Its Official: Steelers Sign Morgan Burnett, Safety from Green Bay Packers

The second move of free agency saw the Pittsburgh Steelers sign Morgan Burnett, a safety from the Green Bay Packers. Morgan Burnett signed a 3 year contract with the Steelers, although dollar terms of the deal have not been announced.

Morgan Burnett offers the Steelers position flexibility, as he has played both free safety and strong safety for the Packers, although Burnett is more of a strong safety.

Morgan Burnett also offers the Steelers secondary something it is lacking: Experience.

Morgan Burenett, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Packers, Steelers sign Morgan Burnett

Steelers free agent signee Morgan Burnett watches on as Antonio Brown catches deep. Photo Credit:

A recent Steelers salary cap purge saw Pittsburgh cut veteran cornerback William Gay and veteran safeties Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden. Even if there were legitimate football reasons for cutting the trio of defensive backs (there were), the Steelers eliminated over 250 games worth of experience form their secondary.

  • Morgan Burnett has started 102 games for the Packers.

It is believed that the Steelers are planning to start Morgan Burnett at free safety, which would allow Sean Davis to remain at his strong safety slot and would not require the Steelers to move Cam Sutton to safety. The move also puts J.J. Wilcox on notice that he will have to fight for both playing time and perhaps even a roster spot this summer at St. Vincents.

Morgan Burrnett has played his entire NFL career for the Green Bay, after the Packer traded up fifteen slots to pick him in the 2010 NFL Draft. For comparison’s sake, the Steelers drafted Emmanuel Sanders 10 slots later.

During his 102 starts for the Green Bay Packers, Morgan Burnett recorded 9 interceptions, forced 8 fumbles, recovered 10 fumbles and sacked the quarterback seven and a half times. Last season Burnett had 68 tackles, including 9 during the Steelers win over the Packers at Heinz Field, where Burnett forced a Le’Veon Bell fumble.

  • Not surprisingly, this second free agent signing by the Steelers addresses another area of urgent need.

Over the weekend the Steelers signed Jon Bostic, an inside linebacker who most recently played with the Indianapolis Colts. While safety and inside linebacker figure to remain high priorities for the Steelers in the 2018 NFL Draft, signing Morgan Burnett and Jon Bostic frees Kevin Colbert from the trap of reaching or drafting purely for need to fill either positions during the early rounds.

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Steelers Sign Jon Bostic, Bolstering Inside Linebacker Depth with Risk-Reward Free Agent Pickup

Oh, sometimes you’ve got to love being a blogger. So just yesterday morning Steel Curtain Rising published a missive on the first week of free agency in Pittsburgh with a lead paragraph that closed, “All Quiet on the South Side Front.” Things had been quite on the acquisition and departure front, and were expected to stay that way….

  • …And of course, within two hours of running the story news broke that saw the Steelers sign Jon Bostic, the inside linebacker most recently with the Indianapolis Colts.

Terms of Jon Bostic’s contract with the Steelers have not been disclosed, and his agreement with the Steelers contingent on him passing a physical while at Steelers facilities. The latter part is key, as it highlights the risk-reward nature of the move.

Steelers sign Jon Bostic, Jon Bostic, Knile Davis, steelers colts preseason 2017

Steelers sign Jon Bostic, ILB from Colts. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today, via Scout

Colbert, Tomlin/Steelers Learning from Ladarius Green Debacle?

Word is that two years ago when the Steelers acted to sign Ladarius Green on the first day of free agency, they did so without doing their medical due diligence.

If that is indeed true, that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin deserve to earn a big black demerit by their names as Ladarius Green ended up playing 6 games on a 4 year contract due to his concussion history and ankle injuries.

  • Clearly the Steelers brain trust is weary of Jon Bostic’s injury history.

Jon Bostic saw injuries ruin his 2015 season when he was with the New England Patriots. That led the Patriots to trade him to the Detroit Lions in 2016, but Bostic was forced to sit the year out on injured reserve. The Indianapolis Colts signed Bostic in 2017 and he started 14 games before, you guessed it, a knee injured landed him on injured reserve.

It is somewhat ironic that the Steelers would replace an injured player with another player who has a history of chorionic injuries. One has to figure that the Steelers are looking at Jon Bostic as someone to throw into the mix as opposed to someone arriving to be “the answer” at inside linebacker.

Jon Bostic’s “Upside”

Injury issues aside raise the risk to this move, Jon Bostic does look like the typical Steelers under-the radar free agent. Jon Bostic’s  career stat sheet doesn’t hint at hidden superstar ability, but it does show a solid player with some upside.

