Watch Tower: Is Mike Tomlin’s Personnel Decision Making Authority Less than Thought?

Just how much authority does Mike Tomlin have on Pittsburgh Steelers personnel decisions?

  • Fans debate this question tooth and nail, but the irony is that, most in Steelers Nation lack any insight whatsoever into how much sway Tomlin holds in personnel decisions.

The Colbert-Tomlin drafts clearly have a different character than the Colbert-Cowher drafts. Mike Tomlin’s thumbprints were all over the arrivals of Sean Mahan and Allen Rossum in 2007 and Mewelde Moore in 2008. But beyond that, the public knows little of how big of a seat Tomlin holds in Pittsburgh’s personnel pow-wows.

Until now.

Behind the Steel Curtain’s Dani Bostic recently caught up with Isaac Redman, he of “Redzone Redman” fame and stumbled across a potentially earth shaking insight into Tomlin’s authority over personnel matters.

After detailing the nature of Redman’s injury, and the team’s seeming unwillingness to take it seriously, Redman dropped the following bombshell on Bostic:

Mike Tomlin caught up to him as the star running back was leaving for his appointment. “We’re going to release you. I tried fighting for you,” Tomlin said. Redman was stunned, even more so when he realized they were releasing him healthy instead of putting him on the injured reserve where he could have continued to receive a paycheck. [Emphasis added]

There are two ways to take Tomlin’s admission that he tried in vain to fight for Redman:

It it could be simple coach speak, and an attempt to soften the impact of bearing bad news by implying that responsibility lie elsewhere. That’s certainly plausible.

But it is equally possible that Tomlin really did wish to retain Redman, but got overruled. And there is precedent here. Shortly before the 2013 season the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Mark Kaboly lobbed this grenade regarding Jonathan Dwyer’s getting cut:

Regardless, between Kaboly’s Tweet and Dani Bostic’s story on Redman, we now have two documented cases of players being released over the objections of coaches in 2013.

We also know that this is a sharp contrast from the days when Bill Cowher wore the headset. Shortly after Jerome Bettis published The Bus: My Life in and out of a Helmet, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola quickly debunked one of Bettis chief revelations – namely that Jon Witman had edged out Tim Lester at fullback because like Witman, Steelers running back’s coach Dick Hoak had gone to Penn State.

Bettis was wrong, as Labriola insisted, because Bill Cowher had say over those types of personnel matters and wasn’t shy about reminding people.

  • At the very least, it would seem that Mike Tomlin does not wield that kind of clout.

None of this suggests that Mike Tomlin is either a pushover or is powerless when it comes to personnel decisions. In fact, it is well documented that when the Patriots offered Emmanuel Sanders a restricted free agent tender, the front office was content to take the 3rd round draft pick and let Sanders walk, but the coaches pushed back and won the day.

  • But it underlines the reality that the dynamics behind the Steelers personnel decisions remain a mystery.

As the Watch Tower commends Dani Bostic on her scoop, it again encourages the credentialed members of the Steelers press corps to lift the lid on how Steelers personnel decisions are made.

Coolong Joins Kovacevic @ DK on Pittsburgh Sports

As the Steelers roster goes, so goes the press room? It certainly seems that way. The Steelers have experienced tremendous roster turnover over the past few seasons, and the press room appears to be catching up.

As the Watch Tower has noted, first Alan Robinson and then Scott Brown disappeared from the Pittsburgh Tribune Review and ESPN.com beats. Moreover, both men’s disappearance was Stalin-like in passing, as no announcement was ever made – both men simply stopped contributing.

  • However, their seats will not get cold anytime soon.

Neal Coolong, formerly of Behind the Steel Curtain, and more recently USA Today’s Steelers Wire, has joined Dejan Kovacevic at DK on Pittsburgh Sports. This is Coolong’s second move in only the space of a few months, but this is a definite step up the professional ladder, as Coolong finally has credentials, and will cover the Steelers on a daily basis (full disclosure, yours truly is a friend of Coolong’s and who has been a strong supporter of Steel Curtain Rising in general and the Watch Tower specifically.)

On his website Dejan Kovacevic explained the decision to add Coolong to his team:

He’s a gifted, prolific and richly communicative writer, very much in the spirit we’re trying to establish at our site. And he’s got all the news sense and aggressiveness any reader would want in a beat writer.

The Watch Tower agrees and offers its congratulations to its friend Coolong and wishes him the best.

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Keenan Lewis Returns to Pittsburgh; Should the Steelers Have Kept Him?

Keenan Lewis returns to Pittsburgh with the Saints this weekend, which begs the question – should the Steelers have kept him?

  • The answer doesn’t require a lot of football wisdom, nor does one need the proverbial “20/20 hindsight to answer it.”

