Offensive Tackle is a Critical Need Steelers Must, er um, Tackle in the 2021 NFL Draft

American football is difficult to comprehend for most outside of North America. Yet, even people from outside of the US, Canada and Mexico can easily understand the role and importance of offensive tackles in football thanks to Sandra Bullock’s intro to On the Blind Side.

“The first check goes for the mortgage, the second to the insurance.”

Offensive tackles are seen as the sentinels that protect the quarterback. While its possible that their value gets overrated, the wise will remember that the 0-4 2013 Steelers fortunes only started improving after Mike Tomlin made change at left tackle.

The Steelers are in a transition at tackle after a period of stability there, but just how great of a priority is tackle for Pittsburgh in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Zach Banner, Steelers vs Giants, Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger comforts Zach Banner after his injury. (Photo Credit: Seth Wenig)

Steelers Depth Cart at Tackle: The Starters

How’s the old cliché go? “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry?” If not, that’s close enough. Rewind back to the Steelers 2018 road loss to the Broncos. Everyone remembers Xavier Grimble’s fumble (but they forget James Conner’s.) They remember Ben Roethlisberger’s interception and the friction with Antonio Brown.

  • But what they forget is that the game was to feature the offensive line to come.

The Steelers started rookie 3rd round pick Chukwuma Okorafor to face off against Von Miller while moving Matt Feiler to right guard. A year later, ahead of the game against the Rams, the Steelers did the same thing. That was supposed to be the offensive line of the future.

And it worked pretty well. Alas, it didn’t signal good times to come. Zach Banner beat out Chukwuma Okorafor for the starting job, only to tear his ACL for the season, and Matt Feiler struggled as a guard. Pro Football Focus ratings are overrated, but for what they’re worth, Chuks graded out as 57.5 allowed 3 sacks and was flagged for 5 penalties.

Rumors have said that he could return to the Steelers, but that might happen after the NFL Draft.

Steelers Tackle Depth Chart: The Backups

For the past several seasons, the Steelers have had the luxury of dressing 3 starter capable tackles, with the 3rd tackle working in as a 3rd tight end in the jumbo package. Those days are over. Other than Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor the Steelers have Joe Haeg who brings 67 games worth of experience for the Colts and Buccaneers, Aviante Collins, who last played with the Vikings in 2019, Jarron Jones, Brandon Walton, Anthony Coyle and John Leglue.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Tackle

You can never have enough good offensive lineman, and if you don’t have good tackles even the best interior line play is for naught.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL Draft

The Steelers may have two quality starting tackles in Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor. Joe Haeg might provide that critical veteran depth. Someone might distinguish himself from the body of players the Steelers have here on futures contracts.

But that’s hardly how you set yourself up for a Super Bowl run, particularly with an aging Ben Roethlisberger’s whose back for one final ride.

While the Steelers are probably in a strong enough position that they don’t have to draft a starter at tackle, it is still possible that a premium pick could come to Pittsburgh and win the starting job. Given that, the Steelers needs at tackle going into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered High-Moderate.

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Can Steelers Free Agent Zach Banner Lead an Offensive Line Rebuild?

The general consensus among most Steelers media members and fans is that the team needs to rebuild an offensive line that used to be the envy of the NFL.

  • But where do they start? What avenues do they explore?

Shortly after the 2020 season came to a close, Pittsburgh moved on from offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett and promoted assistant Adrian Klemm to the position. With KIemm now in place, will the Steelers give him new prospects to work with from the 2021 NFL Draft? Will they look outside the organization and sign a more proven veteran in free agency? Speaking of free agents, how about the ones currently in-house, namely, tackle Zach Banner? Is he someone worth resigning following an unfortunate ACL tear in Week 1 of the 2020 season? We’re about to find out.

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

 

Capsule Profile of Zach Banner’s Career with the Steelers

Zach Banner was a fourth-round pick by the Colts in the 2017 NFL Draft. Despite coming from a high-profile college, the USC product was waived by Indianapolis and finished out his rookie season with the Browns. After his release by Cleveland the following offseason, Banner briefly spent time in the Panthers organization before finding his way to Pittsburgh.

Banner didn’t appear in any games for the Steelers in 2018, but he began to make a name for himself the following season (at least as a cult-like fan-favorite) as an eligible receiver in the team’s jumbo packages. Banner bet on himself last offseason and signed a one-year, $1.75 million deal to stay with the Steelers.

