Steelers vs Penguins – Pens May Hoist Stanley Cup, but Men of Steel Still King in Pittsburgh

It seems every time the Penguins experience a run of success, as they are right now–a run that includes back-to-back Stanley Cup victories, following a 2-0 victory in Nashville over the Predators Sunday night–people like to entertain the topic.

What topic am I talking about, you ask?

  • The idea that the Pittsburgh Penguins are about to overtake the Pittsburgh Steelers as the number one team in the City of Pittsburgh in terms of popularity.

On talk radio last week, Dejan Kovacevic, filling in for the popular and controversial Mark Madden, threw that thought out there and basically agreed with it.

  • Perhaps that’s no surprise, considering 105.9 the X is the Penguins flagship station.

At this very moment, the Penguins are the number one team in town; how could they not be?

Stanely Cup, Nick Bonino, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs. Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguin Nick Bonino hosts the Stanley Cup at the Steelers South Sid facility as Cam Heyward and others look on. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Tribune-Review

They boast some of the NHL’s and hockey’s greatest players–including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin–and, as previously mentioned, Lord Stanley will be paraded around Pittsburgh for a second consecutive summer.

Also, with the drafting of the legendary Mario Lemieux in 1984, the Penguins forever changed the fortunes of their previously downtrodden franchise and have won a total of five Stanley Cups since the summer of 1991.

  • Meanwhile, the Steelers have won just two Super Bowls since 1979, the same year the Pirates claimed their last World Series title.

Over the past three-plus decades, the Penguins have gone from a laughingstock of an organization, to hockey royalty.

Sound familiar?

If you’re a Steelers fan, you obviously know the legacy that was forged in the 1970’s that was jump-started by the hiring of head coach Chuck Noll in 1969 and the drafting of defensive stalwart Mean Joe Greene almost immediately afterward.

Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Terrible Towel, Black Terrible Towel

Lynn Swann and John Stallworth sport Terrible Towels in Three Rivers Stadium during 70’s Super Bowl.

With the help of nine future Hall of Fame players (Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Franco Harris, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Mike Webster), the Steelers went from an also-ran in the early’70’s to the class of the NFL by the end of the decade.

  • And, in Pittsburgh, there was no mistake who reigned supreme in a sports sense.

Here we are, nearly five decades into the Steelers run of football supremacy, and there are no true signs of this love, this passion the fans have for the team dissipating anytime soon.

Sure, it might seem that way, considering the Penguins have won three Stanley Cups since the last time the Steelers hoisted a Lombardi, following their 27-23 victory over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, some eight years ago.

But all one needs to do is examine the TV ratings–both locally and nationally–to see that the Penguins have a ways to go before they supplant the Steelers for local sports supremacy.

As USA Today pointed out on Tuesday, NBC, the network with the rights to the NHL regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs, is doing cartwheels for the ratings the six-game final between Pittsburgh and Nashville drew.

Stanley Cup 2017, Penguins vs. Predators, Ron Hainsey, Juuse, Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins’ Ron Hainsey shoots puck past Nashville Predators goalie Juuse. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via FanRag.com

What was the average for those six games? A 4.76, or almost two points lower than Last Man Standing, a Tim Allen sitcom that recently made the news after being canceled by ABC. 

  • By contrast, the most recent Super Bowl–SBLI between the Patriots and Falcons–drew a 48.8 share for Fox. That’s almost a difference of almost ten times in case you’re wondering.

OK, yes, I just pointed out that football is still king in America, and that its signature event is watched by almost half the country, while hockey’s marquee series is watched by the same amount of people who would tune in to watch a middling TV show on Friday night.

What about the local ratings for the finals?

  • According to NBC Sports, Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final–the clincher–drew a 40.0 rating in Pittsburgh, while the entire series drew a 32.0.
  • Great for Pittsburgh and great for NBC.

But when you examine some of the Steelers’ recent local regular season TV ratings, you may start to get a sense for just how popular they still are.

According to a TribLive article from January of 2014, that came on the heels of a playoff-less and 8-8 2013 season that included starts of 0-4 and 2-6, the Steelers averaged a 38.2 local rating, which was pretty much on par with what the Penguins generated in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final this past Sunday.

Steelers vs Chiefs, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers playoff rushing record, Jesse James

Le’Veon Bell breaks the Steelers playoff rushing record for a 2nd consecutive week in Steelers playoff win over Chiefs. Photo Credit: Dilip Vishwanat, Getty Images via Newsday

And when you examine the Steelers most-recent playoff win–an 18-16 victory over the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in the divisional round on January 15–you may wonder if NBC, the network that broadcast the game, has already contacted head coach Mike Tomlin about starring in his very own sitcom: First Down Family…Obviously. 

  • The game averaged 37.1 viewers and was the most watched non-conference championship game playoff matchup in NFL history.

Wow.

Sure, the game was moved into primetime due to weather concerns in Kansas City, but it doesn’t lessen the impact the Steelers and the NFL have on the country and the City of Pittsburgh.

So, what am I saying?

  • Yes, the Penguins are the hot team in town right now, and probably will be for quite some time.

The organization did a great job years ago by marketing the team to young fans–don’t know how many young millennials are huge Penguins fans.

However, while Pittsburgh started to develop a bit of a hockey culture after the Penguins drafted Mario Lemieux 33 years ago, it was almost as if the Pittsburgh of pre-1970, with its blue-collar work-ethic, was a football town waiting for a team to embrace.

The Pittsburgh Steelers became that team in the early-1970’s, and it appears as if no one–not even the five-time Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins–will knock them off the top perch anytime soon.

