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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Watch Tower: Dissecting Scottie Montgomery’s Resignation, Plus Heyward vs. Hood

The NFL press credential unlocks access to a world that fans only dream of visiting – the NFL locker room. Many argue that social media diminishes if not eliminates the need and role of the traditional press.

  • There’s some truth there.

The internet, YouTube, blogs, streaming video, Facebook, and Twitter connect players, coaches, scouts, front office staff, and owners with fans in ways that Joe Gordon, Steelers Communications director during the Super Steelers era, never dreamed of.

  • Yet a press credential remains invaluable.

Simply because it gives accredited members of the Pittsburgh Pro Football Writers Association daily access to those self-same players, coaches, and scouts.

Yes can Steelers.com picks and chooses post-game quotes that Twitter, Facebook, ESPN.com, FOX Sports quickly recycle. Sure, Art Rooney II can change the spin of a story by using a video interview to explain that he didn’t mean the Steelers offense needed to run more just that it needed to be able to run better.

  • These mediums have their impact, but they also have their limits.

And that’s because beat reporters establish build relationships players and coaches. They make small talk by the water cooler and in the lunch room. They’re privy to numerous 60 second “off the record” 1-1 elevator rides, parking lot exchanges and, yes, urinal conversations.

Credentialed Steelers press writers have an excellent feel for what gets said in private, behind closed doors, when the tape records and cellphone cameras are put way.

The Watch Tower has long suspected that many if not most of the Steelers press corps writers frequently know a lot more about the stories than reaches the light of day. And that’s what makes our first case so interesting.

Revisiting the Recent Resignations Steelers Assistant Coaches

Steelers Nation knows well how Mike Tomlin said his coaching staff would be back in January 2012 after the Steelers suffered their playoff “Tebowing” in Denver only to have Art Rooney II pulled rank and fired Bruce Arians.

  • The move drew a firestorm converge, and the attempt to pass it off as a “retirement” made the Steelers look bush league.

Mike Tomlin started the Steelers 2013 off season off with three coaching changes, which collectively got less coverage than the Arians fiasco.

Perhaps that was a mistake, because it appears there was a story behind the story…

  • …Depending on who you listen to.

But this plot takes an interesting twist. This is no case of local rivals peddling competing stories or even of the local press vs. the national press. No, this time the Watch Tower shines its light on divergent stories coming from the same publication….

Ed Bouchette vs. Gerry Dulac@ 30 Paces…

In just two days in mid February PG Plus readers got a treat that gave them their money’s worth for a month.On Monday the 11th, Ed Bouchette directly suggested that the resignations of Tomlin’s assistants were less than voluntary. And in doing so, he reported several interesting new facts.

Bouchette characterized Amos Jones move to Pittsburgh West, aka Arizona, as a “side ways move” and pointed out that Jones joined the Steelers as an assistant and only got the special teams coordinator job due to Al Everestt’s mysterious firing.

Although he doesn’t report any new facts, Bouchette reminded readers that Jones didn’t get the job after Bob Ligashesky got fired in 2010, and suggests that Tomlin either told him he would be demoted or suggested he find a new job or be fired.

Scottie Montgomery’s resignation is Bouchette’s next target, and hits the bull’s eye by unearthing new facts. Bouchette begins by reminding us that the Duke PR department was nebulous about what Montgomery’s new duties would be, and that a move from Pittsburgh to Duke is hardly a step up the career ladder. Then he delivers the goods, commenting:

We were told that Montgomery did not exert enough control over the wide receivers the past season and, with Hines Ward no longer around, the students ran the classroom and became more undisciplined. Their performance on the field certainly would back that up.

Although Bouchette does not mention this, the hiring of Richard Mann provides further evidence to support his claim. Anyone who saw his draft day press conference could easily see that Mann exudes and air of “Been there, Done that.”

Bouchette closed by taking a look at Sean Kulger’s decision to accept the head coaching job at UT El Paso, suggesting that he might have at least been motivated by a philosophy class with offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Haley’s new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell has in fact installed a new, run blocking scheme.

So here we have an inside story from the Dean of the Pittsburgh press corps telling us that Tomlin’s coaching changes were as much about house cleaning as they were climbing the career ladder. Case closed, right? Not so fast.

Dulac began by attacking the notion that the changes were a case of “rats leaving a sinking ship” and went as far as to state:  “And none were made because of any conflict or dissatisfaction with Coach Mike Tomlin.”

