Carnell Lake Resigns as Steelers Secondary Coach. Did the Defensive Backs Coach Resign Voluntarily?

The dust from the Pittsburgh’s 2017 season still hasn’t settled on the South Side as Carnell Lake resigns as Steelers defensive backs coach. The Steelers announced the news on their website, with the following statement from Lake:

I have decided to return to California to be able to be a part of my youngest son’s last year of high school football.
I want to thank Mr. Art Rooney II and the Rooney family, Coach Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, the coaching staffs I have worked with throughout my time in Pittsburgh, and the entire Steelers organization. It has been a privilege and honor to play and coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I also want to thank all of the players I have coached during my seven years with the team – it truly was an honor to work with them. Finally, I would like to thank Steelers fans for their support and for being the best fans in the NFL during both my time as a player and coach.

Carnell Lake joined the Mike Tomlin’s staff in the spring of 2011 shortly after Super Bowl XLV, as he replaced Ray Horton who headed to Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals to take over as their defensive coordinator.

Carnell Lake, Carnell Lake Resigns Steelers secondary coach,

Carnell Lake resigns as Steelers secondary coach. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Lake’s return to Pittsburgh made him the first of several former Steelers players to join Mike Tomlin’s staff. The Steelers drafted Carnell Lake in the 2nd round of the 1989 NFL Draft, and converted a then linebacker into a strong safety. Lake not only won the starting job as a rookie, a rarity in a Chuck Noll coached defense, but pushed 1988’s starter Cornell Gowdy off of the roster.

Like Donnie Shell before him and Troy Polamalu after him, Carnell Lake became a fixture at the back of the secondary for the better part of a decade, including moving to cornerback twice in the Steelers 1995 and 1997 seasons.

If Carnell Lake’s contributions as a player are unquestionable positive, the same can not be said of his coaching tenure.

What of the Lake Effect?

When Carnell Lake arrived in Pittsburgh, cornerback was seen as an overwhelming liability, with Ike Taylor the only consistent performer while William Gay and Keenan Lewis were regarded as disappointments.

  • Yet William Gay made impressive strides in 2011 and Keenan Lewis had an outstanding year in 2012, and Cortez Allen appeared to be a superstar ready to burst.

Lake in fact, had made a point to take Keenan Lewis under his wing after much of the rest of the Steelers coaching staff had given up on him, per Rebecca Rollet’s reporting. Blogger Ivan Cole dubbed this as “The Lake Effect.”

  • However, not all of the players under Lakes tutelage thrived.

Cortez Allen flashed a little in his first year as a starter in 2013, but remained inconsistent. In 2014 Allen got demoted, benched, and ultimately banished to IR. His 2015 campain consisted of a few snaps. Injuries were a factor, but Allen’s fizzout was never fully explained.

Likewise, Carnell Lake positively gushed about Shamarko Thomas after the Steelers drafted him in 2013, yet Shamarko Thomas was an unabashed bust as a strong safety.

And while it doesn’t get talked about as often, Steelers were attempting to groom Ryan Mundy for a more prominent role as a safety when Lake arrived, and that grooming continued until early in 2012 when Mundy got benched in favor of Will Allen, and the Steelers defense improved accordingly. Finally, Lake also spoke glowingly of Antwan Blake, a corner who perhaps wasn’t bad as a waiver wire pickup, but clearly never developed into starter material.

Did Carnell Lake Resign Voluntarily?

Juding a position coach soley on the development of his players isn’t quite fair. Dick Hoak was a fine running backs coach, but Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis probably didn’t need Hoak to get them to the Hall of Fame. Mike Whipple, Ken Anderson and Randy Fichtner have helped Ben Roethlisberger, but Ben supplied the raw materials to start with.

Both men quickly became starters, struggled a bit, but posted strong 2nd halves of their rookie years. Yet neither man appeared to make that fabled “2nd year developmental leap.” Word also broke that Mike Tomlin began taking over a larger role in the defensive backs meeting room.

Given the fact that Art Rooney II still hasn’t address the Pittsburgh press following the 2017 season, one can only suspect that Carnell Lake’s sudden resignation isn’t entirely voluntary, especially because Mike Tomlin had told Keith Butler and the rest of his defensive staff that they’d be returning.

Lake’s departure marks the 3rd major coaching change to Mike Tomlin’s staff, following the firing of Todd Haley and the retirement of Richard Mann.

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Steelers Rookie Cornerbacks Cam Sutton & Brian Allen Aren’t Only Options for Boosting Secondary

As we move further away from the 2017 NFL Draft and into such things as rookie mini-camp, there are still those who don’t think the Pittsburgh Steelers did enough to try and improve their secondary.

  • But that’s usually the case with post-draft analysis, isn’t it?

For every pundit or fan who was happy with Pittsburgh’s selection of Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt in Round 1 and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in Round 2, there was at least one person who thought the Steelers should have picked other players or addressed different areas of the roster.

As it pertained to the secondary, the Steelers did address it, when they selected cornerbacks Cam Sutton (Tennessee) and Brian Allen (Utah) in the third and fifth rounds, respectively.

Cam Sutton,

Cam Sutton returning an interception for the Tennessee Volunteers. Photo credit: CBS Sports.

So, was the third round a little too late to take a corner, which was the case with Cam Sutton, a four-year starter who recorded seven interceptions and 30 passes defensed during his college career?

Some might say that it was, but when you consider Pittsburgh used its first two picks of the 2016 NFL Draft to take defensive backs–cornerback Artie Burns in the first round; and safety Sean Davis in the second round–it may put the draft strategy in a better context.

  • After all, you can’t address every single need in the first and second rounds. And since when were third round picks not expected to become starters sooner rather than later?

