Steelers Sign Jordan Berry and Matt Feiler to One Year Contracts

The Steelers made two moves ahead of free agency this past week when they signed offensive tackle Matt Feiler and punter Jordan Berry to one year contract extensions.

  • The Jordan Berry signing comes as a bit of a surprise.

Jordan Berry signed with the Steelers in 2015 and beat out fellow Australian Brad Wing during training camp. With three years of service in the league, Berry was due to become a restricted free agent, and could have held out for a restricted-free agent tender from the Steelers.

  • Berry however, chose to skip the process and sign with the Steelers now.

Jordan Berry’s gross punting average of 43.2 yards per punt ranks him last 32nd among NFL punters. However, Berry’s net average of 39.8 is good enough to get him out of the basement, and ranks him as 24th.

Jordan Berry, Steelers Jordan Berry

Jordan Berry punting during the 2015 preseason. Photo Credit: John Heller, Post-Gazette

However, as Chris Adamski of the Tribune-Review points out, “Only two of Berry’s 64 punts were touchbacks; 26 pinned a team inside its 20-yard line.”

That’s an indication of some pretty good directional punting, which can be far more valuable than sheer distance in today’s NFL.While you obviously want to have as good a punter as you can, but if there’s one position that you don’t want to overrate, it is that of the punter. Numbers don’t lie:

Steelers Punters, Steelers punting averages

Quality punting hasn’t correlated very strongly with Super Bowl wins for the Steelers. And, as you can see, Harry Newsome’s punting average in 1988 was almost 5 yards above the NFL average, yet it didn’t help the Steelers avoid their worst season since 1970.

Feiler Returns to Back up Gilbert and Villanueva

The Matt Feiler signing is largely an academic exercise. Feiler was set to become an exclusive rights free agent this march, which essentially means he would have had to sign with the Steelers provided they made him a veteran minimum offer.

Feiler has been in the league since 2014, when he latched on with the Houston Texans as an undrafted rookie free agent. He spent 2014 on Houston’s practice squad, but got cut before the start of the season, where he joined the Steelers 2015 practice squad.

The Steelers kept Felier on the practice squad throughout 2015 and he started 2016 on the practice squad where he was activated in October, although he did not see action. In 2017, Felier made the Steelers 53 man roster and appeared in 5 games, including a start in the season finale against the Browns.

  • The move was expected given that the Steelers are facing the impending departure of Chris Hubbard.

Pittsburgh also has Jerald Hawkins signed as a reserve offensive tackle behind Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva, so unless things very awry, don’t expect to see Matt Feiler protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side or opening holes for Le’Veon Bell (or might it be James Conner….)

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Mike Tomlin Leads AFC to 24-23 Pro Bowl Win over NFC, Raises Steelers Pro Bowl Coaching Record to 8-1

Mike Tomlin once assured reporters, “As long as they keep score, I’m trying to win.” The Pro Bowl may have “evolved” to a point where it is only a step more intense than contact flag football, but Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers coaching staff can sleep soundly at night knowing they led the AFC to a 24-23 victory over NFC in the 2018 Pro Bowl.

And there were plenty of Black and Gold helmets in the huddle at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium, as Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva, Roosevelt Nix, Cam Heyward and Chris Boswell represented the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • If, Roethlisberger to Brown in Pittsburgh proved to be one of the league’s most potent combinations, that magic didn’t translate to Orlando.
Ben Roethlisberger, Pro Bowl 2018

Ben Roethlisberger @ 2018 Pro Bowl. Photo Credit: Yahoo.com.ca

Ben Roethlisberger went 7 of 13 for 50 yards and one pick, while Antonio Brown had one catch for 3 yards. Le’Veon Bell only had two carries, or the same as Roosevelt Nix, and together the two men gained 7 yards. That’s not much of a surprise, given that contact with a defender more or less equates to forward progress dulling the impact of a running game.

  • That’s a far cry from the 1995 Pro Bowl were, under Bill Cowher’s direction, Marshall Faulk ran for 180 yards with Chris Warren adding 127.

