Sisyphean Steelers Secondary Rebuild Underlined by Coty Sensabaugh Promotion, Phillips Trade

The Steelers preseason winning effort over the Atlanta Falcons didn’t come until after Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub and third-stringer Matt Simms carved up the Steelers secondary. On the Wednesday after the game, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert responded by:

Coty Sensabaugh, Steelers secondary Rebuild

Coty Sensabaugh practices during the off season at Steelers South Side facility. Photo Credit: Steelers.com via Steel City Underground

Coincidence? Perhaps, but probably not. No, these moves are likely the latest in what can only be described as a Sisyphean Steelers secondary rebuild. “Sisyphean”for those of you who’re rusty on your Greek Mythology, referse to the plight of Sisyphus who was condemned for all eternity to roll a bolder up hill, only to have it get away from him halfway up, so that he could start again.

On has to get the feeling that Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake can identify.

Steelers Secondary Rebuild Stuck in Second Gear

When the Steelers started training camp, building depth in the secondary in general, and at cornerback in particular were a key need for the team. On paper, things looked promising. For starters, the Steelers had bodies, in contrast to previous trips to St. Vincents.

Artie Burns and Sean Davis had come into their own during the second half of 2016, and Mike Mitchell had continued with another year of solid play. They’d added Coty Sensabaugh , word was William Gay was looking better than he had at the end of 2016, and Senquez Golson was also back.

A month later, finds Senquez Golson injured, again, joined by Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, who’ve largely been kept on the sidelines during training camp and preseason. The leaves the Steelers shuffling the deck again at cornerback, much as they did in 2015 when they traded for Brandon Boykin and claimed Ross Cockrell off of waivers.

  • Whatever else you can say, you can’t blame Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for lack of trying.

As recently as two years ago, you could argue that Pittsburgh was trying to rebuild the secondary on the cheap, as the Steelers brain trust ignored pleas from fans and the press to draft a cornerback early in the 2012, 2013, and 2014 NFL Draft. Indeed, in 2014 Carnell Lake shoed away questions about waiting so long to draft a corner by talking up Antwon Blake.

Cortez Allen, Torrey Smith, Steelers secondary rebuild

Images like this remind us why the Steelers once counted on Cortez Allen. Photo Credit: Alchetron

For the record, the Steelers had thought they had something in Cortez Allen and had invested heavily in drafting Shamarko Thomas as an eventual starter at safety. Both of those moves count as epic failures. But that was then.

  • Since 2014, the Steelers have drafted five defensive backs and used premium picks to draft all four of them.

Despite all of those moves, the Steelers still find themselves turning over loose stones hoping to uncover a defensive back or two who can help bring home Lombardi Number 7.

While that might not be listed as Standard Operating Procedure in the manual of a team that fancies itself as a Super Bowl contender, fans can take heart in the fact that the Steelers track record is pretty solid here.

Antown Blake wasn’t starting material, but he delivered good value as a waiver wire pickup. And while Ross Cockrell’s demotion is disappointing (and as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell indicates, probably permanent), the Steelers secondary was better with him starting in 2016 than it had been with Blake starting in 2015.

So the trajectory of the Steelers Secondary Rebuild remains upward. But unlike Sisyphus, the Steelers need to find a way to keep the ball rolling until they reach the mountain top. Because Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t have an eternity to wait.

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Hometown Hero Homecoming: Steelers Draft James Conner in 3rd Round, RB Pitt

The close of day two of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Steelers draft James Conner running back from Pitt with their third round compensatory selection.

  • Fans will remember that the Steelers made a similar move with their 3rd round compensatory selection in the 2014 NFL Draft when they took Dri Archer.

Dir Archer turned out to be a veritable head case, but the Steelers can rest assured that James Conner won’t follow in his footsteps. It remains to be seen if Conner can deliver in the NFL, but the man’s character and work ethic are above reproach, as he bounced back from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015 to lead the Pitt Panthers rushing for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016.

Steelers draft James Conner, James Conner, 2017 NFL Draft

Steelers 3rd round draft pick James Conner rushed for 3,733 yards and 52 TD’s at Pitt. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today

Steelers running backs coach James Saxon insisted that Conner wasn’t a sentimental or character pick and James Connor’s highlight reel from Pitt backs him up:

Hearing his name called by the Pittsburgh Steelers is a dream come true for Connor, who in addition to being a standout for Pitt, is an Erie native who played at McDowell High School.