Dulac pointed out that Kulger’s chance to return to his alma mater was simply “too good to pass up.” In discussing Amos Jones move, Dulac reported that Jones got more money and a longer contract than was presumably available in Pittsburgh.

In discussing Montgomery’s return to Duke, Dulac says:

But Montgomerie [sic] was said to very friendly with Tomlin and, according to one assistant coach, was reluctant to leave Duke the first time to join the Steelers.

Bouchette vs. Dulac Who to Believe? 

So here you have two reporters for the same publication, telling very different stories based upon what they see from behind the scenes on the South Side. Who to believe?

Of all of the moves, the departure of Kulger’s appears to be the most straight forward. He got the chance to return to his roots, and presumptively would have stayed in Pittsburgh had that opportunity not surfaced.

There’s likely truth in both men’s rendering of Amos Jones’ departure. Jones quiet likely could have stayed in Pittsburgh, but only in his old role as a special teams assistant.

In the case of Montgomery, the Watch Tower is prone to believe Bouchette. The wide receiving corps was supposed to be Pittsburgh’s strength last year, but “Young Money,” aka Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders, played more like a penniless group of receivers, much to Ben Roethlisberger’s chagrin.

  • There is one thing that both Bouchette and Dulac agree on, one that is perhaps a little disturbing for Steelers fans.

In discussing Montgomery’s move, Bouchette observed this “If Tomlin – or someone above him – didn’t force Montgomery out, his move to Duke is a strange one indeed.”  Dulac went a step further, and finished his article suggesting:  “Of course, sometimes what Tomlin wants and what actually transpires are two different things. Just ask Arians.”

While the idea of Art Rooney II involving himself in Mike Tomlin’s staffing decisions  isn’t in and of itself bad, one would hope that Art II would emulate macro-manager Daniel Rooney and not micro-manager Daniel Snyder.

Which Way is Cameron Heyward Heading?

One of the the most important story lines at Steelers training camp in St. Vincent’s will be the development of Cameron Heyward, the Steelers 1st round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.

Cameron Heyward’s limited contributions as a rookie drew good reviews, however opinion of his second year development remains split.

Ralph Paulk of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review wrote a feature-length article admonishing Hewyard to “step it up” commenting that:

The Ohio State product begins his third season amid a cloud of uncertainty.
He isn’t likely to supplant Ziggy Hood or Brett Keisel in the starting lineup, but he can dictate how much playing time he’ll get — and how his future will be shaped.

To back up his argument, Paulk cites any number of statistics on Heyward’s production, and quotes Heyward himself discussing how he’s fallen short of his goals.

However, Kyle Curry of the Pittsburgh Sporting News also ran an article on Heyward last week citing statistics that show Hewyard out performing Ziggy Hood on a snap-by-snap basis, and he informs that Ed Bouchette is reporting that Heyward has a chance to replace Hood in the starting lineup.
Heyward’s development, and the press’s coverage of it will be interesting to see.

Bob Smizik on Mike Wallace

The final off season installment of the Watch Tower would not be complete without comment about retired Post-Gazette columnist turned blogger Bob Smizik’s criticism of Steelers salary cap management and free agent decisions.

  • Mike Wallace, as everyone knows was one of the top available free agents, regardless of position and was expected to command at least 10 million per year and he eventually got closer to 12.

Keeping Wallace, in Smizik’s view was essential for the Steelers, and the retired scribe all but implied that the Steelers needed to do what was necessary to keep him. And in the same breath, he slammed the Steelers for being so tight against the cap that they couldn’t make an offer.

  • That’s right – slam the team for not writing Wallace a blank check in one breath, while slamming them for salary cap problems in the next.

Sounds like the same guy who criticized the Steelers for drafting Rashard Mendenhall without taking Willie Parker’s feelings into account, and then complained when Mendenhall wasn’t getting more carries early in ’08….

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Steelers Free Agency 2013: Colbert’s Salary Cap “Loaves and The Fishes”

The debate in Steelers Nation as Pittsburgh entered the 2013 off season was whether the Steelers were in “Salary Cap Hell” or merely “Salary Cap Purgatory.” No one on the roster not named Ben Roethlisberger appeared safe.

Now that the dust has settled, it is clear that while the Steelers have/had cap issues, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin pulled off the NFL Salary Cap equivalent of the “Loaves and the Fishes.”

  • How’s that you ask? Read on young Padawan…. 