He soon found himself in a close training-camp battle with Chukwuma Okorafor for the team’s starting right tackle spot. Banner won the competition and started the first game of his career in Week 1 against the Giants. Unfortunately for Banner, his 2020 season was cut way too short when he sustained a torn ACL and was soon placed on Injured Reserve.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Zach Banner

Banner appears to still have some room for growth, at least in terms of his play. In terms of his physique, Banner has already displayed more than enough dedication to his craft by dropping from 400 pounds right out of college to his current weight of around 335.

With the Steelers looking to get younger along the line, maybe they can convince Banner to sign yet another “prove it” team-friendly deal for 2021 and allow him to compete for one of the two starting tackle spots. The opinion of some scouts is that Okorafor is a better left tackle than right tackle. With veteran left tackle Alejandro Villanueva also a free agent, and someone whose play is no longer on par with what it would cost to retain his services, bringing Banner back for 2021 may actually be critical.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Zach Banner

It’s hard to judge Banner’s career because he really hasn’t had much of one up until now. Sure, he won the starting right tackle spot last summer, but his season was cut short long before we could find out if he was the real deal. How much are the Steelers willing to pay an unproven 27-year old tackle coming off a major knee injury? The team might view even a slight raise as too much of a gamble.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Zach Banner

As I alluded to already, I think Banner’s potential is intriguing. The Steelers should try to retain his services for at least one more year. He could wind up being one of the key building blocks for a struggling offensive line.

  • Now, can Pittsburgh pull this off given their salary cap constraints?

Ah, the answer question my friends, remains to be seen.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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After a Hollywood Worthy Career, Steelers Must say to Alejandro Villanueva, “Adios Alejandro, Gracias.”

Ever see the 2006 movie Mark Wahlberg Invincible about the Philadelphia Eagles Vince Papale who transformed himself from NFL walk on into a 3 year stint as a special teamer? 

Never let it be said that Pittsburgh will be outdone by Philadelphia, because Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva is worthy of his own movie.

Villanueva, a Spanish national, played his college ball at Army and served several tours of duty as an Army Ranger. After failing to make it in the NFL as both a tight end — his college position–and a defensive lineman, Villanueva transitioned over to the offensive line and eventually became a Pro Bowler for the Steelers at the left tackle position.

Villaneuva is not only a true hero but a great example that you can accomplish just about anything in life if you put your mind to it. However, even great stories have a final chapter. With the Steelers looking to overhaul their once-dominant offensive line, has Villanueva’s final chapter in Pittsburgh already been written?

Alejandro Villanueva, Steelers fake field goal

Alejandro Villanueva catches a 2 point conversion. Photo Credit: Receptor en la Esquina

Capsule Profile of Alejandro Villanueva’s Career with the Steelers

An undrafted free agent out of Army in 2010, Villanueva tried to latch on with both the Bengals and Eagles while also fulfilling his military obligations as an Army Ranger and serving multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan.

Pittsburgh signed Villanueva in 2014 and quickly converted him from a defensive lineman into an offensive tackle. Villanueva honed his skills under the watchful eye of legendary offensive line coach Mike Munchak and ultimately became the Steelers’ starting left tackle in 2015. Villanueva has been a fixture at the position ever since and has started a total of 90 games. But Villanueva didn’t just become a starter. He was named to the Pro Bowl in both 2017 and 2018.

Alejandro Villanueva even caught a 2 point conversion pass on a fake field goal in the Steelers 2018 loss to the Broncos.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Alejandro Villanueva in 2021

Villanueva is a popular player with both his teammates and the fans. More importantly, his durability at the left tackle spot cannot be understated — he’s started 80-straight games. Furthermore, he plays perhaps the most important position along the offensive line and is entrusted with protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Alejandro Villanueva

While Villanueva’s career hasn’t been a long one due to his military service and many years transitioning himself into a left tackle, he’ll still be 33 years old in September. More critically, it appeared that his play started to decline in recent years and elite pass-rushers such as Myles Garrett began to have their way with him.