So be it. This was the first time Steelers Nation got to see a Randy Fichtner coordinated offense in action. And in  the eyes of NFL.com’s Jeremy Bergman things did not go well:

It was especially sad to watch Randy Fichtner ring in his first game as Steelers offensive coordinator in the Pro Bowl, calling double reverses for Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown and simple routes for Ben Roethlisberger to underthrow.
It’s fair to wonder how much will change next season in the Steel City. Will Bell leave in free agency? Will Roethlisberger hint at retirement again? Will Fichtner force Big Ben to run a sneak? On Sunday, we got an answer to at least one of these quandaries. On third-and-1 from the NFC 39 with Roethlisberger under center, Fichtner called … a dive to Roosevelt Nix. Some things don’t change.

Time will tell whether this is a sign of things to come or whether Fichtner was just having fun.

While Cam Heyward was the lone Steelers defender on the AFC’s Pro Bowl squad (Ryan Shazier was voted in, but obviously could not play) he did come up with a big play:

With the 24 to 23 victory in hand, Mike Tomlin improves the overall record of Steelers coaches in the Pro Bowl to 8-1 and his “undefeated in the Pro Bowl streak” elevates him alongside Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll who were also undefeated in the Pro Bowl.

And by beating Sean Payton, the Steelers head coaches in the Pro Bowl now have another win over Super Bowl winning opponents, with Chuck Noll defeating Tom Landry and Mike Ditka and Bill Cowher defeating Barry Switzer.

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Steelers Pro Bowl Coaching Record (Because You Just HAD to Know….)

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin will soon coach his first Pro Bowl and little does he know (or care) he’s got a tradition to up hold. While the Pittsburgh Steelers are known for their Super Bowls, having won 6 Super Bowls with 3 coaches, Steelers coaches have also led the AFC Pro Bowl squads to six wins.

  • Wow, you didn’t know that, did you?

No, you probably didn’t. Ah, but story gets better yet as the plot thickens. Pittsburgh Steelers coaches have won more Pro Bowls than Super Bowls and boast a 7-1 record in the Pro Bowl for a .875 winning percentage, or 10 points better than Steelers cumulative .750 Super Bowl winning percentage.

  • Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher coached 3 Pro Bowls a piece, and the AFC never suffered a loss under their guidance.

The lone Pro Bowl coaching black sheep for the Steelers is Buddy Parker, who coached the NFL Eastern division to a 26-7 loss in 1957 (actually, the 1957 Pro Bowl was played on January 12, 1958 in the Los Angeles Coliseum – keep that in mind if you ever reach Final Jeopardy and the category is “Pro Bowls” but by all means remember to phrase your response in the form of a question!)

"Mike

All of Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher’s Pro Bowl appearances came by virtue of their AFC title losses, because for much of the game’s history, the coaching staff of the losing team in the conference championship went to Hawaii.

  • Now of course the honor falls to the losing coaching staff from the divisional round that has the highest regular season record.

There’s not a whole lot to discuss in terms of past Pro Bowls, because, well no one really cares about them when they’re being played, much less after their over. I mean, Pro Football Reference lists the games results, the Pro Bowl Rosters, but doesn’t keep a record of the Box Scores. Wikipedia does have a page on each Pro Bowl game with a few notes, but again no box scores.

  • That puts the triviality of the Pro Bowl in perspective. You can find Louis Lipps passing stats on Pro Football Reference, but you can see how many Pro Bowl passes he caught.

So while we know O.J. Simpson was the MVP of the 1972 Pro Bowl, we have no (easy) way of knowing whether Chuck Noll favored Simpson over Franco Harris in terms of workload, or whether The Juice simply out performed Harris. Mel Blount however, won the 1976 Pro Bowl MVP award, for those taking notes.

  • However, we do know that Chuck Noll out witted Tom Landry, Chuck Knox and Mike Ditka in his 3 Pro Bowl appearances.
  • For his part, Bill Cowher vanquished Barry Switzer, Steve Mariucci, Andy Reid and Jim L. Mora in his Pro Bowl coaching appearances.