(Note Steel Curtain Rising has a strict “no politics, no religion” editorial policy but hopefully you will excuse this deviation as the metaphors are irresistible.)

“The times, they are a changing….”

It’s true that Steelers Nation has not experienced such off season roster upheaval since the 90’s. Back then, in the pre-Heinz Field days, free agent exoduses became an annual rite.

The process was agonizing. Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher would draft and develop players, only to lose them as soon as they reached free agency.

What happened this off season is both similar and different. In the ‘90’s cash flow was the culprit, whereas during the Steelers 2013 off season it was lack of cap space, forcing Pittsburgh to swallow hard and cut contributors whose age, injury status, and cap values made them expendable.

Let’s look at how deeply the axe swung:

Steelers Salary Cap Casualties:
James Harrison, former NFL Defensive Player of the Year
Willie Colon, cut two years into a four year contract

Contracts Not Renewed by the Steelers:
Casey Hampton
Charlie Batch
Byron Leftwich

Steelers Players Poached in Free Agency:
Mike Wallace
Rashard Mendenhall
Keenan Lewis
Max Starks
Will Allen
Ryan Mundy
Doug Legrusky

Painful? Doubtless.

Consider this:  EVERY player that Pittsburgh lost in free agency, cut or declined to bring back started a game for the Steelers in 2013. Six of whom were full time starters.

In 2013 the Pittsburgh Steelers not only said good bye to a lot of talent, experience, and locker room leadership, but they also abandoned a fair amount of potential.

These loses will be felt. How badly? The answer to that question lies in what the Steelers did to compensate.

Steelers Free Agent Spending in 2013

The conventional wisdom is that the Pittsburgh Steelers are an inactive team in free agency. In the 2013 off season the Steelers were active, but many of Pittsburgh’s free agent moves happened slightly below the radar.

Steelers ’07 Draft Class Revolving Door (former players reacquired):
William Gay
Matt Spaeth

Unrestricted Free Agents Resigned by the Steelers:
Ramon Foster
Larry Foote
Plaxico Burress
David Johnson
Greg Warren

Restricted Free Agents Resigned:
Emmanuel Sanders
Steve McLendon

Unrestricted Free Agents Retained via Tender for 2013:
Isaac Redman
Jonathan Dwyer

Steelers Free Agent Additions:
Brian Moorman
LaRod Stephens-Howling
Guy Whimper
Bruce Gradkowski

For a team supposedly on the precipice of Salary Cap disaster, the Pittsburgh Steelers made a lot of moves during the 2013 off season.

In pure quantitative terms, the Steelers came out ahead, signing/resigning 15 players while saying good bye, in one form or another, while losing 12.

  • Quantity is one thing. What about quality? Did the Steelers come out ahead? 

That’s a more difficult question and one with a more nuanced answer.

Colbert and Tomlin’s Loaves and Fishes Salary Cap Miracle 

Measured in terms of raw football talent, it is impossible to argue that the Steelers weathered their most difficult free agency period since the Donahoe years and came out ahead.

Anyone who tells you that Plaxico Burress’ value to the offense is equal to or better than that of Mike Wallace is missing a few fries from his Happy Meal. Ditto any attempt to equate William Gay’s value with that of Keenan Lewis.

  • But success in the free agency era goes beyond questions of raw talent.

Yes, you need good players to win and great players are essential to winning big. This is true in any era. When asked about Steelers success, Dan Rooney’s stock response is “You have to start with the players.”

But success in the salary cap era doesn’t come down to who has the best talent, but who can get the most for their salary cap buck. And in that respect the Steelers have potentially positioned themselves to come out ahead.

  • Take the Steelers situation at cornerback.

Without argument, the threesome of Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis, and Cortez Allen beats the threesome of Taylor, Allen, and William Gay.

But the money the Steelers saved in not resigning Lewis didn’t just go to Gay. It allowed them to resign David Johnson and bring back Matt Spaeth. Now Johnson and Spaeth are marginal roster contributors to be sure. But that’s the point.

Assuming that Cortez Allen is the real deal and that Ike Taylor doesn’t slow a step, then the trio of Allen, Taylor, and Gay at CB combined with Speath, Johnson and David Paulson holding down the fort at tight end in Heath Miller’s absence arguably delivers more value for salary cap dollar than Keenan Lewis would have.

  • The same can be said of Mike Wallace.