Besides, Villanueva’s last contract included base salaries of $5 million each of the past two seasons. Do the Steelers want to give him a similar deal even for another year or two, especially when it appears they have cheaper and younger alternatives?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Alejandro Villanueva in 2021

Alejandro Villanueva should be proud of his story and his career with the Steelers, but that doesn’t mean he should still be their starting left tackle in 2021. If the Steelers 2020 season proved anything, it is that the decline of the once proud offensive line that started in 2019 wasn’t just a one-year fluke.

The first step to reversing that decline is to start to get younger, and you don’t do that by resigning 33 year old veterans whose play appears to be slipping. Alejandro Villanueva’s career is worthy of its own movie. Who knows, maybe some day Thomas Tull will get back into the cinema business and film it some day.

  • If they do it will be a tremendous celebration of his achievement.

But now is the time for the Steelers to figuratively shake Villanueva’s hand and say, “Adios Alejandro, muchas gracias para todo.”  

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Tracker – Pittsburgh Navigates Rough Waters

2013’s Steelers Free Agent Focus article started with a quote and a clip from the Dark Knight Rises. The Steelers were coming off of an 8-8 finish, their first no-winning effort of the Tomlin years, and Kevin Colbert had committed to change. Moreover, the Steelers were in salary cap purgatory, forcing them to attempt addition by subtraction.

  • While the context is different this year, the Steelers salary cap situation is actually worse.

So perhaps a stroll down memory lane is in order:

There’s a storm coming Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches.

The final number of the 2021 NFL salary cap remains undefined. Its floor is 180 million and some suspect it could go up by 2 or 3 million more. The Steelers need every penny they get, having planned for a salary cap of a about 220 million.

Thanks to Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald’s retirements, Cam Heyward‘s contract restructure, Ben Roethlisberger’s new contract that gives the Steelers an additonal 15 million dollars in salary cap space this year, the Steelers might not need to cut players just to get into compliance.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Steelers 2021 Free Agents

JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner in September 22, at Levi Stadium. Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

So fortunately, life will not imitate art here: They’ll be no literal blowing up of the Steelers roster to mimic the cinematic destruction of Heinz Field.

  • But the Steelers have a horrendously long list of free agents, and must say good bye to far too many of them for comfort.

Free agency is almost here and staff writer Tony Defeo and I are doing profiles of each player.

Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus Profiles

Bud Dupree, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
– Signs with Tennessee Titans, 3/15/2021
J.C. Hassenauer, Center, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Hassenauer to 1 year deal, 3/09/21
Robert Spillane, Inside Linebacker, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Robert Spillane to one year deal, 3/12/21
Ray-Ray McCloud, Wide Receiver/Returner, Restricted Free Agent
– Steelers sign McCloud to 1 year deal, 3/11/21
Ola Adeniyi, Outside Linebacker, Restricted Free Agent
– Steelers decline to offer RFA tender to Adeniyi
Marcus Allen, Safety/Inside Linebacker, Exclusive Rights Free Agent
– Steelers sign Marcus Allen to 1 year deal, 3/09/21
James Conner, Running Back, Unrestricted Free Agent
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Reciever, Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers resign JuJu for 1 year contract, 3/19/21
Cam Sutton, Cornerback Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers Resign Cam Sutton, 3/15/21
Alejandro Villanueva, Offensive Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Zach Banner, Offensive Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Steelers resign Zach Banner to 2 year deal, 3/17/2021
Matt Feiler, Offensive Guard/Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Jordan Dangerfield, Safety/special teams, Unrestricted Free Agent
Sean Davis, Safety, Unrestricted Free Agent
Jayrone Elliot, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
Tyson Alualu, Nose Tackle, Unrestricted Free Agent
Signs 2 year deal with Steelers, 3/27/21
Avery Williamson, Inside Linebacker, Unrestricted Free Agent
Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback, Unrestricted Free Agent
Mike Hilton, Cornerback, Unrestricted Free Agent
– Signs contract with Bengals, 3/18/21
Chris Wromley, Defensive Tackle, Unrestricted free agent
– Signs 2 year contract with Steelers, 3/22/21
Cassius Marsh, Outside Linebacker, Unrestricted free agent
– Signs 1 year contract with Steelers, 3/24/21

Here is the list of Steelers free agents we’ve yet to profile:

2021 Unrestricted Free Agents

Jerald Hawkins, Offensive Tackle
Danny Isidora, Guard
Jordan Berry, Punter

With his back against the wall, Kevin Colbert did a respectable job at managing the Steelers free agency situation and put together a decent opening day roster. However, injuries would ravage that roster where it could least afford them, leading to a 2-6.

