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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Maurkice Pouncey’s Suspension Cut to 2 Games. Steelers Defend Mason Rudolph

It has been over a week since the now infamous Steelers-Browns Body Bag Game yet the contest’s final 8 seconds continues to dominate the news.

Steelers fans got a bit of good news when the NFL’s appeals committee reduced center Maurkice Pouncey’s suspension from 3 games, and unprecedented total for participating in an on-the-field fight, to 2 games. Larry Ogunjobi’s 1 game suspension was upheld and as was Myles Garrett’s indefinite suspension.

Maurkice Pouncey, Myles Garrett, David DeCastro, Larry Ogunjobi, Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Browns Thursday Night

Maurkice Pouncey slugs Myles Garrett as David DeCastro holds him down. Photo Credit: Ron Schwane, AP via the L.A. Times

  • However, the story did not die there. In fact it grew new legs.

During his appeal, Myles Garrett accused Mason Rudolph of provoking him by uttering a racial epitaph. This information was leaked to ESPN reporters Adam Schefter and Josina Anderson. Shortly after the incident Josina Anderson tweeted that a racial slur uttered by Mason Rudolph started the incident. She quickly deleted the tweets and retracted her claim.

In a written statement, Myles Garrett confirmed the leak:

I was assured that the hearing was space that afforded the opportunity to speak openly and honestly about the incident that led to my suspension. This was not meant for public dissemination, nor was it a convenient attempt to justify my actions or restore my image in the eyes of those I disappointed. I know what I heard….

Gotta love the “This was not meant for public dissemination….” Really? This is from Myles Garrett, the man who everyone extoled for his poetry writing and plans to become a paleontologist expects us to believe this?

If this “…was not meant for public dissemination” then why did he have he or his agent leak the news? (Does anyone really think that Derrick Brooks or James Thrash, the men who upheld the suspension leaked the news?)

Speaking both through his agent and through Steelers spokesman Burt Laurten, Mason Rudolph vehemently denied the charges.

  • The NFL also says that they investigated and found no evidence of the charges.

On the latter point, Steelers fans should trust and hope that the NFL did in fact do a real investigation, and that no audio evidence surfaces later. Not Roger Goodell has track record for fishy investigations or anything like that.

However, Steelers who were on the field at the time continue to defend Mason Rudolph. Matt Feiler who was a few feet away during the whole incident told Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “He didn’t say anything.”

Mason Rudolph did not address reporters, but Cam Heyward described him as “Distraught” by the accusations. Heyward went on to assert, “The kid made a bad mistake, but he never crossed the line when you’re talking about racial slurs.”

Alejandro Villanuava also defended Mason Rudolph, asking “Why wasn’t it said earlier?”

Steelers Injury Update Ahead of Bengals Game

While news that Maurkice Pouncey’s suspension has been reduced was certainly welcome, he will not be available for the game against the Bengals. Nor will other victims from last Thursday’s “Body Bag Game.”

JuJu Smith-Schuster remains in the NFL’s concussion protocol and is nursing knee and foot injuries. James Conner has not practiced and is extremely unlikely to play. Artie Burns, another injured player from last week’s game, was a limited participant.

All news was not a bad, however. Diontae Johnson was a full participant in practice, and Benny Snell has practice all week and will likely be available to back up Jaylen Samuels.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Chargers – Not Quite Straight A’s, but Close

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is crossing his fingers n hopes that his student can sustain the momentum they’re taking into spring break, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Chargers.