Had the Steelers really wanted to, they probably could have kept Mike Wallace.

But at what cost? Certainly Plaxio Burress wouldn’t have been resigned. Emmanuel Sanders either wouldn’t have been tendered or would have been allowed to go to New England. Either Jonathan Dwyer and/or Isaac Redman would have been gone too. AND LaRod Stephens-Howling probably never darkens any doors on the South Side either.

To go with a baseball analogy, Mike Wallace is a legitimate home run threat on any down and defenses must plan for. The Steelers will miss his contributions.

  • But football is a team game, and the Steelers are calculating that they can make up for losing this home run threat with a series of base hitters.

Such strategies come with risks. Losing Ike Taylor for the year and fielding a Lewis/Allen corner tandem is quite different than fielding a Gay/Allen corner tandem. The same can be said for several other position areas, most notably offensive line and wide receiver.

  • But making such calculated risks is part of life under the NFL’s salary cap. 

On paper Kevin Colbert has made a series of excellent “best bang for the salary cap buck” decisions. Soon Steelers Nation will know how those decisions play out on the field.

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Watch Tower: Coverage Lapses Call into Question Role of Daily Newspapers in the Digital Age

Regular readers of Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower know the column has been particularly harsh on the mainstream press lately. While the Watch Tower’s purpose is to cast a critical eye on the Steelers press converge, that doesn’t mean such commentary needs to be negative.

  • In fact, in many cases that Watch Tower has been quite complementary.

But there’s a pattern of non-coverage of important stories emerging here, and one that deserves deeper discussion.

Add Moorman to the List

Recently the Watch Tower took aim at both the Post-Gazette and Tribune Review’s decision to completely ignore Doug Legursky’s defection to the Bills.

And for good reason, the decision to let Legursky leave could come back to haunt the Steelers given the need to protect Ben Roethlisberger. The motives behind the Steelers decision deserve to be discussed.

  • Unfortunately, this non-coverage is not an isolated example.

Former Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowl Punter Brian Moorman signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers on April 30th. The news was picked up by a mix of professional and fan based sites, ranging from Behind the Steel Curtain to NBC’s Pro Football Talk.

However the news first appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in May 25th. In an ironic twist of word smithery, Ray Fittipaldo lead’s went like this:

The under-the-radar signing for the Steelers this off season came two days after the draft ended and barely made a ripple in the news cycle….

Was Fittipaldo attempting to make amends for his paper’s omission a legitimate news story, or was it just coincidence?

Steelers Nation will probably never know, but the issue raises some very relevant questions as to the purpose and role of the sports pages of the traditional dailies in the internet age.

If A Free Agent Leaves But The Papers Don’t Covers It, Does It Make A Sound?

The Mooreman’s signing is only the latest in a series of news stories that have gone un or under covered by either the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and/or the Tribune Review.

While much of this non-coverage involves free agent signings it extends to other areas. For example, the major dailies all dutifully reported the decision to put Justin King on injured reserve. Information on the nature of his injury was absent. (Granted losing Justin King in June isn’t quite like losing Willie Colon.)

Former Steelers coach Bill Austin passed away earlier this off season. While the Tribune Review’s Alan Robinson wrote something on his death, the Post Gazette published a Bloomberg News article written by someone else who listed Ed Bouchette as a contributor.

There’s a pattern here.

Trying to Find Rhyme or Reason

Let’s give the devil his due, and discuss possible reasons for why these stories got no coverage, because they do appear to be deviations from editorial policy.

For example, the potential and then actual departures of Will Allen and Ryan Mundy were fully covered by the major Pittsburgh dailies. Both moves were legitimate news involving minor players.

  • In contrast, however, both Moore’s departure in ’12 and Legursky’s loss in ’13 arguably represented losses of more significant contributors.

One possible explanation is that both Allen and Mundy’s departure’s occurred in heat of free agency, where as Moore and Doug Legursky left after the draft during the NFL’s only true off season when attention ebbs.

  • While that fact may mean decreased public interest in the stories, it does nothing to make them less newsworthy.

Similar (potential) explanations exist for the non-coverage of Isaac Redman and Steve McLendon’s signings. Both occurred days before the NFL Draft, an event whose coverage has taken on monstrous proportions of its own.

  • But again, does this justify non-coverage?

Hardly. Losing McLendon would have all but forced the Steelers to draft a defensive lineman in the first or second round.