That 2-6 start however led to a 6-2 finish, which set the franchise up for its second, albeit failed Super Bowl run of the Roethlisberger era. But many of those personnel moves set the team up for its late season comeback.

Can Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, and Mike Tomlin do something along those lines that allows the Steelers to contend for a Super Bowl in 2021?

The odds are against it, but try they will, and we will cover it as they do.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Maurkice Pouncey Retires Signaling the Beginning of the End of an Era for Steelers Offensive Line

Pittsburgh Steelers center and perennial Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey has announced his retirement, marking the official beginning of the end of an era in Steelers offensive line history.

Fans can be forgiven their frustration over the last two seasons as the Steelers offensive line has slipped for one simple reason:

  • For almost half a decade, it was almost a given the Steelers had the best offensive line in NFL.

The Tomlin era certainly didn’t start that way. Mike Tomlin inherited a strong, albeit aging offensive line that promptly fell apart in after the 2007 season and then had to be rebuilt during the 2008 season. What followed was a “Plug and Patch” approach to offensive line building that saw the Steelers sign an entire starting offensive line to 2nd contracts only to cut all of them before they completed their deals.

Indeed, Pouncey arrived at St. Vincents, in Latrobe, with Super Bowl veteran Justin Hartwig as the incumbent and forced him off the team less than a year after he’d signed a 4 year contract with the Steelers. From there Pouncey was a fixture at center, continuing the legacy of excellence at the position that began with Ray Mansfield, continued through Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings.

But it was anything but easy.

Maurkice Pouncey, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Bengals

Maurkice Pouncey and Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Overcoming Injury a Constant for Pouncey

During the 2010 AFC Championship win over the New York Jets Maurkice Pouncey suffered a dreaded “high ankle” sprain. The team “kept the light on for him” but he was unable to play in what would be his only Super Bowl.

  • This was the first of many times injuries would challenge Pouency.

A high ankle sprain would hobble him again against the Browns in 2011 keeping him from the 2011 playoff loss to the Tim Tebow Broncos. In 2013 David DeCastro would fall on Maurkice Pouncey’s leg, breaking it and finishing his season after just 8 snaps. In 2015, Pouncey season end after an injury suffered against the Packers in the preseason.

  • Behind these injuries were numerous surgeries, and numerous complications.

But Maurkice Pouncey never let it slow him down on the field, and he always remained a presence in the locker room.

Best Offensive Line in Football

Building a dominant offensive line takes time. Maurkice Pouncey gave the Steelers a piece. Ramon Foster, a product of “Plug and Patch” proved himself worthy of being another. In 2011 the Steelers drafted Marcus Gilbert, who remained a force until injuries derailed his career. In 2012, David DeCastro arrived, as did Kelvin Beachum. In 2014, the Steelers took a flyer on Alejandro Villanueva, and by the end of 2015 he was a starter.

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Whether they were protecting Ben Roethlisberger or opening holes for Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams or James Conner, from 2014 to 2018 the Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the most, if not the most dominate offensive line in the NFL.

  • At the center of it, literally and figuratively, was Maurkice Pouncey.

Maurkice Pouncey led the line with his superior play. When discipline needed to be enforce, such as when Myles Garrett assaulted Mason Rudolph with a deadly weapon, it was Maurkice Pouncey who retaliated.

That example stands out, but there were numerous smaller ones which either escaped the camera and/or memory. But those plays cemented Pouncey’s role as locker room leader.

  • When Pouncey spoke, people listened.

When Le’Veon Bell held out in 2018 and Pouncey ripped him, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell warned the wayward rusher, “Losing Pouncey? That’s analogous to Lyndon Johnson losing Cronkite. Google it.”

Life’s Work Looms

Shortly after Ben Roethlisberger declared prior to the playoff loss to the Jaguars that would not retire, Maurkice Pouncey let it be known that he too would return. This was the first indication that Pouency was considering starting his “Life’s Work.”

Indeed, as they sat together following the Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns, Roethlisberger apologized to Pouncey, “I’m sorry brother, you’re the only reason I wanted to do this.”

