Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Coaching Report Card + Special Teams and Unsung Hero Award

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders if Mike Tomlin might be entering a new phase of his coaching tenure here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Coaching and Special Teams Report Card.

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Grading the Steelers 2015 Special Teams

2015 brought a decidedly mixed bag for the Steelers special teams. On the positive side, Chris Boswell was an unqualified success and in many ways the rookie saved the Steelers season. Antonio Brown showed he could still do damage as a punt returner. Danny Smith’s special teams also created a number of fumbles on kick returns, which is much needed.

  • There’s a flip side to the Steelers 2015 special teams, and it isn’t nearly as attractive.

Outside of Antonio Brown, the Steelers have no one to return kicks, with Markus Wheaton Jacoby Jones and Dri Archer both proving to be abject failures (at least Wheaton was a failure as a punt returner – he was OK returning kickoffs.) And while the Steelers special teams spared themselves from glaring disasters, a couple of scary returns were brought back on penalties. Likewise, Josh Scoobe was a disaster as a place kicker, and contributed to two of the Steelers losses.

On balance the Steelers special teams were slightly above average in 2015 – given the injuries to the offense, the Steelers needed more from the unit. Grade: C+

Grading the Steelers Coaches for 2015

Any discussion of the Steelers coaches in 2015 must begin with the defense, where Keith Butler embarked on a new era, tasked with succeeding the legacy of Dick LeBeau – no easy feat. Butler proved to be more than up to the task. The Steelers 2015 defense might have given up more yards in 2015 than it did in 2014, but it gave up fewer points, improved in sacks and takeaways – all with only minor adjustments for talent.

  • A closer look is perhaps warranted at the role of Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake.

The Steelers banked heavily on the development of Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas, and both men were disappointments. The responsibility for this doesn’t of course only lie on Lake’s shoulders, but he is their position coach, and by all accounts, Lake pushed hard for the Steelers to draft Thomas. He’s also spoken glowingly of Antwon Blake, who while he might get scapegoated far too often for the unit’s troubles, clearly was not the secondary’s strong link.

Moving over to offense, it is now clear with 20/20 hindsight that one of Art Rooney II’s best moves was to force Bruce Arians out. Mike Tomlin reacted by bringing in Todd Haley, and Ben Roethlisberger has grown and matured as a result of it. Yes, Roethlisberger’s late season “stupid interceptions” are a cause for concern, but that is something that can be corrected.

  • The naysayers might argue, “Ah, but Haley had all the weapons at his disposal.”

Yes, and any coach needs to have good players first – and having them is no guarantee of success. Don’t believe me? Look at the difference in performance between the Steelers 1991 and 1992 offenses. The 1991 was a muddling and bumbling at best under Joe Walton; under Ron Erhardt in 1992 the same talent performed much, much better.

  • Todd Haley started 3 quarterbacks, lost his all pro running back and center, lost wide receivers to injuries and suspensions and still fielded one of the NFL’s most lethal units.

And finally, there’s Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. Art Rooney II showed his faith in Tomlin by extending his contract in training camp. Many in Steelers Nation questioned the move, clinging to the “He’s still only won with Bill Cowher’s players.” Yeah, whatever.

This is Tomlin’s team or Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s team. And Mike Tomlin has done pretty damm good with the group of player’s he’s assembled. It is one thing to mouth the words, “The Standard is the Standard” and/or “Next Man Up.” It is another thing to believe it, and yet another to get your locker room to accept it.

Yes, Mike Tomlin teams might still have legitimate issues with “Trap Games” but he’s proven himself to be an excellent head coach. Tomlin himself will tell you that any season that doesn’t end in a Super Bowl Championship is a failure. Fair enough. But 2015 probably represented his best coaching job. Grade: A

Steelers Unsung Hero of 2015

Everyone knows that Ben Roethlisberger took a lot of punishment during the early part of Mike Tomiln’s tenure as head coach. Debates raged over how much of that was due to “Ben being Ben.” Some of it undoubtedly was. But the Steelers, for whatever reason, employed a “Plug and Patch” approach to offensive line building, and it showed.

Roethlisberger, Brown, Wheaton, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant, Heath Miller, and DeAngelo Williams put together a lot of ESPN highlight material in 2015.

  • But none of their fireworks would have been possible without the quality offensive line play week in and week out.

Mike Munchak lost 40% of his offensive line, yet the unit improved from 2014 to 2015. One can only imagine how much more might have been accomplished had Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum stayed healthy.