Now, if you want to argue that the selection of Brian Allen, a converted wide receiver who, by most accounts is a tremendous athlete but very green for his new position, could wind up on the cutting floor at training camp in August, you may be on to something.

Despite drawing some raves for his one-handed interception during Day 2 of the Steelers rookie mini-camp on Saturday, Brian Allen is most-likely a project player and may have to spend some time on the practice squad during his rookie season; or, if he’s lucky, he could make the team but be a healthy scratch each and every week, as he learns his craft under the guidance of Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake.

Like any other renovation project, there was still a great deal of dust visible in the Steelers secondary last season, this despite the defense improving  from 30th against the pass in 2015 to 16th. For example, there was the entirety of the AFC Championship game, in-which several Patriots receivers–including the little-known Chris Hogan–roamed through the defensive backfield almost totally uninhibited.

  • Speaking of which, the mantra among the fans since  the 36-17 beat-down in New England has been that the team needs to find a way to beat the Patriots.

Playing a zone against a quarterback as decorated as Tom Brady has pretty much been a recipe for disaster for the Steelers, going back to the days of Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu. But when you examine the resumes of Artie Burns and Cam Sutton, you’ll see that playing man coverage is something they excelled at in college.

Àrtie Burns,

Artie Burns following a 2016 interception. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

When the Steelers drafted Artie Burns with the 25th pick a year ago, many wondered how a defense that specialized in zone coverage could have taken a corner that excelled in man.

  • Maybe because the defense doesn’t want to specialize in zone coverage any longer.

It was argued that Pittsburgh couldn’t really switch to man coverage against the Patriots because it didn’t have the personnel for it. That may have been true then, but it could be a different story moving forward, if Burns continues to make progress, and a player like Sutton quickly shows that his college skill-set can translate to the pro level.

When you study what the Steelers have done in with the secondary in recent years, you’ll see that the transformation may have begun in 2014, with the free-agent signing of safety Mike Mitchell

There were high hopes within the organization that Senquez Golson, a very productive player who had 10 interceptions during his senior year, could step right in and be the slot corner. Unfortunately, due to injuries, not only did Golson miss his entire rookie year, he missed all of his second season as well.

  • As for Doran Grant, who, if memory serves me correctly, was drawing Allen-esque raves about two years ago, he never quite caught on.

There may still be hope for Senquz Golson, who certainly hasn’t suffered any catastrophic injuries and may just be hindered by a lack of experience. Then again, there those who fear that Senquez Golson could be this generation’s Kris Farris (ok, that’s a plug for another article on this site, but hey, its a good article.)

You throw Senquez Golson into the pot with Artie Burns, Mike Mitchell, Sean Davis, Cam Sutton, Brian Allen and, yes, Ross Cockrell, a former fourth round pick by the Bills who started all 16 games at corner last year and was often lined up against the other team’s top receiver, and you may have the makings of a pretty decent secondary sooner rather than later.

An old building isn’t renovated overnight, and neither is a struggling secondary.

 

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Cornerback: High-Moderate

The Steelers appear to have few pressing needs as they prepare for the 2017 NFL Draft, which begins this Thursday evening.

But while Pittsburgh’s needs might seem to be in-line with a team that just made it to the AFC title game, but of course the goal is to get past the AFC title game. And for that to happen in 2017, that means the Steelers must upgrade at certain areas in the draft.

A perfect example of this could be at cornerback.

Artie Burns, Steelers 2017 draft needs cornerback

For the first time in 20 years the Steelers picked a cornerback first in 2016. Could they do it again in 2017? Photo credit: Pennlive.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Starters 

The Steelers finally addressed this need with a very high draft choice a year ago, when they made Artie Burns out of Miami their first round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. And after slowly working his way into the lineup, Artie Burns started nine games (mostly all down the stretch) and recorded three interceptions and a fairly impressive 13 passes defensed.

Alongside Burns at the other cornerback spot is Ross Cockrell, the fourth-year man out of Duke who was a fourth round pick by the Bills in the 2014 NFL Draft. Cockrell survived one season in Buffalo before being cut right before the start of 2015 regular season. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and Co. quickly snatched Ross Cockrell off the scrap heap, and he appeared in 15 games, started seven and recorded two interceptions and 11 passes defensed.

A year ago, Ross Cockrell was a mainstay at the cornerback spot, starting all 16 games and often being matched up against the other team’s top receiver–including the Bengals A.J. Green.  Ross Cockrell acquitted himself quite nicely; while he didn’t have any interceptions, he notched 14 passes defensed and 47 tackles.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Backups

A dependable fixture at the starting and slot positions for many years, veteran William Gay‘s play seemed to drop off as the 2016 season progressed.

After starting a combined 60 games between 2011-2015, William Gay only started nine games last year, although he appeared in all 16. He mostly assumed his best-suited role as a slot corner near season’s end, but at age 32, one has to wonder just how much he can still contribute to a Pittsburgh secondary that’s getting younger and more talented with each passing season.

The youngster who ostensibly could replace William Gay as the slot corner and ultimately Ross Cockrell as the starter opposite Burns is Senquez Golson, the third-year man out of Ole Man, who the Steelers picked in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

Actually, to call Senquez Golson a third-year man is a little disingenuous, considering he has yet to play a down of football in either the preseason or regular season and has barely even participated in his first two training camps at Latrobe.

A season ago, Senquez Golson suffered a Lisfranc injury just days into training camp, a sprain that required surgery. While Golson was eligible to come off the PUP list mid-way through the season, the lone benefactor of that rule was second-year linebacker Bud Dupree, who was activated near the end of the season.

  • The Steelers actually kept Golson on the active roster for a few weeks, until injuries forced him on to IR.