So, it looks Mike Tomlin arrives at his Pro Bowl coaching gig with a standard to uphold. At least he has Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva and Cam Heyward to help him….

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Colts – Will “Just Passing” Be Enough When Playoffs Arrive?

Taken from the grade book of a teacher whose wondering if his students MO of “just passing is enough” will in fact be enough when the pass/fail portion of the course arrives, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Colts.

Martavis Bryant, Steelers vs Colts, Martavis Bryant 2 point conversion

Martavis Bryant scores critical 2 point conversion in Steelers win over Colts. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Nine games into 2017 it’s a fair question to ask if what we’re seeing from Ben Roethlisberger will be what we get. Under Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger is playing his best November and December football, but will that be good enough in January? Ben Roethlisberger had a poor first half that included an interception and zero 3rd down conversions. He played well in the second half with two touchdowns and several key completions on the game winning drive. Grade: B-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Back
Le’Veon Bell is another player who may be in “What you see is what you get territory.” To be fair to Bell, he didn’t have a lot of room to run often times, and there were times when he made something out of nothing. But its hard to watch him and think he’s not a notch below his 2016 performance. James Conner had one carry for 10 yards. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald got wide open in the end zone and made the game tying touchdown. He also had another catch. Still, McDonald missed his block on an end-around and that cost the team. The run blocking was below par, and the tight ends deserve some responsibly. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers
For the second straight week, JuJu Smith-Schuster was the Steelers top receiver making an Brown-like catch downfield, scoring a touchdown and leading the team with just under 100 yards receiving. Antonio Brown had an off day, he wasn’t targeted much in the 2nd half, but had a drop that would have put the Steelers in the Red Zone and also drew a costly offensive pass interference penalty. Still, Brown came up big late in the game, and his catch and run was a difference maker. Eli Rogers had one catch for 2 yards, but it converted a third down when the Steelers needed him to. Grade: B-

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pierre Desir, Steelers vs Colts

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2nd quarter catch over Pierre Desir was Antonio Brownesque. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Offensive Line
The Colts came into the game with one of the NFL’s worst rushing defenses, but you wouldn’t have known it given their 4 tackles for a loss and otherwise proficient run stuffing of Le’Veon Bell. Likewise, the Colts sacked Roethlisberger once and hit him 4 times. While those numbers are not high by Roethlisberger historical standards, its clear that the 2017 edition of Big Ben needs all the help he can get. He didn’t get enough of it, early on at least. Grade: C-

Defensive Line
Let it be said that in his absence, the Steelers defensive line played some of its best football of the season (particularly at the goal line.) And upon Stephon Tuitt’s return, the defensive line got better. Ok, perhaps this wasn’t an overall A+ performance as it had been against the Lions as Frank Gore ran reasonably well in the 1st half, but the Steelers shut him down in the second. Stephon Tuitt led the unit with three tackles, including 3 for losses, four QB hits and a sack at a critical moment. Cam Heyward had two tackles and was a force even if the stat sheet doesn’t show it. Javon Hargrave had a pass defensed. Grade: B+

Linebackers
Bud Dupree sacked Jacoby Brissett early made four tackles including 3 for losses, and Vince Williams brought him down in the 4th quarter. T.J. Watt had a quiet day with 3 tackles. Ryan Shazier made the play of the game, as Shazier’s interception which set up the Steelers tying touchdown. The Steelers didn’t get much pressure on Brissett early, and it showed. They harassed him the entire second half, and that was a difference maker. Grade: B+

Secondary
The Steelers lost Mike Mitchell and more ominously Joe Haden. And they gave up 2 touchdown passes of 60+. When you do that on the road, you normally lose. Its true that the Steelers coverage improved as the game progressed, but those early stumbles could have been fatal. Sean Davis had a spectacular afternoon, and he brings the grade for the entire unit up. Grade: C

Special Teams
The Steelers committed 4 straight penalties on special teams which set up the Colts first touchdown. Jesse James and Alejandro Villanueva lost containment and the Steelers saw their second blocked place kick of the season. Chris Boswell missed a field goal, although he kicked the game winner and Jordan Berry boomed off several punts, which raises the grade for the unit. Barley. Grade: D

Coaching
Todd Haley’s play calling came with some head scratchers, including the end around and a very strange lateral run with Le’Veon Bell that went nowhere. Still, the Steelers offense outscored the Colts 17 to 7 in the second half, which amounted to a night and day difference from the first 30 minutes.