The answer was crystal clear in during the Steelers 2013 off season – in a perfect world the Steelers should have and probably would have resigned Lewis.

The Steelers drafted Lewis in the 3rd round of the 2009 NFL draft, but his first year in Pittsburgh was lost to injury. Lewis struggled in his second year, but under the tutelage of Carnell Lake, Lewis showed signs of life in 2011, and had a breakout season in 2012.

Ike Taylor had played well in 2012, but was already pushing 33 in a position that is decidedly a young man’s game.

  • In pure football terms, bringing back Lewis would have been a no-brainer.

The problem was the Steelers only had 2 million dollars in salary cap space, the 4th worst in the NFL. To gain breathing room the Steelers needed to restructure multiple contracts, and cut James Harrison and cut Willie Colon.

  • This forced Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan to delve into the NFL’s variant of “Dollar Ball.”

They resigned William Gay and they placed their faith in the development Cortez Allen, who in just 3 starts accounted for six turnovers.

Personnel success in the salary cap isn’t about simple talent evaluation, its about getting the best bang for your salary cap buck. By signing Gay instead of even more painful salary cap cuts needed to make an offer to Lewis, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomin gambled that they’d come out ahead.

As Keenan Lewis returns to Pittsburgh, its time to put that decision under the microscope

Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, Ike Taylor and William Gay Compared

keenan lewis, cortez allen, ike taylor, william gay, steelers, saints, pittsburgh, new oreleans

Lewis, Allen, Taylor and Gay Compared, 2012-2014

Keenan Lewis had a very strong year in 2013 for the Saints, coming down with four picks and 1 forced fumble. There’s an irony there, because the word was the Steelers brass favored Allen precisely because he was better at creating turnovers.

Allen, for his part has four picks between 2013 and 2014, and had an equal number of passes defensed in 2013. Still, those numbers do not indicate his struggles, particularly in this year where he’s been so bad he got benched.

  • However, judging by the numbers, here in 2014 Lewis play has dropped off. He’s got only 1 interception and as many passes defensed as Allen.

Ike Taylor struggled in 2013 in ways the numbers don’t show. Here in 2014 he played well vs. Baltimore and was strong vs. Carolina, but has been hurt since then. While its no indictment on him as a player, you don’t get much for your salary cap buck when your guys are in street clothes on the sideline.

  • William Gay presents the most interesting case of all four.

With a cap number of 1.6 million, Gay is easily the cheapest of the four and perhaps his production has been the most consistent. Gay’s had 2 pick sixes this year, another in 2013, and while his pass defense numbers don’t look good, he made a key stop vs. Cleveland in the opener.

So as Keenan Lewis returns to Pittsburgh, it is still fair to say the Steelers should have signed him, but its also fair to say that in salary cap terms they’ve managed well nonetheless – although that analysis could change in future years. It is an open question as to whether Allen rebounds from a bad 2014, but his salary cap number is headed up regardless.

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Off the Market: Cameron Heyward to Stay in Pittsburgh in ’15, Steelers Pickup 5th Year Option

During the last two off seasons Steelers Nation has renewed its acquaintance with the phenomena of free agent defections. Keenan Lewis blossomed into a star and was gone. The Steelers investment in training and development of Al Woods went up on smoke. Jerricho Cotchery bolted for Carolina.

  • But the Black and Gold faithful can lay their minds at ease that Cameron Heyward’s name will not be in play next year.


As expected, the Pittsburgh Steelers have exercised their 5th year option on 2011’s first round draft pick, Cam Heyward. The option will pay Heyward 6.969 million dollars and is guaranteed.

Heyward’s development was slow, although it’s a legitimate question as to why he was not pushing Ziggy Hood for more playing time if not the starting role in 2012. Nonetheless, he remained a backup until the Steelers 0-4 start, which saw Mike Tomlin promote him to the starting role. And indeed, Heyward gave Steelers Nation something to be thankful for last fall, as he seized the reigns and making splash play after splash play.

As a high schooler, I desperately wanted the Steelers to draft Pitt’s “Iron Head” Craig Heyward, Cam’s father, but the Steelers passed on him, taking Aaron Jones instead. (Think Chuck Noll and Dick Haley would have liked to have had that one back.) “Iron Head” never got to play in Pittsburgh, but his son will remain there for another year.

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Steelers Nation Looks Back to ’13 as Steelers Focus on 2014….

Defining the NFL “end” and “beginning” today is difficult, but as Behind the Steel Curtain Editor Neal Coolong observes, the league’s annual scouting combine signals the beginning of the 2014 cycle.

So as the Pittsburgh Steelers pivot into full 2014 off season mode, its only appropriate to pivot back and take one last look at the year that was 2013 for the Steelers.

Queuing Up for Change – And a Lot of It….