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart at corner are Coty Sensabaugh, the journeyman Pittsburgh picked up as a free-agent from the Giants; Al-Hajj Shabazz; and a host of down-the-liners–including Brandon Dixon, Mike Hilton, Greg Ducre and Devonte Johnson.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Cornerback 

As a restricted free agent, Ross Cockrell languished in free-agency with little to no interest after the Steelers slapped a fourth round tender on him earlier in the spring.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs cornerback

Meanwhile, Senquez Golson could go either way. Golson could end up being this year’s Sean Spence, and make a legitimate case for being the NFL’s “comeback player of the year.” OR Senquez Golson could end up as this generation’s Kris Farris, as this site suggested last spring.

As for William Gay, again, his play declined as the 2016 season progressed, and he’s certainly not getting any younger (and neither is Ben Roethlisberger, if you get my drift), although he perhaps could continue to be effective at safety, as has been rumored.

With that in mind, while the secondary seems to be improving each season–the defense finished 16th in passing a year ago, after placing 30th in 2015 — the Steelers need better performance out of their defensive backfield if they’re to bring home Lombardi Number Seven in 2017 instead of being an AFC Championship also-ran.

With prospects like Marlon Humphrey out of Alabama, Gareon Conley of Ohio State or USC’s Adoree Jackson possibly available near the end of the the first round, this wouldn’t be a bad year to double-down and go cornerback for the second year in a row.

Given that, the Steelers 2017 draft need status for the Steelers at cornerback is High-Moderate.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line: Low-Moderate

Getting “Younger and stronger” on defensive line was one of Mike Tomlin’s stated objectives when the Steelers 2008 off season began. As it was, the Steelers would continue to open with the same starting threesome for the next 3 seasons, and it wasn’t until the beginning of the 2015 season that Steelers defensive line had been completely renewed.

The question heading into the 2017 NFL Draft is whether the Steelers want to stand pat or continue that renewal process.

Stephon Tuitt, Tyrod Taylor, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Defensive line

Tyrod Taylor is road kill in Stephon Tuitt’s wake. Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via Bleacher Report

Steelers Depth Chart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starters

Two studs in the form of defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt bookend the Steelers defensive line.

During his first two years with the Steelers Cam Heyward doubters were easy to find, but in 2013 he beat out Ziggy Hood for the starting job and since then has established himself as one of the best defensive ends in the league. Cameron Heyward has 25 sacks, 18 passes defensed and a pair of forced fumbles and fumble recoveries to his name, but staistics do not do the man justice.

Week in and week out, Cameron Heyward makes the types of plays that don’t always show up on the stat sheet – unless you count the Steelers keeping more points on the board than their opponents.

Injuries to Brett Keisel thrust Stephon Tuitt into the starting line up late in the 2014 season, and no one has looked back since. With Cameron Heyward out for the second half of 2016, Stephon Tuitt stepped up as a leader of the unit, and despite Cam’s absence, the Steelers defense improved during the latter part of the season.

If you’re surprised to discover that Javon Hargrave didn’t start the entire year, so was I. He had to wait until week to get his first start, but held on to the job from that point in the season, and established himself along side Artie Burns and Sean Davis as one of the three rookies who made an immediate impact to improve the Steelers defense.

Like his fellow rookies, something clicked for Hargrave during the second half of the season, as Hargrave got his first sack and first fumble recovery in the Steelers road win over the Cleveland Browns. Hargrave got another sack in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts, and also got to Tom Brady early in the AFC Championship game loss.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Finding depth on the Steelers defensive line has been a challenge for Pittsburgh, forcing Johnny Mitchell give his starters more snaps than he would like.

  • In 2016 the Steelers defensive line took a step in the right direction, as L.T. Walton stepped up in Cam Heyward’s absence as did Ricardo Mathews.

The Steelers have taken another step in that direction by signing free agent Tyson Alualu, a former first round pick out of Jacksonville who can play either at defensive end or a nose tackle.

Tyson Alualu’s arrival might spell the end for backup nose tackle Daniel McCullers. The Shady Tree offers and imposing physical presence, standing at 6’7” 352 pounds and his snap count percentage did jump from 9.5% in 2015 to 17.4% in 2016, which is good, but given all of the injuries the Steelers suffered on the defensive line, you’d expect to see McCullers getting even more playing time.

Injuries forced practice squad player John Maxey into the action in late in 2016 and Maxley did his part to help prove Mike Tomlin’s “The Standard is the Standard.”

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Defensive Line

The Steelers quest to rebuild their defensive line took longer than expected, although part of that is due to the longevity of Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton (although whiffing on Ziggy Hood didn’t help the cause.)Steelers 2017 Draft Needs defensive line

  • Yet, even after the Steelers found three competent starters on defensive line, they struggled to back them up.

Time was that when the Steelers had to play without either Cameron Heyward or Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers run defense became a sieve and the team lost. That fact seemed to doom the Steelers chances after Cameron Heyward went on injured reserve in 2016.

However, the rest of the defensive line responded and not only survived but thrived despite Cam Heyward’s absence. That shows that the Pittsburgh Steelers have real depth on their defensive line, and the unit got deeper with the addition of Alualu Tyson.

Let’s be clear, in the contemporary NFL, the difference between an outside linebacker and a defensive end is getting blurred by the concept of “Edge Rusher” and that’s not even taking to account that the Steelers depend on their nickel package, which includes four down lineman, all the more frequently.

  • Edge Rusher” is clearly a Steelers priority, and if they find someone who falls into that category who happens to play defensive line, then the rating you’re about to read is rendered moot.

However, if we’re confining our conversation to conventional 3-4 defensive lineman then the Steelers depth chart is as solid as it has been during the Mike Tomlin era, and Steelers draft need at defensive line can be considered Low-Moderate.