Steelers blogger Alex Kozora shared a video clip on Twitter that hints some of the update that Jon Bostic offers the Steelers. This is taken from the Steelers 2017 win over the Colts and Jon Bostic is wearing number 57:

Notice how Bostic immediately reads the play and closes into the line of scrimmage to set the edge even before Ben Roethlisberger complets the hand off, he avoids getting entangled by David DeCastro and shows excellent lateral movement as he shadows Le’Veon Bell.

  • While Bell does get to turn the corner, because Bostic is able to stop him from behind.

Assuming Bostic passes his physical, he immediately bolsters the Steelers inside linebacking corps. At a very minimum he’s a presence who can move in along side Vince Williams to press Tyler Matakevich and would also push any early round draft pick the Steelers would select in the 2018 NFL Draft with an eye towards replacing Ryan Shazier long-term.

Steelers Signing Bostic is Bad News for Spence, Timmons

The fact that the Steelers have moved to sign Jon Bostic so almost certainly rules out a Lawrence Timmons reunion. Timmons was Mike Tomlin’s first round draft pick, and a reported favorite of the head coach who departed to the Miami Dolphins last spring. Timmons didn’t like it there and even showed up at the Steelers training facility early in the season.

  • The Dolphins have since cut Timmons, leading to speculation he could return to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers aren’t going to spend their meager salary cap space on two inside linebackers. And that also likely means that Sean Spence’s second stint with the Steelers will be his last.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Jon Bostic.

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Steelers 2018 Losses in Free Agency – Chris Hubbard Might Be Pittsburgh’s Only Defection

NFL Free Agency isn’t a week old yet, but hundreds of millions, if not billions of contracts have been thrown around. Yet, as far as the Pittsburgh Steelers are concerned, its been (almost) All Quiet on the South Side Front.

The loss of Chris Hubbard as a free agent, while unfortunate, was completely expected. And as far as Steelers 2018 Free agency, are concerned, Chris Hubbard’s the only free agent defection the Pittsburgh suffers.

  • Now, is that a good thing, a bad thing or is it simply a neutral factoid?
Chris Hubbard, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers 2018 Free Agency losses

Chris Hubbard might well be only free agent defection the Steelers suffer in 2018. Photo Credit:

On the surface it seems like a bad thing. It is harsh, but fair to look at Steelers remaining unrestricted free agents, Justin Hunter, Eli Rogers Greg Ducre, Daniel McCullers, Arthur Moats, Sean Spence and Stevan Ridley and simply say, “Why would any other team be interested?” The only ones who offer much of a track record is Arthur Moats and Eli Rogers, and Rogers is injured.

  • Kevin Colbert pulled Sean Spence and Stevan Ridley off the couch as injury replacements last December.

Ridley did fairly well, Spence struggled for a couple of games, looked good in the last two regular season contests, but during the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars he did nothing to make Ryan Shazier’s absence less noticeable. But players like these typically don’t get signed until after the draft.

Daniel McCullers   phone will stay quiet unless some team suffers a series of injuries on their defensive line during preseason.

Its unlikely that any team will be willing to give up a 2nd round pick to get Chris Boswell. Anthony Chickillo might be a little more appealing because he would only cost a team a 6th round pick, but NFL general managers seem to value draft picks more than players. For comparison’s sake, the Steelers traded a 6th round pick to get J.J. Wilcox, and J.J. Wilcox had 39 starts under his belt to Chickillo’s 9.

  • The fact that the Steelers most appealing free agents are their restricted free agents speaks well of Pittsburgh’s personnel policies.

Since free agency arrived in the NFL the franchise’s focus has always been to resign players before they hit the open market. You can see that at work in two names that don’t appear above, Alejandro Villanueva and Stephon Tuitt. Last summer the Steelers inked new contracts for Alejandro Villanueva and Stephon Tuitt who otherwise would be free to sign with any other NFL team at this moment.

  • With so much going on in the rest of the NFL, it can understandably be a little frustrating to see the Steelers standing pat.

But this spring at least, the reason why the Steelers have so few free agents worthy of attracting attention from the rest of the NFL is because they’ve wise personnel decisions, not foolish ones. Ditto the reason why the Steelers salary cap situation doesn’t allow them to go on any shopping sprees.

Love it or hate it, what we’re seeing this spring is the Steelers Way in action.

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Why Not to Freak Out Over Steelers Resigning Fitzgerald Toussaint + Browns Sign Chris Hubbard

The Pittsburgh Steelers made their first move of the 2018 free agent season, and much to the chagrin of Steelers Nation it saw the Steelers resigning  reserve running back Fitzgerald Toussaint to a reported one year deal. Free agency also claimed its first victim in Pittsburgh today as the Steelers lost Chris Hubbard, when Hubbard signed a 5 year contract with the Cleveland Browns for a reported $37.5 million dollars.

  • While both moves merit mention, neither exactly qualifies as “news.”