The 2013 off season offered Steelers Nation change and turnover like few before it. Kevin Colbert vowed a roster shakeup after an 8-8 season and delivered as veterans and rookies from the top to bottom of the roster departed.

  • The process, however, followed anything but a straight line.

The defections of Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Mundy slammed shut the coffin of the 2008 disaster draft. But Pittsburgh simultaneously launched a 2007 draft reclamation project by resigning Matt Spaeth and William Gay, while getting a compensatory pick for having lost Gay, (who himself was a compensatory pick,) a year earlier.

New England made a run at Manny Sanders. Except they didn’t. Then they actually did. Word was management would let Sanders walk, but then they didn’t. Steelers parted ways with Super Bowl veterans Willie Colon and Max Starks; Colon because he was too oft injured and not suited to cut blocking, and Starks because he wouldn’t accept back up money.

Colon ended up starting 16 games for the Jets, whereas Starks got cut before opening day, got picked by the Rams and cut after 2 games.

  • As they say on Wall Street, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

In training camp the pundits in the press were ready to pronounce Le’Veon Bell the next Franco Harris (yes, Ed Bouchette compared his debut’s to Franco’s) before he even had a carry in preseason. In fact, he missed most of preseason with a Lisfranc injury, which were in vogue in Latrobe, with Matt Spaeth getting the Lisfranc fad started act too.

That’s how the Steelers luck ran. Before their fourth game, the Steelers had placed four players on injured reserve – the fourth preseason game that is. (Yes, that’s Nik Embernate, Plaxico Burrres, Nick Williams, DeMarcus Van Dyke. The number goes up if you count undrafted rookie free agents.)

Mike Tomlin shrugged off the 0-4 preseason explaining that that those most responsible would be cut. That culpable crew included Jonathan Dwyer,2012’s rushing leader. For a franchise steeped in stability, changed appeared to be the new watch word.

The off season, however, was only the warm up act.

Getting Sucked into a 2-6 Hole

Steelers Nation remembers the week 1 disaster all too well.

Starting center lost. Back up tackle doing double duty as tight end shifts over to play center. For the first time in his life. All within 8 plays of the season. 3 players lost for the year on opening day. Some guy named Kion Wilson manning the inside linebacker position and, get this, calling the defensive plays.

Shuan Suisham’s status was even in doubt for week 2. He played but the big news was, aside from Dywer’s return,  an argument between Antonio Brown and Todd Haley that 40 some cameras failed to catch. The deep catch that everyone did see David Paulson’s, who promptly fumbled, showing what happens when number 4 tight end wears number 2’s clothes.

Dale Lolley’s tweet summarizes week 3 vs. Chicago:

Pass protection became an issue. By the time the Steelers left London at 0-4, it was obvious that Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side was horrendously exposed. So the solution was to take Mike Adams, the Steelers ’12 second round pick who might have been their 1st round pick save for his drug test, and replaced him with Kelvin Beachum, their 2012 7th round pick.

Would you believe that made things better? It did.

The Steelers came soaring back with a win over the Jets, which was equally satisfying to watch as it was to listen to Bill Cowher sitting in the booth and keeping Phil Simms anti-Steelers sentiments in check.

Victory was not without its costs. David Johnson, the number 3 tight end who began the season as the number 1 tight end one year after he was supposed to have shifted to fullback, was blossoming into a quality number two tight end. Until he torn his ACL, leaving the Steelers with Heath Miller at 75% strength and forcing number 4 tight end David Paulson back into the number two tight end slot.

  • Your head spinning yet? It should, but a win vs. the Ravens followed nonetheless and the Steelers showed signs of liftoff.

Except they reached orbit only to get sucked in by Oakland’s Black Hole, as Terrell Prior channeled his inner Kordell Stewart, and Shaun Suisham chose the absolute worst time of the year to hiccup. Twice.

The next week brought New England. And during the third quarter it Pittsburgh feigned going toe-to-toe. Alas, it was a mirage. When it was all over, the Steelers had surrendered the most points in franchise history, (and that includes the 51-0 1989 Cleveland home opener.) Mike Tomlin vowed consequences for anyone mailing it in.

Yet, Tomlin’s tape review revealed no lack of effort. And, in an act of supreme self-confidence, he simply vowed to roll up his sleeves and coach his players to play better.

6-2 Digging Out of The Hole

You know what? It worked.

Beating the Bills might have been ho-hum, but Pittsburgh overcame a 27 point second quarter blitz by Megatron and the Detroit Lions to win the game 37-10, with Will Allen making a game sealing interception after forcing a fumble and leading the team in tackles.

A week later they stomped Cleveland 27-11, with William Gay, signing whose signing so many mocked, leading the way with a strip sack and a pick six.