By a similar token, reports indicated that their were at least some parties on the South Side who were concerned that Bruce Arians would attempt to lure Isaac Redman to Pittsburgh West. Had Arians done so at the last minute the Steelers almost certainly would have lost “Redzone Redman.”

The fact that this possibility went off the table when Redman signed his tender was news. It deserved coverage.

What Is the Role of a Daily?

Steelers fans of course had myriad other means to learn of this information, via Twitter, fan sites, ESPN and sports talk radio.

But if that is the argument/explanation for not covering stories like that then the counter question becomes quite caustic:

  • What is the purpose of the sports section of a major newspaper?

Most dailies (at least the Pittsburgh dailies) don’t offer the types of in depth analysis pieces that you find on fan based sites like Behind the Steel Curtain (full disclosure, I also write for BTSC).

Presumptively the reason is because they feel their focus should be on more traditional “news” stories that can be tied conversations with the newsmakers themselves.

That’s a defensible position from a purely journalistic perspective, although one that is likely not a sustainable digital age strategy for two complimentary reasons. First, fan bases’ appetite for “content” on their favorite teams remains nearly boundless. The second relates to the bottom line – profitability and page views go hand-in-hand in the digital world.

  • But the traditionalist journalism argument completely falls flat when dailies simply begin ignoring legitimate news stories.

Because if the dailies fail to make themselves “one-stop-shops” supplying all of the basic news about a particular team in an objective format (as opposed to team websites) then fans both can and will stop visiting their sites….

…The Watch Tower very much wants to see traditional newspapers make the transition to the digital age, and in that vein it suggests that the editors of the Post-Gazette and Tribune Review have a little soul searching to do.

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Legrusky Gets No Love… In Pittsburgh at Least

Kevin Colbert might have an uncanny knack for uncovering previously overlooked gems in the form of undrafted rookie free agents. Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin likewise have an ironclad dedication to giving these guys a fair sake on the fields of St. Vincents.

  • But the Steelers can be downright unsentimental when it comes to showing these men the door.

Fast Willie Parker made Super Bowl XL the Steelers to lose. Willie Parker left Pittsburgh without a contract. James Harrison was asked to take less, and when he balked James Harrison found himself playing for far less money for the Cincinnati Bengals.

In that sense Doug Legursky finds himself in good company. Legursky cracked the Steelers roster in 2009 as an undrafted rookie free agent, and one year later he was starting for them in Super Bowl XLV.

  • He returned the following year to start 10 games as part of the continuing carousel on offense line.
  • He suited up and started 3 more in 2012, and was proving himself to be an excellent 4th interior lineman.

But that wasn’t enough for Tomlin and Colbert, as Legrusky has come to terms with with Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain is calling “Steelers Northeast” aka the Buffalo Bills, who also employ former Steelers cast offs Kraig Urbik, Chris Scott, Corbin Byrant, and Frank Summers aka Frank “The Tank” Summers.

Steel Curtain Rising will have more to say about the Legursky defection later, but for now we’ll simply say “Thanks Doug. You came through when we needed you. Best of luck to you in Buffalo, as long as it doesn’t come at Pittsburgh’s expense.”

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Max Starks Signs with Chargers; Steelers Sign Vince Williams

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Max Starks are breaking up. Could it be for real this time? Yes, folks, it looks like it is.

Long time Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Max Starks went through the first round of free agency without attracting any interest for other teams or from the Steelers themselves. The Steelers then went out an signed Guy Whimper, leading to speculation that Wimper’s arrival meant Starks’s departure (speculation later confirmed as explained in the Watch Tower).

While no official word has come out of Pittsburgh, Max Starks himself is reporting he has a new home with the San Diego Charger. Starks announced the move on Twitter:

I’m very happy to say that I will be joining the @chargers family. Can’t wait to get started and building towards a championship! #GoBolts
— Max Starks IV (@maxstarks78) May 21, 2013

Max Starks has had a longer, and stranger trip than perhaps any Pittsburgh Steelers save for Ernie Holmes. Drafted in 2004 with Ben Roethlisberger, Starks was a starter for the Steelers in Super Bowl XL.

Yet, by the end of 2006 coaches were attempting to phase him out in favor of Willie Colon. The coaches and the front office could not decided what they wanted to do with Starks, leading to him getting transition tenders, franchise tenders and the like – when he wasn’t even starting.

Yet Starks delivered for the Steelers.