As it was, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Cody Wallace, Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva acted as a rock of stability for the Steelers offense, and for that the Steelers offensive line wins the Unsung Hero award for the 2015 season.

Part I of the Steelers 2015 Report Card graded the offense.
Part II of the Steelers 2015 Report Card graded the defense.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Defensive Report Card

Taken from the grade book of a teacher began the year by telling his students that he expected them to outperform the low expectations that others had for them, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Defensive Report Card.

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Defensive Line
2015 marked a new era on the Steelers defensive line, as it was the first time since 2000 that a Smith, a Hampton, or Keisel was not a start on the defensive line. 2015 also saw John Mitchell’s long standing practice of rotating defensive lineman taper off. Cameron Heyward stepped forward as a leader of the Steelers defense, and he did it with authority registering 7 sacks and 55 tackles. Stephon Tuitt was not far behind, with six and half sacks. Steve McLendon had a quieter year, but the Steelers improve run defense does not come unless he is playing well.

While the trio of Heyward, Tuitt and McLendon provided Steelers Nation with a lot to like, not much can be said of the men playing behind them. Daniel McCullers played 105 snaps – up from 63 a year ago, but that pales to compared to the 216 snaps that Al Woods logged in 2013. Cam Thomas saw his snap percentage drop from 44.9% to a mere 16.9%, and rookie L.T. Walton only logged 29 snaps.

  • Heyward’s snap count was close to 90% and Tuitt’s was just under 80%.

It’s doubtful that Tomlin, Bulter and Mitchell would have played both men so much had they the luxury of rotating someone else in. Overall, the performance of the Steelers defensive line was very good, but Steelers defense came up flat whenever they couldn’t pressure the passer, and the defensive line must shoulder some of that responsibility. Grade:  B+

The Pittsburgh Steelers linebacking corps boasted four 1st round draft picks for the first time in franchise and possibly league history. Lawrence Timmons continued to lead this group and arguably had his best seasons since2012. Ryan Shazier came into his own, from his breakout game vs. San Francisco, to his stellar performance late in the season and in the playoffs.

Regarding the Steelers outside linebackers, Bud Dupree showed promise in his first year in the NFL. Three years into his NFL career, Jarvis Jones remains somewhat of a mystery. Coaches are always at great pains to point out how well he’s playing in pass coverage, but he still only added 2 sacks to his career total. By comparison, Arthur Moats managed 4 sacks and was more involved in creating turnovers.

  • James Harrison‘s showed that he certainly had something left in the tank – and then some.

Overall the grade of the Steelers linebackers must reflect the fact that they until was generally good, but not quite consistent tough to be considered as something special.  Grade: B

The Steelers accidental secondary is one of the most maligned units in franchise history, perhaps since the days of Lupe Sanchez and John Swain. While the Steelers secondary can in no way be considered a team strength, some of that criticism is slightly overboard.

On the positive side, Mike Mitchell had an excellent year, and vindicated the Steelers decision to make him into a priority-free agent signing. William Gay again showed he was probably, dollar-for-dollar, the NFL’s best cornerback. Will Allen also continued to make plays and Robert Golden looked solid in relief.

Antwon Blake has been the target of both fans and media criticism, and his poor tackling technique hurt the team on a number of occasions. In fairness to Blake, he’s probably a number 4 or number 3 corner who shouldn’t be starting. Ross Cockrell was a nice edition to the secondary, and has a nose for the ball. Brandon Boykin did what was asked of him.

When the Steelers front seven got pressure on the quarterback, the Steelers showed they could win with the secondary. Moreover, the secondary showed it could translate pressure upfront into turnovers. But without this support up front, the Steelers secondary was vulnerable.  Grade: C

Part I of our Steelers 2015 Report Card series graded the Steelers offense.
Part III will grade the Steelers 2015 special teams, coaches and name the Unsung Hero.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Season Review – Learning to Win by Overcoming Adversity

When future historians pen the definitive history of the Pittsburgh Steelers, 2015 will be a turnkey season. But in which direction did the key turn? Right now Steelers Nation can only wait for its answer. But today the 2015 Steelers have given us one undeniable truth:

  • Time and time again, Mike Tomlin and his players have demonstrated the resiliency necessary to overcome adversity.