James Connor will provide an immediate boost to a running back depth chart that has struggled to keep two starting caliber running backs healthy since the 2011 season. Le’Veon Bell will remain the uncontested starter, but after Bell the Steelers only have Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis behind him, a duo whose collective yards-per-carry average is 3.15.

James Conner described getting drafted by his hometown team as:

It’s a dream come true. I’m forever grateful to them for giving me the opportunity after everything I’ve been through. I know a lot of teams were scared, but they gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, and they are going to get a great person and a great football player, and I’ll give it my all for them.

The Steelers were expected to go for a running back early in the 2017 NFL Draft and Conner’s third round selection all but confirms what has been obvious for a while, DeAngelo Williams is not in Pittsburgh’s plans for 2017.

  • By drafting James Conner on the third round the Steelers revived what had once been a robust franchise tradition: Giving Pitt Panthers the possibility to play in the NFL.

The Steelers have drafted over 46 players from the University of Pittsburgh, but have not taken a Panther in the NFL Draft since choosing Hank Poteat in the 2000 NFL Draft.

That’s a far cry from the 1980’s, when the Steelers took 6 Pitt Players in the draft, including 3 in the 1989 NFL Draft in the form of Tom Ricketts, Jerry Olsavsky and Carlton Haselrig who was a Pitt-Johnstown graduate.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Inside Linebacker: Moderate

What a machine. What a consistent force and performer in the middle of the Steelers defense for 10 glorious seasons.

I’m referring, of course, to inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons who became head coach Mike Tomlin’s first draft choice, when the Steelers selected him out of Florida State with the 15th pick of the 2007 NFL Draft.

Lawrence Timmons started slowly as he learned legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau‘s sophisticated defense, but the athleticism, the explosiveness, they were on display right from the very start.

After serving an apprenticeship under veterans James Farrior and Larry Foote, Lawerence Timmons moved to the  top of the depth chart in his third season and started 124 games between 2009-2016–including a very durable 96-straight over his final six seasons in Pittsburgh.

After the 2016 campaign, Lawrence Timmons became a free-agent and inked a two-year deal with the Dolphins in March, leaving the Steelers with a hole at one of the inside linebacker spots…sort of. Yes, there’s a “Sort of” attached to that statement and how the Steelers define “sort of” will impact their plans for inside linebacker in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Vince Williams, Ryan Shazier, Steelers 2017 draft needs inside linebacker

Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams celebrate a turnover. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via SportsnetCA

Steelers Depth Chart @ Inside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Starters

Speaking of athleticism and explosiveness, Ryan Shazier, arguably the Steelers best player on defense, has both in bunches.

A first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Shazier was thrust into the starter’s role right from the beginning, thanks to the team’s transition period on defense from the veteran group that helped win two Super Bowls in the previous decade to the younger version that sorely needed a “splashy” play-maker. Ryan Shazier proved to be that early-on, as he intercepted a pass and made several impressive tackles during his rookie home debut in a preseason game at Heinz Field against the Bills.

  • Unfortunately for Ryan Shazier and the Steelers, Shazier missed seven games in 2014 due to a sprained knee.

Over the past two seasons, Ryan Shazier has grown into his role of the spectacular play-maker and best player on the defense. Two years ago, Ryan Shazier was the best player on the field, recovering a fumble and literally saving Pittsburgh’s season, when he stripped running back Jeremy Hill of the football in the waning moments of a come-from-behind victory over the Bengals in an AFC Wild Card game.

  • Last season, as the Steelers marched all the way to the AFC Championship game, Ryan Shazier recorded 55 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions, as he made his first Pro Bowl.

So, who will take Lawerence Timmons’ job and play alongside Ryan Shazier at the other inside linebacker spot? After inking a two-year contract-extension through the 2018 season, Vince Williams, the 2013 sixth round pick out of Florida State, figures to be the heir apparent to Timmons.

Truth be told, Vince Williams appeared to be destined for a future starter’s role, even before the start of the 2016 season. With Lawrence Timmons lame-duck status and declining play in recent years, Vince Williams’ new deal, which he signed before the start of the regular season, seemed like a proactive move by the organization.

When Ryan Shazier missed four games with a knee injury early in 2016, Vince Williams performed so well in his absence–including a combined 25 tackles in back-to-back victories over the Chiefs and Jets–many wondered if Ryan Shazier would be able to reclaim his starting spot.