Shortly thereafter, word leaked that Pouency was considering retirement. On Friday February 12th, he made it official. By retiring, Maurkice Pouency simplified the Steelers salary cap situation by giving them back over 8 million dollars.

But make no mistake about it, those 8 million dollars will never replace the leadership and character that Maurkice Pouency contributed to the Steelers Way.

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Steelers Promote Adrian Klemm as Offensive Line Coach. A Strange Move that Might Work

….Once upon a time, a once proud Steelers unit fell into deep disrepair.

Someone from outside Pittsburgh caught the Steelers head coach’s eye. Some viewed the outsider of choice as suspect. He had deep ties deep ties to a historic divisional rival after all. But everyone felt it best to embrace a breath of fresh air, to bring in new blood.

  • Yet new blood could not revive what remained stale.

And after two seasons of test, the Steelers head coach opted for change again, this time looking no further than the end of his nose. Given his chance, this insider innovated, reanimating a unit that was once again proud….

That little fairy tail intro was prompted by the news that the Steelers officially named Adrian Klemm as offensive line coach, promoting him from his role of Assistant Offensive Line coach. Given that the once dominating Steelers offensive line has slipped from elite status to liability, Mike Tomlin’s decision to promote in house seems like a real head scratcher.

Adrian Klemm, Steelers

New Steelers offensive line coach Adrian Klemm. Photo Credit: Photo by Shelley Lipton, Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After all, following the Hindenburg Rescuers the Titanic disaster of a playoff loss to the Browns, Tomlin acknowledged the repeating the same thing and expecting a different result is insanity. Yet, after firing Randy Fichtner, he promoted quarterbacks coach Matt Canada to offensive coordinator. Now, after firing Shaun Sarrett, he promotes his assistant Adrian Klemm.

  • It seems crazy. And maybe it will turn out to be.

But precedents from Steelers history offers proof that it doesn’t have to be that way. After the 1998 season it became clear that offensive coordinator Ray Sherman was way, way in over his head. Mexican Blogger Carlos Ortega even reports that he once called a play that wasn’t even in the Steelers playbook, but one that came from the Minnesota Vikings playbook.

  • Bill Cowher looked outside the organization, and replaced Sherman with Kevin Gilbride.

The Steelers, of course, knew Kevin Gilbride from his days with the Houston Oilers and Jacksonville Jaguars. He was seen as a bright young offensive mind. Or just the guy to bring Kordell Stewart along. Except he wasn’t.

Bill Cowher surprised everyone with his next move, by hiring Mike Mularkey as his offensive coordinator. Mulkarkey had returned to the Steelers in 1996, shortly after Super Bowl XXX, as tight ends coach – which isn’t exactly a fast-track position for offensive coordinators in waiting.

  • Many questioned the move, but Mike Mularkey proved to be a good offensive coordinator.

Yes, perhaps he did do a little too much to earn his “Inspector Gadget,” moniker, but with weapons like Jerome Bettis, Antwaan Randle El, Hines Wards, and Plaxico Burress at his disposal, he fielded a good offense and managed the change from Kordell Stewart to Tommy Maddox effectively.

Can Klemm Copy Mukarkey’s Example

It remains to be seen if Adrian Klemm can follow Mike Mularkey’s example. Kleem does have 3 Super Bowl rings earned as a backup with the New England Patriots, and has extensive experience coaching future NFL offensive lineman while coaching in the collegiate ranks.

  • Former Steelers lineman Ramon Foster and Trai Essex have publicly endorsed the hire.

That’s a welcome sign, but regardless of his coaching acumen, Kleem has his work cut out for him. The Steelers will likely part ways with Alejandro Villanueva and could see Zach Banner and Matt Feiler while Maurkice Pouncey is contemplating retirement and most certainly will if Ben Roethlisberger does not return.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Bengals: No Christmas Reprieve Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who fears it might be time for his star pupil to graduate to his “Life’s Work” and is in no mood to offer a Christmas reprieve here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 loss to the Bengals a Paul Brown Stadium.