Keith Butler’s defense put in another strong day. Given how poorly Pittsburgh’s offense performed during the first half, the Steelers were lucky not to be down by more than 7. Still, the Colts scored two touchdowns and made it look easy. Those types of plays cannot continue.

Mike Tomiln, Steelers vs Colts

Mike Tomlin departs the field after the Steelers win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

The pivotal moment in Pittsburgh’s victory came after the Steelers second touchdown. An extra point would have left the Steelers behind by one, a two point conversion would have tied the game. The Steelers struggled to get the right personnel and play on to the field to the tune of a timeout and a penalty.

Nonetheless, the Steelers still made the 2 point conversation, and that proved to be an important difference, as it forced the Colts to play to win rather than simply burning up the clock. Word is that Mike Tomlin over ruled his lieutenants and made the call himself, and as a result, while the Steelers once again fell short of excellence, finished the game Above the Line. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
He’s been a disappointment and a distraction thus far this season. He possibly was at fault for or at least contributed to the first interception. But he came up big when the Steelers needed a two point conversion, and his 3rd down conversion inside the two minute warning got the Steelers to mid field, and for that Martavis Bryant is the Unsung Hero for the Steelers win over the Colts.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Roster Shaped by Coates and Cockrell Trades, Haden Signing

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Roster is almost fully in focus as Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert made a flurry of moves to get their roster to the league mandated 53 man limit. And in doing so the Steelers dynamic-duo showed that they were once again unafraid to venture outside their comfort zone, including:

  • trading Sammie Coates and a 2019 7th round pick to Cleveland for a 2018 6th round pick
  • trading Ross Cockrell for an undisclosed draft pick

While trading a player in lieu of cutting them isn’t terribly unorthodox, it hasn’t been the Steelers standard operating procedure, especially when it comes on the heels of the Vance McDonald trade and the signing of Joe Haden. Beyond that the Steelers made a number of cuts which count as surprises:

Mike Hilton, a training camp and preseason sensation, also made the team as the Steelers will keep 7 cornerbacks.

Steelers 2017 roster, Ben Roethlisberger, Martavis Bryant

Hopefully, Ben Roethlisberger cheering as Martavis Bryant takes off will become a familiar sight. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Steelers 2017 Roster by Position

Quarterbacks (3)
Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, and Joshua Dobbs.

No surprises here.

Running Backs (4)
Le’Veon Bell*, Terrell Watson, James Conner and Roosevelt Nix

Terrell Watson’s power rushing pushed veterans Fitzgerald Toussaint and Davis off the team. Note, Le’Veon Bell doesn’t officially count against the 53 man roster yet.

Wide Receivers (6)
Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Eli Rogers, Justin Hunter and Darrius Heyward-Bey.

No surprises among the first four. Keeping Justin Hunter around will make Ben Roethlisberger happy, and DHB makes team largely because of special teams.

Tight Ends (3)
Vance McDonald, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble.

Jake McGee played well in preseason, but will likely head to practice squad. This site’s got a soft spot for underdogs, making it tough to see David Johnson go.

Offensive Line (9)
Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, Chris Hubbard, B.J. Finney, Jerald Hawkins and Matt Feiler.

9 offensive lineman might seem a little high, but if the Steelers 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 season painfully proved, you can never have enough good offensive lineman.

Defensive Line (6)
Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, L. T. Walton and Daniel McCullers.

A late push by McCullers saves his roster spot. On paper, this is the deepest defensive line Johnny Mitchell has ever had to work with – and he’s been coaching despite being given every chance. Assume he’ll be back on the practice squad.