Fitzgerald Toussaint, James Wright, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers Resign Fitzgerald Toussaint

Fitzgerald Toussaint returns a kick against the Bengals in 2016. Photo Credit: Steelers.comThe fact that the Steelers signed Fitzgerald Toussaint is perhaps a bit of a surprise, if only for its timing. Given that the Steelers called Stevan Ridely’s number as the “Next man up” behind Le’Veon Bell after James Conners got hurt against the Ravens, one might thing that resigning Stevan Ridley would be a higher priority.

  • And if Twitter reactions are any gauge, there’s not a lot of love in Steelers Nation for a new contract for Fitzgerald Toussaint.

Such reactions are understandable, but only to a point.

This site has taken heat for asserting that Fitzgerald Toussaint is a serviceable 3rd running back. But the truth is that the Steelers could do worse than Fitz Toussaint as a number 3 back. They could also do better. Perhaps they still will.

  • Since Toussaint was the Steelers first free agency signing, the easy conclusion is that the Steelers regard it as an important one.

But the easy conclusion isn’t necessarily the right one. Last year Greg Warren and David Johnson were among the Steelers first free agent signings, with Warren signing early and David Johnson signing right after the free agency started.

While details of the deal have yet to leak, it is almost a foregone conclusion that the Steelers signed Fitzgerald Toussaint for the veteran minimum, and if that’s the case he’ll certainly have to win a roster spot this summer on the field at St. Vincents and he would be ill-advised even to buy a non-refundable ticket to Latrobe.

Steelers Nation Says “Hail and Farewell” to Chris Hubbard

As our free agent focus profile of Chris Hubbard detailed, the prospect of Chris Hubbard resigning with the Steelers hardly even qualified as a theoretical possibility. Hubbard pulled himself up from an undrafted rookie free agent in 2013 and by 2017 had proven himself as a starter capable offensive tackle who delivered excellent protection to Ben Roethlisberger when called upon.

  • With all five of the Steelers offensive lineman playing under their second contracts, there hardly even a theoretical chance of bringing Hubbard back.

That’s unfortunate, because Chris Hubbard is certainly the kind of player you want on your team. Steel Curtain Rising certainly wishes Chis Hubbard the best, hopes he stays injury free and continues to play well… except for when the Browns play the Steelers!

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Surprise! Steelers Cut Robert Golden Along with William Gay and Mike Mitchell

The Pittsburgh Steelers cut Mike Mitchell and William Gay today, making official what everyone has been common knowledge for the past several days. However, the day’s news contained a surprise as it also saw the Steelers cut Robert Golden, their special teams captain and reserve safety.

Both Mike Mitchell and William Gay had been expected to be salary cap casualties, although Mitchell’s play had seen a noticeable drop in 2017 and William Gay was clearly losing a step.

  • Robert Golden’s departure  however had not been on anyone’s radar screen.
Robert Golden, Steelers cut Robert Golden, Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Ryan Shazier

Robert Golden in the Steelers 2017 home win over the Bengals. Photo Credit:

Robert Golden will save the Steelers $1,475,000 in salary cap space although he will carry a dead money charge of $416,668. The move deprives the Steelers of the man who has been their special teams captain for several consecutive seasons, and leaves the franchise with only three experienced safeties in the form of Sean Davis, J.J. Wilcox and Jordan Dangerfield.

  • It has been rumored that cornerback Cam Sutton might move to safety, and Golden’s departure makes that far more likely.

Robert Golden came to Pittsburgh as part of the 2012 undrafted rookie free agent class and he accomplished a rare feat that season by not only making the roster, but also getting snaps with the secondary as a rookie.

Indeed, going into training camp at St. Vincents during the summer of 2013 rumblings on the internet even held that if strong training camp performances by Robert Golden and Shamarko Thomas could make Ryan Clark expendable. That never came to pass.

  • And Robert Golden’s role as a reserve safety was slow to emerge as Will Allen played the proverbial “next man” up behind Clark, Mitchell and Troy Polamalu.

Golden got his first serious action at safety in 2015 in relief of Will Allen and Steelers thought enough of him to resign Robert Golden to a 3 year contract in the spring of 2016. During the 2016 season Golden became a more familiar face in the lineup by 2016. But Golden clearly struggled in the role, and his presence in the secondary was ultimately a liability.

  • Still, Golden’s role on special teams appeared to ensure a spot on the roster.

If nothing else, Robert Golden leaves Pittsburgh with a perfect 2-2 passer rating, having completed passes on fake punts in the Steelers 2014 home win over the Browns and their 2017 home win against the Bengals. For the record, Robert Golden appeared in 92 games for the Steelers, made 12 starts had 2 interceptions, forced 1 fumble and recovered 2 more.

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The Wild Ride of William Gay’s Steelers Career Comes to an End. Thank You Big Play Willie Gay!