Surprisingly, however, Lawrence Timmons stepped up his play so much down-the-stretch, as Pittsburgh won nine-straight games, the idea of keeping the Law Dog around for at least another season began to pick up steam. But that talk soon vanished early in free-agency, when Lawrence Timmons jumped to Miami for $11 million in guaranteed money.

With Lawrence Timmons now a former Steeler, the original sentiment of Vince Williams succeeding him at inside linebacker seems to be the plan heading into 2017.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Inside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Backups 

Behind Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams, there’s a little promise but mostly just depth.

In Tyler Matakevich, Pittsburgh’s seventh round pick out of Temple a year ago, the team has a potential tackling machine (493 tackles in college).

  • The key word in that last sentence is “potential,” because Tyler Matakevich certainly didn’t prove much a year year ago, while playing mostly on special teams.

Rounding on the backups are L.J. Fort, a journeyman out of Northern Iowa who appeared in 14 games last season but only recorded two tackles; and Steven Johnson, a veteran the Steelers signed as a free-agent a year ago who has only started seven games in his NFL career.

Although he’s played exclusive on the outside for the Steelers, reserve OLB Arthur Moats also has experience playing on the inside and could serve as an emergency backup in a pintch.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Inside Linebacker

Pittsburgh did add depth on defense during the free-agency period, but not at the inside linebacker spot (although not for lack of trying, if press reports are accurate).Steelers 2017 Draft Needs inside linebacker

Therefore, with Ryan Shazier’s propensity for injuries early in his NFL career–he’s missed 14 of a possible 48 games over three years–and with Vince Williams’s athleticism not being quite on par with what Lawrence Timmons provided for a decade, selecting an inside linebacker in the first few rounds certainly wouldn’t be out of he question for the Steelers.

  • And what happens when/if either Vince Williams or Ryan Shazier gets injured, and the Steelers are forced to go with unproven and/or less talented players to fill the starting role?

Having Vince Williams was a luxury a year ago, but unless someone like Tyler Matakevich makes that all-important first to second year leap, the Steelers might not have that same luxury in 2017 unless they hit on a player in the draft.

Reuben Foster, a top 10 prospect out of Alabama, figures to be long gone by the time the Steelers spot comes up at 30. But some possible names to keep an eye on are Haasan Reddick out of Temple, who is projected to go in the first or second round; and Jarrad Davis from Florida, who also grades out as either a first or second round pick.

  • Finally, while Pittsburgh does have two players slated to start at the inside linebacker spot, the bottom line is the team could always use another play-maker on defense–regardless of what position he plays.

If that player happens to be an inside linebacker and his value coincides with where the Steelers happen to be drafting, it would probably be a wise choice. Given the state of their starters and backups, the Pittsburgh Steelers need at inside linebacker going into the 2017 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

 

 

 

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Steelers Sign Tyson Alualu. Has Johnny Mitchell Found the Coveted “4th Lineman” for His Rotation?

After remaining relatively inactive during the first wave of free agency, Pittsburgh as been busy this week signing three players into days with the franchise’s latest acquisition seeing the Steelers sign Tyson Alualu the free agent defensive lineman from Jacksonville to a two year contract.

  • During the 2010 NFL Draft the Jacksonville Jaguars surprised the rest of the league when they drafted Tyson Alualu with the 10th overall pick.

Since then Tyson Alualu has had a solid, but hardly spectacular career, although it should be noted that he did make several “All Rookie teams” in 2010, per reporting by Jim Wexell on Steel City Insider.

Tyson Alualu, Steelers 2017 free agents, Steelers defensive line

Steelers reserve defensive lineman Tyson Alualu in Pittsburgh after arriving as a free agent. Photo Credit: Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette

With seven seasons under his belt, Tyson Alualu provides a perfect example of a player who may not have lived up to his lofty draft status, but is very far from being a bust. He’s never missed a game due to injury, he brings the Steelers 88 games of starting experience, 17.5 sacks, and offers position flexibility with the ability to play either nose tackle or defensive end.

All of this must make for pure music in the ears of Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell

Does Johnny Mitchell Finally Have his Coveted 4th Lineman?

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell has been with the team since the fall of 1994, having replace Steve Furness as part of Bill Cowher‘s coaching purge following the 1993 season. During Johnny Mitchell’s watch and, particularly during the Kevin Colbert era, the Steelers defensive line has been a model of stability.

While each of those starters played a critical role in securing Lombardi Trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII, their impact and importance of their understudies cannot be under stated. Johnny Mitchell’s system relies heavily on rotating defensive lineman in and out throughout the game.