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Pittsburghers Support Penguins in Stanley Cup, but Predators Evoke ’95 Steelers Run

As weird as it is to say, when you’re a fan of a very successful sports franchise, it comes with a bit of a burden.

Now, when I say “burden,” I don’t mean it’s a bad thing to watch your favorite team enjoy continued success and be judged by the number of championships it displays in its trophy case. It’s just that, well, your favorite team is judged by the number of titles it wins, which means, as a fan, you expect nothing less than achieving the ultimate victory.

As a Steelers fan, I can attest to this quite well, considering anything less than a championship became unacceptable the moment Chuck Noll led his team to a fourth Lombardi trophy in six years in January of 1980, capping off a decade of dominance in the 1970’s that is perhaps unmatched in professional sports history.

The 21 playoff appearances, 15 division titles, four Super Bowl trips and two Lombardi trophies the organization has achieved since have only reinforced the belief among Steelers fans that, again, anything less than ultimate victory is totally unacceptable.

Penguins vs Predators Stanley Cup

Photo credit: Stamford Advocate

With their team going for its second-straight Stanley Cup, and fifth since 1991, Pittsburgh Penguins fans have certainly taken up residence in the same arena of high expectations as those who root for the Steelers. With their team employing some of the best hockey players on the planet–including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin–nothing but a Stanley Cup parade is acceptable around  these parts (Mike Sullivan is the team’s fourth head coach since Crosby went to his first Stanley Cup Final back in 2008).

Yes, despite their team playing in its fourth Final in nine years and achieving the ultimate success just one year ago, the fans won’t be feeling anything but sorrow unless the Penguins (currently tied 2-2) win the Cup once again.

But you know whose fan base won’t be feeling anything but joy, regardless of how the Final turns out?

  • The one that belongs to Pittsburgh’s opponents, the Nashville Predators. 

An expansion team who came into the NHL in 1998, the Predators had never won a division title nor advanced past the second round of the playoffs, before entering the 2016/2017 postseason as the last seed in the Western Conference (and, based on overall record, the last seed in the entire NHL playoffs).

When you think of great hockey towns, Nashville certainly never comes to mind. However, after almost doing so last year, the Predators sold out all of their home games at Bridgestone Arena for the 2016/2017 regular season.

Maybe that’s why the Predators, despite their nondescript history, rolled right through the Western Conference playoffs and advanced to their first ever Stanley Cup Final.

  • When hockey season is in full-swing, Nashville is unofficially dubbed “Smashville,” and it appears the Predators southern fans have embraced the image.

I know one thing for sure, the city is absolutely drunk off of hockey, as the fans are experiencing this kind of run for the very first time.

In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, played at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center on May 29, a Predators fan made news by throwing a catfish on the ice (a tradition at Predators home games) and was removed from the arena, before being arrested and charged with several crimes (all the charges have since been dropped).

Jake Guentzel, Penguins vs Predators, 2017 Stanley Cup

Jake Guentzel celebrates goal by Evgeni Malkin. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar

Coming into the playoffs with the second most points in the NHL and having to outlast the teams who were first and third in points just to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Penguins are certainly in no mood for shenanigans. Neither are their fans, who are now mocking the love-fest Predators fans are enjoying with their team.

  • Ah, but to be that innocent of a fan once more and enjoy something for the very first time.

That kind of feeling usually only happens once.

It  did for me 22 years ago, when the Steelers defeated the underdog Colts in the AFC Championship Game and advanced to Super Bowl XXX to take on the heavily-favored Dallas Cowboys, winners of two of the previous three Super Bowls.

As a youngster in the 1980’s, the Steelers dominance of the previous decade seemed almost mythical after the legends began to retire one-by-one and were replaced by a far-less talented group of players.

However, as Noll gave way to Bill Cowher, and he rejuvenated the team and brought the magic back to the fan base, you could sense the passion and the hunger once more.

  • I know I was super-hungry for some form of championship-success. And when it finally happened after many years of depressing seasons and excruciating playoff exits, I was simply euphoric.
Neil O'Donnell, Super Bowl XXX

Neil O’Donnell in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: McMillian & Wife

Again, Pittsburgh was a huge underdog, but I didn’t care. I soaked in every minute of the two-week build-up to the Super Bowl. I read every article I could get my hands on. I watched every news report and special dedicated to the Black and Gold.

  • Even though the Steelers infamously came up just short against Dallas thanks to too many Neil O’Donnell to Larry Brown connections, I had the time of my life.

In-fact, other than the euphoria that followed Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, Joey Porter and Ben Roethlisberger leading the Steelers to their the Super Bowl XL victory in Detroit (the franchise’s first title in 26 years), the Steelers trip to Super Bowl XXX may have been my happiest time as a sports fan.

Sadly, unless the Pirates actually make a World Series appearance before I die (it hasn’t happened since I was seven), I may never get to experience that kind of feeling again.

I gotta tell ya, I’m not sure which fan base I envy more:

  • The one with the previous success and high expectations or the one that is enjoying everything for the very first time.

I do know one thing: While Penguins fans won’t truly enjoy themselves unless their team wins another Cup, Predators fans are already at the party and having a grand old time.

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Celebrate Good Times Come On! Antonio Brown’s Touchdown Celebrations Can Continue

Looks like you won’t have Steelers receiver Antonio Brown to kick around any longer–or at least his 15-yard penalty-inducing post-touchdown celebrations.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell published an open letter to fans on Tuesday which detailed, among other things, the league’s relaxation on the–at least in my opinion–rather absurd stance on post-touchdown celebrations.