Ben Roethlisberger, Carl Lawson, Steelers vs Bengals

Carl Lawson sacks Ben Roethlisberger in the first half. Photo Credit: Michael Conroy

Steelers, Report Card, grades,Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger played what were perhaps his worst 30 minutes of football during the first half against the Bengals. Officially he went 7 for 16 for 19 yards 1 interception and one fumble. But there were 2 if not at least 3 more interceptions the Bengals should have had. Worse yet, Roethlisberger was tentative, timid and unsure. He played much better in the 2nd half, but by then the Steelers were doomed. Grade: F

Running Backs
Benny Snell was perhaps the lone bright spot to come out of the Bengals game. Snell carried 18 times for 84 yards. There were times, such as the 4th and 1 that he converted, where he made yards where none were to be found. Most impressively was the determination and drive he showed. Both Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland had 1 catch and 1 carry each, doing what was asked of him. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron left the game with an injury, leaving the tight end duties to Vance McDonald. McDonald’s block was critical to the Claypool catch and run that sparked the 2nd half mini-rally. He didn’t have any balls thrown his way, but showed up at other times in the blocking game. Grade: C+

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool can’t come down with the ball. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had a strong game, logging 8 catches for 59 yards including a 23 yard touchdown. Chase Claypool put the Steelers back in the game with his 2nd half 37 yard scamper. JuJu Smith-Schuster only had 3 catches and he did fumble one of them, putting the Bengals firmly in control of the game. James Washington was targeted 3 times with no catches, but that’s hardly his fault. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Statistics can be deceiving. Just look at the rushing numbers and it seems like there was some quality run blocking going on. At times there were. But when the Steelers needed it the most, it wasn’t there, particularly in the 3rd quarter when someone missed a block and Benny Snell got dropped for a 2 yard loss on 3rd and one. Cincinnati’s lone sack might make it seem like pass blocking was good, but Ben Roethlisberger was hit 9 times as Alejandro Villanueva and Chukwuma Okorafor were dominated.

Now we know why Ben Roethlisberger has been throwing it so quickly all season…. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Steelers run defense ran hot and cold against the Bengals. Stephon Tuitt was strong in the pass pressure game netting a sack and 3 quarterback hits but could have been stronger against the run. Tyson Alualu had 5 tackles. Grade: C+

Linebackers
Stripped of 3 of its starters and its primary backup the Steelers linebackers did what they could. Which wasn’t enough. T.J. Watt had a sack, 1 QB hit and 3 tackles for losses. He played like a man possessed early in the game. Alex Highsmith got a pressure on Watt’s sack. Inside linebackers Avery Williamson led the unit with 7 tackles and Marcus Allen had 7. This unit struggled to contain Ryan Finley and that was a difference maker in the 2nd half. Grade: C-

Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Ryan Finley waltzes to a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Secondary
The Bengals were 4-14 on third down conversions, which is a credit to the Steelers secondary. Steven Nelson deflected 2 passes while Joe Haden deflected one. The secondary did a good job of keeping the Steelers in the game as long as they could. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long enough. Grade: B

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud’s kick and punt return numbers might not dazzle, but he seemed to regain the confidence he’d been lacking since the fumble against Washington. Steelers punt coverage was solid. Chris Boswell made all of his kicks and Jordan Berry had a fantastic night. Grade: B

Coaching
The Steelers offense had more turnovers than it did first downs in the first half. A damning statistic if there every was one. Randy Fichtner’s offense might be predictable but honestly, predictability or schematics weren’t at issue against the Bengals.

Keith Butler’s defense did well to keep the score to 17 points – OK that doesn’t account for the quality of opposition – in the first half, but got snookered in the 2nd half time and time again by Ryan Findley.

    • It says here that much of what happened isn’t Mike Tomlin’s fault.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Tyler Boyd, Joe Haden, Steelers vs Bengals

Minkah Fitzpatrick bats a pass away from Tyler Boyd. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It also says here that the Steelers showed a lot of fight. But it’s also evident that the Steelers lack the moxie that they once had. Mike Tomlin might night be “to blame” for much of what ails the Steelers, but he certainly is the person to deliver the remedy. Thus far the remedy eludes him. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Ryan Findley was killing the Steelers – and with only 7 completions to his name. Possession downs would start with the Steelers defense smelling blood in the water, and they would end with Ryan Finley burning the Steelers with his legs. One player put a stop to it, and it was the same player who deflected a touchdown pass and the same one who led the team in tackles and for that Minkah Fitzpatrick wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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Glad to be Wrong! Steelers Sign Cam Heyward to 5 Year Extension

Count this as another time when a blogger begs to be wrong, but this time gets his wish.