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Quarterback
The first rule for a backup quarterback is to avoid mistakes that cost his team the game. Devlin Hodges did that in going 15 for 20 for one touchdown. His interception was costly, but fortunately not a difference maker. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
James Conner continues to excel. Although his rushing average might not impress, he ran well and was even more effective catching the ball. Benny Snell saw his first extended action, and put together an tremendous night with 75 yards on 17 carries. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Both Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett caught both passes thrown to them for five yards on their only targets. But the tight ends real contribution came in run blocking, where they really made a difference. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
It was a quiet, quiet night for the Steelers wide outs as Diontae Johnson led the team with 2 catches for 14 yards. Donte Moncrief was next with one catch for 11 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had one catch for 7 yards. Johnny Holton had one target and failed to come back to the ball allowing for an easy interception. Grade: C

Offensive Line
This is the type of offensive line play that defines Steelers football. The quarterback wasn’t sacked nor was he even hit based on ESPN’s statistics. But more importantly, the Steelers were able to run the ball when they needed to, and the offensive line opened holes for both running backs. Grade: A

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

Bell Snell rushing through the holes opened by the Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier

Defensive Line
In a night when the defense dominated at levels not seen in years, the defensive line features a sparse stat sheet. But don’t be fooled. As Jim Wexell pointed out, Stephon Tuitt’s vicious hit of Philip Rivers knocked the quarterback off track for the entire first half. Tyson Alualu tipped a ball that turn into an interception, and Cam Heyward on Javon Hargrave helped stone the Chargers running backs. Grade: A

Linebackers
Anyone still want to second guess that Devin Bush trade? In only his sixth game as a pro, Devin Bush scored the first defensive touchdown of the year and set up the Steelers second score with his second interception in as many weeks. Oh, and he also led in tackles. T.J. Watt had a half sack, batted down a ball, and harassed Philip Rivers all night. Anthony Chickillo returned notching a half sack, and Vince Williams helped keep the Chargers rushers in check. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick batted away a pass and was second in tackles, followed by Terrell Edmunds. Mike Hilton had his hands on a the penultimate pass of the night. The real star of the show was Cam Sutton, who batted away 3 passes and came down with the game sealing interception. Grade: A

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton onsides kick recovery, Steelers vs Chargers

Cameron Sutton recovers the onside. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today

Special Teams
The Steelers kick coverage continues to be an issue, but Ryan Switzer had a respectable return. Chris Boswell was perfect on the night. The real stars of the show were Cam Sutton Jordan Berry and Johnny Holton. Cam Sutton made a head-over-heels onsides kick recovery while Berry and Holton who teamed to pin the Chargers down at their one with less than one minute to play.

These players were exactly what the Steelers needed. Grade: A

Coaching
The deck seemed to be stacked against the Steelers. They were playing on the West Coast. Not only was their starting quarterback injured, but so where his two offensive counterparts from the 2017 NFL Draft. The Steelers were also down one starting inside linebacker and a cornerback who has quietly authored a dominating season.

  • Yet, Mike Tomlin got his team to tune out the noise and the Steelers turned out their best performance of the season.

On offense, Randy Fichtner adhered to the KISS principle – Keep It Simple Stupid, and in doing so he set his rookie, 4th string quarterback up to win his first start. Whether it was by design or necessity Shaun Sarrett finally got the offensive line run blocking going.

On defense, Keith Butler continued to do what he has quietly done for the past several games: Deploy a defense that is playing dominant football.

  • Sure, as injuries mounted in the second half things got closer than one would like to see. But the Steelers defense closed the deal, all you can ask.

One quibble against the coaches is the intercepted deep pass. The Chargers were on the ropes before that, and that play got them back into it. Ultimately, that will be a footnote on this season’s history, but it does nudge the grade down. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
He arrived in Pittsburgh as both a second choice and a surprise, but made a respectable debut. Then, in his second season he began to struggle when he should have soared. Things went downhill from there, as he lost his starting job to a player who, a year later, is out of football. Then he found himself on the bench altogether.

He saw his first action in months against the Chargers. He could have been picked on and exploited as an easy target. Yet, his name was not often heard and he was by no means the weak link in a very strong Steelers defense, and for that Artie Burns wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Chargers.

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Steelers 24-17 Win over Chargers Yields Building Blocks to Take into Bye Week

The Pittsburgh Steelers have struggled in 2019. Injuries have struck key players. Players have turned over the ball at inopportune moments. Several Steelers have stepped up to make spectacular individual plays, but something has always conspired to keep Pittsburgh from bring it altogether.

