The Colbert Record: Steelers 2013 Draft Grades Are In: C+ Overall

It’s time to grade the Steelers draft. No, not the Steelers 2018 Draft but rather the Steelers 2013 draft.

You know, the draft that saw the Steelers make a bold trade involving a third round pick, replace a veteran wide out and draft of a quarterback? Sounds like the Steelers 2018 draft, doesn’t it? The comparison is intentional because reinforces a fundamental lesson:

  • Accurately grading an NFL draft class takes time.

The Steelers 2018 draft class has spawned waves of criticism, while the Steelers 2013 draft class won its share of instant applause. SB Nation gave the Steelers 2013 draft an A,  awarded it an A-.

  • Those grades don’t look so sharp today, do they?

Which doesn’t mean the Steelers 2013 Draft was a failure, but rather one that contained both failure and success as you’ll see below.

Steelers 2013 draft class, Steelers 2013 draft grades, Le'Veon Bell, Jarvis Jones, Vince Williams

Steelers 2013 draft picks Vince Williams, Le’Veon Bell & Jarvis Jones. Photo Credit: Pininterest

Steelers 2013 1st Round – Jarvis Jones – Bust

Is there anything new to say about Jarvis Jones? There’s not much. But it is useful to remember that Bucky Brooks of claimed Jarvis Jones was the best pick made in the entire AFC North. Mel Kiper lauded Jarvis Jones as a “great pick.”

  • Other analysts, such as Gil Brandt, remained skeptical.

The skeptics were right. The Steelers were perhaps too patient with Jarvis Jones (ah, if only James Harrison had been on the field against Dallas….) As it is, Kevin Colbert’s first and only unqualified first round bust is Jarvis Jones. Grade: Bust.

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Steelers 2013 2nd Round – Le’Veon Bell – Grand Slam

Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated conceded that Le’Veon Bell “Fits this offense but may not have warranted pick 48.” Mel Kiper Jr. wasn’t thrilled with the Le’Veon Bell pick, but leave himself wiggle room by suggesting Bell might benefit from the Steelers line.

Le’Veon Bell’s 2nd franchise tag contract squabbles have damped his popularity, but Meril Hoge hit the nail on the head when he declared Le’Veon Bell the best back taken in the 2013 NFL Draft. Grade: Grand Slam.

Steelers 2013 3rd Round – Markus Wheaton – Serviceable Pickup

Nothing against’s Bucky Brooks, but Brooks commended the Steelers for making Markus Wheaton the AFC North’s “steal of the draft.” Markus Wheaton wasn’t a steal. “Serviceable” is a better word to describe Markus Wheaton.

  • 3rd round picks should become starters, and Markus Wheaton started 22 games his two healthy seasons with the Steelers.

He wasn’t a superstar, but in some ways Markus Wheaton’s ability to come up with clutch third down catches brought to mind Hines Ward’s early years in the trenches. But injuries marred Markus Wheaton’s rookie and 4th seasons, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown missed Markus Wheaton him down the stretch in 2016.

The injuries weren’t his fault, but they limited Markus Wheaton’s value to the team. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Steelers 2013 4th Round A – Shamarko Thomas – Bust

The Steelers, like the rest of the league have been more active in trading for players, but trading away future premium picks to move up in the draft goes against the Steelers DNA.

And Shamarko Thomas shows way. The Steelers traded up to get Shamarko Thomas, and Mel Kiper Jr. hailed the move as a great value add. Shamarko Thomas arrived in Pittsburgh as Troy Polamalu’s heir apparent. He departed as an afterthought.

Aside from some immediate work with the secondary during his first few rookie games, Shamarko Thomas’s defensive snap total might be countable on a single hand. Thomas was a good gunner on special teams, but players that cost you a 4th and next year’s third round pick must deliver more. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2013 4th Round B – Landry Jones – Quality Value Pick

The 2013 NFL Draft marked a change in the Steelers backup quarterback philosophy. The Steelers had always staffed a veteran backup quarterback since Bill Cowher’s 1992 arrival.