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The Pro’s & Con’s of Steelers Original Round Tender to Restricted Free Agent Ross Cockrell

Cornerback has been a liability for the Pittsburgh Steelers since at least 2013 and perhaps longer. While some of the criticism of Kevin Colbert’s attempt to address cornerback on the cheap (think Antwon Blake & DeMarcus Van Dyke) is legitimate, let’s also remember that the Steelers won Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII by starting two corners drafted in 4th round (Ike Taylor & Deshea Townsend).

But all of Kevin Colbert’s cornerback bargain hunting exhibitions have come up empty, and Steelers restricted free agent cornerback Ross Cockrell provides the perfect example.

The Steelers have already made an original round restricted free agent tender to Ross Cockrell, and here we review the merits of their decision.

Ross Cockrell, Steelers vs Raiders, Ross Cockrell interception, Mike Mitchell, William Gay

Ross Cockrell’s Red Zone interception against the Raiders in 2015. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of Ross Cockrell’s Steelers Career

After the 2015 pre-season’s first cut down day, the Steelers made a curious move – they claimed cornerback Ross Cockrell off of waivers from the Buffalo Bills. The Steelers had already traded for Brandon Boykin and, at least publicly, were still committed to Cortez Allen.

In week four when Ross Cockrell picked off a Joe Flacco pass in the Steelers Monday Night loss to the Ravens the move made more sense. At mid season, when he made a touchdown saving interception in the end zone against the Raiders, it make even more sense. Cockrell appeared in 15 games for the Steelers and started in 7 games by the Steelers count.

Perhap’s Cockrell’s biggest moment for the Steelers came in the playoff win over the Bengals, as Cockrell recovered Jeremy Hill’s fumble that Ryan Shazier had forced, opening the door to the Steelers come from behind win.

  • The Steelers saw enough of Ross Cockrell in 2015 to pencil him in as their 2016 starter.

Ross Cockrell started all sixteen games for the Steelers in 2016, and while he didn’t record any interceptions, he had 14 defensed passes. Fans didn’t hear Ross Cockrell’s name a lot during 2016, and for a cornerback that is often a good sign.

The Case for the Steelers Tendering Ross Cockrell

In 31 regular season games and 5 playoff games Ross Cockrell has proven himself to be a quality NFL cornerback. Moreover, he’s grown from someone the Steelers picked up off of the wavier wire into a starter on a defense that went all the way to the AFC Championship (although they did struggle there – so did the offense.)

When addressing the Steelers needs at cornerback heading into the 2017 NFL Draft, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell offered this:

Here’s another thing: Ross Cockrell is a treasure. He works so hard that no one will dismiss his chances. Therefore, no ones [sic] going to leak that they’re dissatisfied with their outside guys. And really, with how hard Cockrell works and how smart he is, there’s no certainty a high draft pick will beat him out. But I believe that with such a deep crop the value will be too good to pass up.

That sounds like Ross Cockrell has a lot of “upside.” Viewed from that perspective, one can only wonder if the Steelers original round tender, which would bring Pittsburgh a 4th round pick should another team sign Cockrell, is too low.

The Case Against the Steelers Tendering Ross Cockrell

The Pittsburgh Steelers need quality cornerbacks. Rookie Artie Burns, whom the Steelers took in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, showed a lot of promise in his first year. But William Gay showed signs he might be losing a step.

While Ross Cockrell was an improvement over Antwon Blake, that’s kind of like saying the Steelers improved at quarterback in 1988 after trading Mark Malone and starting Bubby Brister. The restricted free agent tender the Steelers offered Ross Cockrell is just under 2 million dollars per year.

  • Is Ross Cockrell really worth that much money?

Ben Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl window is shrinking, perhaps faster than thought even a year ago. The Steelers need proven production out of their cornerback position, not uncertain potential. Offering Ross Cockrell a restricted free agent tender is tantamount to trying to apply a BandAid to a wound that needs stitches.

Curtain’s Call on Ross Cockrell and the Steelers

Deciding on whether to tender or not to tender a restricted free agent can be tricky business for a team. While a tender does allow a team to hedge its bets, it also commits them to a certain dollar value (although RFA tenders are not guaranteed).

  • Ross Cockrell has shown enough in during his time in Pittsburgh that the rest of the NFL knows he can play cornerback.

He’s not a player like Stevenson Sylvester, whom the Steelers can opt not to tender and expect to get back in August or September should they decide they need him after all. Offering a right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard probably wouldn’t deter another team from making an offer to Ross Cockrell.

By giving Ross Cockrell an original round tender, the Steelers will force any team to sacrifice a 4th round draft pick to take him away, and Pittsburgh retains the right to match the offer. The Steelers have had teams make runs at their restricted free agents before, once with Jerrol Williams in 1993 and again in 2013 with Emmanuel Sanders.

The key to both situations is in both situations, the Steelers refused to panic. Given how great of a commodity cornerbacks are and how thin the Steelers are at the position, it’s possible that an original round tender for Ross Cockrell doesn’t carry a high enough cost to deter opposing General Managers.

But the Steelers conserve their options and will ultimately control what happens. That’s the right move. Ross Cockrell is the type of player who can help you win a Super Bowl, and the Steelers have ensured that they’ll be able to keep in in Pittsburgh.

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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Ryan Harris Retires, Steelers Depth at Offensive Tackle Just Became a Higher Priority

In a move that counts as disappointing, if not terribly surprising, Pittsburgh Steelers reserve offensive tackle Ryan Harris has announced his retirement.

https://twitter.com/salaams_from_68/status/837819366309769217

Ryan Harris’ ride with the Steelers was, in a word, short.