The Steelers began 2015 with mixed expectations. Pittsburgh had closed 2014 unexpectedly strong by going 4-0 with the defense leading the way. Then 2015 began with a home playoff loss to the division rival Baltimore Ravens. Worse yet, the ease with which the Ravens beat the Steelers seemingly exposed Pittsburgh as a pretender rather than a true contenders:

  • Le’Veon Bell’s absence rendered the Steelers offense rudderless
  • The offensive line failed to protect Ben Roethlisberger
  • Pittsburgh’s pass rush couldn’t pressure the passer
  • Joe Flacco victimized the Steelers secondary

With on these underlying flaws laid bare, most pundits predicted Pittsburgh would take a step back in 2015. And the 2014 Steelers were AFC North Champions a year ago, their 2015 successors had to sneak into the playoffs.

No one can argue with those contrasting facts, but do they prove the pundits right?

2015 Adversity of the “Unknown Unknowns” Smacks the Steelers

All NFL teams plan for “what might go wrong.” Sometimes a team projects and plans accordingly, other times they project but take calculated risks and then there are the “Unknown Unknowns.” What’s an “Unknown, unknown?” in the NFL?

Unexpected adversity smacked the 2015 Steelers in the face early and often. Considered numerically, the numbers are daunting:

  • 46 starter games were lost to injury on offense
  • 6 more offensive starter games were lost to suspensions
  • 1/3 of the Steelers games, including the playoffs, saw a quarterback enter the game because of injury
  • 20 minutes 46 seconds – that’s the total time that Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Le’Veon Bell played together
  • 40% of the Steelers starting offensive line finished the season in injured reserve

Those numbers paint a pretty grim picture. Fortunately saber metrics, DOVA numbers and fantasy football stats don’t win football games. Winning comes from somewhere else.

2015 Steelers Learn a Potentially Important Lesson

One of the underlying ironies of the Steelers 2015 season is that while you can quantify the adversity this team weathered, quantifying how the Steelers overcame is near impossible.

Oh yes, numbers abound. Keith Butler’s defense vastly improve Pittsburgh’s takeaway total, and you can even pinpoint no less than 7 times that opponents entered the Red Zone only to have the Steelers take it away.

  • But can you really measure taking the ball away in the Red Zone with a numerical value?

You can talk about how vs. the Chargers, Michael Vick hit a 71 yard touchdown strike to Markus Wheaton, and then followed it with another drive that saw him convert 3 third downs with passes to Darrius Heyward-Bey and Heath Miller while converting another with a 24 yard scramble.

  • But can is act of an aging superstar digging down to find “IT” one last time quantifiable in anyway?

You can discuss how Martavis Bryant took a Landry Jones check down pass simply intended to burn off clock time and transformed it into an 88 yard touchdown win sealing run against the Cardinals, or how Antonio Brown took a similar pass 57 yards in OT vs. Oakland set up the game winning field goal.

  • But do stat lines “88 yards, TD” and “57 yards, TD” really convey the value of these plays?

You can remind someone of how Ryan Shazier sealed victory over the Broncos with an interception or how he stripped the ball away when all looked loss in Cincinnati.

  • But how do you calculate the statistical value of the uncanny ability to force late game turnovers that defines all true great defenders?

While all of these facts and figures should impress, they’re insignificant when measured against the process that each of the represents – learning how to win games.

Make no mistake about it. More is involved in winning football games then throwing more accurately, running a little faster or, Jack Lambert please forgive me, hitting harder than your opponents. Teams learn “how to win” just as they learn “how to lose.”

  • The final minutes of the Steelers playoff win over the Bengals put on a clinic of one team going through the exercise of learning to win while the other demonstrated the opposite lesson.

On paper, by failing to win the AFC North crown, the 2015 Steelers might have taken a step back. But if, IF they can internalize the lessons learned above, any future 2015 Steelers season review will reveal that made immeasurable progress this season.

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Roosevelt Nix, Chris Hubbard and 8 More Sign Steelers Futures Contracts

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 season ended in Denver on Sunday, and on Monday the team went about beginning its preparations for 2016. 10 players signed Steelers futures contracts (or more precisely “signed futures contracts with the Steelers), with fullback Roosevelt Nix and offensive lineman Chris Hubbard leading the way.

Roosevelt Nix played defensive line in college, but Kevin Colbert and Steelers running backs coach James Saxon saw him in the offensive backfield. Nix made the transition to fullback during the Steelers 50th training camp at Saint Vincents in Latrobe and confounded critics by earning a sport on the 53 man roster.

  • Carrying two fullbacks at time when many NFL teams don’t even carry one seemed like a luxury.

Nix proved his worth, both on with his play on special teams and his ability to block in the back field for DeAngelo Williams, Le’Veon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger. Roosevelt Nix’s lower salary cap value for 2016 could cost fullback/tight end Will Johnson, who will soon be a free agent, his spot with the Steelers.