Aside from his post-playoff victory Facebook Live feeds and his complaints about not getting enough passes thrown his way, if there’s one thing that has irked the fans about Antonio Brown in recent years, it’s his penchant for enjoying his touchdowns just a little too much. 

Antonio Brown, Antonio Brown celebration, Antonio Brown touchdown Redskins, Steelers vs Redskins

Antonio Brown celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Redskins. Photo credit: CBS Sports

Why was this a thing? Because most of Antonio Brown’s touchdown celebrations, such as twerking and making love to the goalposts, drew 15-yard penalties in 2016. And this led to Chris Boswell kicking off from his own 20, which often led to….nothing really.

  • But it could have cost his team some valuable field-position, and this is what always bothered the fans so much.

Or did it?

“We know you love the spontaneous displays of emotion that come after a spectacular touchdown,” said Goodell in his open letter. “And players have told us they want more freedom to be able to express themselves and celebrate their athletic achievements.”

  • In other words, no more No Fun League!……sort of.

Among the celebrations that will now be free of penalty are using the football as a prop, group demonstrations and going to the ground to celebrate.

Why were any of those things ever subject to penalty in the first place?

It’s hard to say. But there are Cardinals fans to this day that insist former Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes should have been penalized in the waning seconds of Super Bowl XLIII for using the football to do his LeBron Jameschalk toss” post-touchdown celebration after making one of the greatest catches in NFL history (thanks to a perfectly placed pass from Ben Roethlisberger).

That’s right, there are fans out there who wanted to potentially alter a championship thanks to a benign celebration by the guy who caught the game-winner.

  • But going strictly by the book, Super Bowl XLIII could have gone down differently, had the officials on hand called things to the letter of the law.

Thank goodness they didn’t.

However, there was a time, way back in Week 16 of the 2012 season, when an excessive celebration may have cost Pittsburgh a spot in the postseason.

  • As I said, going to the ground to celebrate will now be permitted in 2017. Unfortunately for Brett Keisel and the Steelers of five seasons ago, it wasn’t.

In the early moments of Pittsburgh’s crucial tilt with the Bengals at Heinz Field on December 23, 2012 (the Steelers had to win in-order to keep their playoff hopes alive), Brett Keisel recorded a sack on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and proceeded to do his signature bow-and-arrow post-sack celebration.

Sadly, since Brett Keisel went to one knee in-order to perform his celebration, the defense was hit with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty, and, instead of punting, Cincinnati was awarded a first down.

In a game that was ultimately decided by three points (the Bengals went ahead, 23-20, on a last-second field goal), this penalty on Brett Keisel could have been more costly than anyone is willing to admit.

  • All because The Beard was just trying to enjoy a special moment.

Anyway, back to the “sort of” part I alluded to earlier.

  • While the league has loosened its stance on excessive celebrations, ones that are sexually sugestive, such as twerking, will still be subject to penalty.

Why? Beats me, but given that twerking was one of Antonio Brown’s signature celebrations in 2016, the diva-live receiver may not yet be out of the woods.

But at least the NFL is making progress.

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Steelers Rookie Cornerbacks Cam Sutton & Brian Allen Aren’t Only Options for Boosting Secondary

As we move further away from the 2017 NFL Draft and into such things as rookie mini-camp, there are still those who don’t think the Pittsburgh Steelers did enough to try and improve their secondary.

  • But that’s usually the case with post-draft analysis, isn’t it?

For every pundit or fan who was happy with Pittsburgh’s selection of Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt in Round 1 and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in Round 2, there was at least one person who thought the Steelers should have picked other players or addressed different areas of the roster.

As it pertained to the secondary, the Steelers did address it, when they selected cornerbacks Cam Sutton (Tennessee) and Brian Allen (Utah) in the third and fifth rounds, respectively.

Cam Sutton,

Cam Sutton returning an interception for the Tennessee Volunteers. Photo credit: CBS Sports.

So, was the third round a little too late to take a corner, which was the case with Cam Sutton, a four-year starter who recorded seven interceptions and 30 passes defensed during his college career?

Some might say that it was, but when you consider Pittsburgh used its first two picks of the 2016 NFL Draft to take defensive backs–cornerback Artie Burns in the first round; and safety Sean Davis in the second round–it may put the draft strategy in a better context.

  • After all, you can’t address every single need in the first and second rounds. And since when were third round picks not expected to become starters sooner rather than later?

Now, if you want to argue that the selection of Brian Allen, a converted wide receiver who, by most accounts is a tremendous athlete but very green for his new position, could wind up on the cutting floor at training camp in August, you may be on to something.

Despite drawing some raves for his one-handed interception during Day 2 of the Steelers rookie mini-camp on Saturday, Brian Allen is most-likely a project player and may have to spend some time on the practice squad during his rookie season; or, if he’s lucky, he could make the team but be a healthy scratch each and every week, as he learns his craft under the guidance of Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake.

Like any other renovation project, there was still a great deal of dust visible in the Steelers secondary last season, this despite the defense improving  from 30th against the pass in 2015 to 16th. For example, there was the entirety of the AFC Championship game, in-which several Patriots receivers–including the little-known Chris Hogan–roamed through the defensive backfield almost totally uninhibited.

  • Speaking of which, the mantra among the fans since  the 36-17 beat-down in New England has been that the team needs to find a way to beat the Patriots.

Playing a zone against a quarterback as decorated as Tom Brady has pretty much been a recipe for disaster for the Steelers, going back to the days of Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu. But when you examine the resumes of Artie Burns and Cam Sutton, you’ll see that playing man coverage is something they excelled at in college.