Thanksgiving Day brought the Steelers to Baltimore, where they lost a heartbreaker on their own merits, yet the big news was the officiating.

You see, helmet-to-helmet hits are the NFL’s big no-no, and for good reason, unless they involve a player leading with the head at a ball carrier player crossing the goal line. Then apparently if the helmet it comes off before the ball cross the goal line, you save a touchdown. Just saying.

  • Then there was the Tomlin sidestep, for which he was rightly fined and not so rightly with a possible draft pick to follow. 

Yet stepping on the field and almost making contact is far worse that stepping on to the field and making contact, as a Miami coach did the following week vs. Pittsburgh, with the Steelers not even getting the benefit of the free kick they should have had from the penalty that wasn’t called.

For the record, in the NFC Champion game, Jim Harbaugh made contact with an official in the middle of the field, and one of his assistants knocked over on the Seahawks coverage team. Both were sternly warned “not to do it again.” Just saying.

Truth be told, the defense vs. Miami was terrible, and the Steelers earned that loss. Yet if the defense lacked luster vs. the Dolphins, they roared as tigers vs. the Bengals (pun fully intended), completely spanking Cincinnati making them look nothing like a team vying for a first round bye.

Next, the Steelers traveled to Lambeau Field, fighting a battle worthy of Vince Lombardi and Chuck Noll, in a game that saw 5 lead changes, a blocked field goal, a successful fake punt, a pick six, a 66 yard kick return with 1:25 left to play, resulting in a Steelers goal line stand at the 5.

  • The Steelers wrapped it up with a win over a Cleveland Browns team that apparently decided to tell the world it had fired its coach 2 hours into the game.

After starting out 0-4 and the 2-6, the Steelers reached the equilibrium 8-8 in the season’s final week. But it wasn’t over. No, there would be no, and could be no neat symmetrical bow-tie knot to end a season like this.

Denouement – Steelers Nation Becomes “Chiefs Nation” for an Afternoon

On every NFL Sunday, 16 teams must lose. And the Steelers seemingly needed 14 or 15 teams to lose to make the playoffs. By the time Pittsburgh dispatched Cleveland, all but one of those teams had lost.

Kansas City had locked its playoff spot and position, San Diego was on the outside looking in. KC gave a rookie quarterback. San Diego started Philip Rivers. KC played its jobbers. San Diego put out its A-Team.

  • True to course, all parts involved, stubbornly refused to follow “the script”

Instead of folding, KC fought tooth and nail. They had a chance to win it but missed a field goal. But wait! San Diego had an illegal formation. No matter, the officials missed it. Game went into over time. San Diego calls a fake punt. Ball pops out, KC recovers and returns it to the end zone. But wait – play whistled dead, even though the ball came out and possession changed before the helmet came off.

  • The third chance was all San Diego needed to close the deal. They were in the playoffs, the Steelers out.

As Mike Tomlin said, the 2013 Steelers made their own bed. But they never stopped fighting, always kept it interesting and finished the year with the arrow pointing up. Hopefully that provides a foundation for 2014.

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Steelers Defense by the Numbers: 46 and 1,279 Explain Dick LeBeau’s “Decline”

Football may have surpassed baseball as the US’ pastime long ago, but when it comes to statistics the gridiron can only hope to hold its own vs. the diamond. Yet holding its own it is as every year information technology puts more and more data in the hands of experts and amateurs alike.

During the Mike Tomlin era, Steelers defenses have finished 1st four times 2nd once in 2010 and 5th in 2009. In 2013 that ranking on total yards allowed dipped to 13th. In some corners of Steelers Nation easily explain this by leaping to the assumption that Dick LeBeau suddenly woke up and forgot everything he knew. Others cling to Warren Sapp’s tired “Old Slow and Done” dictum.

However, Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review has unearthed two stats that reveal just how faulty those two assumptions are.

What are those two numbers? 46 and 1,279. What do they represent? Snaps played by Steelers rookies in Dick LeBeau’s defense in 2012 vs. 2013.

  • The exponential increase explains a lot.

Robert Golden played all 46 snaps by defensive rookies in 2012. Jarvis Jones led the rookie class with 646 snaps followed by Vince Williams whose snap count clocked in at 406. Shamarko Thomas accounted for the bulk of the rest of those snaps, but Terence Garvin was also working his way into the lineup late in the season, and rookies Brain Arnfelt and Hebron Fangupo also saw spot duty late in the season.

Anyone seeking to understand the impact of 46 snaps played by one rookie vs. 1,279 played by five rookies in a Dick LeBeau defense need look no further than a ‘confession’ made by former defensive coordinator Tim Lewis.