Chris Hubbard spent 2013 on the Steelers practice squad and has been on the active roster for 9 games, 8 of which came in 2015. With such little tape Hubbard is an unknown to Steelers fans, but it is hardly a surprise the Steelers have signed him, given that Ramon Foster is about to become a free agent.

In addition to Hubbard and Nix, who held spots on the Steelers 2015 regular season roster, the Steelers signed 8 more to 2016 futures contracts:

Jordan Dangerfield and Ray Vinopal, safeties
Matt Feiler and B.J. Finney, offensive lineman
Isaiah Frey, cornerback
Xavier Grimble, tight end
Caushaud Lyons, defensive end
Rajion Neal and Abou Toure, running backs
Shakim Phillips, wide receiver

Jordan Dangerfield, Matt Feiler and Xavier Grimble spent 2015 on the Steelers practice squad. B.J. Finney also spent training camp and a portion of 2015 on the Steelers practice squad while Caushaud Lyons spent time both on the Steelers active roster and practice squad. Safety Ray Vinopal is a Pitt graduate.

The term Steelers futures contracts might lead to some confusion, but it is merely a designation used for players who are free to sign with any team as soon as their season ends as opposed to players who must wait for the official start of free agency.

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The Cameron Heyward Pro Bowl Snub Stings and Its Inexcusable

The Steelers Pro Bowl selections for 2015 are in, and while no one in Steelers nation is complaining about sending Ben Roethlisberger, David DeCastro and Antonio Brown to Honolulu, there are more than a few Steelers that should probably join them. Here will look at a few 2015 Steelers Pro Bowl snubs, but none is more grating than the Cameron Heyward Pro Bowl snub.

Miller & Williams Lead Possible “Other” Steelers Pro Bowl Snubs

On any city in the road, a catch by 83 evokes “Heeath” from the audience. Yet why Heath Miller is so underappreciated outside of Pittsburgh baffles the mind. A year ago it looked like there might be the first signs that Miller was losing a step, but that doesn’t appear to be the case in 2015.

DeAngelo Williams has also more than made the case that he belongs. Yes, he’s “Only a backup” but one that has carried the Steelers entire rushing offense on his back during Le’Veon Bell’s absence. Honestly, seeing Williams name on the Steelers Pro Bowl squad would have been a shock, but that doesn’t make him any less deserving.

Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton’s role in the Steelers offense is perhaps underappreciated, but neither of the men has been consistent enough to warrant serious consideration.

Of DeCastro’s fellow lineman, Marcus Gilbert is porbably the only other contender, although if there was a “team offensive” line vote, then the Steelers offensive line should fare pretty well.

Smarting Over the Cameron Heyward Pro Bowl Snub

If the other Steelers non-Pro Bowl selections are largely explainable, the same cannot be said for the Cameron Heyward Pro Bowl snub. Cam Heyward deserves to be in the Pro Bowl, and snubbing Cam Heyward out of a trip to Honolulu is both inexcusable and indefensible.

Cam Heyward saw time as a rookie, but largely watched and learned from Brett Keisel as the Steelers attempted to replace Aaron Smith with Ziggy Hood. Heyward saw more playing time in 2012 and, despite out playing Hood on various snap/production measures, Heyward was still third in the pecking order.

  • Some less-informed members of Steelers Nation began to call Cameron Heyward a bust.

Such talk was utter foolishness, although John Mitchell, Dick LeBeau and Mike Tomlin’s insistence on starting Hood over Heyward puzzled. After the Steelers 0-4 start, Heyward got promoted to starter, and the Steelers haven’t looked back since. Heyward helped a 2-6 squad transform itself into the 8-8 squad that just missed the playoffs.

During 2014, in his first full year as a starter, Cameron Heyward emerged as a dominant defensive tackle. On the year, he had 7.5 sacks which is impressive, but Cam Heyward really shined during the 2014 Steelers final four games when he stepped up sack the quarterback 3 and a half times as the Steelers defense led Pittsburgh to an 4-0 finish.

  • It’s ironic but in no way coincidental that Heyward’s rise coincided with Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, and Brett Keisel’s exit from the Steelers defense.

The leaders of one generation of Steelers defense were stepping down, and Cam Heyward was stepping forward to take their place. In 2015 that process has continued, as statistically speaking Heyward is outpacing his 2014 performance as he emerges as one of the unquestioned leaders of the Steelers defense.

  • Statistics are nice, but too often they fail to show Heyward’s excellence.