Àrtie Burns,

Artie Burns following a 2016 interception. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

When the Steelers drafted Artie Burns with the 25th pick a year ago, many wondered how a defense that specialized in zone coverage could have taken a corner that excelled in man.

  • Maybe because the defense doesn’t want to specialize in zone coverage any longer.

It was argued that Pittsburgh couldn’t really switch to man coverage against the Patriots because it didn’t have the personnel for it. That may have been true then, but it could be a different story moving forward, if Burns continues to make progress, and a player like Sutton quickly shows that his college skill-set can translate to the pro level.

When you study what the Steelers have done in with the secondary in recent years, you’ll see that the transformation may have begun in 2014, with the free-agent signing of safety Mike Mitchell

There were high hopes within the organization that Senquez Golson, a very productive player who had 10 interceptions during his senior year, could step right in and be the slot corner. Unfortunately, due to injuries, not only did Golson miss his entire rookie year, he missed all of his second season as well.

  • As for Doran Grant, who, if memory serves me correctly, was drawing Allen-esque raves about two years ago, he never quite caught on.

There may still be hope for Senquz Golson, who certainly hasn’t suffered any catastrophic injuries and may just be hindered by a lack of experience. Then again, there those who fear that Senquez Golson could be this generation’s Kris Farris (ok, that’s a plug for another article on this site, but hey, its a good article.)

You throw Senquez Golson into the pot with Artie Burns, Mike Mitchell, Sean Davis, Cam Sutton, Brian Allen and, yes, Ross Cockrell, a former fourth round pick by the Bills who started all 16 games at corner last year and was often lined up against the other team’s top receiver, and you may have the makings of a pretty decent secondary sooner rather than later.

An old building isn’t renovated overnight, and neither is a struggling secondary.

 

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Why Pitt Standout James Conner’s Impact with Steelers Could Come Sooner than You Think….

“I’ve seen him play. You’ve seen him play. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be good.”

That quote was from me to my brother last week, shortly after the Steelers selected Pitt running back James Conner with their compensatory third-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

James Conner, Steelers 2017 3rd round draft pick

James Conner rushing for Pitt @ Heinz Field. Photo credit: PennLive.com

Obviously, being from Pittsburgh and a huge fan of the University of Pittsburgh, my opinion about James Conner may be partially due to homerism. After all, leading up to the draft, how many football fans expressed a desire for their favorite pro team to draft a player from their favorite college team?

This happens all the time.

But I wasn’t the only one who reacted joyfully to the news that Conner’s college home stadium–Heinz Field–would turn into his professional home stadium.

  • First, who doesn’t love everything about James Conner?

After rushing for 1,759 yards in his sophomore year of 2014, Conner was named the ACC Player of the Year.

  • But just when it appeared that Conner was headed for greatness, he received a double punch to the gut.

The first punch was a torn MCL, which he sustained in the 2015 season opener. The second, more devastating strike occurred many months later, when Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer  that was discovered by doctors while he was undergoing rehab for his injured knee.

You know the story by now: Conner absorbed both punches and kept on fighting. By May of 2016, he was declared cancer-free; and in his final season at Pitt, he rushed for 1,092 yards on 216 attempts.

  • Obviously, less than a year after the physical toll that chemo and the MCL tear took on his body, the burst and explosiveness weren’t quite the same.

It’s impossible to know where James Conner would have been drafted without those setbacks, but he was selected high enough that he’ll be given much more than a puncher’s chance to have a decent career with the Steelers.

  • And why does it have to be just decent?

I realize Le’Veon Bell, and his current status as the NFL’s best running back is one reason James Conner may never get to truly make his mark at the professional level. Another reason is obviously the knee injury.

But when James Conner lines up in the offensive backfield this season, he won’t be the only Steelers running back who suffered a torn MCL at Heinz Field in 2015. Le’Veon Bell sustained that very same injury in Week 8 against the Bengals and was done for the year.

  • Which brings me back to the chance James Conner might get to make a difference for the Steelers sooner than people think.

For anyone to examine the Steelers top four picks, which also include linebacker T.J. Watt, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and cornerback Cameron Sutton and wonder if they will be able to help them in their rookie seasons may have forgotten about the depth issues the team has faced in recent years.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Bengals

Le’Veon Bell before he was injured against the Bengals. Photo Credit: USATSI via CBS.com

And that’s especially been the case at the running back spot, where Le’Veon Bell, despite his all-world talents and tremendous production, has missed a total of 17 games due to either injuries or suspensions over his first four seasons.

As for the postseason, the 2016 edition was the first Le’Veon Bell was actually healthy at the start of. And while he did set franchise records by rushing for a combined 337 yards in back-to-back victories over the Dolphins and Chiefs, he was limited in the AFC title game versus the Patriots after aggravating a groin injury he reportedly had been nursing for a couple of weeks.

Unlike the torn MCL Le’Veon Bell suffered in 2015 or the hyper-extended knee he sustained at the end of the 2014 season (both occurring after questionable tackles in games against the Bengals), it could be argued that an injured groin for a running back is a symptom of overuse.

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But the one thing that is certain is that Pittsburgh has been limited at the running back spot in each of the past three postseasons.

  • You know what they say about not learning from history.

Therefore, while it would be foolish to think James Conner is going to get any greater workload than what LeGarrette Blount and DeAngelo Williams both received while playing behind a healthy Le’Veon Bell in the past, it would also be foolish to assume he won’t be called upon to help the Steelers in 2017.

