Tomlin Gives Veterans the Bye Week Off

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has given his veteran players the entire bye week off. This move is unprecedented for a Steelers head coach, as both Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher required their players to practice for least some of the bye week, as did Tomlin during his first two years as head coach.

Surprising Move?

This move comes as a slight surprise. In spite of the Steelers 5-2 record, many aspects of the team’s performance can still be described as sloppy – two kick returns for touchdowns and two turnovers in the Red Zone in the last two games alone.

None the less, this is the Steelers latest bye week since getting the November 11th game off back in 1990, and this does give veterans a good chance to rest their bodies.

Rookies however, will be required to report on Wednesday and Thursday.

Trust in Tomlin’s Judgment

Back during training camp in 2008, Steel Curtain Rising questioned Tomlin’s liberal use of the injury report. When the playoffs arrived Steel Curtain Rising was forced to eat its own words as numerous veterans cited Tomlin’s ability to keep the team fresh for the stretch run as a key to success.

So at this juncture, it’s best to simply trust that Tomlin knows what his players need and is giving it to them.

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Willie Reid, Ryan McBean Top Steelers Cuts; Charlie Batch goes to IR

The Steelers paired their roster down to the NFL’s 53 man limit on Saturday, and the list included a few surprises.

2006 third round pick wide receiver Willie Reid topped the list, followed by 2007 fourth round pick Ryan McBean. They also cut return specialist Eddie Drummond and punter Paul Ernster.

In addition they placed quarterback Charlie Batch on injured reserve ending, which will make him ineligible to return his year. As he is in the final year of his contract, he may have played his last game as a Steeler.

The Steelers also reached injury settlements with 2008 sixth round picks linebacker Mike Humpal and safety Ryan Mundy.

The other players waived by the Steelers

Patrick Bailey, linebacker
Billy Latsko, fullback
Doug Legursky, guard
Matt Lentz, guard
Roy Lewis, defensive back
Grant Mason, safety
Jeremy Parquet, offensive tackle
Scott Paxton, defensive tackle
Jordan Reffett, defensive end
Micah Rucker, defensive end
Dezmond Sherrod, tight end
Lee Vickers, tight end
Justin Vincent, running back
Travis Williams, corner back

Assuming that the Steelers do not pick up one off of the wavier wires, the Steelers will start the season with only have two tight ends on their 53-man roster, although Mike Tomlin situationally used offensive tackle Max Starks as a third tight end in 2007.

Willie Reid had been locked in an intense battle with 2007 7th round pick Dallas Baker for the 5th wide receiver spot. Reid had performed well during preseason, leading the team in catches, and many insiders felt he had the upper hand. But during the off season Mike Tomlin had praised Dallas’ Baker’s development, but qualifying his remarks with the caveat that Baker needed to perform well with pads on. Apparently, Baker looked good enough in pads.

Roy Lewis’ departure marks somewhat of a surprise, as he had both played well and shown an ability to play both corner and safety. Expect him to be resigned to the practice squad… assuming he clears waivers.

Today’s roster moves also confirm a rather disturbing trend of poor second-day drafting on the part of the Steelers. Stay tuned for further coverage of this issue.

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Steelers Defeat Panthers to Wrap Up Preason

The Pittsburgh Steelers won a field goal kicking derby to defeat the Carolina Panthers 19 to 16, as Jeff Reed booted in a 43 yard field goal with no time remaining.

This is the second week in which Jeff Reed has kicked a field goal at the end of regulation to deliver victory for the Steelers. In fact, on the heels of his four field goal performance against the Vikings, a game in which he was the only team member to score, Reed could stake his claim to being the preseason offensive MVP.

Reed was not alone on the scoreboard tonight, as fullback Carey Davis managed to score on a six yard run.

Tonight’s victory gives the Steelers a 3-1 record in preseason, for whatever that is worth.

All eyes are now on the mandatory cuts that must come the next two days. Mike Tomlin entered the game saying that three to five roster spots were at stake, admonishing several players to make the most of their last opportunities to impress.