Look at the box score from the Steelers Monday Night win over the Chargers, Cameron Heyward has all of 1 tackle. But Pro Football Focus rated his performance  at 9.8 by far the best of a defensive end in the entire NFL that weekend. Heyward might not have been compiling any sexy stats that night, but he was severely disrupting anything and everything that moved in the San Diego backfield.

Its been said that 3-4 defensive lineman often suffer by comparison to their 4-3 companions. That’s true enough as Joel Steed dominated in obscurity during the 1990’s with Pro Bowl recognition coming only before his knees forced him to retire. Casey Hampton himself only made it to 5 Pro Bowls. Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel made it to one apiece.

  • That doesn’t remove the sting from the Cameron Heyward Pro Bowl snub

Cameron Heyward belongs on the 2015 Pro Bowl squad. It is an honor he has earned and one that is well-deserved.

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Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown & David DeCastro lead Steelers Pro Bowl 2015 Picks

Are the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers Super? We don’t know yet, in fact the Steelers still need to take care of business against the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns – on the road – to even get a shot at earning a ticket to the big dance.

  • One thing is clear, few of their Pro Bowl voting peers hold many of the individual Steelers in high esteem.

Voting for the 2015 Pro Bowl squad is now complete, and voters have limited the Steelers Pro Bowl 2015 representatives are limited to Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and David DeCastro. And those are three strong Steelers Pro Bowl 2015 picks, but one could argue that other members of the Black and Gold should be making the trip to Honolulu….

But, discussion of Steelers 2015 Pro Bowl snubs can wait until later, for now we honor the Steelers Pro Bowl 2015 picks.

Ben Roethlisberger – Steelers 2015 Pro Bowl Selection

Ben Roethlisberger is having one of his finest seasons as a Steelers starter. With two games remaining in the 2015 regular season, Ben Roethlisberger boasts his highest completion percentage of his career. His passer rating might be down, but that number does little to show just how dangerous the Steelers offense is with Roethlisberger throwing to Brown, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and Heath Miller.

  • Under Todd Haley’s tutelage the vertical passing game has returned to Pittsburgh with a vengeance.

And, thus far, Roethlisberger is being sacked far less frequently in 2015 than in perhaps any other season, and that is due in no small part to the stout play of David DeCastro.

David DeCastro – Steelers Pro Bowl 2015 Selection

Everyone expected the Steelers to pick a defensive back heading into the 2012 NFL Draft (sound familiar?). Yet, as the first round unfolded, the top offensive guard began to fall. And he kept falling.

Yet when the Steelers turn came to pick, they wasted little time in drafting David DeCastro in the first round. Since then DeCastro has been everything advertised: A physical, aggressive road-grading offensive lineman with a nasty streak that puts opponents on notice that abuse will not be tolerated.

Antonio Brown – Steelers 2015 Pro Bowl Selection

Last, but certainly not least comes Antonio Brown, the Steelers all-world wide receiver. In 2015 Brown became just the second player after Jerry Rice to post three consecutive seasons with 1,500 plus yards from scrimmage. Brown has also bagged another third consecutive 100 catch season.

  • Yet statistics fail to do Brown justice.

It is getting to the point where Antonio Brown isn’t merely one of the best if not the best wide receivers in the game.

  • Antonio Brown is simply one of the best football players in the game.

Antonio Brown simply catches everything thrown his way. He gets open and helps in the short passing game. He can work the flats. He makes tough catches over the middle. He can beat you deep. Brown can even return punts, although he should not be doing this at this stage of his career.

Not bad for a 6th round pick.

Interesting Steelers Pro Bowl, Super Bowl Precedent?

Steelers fans will likely smart that only three players from Pittsburgh were picked for the 2015 Pro Bowl. And so they should. But Steelers Nation (God willing) might be able to take solace at one other fact.

The 2008 Pro Bowl squad only continued three Pittsburgh Steelers: James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and James Farrior.

Fans, were up in arms at the exclusion of players like Hines Ward, LaMarr Woodley, Heath Miller and arguably Ike Taylor. But few were complaining in early February when the 2008 Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII.

Just sayin…..

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Pittsburgh Shuffles Running Backs: Steelers Activate Fitzgerald Toussaint , Cut Isaiah Pead

Ahead of their impending trip to the west coast and match up with the defending NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks, the Pittsburgh Steelers did some roster shuffling. Thin depth behind starting running back DeAngelo Williams, saw the Steelers activate Fitzgerald Toussaint from their practice squad and cut running back Isaiah Pead.