Picking Landry Jones in the 4th round of the 2013 NFL draft was the product of Pittsburgh’s pivot. He wasn’t NFL ready in 2013 and or in 2014, but fought off 3 challengers at St. Vincent’s during the summer of 2015 as Landry Jones worked his way past Mike Vick for the number 2 spot and closed key victories against Arizona and Oakland in the process.

A large and vocal contingent of Steelers Nation remain hardened Landry Jones haters, but he’s worked himself into a competent NFL backup. Grade: Quality Value Pick

Steelers 2013 5th Round — Terry Hawthorne – Bust

In 20/20 hindsight, this move seems like another Steelers attempt to reload at cornerback on the cheap. But that’s not a fair assessment. Ike Taylor hadn’t shown signs of slowing in 2012, and Cortez Allen’s play late in 2012 made him appear like a stud poised to blossom.

  • And with William Gay’s return, the Steelers cornerback depth chart looked solid in the spring of 2013.

None of this changes the fact that Terry Hawthorne, Illinois the cornerback, both failed to catch on in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2013 6th Round A – Justin Brown – Disappointment

Justin Brown made the practice squad in 2013 which isn’t bad for a 6th round pick.

  • Word at the end of 2013 was that Justin Brown was looking good in practice.

Justin Brown made the regular season roster in 2014 and saw 21 balls thrown his way and he caught 12 of them. Still, as the Steelers closed in in the playoffs in late 2014, they deemed Brown expendable and he’s been heard from since. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2013 6th Round B – Vince Williams – Over Performer

Vince Williams experienced baptism by fire NFL style when an opening day injury to Larry Foote sent him from street clothes to starter in 3 weeks.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit:

  • And make no mistake about it, Vince Williams struggled for much of the 2013 campaign.

Yet Vince Williams improved by season’s end, and did well in relief of Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence, and Lawrence Timmons during 2014, 2015 and 2016. The Steelers signed him to a contract extension in 2016 season, and year later he was starting in Timmons place.

Vince Williams isn’t an athlete who’ll compel fans to command he shift to safety. But Vince Williams is a physical player and an asset when surrounded with the right players – you don’t get 8 sacks as an inside linebacker by accident. Grade: Over Performer

Steelers 2013 7th Round – Nicholas Williams – Farm Team

On the day he was drafted, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell compared Nicholas Williams to Steve McLendon.

The Kansas City Chiefs reduced John Mitchell’s comparison to an academic one by poaching Nicholas Williams from the Steelers practice squad in 2014.

Pro football Reference tells us that Nicholas Williams made 26 appearances for the Chiefs and Dolphins from 2014 to 2016. Grade: Farm Team

Grading the Steelers 2013 Draft – C+

With 9 picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Steelers draft report card spans the spectrum, with 1 Grand Slam, 3 Busts, 1 Serviceable Pickup, 1 Disappointment, 1 Over Performer, 1 Quality Value Pickup and 1 Farm Team pick.

  • If you agree that a good draft should yield 3 starters, then the Steelers came up OK in 2013.

The fact that within 2 years, “experts” were labeling the 2013 NFL Draft as one of the worst overall drafts in recent league history only reinforces that assessment.

Yes, its true that only Vince Williams and Le’Veon Belll are starters, but Markus Wheaton was a legitimate starter when healthy, and Landry Jones was drafted to be a backup. And any draft that brings home a talent like Le’Veon Bell is by definition an “Above the Line” draft.

  • Yet, the Steelers 2013 NFL draft class was hardly an unqualified success.

The Steelers missed badly on Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas. Both of those misfires carried costly opportunity costs as forced Pittsburgh to redraft for the positions by picking Sean Davis in 2016 and T.J. Watt in 2017.

  • You can take the country from the boy, but you can’t take the boy from the country.