In a long anticipated move, the Steelers cut William Gay the veteran cornerback who has served as a pillar of stability in Pittsburgh’s secondary for the last decade. In doing so they severed ties with the final draft pick from the 2007 NFL Draft, the Steelers first draft with Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at the helm.

Defensive back is a young man’s game, and William Gay will be 4 months shy of his 34th birthday on the Steelers opening day in 2018. He also carries a $1,750,000 salary that the Steeler figure to use more constructively elsewhere.

Judging by his Instagram post, he isn’t ready to being “Life’s Work” but with his time in Pittsburgh over, we now look back at the wild ride that was William Gay’s Steelers career and take a moment to say “Thank you Big Play Willie Gay.”

William Gay, William Gay Pick Six, William Gay interception, Big play Willie Gay, Steelers vs Falcons

William Gay’s 52 yard pick six vs Falcons in 2014. Photo Credit:

2007-’08 – William Gay Goes from “Trying to Survive” to Starter

With Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden topping the depth chart, cornerback didn’t figure to be a priority for Pittsburgh in the 2007 NFL Draft. After going (almost) all-in on defense by drafting Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan McBean with their first, second and fourth picks the Steelers went back to defense in the 5th round, drafting William Gay out of Louisville.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell pointed out, when questioned about an impressive preseason outing Mike Tomlin responded “William Gay’s just trying to survive!” William Gay not only survived but contributed in his rookie year, but his efforts were confined to special teams and spot duty in the secondary.

  • But it was in in 2008 William Gay began to turn heads.

Due to injuries, Gay made 4 starts at cornerback and effectively alternated with Bryant McFadden at other times. The Steelers 2008 defense was a special unit, and Gay’s played a small, yet important role in their success that culminated in Super Bowl XLIII.

William Gay played so well in 20018 that made Bryant McFadden expendable as he departed for Pittsburgh West aka Arizona.

2009 – William Gay Not Ready for Prime Time

Unfortunately, William Gay wasn’t quite ready for Prime Time.

  • 2009 proved to be a rough year not only for Gay, but for the entire Steelers secondary.

Troy Polamalu got injured in the season opener, and the Future Hall of Famer only played 4 more games that season. The rest of the Steelers defensive backfield struggled in his absence. By late November Steelers 2009 secondary was shell-shocked, and William Gay was in far enough in over his head that Mike Tomlin rotated Joe Burnett with him in the Steelers infamous ’09 loss to Cleveland.

William Gay seemed destined to become a footnote in Steelers secondary history.

2010- ’11 – Moving to the Slot Rejuvenates William Gay’s Steelers Career

Bryant McFadden’s return to Pittsburgh seemed to spell doom for Gay as it forced him into the role of slot corner. Instead the move probably rejuvenated his career. During the 2010 season, Gay led the Steelers in passes defensed and also recorded two sacks.

Going into 2011 Bryant McFadden remained the starter nod, but injuries led to Gay starting most of the season, where he defensed another 13 passes, and recorded two interceptions, including a game-clincher against Cincinnati in November.

However, with Cortez Allen on the rise (or so we thought) and Keenan Lewis showing signs of development, the Steelers opted to let Gay sign with Pittsburgh West and, once again, William Gay’s Steelers career seemed to have come to and end.

2013-’17 – “Big Play Willie Gay” Shines in His Second Steelers Act

…And like Bryant McFadden before him, William Gay’s stay with the Cardinals would only last one season. The Cardinals cut him, and the Steelers wasted little time in resigning him. Second acts with the Steelers have become a stable of the Colbert-Tomlin era, as Larry Foote, Antwaan Randle El, Byron Leftwich, Will Allen and Matt Spaeth all departed Pittsburgh as free agents only to return.

  • But Big Play Willie Gay probably had the brightest second act of any Steeler.

When the Steelers resigned William Gay in March of 2013, it was rightly interpreted as a Moneyball type move made in an effort to sort of secure a compensation prize for franchise too salary cap strapped to resign Keenan Lewis.

That may have been the case, but it was Moneyball at its best. The Steelers brought William Gay into man the slot, but Ike Taylor’s decline and Cortez Allen’s implosion led to Gay starting 52 games between 2013 and 2017.

A dispassionate analysis of William Gay’s contributions during this time would likely credit him with providing stability to a secondary staffed by plugins and accidental starters (see Antwon Blake and Brice McCain). But it was his penchant for explosive plays that earned him the love of Steelers Nation:

William Gay also had another interception returned for a touchdown negated by a penality in the Steelers 2016 win over the Bills. While he didn’t add any more pick sixes, Gay did intercept a pass against the Colts on Thanksgiving and again in 2017 in the Steelers home win against the Bengals.

As it happens to all great athletes, Father Time began gaining in the footrace with William Gay in 2016, as Artie Burns displaced him as the starter by the middle of the season, and rookie Mike Hilton took over the slot role in 2017.