He played well of the bench in 2007, saved their 2008 Super Bowl season, and again bailed the Steelers out in 2011 – after they had cut him.

  • Starks may never have been or will be an All Pro Tackle, but he certain did what was asked of him in Pittsburgh. 

Thanks Max. Steelers Nation is in your debt.

Steelers Since Vince Williams, 6th Round Pick

A few days after coming to terms with safety Shamarko Thomas, the Steelers signed inside linebacker Vince Williams, who was their 6th round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.

Williams will compete with Adrian Robinson, Chris Carter, Stevenson Sylvester and perhaps Sean Spence to for a roster spot to provide depth behind Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons.

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Steelers-Max Starks Break Up for Real? Pittsburgh Signs Guy Whimper

They say breaking up is hard to do. The Pittsburgh Steelers and free agent tackle Max Starks can attest.

The Steelers have had a love-hate relationship with Max Starks since drafting him in 2004 that has seen the front office offer him a transition tender only to see the coaches start the season with Starks on the bench.

That was in 2008, and Starks bailed out the team and helped lead them to victory in Super Bowl XLIII. One of the team’s first moves after the NFL 2011 lockout was to cut Max Starks. Starks was of course back in October, going from walking the streets to starting on consecutive Sundays.

Word was that when the Steelers drafted Mike Adams in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft their hopes were that Adams would replace Starks. But when it became clear in training camp that Mike Adams wasn’t quite ready to take over the reigns and left tackle, Starks was signed again.

Pittsburgh is thin at tackle, and Starks is still available, but again he’s not the preferred option, as the Steelers have signed veteran tackle Guy Whimper as reported a few days ago by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Whimper was originally drafted by the New York Giants in 2006 and played the last three seasons for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Behind the Steel Curtain, (full disclosure, I also write for BTSC) labled the signing as curious, citing a Football Outsiders J.J. Cooper’s analysis that had Whimper giving up sacks in nine straight games in 2011. Interestingly enough, Cooper started 15 games in 2011 but was not a regular starter in 2012 and in fact was listed as a tackle/te in Pro Football Reference.

Whimper was signed for the league minimum, so the Steelers can easily cut him in training camp if he does not work out. And who knows, perhaps Max Starks will be available to replace him.

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Watch Tower: Breaking Down Emmanuel Sanders Coverage, Non-Coverage of McLendon and Redman Stories

Emmanuel Sanders signing, a run on Steve McLendon, Isaac Redman staying in Pittsburgh. And that doesn’t even count the 2013 NFL Draft. It has been a busy few weeks in Pittsburgh, and this edition of the Watch Tower shines its light on how those stories were (or weren’t covered) by the Steelers press corps.

Money Don’t Buy [Emmanuel Sanders] Love

Don’t blame Emmanuel Sanders next season if he pulls a Greg Lloyd like black out of the Pittsburgh media, because if the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Pro Football Writers Association were calling the shots, Manny Sanders would be an New England Patriot now.

Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider set the tone when news of New England’s interest in Sanders broke:

Can’t agree with anguish of #Steelers fans. And I really can’t understand the Patriots here. Give me the third-round pick for Sanders.
— James C Wexell (@jimwexell) March 16, 2013

Ed Bouchette wrote a full length story declaring that keeping Sanders would be a bigger risk for the Steelers than letting him go, and labeling the choice a “no brainer.” For Mark Kabloy of the Tribune-Review, the one year nature of the Sanders tender was the deal breaker.

Dale Lolley honed in on Sanders injury history and also against the short-term nature of the deal, although Lolley should be credited for reporting on a split between the front office and the coaches on what to do about Sanders (although ESPN’s John Clayton broke the news, duly cited by Lolley.)

To find Love for Sanders, you have to go to Peter King of Sports Illustrated who devoted points 6 and 7 of his “Ten Things I Think I Think” of his MMQB column to the Sanders situation. First he blasted New England for its half-hearted, short term offer to Sanders, and praised Sanders, citing his team-high 14.2 yards per catch average.

Ivan Cole of Behind the Steel Curtain also wrote a strong defense of the Sanders signing, although BTSC’s readers voted overwhelmingly for the Steelers to take the pick and let Sanders walk (full disclosure I also write for BTSC.)

 So You Say Sanders Had Multiple Suitors…

After the Steelers matched New England’s offer for Sanders, Dale Lolley immediately told his readers to expect a long-term deal to be worked out.