The part of me that was raised and reared in the US system of grading is tempted to give the Steelers 2013 Draft class a B-, “Good, but…” rating, but here in Argentina (where I’ve lived most of this century) grading is much more demanding, and so therefore I’ll give the Steelers 2013 Draft a C+.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs Chicago Bears – Glorious Wins, Agonizing Defeats, Little In Between

The Pittsburgh Steelers history vs the Chicago Bears is long and rather tortured for Pittsburgh, dating back to 1934, with the Steel City suffering a 7-22-1 record against Windy City.

The founders of both franchises, Art Rooney Sr. and George Halas are both members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. While the lopsidedness of the Steelers history vs. the Bears might be due to Pittsburgh’s ineptness during the pre-Chuck Noll era, Pittsburgh’s record in Chicago remains a woeful 1-12.

This chronicle of Steelers history vs the Bears only goes back 35 years that have seen Pittsburgh square off against Chicago 9 times. Indeed, a see-saw dynamic characterizes recent Steelers-Bears history, as the Steelers seem to celebrate glorious victories or agonizing defeats, with very little in between.

Either scroll down or click on the links below to relive key moments in the Pittsburgh Steelers history vs. the Chicago Bears:

Steelers history vs bears, Steelers vs. bears, Antonio Brown, Charles Tillman

Antonio Brown catches a touchdown in front of Charles Tillman of the Bears. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

1986 – Ditka Takes the Wind over the Ball in OT

November 30, 1986 @ Solider Field
Chicago 13, Pittsburgh 10

The 4-8 Steelers gave the defending Super Bowl Champion Bears a run for their money, even though they did not score an offensive touchdown. But that was good enough to force overtime when…

Iron Mike elected to kickoff, trusting in the wind and his defense. The Bear’s defense vindicated their coach, forcing a punt and setting up Kevin Butler’s winning kick.

  • Fun Fact: The Steelers only touchdown came in the third quarter on a fake field goal from Harry Newsome to tight end Preston Gothard.

1989 – Steelers Suffer Third Shut Out of Season

November 11, 1989 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Chicago 20, Pittsburgh 0

Aliquippa native Mike Dikta gave himself a hell of a home coming during the only game he coached at Three Rivers Stadium. His Bears netted 6 turnovers, wracked up 203 rushing yards, and held Pittsburgh to 54 rushing yards during their 20-0 shut out.

1992 – Cowher’s Achilles Heel or Mike Singletary’s Final Game in Chicago?

December 13, 1992 @ Solider Field
Chicago 30, Pittsburgh 6

Rookie head coach Bill Cowher’s 1992 Pittsburgh Steelers had taken the NFL by storm. They traveled to Chicago with a 10-3 record and a chance to clinch their first AFC Central Title since 1984. Cowher Power had rejuvenated the Steelers.

  • The sky was the limit. Or was it?

The Cowher’s Steelers fell flat on their faces. And then the Bears stomped all over them, to the tune of 30-6. Barry Foster ran 12 times for 25 yards. The Bears sacked Bubby Brister 5 times and picked him off twice. Worst of all, Pittsburgh looked lethargic and unfocused.

NBC commentator Bill Parcells attributed the result to the emotional surge occasioned by Mike Singletary’s final game in Chicago, sharing something to the effect, “I was in the Bear’s locker room prior to the game, and this was a team clearly ready to play.”

  • Cowher’s Admission: During Cowher’s early tenure, over confidence was his Steeler’s chronic Achilles heel. Cowher would perhaps dispute this general observation, but a number of years later he admitted that the 1992 game against the Bears was one of the few times the team had not been mentally prepared to play.
Greg Lloyd, Rashaan Salaam, Steelers vs Bears 1995

Greg Lloyd closes in on the Bears Rashaan Salaam in the Steelers 1995 win over the Bears. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via the Bleacher Report

1995 – Steelers Streak to the Super Bowl, Vol. I – Super Bowl XXX

November 5th, 1995
Pittsburgh 37, Chicago 34

The 1995 Steelers started 3-4, and looked ugly doing it. After a particularly egregious loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Bill Cowher declared it was now a “9 game season.” Having beaten the Jaguars in week 8, they traveled to Chicago to take on the 6-2 Bears.