Less than a week ago yours truly suggested that COVID-19 would test “The Steelers Way” like never before. Namely, the expected 2021 NFL salary cap drop salary cap drop would complicate the Steelers ability to do one of the things they’ve always done best – resign their own players before they reach free agency.

  • The implications for retaining a player like Cam Heyward appeared to be ominous.

I wasn’t alone. Just three days ago Ed Bouchette of The Athletic was beating a similar drum of gloom and doom one the prospects of keeping Cam Heyward in Pittsburgh.

  • How good it is to be wrong!

Steelers.com announced that Cam Heyward had signed a 5 year extension, and Jeremy Fowler of ESPN reports that the deal is for $75.1 million dollars and includes 65.6 million in new money. The deal will make Heyward the highest paid defensive player over 30.

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Nick Chubb, Tyson Alualu, Steelers vs Browns

Cam Heyward tackles Nick Chubb. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Although Cameron Heyward will turn 31 this year, he is coming off what was arguably his best season thus far. Cam Heyward was a one man wrecking crew in 2019, registering 9 sacks, 11 tackles for losses, notching 23 QB hits, defensing 6 passes while making a career record 83 tackles.

Signing Heyward a “Win” But Complicated Challenges Lie Ahead

Signing Cam Heyward represents a major win for the Steelers front office, as it keeps their biggest player off the market long before the bidding will ever start. But Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have difficult personnel choices to make.

Starters JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Bud Dupree and Matt Feiler will all reach the end of their rookie deals this year, and veteran Alejandro Villanueva is heading into the final year of his contract. Key reserves such as Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton are also heading into their final years.

The Steelers already have 40 players under contract for 2021 costing approximately 197 million dollars, putting them 22 million over the projected 2021 salary cap before factoring in Cam Heyward’s new deal or the 2021 draft class.

Difficult decisions lie ahead, but fortunately Cam Heyward won’t be a cap causality.

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Matt Feiler Moving to Left Guard for the Steelers? Surprising? Perhaps, but it Makes Sense

While on a virtual conference call with the media on Tuesday, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin announced that Matt Feiler, who started 26 games at right tackle over the previous two seasons — including all 16 regular season games in 2019 — will open up training camp next month taking snaps at left guard.

  • When I first heard the news, I’m not going to lie, I was a bit shocked.

After all, I’m a practical and pragmatic guy–two words I’d also use to describe Tomlin–so when Ramon Foster retired after 11 years of very consistent left guard play, it just made sense to me to plug Stefen Wisniewski, a long-time veteran Pittsburgh signed as a free agent in the spring, into that spot for at least the start of the 2020 campaign.

Matt Feiler,

Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 Restricted Free Agent Matt Feiler, Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

With so many people high on Kevin Dotson, a fourth-round pick out of Louisiana in the 2020 NFL Draft, perhaps he could assume the starting role at left guard sooner rather than later.

  • Why disrupt two positions along the offensive line, when you only have to find a replacement for one?

However, after hearing Mike Tomlin’s explanation, it now makes sense to me on more than one level.

“We don’t have time to mess around in this environment,” said Tomlin in a quote courtesy of Steel City Insider. “We lost 900 snaps like everybody did with the virtual offseason. You’ve got to give the benefit of the doubt to people that have been here at least as a basis to begin, and that’s the way we’re going to begin the training camp process, knowing that the process is going to be an abbreviated one.”

  • Matt Feiler is a versatile lineman, one who is capable of playing both guard and tackle.

Therefore, if you have to move someone to another position, why not the guy who knows the system even better than the older veteran you just signed?

Also, as Tomlin explained during his talk with the media, moving Feiler to guard opens things up for a competition at the right tackle spot between Chukwuma Okorafor, a third-round pick out of Western Michigan in the 2018 NFL Draft, and Zach Banner, a fourth-round pick by the Colts in 2017 who came to Pittsburgh in 2018 after spending some time with the Browns.

Both players are at the points of their careers where the Steelers need to find out if they have what it takes to be starters. In fact, if neither shows that potential during training camp, it may be time to wonder if either ever will.

  • Okorafor has some experience as a starter, while Banner spent most of 2019 reporting as an eligible receiver in jumbo packages.