  • But for Mitchell’s system to be effective, the Steelers can’t suffer a drop of in quality of play when the starter has taken a breather.

For a long time, players like Chris Hoke, Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason were good enough to allow Mitchell rotate Keisel, Smith and Hampton in out as needed. In his two years in Pittsburgh, Al Woods looked he was growing into that same role but the Steelers stint in salary cap purgatory in prevented the team from keeping Al Woods in Pittsburgh in 2014.

They signed Cam Thomas instead, who was decidedly not up to the role. Daniel McCullers whom the Steelers drafted during the 2014 NFL Draft has flashed, but has yet to show he can take that role. Ricardo Mathews performed well after Cam Hewyard was lost for the season and so did L.T. Walton.

  • But the Steelers appear to have found an upgrade from both men in Tyson Alualu.

During the heyday of Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel’s tenures, Johnny Mitchell quipped – not altogether jokingly – the he would retire when this trio began their “Life’s Work.” The arrival of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and most recently Javon Hargrave has provided Mitchell with another fearsome threesome.

Tyson Alualu just might provide the type of talent and stability that Mitchell needs to get his rotation humming.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Kevin Colbert & Mike Tomlin Cut Losses Quickly: Steelers Cut Justin Gilbert

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin believe in cutting their loses quickly as the Steelers cut cornerback Justin Gilbert just months after trading a 2018 6th round pick to acquire Gilbert’s services from the Cleveland Browns.

Going into the 2014 NFL Draft, cornerback was the Steelers most urgent area of need, and by all accounts Justin Gilbert was the player Pittsburgh’s brain trust was targeting. But the Cleveland Browns got him first, picking him 7th and making him the first defensive back drafted that year.

Justin Gilbert, Tyreek Hill, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers cut Justin Gilbert

The Steelers Justin Gilbert tries in vain to tackle Tyreek Hill of the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh 247 Sports.

3 months later Justin Gilbert got infamously burned in a couple of Ben Roethlisberger to Markus Wheaton hook ups the Steelers 2014 season opener against the Cleveland Browns. Ironically, that’s probably the most anyone in Pittsburgh has seen of Justin Gilbert since then.

By Pro Football Reference’s count, Justin Gilbert participated in a just 1.05% of the Steelers defensive snaps this season, suiting up in the secondary during the Steelers regular season win over the Kansas City Chiefs and their regular season loss against the New England Patriots. Theoretically, Gilbert should have given the Steelers kick return game some juice, but Gilbert only 3 kicks during the regular season with those attempts coming against the Chiefs and Patriots.

Gilbert did run for long returns of 32 yards in the regular season and 26 yards during the post season, but clearly Steelers Special Teams coach Danny Smith didn’t see enough of a spark to lobby Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert into keeping him on the roster.

Impact of the Steelers Cutting Justin Gilbert

On the face of it, Justin Gilbert’s release is a surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Keith Butler’s defense struggled early during the 2016 season, but you can trace the unit’s turn around to increased playing time by Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Javon Hargrave and James Harrison. Justin Gilbert remained a spectator through it all. When the Steelers needed to add a 6th defensive back, Robert Golden and/or Jordan Dangerfield got the call as opposed to Gilbert.

  • Nonetheless, the Steelers decision to cut Justin Gilbert thins out an already sparse spot on their depth chart.

Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell will return to training camp as their starting cornerbacks, with William Gay penciled in as their slot cornerback. While William Gay had a solid season in 2016, he will be 32 next season and cornerback in the NFL is a young man’s game. Senquez Golson will arrive in Latrobe with a shot at the Steelers slot corner position but, given injury history that 2015’s 2nd round pick has had, it would be a mistake to bank on contributions.

  • The Steelers also have reserve cornerback Al-Hajj Shabazz who spent time on both their active rosters and practice squad in 2016.

In a nutshell, cornerback was already a Steelers priority for the 2017 NFL Draft and its priority status just got a bump.

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Ryan Shazier Wins Steelers Thanksgiving Honors for 2016 – Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

Thanksgiving has arrived!. Today may mark the 15th straight Thanksgiving that I have celebrated in Buenos Aires, for the first 21 years of my life, Thanksgiving either meant a trip to Pittsburgh or a visit from relatives in Pittsburgh.

  • Pennsylvania Turnpike notwithstanding, either event was a welcome occurrence, and truth be told, something I’ve missed as an adult.