  • This was one of the most exciting games the Steelers have every played.

The lead changed 5 times and the score was tied 3 times as the Steelers and Bears fought back and forth in this titanic struggle.

Hope faded for the Steelers when Barry Minter returned an interception to put the Bears up 34 to 27 late in the fourth. But Neil O’Donnell rebounded, taking the Steelers the length of the field capping off the drive with a 11 yard strike to Ernie Mills to tie it up just inside the two minute warning.

Cowher seemed ready to gamble it all when he sent in the 2 point conversion unit, forcing the Bears to burn their final time out. The Steelers kicked the extra point instead, and Willie Williams picked off Eric Kramer in OT, to set up Norm Johnson’s game winning field goal.

  • Cowher’s Quote: When asked if such a dramatic victory might have been a character building exercise for his recently struggling Steelers, Cowher’s response was concise and correct – “Games like this do not build character, they display it.”

That character carried the Pittsburgh Steelers to Super Bowl XXX

1998 – Steelers Start season 2-0, But…

September 13, 1998 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 17, Bears 12

The 1997 Steelers had finished 11-5 and only two Kordell Stewart end zone interceptions away from the Super Bowl. But the 1998 Steelers were a differnt story. They’d beaten the Ravens 20-13 the week before, but had not looked good doing it.

The Steelers defeated the Bears 17-12 on the strength of Jerome Bettis 131 years rushing.

  • Cause for concern: Kordell Stewart went 17-30-1-1. Not bad numbers, but he only threw for 137 yards and was only 4-4 rushing. Whether it was because Ray Sherman didn’t know what he was doing, or a lack confidence, but this was the beginning of a tentative and timid Stewart, as opposed to the swashbuckling Slash that Steelers fans had seen before.

2005 – Steelers Streak to the Super Bowl, Vol. II Super Bowl XL

December 11, 2005 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 21, Chicago 9

The Bears were coming off an 8 game winning streak. Despite their 7-5 record, the 2005 Steelers were coming off a 3 game losing streak, and looking at the possibility of needing to run the table to make the playoffs. The Steelers were up to the task, as the Bus led the march that ended with One for the Thumb in Super Bowl XL.

Jerome Bettis, Brian Urlacher, Steelers vs. Bears, '05 Steelers

Jerome Bettis shows Brian Urlacher who is boss. Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images via The Sun.

The Steelers totally dominated the Bears in the snow at Heinz Field. Jerome Bettis ripped off 101 yards as he plowed through Brian Urlacher and the Bears defense. Willie Parker was close behind him with 68 yards. Ben Roethlisberger hit seven different receivers, as the Steelers out gained the Bears by almost 100 yards, and dominated time of possession to the tune of 37:19 to 22:41

  • Bettis Final 100 Yard Game: This was Bettis’ 50th 100 yard game with the Steelers, a team record. It was also to be the Bus’ final 100 yard effort, and he gained all but one of them in the second half. He also scored 2 TD’s for the 16th time in his career, which brought him to 4th on the Steelers all-time scoring list.

2009 – Super Bowl Champion Steelers Slip, Signal Things to Come…

September 20th, 2009 @ Solider Field
Chicago 17, Pittsburgh 14

The defending Super Bowl Champions had won their opener doing what they had done during the previous season – snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. But this trip to Solider Field showed that things would not be so easy for the 2009 Steelers.

The Steelers got on the board quickly with a clockwork like opening drive engineered by Ben Roethlisberger. But Roethlisberger threw an interception and he was off after that, overthrowing and underthrowing receivers and throwing balls that were either too low or two high. Ben Roethlisberger had help however,

Despite that, the Steelers hung in and appeared to be set to repeat history – pull out a win at the last moment.

Unfortunately Jeff Reed missed a long field goal, giving Chicago a victory. Unlike their ’08 brethren, this was to be the first of many last minute losses for the ’09 Steelers….