If the Steelers truly believe Bell’s injury, which required surgical repair in March, was caused by overuse, they might already be thinking about lightening the star running back’s load–even if it’s just a few less carries a game.

If the Steelers are forced to turn to James Conner for one reason or another, what kind of running back will they be getting? That’s hard to predict. Obviously, like every other draft prospect, Conner has his weaknesses, which, according to his NFL.com draft profile, include average lateral movement and a lack of elite speed. But then again, those were some of the same criticisms Bell had to overcome coming out of college–and that was before he suffered a torn MCL. 

James Conner, Steelers, Le'Veon Bell backup, Steelers backup running back

Soon former Pitt running back James Conners will be delivering stiff arms while wearning the Black and Gold. Photo Credit: Julia Rendleman, Post-Gazette

Despite his maturity issues that have led to two drug-related suspensions, Le’Veon Bell is a hard worker and has certainly gotten the most out of his abilities. If there was a do-over of the 2013 NFL Draft, instead of lasting until the second round, No. 26 would be a top-10 selection.

Will James Conner have a chance to get the most out of his abilities in Pittsburgh? There’s no doubt he’s a hard worker, willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. As per Kevin Colbert in his post-draft media appearances, Conner has a great opportunity to make a name for himself on special teams.

As for moving up the running back depth chart, James Conner obviously has to develop an all-around game that includes being a reviving target for Ben Roethlisberger out of the backfield and picking up the blitz (two things Bell also excels at, which is why he never comes off the field).

The sooner James Conner improves in areas besides just running the ball, the quicker he’ll distance himself from the likes of Knile Davis and Fitzgerald Toussaint, which shouldn’t pose too great a challenge.

  • What about the very top of the running back depth chart?

As it stands right now, why would anyone want to mess with what Le’Veon Bell is doing? The answer is, nobody would.

But in addition to his injury history and suspension issues, there could be contractual issues with Le’Veon Bell. Unless the two sides come to an agreement, Le’Veon Bell will play the 2017 season under the franchise tag. Sure, he will get paid rather handsomely, but he’s eventually going to want a multi-year deal that will annually pay him at least the $12 million he’ll earn next season.

  • What happens if the two sides never agree on Le’Veon Bell’s worth?

In a perfect world, Le’Veon Bell will ink a new deal and go on to have a Hall of Fame career, while James Conner develops as a player and bides his time in Pittsburgh for four years, before signing with another team looking for a featured running back.

But this is not a perfect world, and that’s why James Conner’s impact with the Steelers could come a lot sooner than people think.

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Steelers Emphasize Character in 2017 Draft Class

The more I read about the Steelers 2017 Draft Class, especially the premium picks —T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton and James Conner–I couldn’t help but notice continual key words and phrases such as “hardworking,” selfless character,” “high-character,” “great player, but an even better person,” etc. etc.

And that conspiracy had to do with the quality of character of most if not all of the eight new draft picks who will try to make a career for themselves as members of the black and gold. Draft weekends are usually love-fests, complete with hugs from family and friends for the draftees, along with high-praise from the people who drafted them.

TJ Watt, Art Rooney II,

Steelers 1st round draft pick TJ Watt with Art Rooney II. Photo Credit: KDKA

But often there are also character concerns about certain players who are drafted and make you wonder if those concerns will hinder or totally derail their development.

Thursday night, when the Steelers time on the first round clock commenced, Reuben Foster, an inside linebacker from Alabama and a top ten overall prospect, was sitting there for the taking.

Obviously, outside linebacker was the more pressing need for the Steelers heading into the draft, but Foster offered great value at pick number 30 and perhaps could have been the replacement for Lawrence Timmons, who signed with the Dolphins as a free-agent in March.

  • But like the 29 teams before them, the Steelers passed on Foster, who was ultimately selected by the 49ers one spot later.

So, why not just scoop up one of the premiere talents in the draft–what’s general manager Kevin Colbert always say about picking the best player available?

  • Unfortunately, even the best players can’t help a team if they’re not on the field.

It’s debatable as to who the most talented receiver of the 2014 NFL Draft was, but if you want to throw your name behind Martavis Bryant, it would be really hard to argue with you.

But there were concerns about Martavis Bryant’s character and work-ethic at Clemson, and this caused him to slip into the fourth round of that draft. And after a stellar rookie season, in-which he caught 26 passes for 549 yards and eight touchdowns in just 10 games, Martavis Bryant was suspended for the first month of the 2015 regular season for failing a drug test in the offseason.

After an even better 2015 season, when he caught 50 passes for 765 yards in just 11 games, Bryant failed multiple drug tests and was suspended for all of 2016.

And that brings me back to Ruben Foster, who not only failed a drug test at the combine in February, he was sent home after having a verbal altercation with a medical worker.

Are these horrific offenses and should they ruin a talented player’s career? On the surface, no.

But times, they are a changing. Think of Rod Woodson.

  • Rod Woodson was one of the best players in Steelers history and arguably their greatest cornerback, (well, Mel Blount was probably better.)

But before his career really hit its stride, Woodson was arrested multiple times for various offenses. Back then, not only didn’t Woodson miss any games, he was named the 1993 NFL Defensive Player of the Year not long after his last arrest.

Thankfully, Rod Woodson matured into a person whose character matched his talents on the field and went on to have a Hall of Fame career.

Today, with social media and the 24/7 news-cycle, not to mention the public scrutiny the NFL has faced in recent years because of multiple off-field issues for several of its players, one has to wonder if someone even with Rod Woodson’s enormous talents would have survived just one arrest without it ruining his career.