The Steelers signed Ryan Harris last year in free agency after losing Kelvin Beachum to the Jacksonville Jaguars to provide depth and/or competition to Alejandro Villanueva for the left tackle spot. Harris had been drafted by the Denver Broncos in 2007, played there for four years, spent 2 in Houston, one in Kansas City only to return to Denver in time for their Super Bowl run.

Ryan Harris, Ryan Harris retirement, Steelers vs Eagles

Ryan Harris pressed into duty at right tackle in the 2016 Steelers loss to the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Fortunately, the Steelers never got a chance to see how good of a job Ryan Harris could do protecting Ben Roethlisberger‘s blindside as Alejandro Villanueva won the starting job in training camp.

Ryan Harris did see duty in all four of the Steelers first four games in 2016, and got pressed into starting service with Marcus Gilbert got injured during the Kansas City Chiefs game.

That stint as the Steelers starting right tackle didn’t last long, however, as Ryan Harris would suffer a leg hematoma and was done for the year.

Impact of Ryan Harris’ Retirement on Steelers Free Agency & Draft Plans

Given the serious nature of Ryan Harris leg injury, the Steelers certainly knew Ryan Harris’ retirement was a possibility, if not a probability and the move explains the Steelers decision to offer a 1.85 million dollar right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard.

  • Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva are set as the Steelers starting tackles, with Chris Hubbard as their the swing tackle backup.

This would have likely been the case regardless of Ryan Harris’ decision to retire. The Steelers are also counting on Jerald Hawkins, their 4th round pick from the 2016 NFL Draft, to return and compete for a roster spot. It is unlikely the Steelers would invest salary cap dollars into a backup offensive tackle via the free agent market, but the absence of Ryan Harris could boost the need or desire to draft an offensive tackle in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Ryan Harris Steelers Experience Had Quality, if it Lacked Quantity

While he only suited up for four games with the Steelers, that was long enough for Harris become emersed in “the Steelers way.” As Ryan Harris told Steelers Digest’s Teresa Varley:

It’s amazing to see the Rooney family multiple times a day or a week. The fact that Mr. (Dan) Rooney knows my name is incredible, especially being a fan of the game for so long. Just everything, from the medical staff, to the coaches, to everyone involved, this is a championship organization and you feel it immediately when you get here.

The culture of the Steelers and the type of character we have here makes it fuller.

That’s an incredible statement, given that Ryan Harris played in the NFL for four teams over 9 years, and his time in Pittsburgh counts for just over 3% of the games he played.

Steelers Nation thanks Ryan Harris, and wishes his well in his retirement.

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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16 Defining Moments of the Steelers 2016 Season

Just stop and think for one moment of everyone and everything that comprises the product of an team’s NFL season? It’s a process the delivers the collective sum total of the actions taken by hundreds of players, dozens of scouts and coaches and scores of front office personnel .

  • Trying to quantify that endeavor is as daunting as it is foolish.

While we’re not quite so ambitious here at Steel Curtain Rising, we have tried to single out the 16 Defining Moments of the Steelers 2016 Season.

Antonio Brown, Zach Orr, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers 2016 season defining moments, antonio brown christmas touchdown ravens

Antonio Brown’s last second touchdown vs the Ravens on Christmas was a defining moment for the 2016 Steelers. Photo Credit: Fred Vuich, AP.

1. Steelers Sign Alejandro Villanaueva

This moment of course came 2 years before the 2016 season even started and, in the predigital age, only would have warranted an inch or two of column space, if even that had it not been for Alejandro Villanueva’s Army background and service in Afghanistan.

  • But Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Mike Munchak saw something they linked in the young man, decided to give him a shot at a new position.

Two years later that move paid dividends as Kelvin Beachum left, while Ryan Harris and Jerald Hawkins got hurt – yet thanks to Villanueva’s development, the Steelers offensive line played perhaps its best football of the Tomlin era.

2. Heath Miller Retires

After a highly depleted 2015 Steelers roster came SO close to upsetting the Denver Broncos at Mile High in the AFC Divisional playoff game, it was tempting to look to 2016 and imagine the team picking up just where it left off.

However, as Mike Tomlin reminds the media and his team at the end of every season, each year brings a new start and there is no carry over.

And Heath Miller’s retirement was the first example of this. The move, while not surprising, wasn’t anticipated and, if Heath Miller was no longer a threat to stretch the field, Heath Miller gave Ben Roethlisberger about as dependable target as a quarterback can get.

3. Martavis Bryant Suspended

If Heath Miller’s retirement was a subtle but sobering reminder that the Steelers won’t field the same team in 2016 that they finished with in 2015, Martavis Bryant’s latest suspension of substance abuse made the point with shocking clarity.

While consistency eluded Martavis Bryant during the 2015 regular season, during the 2015 playoffs Bryant showed that he had Jerry Rice-like transformation talent.

His suspension showed that he also had Randy Moss off the field discipline issues that could prevent him from realizing his full potential.

4. Steelers Release Cortez Allen

The Steelers decision to release Cortez Allen 2 weeks before the 2016 NFL Draft hardly ranks as a surprise, given Mike Tomlin’s comments on Allen at the 2015 season’s end. But cutting Cortez Allen, along with the decisions to let Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin depart as free agents, and not bring back safety Will Allen for yet another year, showed that Tomlin, Colbert, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake were going all in on renewing the Steelers secondary.

Artie Burns, Sean Davis, defining moments steelers 2016, steelers secondary 2016

Sean Davis and Artie Burns at Steelers rookie mini-camp. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

5. Steelers Draft Burns, Davis and Hargrave

The Steelers need to rebuild on defense has been well documented, particularly their failure at rejuvenating the secondary.