  • In the Steelers 24-17 win over the Chargers, Pittsburgh finally brought it together.

Not only did the Steelers bring it together, but they added key elements to their game which had been missing and those ended up being the difference makers.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Steelers Defense Dominates Early and Often

Perhaps critics can be forgiven for failing to see it amidst the wreckage of a 1-4 start, but the Steelers defense has been getting better. This isn’t about simply avoiding the sieve-like quality that has too often bedeviled them since injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier derailed a promising rise in mid-2017.

  • No, the Steelers defense has been signaling that it can go beyond that, that it can dominate.

And against the Chargers, Keith Butler’s boys dominated. Devin Bush led the charge early on when the rookie made yet another heads up play, by scooping up a failed lateral to put the Steelers ahead 7 to nothing.

  • On the very next series, Tyson Alualu tipped a pass, and again Devin Bush delivered with an interception.

That set up the Steelers 2nd score, which made the game 14-0, with 4 minutes left to play in the 1st quarter. The Steelers defense kept the pedal to the metal through the rest of the first half. The stat sheet says that Anthony Chickillo and T.J. Watt shared the lone sack of Philip Rivers. But what the stat sheet fails to show is that the Steelers defense harassed him through the first half.

More would be required of them later on, but Steelers defense played its best half of football since October 2017, when it completely shut down the then-NFL leading Kansas City Chiefs offense.

Road Grading Returns to Pittsburgh’s Offense

The Steelers offensive line has been saddled with a glass half-full, half-empty syndrome in 2019. On the one hand, the offensive line has done a masterful job of keeping Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges clean.

Forced to find a spark, Randy Fichtner had to turn to the Wildcat to get the offense moving. An innovative move to be sure, but one that worked against the Bengals and failed miserably vs the Ravens. Whispers began:

  • Was the offensive line missing Mike Munchak?
  • Was the unit’s collective age creeping up on it?

Against the Chargers, the Steelers defense silenced those whispers with authority and decisiveness. It is one thing run against NFL defenses trying to protect against the pass. It is another thing to establish the run when the opposing team knows you’re going to run the ball.

  • The Chargers knew the Steelers were going to run the ball.
  • The Steeler ran it and dared Los Angeles to stop them.

Los Angeles tried, and failed. James Conner’s first touchdown run required some hustle on the part of the running back, but it was made possible by road-grading quality blocking by Vance McDonald and Alejandro Villanueva.

The Steelers offense authored two drives, one in the 2nd quarter and the other to begin the 3rd quarter, which burned 9:09 and 6:48 off the clock and added 10 points to the score board. With 19 minutes remaining to play, Steelers had effectively imposed their will on the Chargers.

Sutton, Special Teams Stamp Out Chargers New Signs of Life

Credit the Steelers coaches for many things going into this game, but the Devlin Hodges attempt to hook up keep with Johnny Holton is not one of those. The Chargers weren’t fooled, and the interception injected new life into a team that looked like it was really ready for the showers.

  • Instead, Philip Rivers did what Hall of Fame quarterbacks do when you give them a 2nd chance, he rallied his team to two touchdowns.

And Philip Rivers might have succeeded in rallying for a third, had it not been for one 3rd round pick and an Aussie punter. Cam Sutton has tantalized Steelers Nation since Pittsburgh drafted him in 2017. He got activated off of injured reserve and immediately pressed Artie Burns and Coty Sensabaugh for playing time late in his rookie year.

However, Cam Sutton disappeared shortly thereafter, but began flashing again during preseason, and asserted himself at points during the 2019 campaign. But Cam Sutton asserted himself to close out the Chargers game in stunning fashion, defending multiple passes and making a spectacular head over heels on-sides kick recovery.

Cam Sutton recovers an on sides kick in the Steelers 24-17 win over Chargers. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today via The Athletic

The Chargers had all three of their time outs after the on-sides kick, and the Steelers offense couldn’t make a first down, forcing a punt. Jordan Berry boomed off a punt which pinned the Chargers down at their one.