So, does high character always equal success on the football field? No, but high character is often a great barometer for determining if a player will stay on the football field long enough to get the most out of his abilities.

The Steelers just drafted a group of young players whose football futures will likely be decided on talent and not on off-field issues.

 

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Cornerback: High-Moderate

The Steelers appear to have few pressing needs as they prepare for the 2017 NFL Draft, which begins this Thursday evening.

But while Pittsburgh’s needs might seem to be in-line with a team that just made it to the AFC title game, but of course the goal is to get past the AFC title game. And for that to happen in 2017, that means the Steelers must upgrade at certain areas in the draft.

A perfect example of this could be at cornerback.

Artie Burns, Steelers 2017 draft needs cornerback

For the first time in 20 years the Steelers picked a cornerback first in 2016. Could they do it again in 2017? Photo credit: Pennlive.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Starters 

The Steelers finally addressed this need with a very high draft choice a year ago, when they made Artie Burns out of Miami their first round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. And after slowly working his way into the lineup, Artie Burns started nine games (mostly all down the stretch) and recorded three interceptions and a fairly impressive 13 passes defensed.

Alongside Burns at the other cornerback spot is Ross Cockrell, the fourth-year man out of Duke who was a fourth round pick by the Bills in the 2014 NFL Draft. Cockrell survived one season in Buffalo before being cut right before the start of 2015 regular season. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and Co. quickly snatched Ross Cockrell off the scrap heap, and he appeared in 15 games, started seven and recorded two interceptions and 11 passes defensed.

A year ago, Ross Cockrell was a mainstay at the cornerback spot, starting all 16 games and often being matched up against the other team’s top receiver–including the Bengals A.J. Green.  Ross Cockrell acquitted himself quite nicely; while he didn’t have any interceptions, he notched 14 passes defensed and 47 tackles.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Backups

A dependable fixture at the starting and slot positions for many years, veteran William Gay‘s play seemed to drop off as the 2016 season progressed.

After starting a combined 60 games between 2011-2015, William Gay only started nine games last year, although he appeared in all 16. He mostly assumed his best-suited role as a slot corner near season’s end, but at age 32, one has to wonder just how much he can still contribute to a Pittsburgh secondary that’s getting younger and more talented with each passing season.

The youngster who ostensibly could replace William Gay as the slot corner and ultimately Ross Cockrell as the starter opposite Burns is Senquez Golson, the third-year man out of Ole Man, who the Steelers picked in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

Actually, to call Senquez Golson a third-year man is a little disingenuous, considering he has yet to play a down of football in either the preseason or regular season and has barely even participated in his first two training camps at Latrobe.

A season ago, Senquez Golson suffered a Lisfranc injury just days into training camp, a sprain that required surgery. While Golson was eligible to come off the PUP list mid-way through the season, the lone benefactor of that rule was second-year linebacker Bud Dupree, who was activated near the end of the season.

  • The Steelers actually kept Golson on the active roster for a few weeks, until injuries forced him on to IR.

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart at corner are Coty Sensabaugh, the journeyman Pittsburgh picked up as a free-agent from the Giants; Al-Hajj Shabazz; and a host of down-the-liners–including Brandon Dixon, Mike Hilton, Greg Ducre and Devonte Johnson.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Cornerback 

As a restricted free agent, Ross Cockrell languished in free-agency with little to no interest after the Steelers slapped a fourth round tender on him earlier in the spring.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs cornerback

Meanwhile, Senquez Golson could go either way. Golson could end up being this year’s Sean Spence, and make a legitimate case for being the NFL’s “comeback player of the year.” OR Senquez Golson could end up as this generation’s Kris Farris, as this site suggested last spring.

As for William Gay, again, his play declined as the 2016 season progressed, and he’s certainly not getting any younger (and neither is Ben Roethlisberger, if you get my drift), although he perhaps could continue to be effective at safety, as has been rumored.

With that in mind, while the secondary seems to be improving each season–the defense finished 16th in passing a year ago, after placing 30th in 2015 — the Steelers need better performance out of their defensive backfield if they’re to bring home Lombardi Number Seven in 2017 instead of being an AFC Championship also-ran.

With prospects like Marlon Humphrey out of Alabama, Gareon Conley of Ohio State or USC’s Adoree Jackson possibly available near the end of the the first round, this wouldn’t be a bad year to double-down and go cornerback for the second year in a row.

Given that, the Steelers 2017 draft need status for the Steelers at cornerback is High-Moderate.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Inside Linebacker: Moderate

What a machine. What a consistent force and performer in the middle of the Steelers defense for 10 glorious seasons.

I’m referring, of course, to inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons who became head coach Mike Tomlin’s first draft choice, when the Steelers selected him out of Florida State with the 15th pick of the 2007 NFL Draft.

Lawrence Timmons started slowly as he learned legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau‘s sophisticated defense, but the athleticism, the explosiveness, they were on display right from the very start.

After serving an apprenticeship under veterans James Farrior and Larry Foote, Lawerence Timmons moved to the  top of the depth chart in his third season and started 124 games between 2009-2016–including a very durable 96-straight over his final six seasons in Pittsburgh.

After the 2016 campaign, Lawrence Timmons became a free-agent and inked a two-year deal with the Dolphins in March, leaving the Steelers with a hole at one of the inside linebacker spots…sort of. Yes, there’s a “Sort of” attached to that statement and how the Steelers define “sort of” will impact their plans for inside linebacker in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Vince Williams, Ryan Shazier, Steelers 2017 draft needs inside linebacker

Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams celebrate a turnover. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via SportsnetCA

Steelers Depth Chart @ Inside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Starters

Speaking of athleticism and explosiveness, Ryan Shazier, arguably the Steelers best player on defense, has both in bunches.

