Why Defensive Line is Pittsburgh’s Top Need in 2009 NFL Draft

In our first post, Steel Curtain Rising looked at the Steelers draft needs visa-vi the offensive line. We concluded while the O-Line was a pressing issue, Pittsburgh’s need there is not overriding.

There are reasons for this, which we discussed in depth. The Steelers need at defensive line supplies one more compelling reason. Before delving into that, let’s give the other side of the argument its just due.

The Case for Not Favoring the Defensive Line in the 2009 NFL Draft

Taken at face value, the idea that the Steelers should be more worried about drafting players for the defensive line as opposed to the offensive line is almost laughable.

Mention the names Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig, Darnnell Stapelton, and Willie Colon to your average NFL fan and you’ll likely get a quizzical look.

Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, and Aaron Smith are not going to get their pictures on the cover of Time Magazine the way a certain other Steelers starting Super Bowl defensive linemen did, but Hampton and Smith have been to the Pro Bowl.

Keisel does not get the press that the other two get, but he’s certainly one of the most underrated 3-4 defensive ends in the game. Brett Keisel simply gets it done.

The Steelers not only have a quality front three, but their depth is decent. Chris Hoke has shown that he can step in and ensure that the Steelers do not lose a beat with him playing at nose tackle.

  • Do not underestimate that by any stretch of the imagination.

If you want to really appreciate what that means, think back to how the Steelers run defense (not to mention their entire defense) collapsed during the second halves of the 1998 and 1999 seasons when an injured Joel Steed played at far less than 100%.

On either end, Nick Eason and Travis Kirchke both showed that they could step up when called upon. Eason in particular seems to have benefited from working under the tutelage of Johnny Mitchell, Dick LeBeau and Mike Tomlin.

While the line is aging, it is not too much of a stretch to say that the Steelers can expect top performance out of these men for at least another year, if not two. (Should they stay healthy.)

The argument then follows that, Mike Tomlin’s banishment of the word “repeat” notwithstanding, a defending Super Bowl Champion should focus on players who can make the greatest immediate imipact, and it’s very hard for a rookie defensive lineman to enter the Steelers 3-4 system and contribute right away.

Therefore, it would be imprudent for the Steelers to focus premium picks on defensive linemen.

The Case in Favor of Putting the Defensive Line as Top Priority

While the anti-defensive line arguments are strong, they fall short of being compelling.

The Steelers rarely, if ever, think short term. It’s not a part of the Steelers mentality. When you take that into consideration, the needs at defensive line become more urgent.

  • Aaron Smith just turned 33
  • Casey Hampton will be 32 on opening day.
  • Brett Kiesel will be 31 before nary a quarter of the 2009 season has passed.

What about thier back ups?

  • Travis Kirschke is 35.
  • Chris Hoke is 31.
  • Nick Eason is the baby, at 29.

And don’t forget, these back ups have Jordan Reffert and Scott Paxson waiting in the wings behind them.


Point made.

As opposed the offensive line, the Steelers do have an established group of quality starters. They also have some decent back ups. But unlike their counter parts on offense, there is no maturing talent on the defensive line.

The Steelers have not drafted a defensive lineman higher than the fourth round since 2001, when they took Casey Hampton. Their last two fourth round picks, Ryan McBean and Orien Harris, were complete wash outs. Neither Shaun Nua (7a. 2005) and Eric Taylor (7, 2004) followed Brett Keisel’s footsteps in blossoming into a starter.

With a large number of veterans in the final year of their contracts plus the uncertainty of the NFL’s labor situation, the Steelers roster is going to undergo some significant changes in the next few years.

Change isn’t necessarily bad. Take a look at the line ups for Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII and you’ll surprise yourself at the amount of turnover between the two.

  • The argument that a defensive lineman cannot contribute now so don’t draft one with a window on another Super Bowl open is a valid one, but it’s wrong.

It will take time to develop a quality defensive lineman to replace any of the Steelers starters. Or their back ups. And free agency and/or injury & age dictate that the Steelers are going to need several new players on the defensive line. Perhaps not in 2009, but certainly by 2010.

Definitive Word on the Steelers Defensive Line and the 2009 NFL Draft

Behind the starters and established back ups on the offensive line, the Steelers have Doug Legursky, Jeremy Parquet, Jason Capizzi and Tony Hills. Don’t expect to see those names on a Pro Bowl roster anytime soon.