Throwing from his own end zone, Philip Rivers first pass bounced off of Mike Hilton’s hands. Cam Sutton grabbed his second one, which sealed victory for the Steelers.

Steelers Take 2-4, Building Blocks into Bye Week

A 2-4 record is nothing to be of proud of, but it sure beats 1-5. But beyond doubling their total in the win column, the victory over the Chargers gives the Steelers something they can build on heading into the bye week.

  • The Steelers first win over the Bengals, however satisfying, was gimmicky

In contrast, the Steelers defeated the Chargers by out executing San Diego, er um, Los Angeles, the fundamentals. And that gives Pittsburgh a sustainable strategy the can follow over the next ten games to come.

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Is Mike Hilton’s Slot-Corner Role Up For Grabs @ St. Vincents?

When comparing Steelers third-year slot-corner Mike Hiltons stats from 2017 with those from 2018, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference.

In 2017, Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss in 2016, had 54 tackles, four sacks, six passes defensed, two interceptions and one forced fumble while appearing in 16 games and starting four.

In 2018, Mike Hilton had 57 tackles, one sack, eight passes defensed, one interception and two fumble recoveries while appearing in 15 games and starting two.

Mike Hilton, Mike Hilton interception Buccaneers, Joe Haden, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams

Mike Hilton’s Red Zone interception. Photo Credit: Mark LoMoglio, AP via Tribune-Review

Other than the number of sacks, which are a bit misleading considering he had three in one game in a Week 16 blowout victory over the Texans in 2017, again, there doesn’t seem to be much of a discernible difference in play and performance over Hilton’s first two seasons in the league.

Yet, after entering his second Steelers training camp as a youngster who appeared to have a bright future in the defense, Mike Hilton enters his third Steelers training camp looking like a player who is in for a fight for his starting role in the secondary.

Yes, the slot corner position is very much considered a starting role in the modern era of football; and after some unsuccessful attempts to fill this now very important role–including with Hilton’s old college teammate, 2015 second-round pick Senquez Golson–the Steelers seemed to find their man two years ago.

What changed? It’s not rumor or speculation, either. The sudden drop of Mike Hilton’s stock from one season to the next — specifically, the tail-end of last season, when other corners were now battling him for playing time.

To further reinforce this apparent lack of confidence in Mike Hilton’s abilities, the Steelers barely even made an attempt to negotiate with him on a multi-year contract this past offseason, and he ultimately signed his $645,000 tender as an exclusive rights free agent. as you probably know, an exclusive rights free agent is someone who has no power or leverage to negotiate a deal. It’s a take it or leave it situation.

  • For whatever reason, the Steelers made it pretty clear to Mike Hilton that he had no leverage.

In other words, they opted not to treat him like James Harrison, Willie Parker and/or Alejandro Villanueava who got second contracts as Exclusive Rights Free Agents. 

To his credit, Mike Hilton participated in all offseason workouts, even before signing his tender. Now, he’s at Steelers training camp in Latrobe, Pa. trying to prove to his bosses that 2017 was no fluke. Again, though, what happened in 2018 that made Mike Hilton’s rookie season seem so fluky?

  • I’m obviously no expert, so maybe there was a drop off in Mike Hilton’s play that only those who get paid to evaluate could have detected.

Nobody on Pittsburgh’s current roster appears to be nipping at Hilton’s heels, not 2017 third-round pick, Cam Sutton, not 2017 fifth-round pick, Brian Allen and certainly not 2016 first-round pick, Artie Burns, who is fighting just to stay on the roster.

Maybe it really is just speculation, this apparent falling out of favor by Mike Hilton with the Steelers. After all, you’ll be hard-pressed to find him on any list ranking the NFL’s top nickle corners. Furthermore, Mike Hilton is a restricted free agent in 2020, meaning the Steelers essentially control his rights for another offseason. Therefore, why bother with a multi-year contract at this point?

Maybe the Steelers feel that there is much room for improvement at slot corner, and while Hilton is a nice player, perhaps they’re looking for a little more out of the position.