While final roster cuts are never easy, one of the most attention catching, and disturbing, facts is that draft picks like Ryan Mundy, Mike Humpal and even fourth round pick Tony Hills and third round pick Bruce Davis have been mentioned as possible cuts.

This is unlikely, but it is a situation that Steel Curtain Rising will be paying close attention to.

Once the 53 man roster is set, the next question will be whether the Steelers sign any of the players who are in the final year of their contracts before their self-imposed negotiation black-out period begins when they open against the Houston Texas.

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Steelers Defeat Vikings in Final Seconds

Steelers kicker Jeff Reed booted a 47 yard field goal with 4 seconds remaining to give the Steelers a 12-10 victory over the Minnestoa Vikings in the third preseason contest of the season.

The Steelers first string defense limited Minnesota’s star running back Adrian Peterson to 21 yards on 12 carries, although it allowed its fourth touchdown of the preseason.

Ben Roethlisberger completed 10 of 17 passes for 65 yards, although the pass blocking of the offensive line was poor, putting Big Ben under constant pressure. The Steelers play their final preseaon game next Thursday against the Carolina Panthers.

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Decision to Resign James Farrior Speaks to Self Confidence of Steelers Braintrust

In a move that took Steelers Nation by surprise, the Steelers announced today that they have resigned James Farrior to a five year extension worth 18.25 million dollars. Farrior had been set to become a free agent at the end of this season, but repeatedly stated his desire to remain with the team.

Drafted as an outside linebacker by Bill Parcells and the New York Jets in 1997, James Farrior signed with the Steelers in 2002 and has been a mainstay of their defense since. He’s led the team in tackles in four out of five seasons and has compiled over ten sacks in the last two season, posting 6.5 just last year.

Farrior’s signing represents a bold and clear signal that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tolmin are very self-assured in the course they are charting for the Steelers future.

The Steelers linebacking corps is one of the team’s strengths. James Harrison emerged as Pro Bowl talent in 2007, Larry Foote provides solid play at the other inside linebacker slot, and the development of Lamarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons holds tremendous promise.

This move is so bold because the Steelers have four offensive lineman who are in the final year of their contract. The offensive line is not a team strength, nor do they have much in the way of up and coming talent on the offensive line.

Farrior’s value to the team is manifest, and his dedication to conditioning and preparation is second to none. But age 33, the easy money would have had been down on Farrior becoming expendable given that Timmons is coming along so nicely, thus allowing the team to focus on resigning their offensive lineman.

Since the advent of free agency the Steelers have identified the players they feel they need to win and made concerted efforts to resign these players before they reach the open market. They have also strongly prefered to invest long-term money in players who they feel are dedicated to the team.

By signing Farrior, the Steelers make it clear: They regard him as a championship-caliber player who is essential to winning and they are committed to keeping him.

This move continues the trend established during the 2008 NFL draft. Mike Tomlin went on record after the playoff loss to the Jaguars saying that the offensive and defensive lines were priorities. Yet, he and Kevin Colbert steadfastly insisted that they were going to draft the best available athletes. Steel Curtain Rising wrote that off as attempted misdirection, but we were forced to eat our words. As the 2008 draft unfolded, lineman came off the board in droves, yet Tomlin and Colbert stuck to their guns.

Locking James Farrior up is the right thing to do. Signing a player at his age is always a calculated risk, but Farrior has been healthy throughout his career.

Farrior’s signing also dispels the argument voiced by Ed Bouchette that the Steelers are too preoccupied with the ownership restructuring to focus on extending contracts.

To that end, Steelers Nation should hope that the remainder of the off season brings further contract extension surprises with an eye toward protecting Ben Roethlisberger

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Steelers Wise to Heed Harrison, Preseason or No

James Harrison laid claim to his place in the Steelers Linebacker Legacy during the team’s 75th Anniversary pummeling of the Baltimore Ravens. As a one man wrecking crew he wreaked havoc on the Baltimore backfield with a fury seldom seen since Greg Lloyd’s departure. Now Harrison is embracing the mantel of locker room leader, and his teammates need to respond to his wake up call.

After two preseason games Pittsburgh’s first string D has allowed two touchdowns and one field goal, while only forced one three and out. As the Post-Gazette reported last Saturday, James Harrison is having none of the “its only preseason mantra.”