There’d been talk of moving Gay to safety, and while Gay did play in a little bit of a hybrid safety-linebacker in 2017, the role never really emerged.

William Gay’s Place Among Steelers Corners + Thank You

When history ranks great Pittsburgh Steelers cornerbacks Hall of Famers Mel Blount, Rod Woodson and Jack Butler will come first followed by Ike Taylor and then probably Dwayne Woodruff. That gives Steelers Nation an undisputed top 5.

  • Should the work William Gay put on tape for the Steelers earn him a spot some where in the top 10?

Steel Curtain Rising will leave that for others to debate and decide. But there’s no disputing the fact that from 2013 until 2017 William Gay was most consistent contributor to the Steelers secondary.

He was also class act in the lockeroom and pillar of the community, and someone Steelers Nation should be proud to have had as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Thank you on behalf Steelers Nation and Good luck and God Speed Big Play Willie Gay!

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Steelers Restricted Free Agent Gambles with Anthony Chickillo and Eli Rogers are Wise Ones

While nothing is official yet, the Pittsburgh Steelers appear to have made their decisions on their restricted free agents. Yesterday word leaked that place kicker that the Steelers had placed a 2nd round restricted free agent Chris Boswell, a move that goes a long way to ensuring that Chris Boswell will be kicking in Pittsburgh in 2018.

Neither move comes as a great surprise. Anthony Chickillo has shown great promise as a backup linebacker and has improved in each year with the Steelers. With three years in the league, Chickillo has made 5.5 sacks in 38 games and just 9 starts. For comparison’s sake, that’s only a half sack less that Jarvis Jones managed in 50 games and 35 starts.

  • Anthony Chickillo has also shown that he can start at both outside linebacker slots.
Anthony Chickillo, DeShone Kizer, Steelers vs Browns

Steelers placed an original round restricted free agent tender on Anthony Chickillo . Photo Credit: David Richard, AP via

That gives the Steelers a solid “Next man up” behind Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt. The Steelers drafted Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft, which means that any team wanting to sign Chickillo would have to give up a 6th round pick to obtain his services and the Steelers would retain the right of first refusal.

  • An original round tender on a player who has as much “upside” as Chickillo carries a certain amount of risk for the Steelers, but it’s a wise gamble on their part.

No team is going to throw money at Chickillo, and if they do the Steelers can use a 6th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft as they currently do not have one of their own.

The Steelers apparent decision not to tender Eli Rogers amounts to perhaps a slight surprise, but tendering Rogers would tie up close to two million dollars in salary cap space with no assurance that Rogers would be ready for the start to the season due to the ACL he suffered in the playoff loss to the Jaguars.

  • The harsh reality is that no other team is going to make a run at signing Rogers, so there’s little incentive to protect him.

Thus far there’s been no word on the Steelers other two restricted free agents, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Greg Ducre (who? Yeah we asked that too, click here for more on Ducre) and for these young players no news is not good news as the Steelers will not (and should not) tender either man.

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You Want the Boz? Cough up a 2nd Round Pick. Steelers Tender Restricted Free Agent Chris Boswell

It is time. After close to two months rumblings, the rumors that have driven NFL story lines since the Eagles’s triumph in the Super Bowl are about to displaced by hard decisions. This includes the Steelers who are facing a number of decisions, and they have made one, albeit one with little drama.

  • Doing into free agency, there was little question as to whether the Steelers would tender restricted free agent Chris Boswell.

The only question surrounded what level tender the Steelers would offer Chris Boswell, their dependable place kicker. According to Adam Caplan the Steelers have placed a 2nd round tender on Chris Boswell:

What this means in practical terms is that the Steelers have offered a one year deal to Chris Boswell worth about 3 million dollars. If Boswell signs the tender he is bound to Pittsburgh for the 2018 season, restricted free agent tenders are not guaranteed. So the Steelers could cut Boswell, as they did to Isaac Redman in 2013 who was playing on a restricted free agent tender when the Steelers cut him in October 2013.

Chris Boswell, Chris Boswell steelers restricted free agent, Steelers vs Packers

Steelers place 2nd round restricted free agent ender on Chris Boswell. LeClarie, USA Today, via

However, Boswell is under no obligation to sign the tender and he and his agent are free to negotiate with other NFL teams. However, the Steelers would have the right to match any offer made to Boswell or, should they let him go, the signing team would have to give the Steelers a second round pick.

  • The move virtually ensures that Boswell will play in Pittsburgh during 2018.

A 2nd round pick is a lot to give up to get a kicker, although the Steelers did see New England extend an offer to Emmanuel Sanders when he was a restricted free agent in 2013, just as the San Diego Chargers did in 1993 when linebacker Jerrol Williams was a restricted free agent.