  • Jordan Todman will remain the primary back up behind DeAngelo Williams.

Fitzgerald Toussaint has been on the Pittsburgh Steelers practice squad all season long, where as the Steelers signed Isaiah Pead after losing Le’Veon Bell to a torn MCL which he suffered in the Steelers loss at Heinz Field to AFC North divisional rival Cincinnati Bengals.

Fitzgerald Toussaint made his entry into the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent signed by the Baltimore Ravens following the 2014 NFL Draft. Fitzgerald Toussaint played his college ball for the Michigan Wolverines. At Ann Arbor had 510 career carries for 2,290 yards for a 4.5 average while scoring 28 rushing touchdowns. Toussaint also caught 31 passes for 298 yards (9.6 average) at Michigan.

The Baltimore Ravens kept Fitzgerald Toussaint on their active roster throughout 2014, where the rookie saw action in four games gaining 12 yards on six carries and made 3 catches for 27 yards. He also suited up for both of the Baltimore Ravens 2014 playoff games, rushing twice for 5 yards and catching one pass for negative 7 yards. Toussaint did not have a carry for Baltimore in the Ravens playoff win vs. the Steelers.

Steelers Protecting Against Practice Squad Poaching?

While this is only speculation on the Steel Curtain Rising’s part, the recent season-end injury to Justin Forsett could have renewed the Ravens interest in Fitzgerald Toussaint, prompting the Steelers to activate him. When the Steelers activated Doran Grant, Neal Coolong of Steelers Wire suggested the Steelers were promoting the cornerback keep another team from signing him.

  • Last year the Steelers lost two defensive lineman to practice squad poaching.

First Pittsburgh West, aka the Arizona Cardinals signed defensive end Josh Mauro, and a few weeks later the Kansas City Chiefs signed nose tackle Nick Williams. Mauro only appeared in 1 game in 2014, but has played in 10 games for the Cardinals in 2015. Nicholas Williams played in two games in 2014 for the Chiefs, and has appeared in nine thus far in 2015.

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Steelers Nation Gives Thanks in 2015 for the Steelers Understudies DeAngelo Williams, Will Allen, Cody Wallace, and Alejandro Villanueva

Thanksgiving is here and as always my thoughts turn to Pittsburgh because, for the first 21 years of my life, Thanksgiving either involved a trip to Pittsburgh or a visit from relatives from Pittsburgh.

Those days have long passed and 2015 actually marks the 14th consecutive year yours truly will spend Thanksgiving outside of the United States. Thanksgiving traffic could make the I-270/I-70/Pennsylvania Turnpike/Parkway circuit quite stressful, but it was a more manageable haul than Buenos Aires-to-Maryland.

As we have every year since 2009, Steel Curtain Rising takes stock of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and gives Steelers Nation something Steelers-related to give thanks for. And this year we’re giving thanks for “The Understudies” DeAngelo Williams, Will Allen, Cody Wallace, and Alejandro Villanueva.


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Pittsburgh, Thanksgiving 2015, photo by Dave DiCello

Steelers Thanksgiving 2015 “An Ode to Steelers Understudies”

Success in today’s NFL means preparing for the unexpected, which is, by definition, difficult. Unless you get really lucky, the question isn’t “If” a star player is going to injured, but “When.”

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers represent no exception.

The Steelers opened the 2013 season without their starting running back and their top two tight ends, and, by the third quarter, had lost their center, right cornerback, third down back and right inside linebacker.

  • ESPN.com argues that the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers have been hurt by more injures than anyone else.

ESPN might exaggerate, but at quarterback alone Pittsburgh has seen Ben Roethlisberger on the cart twice, and watched both Michael Vick and Landry Jones come out of games, never mind Bruce Gradkowski’s ten day journey from the PAP list to the IR list.

Fortunately, thanks to the role of understudies, the 2015 Steelers have been able to adapt and overcome.

Steelers Understudy DeAngelo Williams Isn’t Old, He’s Mature

A year ago Le’Veon Bell‘s injury left Steelers entering the playoffs with their pants down. Unfortunately Bell was injured again this year, but fortunately the Steelers have been ready thanks to DeAngelo Williams.

The NFL has always been a “young man’s game” but that statement is more true at running back now than it ever has been. Perhaps its appropriate to say that “26 is the new 30” for NFL running backs. Running backs just don’t play for very long. The Steelers know this. Their top three running backs from 2012 (Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, and Isaac Redman) were out of football by 2014.