But it is certainly plausible that by the end of training camp 2009 Steeler coaches will be able to look at least one if not two of those players and say, “he’s young and he’ll be a capable back soon enough.”

  • You can’t say that about the defensive line.

So if the Steelers get a shot at a big time offensive lineman in rounds 1-3 and there are no comparable defensive lineman on the board, then they should take the offensive player.

But if two prospects are rated equally, then defensive lineman should take precedence.

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Hines Ward, Gary Russell Make News in Steelers 2009 OTA’s

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are not set to have their annual pre-draft conference until this afternoon, but the Steelers 2009 OTA’s are already yield some news.

Is Hines Ward Intent on Staying in Put in Pittsburgh?

Hines Ward is entering the final year of his contract, and is taking a very different attiude this time around. The last time he faced this situation, in 2005, he held out for the first half of training camp. Don’t expect a similar performance this time.

When asked about this contract, he told the Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette this:

The contract, we’re just going to play and whatever happens happens. I want to be a Steeler . . . I don’t want to put on another uniform. I’m late in the game now to worry about it. You look at all the previous players who went on and played for other places. I learned a lot from Jerome [Bettis], what he did. I want to go down in Steelers history to be one of the better wideouts to wear the black and gold.

Ward certainly does not sound like a man who has plans to go anywhere.

Last week, Steel Curtain Rising pointed out a comment made by Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest about Ward’s possible retirement to suggest that perhaps the Steelers Digest editor had information that either the Steelers or Ward himself, were contemplating retirement for number 86 at the conclusion of 2009.

Colbert [sort of] Explains Release of Gary Russell

Kevin Colbert also stated that Gary Russell was waived in order to make salary cap room for Charlie Batch…. Ok.

Kevin Colbert certainly knows the Steelers salary cap numbers better than Steel Curtain Rising does, but his explanation does not make sense.

  • If the Steelers needed cap space then why cut Gary Russell, who was seeing his role expanded, and not Cary Davis, who had seen his role retrenched?
  • If the Steelers are so desperate for cap space that they need to cut second year players, then who else is slated for the copping block when it comes time to sign the draft picks?

If the Steelers do do something like cut Larry Foote to free up cap space, then you’ll know Colbert is shooting straight. But if the Steelers don’t make major salary-cap related moves after the draft, that’s a pretty strong indicator that there were other factors motivating the team’s decision to part ways with Gary Russell.


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Steelers 2009 Draft Needs – The Offensive Line

We need to get younger and stronger on both the offensive and defensive lines.” – Mike Tomlin, January 2008

Mike Tomlin issued that semi-solemn declaration at the end of  Steelers 2007 season, and everyone agreed.

Opposing defenders had pummeled Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers had been forced to rely on gadget plays in a critical goal-line situations, and the defense became a shell of its former self after Aaron Smith was lost for the year.

Going into the 2008 draft, everyone knew the Steelers would target lineman of both stripes. Yeah, the Steelers insisted they would “take the best player available,” but Steel Curtain Rising implored readers to ignore this. The Steelers would certainly do what was necessary to bolster the lines.

We were wrong.

Premium lineman came of the board at a furious pace in both the first and second rounds of the 2008 draft, and the Steelers took advantage of that to pick Rashaard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed.

They didn’t pick a linemen until the nabbed Tony Hills in the fourth round, and Pittsburgh went the entire draft without selecting a defensive lineman.

After going through a draft where they seemingly ignored their most urgent needs, the Steelers then promptly went out and won Super Bowl XLIII.

  • That was then, this is now.

Having Lombardi Trophy number six in hand has not changed the simple fact that the Steelers most urgent needs remain offensive and defensive line. (Wide receiver and defensive back are also needs which Steel Curtain Rising will discuss later this week.)

  • The question remains, which line takes higher priority?

Thus far, Steel Curtain Rising’s readers favor the offensive line by almost a 60-40 margin. There are arguments for and against on both sides, which we explore now, starting with the offensive line.

The Case for Favoring the Offensive Line in the 2009 NFL Draft

Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig, Darnell Stapelton, Willie Colon. Has a more maligned front five ever led its team to a Super Bowl?

Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times, and knocked/taken out of three games. Ben is gifted with ability to make things happen with his feet. But his gift does not alter stark reality too often he’s had no choice but to run for his life.

Going into 2008, one of the line’s supposed saving graces was that for all of the punishment that Roethlisberger took in 2007, the Steelers had a dominate rushing game, and Willie Parker led the NFL in rushing until he got injured in week 16.