The Steelers chose to match Emmanuel Sanders offer and let Jerrol Williams walk, for those of you boning up on your Steelers free agent trivia.

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Perhaps the Pittsburgh Steelers Simply Aren’t Suited for Splash Free Agency Signings

Are the Steelers suited for splash free agency? That question came to mind when news broke late Friday that the Steelers were indeed planning to cut Mike Mitchell for salary cap reasons.

  • The impending decision to cut Mike Mitchell, paired with the Ladarius Green experiment along with an article by Simon Chester reminded me of a poem I once read.

Yes, a poem penned by Jimmy Carter (yes, that “Jimmy Carter,” but fear not, politics remains a verboten topic on this site) and told of how, when his father first succeeded in the peanut business, he mail ordered an expensive suit only to have it fit badly when it arrived. He titled the poem “Prosperity Doesn’t Suit Everyone.”

Might the same lesson apply to the Steelers and free agency, at least under Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s watch?

  • Well, it certainly feels that way now.
Mike Mitchell, Jordan Howard, Steelers vs Bears

Mike Mitchell fails to stop Jordan Howard’s touchdown. Photo Credit: Charles Palla, via Twitter

The Pittsburgh Steelers have never been big players in free agency. In the 1990’s fans would howl over the Steelers decision to devote their salary cap dollars to resigning stars like Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson and Greg Lloyd, while opting to let other teams over pay players like Yancey Thigpen and John Jackson.

The opening of Heinz Field in 2001 gave the Steelers the resources to keep more of their own players. And victories Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII validate the Steelers approach.

Yet One for the Thumb and the Lombardi Six Pack haven’t stopped fans from lamenting the fact that Dan Rooney’s team doesn’t act more like Daniel Snyder’s team the off season Lombardi race.

  • Yet, the Steelers started free agency with a bang during two of the last four off seasons.

In 2014 it meant signing Mike Mitchell to replace Ryan Clark, and in 2016 it meant signing Ladarius Green to replace Heath Miller. Both were day one, big money deals which were decidedly out of character for the franchise.

Sure, the Steelers opened free agency in 2010 by signing Antwaan Randle El, Larry Foote, Will Allen, Jonathan Scott and Arnz Battle. But those modest contracts were completely consistent with Pittsburgh’s free agency philosophy even if the timing wasn’t.

The Difference with the Mitchell and Green Signings

The signings of Mike Mitchell and Ladarius Green were different. While they certainly weren’t Albert Haynesworth break-the bank blowup the salary cap type contracts, they also weren’t the type of bargain hunting/best-bang for the buck type free agent the Steeler are known for.

  • And both Mike Mitchell and Ladarius Green were disappointments.

In his six games with the Steelers Ladarius Green delivered the “field flipping” capability that Mike Tomlin brought him to Pittsburgh to provide. But the Steelers signed him to a 4 year contract, so they were expecting another 58 games or so. Ladarius Green remains out of football either because his ankle never healed correctly, because of concussions or because of both.

  • Mike Mitchell is a little different.

Mike Mitchell earned the wrath of Steelers Nation during 2014, even though he was playing with an groin injury throughout the season. He also failed to jell with Troy Polamalu, which is why the Steelers defense closed 2014 on a high note with Will Allen starting alongside Mitchell.

In 2015 Mike Mitchell made a number of plays, including a few drive killing interceptions in the Red Zone. Mitchell didn’t make as many “Splash” plays in 2016, but his tackle and pass defensed numbers were on par with 2017.

  • Consensus by analysts both inside and outside Pittsburgh concludes that 2017 was a disaster for Mike Mitchell. He defensed a total of two passes, and his tackle count was down by more than a third.

Mitchell might unfairly get scapegoated by fans for more things than are actually his fault, but clearly he hasn’t delivered as the Steelers expected, or needed.

What Do the Mitchell and Green Disappointments Tell Us?

A few weeks ago on Simon Chester, the best writer on staff at The Steelers Wire, opined that “Steelers history with free agency far from inspiring.” It certainly feels that way now, given how badly the Ladarius Green experiment failed and how uneven Mike Mitchell’s tenure in Pittsburgh was.

Yet Chester’s analysis literally began with Greg Clark, one of the first free agents the Steelers signed and one who never saw the final roster and wasn’t overly colored by recent events.

  • Nonetheless, to declare the Steelers history with free agency as uninspiring is an over reaction.

The Steelers have acquired the services of future Hall of Famer Kevin Greene and perennial Pro Bowlers James Farrior, Jeff Hartings and Ryan Clark through free agency. They’ve also found quality starters like fullback John Williams, defensive end Ray Seals and offensive lineman like Will Wolford and Tom Newberry. And they’ve excelled at finding backups who deliver like starters when called upon, with Arthur Moats and Mewelde Moore providing recent examples.

  • But there’s a common thread to all of these free agent moves.