When the Steelers signed him from the Carolina Panthers, DeAngelo Williams was 32, had nine seasons, and had rushed the ball one thousand four hundred and thirty two times. On paper, that would seem like a very risky proposition.

  • In just four starts, Williams is ½ way to 1000 yards, and his rushing average is actually a hair better than Bell’s.

In Bell’s absence, Williams just hasn’t held his own he’s helped move the Steelers offense forward. (Oh, yeah, and as the embedded Twitter video shows, DeAngelo Williams is a pretty good blocker too….)

Will Allen, the Under Appreciated Steelers Understudy

Has there been a more under appreciated Pittsburgh Steeler in recent memory than Will Allen?

You’d have to make a really strong case to convince me. We’ve told Will Allen’s story here before:

2015 was supposed to be Shamarko Thomas’ year to shine. The Steelers, in fact, let Will Allen hang in free agency until Troy Polamalu retired. Instead, the Steelers have benched Thomas and started Will Allen and Allen has been a source of strength, leadership and stability for the Steelers secondary.

Wallace & Villanueva: The Offensive Lineman No One Else Wanted

“There’s a reason why no one else wanted him….” That’s a stock response Steelers fans hear any time a fan ask “Why hasn’t Pittsburgh signed [insert player sitting at home] yet.” Sometimes it’s true. I confess to using it myself on more than one occasion.

But Kevin Colbert has a keen eye for seeing upsides on struggling player that other NFL general managers miss. And ten games into the 2015 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line is starting two of them.

In September 2013 things did not look good for Cody Wallace. 2009 saw him suit up for one game with the San Francisco 49ers who’d drafted him in the 4th round. Spent 2010 getting signed and cut by the Jets and Lions but never played for either. In 2011 he held practice squad and a roster spots with the Houston Texans. Tampa Bay picked him up in 2012 where he played in 8 game, but the Buccaneers cut him before the 2013 season.

  • Such moves generally signal the end for 29 year old offensive lineman who’ve drifted from team-to-team.

But Kevin Colbert saw something in Wallace he liked, brought him to Pittsburgh, and Wallace has started 16 games and counting for the Steelers. Yes, Wallace poor technique has been cited by those who know more than I do, and he earned a spot as one of 6 Steelers who need to step up. But Cody Wallace has generally been soild for the Steelers.

Alejandro Villanueva’s story is well known. Son of a Spanish immigrant who grew up an Army brat. Four year player at wide receiver, offensive tackle, and defensive tackle for West Point. US Amry Ranger who served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan. And now, after one year on the practice squad, he’s the Steelers starting left tackle.

Villanueva struggled in his first start, and still has a lot to learn, but thus far he’s avoided being a liability.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

So in 2015 Steelers Nation can give thanks for the Steelers Understudies, DeAngelo Williams, Will Allen, Cody Wallace and Alejandro Villanueva.

But, while the Steelers are important to me and the fact that you’ve read this far says they’re important to you too. But Steel Curtain Rising’s real Thanksgiving wish for everyone has nothing to do with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and to that end we sincerely hope that all of you reading this have no-shortage of non-football reasons tied to good health and that of your family and friends to give thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation.

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Mike Adams Season Ends as Steelers Do Not Practice Him

Sometimes things simply aren’t meant to be. Is that the case for the Pittsburgh Steelers and offensive tackle Mike Adams? Time will tell, but events are certainly trending in that direction. Mike Adams began training camp on the Steelers PUP list and Pittsburgh had until 4:00 pm Tuesday to begin practicing him, or place him on season-ending injured reserve.

  • He did not practice with the Steelers on Tuesday which means Mike Adams season ends.

Once considered a first round worthy draft pick, Mike Adams history with the Steelers has been rocky to say the least. Mike Adams failed a drug test at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine, prompting Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin to remove him from their draft board.

Fortunately, Mike Adams agent Joe Panos has a good relationship with the Steelers, and set up a meeting between Adams and the Steelers. Adams entered rehab, fell out of the first round, and the Steelers drafted Adams in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

While Mike Tomlin stopped well short of pronouncing Mike Adams as his starting left tackle, he signaled his intentions by moving Willie Colon to guard and making way for Marcus Gilbert to start at right tackle. The door was open for Mike Adams to grab the Steelers starting left tackle spot in training camp. Adams wasn’t up to the challenge, so the Steelers turned to Max Starks as they had so many times before.

  • Mike Adams got playing time in 2012 at right tackle as injures ravaged the Steelers offense line (sound familiar) and did a good job.