The same cannot be said of 2008. Either by injury, line play, or perhaps Arian’s play calling, the rest of the NFL lost its fear of the Steelers once vaunted running game in 2008.

  • How many times did Willie Parker, Mewelde Moore, or Gary Russell fail to punch it on the goal line?

The Steelers entered free agency with five lineman becoming free agents. Fortunately, that number will go down next year. They’ll only face the prospect of losing both tackles and their center.

Given all of that, the urgency of focusing on the offensive line above all else should be obvious…. Or is it…?

The Case Against Favoring the Offensive Line in the 2009 NFL Draft

Standing on the dais in Tampa with Lombardi Number Six in his hands, Ben Roethlisberger perhaps said it best:

“Offensive Line, who’s laughing now?”

  • The truth is that the Steelers offensive line still might not scare anybody, but there’s no doubt that they got better as they year wore on.

As number of commentators have pointed out, the Steelers started 2008 with a rebuilt offensive line (new center, new starting guard), and then were forced to rebuild it after decimating injuries in the Baltimore and Jacksonville games.

Max Starks has shown he can play. On lookers will never confuse Chris Kemoeatu with Alan Faneca but the Steelers could do worse. Justin Hartwig was a clear upgrade over Sean Mahan at center. Darnell Stapelton didn’t play poorly for someone who entered the league as an undrafted rookie free agent. Willie Colon still hasn’t stopped people from insisting that his natural position is guard, after two years as a starter, Steeler coaches prefer to demure.

The Steelers will also bring back Trai Essex, who can play both guard and tackle. They also have last year’s 4th round pick Tony Hills. Considering that Hills did not get into a game in 2008 it would be folly to expect too much of him, but it’s also foolish to count him out.


Remember this: In 1999 there was another fourth round pick who only saw action in 6 games as a rookie, and had little expected of him heading into his sophomore season. That player blossomed into a starter and a Pro Bowler.

His name is Aaron Smith. Steel Curtain Rising is not predicting that the same will happen with Tony Hills, but stranger things have come to pass.

Steelers Bottom Line in 2009 on the Offensive Line

Up until the final years of the Bill Cowher regime the Steelers seemed to have an unofficial policy to use a premium pick on an offensive lineman.

The last time they picked an offensive lineman in the top three rounds it was Trai Essex in 2005. They must discard this patchwork offensive line building strategy, and they must do so starting with this draft.

But the Steelers do have some depth and some youth going for them on the offensive line. Steel Curtain Rising will take a look at the Steelers defensive line draft needs soon, but for the moment we’ll offer that the same cannot be said for the defensive line.

Comparing what we have on both lines, the offensive line has the greatest potential to grow, and this group of players has already shown they’ll do the work needed to make that happen.

If the Steelers get a shot at a blue chip offensive lineman with one of their premium picks, they should take him. But of the two lines, the offensive line is the less pressing need, if only slightly so.

Thanks for visiting. Steel Curtain Rising will profile the Steelers 2009 draft needs.

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Steelers Cut Gary Russell

In what amounts to a minor shock, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is announcing that the Steelers have waived reserve running back Gary Russell.

Gary Russell joined the Steelers as an unrestricted rookie free agent in 2007. During training camp he drew comparisons to Barry Foster for his low center of gravity and power rushing style, but played sparingly during the 2007 regular season.

After carrying seven times in 2007, he saw his role increased in 2008, which is why this move is so surprising.

Why Cut Gary Russell Instead of Cary Davis?

Why would the Steelers cut Gary Russell? Taken at face value Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s decision to cut Gary Russell is perplexing.

Russell’s overall numbers are not that impressive, 28 carries for 77 yards, which amounts to a 2.8 average. But during mid-season Russell appeared to have carved out a niche for himself as a short yardage specialist, and a kick returner.

  • Gary Russell also flashed during the Jacksonville game that he was capable of doing damage in the open field.

By mid-season Russell established himself as the team’s “go to back” in goal line and short yardage situations, and did quite well for himself. In fact, during November, Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain argued that Russell’s role with the rushing offense should have been expanded even more (and Steel Curtain Rising concurred.) Gary Russell scored three touchdowns in the regular season, and scored the first and only rushing touchdown for the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII.

Russell was not the Steelers only undrafted rookie free agent running back pick up in 2007. He joined the team with Cary Davis, who eventually replaced starting full back Dan Krieder.