By all outward appearances, Mike Hilton has been put on notice by the Steelers, and the battle for the slot-corner position is one worth watching this summer.

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Steelers 2019 Draft Needs @ Offensive Line – Can Pittsburgh Afford to Take a Pass?

The offensive line has been perhaps the most decorated and lauded unit for the Steelers over the last several seasons.

With the help of offensive line coach (and guru) Mike Munchak, the unit has gone from one of weakness to one of great strength. In addition to taking his high-pedigreed charges to a new level, Munchak was able to flesh out the talents of projects and unrestricted free agents. Unfortunately, Mike Munchak left to take the same job with the Broncos following the 2018 season. However, Shaun Sarrett, his trusted assistant for several years, was promoted and is highly-thought of by his linemen, the guys he’ll now be teaching and instructing in 2019.

David DeCastro, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2012 first round draft pick

David DeCastro blocking for Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via kickoff coverage.com

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

The Steelers will be entering the 2019 season with Alejandro Villanueva starting at left tackle, Ramon Foster starting at left guard, perennial Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey starting at center, the almost as decorated David DeCastro starting at right guard and Matt Feiler starting at right tackle. The only difference from the beginning of the 2018 campaign is the absence of right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who was shipped off to the Cardinals in exchange for a sixth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Fortunately for the Steelers, Feiler, an undrafted free agent out of Bloomsburg in 2014, started 10 games in place of an injured Gilbert a year ago and more than held his own with no noticeable drop-off in performance from the right side. Therefore, the Steelers offensive line, one that has been considered among the best in the NFL for quite some time, should remain a strength in 2019, provided there are no serious injuries.

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

One of the ways Munchak earned such a great reputation in Pittsburgh was, again, his ability to take so-called lesser talents and turn them into starters–or more. Villanueva, who has made two straight Pro Bowls after entering the NFL as an undrafted defensive lineman, is one such example. Feiler is another one. How about B.J. Finney, a 2015 undrafted free agent out of Kansas State?

The jury is still out on whether or not he’ll ever be a decorated starter. But his reputation as a super-sub is well-earned after starting a combined nine games at center and guard since joining the Steelers in 2016. Speaking of super-subs, Okorafor Chukwuma, a third-round choice out of Western Michigan last year, is actually expected to challenge Feiler for the starting job at right tackle this summer.

If it’s a competitive battle, Pittsburgh figures to have a very reliable backup that can play both tackle positions in whoever comes out on the losing end. R.J. Prince, Joe Cheek, J.C. Hassenauer, Zach Banner, Patrick Morris and Jerald Hawkins make up the rest of the offensive line’s depth chart. The most notable name on that aforementioned list is Hawkins, a tackle and fourth-round pick out of LSU in the 2016 NFL Draft. He’s been severely limited by injury thus far, appearing in only five games. Hawkins is a virtual unknown at this point, and the 2019 training camp figures to be his last chance to prove himself.

The Steelers 2019 Offensive Line Draft Needs

The average age of the starters is approximately 30, these days.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

As for the backups, again, there are only two that inspire much confidence. Having said that, however, the needs along the offensive line don’t appear to be anywhere near dire. Therefore, the draft priority must be considered Low-Moderate

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Will New Young Steelers Receivers Morph into the Next “Young Money”?

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane to the days of 2010 and 2011.

  • Ah, those were innocent times, weren’t they?

Mike Wallace, a third-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, was catching 40-plus yard bombs on such a regular basis, people actually found it endearing that this was his best talent.

As for Emmanuel Sanders, the third-round pick from the 2010 NFL Draft, he was developing into a fine number three receiver and showing signs of morphing into much more. Speaking of morphing, Antonio Brown, who was picked three rounds later than Sanders in the same draft, was just starting to blossom into one of the best, young receivers in all of football.