The Steelers went into training camp 2013 with Mike Adams at the top of the depth chart at left tackle. Adams held down the spot, but Kelvin Beachum most certainly pushed him for starting time. The Steelers nonetheless started Adams hoping to use Kelvin Beachum’s utility as a lineman who could play all five positions.

  • The Mike Adams experiment at left tackle was a disaster.

Per Neal Coolong of USA Today’s Steelers Wire, Mike Adams gave up 13 sacks and, for perhaps the only time in his career, Ben Roethlisberger appeared rattled by the pass rush. Adams was replaced by Beachum but has played well in the times he has been called upon to start due to injury.

Injury Costs Mike Adams Opportunity

Mike Adams back injury cost him an opportunity to redeem himself during 2015. There was no way he was beating out Kelvin Beachum for the starting left tackle spot, but he could have likely earned the number 3 tackle slot. Instead that role falls to Alejandro Villanueva, who has started since Beachum tore his ACL.

Still, Adams is in the final year of his rookie contract, and he is coming off of back surgery. Such a pedigree does not generally entice suitors to throw money at NFL free agents, so Adam’s phone will likely stay quiet.

Will the Steelers be one of the teams that calls? As Mike Adams season ends, that remains to be seen.

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Does the Steelers Accidental Secondary Hold Pittsburgh’s Playoff Hopes in Its Hands?

Has the Pittsburgh Steelers defense improved from 2014 to 2015 or it is about the same? 10 games into the season, it depends on which metric you’re looking at:

  • The Steelers passing defense is 25th in the league,
  • They’re 5th in terms of points allowed, sacks and take aways

Their passing defense is only a hair better than 2014’s 27th ranked unit, but the Steelers 2015 defense is greatly out performing their 2014 counterparts in terms of points allowed, takeaways, and sacks. And they’re accomplishing it with a front 7 that is as stout as any you’ll find in the league, and an accidental secondary.

  • That’s right Steelers Nation, welcome to the 2015 Steelers accidental secondary.

2015 Pittsburgh Steelers Accidental Secondary

Take a close look at the depth chart ladies and gentleman, and you’ll find that in the Steelers starting secondary, only one of their defensive backs is where the Steelers projected him to be when they brought him to Pittsburgh.

That honor falls to Steelers starting free safety Mike Mitchell. When the Steelers decided to say goodbye to Ryan Clark in 2013, they’d already signed Mike Mitchell to take his place and in the process inject some youth into an aged secondary. Mitchell struggled a little in 2014, in part because of injuries, and in part because he was unaccustomed to playing with Troy Polamalu.

You could argue that William Gay is playing where Pittsburgh projected him to, and at the end of 2014 and during training camp the Steelers certainly expected him to be their starter. Which speaks very well of William Gay. But when the Steelers resigned William Gay in 2013 he did not get a starting cornerback’s contract.

Starting opposite William Gay is Antwon Blake is another accidental starter, and he does not carry that label simply because he was a waiver wire pickup. After all, Yancey Thigpen was a product of Tom Donahoe’s bargin hunting in 1992, and was a starter by 1994. But the Steelers projected Cortez Allen and not Antwon Blake their second starting corner going into training camp this summer.

That leaves Will Allen, whom the Steelers waited until Troy Polamalu retired to bring him back. Instead, the Steelers had their hopes set on Shamarko Thomas, who started during training camp, and then benched.

Even the Steelers nickel back slot is manned by an accidental “starter” in the form of Ross Cockrell, whom the Steelers picked up after he was cut by Buffalo after trading with Philadelphia for Brandon Boykin. When the trade was consummated, many felt Boykin would be the Steelers number 3 corner, if not challenge Gay and/or Allen for starting time.

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

What’s the moral of the story behind the 2015 Steelers accidental secondary? One plausible explanation offered by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo is that the Steelers coaches and front office are not on the same page as far as the secondary is concerned.

  • That’s plausible. It happened during the Steelers “plug and patch” era of offensive line building at the beginning of the Tomlin era.

But it could simply be that things don’t always work out as planned. If that’s the case, then credit Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, and Carnell Lake for having their understudies ready.

  • With that said, the Steelers pass defense does appear to be the team’s weak link here in 2015.

Credit Keith Butler’s boys for clamping down in the Red Zone, but with the way the NFL is today, post-season play, if not December play, has a way of exposing weak secondaries. Ten games into the 2015 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have shown that they are made of tough stuff. Their a scrapping, resilient team.

But even with that said, Pittsburgh might only be able to go as far as the Steelers accidental secondary can take them.

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