A first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Shazier was thrust into the starter’s role right from the beginning, thanks to the team’s transition period on defense from the veteran group that helped win two Super Bowls in the previous decade to the younger version that sorely needed a “splashy” play-maker. Ryan Shazier proved to be that early-on, as he intercepted a pass and made several impressive tackles during his rookie home debut in a preseason game at Heinz Field against the Bills.

  • Unfortunately for Ryan Shazier and the Steelers, Shazier missed seven games in 2014 due to a sprained knee.

Over the past two seasons, Ryan Shazier has grown into his role of the spectacular play-maker and best player on the defense. Two years ago, Ryan Shazier was the best player on the field, recovering a fumble and literally saving Pittsburgh’s season, when he stripped running back Jeremy Hill of the football in the waning moments of a come-from-behind victory over the Bengals in an AFC Wild Card game.

  • Last season, as the Steelers marched all the way to the AFC Championship game, Ryan Shazier recorded 55 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions, as he made his first Pro Bowl.

So, who will take Lawerence Timmons’ job and play alongside Ryan Shazier at the other inside linebacker spot? After inking a two-year contract-extension through the 2018 season, Vince Williams, the 2013 sixth round pick out of Florida State, figures to be the heir apparent to Timmons.

Truth be told, Vince Williams appeared to be destined for a future starter’s role, even before the start of the 2016 season. With Lawrence Timmons lame-duck status and declining play in recent years, Vince Williams’ new deal, which he signed before the start of the regular season, seemed like a proactive move by the organization.

When Ryan Shazier missed four games with a knee injury early in 2016, Vince Williams performed so well in his absence–including a combined 25 tackles in back-to-back victories over the Chiefs and Jets–many wondered if Ryan Shazier would be able to reclaim his starting spot.

Surprisingly, however, Lawrence Timmons stepped up his play so much down-the-stretch, as Pittsburgh won nine-straight games, the idea of keeping the Law Dog around for at least another season began to pick up steam. But that talk soon vanished early in free-agency, when Lawrence Timmons jumped to Miami for $11 million in guaranteed money.

With Lawrence Timmons now a former Steeler, the original sentiment of Vince Williams succeeding him at inside linebacker seems to be the plan heading into 2017.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Inside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Backups 

Behind Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams, there’s a little promise but mostly just depth.

In Tyler Matakevich, Pittsburgh’s seventh round pick out of Temple a year ago, the team has a potential tackling machine (493 tackles in college).

  • The key word in that last sentence is “potential,” because Tyler Matakevich certainly didn’t prove much a year year ago, while playing mostly on special teams.

Rounding on the backups are L.J. Fort, a journeyman out of Northern Iowa who appeared in 14 games last season but only recorded two tackles; and Steven Johnson, a veteran the Steelers signed as a free-agent a year ago who has only started seven games in his NFL career.

Although he’s played exclusive on the outside for the Steelers, reserve OLB Arthur Moats also has experience playing on the inside and could serve as an emergency backup in a pintch.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Inside Linebacker

Pittsburgh did add depth on defense during the free-agency period, but not at the inside linebacker spot (although not for lack of trying, if press reports are accurate).Steelers 2017 Draft Needs inside linebacker

Therefore, with Ryan Shazier’s propensity for injuries early in his NFL career–he’s missed 14 of a possible 48 games over three years–and with Vince Williams’s athleticism not being quite on par with what Lawrence Timmons provided for a decade, selecting an inside linebacker in the first few rounds certainly wouldn’t be out of he question for the Steelers.

  • And what happens when/if either Vince Williams or Ryan Shazier gets injured, and the Steelers are forced to go with unproven and/or less talented players to fill the starting role?

Having Vince Williams was a luxury a year ago, but unless someone like Tyler Matakevich makes that all-important first to second year leap, the Steelers might not have that same luxury in 2017 unless they hit on a player in the draft.

Reuben Foster, a top 10 prospect out of Alabama, figures to be long gone by the time the Steelers spot comes up at 30. But some possible names to keep an eye on are Haasan Reddick out of Temple, who is projected to go in the first or second round; and Jarrad Davis from Florida, who also grades out as either a first or second round pick.

  • Finally, while Pittsburgh does have two players slated to start at the inside linebacker spot, the bottom line is the team could always use another play-maker on defense–regardless of what position he plays.

If that player happens to be an inside linebacker and his value coincides with where the Steelers happen to be drafting, it would probably be a wise choice. Given the state of their starters and backups, the Pittsburgh Steelers need at inside linebacker going into the 2017 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

 

 

 

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Why the NFL’s Impending James Harrison Casino Arm Wrestling Fine is Fine

In case you didn’t hear the news, Steelers monstrously popular linebacker James Harrison–along with many other professional football players– is facing a fine by the NFL for participating in a charity arm wrestling contest at a casino in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago. 

Since the 2010 season, when James Harrison was hit with over $100,000 in fines for multiple late hits and shots to opponents’ heads, the “James Harrison was just fined for this (insert something silly–like Colin Kaepernick not standing for the national anthem–here)” jokes have been all over the Internet.

  • When you first heard the news surrounding James Harrison’s latest fine, you may have had to check several online sources to see if this was another funny joke at No. 92’s expense.

Nope.