During high school those Thanksgiving trips gave me the chance to read a week’s worth of accumulated Pittsburgh Press and Post Gazette coverage of the Steelers. In those pre-internet days, that was like Christmas come early.

The days of having to rely in imported printed copies Ed Bouchette to follow the Steelers are long over. For 7 years running now Steel Curtain Rising has been publishing an annual column highlighting reasons for Steelers Nation to give thanks. Here is how our Steelers Thanksgiving honors series has gone so far:

2009 – Saw Rashard Mendenhall win Steelers Thanksgiving honors
2010Maurkice Pouncey, Emmanuel Sanders, and Al Everest shared the honors
2011 Antonio Brown won Steelers Thanksgiving honors hands down
2012 – Attention turned to the emergence of Keenan Lewis
2013 – Stud in the making Cameron Heyward earned recognition
2014 – Honors went to Le’Veon Bell for his emergence as an All-Pro running back
2015 Steelers understudies earned Thanksgiving honors

Its also satisfying that even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight there’s no reason to regret any of our“ Steelers Thanksgiving honors” shout outs. Sure, Rashard Mendenhall might not have blossomed into the “franchise” running back he was picked to become, but Mendenhall played a huge role in getting the Steelers to the Super Bowl a year later.

Maurkice Pouncey has won Pro Bowl honors for each year he’s been healthy, Emmanuel Sanders is a first rate NFL wide out, and most fans would exchange Al Everest for Danny Smith as Steelers special teams coach. Antonio Brown is simply the best there is. Keenan Lewis did depart in free agency but honestly, have the Steelers had better play at cornerback since Keenan Lewis left?

Cameron Heyward has grown into the dominant player and leader on and off the field everyone thought he would be back at Thanksgiving 2013, and Le’Veon Bell is probably the most complete back in the NFL. And one year later, the 2015 contributions of DeAngelo Williams, Will Allen, Alejandro Villanueva and Cody Wallace look no less important to what the team accomplished a year ago.

With that in mind, we now turn our attention to this years Steelers Thanksgiving honors award.

Ryan Shazier Wins 2016 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors

It’s become cliché, but when the 2014 NFL Draft arrived the only question about the Steelers top choice was “Which cornerback will Pittsburgh take?” Of course the Steelers wanted Justin Gilbert (perhaps its good they didn’t get him), but when he wasn’t there, they shocked everyone (except Jim Wexell) by picking Ryan Shazier.

Given that the Steelers had Lawrence Timmons, and rising youngsters Vince Williams, Sean Spence and Terence Garvin, the moved struck many as a head scratcher.

  • Two and a half seasons later, no one who understands football should question the move.
ryan shazier, gary barnidge, steelers thanksgiving honors, steelers vs. browns

Gary Barnidge can’t hold on as Ryan Shazier lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Karen Schiely, AP via Akron Beacon Journal

Josh McCown of the Cleveland Browns certainly understands why Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau called Shazier’s number in the 2014 NFL Draft.

Sure Shazier has spent more time than you’d like to see on the trainer’s table, but football is a violent sport. Sure Shazier might trail C.J. Mosley, who the Ravens took 2 picks later, in terms of sacks an interceptions.

But in addition to his uncanny athleticism, Ryan Shazier has shown that uncanny playmaking ability that paves the way for greatness:

While a lot of fans are down on Shazier, the simple fact is that he’s only broaching the beginnings of what he can do. This kid still has plenty of upside.

So for 2016, Steel Curtain Rising awards its Steelers Thanksgiving honors to Ryan Shazier, as he give Steelers Nation reason to give thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

Of course Thanksgiving is never been about football (although I do painfully remember the Thanksgiving day Massacre of 1983). It’s about things that are far more fundamentally important for life. Family, friends and faith.

  • Our sincere hope here at Steel Curtain Rising is anyone and everyone who reads this has reasons to give thanks that have nothing to do with either football or the Steelers.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in Steelers Nation.

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Steelers Justin Gilbert Trade Reveals Kevin Colbert & Mike Tomlin’s Personnel Persistence

As Pittsburgh cut its 2016 roster to the NFL-mandated 53 man limit, and the Steelers Justin Gilbert trade offered some insight into the mentality of the Steelers brain trust:

  • Never let it be said that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin don’t get what they want.
steelers justin gilbert trade, markus wheaton, justin gilbert, steelers browns 2014 opener, chuck noll day

Markus Wheaton schools Justin Gilbert in Steelers 2015 opener. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports

Going into the 2014 NFL Draft, Steelers Nation knew one thing for certain: The Pittsburgh Steelers would target cornerback early and often thought the draft.