According to Ed Bouchette, the reining MVP threw down the gauntlet to the rest of the defense:

It’s not just going to snap around and just come soon as September comes…. You got to go out there and play these preseason games like it’s a real game, no matter how long you’re in there. And I don’t feel like we’re doing that right now.

Harrison’s point is plain: As long as you keep score, winning must be the objective.

Should Steelers Nation be concerned about the defense?

A regular reader of this blog likened preseason football to “watching the paint dry.” (No argument here, but from down here in Buenos Aires, I actually miss preseason football.)

As a rule, preseason results are meaningless, but those games are good gauges for two things:

  • Getting a look at new players

While players do “flash” during preseason only to disappear later on, you usually get a good feel for how they’re going to pan out. Think back to the 1996 preseason: It was obvious that Jahine Arnold would do little more than tease as a professional. In contrast, Carlos Emmons made a convincing case that he was going to out play his 7th round pick status.

  • Evaluating specific units

This one tricky. Preseason performance is frequently, but not always, a good indicator of a particular unit’s health.

It was painfully apparent that Joe Walton had thrown the Steelers passing game into complete disarray during the 1990 preseason. Ten summers ago Bill Cowher struggled to patch together and offensive line, and it was obvious early on that the team’s run blocking was not up to snuff. Last year special teams were a problem from the preseason to the playoffs.

However, in the 2005 preseason, the team’s four quarterbacks posted a collective 62.2 pass rating. They were led by Brian St. Pierre; Big Ben brought up the rear with a 32.8 passer rating.

Bill Cowher simply declared, “Our passing game has not been in synch all preseason.”

Everyone quickly forgot that after Ben began the regular season by completing 72% of his passes for four touchdowns and zero picks against Tennessee and Houston.

Why Harrison’s Words Are Still Necessary

On paper, barring injuries, the Steelers defense should field a stronger unit in 2008 than in 2007. LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons are posed to boost the team’s linebacking corps, and Ryan Clark’s return should boost the secondary.

What’s troubling about the Steelers defense is the nonchalant, “its only preseason” attitude the some of its players seem to be taking.

The Steelers 2007 defense lacked killer instinct. The pass rush disappeared as the season progressed, and the team gave up leads 5 times in the final minute.

The lack of a power runner and special teams snafus certainly contributed, but those things will happen. When they do, the defense must pounce.

In other words, if the defense is primed for the kill, Tyrone Carter makes a play instead of freezing with his hands on his knees as David Garrard runs 18 yards on third and short to set up the go ahead field goal in a playoff game.

Mike Tomlin is not pleased with his defense’s performance, but he does not share Cowher’s fire and brimstone style. That means that the appropriate attitude must be established from within the locker room, and as Bouchette’s article makes clear, James Harrison has taken that duty upon himself:

We’re not playing or coming out with the same attitude we come out with in the regular season. …You got to show something in the preseason. That’s why we play the damn games.

Facing the NFL’s toughest schedule and doubts about the defense’s ability to close, the Steelers defense would be wise to heed Harrion’s warning.

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Is Orpheus Roye’s Return A Red Flag?

Who says you can’t come home again?

The Steelers resigned their former 1996 sixth round draft pick Orpheus Roye. Roye left the team as an unrestricted free agent in 1999, and has played for the Cleveland Browns since then, until he was cut earlier this year.

Roye’s signing marks the team’s second personnel move on the defensive line in under five days. On Wednesday the Steelers let go unrestricted rookie free agent Kyle Clement and signed Kevin Huntley. Huntley however failed a physical, leading Pittsburgh to release him and sign Roye.

Steel Curtin Rising speculated that the Steelers might actively scourer the wavier wire in search of defensive lineman, and that’s what’s happening.

Tomlin stated in January that the team needed to get “younger and stronger” on the defensive line, yet Roye is 35. They were willing to discard an interesting rookie prospect such as Kyle Clement in favor of Huntley, who was clearly nothing to write home about. When Huntley washed out they immediately went out and signed a 35 year old.

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert are clearly concerned about the team’s defensive line. Expect more activity on this front as teams begin roster cut downs.