  • Not so fast, shot back Sanders agent Jordan Woy, indicating that Sanders had “several offers” from NFL teams.

Ed Bouchette followed up the story, writing:

Whether he plays for them beyond that is problematic, and the Steelers had to know that when they decided to keep him for another year. 

The New England Patriots weren’t the only ones to offer Sanders a contract in free agency, and the Steelers might not be able to keep him beyond next season. [Emphasis Added]

Woy’s statement is woven in pure agent talk. Of course he’s supposed to say his client had plenty of offers (although if that’s the case, then why sign the one that is only for one year?)

But were there really teams lining up to throw money at Sanders? The average fan has no way of knowing, and relies on beat writers for that insight.

  • Unfortunately, Ed Bouchette offered none. 

He writes as if the multiple offers for Sanders were a matter of fact, yet gives his readers zero indication as to whether he has verified this claim with any sources, be they named or unnamed.

The Watch Tower has praised Ed Bouchette for his journalistic acumen before and no doubt will again, but the Post-Gazette’s readers deserved more from the “Dean” of the Steelers press corps on this one.

In fairness, though, Bouchette at least covered that aspect of the story whereas the Tribune Review appears to have ignored it.

McLeondon Coverage and… Non-Coverage

Steelers Nation got a jolt last week when news broke that the Green Bay Packers were working out starting nose tackle Steve McLendon, in news broken by the Baltimore Sun via Twitter.

Both Mark Kalboy and Ed Bouchette commented on the story via Twitter. Behind the Steel Curtain wrote a story on the visit and then a follow up suggesting that the Packers might simply be trying to pressure their own nose tackle B.J. Raji into extending his contract.

Ed Bouchette followed with a story on PG Plus, but readers of the regular Post Gazette online got nothing. (As PG Plus still refuses to take my money, I am unable to comment on the quality or depth of Bouchette’s story.)

In contrast, the Pittsburgh Tribune Review printed nothing on the story. A look at their main Steelers page as of 2:00 pm Eastern on Saturday 4/20/13 reveals nothing at all on Steve McLendon. Nothing on his visit to Green Bay, nothing on the 3 year deal that the Steelers signed him to.

The Trib’s writers did comment on McLendon via Twitter to be sure, but offered nothing to readers hungry for more than 140 character bites of information on a story with major implications for the Steelers defense in 2013.

  • The Tribune Review earns a big, black mark for its non-coverage of the McClendon story.

If You Happened to Want to Read More about Redman…

The other X Factor in the Steelers restricted free agent situation was Isaac Redman. They’d been rumors that a team might make a run on him, but nothing serious got published to that effect and probably for good reason as Redman signed his restricted free agent tender on Thursday evening without getting an offer.

  • Not that you would have found out about it by reading the Tribune Review, Post-Gazette, or even Behind the Steel Curtain.

Mark Kalboy did report the news via Twitter, but Redman remains a popular player in Steelers Nation, and his assured return means that he figures to be a major part of the Steelers rushing offense in 2013 and those two facts should have warranted more substantial coverage.

Steelers Black Out News on Visits in Advance of the 2013 NFL Draft 

Early in the month news of the Steeles pre-Draft visits flowed freely, and it was clear that they were evaluating a lot of linebackers.

  • Then suddenly, the news stopped.

This is not the first time the Steelers have tried to keep their pre-draft visits secret. Ed Bouchette shared this news with his readers a few off seasons ago on PG Plus, although if memory serves, he was able to uncover and publish the identities of several visitors.

Perhaps he did the same this year on PG Plus. Again, as PG Plus won’t take Watch Tower’s money, I have no way of knowing.

Jim Wexell did report on Twitter that Sio Moore visited the South Side on April 11th:

Sio Moore visiting today. Talked to him at combine. He wore glasses and seriousness reminded me of a Singletary, Kirkland. Great 3rd rd buck
— James C Wexell (@jimwexell) April 11, 2013

The average fan has little way of gauging whether it is easy or hard for reporters to find out who is making visits to the Steelers in advance of the 2013 NFL Draft if the Steelers refuse to announce those visits.

But readers should have been informed of the news black out, instead of simply suffering a sudden stop of information.

Ta’amu Takes a Cheap Shot from Steelers Depot

Shortly after news broke that Alameda Ta’Amu had pleaded guilty to a number of counts stemming from last fall’s drunken rampage on the South Side took a cheap shot.