Commentators and bloggers alike rated cornerback a need position for the Steelers; likewise cornerback stood atop Steel Curtain Rising’s Steelers 2014 Draft Needs Matrix. And, if we’re to believe the reports, there was one cornerback the Steelers really wanted:

Of course, the Cleveland Browns took Gilbert with the 8th overall pick, long before the Steelers had a chance, so Pittsburgh opted against drafting for need, and picked Ryan Shazier. NFL General Managers don’t have the luxury of hitting a Rest Button and personnel “do overs” don’t really exist either.

  • However, sometimes second chances exist, and Kevin Colbert rarely passes those up.

Players such as William Gay and Larry Foote have departed for greener pastures, only to proverbially “Come home again.” And the Steelers also show little hesitation in bringing players to Pittsburgh whom they’d hoped to draft. As Neal Coolong of The Steelers Wire pointed out the The Steelers Wire, Ross Cockrell paid a pre draft visit to Pittsburgh with Ryan Shazier in 2014. The Steelers didn’t draft Ross Cockrell, but wasted little time in picking up on off waivers.

  • The Steelers, facing a quandary at cornerback addressed this weakness by trading for someone they couldn’t draft.

The move saw the Steelers trade a 2018 6th round pick to the Cleveland Browns for Justin Gilbert. If the reports are correct, Kevin Colbert was ready to invest a 15th overall pick in Gilbert. Instead he’s getting him for a sixth.

But there’s a reason why the Steelers Justin Gilbert trade happened so easily, of course….

Just two seasons after making him the 8th pick overall, the Cleveland Browns are ready to move on. Some of that has to do with yet another Cleveland Browns front office and coaching staff shake up in the interim. However, In two seasons Gilbert has only played 23 games and made 3 starts, and record just one interception.

  • Clearly you expect more from a 8th overall pick after two seasons.

In the Steelers 2014 opening day win over the Cleveland Browns, Ben Roethlisberger targeted Gilbert early and often, and then went back for more on the game-winning drive, hitting Markus Wheaton twice. Things, quite frankly, didn’t improve for Justin Gilbert’s following his opening day struggles in Pittsburgh.

As ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler recounts, there was no shortage of players in the Browns locker room who felt that Gilbert was worse than Johnny Manziel….

Steelers Justin Gilbert Trade a Wise Risk

Steelers Nation should not, however discard the viability of the Justin Gilbert reclamation project. Last fall, when a fan question the Steelers decision to pick up Ross Cockrell, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labrolia caution against skepticism:

Here’s a story Bill Nunn told me when I was trying to get him to teach me things: He said that with defensive backs, he always believed that you shouldn’t necessarily reject a guy based on what you see on film. And the reason you shouldn’t do that is because you don’t know what he’s being coached to do. If you don’t like that he’s playing off coverage, or that he opens his hips, or whatever, maybe that’s what his coach is telling him to do, and so you end up down-grading a prospect for the wrong reason. Nunn said you look for defensive backs with good measurables – height, weight, speed – who also are football players. If you have that, then YOUR coaches can teach them how THEY want them to play.

Justin Gilbert clearly has those measurbles, and it will be incumbent on Carnell Lake and Keith Butler to devleopt that talent.

In addition, maximizing the bang for your buck drives success in the age of the salary cap, and giving up a sixth round pick for 25 year old who had enough athletic talent to be the 8th overall pick in the draft qualifies as a good bargin. The Steelers Justin Gilbert trade represents a gamble for the franchise, but a wise one.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Justin Gilbert.

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Steelers Claim Zach Mettenberger Off Waivers, Put Bruce Gradkowski on Injured Reserve

The Pittsburgh Steelers clarified their quarterback depth chart today by making two moves. The first move saw the Steelers claim Zach Mettenberger off of waivers, less than a day after the San Diego Chargers parted ways with the quarterback. The Steelers also placed Bruce Gradkowski on injured reserve, ending his season, and perhaps his career in Pittsburgh.

steelers vs. titans, zach mettenberger, zach mettenberger steelers, james harrison, vince williams, zach mettenberger vs. Steelers, november 2014

James Harrison and Vince Williams close on in Zach Mettenberger in the Steelers 2014 win over the Titans. Photo Credit: Associated Press, used on Titans.com

Landry Jones will back up Roethlisberger as his number two, much to the chagrin of much of Steelers Nation. The third slot would appear to be headed to Zach Mettenberger, although the Steelers have previously said they plan to start 4th string quarterback Bryn Renner against Carolina in their 2016 preseason finale.