Not only is James Harrison casino arm wrestling escapade likely to earn him another NFL fine, but, like many in the past (anyone ever actually consider he may have been in the wrong with many of those hits?), he probably deserves to.

According to NFL.com, the league has a standing policy against players participating in promotional events at casinos, and that is exactly what James Harrison and many of his colleagues–as many as 30, all told–did when they agreed to arm wrestle in the name of charity.

Obviously, it’s pretty easy to understand why the league doesn’t allow its players to engage in promotional events at casinos–and that’s because of the often shady reputation of bookies and gamblers, and the fear that they might get their claws in one or several players, causing them to throw or otherwise alter the outcome of a football game.

James Harrison, James Harrison casino arm wrestling

James Harrison at AFC Championship game in New England. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Of course, in today’s day and age, it’s a little harder to picture a professional football player–the minimum annual salary in the  is over $400,000–being corrupted by gambling influences.

But that’s neither here nor there, and in the case of James Harrison and other NFL stars involved in the arm wrestling competition, there (a Las Vegas casino) was some place they weren’t supposed to be.

Sure you can argue, as MMQB’s Andrew Brandt has that the NFL’s policies about gambling are more than a little hypocritical – and this was even the case before the NFL decided to allow the Raiders to move to Las Vegas. That’s true, just as its true that there’s perhaps some hypocrisy on its policies about substance abuse and pain killers.

  • But the rules are nonetheless clear.

And the James Harrison casino arm wrestling escapade is a violation of that rule, just as Martavis Bryant’s continued use of marijuana is a violation of his of the rules.

So be it. Add arm wrestling to your arsenal of silly “James Harrison was just fined for this” jokes, but just know that, in this case, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Tight End Low-Moderate

A Steelers tight end group led by Ladarius Green, last year’s huge free-agent pick-up from the Chargers, and complemented by Jesse James, Xavier Grimble and David Johnson looks really great on paper.

The only problem for Pittsburgh is that the guy who should be leading the way has mostly been a spectator over the first 19 games of his Steelers career. Now was that a one-year occurance, or is Ladarius Green “Damaged goods?” How the Steelers address that question will impact their plans regarding tight ends in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Jesse James, Steelers 2017 Draft need tight end

Steelers tight end Jesse James @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Tight End Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Starter

As soon as Ladarius Green was signed to a four-year, $20 million deal last March, it was understood that he’d need a good chunk of the offseason  to heal from ankle surgery he had done in January.

So, how long would Ladarius Green need to rehab? Would he be ready by the start of OTAs or mini-camp? Surely he would be 100 percent and ready to go either at or during training camp, right?

Turns out, Ladarius Green was ready by none of the above and eventually placed on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list to start the 2016 regular season.

Seems like a lengthy recovery time for ankle surgery?

  • Maybe that’s because Green’s issues were more serious.

NFL.com reporter Aditi Kinkhabwala published an article on August 11 that speculated Green’s absence from offseason and training camp activities may have been a consequence of recurring headaches due to sustaining multiple concussions during his time with the Chargers.

There were conflicting statements from the Steelers, Green and his agent regarding this rumor, but the reality was that Green didn’t make his Pittsburgh debut until a November 13 game against the Cowboys at Heinz Field.

A little over a month later, just when he seemed to be starting to develop a field flipping rapport with Ben Roethlisberger, Ladarius Green suffered yet another concussion, when he took a shot to the head in the Steelers win against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

  • Ladarius Green didn’t play another snap the rest of the regular season and the entirety of the postseason.

Despite optimism and excitement for what Ladarius Green could add to the Steelers offense in 2017, fact is, after multiple documented concussions so far in his career, his return seems like a 50/50 proposition.

Is Ladarius Green someone the Steelers want to count on over the next three seasons?

Steelers Depth Chart @ Tight End Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–Backups 

Behind Ladarius Green is Jesse James, the third-year man out of Penn State, who actually acquitted himself quite well a season ago, catching 39 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns.

  • And in three postseason games, Jesse James proved to be a nice cog in the passing game, catching 12 passes for 159 yards.11

As for Xavier Grimble, 24, after bouncing around the league for a few years, he finally found a home in Pittsburgh a year ago, making the final roster and catching 11 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns.

Rounding out the position is David Johnson, the veteran who spent his first five seasons with the Steelers, before spending 2014 and 2015 with San Diego.

During his initial stint in Pittsburgh, Johnson was primarily used as a blocker, and nothing has changed during his second stint, as Johnson caught just seven passes for 80 yards in 2016.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Tight End 

As it pertains to the Steelers current draft needs at the the tight end position, the questions are: should they gamble on Ladarius Green coming back? Should they give the starting keys to James James if Green isn’t able to continue his NFL career?Steelers 2017 Draft Needs tight end

  • Or should they draft a tight end in the first few rounds?

Provided Martavis Bryant is able to return to football in 2017 after missing all of 2016 due to a drug suspension, the Steelers offense figures to be one of the most productive in the NFL next season–and this is even without Ladarius Green’s services.

But if the Steelers do want to add insurance to the tight end spot just in case Green is unable to fulfill his obligations, they can probably forget about O.J. Howard out of Alabama and David Njoku out of Miami, as both figure to be gone by the 30th pick.

  • What about other names such as Gerald Everett from South Alabama and Evan Engram of Ole Miss who could be possibilities in rounds two or three?

With Jesse James showing improvement in his second season, I don’t think tight end is a crucial need for the Steelers in this draft. In fact, I’m willing to go as far as to say that the draft needs status of tight end for the Steelers in the 2017 NFL Draft should be considered Low-Moderate.

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