Almost none of them were considered “splash free agency signings.” The Steelers only signed Kevin Greene after the Chargers offered an inane one year restricted free agent tender to Jerrol Williams. The Steelers only signed James Farrior after getting wind that Earl Holmes was shopping Pittsburgh’s offer to the Browns.

In the spring of 1994, Steelers Nation was clamoring for Pittsburgh to poach Daryl Johnson and Alvin Harper  from the Cowboys — John L. Williams and Ray Seals were consultation prizes. When the Steelers drafted Anthony Smith in the 2nd round of the 2006 NFL Draft, they planned for him and not Ryan Clark, the free agent they’d signed earlier, to be the long term starter at safety.

  • Its not that the Steelers can’t hit home runs in free agency — the can and they have — but it almost seems like they’re more likely to hit them without trying.

Maybe its just coincidence, but its hard not to think of this and remember the lesson that Art Rooney Sr. tried to teach his kids when he admonished them to drive a Buick instead of a Cadillac  “Never put on the dog.”

Perhaps its a lesson his grandson would do well to remember as the Steelers approach free agency this spring.

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Success of Johnny Mitchell’s Steelers Coaching Career Defined by Names Like Tuitt, Keisel & Smith

You have to feel for Karl Dunbar, the new Steelers defensive line coach who returns to Pittsburgh finding very shoes to fill. So just how big are Johnny Mitchell’s shoes? How long of a shadow does Johnny Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career cast? Well consider this:

  • The Steelers drafted Karl Dunbar in the 8th round of the 1990 NFL Draft, and the position coach he failed to impress that summer at St. Vincents was none other than Mean Joe Greene.

And in the 28 years since, Steve Furness is the only other man besides Johnny Mitchell to hold the title “Steelers defensive line coach.” To put that in perspective, Mike Tomlin has employed four different offensive line coaches since 2007.

But longevity doesn’t define Johnny Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career. Johnny Mitchell defined his coaching career with the men he mentored and molded as defensive line coach.

Johnny Mitchell, Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell, Johnny Mitchell's Steelers coaching career

Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell at his best – teaching in the trenches. Photo Credit: Karl Roser,

Steelers Defensive Line Goes from “Boom” to “Bust” as 70’s Become 80’s

In the ‘70’s, Pittsburgh’s famed Steel Curtain, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes set the NFL diamond standard for defensive line excellence.

In the ‘80’s changed things fast. The Steelers drafted Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera, Darryl Sims and Aaron Jones all first round picks, yet undrafted rookie free agent Keith Willis and 1986 2nd round pick Gerald Williams were Pittsburgh’s best two defensive lineman during the decade.

The 90’s failed to bring better times. In the 1990 NFL Draft, in addition to drafting Dunbar, the Steelers took defensive lineman Kenny Davidson and Craig Veasey in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. When neither man was delivering during the 1991 season, a reader asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola what the problem was.

  • A resigned Labriola responded that success in the draft involved a certain amount of luck, and suggest that perhaps the Steelers luck with drafting defensive lineman had run dry.

Sometimes, when luck runs out, its best to blow everything up and start from zero.

The 90’s — Johnny Mitchell’s First Act with the Steelers

NFL position coaches don different hats. Sometimes they strategize. Other times they motivate and manage egos. They scout and evaluate talent. And they teach. Johnny Mitchell excelled at teaching and you can see it in the methodical way Mitchell revived the Steelers defensive line.

As a defensive line coach, Johnny Mitchell was known for taking you defensive lineman, stripping away everything they’d been taught in college, and building their skill sets up from zero. It would make a nice story to say that is what he did when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1994, but that’s not quite accurate.

Its true that Bill Cowher had fired Steve Furness, a firing which Furness never understood or got over, after a 1993 campaign with a defensive line that featured Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans at defensive end (recognize those names? No, well there’s no reason to.)

  • But the Steelers had picked Joel Steed in the 3rd round of the 1992 NFL Draft, and Steed was already a starter.

The Steelers had already drafted Kevin Henry in the 1993 NFL Draft, and Henry had already worked his way into the lineup. Steed’s emergence allowed the Steelers to move Gerald Williams to defensive end, and the Steelers signed Ray Seals in free agency. So Mitchell didn’t have to start from zero with the group of players he inherited.

  • But one fact stands out from that period of Mitchell’s early tenure.

Brentson Buckner made it into the starting lineup as a rookie, thanks to injuries suffered by Williams, and other than Buckner in 1994 and Casey Hampton in 2001, no rookie became a regular starter on Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line until Stephon Tuitt in late 2014.

Still, the Steelers defensive line was an undisputed position of strength of the 1994 Blitzburgh defense and remained that way for the 1995 squad that went to Super Bowl XXX.