For most of the preseason, Dustin Vaughan worked as the Steelers 3rd string quarterback, but he broke his thumb in the preseason loss to the Eagles and the Steelers have since placed Vaughan on the injured/waived list.

A Closer Look at Zach Mettenberger

Ken Whisenhunt of Tennessee Titans originally draft Aach Mettenberger by the in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, taking him with the 178th overall pick. In 2014 Mettenberger started weeks 8 through 16.

That span included the Steelers week 10 victory at Tennessee, where Mettenberger went 14 of 25 for 2 touchdowns and one interception. While William Gay did transform one Mettenberger pass into a pick six, Mettenberger also burned the Steelers on an 80 yard touchdown to Nate Washington, and left the Chargers with a 24 to 13 lead in entering the fourth quarter.

In 2015, Mettenberger started weeks 7 and 6 as well as week’s 15 and 16.

  • Overall Mettenberger has logged 10 starts and played 14 games played in his career.

Zach Mettenberger has never won a game as a starter, and he has completed 208 passes for 2,347 yards and 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Following 2015, Mettenberger followed Ken Whisenhunt to San Diego, but could not secure a spot on the Charger’s depth chart behind Philip Rivers.

It is unclear whether the Steelers plan to give Zach Mettenberger a chance to play vs. the Carolina Panthers Thursday night.

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Steelers Cut Jordan Zumwalt, Defer NFL Dreams of Dustin Vaughan and Jerald Hawkins via Waived/Injured and IR Lists

The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers first roster cuts contained few surprises but did defer the dreams of two training camp hopefuls, and spelled the end of the line for a pick for from the 2014 NFL Draft.

Ahead of the Tuesday’s deadline to trim rosters down to 75, the Pittsburgh Steelers placed Jerald Hawkins, the tackle the took in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft on injured reserve. Jerald Hawkins looked good in camp and it was suggested the rookie could get a helmet on game days, working as third TE.

  • However, Hawkins was injured in the Steelers preseason loss to Detroit.

By placing him on injured reserve, Hawkins rookie season is over The Steelers also designated quarterback Dustin Vaughan as waived/injured. While this ends his season with the Steelers, if no other team claims Vaughan the Steelers have the option to retain Vaughan’s rights. So Vaughan may get another chance to prove himself on the fields of St. Vincents next summer.

jordan zumwalt, steelers cut jordan zumwalt, steelers 2016 roster cuts

NFL dreams come to an end as Steelers cut Jordan Zumwalt. Photo Credit: Steel City Insider

In fact, one year ago the Steelers designated Jordan Zumwalt as waived/injured, and gave the young linebacker his third, and apparently final chance this past summer. Today the Steelers cut Jordan Zumwalt effectively ending the young UCLA linebacker’s dreams and hopes of playing in the NFL, at least as a Pittsburgh Steeler.

The Steelers liked Jordan Zumwalt coming out of UCLA, bringing him to Pittsburgh along with Ryan Shazier prior to the 2014 NFL Draft. The Steelers used the first of two 6th round picks to draft Jordan Zumwalt. However, Zumwalt spent much of training camp injured and went on injured reserve in late August. In 2015 big things were expected of Zumwalt, but he failed to capitalize. Gerry Dulac reported that coaches didn’t like Zumwalt’s intensity, although Jim Wexell sources did not lead him to a similar conclusion.

  • Either way it looks like Zumwalt was unable to distinguish himself in a deep depth chart of Steelers linebackers.

When healthy, the Steelers have four starter-capable outside line backers in James Harrison, Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree and Arthur Moats. Second year man Anthony Chickillo has impressed in training camp and preseason, and there is also 6th round pick Travis Freeney.

On the inside the Steelers have Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, and Vince Williams as roster locks. L.J. Fort has impressed, as has 7th round pick Tyler Matakevich.

8 other players got visits from the Turk as the Steelers cut down their roster to 79.

Mike Reilly, linebacker
Isaac Blakeney, wide receiver
Levi Norwood, wide receiver/kick returner
Michael Cooper, tight end
Giorgio Newberry, defensive end
Khaynin Mosley-Smith, defensive tackle
Julian Whigham, cornerback
Will Montgomery, punter

The Steelers still have four more cuts to make between now and Tuesday.