Like John Fox, Tim Lewis broke into the NFL with the Steelers after coaching defense for Pitt, with Lewis’ first year being 1995. When Bill Cowher promoted Lewis to defensive coordinator in 2000 Lewis made a revealing comment that he didn’t really begin to understand LeBeau’s defense until the ’95 season’s final game Super Bowl XXX.

  • Keep in mind, that Lewis made that statement after four years of playing in the NFL and 8 years as a collegiate coach.

And if that was his reaction one can imagine how difficult it must be for rookie’s to pick up on LeBeau’s nuances.

Does 2014’s Peril Spell Promise for 2013? Maybe, Maybe Not

With 2013 fading into the rearview mirror there’s a temptation to look at those 1,279 rookie defensive snaps and count them as some sort of equity towards 2014. And the unit should benefit from the baptism by fire endured by those rookies.

  • But exposure to a system does not equal success with it. 

Robert Golden led rookie defenders in 2012 and was seen as an up and comer entering training camp, yet played very little outside of special teams.

The other operative issue will be the 2014 rookie snap count itself. With Ike Taylor holding a high cap value, Brett Keisel approaching his “Life’s work” and Ziggy Hood about to enter free agency its not too difficult to imagine another rookie finding his way on to the field next season.

Ever since the Debacle in Baltimore the national media has clung to Warren Sapp’s words as a catch all security blanket to explain all that ails the Steelers defense.

But Robinson’s research proves with others such as Jim Wexell argued early on that the Steelers defense should best be described as “Young, green, and inexperienced” as opposed to “Old, slow, and done.”

Jarvis Jones, Shamarko Thomas and perhaps Vince Williams are all projected as starters in 2014. And should that come to pass they will be neither old nor inexperienced thanks to 2013.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2013 Final Report Card: Special Teams and Coaches

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his student fall flat on his face in the first quarter of the season, pick himself up and charge ahead, only to stumble badly again, then finish things off with a very respectable head of steam, here is part III of the Pittsburgh Steelers final report card for the 2013 season, covering the Steelers special teams and coaches. Note, these are overall grades for the defense, and not averages of the weekly report cards. And as always, no other Steelers report cards were consulted.

steelers 2013 final report card grades special teams coaches

Special Teams
The Pittsburgh Steelers history of special teams coaches is that of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Staring with Jon Kolb, the franchise has alternated bad special teams coaches with good ones (with the exception of Bobby April-Ron Zook). After the Amos Jones disasterDanny Smith would appear to continue that trend.

In 2013 Steelers Nation got a chance to see what its like to make splash plays, with several key kicks returned for long yardages, a kick returned for a touchdown and a successful fake punt, in addition to a blocked field goal and blocked extra point. Antonio Brown proved himself to be a deadly punt returner, Emmanuel Sanders showed he was a dangerous kick returner, and Felix Jones was solid.

With that said, the punting unit struggled mightily early on, one punt was blocked and another negated by a blocked kick, and too many long returns were made in critical situations. Shaun Suisham was next to perfect, and while his two misses gave the Raiders their margin, his field goals gave the Steelers insurance in more than a few games. Mat McBride took over for a struggling Zoltan Mesko, and proved himself to be a serviceable upgrade. Grade: B-

Coaching
Todd Haley was a lightning rod for criticism during the Steelers 0-4 start. Many observed that the Steelers only moved the ball or scored when in the no huddle. Yet, when the offensive line stabilized and Haley got his top tight end and rushers back history repeated itself. During the middle of 2012 when the offensive line stabilized and the running backs got healthy, Haley’s offense proved itself to be very effective. Ben Roethlisberger and Haley clearly have some differences, witness timeouts burned late vs. Miami and Baltimore, but the two are proving good for each other

Somewhere in the bowels of Steelers Nation, someone got the brilliant brainwave that after 50 plus years in the NFL, Dick LeBeau suddenly woke up and forgot how to coach defense. Either that, or LeBeau got to the point where his scheming and play calling could only make up for too much age, too much and too many injuries inexperience mixed together.

  • Draw your own conclusions, but Steel Curtain Rising opts for the later.

Yes, the Steelers defense took a step back in 2013, a big one. But losing Larry Foote caused far more disruption than the average fan can fathom. Pulling Troy Polamalu from his strong safety position shifted a lot of responsibility to an aging Ryan Clark and a green Shamarko Thomas. Shifting out Casey Hampton for Steve McLendon didn’t provide the boost that many fans felt it would. That was a difficult hand that Dick LeBeau was dealt. But LeBeau was and hopefully will remain part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Finally, there is Mike Tomlin. It’s unknown how much influence Tomlin had in the roster/salary cap choices that left depth so thin that he was forced to shift his number 3 tight end, Kelvin Beachum, to center 8 plays into season (sorry, we told you losing Doug Legursky was a mistake). It’s also hard to know how much responsibility that Tomlin held for the decision to cut lose and recall so many players (see Will Allen, Stevenson Sylvester, and Jonathan Dwyer). These issues are important, as they impacted greatly in the 0-4 start. As was perhaps the decision to arrive in London late and risk jet lag, for which Tomlin was fully responsible.