The Steelers went into the 2016 NFL Draft with a plan to boost the defense, and Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin never flinched drafting Artie Burns in the first round, Sean Davis in the second round and Javon Hargrave in the second round.

The move paid handsome dividends as each player stepped up to make important contributions to the Steelers 9 game winning streak that closed the season.

6. David Johnson Returns

In June the Steelers surprised everyone by signing David Johnson, the final pick from the 2009 Draft Class who’d spent 2014 and 2015 with the San Diego Chargers. The move telegraphed Matt Spaeth’s release, further reinforcing the turnover theme.

However, as training camp dragged on, and Ladarius Green came no closer to practicing, it was clear that David Johnson would give the Steelers a veteran presence and solid blocking ability to a very green crops of tight ends.

7. Senquez Golson injures Lisfranc

During the off season, Mike Tomlin spoke glowingly about Senquez Golson, the cornerback the Steelers took in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft who lost his rookie season to shoulder surgery.

  • The Steelers were counting on Golson to do big things in 2016.

Unfortunately, Senquez Golson’s 2016 season amounted to two padded practices in change as he injured his Lisfranc. The Steelers kept Golson on the active roster, but ultimately had to put him on injured reserve, further highlighting the magnitude of the risk the Steelers were taking with their secondary.

8. Steelers Sign Cobi Hamilton

When the Steelers signed Cobi Hamilton on August 5th they were picking up a guy who’d bounced around to several practices squads over the last three years. By the look of it, they were doing little more than picking up another body to help them get through training camp drills.

  • But Hamilton did well enough to make the final roster.

And if Hamilton did struggle during the Steelers AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, the rookie effectively functioned as the Steelers 3rd wide receiver during their 9 game winning streak.

Cobi Hamiltion, defining moments steelers 2016, steelers vs browns, steelers new years overtime win browns

Cobi Hamilton catches game winner in overtime over Browns in Steelers New Years Day win. Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham, AP via Herald Star

9. Markus Wheaton Gets Hurt in Steelers Preseason win over Saints

The Steelers preseason win over the New Orleans Saints served as their dress rehearsal for the season, and by all accounts the Pittsburgh passed with flying colors.

Steel Curtain Rising admits to being somewhat of a homer for Markus Wheaton, but Wheaton played very well down the stretch in 2015 and the Steelers sure could have used him during the second half of 2016. Alas, Wheaton did return for a 3 game stretch in early part of the season, but was lost for good in week 11.

10. Le’Veon Bell Returns

Le’Veon Bell started 2013 injured, finished 2014 injured, began 2015 on suspension and finished the year on IR. Again, he began 2016 serving a suspension. So let’s remember that there WERE legitimate question as to whether this young back could deliver on the field when the Steelers hosted the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday Night Football.

  • Le’Veon Bell steamrolled the Chiefs for 178 all-purpose yards.

In doing so, the young running back put the NFL on notice that stopping the Steelers would mean stopping him.

11. Big Ben Gets Injured in Miami

Its no secret that Ben Roethlisberger remains the one, indispensable player on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster. His injury, in addition to the coach’s decision to abandon the run early, cost the Steelers the game in Miami, and arguably cost the Steelers on the road to the Ravens. Those losses prevented the Steelers from securing a first round bye, which proved costly.

12. Ryan Shazier Returns to Full Health

The naysayers in Steelers Nation have long been down on Ryan Shazier for being injury prone. The fact is that, with on disrespect to Vince Williams, the Steelers missed his athleticism during the middle portion of the season.

  • Shazier returned to his status as a full time starter against the Ravens.

And while the Steelers defense didn’t pick up its performance immediately, within two weeks Ryan Shazier was back to making splash plays all over the field, and by the season’s end, he was easily the Steelers best defender.

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James Harrison’s return to full time starter helped fuel the 2016 Steelers nine game winning streak. Photo Credit: USA Today sports via 247 Sports

13. James Harrison Returns to Full Time Stater

Since James Harrison returned from retirement in 2014 the Steelers have rotated him in some form or fashion, attempting to groom Jarvis Jones to take over the role full time. But Jones flinched on the critical play of the Steelers loss to the Cowboys, and Mike Tomlin wasted little time in promoting James Harrison to a full time starter.

  • All Harrison did was lead the team in sacks in his 7 starts.

More important, James Harrison held transform the Steelers rush defense from a liability into an asset. As Mike Tomlin rhetorically questioned when he announced the move, “What are we saving James Harrison for?” A playoff run, which is what the Steelers got.

14. Steelers Christmas Comeback over the Ravens

Yes, the Steelers needed this one to clinch the AFC North division in an all or nothing shot. Yes, this epic Christmas game was worth of narration by NFL Films legend John Facenda, yes Antonio Brown last minute stretch was an act that revealed his sheer greatness.

  • But there’s something more important that happened on Christmas 2016 for the Steelers.

The Pittsburgh Steelers snapped a 5 game losing streak to the Baltimore Ravens with this win. And while that hardly reestablishes the Steelers as the alpha male of the division, a six straight loss would have conferred that status to the Ravens.

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Le’Veon Bell breaks the Steelers playoff rushing record vs. the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via CBS Pittsburgh Local

15. Le’Veon Bell Breaks Steelers Playoff Rushing Record. Twice

When Le’Veon Bell broke the Steelers single game playoff rushing record the first time this, we stopped and reflected on what it meant. Then Bell went out and did it again in the following week.

On an individual level, this feat highlights just how special of talent Le’Veon Bell has. However, on a team level this also seemed to underscore that the Steelers were going to go as far as Le’Veon Bell would take them….