That was 2007. In 2008, when the Steelers found themselves without Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall, it was Cary Davis who got the nod at running back. But as the season progressed, Cary Davis found himself phased out in favor of Sean McHugh, while Russell got the work in short yardage.

Possible Explanations for Steelers Cutting Gary Russell

As Ed Bouchette reported, the Steelers gave no reasons to explain Russell’s release. That leaves Steelers Nation wondering.

Did they simply feel they were set with Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Parker back to health and Mewelde Moore behind them? As an undrafted free agent, Russell’s salary almost certainly was not an issue, and if so why him and not Davis?

Could it be because of off the field issues – disciplinary issues kept Russell from playing more than two years at the college level? In all fairness to Russell, Steel Curtain Rising is not suggesting off the field issues were the Steelers motive, we have no information to that effect, we’re merely asking the question.

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Steelers Resign James Harrison

Both ESPN.com and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have announced that the Pittsburgh Steelers have reached an agreement to extend the contract of NFL Defensive Player of the year James Harrison.

Resigning James Harrison was the Steelers top off season priority, and while negotiations have been complicated by the intricacies of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, an agreement was reached today.

The reported terms of the contract are for 6 years and 51 million dollars, with about 20 million in signing bonuses and other guarantees.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneeers Sign Byron Leftwich

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers sign Byron Leftwich ending speculation that Steelers reserve quarterback might stay in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers brought in Bryon Leftwich when Charlie Batch went down in preseason, and Leftwich performed well in three games in relief of Ben Roethlisberger.

For a time it appeared that Leftwich might return to the Steelers, as he initally drew little interest on the free agent market. But Tampa Bay was willing to give him a chance to start, and hence he opted to sign with them.

Leftwich’s departure makes it more likely that the Steelers will resign Charlie Batch to be Ben Roethlisberger’s back up in 2009.

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Steelers Sign Keyaron Fox

The Steelers signed another unrestricted free agent, and like the rest of them, this one happened to be a Pittsburgh Steeler (Steel Curtain Rising was in error ten days or so ago when we said they had no more left to sign.)

This time it was back up linebacker and special teams player Keyaron Fox. Fox was signed last year to a one year deal after having played from 2004 to 2007 for the Kansas City Chiefs. In Kansas City, Fox appeared in 40 games and made four starts recording 1 sack.

  • During the Pittsburgh Steelers 2008 season, Keyaron Fox appeared in 13 games and made 11 tackles.

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported that he got a 1.8 million dollar contract for two years, but his signing bonus is only $380,000. A number of weeks ago Ed Bouchette announced that they were close to resigning Fox, but this was that week that saw the Steelers sign Keyaron Fox.

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Byron Leftwich to the Redskins?

Steel Curtain Rising speculated, long before the major Pittsburgh papers, (well, ok, only one day before) that should Bryon Leftwich fail to secure a solid offer to start somewhere else, he might very well decide to remain a back up in Pittsburgh.

  • It now appears that Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder will test that hypothesis.

Earlier this week the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the Steelers were hoping to sign both Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich, but that Leftwich was in talks with another, unnamed team.

Now we know the name of that team, and it is the Washington Redskins, as Leftwich worked out with the Redskins last Friday.

Bryon Leftwich a Hometown Hero?

Byron Leftwich is a Washington DC area native, and was boyhood fan of the team. Like most kids, he grew up dreaming of playing for his hometown team. Later he admitted to the Washington Post’s Michael Wilbon that playing against them, as he did when the Steelers defeated the Redskins last season on Monday Night Football, was the next best thing.

For the moment we can only speculate if the possibility of winning another Super Bowl with the Steelers outweighs the possibility returning to Washington as a native son.

What Exactly is Daniel Snyder Thinking, Anyway?

Its been confirmed that the Redskins, tried, and failed, to land Jay Cutler in a trade. This transpired despite the fact that Jason Campbell has been steadily growing into a quality NFL quarterback. Campbell threw for over three thousand yards last year, completed 62% of his passes, and had a quarterback rating of 80.4%.

One has to wonder, if Snyder is willing to ditch Campbell as his starter, is he also enticing Leftwich to come to Washington with the promise of competing for a starting spot? A Washington Post article cited an unnamed Redskins source saying that Leftwich was being recruited exclusively as a back up.

Still, its not hard to imagine Snyder making such a pitch. Such an overture, direct or indirect, would be a slap in the face at Jason Campbell and could easily disrupt the chemistry of the Redskins locker room, not that Daniel Snyder has ever let that stop him before. (For the record, the same article said that Campbell was aware of the Leftwich workout, and was completely OK with it.)