If one or both step up in 2020, that could bode well for the Steelers’ future at both tackle spots. Let’s face it, as much as Steelers fans love him, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva isn’t getting any younger. While he’s fairly young in a professional football sense, he’ll be 32 in September, an age that’s never young in a professional athlete sense.

Besides, Alejandro Villanueva signed a four-year, $24 million contract in 2017, a deal that’s set to expire after the 2020 season. With the Steelers facing so many tough financial decisions regarding their superstar players over the next few seasons, it may not be the worst thing in the world for both Okorafor and Banner to step up and show they can be reliable starting tackles in the NFL.

At the very least, if one of those youngsters claims the starting right tackle spot at training camp, that frees up Wisniewski, like the recently-departed B.J. Finney, someone capable of playing both guard and center, to be the versatile veteran backup interior lineman who can step in and start in a pinch.

So to sum it up, thanks to Matt Feiler’s position flexibility and ability to play both guard and tackle at a high level, the Steelers are really only disrupting one position along the offensive line, even while creating a situation for two new starters.

Now it’s up to Chuks Okorafor and/or Zach Banner to jump up and seize the opportunity.

 

 

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Steelers 2020 Offensive Line Draft Needs: Time to Focus on Foundation for Future

Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL and by default offense. But 2nd most important position on offense is the line.

A good offensive line can compensate for deficiencies at the skill positions and even, for a limited time, allow a mediocre quarterback to elevate his play. (See Mike Tomczak during the middle of 1996. Yeah, I’m that old.)

While it’s true that the Steelers did win Super Bowl XLIII and appear in Super Bowl XLV in spite of suspect offensive line play, there’s no question that outstanding offensive line play was a cornerstone to the Steelers return to contender status during their four year playoff run from 2014 to 2017.

As core of the line is now over 30, how important is it for the Steelers to reload in the 2020 NFL Draft?

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line in action vs the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

Times are a changing. With a few tweaks here and there, the Steelers starting lineup on offensive line has been stable since about 2014. That’s an eternity in the NFL.

  • While the Steelers will field many familiar faces in 2020, this season begins a period of transition for the unit.

Maurkice Pouncey returns as a starter. Maurkice Pouncey’s is a perennial Pro Bowler and 2019 was no exception even if his low snaps are a bit of a concern. David DeCastro will return on Pouency’s right side, while Alejandro Villanueva will return at left tackle.

After that things get murky. Matt Felier will start on the line, but it isn’t clear whether that will be a right tackle or at left guard. Newly signed free agent Stefen Wisniewski could be an option at guard, which would likely mean that Felier will remain at right tackle.

However, both Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor could both be in the mix at right tackle. While Zach Banner played as the swing tackle in 2019, the Steelers started Chukwuma Okorafor at tackle against the Rams, just as they’d started him against the Broncos in 2018.

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

The addition of Stefen Wisniewski important flexibility at offensive line, and depending on how roster battles pan out, could give the Steelers two starter-capable offensive lineman on the bench.

Which is good, because they don’t have a lot of other developmental prospects in the pipeline.
Derwin Gray, their 2019 7th round pick returns and is listed as a tackle but has experience at guard, and J.C. Hassenauer who did an apprenticeship with Gray on the practice squad will return to fight for roster spots in 2020.

The Steelers 2020 Offensive Draft Needs

The Steelers play at offensive line slipped in 2020. The run blocking was suspect early in the season, and while that did improve a bit, the pass blocking was lacking for much of the year.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

As D.I. Davis has suggested on Steel City Insider, the fact that instead of Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges were calling out the pass protections at the line of scrimmage could have a lot to do with that.

  • But so could the unit’s age.

Ramon Foster was 33 and has begun his “Life’s work.” Maurkice Pouncey will be 31. Alejandro Villanueva will be 32. David DeCastro will be crack the big 3-0 this year.

Assuming that either Zach Banner or Chukwuma Okorafor starts at right tackle, the average age of the Steelers offensive line should drop, but their three best starters are still another year into their race with Father Time.

  • Quality offensive lineman don’t grow on trees.

The offensive line that led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL “got old” together, and it took several years to rebuild. Barring injury, the Steelers are fortunate in that they don’t have to try to draft offensive lineman who will need to play immediately in 2020.

But you need to start 5 lineman, and you need quality backups. So the Steelers offensive line needs going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

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