  • The truth is that the, while never a weakness, the Steelers defensive line wasn’t as strong during the rest of the 1990’s.

To be sure, Joel Steed emerged as a Pro Bowler by 1997, but his knees started giving out on him, and those injuries certainly played a part in the late season collapses of the 1998 and 1999 Steelers. And while Orpheus Roye’s emergence in the late 1990’s was a bright spot for the Steelers and Mitchell, the end of the decade didn’t leave a lot to smile about.

But those dark days did set the stage for Johnny Mitchell’s best work.

The Year 2000 – Kevin Colbert Arrives and Johnny Mitchell Excels

Dan Rooney made changes after the Steelers 7-9 and 6-10 1998 and 1999 campaigns, both of which featured late season melt downs. Rooney fired Tom Donahoe and hired Kevin Colbert.

  • Its hard to know whether Kevin Colbert’s arrival directly or indirectly impacted him, but Johnny Mitchell’s coaching brilliance quickly became evident in the 21st century.

One of Kevin Colbert’s first moves as Director of Football Operations was to sign Kimo von Oelhoffen to replace Joel Steed. After six years in Cincinnati, von Oelhoffen could charitably be described as a journeyman. Under Mitchell’s tutelage, Kimo von Oelhoffen became a fixture on the Steelers defensive line, starting 94 games and ending his tenure in Super Bowl XL.

The summer of 2000 at St. Vincents yielded another surprise for the Steelers defensive line. A young, 6th round pick from the 1999 NFL Draft came out of nowhere to win the Steelers starting job at defensive end.

The 2001 NFL Draft brought Casey Hampton to the Steelers, giving Johnny Mitchell a nose tackle that could effectively eliminate the middle of the field from the opposing team’s running game. Casey Hampton was of course a first round pick, and its easy to credit Hampton’s talent over Mitchell’s coaching, but Hampton succeeded where so many Steelers 1st round defensive lineman had failed.

  • But if Casey Hampton was “supposed” to succeed, the same cannot be said of the Steelers next two defensive line acquisitions.

After drafting Hampton in 2001, the Steelers brought in an undrafted rookie free agent name Chris Hoke and a year later they took Brett Keisel with their 7th round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.

Chris Hoke didn’t develop into a superstar under Johnny Mitchell and didn’t even appear in a game until 20014. But over the next 8 seasons Hoke appeared in 114 games and started 18 of them and never let the Steelers defensive line down.

Brett Keisel’s story is well known. He quietly worked his way into the line up during 2002 and 2003, because a regular part of the rotation in 2004 and essentailly pushed out von Oelhoffen to become the starter in 2006.

  • Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel gave the Steelers their defensive line trio of the 3-4 era.

When reporters asked Johnny Mitchell what he would do when Smith, Hampton and Keisel retired Mitchell said he’d join them. He wasn’t entirely joking. But fortunately he didn’t have to.

Johnny Mitchell Supervises Defensive Line Rebuild

Fortunately, for the Steelers, Mitchell stuck around for the rebuild of the defensive line. Although far from a “bust,” Ziggy Hood didn’t work out as planned. But the Steelers hit a grand-slam home run in the 2011 NFL Draft when they picked Cam Heyward.

  • Three years later they did it again by taking Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

For a while they were joined by another young man who’d come to Pittsburgh as part of the 2009 undrafted free agent class. He saw his first action in the 2010 Steelers win over the Titans, and while Steve McLendon wasn’t a superstar, he did turn into a pretty solid nose tackle.

McLendon’s departure paved the way for the Steelers to draft Javon Hargrave, who like Casey Hampton before him won the starting job out of the gate. Hargrave had a spectacular rookie year, and if he suffered some growing pains in his second year, the arrow is still pointed up on the nose tackle from South Carolina.

In a word, Johnny Mitchell has left Karl Dunbar with the tools he needs to do his job. And then some.

Johnny Mitchell Transitions to True Assistant Head Coach Role

One of Mike Tomlin’s first moves after getting hired as Steelers head coach in 2007 was to add the title “Assistant Head Coach” to Johnny Mitchell’s title. But as Bob Labriola implied, that was mainly a ceremonial title that carried few responsibilities.

  • One of the surprises of the Steelers 2018 off season was that Johnny Mitchell would be stepping aside as defensive line coach and assuming the role as Assistant Head Coach full time.

Part of Mitchell’s role will be to take administrative tasks off Tomlin’s shoulders. He’s also going to help outreach efforts with former players from the Tomlin era. And word is part of his job is to give everyone “Tough Love” be it a player, an assistant coach or even Mike Tomlin himself when he sees something amiss.

  • That’s a new role for Johnny Mitchell, and a new role for the Steelers.

But if Mitchell can reproduce the results he delivered as defensive line coach, then this might just be the change that pushes Pittsburgh’s quest for Lombardi Number Seven over the hump.

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