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4 Steelers 2016 Draft Lessons – What Steelers Nation Learned about Colbert & Tomlin

The NFL Draft reveals a lot about its teams. Pre-Noll era Steelers coaches Walter Keisling and Buddy Parker had no use for rookies and routinely traded away draft picks, and the franchise suffered for it. In Washington, George Allen and then later Bobby Bethard traded away draft picks, and bought home hardware.

  • And what can the Steelers 2016 Draft Class teach us about the franchise?

The ultimate lesson will be known in seasons to come, but for now, here are 4 Lessons from the Steelers 2016 Draft.

1. Tomlin and Colbert Draft in Clusters

When the Steelers needed to rebuild their offensive line, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin used 4 first and second round picks on offensive line in the 2010, 2011, and 2012. Similarly, as Dan Sanger of The Steelers Wire has pointed out, Colbert used three first round picks from 2013 to 2015 to draft linebackers.

You could argue that the Tomlin-Colbert era began that way with back-to-back picks of Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley.

  • Now Colbert and Tomlin have used 3 premium picks on defensive backs in two drafts.

Will it work? Well, no one can deny the Steelers offensive line is a strength in 2016 whereas it was a weakness before the rebuilding process started in 2010. As far as the linebackers are concerned, Jarvis Jones still has a lot to prove, but Ryan Shazier is the real deal, and Bud Dupree looked good for a rookie.

  • At this point, Senquez Golson, Artie Burns and Sean Davis are defined solely by their potential.

Time will tell if these rookies can give the Steelers defense the octane boost the franchise needs to let Ben Roethlisberger lead them to the mountain top before he succumbs to Father Time.

The lesson here is that when Tomlin and Colbert set out to rebuild a spot on the depth chart, they cluster their premium picks in ways that Colbert and Bill Cowher never did.

2. Kevin Colbert is Cocksure about His Decisions

When asked about free agent defections in the 2013 off season, Colbert retored by asking how many essential guys can you lose from an 8-8 team. The Steelers 2016 off season has seen Pittsburgh let two experience cornerbacks in Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin defect in free agency without much of a fight.

  • Yet, before the draft, Kevin Colbert boldly declared that the 2016 Steelers would field a capable secondary.

Without making an explicit reference to his 2013 argument, is as much saying that the Steelers are practicing addition by subtraction with their 30th ranked pass defense.

On paper, this logic works perfectly, but only if you have guys who can step up and do a better job. Steel Curtain Rising is already on record questioning whether the Steelers are putting too much faith in Senquez Golson. The same can be said for planning to start draft picks.

If nothing else, however, the Steelers 2016 Draft Class proves once again that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin do not make personnel decisions out of fear.

3. Steelers Draft for Need or Value When it Suits Them

As far back as 2011, fans were clamoring for the Steelers to draft a cornerback. Yet David DeCastro fell to the Steelers, so they took him. Good move. In 2014, needs dictated the Steelers would draft a corerback in the first or second round. Yet, when Ryan Shazier was available, the Steelers drafted him immediately. You can ask Jeremy Hill if Colbert and Tomlin got that one right.

The situation was the same in 2015, when Bud Dupree, whom many had rated as a top ten talent, fell. The Steelers took him…. The early returns are good.

Here in 2016, corners and safeties went off the board in droves in the first round. Yet the Steelers grabbed Artie Burns. They then drafted Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave, filling their top three needs.

  • Yet after that, the Steelers went for value.

Word is the Steelers wanted to trade into the 5th round for a running back. They couldn’t, but when their time came to draft, they didn’t look to a running back, but stuck to their board and picked outside linebacker Travis Feeney.

4. The Bengals REALLY Don’t Like the Steelers

Unlike the Steelers, the Cincinnati Bengals have invested several first round picks in cornerbacks in the Andy Dalton era alone. Yet, when the time can to draft, they picked William Jackson III, whom it was widely known the Steelers wanted to get.

  • Everyone’s been talking about that move, but there’s another that others have missed.

The Steelers also coveted Andrew Billings. Many expected them to pick him after Jackson was taken. The Steelers made other moves, and drafted Hargrave leaving Billings on the board. However, by the 4th round the Steelers were looking at value and its not inconceivable that Billings was the BPA for them.

  • The Bengals drafted him before the Steelers got a chance.

Perhaps the Steelers would have drafted Jerald Hawkins with their fourth round pick anyway, but Cincinnati didn’t give them a chance to make that choice? Coincidence? I’d bet you an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty its not.

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