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Tony Hills the Next John Jackson?

Tony Hills’ name has surfaced infrequently during training camp, but when it has it is most frequently paired with John Jackson.

Tony Hills played tackle for UCLA before the Steelers drafted him in the fourth round of this spring’s draft. John Jackson was of course a tenth round pick out of Eastern Kentucky in 1988.

There was little consensus surrounding Hills when he was drafted. Some writers suggested he’d have gone higher if it were not for an injury, others questioned his toughness.

Writing in the Steelers Digest, Jim Wexell first compared the two players, remarking, “Tony Hills looks like John Jackson. He’s raw but he has a great build, long arms, and quick feet.”

  • The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Scotty Brown was less generous, declaring Hills as “a major project.”

Most recently this week the Tribune-Review’s Mike Prisuta offered that he couldn’t figure out of Tony Hills was the next John Jackson, or the next Fred Gibson — the last 4th round pick who failed to make the team.

A tenth round pick is by definition a long-shot to make the team. John Jackson had a difficult time in preseason, getting runover left and right by a young Pat Swelling in the Super Dome in the final preseason contest of 1988.

Yet Jackson made the team, and he grew into a Pro Bowl caliber left tackle. (In fact, Jackson became the highest paid lineman in football when he left via free agency in 1998 — He was grossly overpaid, but it did take the Steelers two full years to recover from losing him.)

So the Steeler press corps might be unable to make up their minds, but you’ve very well may have made up yours. What do you think?

Does Hills have long-term potential or was he a reach? Sound off in the comments section.

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Steelers Sign DE Huntley, Waive Kyle Clement

The Steelers signed former Raiders and Falcons defensive end Kevin Huntley today, and waived undrafted rookie free agent Kyle Clement to make room for him in the roster.

Huntley adds youth and depth to the defensive line, although he only played in six games for the Raiders in 2006 and five with the Atlanta Falcons.

This move ends Kyle Clement’s long-shot bid to make the Steelers roster. Clement was a stand out defensive lineman with Northwood, a Division II school in Michigan. Kyle Clement was particularly popular with the readers of Steel Curtain Rising, as several hundred of Google keyword combinations brought readers here in search of news about the underdog from Northwood.

Clement garnered few headlines during training camp. Mike Tomlin commented that the audience that witnessed the Steelers night time practice at Latrobe Stadium was probably the largest gathering the young defensive lineman had ever played before.

Clement played in last Friday’s game against the Eagles and was credited with one tackle. He sprained his knee during the game however, and Mike Tomlin had declared him out of tomrrow’s pre season contest in Toronto against the Bills prior to waiving him this afternoon.

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Mike Tomlin may be a very different coach than Bill Cowher, but there is one trait both men share: A belief in veteran back ups quarterbacks.

With Charlie Batch out 4-6 weeks due to a broken collarbone, the Steelers wasted little time choosing Byron Leftwich over Dante Culpepper to bridge the gap until Batch’s return.

This is a smart move. There’s no substitute for having and experienced man under center when your starting QB goes down.

Leftwich’s signing, along with the team’s apparent intent on not putting Batch on the injured reserve sets up an interesting roster quandary. Fifth round pick Dennis Dixon fairly well by all accounts on Friday night in relief of Batch, and the team is hoping to groom him as Ben Roethlisberger’s under study.

Batch’s injury might complicate those plans, because keeping all four men would require carrying four quarterbacks on the active roster. Waiving Dixon and putting him on the practice squad is a risky proposition – He’s a fifth round pick, but would have gone much higher were it not for a torn ACL.

There is a precedent for carrying four quarterbacks. The team did it in 1995, when they had Neil O’Donnel, Mike Tomzack, Jim Miller, and Kordell Stewart on their active roster. They did it again in 1999 when Kordell Stewart, Mike Tomzack, Pete Gonzales, and Anthony Wright were all on Pittsburgh’s 53 man roster.

Carrying four quarterbacks is considered to be quite unorthodox, but Cowher was ready to flaunt conventional wisdom twice. It will be interesting to see if Tomlin is willing to follow suit.

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