2013 – Bears Pass Rush Overwhelms Steelers en Route to 0-3 Start

September 22, 2013 @ Heinz Field
Chicago 40, Bears 23

Sometimes single tweet says it all. That’s the case with this Dale Lolley gem that still resonates long after the Steelers 2013 loss to Chicago:

  • That might seem like a harsh exaggeration, but rest assured my fellow citizens of Steelers Nation, it is not.

The 2013 Steelers entered the game at 0-2, yet both of those games had some extenuating circumstances (such as losing 3 starters in their opener to the Tennessee Titans.) But this was the height of the Mike Adams experiment on offensive line and, truth be told, the jury was still very much out on Marcus Gilbert at that point.

Ben Roethlisberger barley had time to breath, let along throw that night, as the Steelers signal’s turnovers directly led to two Bear’s touchdowns. Chicago jumped to a 27-3 lead, until a Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown hookup evened the score to 27-10 at the half.

  • The Steelers opened the 2nd half by 13 unanswered points to bring it to 27-23 by the beginning of the 4th quarter.

Alas, a Jay Cutler scramble on 3rd and 10 gave Chicago new life, and set up a score. The Steelers tired to match, but a Roethlisberger fumble was returned to Pittsburgh’s six yard line and the Steelers started 2013 0-3.

2017 – Trap Game Trips Up Steelers Fueled by Breakdowns in All 3 Phases

September 24th, 2017 @ Solider Field
Chicago 23, Pittsburgh 17 in OT

This was the infamous “National Anthem” game when the Steelers opted not to take the field to avoid controversy only to have Alejandro Villanueva exit the tunnel to observe the ceremony. So much for trying to use team unity as a way of abstaining from political polemics.

  • Things went downhill from there.

Jordan Howard (who?) looked like Gale Sayers and Walter Payton — combined — drilled the Steelers for 140 yards. His compatriot Tarik Cohen (who?) “only” ran for 78 yards, so I guess he must have just been Neal Anderson. The Steelers offense, featuring all four Killer Bees, struggled to establish the run and Antonio Brown bailed Ben Roethlisberger out throughout the afternoon.

  • Worse yet, special teams gave up a blocked field goal AND suffered a muffed punt.

Take away:  This game exposed the run defense as the 2017 Steelers Achilles heel.


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4 Lessons Learned & Random Thoughts on Steelers Growth Since Vikings Loss in London

When the Pittsburgh Steelers kickoff for their 2017 home opener against the Minnesota Vikings this afternoon, 1450 days will have passed since these two franchises last squared off. Normally you don’t think of intra-conference games marking milestones, but this one does.

Because if the Steelers post Super Bowl XLV rebuilding project began with the Tebowing in the playoffs against Denver in January 2011, the rebuilding effort scratched rock bottom on September 29th, as the Vikings dropped the 2013 Steelers to 0-4.

  • To put this into perspective, the previous Steelers head coach to start 0-4 was Bill Austin, in 1968.

With that in mind, let’s look at how the Steelers have changed, and remained the same, since then.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers London

Le’Veon Bell scores his first touchdown in the Steelers loss to Vikings in London. Photo Credit: Daily Mail Online

1. Sort of Failing at Left Tackle is Like Being Sort of Pregnant

By the fall of 2013 the Steelers had relegated their “Plug ‘n Patch” approach to offensive line building to history. Indeed on that day they started Ramon Foster, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert just as they will this afternoon (and they would have started Maurkice Pouency had he not been hurt.)

  • They also started Mike Adams at left guard.

Mike Adams didn’t represent any sort of Jonathan Scottesque attempt to get by on the cheap at left tackle. No, the Steelers invested a 2nd round pick in Mike Adams and made it very clear from the get go that they wanted him to win the starting job. He couldn’t do that as a rookie (and surprise, they turned again to Max Starks), but they gave him the job 2013.

  • The move was an epic fail, and the London loss to the Vikings was its supernova.