Tomlin responded to that with the same kind of talk that coaches always pull out in those situations.

  • It’s what is said when the cameras are off that is important. Tomlin spoke, and his team clearly listened. 

Then, after the New England disaster, Tomlin vowed consequences for anyone who wasn’t making an effort. But he made no changes, because his review found no lack of effort. That’s the sign of a supremely self-confident coach who doesn’t feel the need to make change for change sake after the worst defensive effort in team history. Instead, Tomlin took responsibility for it all — going so far as to throw himself on a grenade with Kevin Colbert’s drafting record was questioned — rolled up his sleeves, and continued coaching.

The Steelers went 6-2 after that, and as Art Rooney II has said, they were playing their best ball at the end. Grade:  B

Unsung Heroes
An offensive line loses its best player, its most experienced player, and its signal caller. 8 plays into the season. Shortly after that it’s clear that it’s all important left tackle is in over his head. So another change needs to be made. This is of course what happened to the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers.

During all of the ensuring chaos, there were two constants, to players who had a calming influence, two players who were always part of the solution and never part of the problem. Those two players are Ramon Foster and David DeCastro. Foster continued his steady play. DeCastro began developing into a very good guard. And for that and for their consistency, David DeCastro and Ramon Foster win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2013 season.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2013 Final Report Card: Defense

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his student fall flat on his face in the first quarter of the season, pick himself up and charge ahead, only to stumble badly again, then finish things off with a very respectable head of steam, here is part II of the Pittsburgh Steelers final report card for the 2013 season, covering the Steelers defense. (For part I covering the offense, click here) Note, these are overall grades for the defense, and not averages of the weekly report cards. And as always, no other Steelers report cards were consulted.

steelers 2013 final report card grades defense

Defensive Line
All doubts about the decision to make Cameron Heyward the team’s first round pick in 2011 died this year, as Heyward made tremendous strides. The Steelers return to winning and Heyward’s ascension to the starting line up are not coincidental events. At this point in his career Ziggy Hood is what you see is what you get. He’ll make good plays at some times, but don’t expect anything spectacular. Steve McLendon apparently graded out well against the run and better than Big Snack did in 2013… If you say so, but the Steelers were vulnerable to the run, and that usually starts up front in the middle. Brett Keisel showed himself to be a leader and, yes, a playmaker. While this unit had its moments, there were not enough of them. Grade:  C

Linebackers
Lawrence Timmons lead the team in tackles, and was the units best and most consistent player, in addition to calling the defenses on-the field signals. Jason Worilds was the surprise of the season leading the team with eight sacks. After those two, the unit saw a drop off as Jarvis Jones struggled to learn the nuances of the position, while Vince Williams didn’t get baptized by fire – he was thrown into it. LaMarr Woodley had the makings of a solid year until injuries struck at mid season. After that he was completely ineffective. Again. Stevenson Sylvester made the most of his second opportunity with the Steelers, and Terence Garvin began to make his presence know by the end of the season. While this unit was the most consistent of the defenses, the Steelers still needed more both in terms of pass rush and run stopping. Grade: B-

Secondary
For years Ike Taylor shadowed the opponents best receiver. When that practice stopped in 2013, the Steelers defense got better. Cortez Allen disappointed early on, but played better late in the season, although his play was not flawless. The biggest surprise was perhaps William Gay, who had a fine year which included two forced fumbles, a pick six, and two sacks. Ryan Clark slowed a step, but still was second in tackles – although it is the nature of his position to make tackles. Troy Polamalu played out of position for much of the year and, if he is not the Troy Polamalu of 2008 or 2010, he still is better than most safeties in the league, forcing 5 fumbles and intercepting two passes, including a pick six. Shamarko Thomas looked good, for a rookie, early on, but Will Allen took his place after his injury, and Allen again stabilized the secondary. This unit saw its ups an down, and must share responsibility for giving up long plays. Grade:  C+
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Pittsburgh Steelers 2013 Final Report Card: Offense

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his student fall flat on his face in the first quarter of the season, pick himself up and charge ahead, only to stumble badly again, then finish things off with a very respectable head of steam, here is part I of the Pittsburgh Steelers final report card for the 2013 season. Note, these are overall grades, and not averages of the weekly report cards. And as always, no other Steelers report cards were consulted.

