleep on James Washington if I were you.

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Few and Far Between: Steelers Starting Spots Up for Grab as Training Camp Starts

The Steelers are set to report to training camp this week.

It will be a training camp like no other. That’s right, thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, NFL players will have a ramp-up period to get acclimated to this new reality. This ramp-up period will include testing and weight and cardio conditioning.

Steelers St. Vincents, Steelers training camp, Steelers Latrobe

For the 1st time in 54 years, the Pittsburgh Steelers will not hold training camp at St. Vincents, in Latrobe. Photo Credit: WPXI

After that, it’s actual padded practices starting around mid-August or so. Oh, and did I mention training camp will be conducted at Heinz Field instead of St. Vincents this year? Also, there will be no preseason games. That’s right, due to the players’ concerns over traveling and putting themselves at risk, the NFLPA and NFL owners agreed to do away with exhibition football as a means to avoid unnecessary exposure and travel.

  • One last thing, teams will begin camp with 80 players instead of the standard 90.

That’s a lot to digest. That’s a lot to take in during this “new normal” that will include a regular season with few or zero fans in attendance at stadiums all across the NFL.

  • What’s a team that hasn’t made the playoffs for two-straight years to do?

Actually, the Steelers are a bit of an anomaly. Even though they haven’t made the playoffs since the 2017 season, they enter 2020 with few starting jobs up for grabs.

Actually, other than the battle between Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor for the vacant starting right tackle spot, I can’t think of any other starting jobs that are truly up for grabs. And when it comes to that vacant right tackle spot, it’s kind of manufactured. In other words, head coach Mike Tomlin announced weeks ago that the team would begin training camp with Matt Feiler, the starting right tackle the past two seasons, as the starter at left guard in place of the recently-retired Ramon Foster.

That was a slightly surprising revelation by Tomlin, especially considering the free agent acquisition of Stefen Wisniewski, a 10-year veteran who could easily slide into the left guard spot for at least the 2020 season. Meanwhile, rookie Kevin Dotson, who Pittsburgh selected in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, could hone his craft and prepare for life as the starting left guard hopefully by 2021.

But even if things don’t work out, and neither Banner or Okorafor jump up to seize the opportunity at right tackle, Feiler could easily move back to that spot, while Wisniewski assumes the role as starting left guard.

Again, other than the questions along the offensive line, what other starting jobs are open? I suppose the Steelers have to find their next starting nose tackle following the free agent departure of Javon Hargrave.

But do they really? After all, it’s no secret that Pittsburgh’s defense spends very little time in its 3-4 base formation–like 33 percent. Is finding a new starter really all that critical? Veteran Tyson Alualu seems poised to absorb the starter snaps at nose tackle, anyway, so that might be your answer.

What else is there? We know JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to be the number one receiver. After him, James Washington and Diontae Johnson appear to be interchangeable. True, based on his rookie performance, Johnson probably has the inside track on the number two receiver position, but with the Steelers employing so many three and four-receiver sets, does it really matter who your number two receiver is?

  • What else is there? We know James Conner is going to be the starting running back just as long as he stays healthy.

We also know the defense, one of the more elite units in the NFL, has no question marks at the top of the depth chart other than at nose tackle, which, again, doesn’t seem that critical of an issue.

So there you go. The 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers are about to embark on the most unusual training camp in the history of the NFL, followed by a regular season that figures to be quite surreal.

They’re coming off back-to-back playoff-less seasons, and, rather surprisingly, they don’t have many questions at the top of the depth chart.

Not a bad place to be in this new and surreal NFL reality.

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Who Cares If Bud Dupree Challenges his Outside Linebacker Status?

I don’t know when everything became a huge deal with fans of the Steelers or any professional football team.

  • Maybe it was the advent of social media.
  • Maybe it was the advent of blogs and comment sections.
  • Maybe it was the advent of the 24/7 news-cycle.

But no matter what you attribute it to, there’s no doubt everything, all the darn time, is a big deal to fans.

The latest thing that has become a big thing to fans–at least Steelers fans–was the announcement on Friday that Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who signed his $15.8 million franchise tag back in the spring, has filed a grievance for the purposes of being re-designated as a defensive end.

Bud Dupree, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Jets

Bud Dupree tackles Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Why would Dupree do such a thing? To make an extra $2 million in 2020, that’s why. You see, under the rules of the NFL’s franchise tag, certain positions are considered more valuable than others and worth more under the tag. In relation to outside linebacker, defensive end is certainly that. If Dupree wins his grievance and is designated a defensive end, his 2020 salary will go from $15.828 million to $17.788 million.

It doesn’t seem like a ton of money, but apparently it’s enough to ruffle the feathers of so many Steelers fans who, let’s be honest, never liked Dupree, the Steelers first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, in the first place.

My question–my very rhetorical question–is so what? Why worry about Dupree’s grievance if you’re a Steelers fan? Why get hot and bothered by it? (Speaking of which, our site editor has a very good article expressing his thoughts on the subject.) Why go online and express your desire to see Dupree gone, if not this year, then certainly next, when he will presumably be free to shop his services elsewhere, provided Pittsburgh doesn’t franchise tag him for a second straight spring?