16. Steelers get Thumped by Patriots in AFC Championship (Again.)

…And Le’Veon Bell’s ride would end early in the first quarter against the New England Patriots, where the Steelers would fall 36-17 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score indicates.

For all of the growth they made and for all of the adversity they overcame, the 2016 Steelers simply weren’t Super Bowl worthy, as their latest AFC Championship loss to the Patriots revealed.
We’re wrapping up coverage of the Steelers 2016 season this week. Check back for their regular season report card and season summary.

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Sean Davis Wins Joe Greene Great Performance Award, Follows in Polamalu, Lake & Perry’s Footsteps

As expected, Sean Davis won the Steelers Joe Greene Great Performance award for 2016, an honor bestowed on the Steelers top rookie via vote of the media. While Sean Davis was the obvious candidate, he doubtlessly had competition from both Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave, which is a good sign.

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Sean Davis returning his 1st NFL  interception in the Steelers win over the Giants. Photo Credit: 247sports.com

Nice When a Steelers Draft Pick Lives up to Hype

It is really nice when a Steelers draft pick lives up to all of the advanced billing as a rookie. When the Steelers drafted Sean Davis in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft, pundits both inside and outside Steelers Nation praised the move.

A good friend and regular reader of this site who is a huge Maryland Terrapins fan, emailed me to sign Sean Davis’ praises. And then there was the picture:

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Sean Davis attempts in vain to defend a pass to Devin Smith. Photo Credit: Jonathan Ernst, Getty Images via thecomeback.com

Honestly, when I first saw this photo, I had Devin Smith caught the ball or not and if it was a play of consequence. As it turns out, it was. Smith caught the ball and scored a touchdown. Nonetheless, the photo clearly shows Sean Davis’ superior athletic skills, and I took that as a good sign for the Steelers.

  • Since then, all arrows on Sean Davis have been pointing up.

On opening day, Sean Davis became the first rookie Steelers defensive back to start since Chad Scott, another Maryland Terrapin, in 1997. Sean Davis has appeared in all 15 of the Steelers games, and supplanted Robert Golden as the Steelers full time starter at strong safety during the middle of the season.

  • Per the Steelers count, Sean Davis has 5 defensed passes, 1 interception, half a sack and 61 tackles.

While those numbers are nice, they don’t do justice to how well Davis has played during the second half of the season. The sight of Sean Davis stepping up at stopping a ball carrier behind or at the line of scrimmage has become more common as the Steelers 2016 season has progressed.

  • The Steelers Red Zone defense has been stout, and Sean Davis has played a big role in keeping opposing teams from scoring touchdowns.

He’s been doing it all season and, just this past weekend after Ben Roethlisberger’s second interception, he stepped up big time to prevent a catch in the end zone during prevent a touchdown on third down, forcing a Baltimore field goal.

That folks, is what you call a difference maker.

Stability at Safety for the Steelers?

This award comes to Sean Davis with just perhaps a touch of irony. Less than a week ago, Shamarko Thomas’ season, and perhaps his career in Pittsburgh, ended when the Steelers put the concussed safety on injured reserve.

The Steelers gave Thomas his chances, but their decision to start Jordan Dangerfield over him earlier in the season signaled that the Shamarko Thomas experiment had ended.

Recognition as the Joe Greene Great Performance award recipient seems to signal Sean Davis seems to be filling the role of Polamalu’s replacement. OK, maybe “replacing Troy Polamalu” is a little too much to put on Sean Davis shoulders.

But at the very least, the award is a good sign. 3 other Steelers safeties have won the Joe Greene rookie award – Polamalu won it in 2003, Darren Perry won it in 1992, and Carnell Lake won it in 1989. All of them went on to be long-term staples of the Steelers secondary.

Moats Wins “Chief Award” Bell Voted Steelers MVP

Sean Davis’ rookie of the year award wasn’t the only honor bestowed on the South Side this year. The Pittsburgh Chapter of the Pro Football Writers Association honored Arthur Moats with the “Chief Award,” an accolade  given to the member of the Steelers who has been the most cooperative with the press.

  • Le’Veon Bell was also voted as the Steelers 2016 Most Valuable Player by his teammates.

Given Brown’s tremedous success this season, routinely running for over 100 yards from scrimmage and taking over a couple of three games, the award was hardly a surprise. (Nonetheless, no one could have argued had the honor fallen to Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown.)

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Steelers Cut Doran Grant, Steven Johnson, Travis Freeney and DeMarcus Ayers to Reach 53 Man Limit

The Pittsburgh Steelers waived 22 players to reach the NFL mandated limit of 53. Most significantly, the Steelers cut Doran Grant, former free agent Steven Johnson and their Travis Freeney and DeMarcus Ayers, their 6th and 7th picks from the 2016 NFL Draft.

  • The Steelers also traded for Cleveland Browns cornerback Justin Gilbert.
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Steelers cut Doran Grant and 21 others to reach NFL’s 53 man roster limit. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA TODAY Sports used on BTSC

The Steelers Justin Gilbert trade could explain the Steelers decision to cut Doran Grant, who’d gotten extensive work with the Steelers first team defense. Assuming Doran Grant clears waivers however, the Steelers could resign him, assuming the Steelers place Senquez Golson on injured reserve.

However, Golson has vowed to return in 2016, and by putting Golson on their initial 53 man roster, Golson will be eligible to return after the 8th week of the season. Steelers decision to waive Doran Grant last season caused a major firestorm in Steelers Nation, although Grant made it back via the practice squad, and then the active roster.

  • Given Grant’s higher profile role in the Steelers preseason defense, there’s no assurance that he will go unclaimed.

So the Steelers cut Doran Grant, but take a measured risk in doing so.