In-fact, Antonio Brown had blossomed so much after his rookie season–a freshman campaign that included a spectacular and game-saving helmet catch vs. the Ravens in a thrilling divisional round playoff victory at Heinz Field–not only did he supplant the legendary Hines Ward in the starting lineup in 2011, he made his very first Pro Bowl.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

Will JuJu Smith-Schuster lead another “Young Money” movement for the Steelers?. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Things were looking up for the Steelers pup-like receivers, a trio that quickly dubbed itself Young Money –for both financial and clutch purposes. The future was bright for Pittsburgh’s wide-out position, so bright, in-fact, it was not uncommon for fans and even experts to proclaim the unit the best in the entire NFL.

  • Then 2012 came along, and Mike Wallace, who was in-search of a long-term deal worth lots of money, decided to negotiate by holding out of all off season activities and the start of training camp.

This, of course, alienated Mike Wallace from the fans, who quickly dubbed him a one-trick pony and didn’t find his deep-threat speed quite so endearing any longer. Mike Wallace would be gone a year later.

As for Emmanuel Sanders, he would also alienate the fans by, one, not leaving in-exchange for the Patriots 2013 third-round pick (New England had signed Emmanuel Sanders, who was a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet which the Steelers matched, rather than allowing him to walk for a fairly high draft choice).

Emmanuel Sanders would go on to further anger the fans late in the 2013 season by dropping an admittedly tough catch on a two-point try in a Thanksgiving Night loss to the Ravens (Pittsburgh missed the playoffs by a Ryan Succop field goal weeks later).

Emmanuel Sanders then went on to sign a lucrative deal with the Broncos prior to the 2014 season — but not before unethically trying to leverage teams into giving him even more money. As a member of the Broncos, Sanders further “endeared” himself to Steelers fans by saying that his new quarterback, Peyton Manning, was so much more disciplined than his old quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.

  • When it came to Antonio Brown, the man everyone would soon affectionately call “AB,” he appeared to be the working man’s wide-receiver.

He played hard and worked (as in, worked out) even harder. His work-ethic and attention to detail were second-to-none. Not only did Brown quickly become the fan favorite among the Young Money trio, he was rewarded with a five-year, $42 million contract extension in the summer of 2012 — or right when Mike Wallace was holding out of training camp.

Not only did Antonio Brown blossom into one of the best, young receivers in the NFL, he soon morphed into not only the very best in the business, but one of the best of all-time–his six-year run that includes 686 catches for 9,145 yards from 2013-2018 is unmatched in NFL history.

  • Antonio Brown was not only a huge fan favorite, he was an all-time Steelers great.

Then the 2018 season ended, and, well, you know what happened. Since I don’t want to focus on Antonio Brown much more than I have to in this piece, let’s just say he did just about everything he could to ensure that he would have the ugliest divorce of any Steelers legend in franchise history.

The question now is, how will the Steelers press on in the aftermath of Young Money? In Brown’s absence is JuJu Smith-Schuster, a third-year man out of USC, who not only became one of the most popular Steelers right out of the gate, he has become one of the new faces of the NFL.

Oh yeah, he’s also a really good wide-out, complete with over 100 receptions and a Pro Bowl bid in 2018. Smith-Schuster has all the potential to be the next in a long-line of great Steelers receivers. But will be also morph into a problem child? Will he be the next in a long-line of diva receivers who the fans can’t wait to see leave town?

  • It’s way too early to know for sure, but Smith-Schuster appears to be more Hines Ward than he does Antonio Brown.

Not only is he a fierce competitor that loves to block almost as much as he loves to catch, he has great character–and it seems genuine. He has all the makings of a team leader, someone who would rather set a good example by being on-time to meetings, than demand preferential treatment while showing up late to them.

  • Not only that, his personality and charm are contagious–like Alejandro Villanueva once said, “Everyone needs a little JuJu in their life.”

Speaking of character, there’s no question the Steelers have been targeting not only talented athletes in recent drafts, but youngsters with few red flags that may morph into the total package one day–including team leaders and captains.

The jury is still deliberating about the future of James Washington, the team’s second-round pick from a season ago. But, so far, his only off-the-field activities seem to involve farming and fishing.