Ta’amu was unfortunate enough to have a friend tweet an old photo of him holding a liquor bottle in the back seat of a car.

  • Ta’amu made matters worse by being dumb enough or at least inattentive enough to retweet it.

The website Steelers Depot pounced on the move, suggesting that Ta’amu was out the night before “celebrating” his relatively light sentence, and later updating the post suggesting that the fact that Ta’amu had his “friend” take down the photo was an admission of guilt.

However, as Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain pointed out, the photo was taken during the day and during the spring or summer, lending credibility to Ta’amu’s insistence that the photo was an old one.

Steelers Depot’s suggestion little more than a cheap shot, and BTSC deserves credit for calling them out on it.

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James Harrison Signs with Cincinnati Bengals

What does James Harrison share with Neil O’Donnell not to mention John Jackson, Myron Bell, Oliver Gibson, and Jamain Stephens?

If you guessed that he was an ex-Steelers who wound up as a Cincinnati Bengal then you’d be spot on.

Allen Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review is reporting that the Cincinnati Bengals signed James Harrison to a 2 year contract. Terms were not disclosed, although it is likely for less money than he left on the table when Steelers tried to get him to accept a 30% pay cut. When Harrison balked, the Steelers cut him, and Harrison has been trying to land a job with another AFC North team since then.

Harrison himself tweeted the news, showing he’s already incorporating lingua franca of The Jungle into his vocabulary.

Whodey!!!!!!!!!!! Hello Cincinnati!!!!
— James Harrison (@jharrison9292) April 19, 2013

In an trivial twist to the story, Behind the Steel Curtain is citing an ESPN report that says that Harrison will not actually sign the contract until May.

  • Not that it really matters.

With the acquisition of Harrison, Cincinnati cements what is one of the more underrated defenses in the NFL. Unlike Pittsburgh, the Bengals play a 4-3 and how Harrison exactly fits in is unknown but the Bengals already have formidable players such as Gino Atkins, Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap in what is one of the strongest front 7’s in the league.

  • One thing is clear.

James Harrison still has something left. He may not be the player he was in 2008 or even 2010, but Harrison has something in the tank.

And nobody thrives on motivation like James Harrison.

  • If you doubt it, just watch the Steelers 75 Anniversary game where he essentially ended Steve McNair‘s career as a starter.

That cannot be a reassuring thought for Ben Roethlisberger, who must doubling down on his rosary decades, praying that the investments the Steelers have made in Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams, and David DeCastro pay off in the form of them developing into players capable of protecting him.

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Isaac “Redzone” Redman to Return to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013

The ink had barley dried on Steve McLendon’s new contract when news broke Steelers Nation could officially stop worrying about a run its remaining restricted free agents.

Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review reported via Twitter that the Isaac Redman had signed his restricted free agent tender, binding him to the Steelers for 2013.

#Steelers RB Isaac Redman signed his RFA tender. Steelers backfield as of 4/18 is 1) Dwyer, 2) Redman, 3) Batch 4) Johnson (FB). Have to add
— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) April 18, 2013

NFL Trains Its Sights on Steelers Restricted Free Agents

Its been 3 years since an NFL restricted free agent had gotten an offer from another team, but the Steelers found themselves at the focal point of not one but two restricted free agent poaching attempts.

The first one involved Emmanuel Sanders, with New England making an offer to Sanders which the Steelers ultimately, and surprisingly matched. Then followed the news that Steve McLendon worked out in Green Bay, prompting the Steelers to quickly Steve McLendon offer him a three year contract.

Rumors and rumblings had it that there were also teams interested in Isaac Redman.

  • Those fears can now be put to rest.

Redman of course joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2009, and quickly achived cult-hero status for his exploits in preseason and in goal line drills, earning himself the name “Red Zone Redman.”

Redman of course made the key touchdown in the Steelers stunning come from behind victory vs. Baltimore in 2010, and by 2011 had proven himself as a capable NFL back up. Redman’s best shot at a stardom came in 2012 with the injury to Rashard Mendenhall, however Redman himself was injured during the first part of the season, and did not recover until late in the season.

  • Redman will now get a second chance and, if the Steelers are smart and cap space allows it, they’ll offer him a multi-year deal during training camp.

No Isaac Redman is not the second coming of Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis. But he’s a gritty, scrappy back who like Merril Hoge and Mewelde Moore before him, has a motor that simply does not quit.

Fortuantely that motor will be running for the Pittsburgh Steelers for one more year.

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