steelers report card grades 2013 final offense

Quarterbacks
Mike Tomlin finished the season saying that Ben Roethlisberger was playing the best football of his career. That’s probably not true. Roethlisberger was very sharp after the 0-4 start, and certainly played some of his most disciplined football of his career. He also accomplished a feat no other Steelers signal caller has pulled off in 61 years. However, during the last three games Roethlisberger reverted to throwing inane interceptions. And even if he was under duress, Roethlisberger caused 9 of the team’s 11 turnovers in the 0-4 start. Those two negatives must be weighed along with some very strong positives. Grade: B+

Running Backs
To get an idea of the kind of year it was for the Steelers running game, their opening day starter Isaac Redman was cut by mid-season, and their number two rusher wasn’t even on the team. Yet in spite of that, their were signs of hope. Le’Veon Bell provided an immediate boost to the offense, even if his yards per carry were low. He also proved to be such a receiving threat that he broke Franco Harris’ rookie yards from scrimmage record. Jonathan Dwyer ran each carry as if it were his last, and looked good doing it, converting numerous short-yardage situations. Felix Jones was respectable number 2-3 back. Will Johnson’s contributions were underrated but he was an asset. Grade:  B-

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown vindicated the faith the Steelers showed in him after his sophomore season, and is budding into an elite receiver before our eyes. Emmanuel Sanders likewise showed why the Steelers coaches were fortunate to win the argument with the front office, although Sanders has probably plateaued as a player. As for Jerricho Cotchery? He only catches touchdowns. Derek Moye made to very good catches and dropped a few others, and Markus Wheaton never really emerged. This unit was solid, although it could have been a tad bit more consistent. Grade:  B

Tight Ends
Like the running game, this unit started with its number 3 and number 4 playing first string when the season began. And it showed. David Paulson was clearly in over his head, although he did show some receiving skills. David Johnson just looked to be hitting his stride when he was injured again. Heath Miller’s return transformed the offense, although Miller did struggle at times. Still, in spite of the injury, he finished third on the team in catches. Matt Spaeth returned late in the season, and gave the rushing game a boost. He only caught one pass – for a touchdown. Grade:  B

Offensive Line
The one thing the Steelers could not afford going into the season was an injury to the offensive line. They got it 8 plays into the season when Maurkice Pouncey was lost. Fernando Velasco filled in ably until he too got hurt. Mike Adams floundered terribly at left guard, but Kelvin Beachum stepped in and saved the season. Marcus Gilbert was better, but his play was still inconsistent. This unit was a horrendous liability early in the season, late in the season Roethlisberger had the best protection he’s ever enjoyed, and the run blocking improved. Grade:  C+

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In 2013, Ben Roethlisberger Broke a 61 Year Old Steelers Record…

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made history for the franchise this year by breaking an important franchise record.

Roethlisberger of course broke Terry Bradshaw’s career touchdown record, but that’s not the record in question.

Ben Roethlisberger participated in every offensive snap this season. Kudos to my friend and colleague Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain for “breaking” this story.

  • He beat Steel Curtain Rising to the punch, fair and square. This bud’s for you Neal.

While Coolong gets credit for the insight and analyzing what it means in terms of the present, there are dots that remain unconnected regarding the historical significance of Roethlisberger’s achievement.

  • Roethlisberger’s every snap participation is a feat that only one other Steelers quarterback has accomplished.

Actually, that statement may be a tad bit inaccurate. The Pittsburgh Steelers were the final NFL team to abandon the single wing offense in 1952 when Joe Bach took over from John Michelosen, and that’s when any meaningful statistical comparison on quarterbacking must begin.

Thanks to the internet, records go back that far, but they only include statistics for plays a player did something, as opposed to snap counts. So perhaps the more accurate statistic is “Steelers quarterback to throw a pass.”

Who Was “The Other”Steelers Quarterback?

So who was the other quarterback? Well, Kordell Stewart got close the Phoenix like resurrection phase of his career, but Tommy Maddox appeared in 3 games and threw 9 passes. Maddox too came close in 2003, but Charlie Batch saw some  time.

Mike Tomczak threw passes in each of his seasons from 1993 to 1999. Neil O’Donnell never started a full season worth of games. Bubby Brister got close in 1990, but Rick Strom threw 21 passes in 6 games that year for those taking notes at home.

Mark Malone of course split time with David Woodley in ’84 and ’85 and also got injured in ’86, and of course Steve Bono had his 15 minutes of fame as a Steelers quarterback in 1987.

Early in his career, Bradshaw of course split time with Terry Hanratty and Joe Gilliam, and Mike Kruczek slung the leather during each of his 4 seasons in Pittsburgh, as did Cliff Stoudt during his time in the ‘Burgh.

Leaf back into the 60’s, and you’ll see that Bobby Layne, Ed Brown, Kent Nix, Rudy Burkich, Bill Nelsen and Dick Shiner all shared snaps with understudies.

  • In the 1950’s the story is largely the same with Earl Morrall and Ted Marchibroda.