It’s way too early to know the exact future of the Steelers receiving corps as a whole, but given the character of JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington, it’s hard to see the unit giving birth to more problem children.

In other words, there will be no reboot of Young Money in Steeler Nation.

 

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Hits Keep Coming. Mike Munchak Bolts to Broncos. Steelers Promote Shaun Sarrett to Offensive Line Coach

The NFL’s 2019 off season hasn’t even officially started, yet the hits keep coming for the Pittsburgh Steelers. When the Denver Broncos passed on signing Mike Munchak as their head coach, Steelers Nation breathed a sigh of relief.

  • Yesterday, that sign became a gasp of desperation as the Broncos named Mike Munchak as their offensive line coach.

The Steelers moved swiftly to fill the position, naming offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett who had formerly served as Munchak’ s assistant. Shaun Sarrett has worked with the Steelers since 2012 as an offensive assistant.

Mike Munchack, Shaun Sarrett, Steelers offensive line coaches

Shaun Sarrett & Mike Munchack at the 2018 Pro Bowl. Photo Credit: 247 Pittsburgh

The Munchak Legacy in Pittsburgh

Mike Munchak was easily the highest regarded assistant coach on Mike Tomlin’s staff. And his record shows why.

When Mike Munchak arrived in January 2014, the Steelers offensive line seemed to be in a natural state of chaos. Whether it was because of injuries or ineffectiveness, offensive lineman shuffled in and out of the Steelers lineup from game to game, sometimes even during games themselves.

  • Mike Munchak changed that.

While the Steelers had been moving away from the “Plug and Patch” offensive line philosophy that characterized the early Tomlin era, it was Mike Munchak who ensured that those draft picks paid dividends.

A look at the development of Marcus Gilbert is telling, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizik observed shortly before Munchak’ s arrival, “…Gilbert maintained his starting role at right tackle all season but allowed 11 of the 43 sacks of Roethlisberger and 30 quarterback hurries.”

  • While is career has been hobbled by injuries, under Munchak, Marcus Gilbert grew into one of the NFL’s better right tackles.

While Maurkice Pouncey was already flourishing before Munchak arrived and David DeCastro probably would have flourished as well, Mike Munchak’ s real genius showed in his work with players like Kelvin Beachum, Chris Hubbard, B.J. Finney, Matt Feiler and especially Alejandro Villanueva, who didn’t even play offensive line in college.

Of the men mentioned above, only Beachum got a call on draft day, and then as a 7th round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but all of them have stepped in as starters on the Steelers offensive line and effectively provided protection for Ben Roethlisberger or opened holds for the likes of Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams or James Conner.

The details behind Mike Munchak’s decision to bolt to the Broncos remain unknown. One of Munchak’ s daughters and grand children live in Denver, and that is why Munchak is so strongly attracted to the Broncos head coaching job. Others have suggested he wishes to escape the Antonio Brown circus.

Regardless, Mike Munchak did a tremendous job in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers will miss him.

Don’t Sell Shaun Sarrett Short

While losing Mike Munchak is clearly a blow for the Pittsburgh Steelers coaching staff, it would be a mistake for Steelers fans to sell Shaun Sarrett short. Mike Tomlin’s decision to fire Jack Bicknell immediately after the 2013 season surprised many. The Steelers 2013 offensive line had started very poorly, but improved by season’s end.

As Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette observed at the time:

Curiously, the offensive line improved as the season wore on.
After allowing 36 sacks in the first nine games, the Steelers allowed just seven in the final seven games. And the running game that averaged just 3.4 yards in the first 11 games averaged 4.1 yards in the final five games.

Why would Mike Tomlin fire his offensive line coach after seeing such improvement? Because as the 2013 season wore on, the offensive assistant Shaun Sarrett, and not Bicknell, began giving the lineman their individual instruction.

  • If Mike Munchak proved anything during his time in Pittsburgh, it was that he was an excellent teacher.

Shaun Sarrett has been at Mike Munchak’s side as he has mentored and molding one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and it is fair to conclude that Munchak taught Sarrett a thing or two about coaching.

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