Steven Johnson Caught in a Numbers Game @ Inside Linebacker

Johnson’s departure amounts to a minor surprise, as the Steelers rarely cut unrestricted free agents whom they’ve signed. The Steleers signed Steven Johnson to provide depth at inside linebacker following the free agent departures of Sean Spence and Terence Garvin.

However, with Vince Williams locked in for another 3 years, and with the emergence of rookie Tyler Matakevich aka “Dirty Red” and L.J. Fort the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker is set.

Complete List of Steelers 2016 Cuts

The complete list of Steelers roster cuts is as follows:

Wide Receivers
Demarcus Ayers, Cobi Hamilton, and Marcus Tucker

Running Backs
Brandon Brown-Dukes and Cameron Stingily

Offensive Linemen
Shahbaz Ahmed, Antoine Everett, Matt Feiler, and Wade Hansen

Cornerbacks Montell Garner, Doran Grant, Al-Hajj Shabazz, and Donald Washington

Defensive Linemen
Lavon Hooks, Caushaud Lyons, and Johnny Maxey

Linebackers
Travis Feeney, Steven Johnson, and Jermauria Rasco

Quarterback
Bryn Renner

Safety
Ray Vinopal

The Steelers also designated tight end Paul Long as waived/injured.

Steelers 2016 Practice Squad Candidates

Travis Freeney and Demarcus Ayers could return to the Steelers via the practice squad, and so too could quarterback Bryn Renner, although the Steelers normally do not use practice squad slots on quarterbacks. Wide receiver Cobi Hamilton cornerback Al-Hajj Shabazz also had strong preseasons, and remain viable practice squad candidates.

  • However, cut down day 2016 likely spells the end of the pro football dreams of Donald Washington.

The Steelers gave Donald Washington’s NFL hopes a last summer of life this spring after he impressed sufficiently at rookie mini-camp. Washington, however was no rookie, having played safety for Todd Haley’s Kansas City Chiefs from 2009 to 2011. Washington therefore has no practice squad eligibility and the Steelers decision to waive him likely ends his last chance at NFL glory.

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The Clock is Ticking…. For Travis Feeney to Secure his Steelers Roster Spot

Of all the Steelers rookies and young players being talked about this summer, from 1st round pick Artie Burns to Sean Davis to Javon Hargrave, Eli Rogers, Tyler Matakevich, etc, etc, the one name conspicuously absent from any sort of hype is sixth round pick Travis Feeney.

I find that rather disappointing, since I was really looking forward to the young linebacker out of Washington turning heads in training camp and during the preseason.

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Steelers 6th round pick Travis Feeney during OTA’s. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP used in Seattle Times

When you studied Travis Feeney’s NFL.com Draft profile that included such measurables as a 6-4, 230 lb frame, 4.5 speed and a 40-inch vertical, well, that was pretty darn enticing.

And then there was this analysis by Mark Dulgerian:

Feeney is one of the more athletic edge pass rushers whom many considered a late-round sleeper heading into Day 3.  As he develops, he can carry over his special teams coverage skills to the Steelers’ units.

You had to wonder why a guy who recorded eight sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss in his senior year with the Huskies and possessed so much raw athleticism would slip to the third day of the draft, but as he told ESPN in May, multiple shoulder surgeries may have contributed to his falling stock:

“That’s what I’m thinking why. You never know. Kind of unpredictable.”

  • But, regardless of where an athlete is selected, if his skills shine through, the coaching staff is going to see it.

So have Feeney’s skills shined through so far this summer?

Not yet.

Rocky Training Camp for Travis Feeney Thus Far….

Google “Travis Feeney” and you don’t find much about him, other than stories that date back to the spring, right after the Steelers drafted him. Meanwhile, there are multiple stories to read about guys like Eli Rogers and 7th round pick Tyler Matakevich.

This past Thursday, he finally made his debut in the Steelers preseason loss to the Eagles at Heinz Field, but only recorded one tackle.

Is pointing this stuff out a bit unfair? Perhaps. After all, what have we heard or read about cornerback Artie Burns so far this summer, other than the lumps he’s taken while trying to cover Antonio Brown at training camp? And when someone is injured and can’t practice or get into exhibition games, there aren’t going to be many stories written about him.

Fair enough, but the difference between Artie Burns and Travis Feeney is five rounds. That means Burns was a lock to make the team the second head coach Mike Tomlin called him to tell him he was the Steelers newest first round pick on during the 2016 NFL Draft.

  • Dulgerian alluded to Feeney’s special teams prowess in his aforementioned assessment, and he was named the Huskies Special Teams Player of the Year in 2014.

There’s usually room on an NFL roster for a special teams demon, and Feeney can certainly put his skills to good use as he develops into an outside linebacker. Sadly for him, his draft status isn’t one that lends itself to the same benefit of the doubt Burns’ currently enjoys.

2 Presason Games Might Define Travis Feeney’s Steelers

So is Travis Feeney a prime candidate to wind up on the Steelers practice squad this year? At the moment, that appears to be Travis Feeney’s Steelers future.

Feeney’s a sentimental favorite in these parts. When Travis Feeney signed his rookie contract, this site observed that the Steelers have a long tradition of drafting successful linebackers in the sixth round, from Vince Williams, to Bryan Hinkle, to Eric Ravotti and of course, the legendary Greg Lloyd.

  • However, Mike Tomlin is not wont to make sentimental decisions when it comes to awarding spots on either the Steelers 53 man roster or the practice squad.

Fortunately for him, Travis Feeney still has two preseason games to allow his skills to shine through. He’d be wise to take full advantage of every snap he gets. Here’s to hoping Travis Feeney gives Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, Joey Porter and Jerry Olsavsky every reason to give him the ultimate benefit of the doubt.

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