To find another season where only a single solitary quarterback on the Steelers roster threw a pass, you have to go back to 1952, when Jim Finks earned that distinction.

61 years later, Ben Roethlisberger followed in his footsteps. It could easily be another 61 years before it happens again.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Victory Over Browns @ Heinz Field

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is pleased with the student’s work on the final exam, even if they didn’t quite qualify for the next level, this is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the victory over the Browns at Heinz Field. As a caveat, no other Steelers Report Cards were consulted prior to this posting.

steelers-report-card-grades-browns-heinz-field

Quarterbacks
Mike Tomlin went into the game saying 2013 had been Ben Roethlisberger’s best year. It may have been. But the Browns game wasn’t his best game, it wasn’t even one of his better ones. Roethlisberger threw one touchdown pass after several tries, but Roethlisberger was off often on Sunday, and threw two very ugly interceptions. Late in the game he suffered from several drops. A winning effort, to be sure, but nothing special. Grade:  C

Running Backs
Perhaps the training camp comparisons with Franco Harris were fair after all. Le’Veon Bell did not have a hundred yard game, but he came close and he caught a pass, and in doing so he broke Franco’s rookie total yards from scrimmage record. Bell completely owned the Browns on the Steelers second touchdown drive; such as it was, it put Cleveland away. Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones did what they’ve done all year, run hard and make show that they’re excellent supporting cast for the feature back. Will Allen blocked well and caught a pass. Grade:  A

Wide Receivers
A mixed bag for the wideouts, Antoino Brown tied the single season record for games with 5 or more catches and generally did what was asked of him although he had a drop late. Much can be said for Jerricho Cotchery, who caught his 10th touchdown of the season. In what was probably his last game of the season, Emmanuel Sanders caught two passes for 26 yards. Grade:  B-

Tight Ends
Heath Miller only caught two passes, but one started the Steelers first touchdown drive and the second kept its first field goal drive going. Matt Spaeth was not targeted in the passing game, but he was a force as a blocker. Grade: B

Offensive Line
Marcus Gilbert gave up a sack on a play where there was a miscommunication. But that was the only sack of the game, as Ben Roethlisberger had plenty of time to throw, and the running backs had space to run. Grade:  A-

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward continues to come on like a one man wrecking crew, disrupting everything in his path. Brett Keisel had a strip sack in what might be his final game as a Steeler. Al Woods batted down a pass. Ziggy Hood registered a tackle and Steve McLendon was in on 3 before getting hurt. Grade: B

Linebackers
Lawrence Timmons may have gotten a Pro Bowl snub, but Steelers Nation knows what it has in 94 as he intercepted a pass, recorded a sack, and otherwise disrupted the Browns backfield. Chris Carter got his second start and recovered a fumble. Stevenson Sylvester also got plenty of playing time, and probably got himself an invitation to Latrobe next summer as a result. All in all a solid day for the linebackers. Grade:  B+

Secondary
Troy Polamalu didn’t have any “splash plays” but was all over the field. Ryan Clark put in a solid game as did Will Allen. Cortez Allen defensed a pass and along with Ike Taylor, they helped contain Robert Gordon. Although this unit did have a good day, they must take some responsibility for the late Browns touchdown, where no one in the secondary was in position.  Grade:  B

Special Teams
After several weeks of sound and fury, it was a quiet day on special teams. Shaun Suisham was 2-2 and none of his kickoffs were returned. Brown was solid in punt returns. More importantly, the Steelers did not allow a long pick or punt return. Grade:  B+

Coaching
The Cleveland Browns amassed a lot of yards vs. the Steelers in the first outing. Granted, some of that was glorified garbage time, but not all of it. Either way, Dick LeBeau ensured that it did not happen again. Todd Haley’s offense only put 20 points on the board, but that would have been higher had it not been for drops. Such was the tempo of the game that the Steelers only held a slight advantage in time of possession – but the Steelers offense dictated the tempo of the game, and the defense ensured that it stayed turning back four Brown 4th down attempts.

Mike Tomlin kept his team focused. Watching the sideline he continued coaching until the very end and took nothing for granted. His team didn’t dominate, but it delivered. Grade:  B+

Unsung Hero Award
This young man entered the season facing a seemingly impossible situation. First round picks are expected to start as rookies. Rookies are not supposed to start in Dick LeBeau’s defense. This man was asked to do both, and when he lost his starting role it appeared that he might have made a step back. But this young player has learned and steadily, if not always visibly, gotten better during the season. Vs. the Browns he lead the team in tackles, defended a pass, got a tackle for a loss and and otherwise looked every bit like the rookie who’ll make the big second year jump. And for that Jarvis Jones wins the Unsung Hero Award for the victory over Cleveland.

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