It says here that Leftwich should do what is in the best interests of his career. But along those lines, he’d be wise to consider the differences of playing for a team run by Dan Rooney (or Art II as the case may be) and one run by Daniel Snyder.

If Leftwich does sign with the Redskins, the Steelers will most certainly move to get Charlie Batch under contract.

Thanks for visiting. You can trace the Steeler free agent moves via our Steelers 2009 free agent focus.

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John Stallworth Joins Steelers Ownership Group

John Stallworth has proven that you can come home again. The Rooneys revealed their new investors at the conclusion of the NFL’s spring owners meeting, and they made good on their promise that this latest investor group would contain “one very recognizable name.”

Stallworth is the CEO and President of Genesis II and for twenty years was the owner of the Madison Research Corporation, a company that did business with NASA and the US military.

As John Stallworth joins the Steelers ownership group he is accompanied by other new partners who include:

  • Bruce V. Rauner, chairman of GTCR Golder Rauner, LLC
  • the Varischetti family of Brockway, Jefferson County.

These men join the three investors named last December, they are:

  • James A. Haslam III who is president of Pilot Travel Centers, the nation’s leading retail operator of truckstops and travel centers
  • Robert A. Paul, 70, who is the chairman and CEO of Ampco-Pittsburgh, a specialty steel manufacturer headquartered Downtown Pittsburgh.
  • Hollywood movie producer Thomas Tull, whose producing credits include Superman Returns and Batman: The Dark Knight.

The Surprise We’ve Been Waiting For

Since the news of the Steelers ownership restructuring broke last July, both Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II announced that they were lining up investors to help them buy out the other four Rooney brothers, and promised early on that their new partners would include recognizable names.

When the announcement of the first three investors last December contained some interesting personalities, particularly Tull, a noted Steelers fanatic, but the Hollywood blockbuster movie maker’s name is hardly on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

John Stallworth’s is. Players from the Super Steelers have made a concerted effort to stay connected with the team, yet this is the first instance of one actually becoming an owner. It is a novel, but most welcome trend.

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Steelers Resign Trai Essex, Fernando Bryant and (the other) LB Harrison

The Pittsburgh Steelers continue to pay homage to the old adage “dance with the ones the brung you.” The defending Super Bowl Champions announced this week that they had resigned two more of their own players.

They inked reserve tackle/guard Trai Essex to a two year two million dollar contract, and they agreed to terms with reserve veteran Fernando Bryant for one more year.

This comes on the heels of their decision to resign a linebacker named Harrison. No, they are still negotiating with James Harrison, but the have agreed to terms with back up linebacker Arnold Harrison, who spent 2008 on injured reserve.

The Ones that Got Away

The Steelers apparently had interest in signing the only two free agents that they have entertained at their South Side complex. Last week they brought in both Joey Galloway and Chris Carr for workouts, and tendered offers to both of them.

Alas, neither negotiation was successful as Chris Carr signed with the AFC North Division Rival Baltimore Ravens and Joey Galloway signed with Conference Rival New England Patriots.

Analysis of the Moves

As Steel Curtain Rising predicted last month, Trai Essex did not attract a lot of interest in the free agent market, which meant that the Steelers will able to bring him back for a very modestly valued contract.

Trai Essex is never going to be the kind of player the Steelers thought they were getting when the picked him in the third round of the 2005 draft. Nonetheless, Essex has serviceable skills, can play both guard and tackle, and is a solid backup on an offensive line that begs for depth.

Fernando Bryant’s resigning is a little of a surprise. He joined the team when Desha Townsend and Bryant McFadden were injured in mid-November, and only played two games. He does give the team a veteran presence, but he did not even suit up since November 20th.

  • Bryant certainly did not get much if any guaranteed money, and will certainly find himself fighting for a roster spot in Labrobe.

Arnold Harrison’s signing is perhaps also a slight surprise. Harrison joined the team in 2005 as an undrafted rookie free agent. He was cut in training camp but spent the year on the team’s practice squad. He returned in 2006 and even started two games in place of injured Joey Porter and was having a strong year on special teams until injuring his knee against Oakland.

He continued to play and make contributions throughout 2007 as a special teams player and reserve linebacker. He was injured in training camp during 2008, and did not play during the regular season. He’s got a good track record on special teams, and could develop into an interesting back up at linebacker.

Thanks for visiting. Check out our Steelers 2009 Free Agent Focus.

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