I guess those are a lot of questions, but they all have to do with the same thing: It’s not your money. You’re not the one who is going to have to pay Bud Dupree the extra $2 million, provided he wins his grievance — an unlikely result if I were a betting man.

As a fan, all you should really concern yourself with is whether or not a player has shown up for the regular season. Maybe you need to concern yourself with a player’s availability for OTAs and training camp, because that could directly affect his ability to perform well when the regular season does begin.

As for the money side of things? Dupree isn’t going to hold out in 2020, not after signing the franchise tag. If Dupree took the same route as Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers former All-Pro running back who didn’t sign his franchise tag until the start of the season in 2017 and not at all in 2018, I could see fans being concerned and/or angry.

But it would be the height of foolishness for Dupree to sign his tag and then hold out during training camp and/or the regular season. He’d be subjected to fines and, unless I’m mistaken, the Steelers would retain his rights in 2021.

Bud Dupree, 27, had a career-year in 2019 with 11.5 sacks. He still wants that huge second contract. He still wants to cash in. He’s not going to sacrifice $15.8 million as an outside linebacker just because someone said he didn’t deserve to earn $17.8 million as a defensive end.

  • No, my guess is he’s going to put his head down and try and have the same kind of year in 2020 that he had in 2019.

If Dupree has that kind of season, he’ll probably be free to make as much money–including guaranteed money–as he wants in 2021. With the two sides reportedly far apart on a long-term contract, and with the deadline to reach a multi-year deal set to expire on July 15, it doesn’t look like Dupree will be donning the black and gold next year.

  • But he’ll be around in 2020 to be an integral part of a Steelers’ defense that was one of the most elite in the NFL last year.

That’s really all you should concern yourself with. As for that extra $2 million the Steelers may have to pay Dupree? Let them worry about that.

 

 

 

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Matt Feiler Moving to Left Guard for the Steelers? Surprising? Perhaps, but it Makes Sense

While on a virtual conference call with the media on Tuesday, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin announced that Matt Feiler, who started 26 games at right tackle over the previous two seasons — including all 16 regular season games in 2019 — will open up training camp next month taking snaps at left guard.

  • When I first heard the news, I’m not going to lie, I was a bit shocked.

After all, I’m a practical and pragmatic guy–two words I’d also use to describe Tomlin–so when Ramon Foster retired after 11 years of very consistent left guard play, it just made sense to me to plug Stefen Wisniewski, a long-time veteran Pittsburgh signed as a free agent in the spring, into that spot for at least the start of the 2020 campaign.

Matt Feiler,

Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 Restricted Free Agent Matt Feiler, Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

With so many people high on Kevin Dotson, a fourth-round pick out of Louisiana in the 2020 NFL Draft, perhaps he could assume the starting role at left guard sooner rather than later.

  • Why disrupt two positions along the offensive line, when you only have to find a replacement for one?

However, after hearing Mike Tomlin’s explanation, it now makes sense to me on more than one level.

“We don’t have time to mess around in this environment,” said Tomlin in a quote courtesy of Steel City Insider. “We lost 900 snaps like everybody did with the virtual offseason. You’ve got to give the benefit of the doubt to people that have been here at least as a basis to begin, and that’s the way we’re going to begin the training camp process, knowing that the process is going to be an abbreviated one.”

  • Matt Feiler is a versatile lineman, one who is capable of playing both guard and tackle.

Therefore, if you have to move someone to another position, why not the guy who knows the system even better than the older veteran you just signed?

Also, as Tomlin explained during his talk with the media, moving Feiler to guard opens things up for a competition at the right tackle spot between Chukwuma Okorafor, a third-round pick out of Western Michigan in the 2018 NFL Draft, and Zach Banner, a fourth-round pick by the Colts in 2017 who came to Pittsburgh in 2018 after spending some time with the Browns.

Both players are at the points of their careers where the Steelers need to find out if they have what it takes to be starters. In fact, if neither shows that potential during training camp, it may be time to wonder if either ever will.

  • Okorafor has some experience as a starter, while Banner spent most of 2019 reporting as an eligible receiver in jumbo packages.

If one or both step up in 2020, that could bode well for the Steelers’ future at both tackle spots. Let’s face it, as much as Steelers fans love him, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva isn’t getting any younger. While he’s fairly young in a professional football sense, he’ll be 32 in September, an age that’s never young in a professional athlete sense.

Besides, Alejandro Villanueva signed a four-year, $24 million contract in 2017, a deal that’s set to expire after the 2020 season. With the Steelers facing so many tough financial decisions regarding their superstar players over the next few seasons, it may not be the worst thing in the world for both Okorafor and Banner to step up and show they can be reliable starting tackles in the NFL.

At the very least, if one of those youngsters claims the starting right tackle spot at training camp, that frees up Wisniewski, like the recently-departed B.J. Finney, someone capable of playing both guard and center, to be the versatile veteran backup interior lineman who can step in and start in a pinch.

So to sum it up, thanks to Matt Feiler’s position flexibility and ability to play both guard and tackle at a high level, the Steelers are really only disrupting one position along the offensive line, even while creating a situation for two new starters.

Now it’s up to Chuks Okorafor and/or Zach Banner to jump up and seize the opportunity.

 

 

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