Adams struggled all day, and first and only time in his career, Ben Roethlisberger played like he had happy feet. The Vikings ended the game by sacking Roethlisberger, and while Adams didn’t directly allow the sack, he clearly didn’t win his battle at the line of scrimmage which helped collapse the pocket, paving the way for a sack.

The Vikings game in London marked Mike Adams final start at left tackle and Kelvin Beachum’s assent to the role.

2. Le’Veon Lived Up to the Hype, Jarvis Didn’t….

While neither he nor Mike Tomlin uttered the word “Rebuilding,” after the 2012 Steelers 8-8 finish Kevin Colbert as much as admitted changes were needed. Ergo, two key building blocks would come early in the Steelers 2013 Draft Class. One worked out, the other didn’t.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Ed Bouchette isn’t one to exaggerate, but even he seemed to be drinking a little Koolaid a big when he declared in July 2013 that Le’Veon Bell’s preseason debut “…will be one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

  • Le’Veon Bell’s debut didn’t come until London thanks to his Lisfranc injury.

While Le’Veon Bell’s statistics were rather pedestrian on that afternoon, he did score two touchdowns, and flashed some of the ability that the Steelers offense has come to depend upon.

On the flip side, Jarvis Jones, who’d boldly requested number 95, was making his third start at outside linebacker for the Steelers. Jones had one tackle on the day and by any measure must be considered Kevin Colbert’s only true first round bust.

3. How Long Does It Take to Rebuild Defense? Four Years

One striking observation is that there’s been very little turnover in the Steelers offense since that fateful London day. Sure, Health Miller retired and the entire tight end depth chart has turned over (thanks to David Johnson’s waiver). But the line remains intact and that was the first game that the Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown played together, and the trio has powered the offense since.

  • On defense you find an entirely different story.

Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were still manning both safety spots. Ike Taylor was still starting at corner, and Cortez Allen, the unit’s rising star, returned to the line up to get burned on a 70 yard touchdown. Aside from William Gay, who was back after a one year hiatus in Pittsburgh West, the entire Steelers secondary has turned over since the London Loss.

Looking at the linebackers, Vince Williams was making his first NFL start, and if the rookie looked woefully unable to fill Larry Foote’s shoes, no one can argue he hasn’t grown into the role. But Vince Williams is the only Steelers linebacker left from the London Game (remember, James Harrison was in Cincinnati.)

If the Viking’s victory in London marked the Vince Williams first start, it also marked Ziggy Hood’s last one, as Mike Tomlin would name Cam Heyward starter after this game. The other starters that day were Steve McLendon, who was just taking over from Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel. 1450 days later, the story remains the same on defensive line. Cam Heyward remains, everyone else is playing elsewhere or has begun “Life’s Work.”

4. Assistant Coaches Do Matter – See Mike Munchak’s Influence

People forget this, but Mike Adams wasn’t the only Steelers offensive lineman under fire 1450 days ago. Just one week earlier, in the Steelers loss to the Bears, Steelers coaches had rotated Kelvin Beachum on at both tackles.

While the Steelers offensive line improved during the course of 2013, Mike Tomlin quickly fired Jack Bicknell at season’s end and replaced him with Mike Munchak, and no one argues that the Steelers offensive line is far better for Munchak’s influence.

Young Money had been all the rage prior to 2013, but the promise of those young receivers was largely unrealized, as even Antonio Brown’s play was a little uneven by the end of 2012. Mike Tomlin responded by replacing Scottie Montgomery with Richard Mann, who has clearly transformed the Steelers wide receiving corps.

As Dick Hoak reminded everyone on the day he retired (after nearly 3 and half decades of serving as a Steelers assistant coach) NFL assistant coaches are “Hired to be fired.” He’s right. Often times assistant coaches act as the fall guys when either head coaches fail or draft picks flounder as busts.

But the additions of Richard Mann and Mike Munchak show that good assistant coaches can and do make a difference in the NFL.

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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 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-

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

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-

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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