Outside Linebackers (5)
Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, James Harrison, Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats.

Keeping 5 outside linebackers might seem like a luxury, but remember Arthur Moats has position flexibility to move inside in a pinch.

Inside Linebackers (4)
Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort.

If Shazier stays healthy, this group should be OK. Still it looks a lot less athletic with Timmons in Miami.

Cornerbacks (7)
Artie Burns, Joe Haden, William Gay, Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton, Coty Sensabaugh and Brian Allen.

It almost seems like the Steelers are trying to use quantity to compensate with quality issues…

Safeties (4)
Mike Mitchell, Sean Davis, Robert Golden and Jordan Dangerfield.

To the naked eye this looks good for the Steelers. However, Mike Mitchell has been injured for most of cap, Jordan Dangerfield got injured in the final preseason game, and Robert Golden is not a long term starter.

Specialist (3)
Chris Boswell, Jordan Berry, Kameron Canaday.

It seems that Kameron Canaday and not Colin Holba is the heir Greg Warren.

Finally, to the surprise of no one, the Steelers cut Senquez Golson, their 2nd round draft pick from the 2015 NFL Draft whose NFL career at this point consists of a handful of training camp practices. When fans have asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola about whether Golson would return to the practice squad, his stock answer is that he needs to be healthy enough to practice first.

  • Beyond signing their practice squad, the Steelers will also likely need to make another move as Le’Veon Bell does not yet count against their 53 man roster.

There’s a good chance that the Steelers will create space for Le’Veon Bell by putting Cam Sutton on IR, but the Steelers have hardly been predictable of late.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Fall to 2-1 in Preseason Following 19-15 Loss to Colts Saturday Night

In the now famous dress-rehearsal, the Steelers took on but ultimately succumbed to the Colts at Heinz Field in their third preseason game Saturday night.

  • Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger saw his first preseason action against Indianapolis, as did receiver Antonio Brown, and they were joined by the entire starting offensive line.

Pittsburgh took the opening kickoff and moved effortlessly down the field on the legs of running back Knile Davis, who had runs of 11 and 10 yards on the drive, along with a nine-yard gain on a short pass from Roethlisberger.

Seany Davis, Philipy Dorset, Steelers Colts preseason

Seany Davis battles Philipy Dorset but can’t quite get the interception. Photo Credit: WTHR.com

However, on first and 10 from the 33, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva was badly beaten on the outside by linebacker John Simon, who hit Ben Roethlisberger and forced a fumble that defensive end Hassan Ridgeway recovered at the 33.

      • The Colts then proceeded to march 63 yards on just four plays and went ahead 7-0 on a one-yard run by veteran back Frank Gore.

Pittsburgh answered with an 11-play, 57-yard drive that culminated in a 36-yard field goal by kicker Chris Boswell to pull the Steelers to within four points.

Two series would be it for the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, who completed six of nine passes for 73 yards, and Antonio Brown, who pulled in two passes for 28 yards.

The Colts again moved the ball down the field in a fairly effortless fashion, but after reaching the 27 yard line, a short pass from quarterback Scott Tolzien was picked off by inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, who returned it 12 yards to the Steelers’ 20.

With Landry Jones now in for Roethlisberger, the Steelers notched another field goal in the second quarter, while the Colts added two of  their own, and the visitors went into the locker room with a 13-6 halftime lead.

On the Steelers first possession of the second half, Jones, seeing his first preseason action after missing the first two games with an oblique injury, led the Steelers on an eight-play scoring drive that ended when he found tight end Xavier Grimble in the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown pass.

      • Unfortunately, Chris Boswell’s extra point was no-good, and the Steelers still trailed by one point.

The Steelers finally went ahead on their following drive, thanks to Boswell’s third field goal of the night, this time from 37 yards out, but the Colts quickly answered by marching 86 yards on 14 plays and scored on a Josh Ferguson one-yard plunge to make it 19-15 (Adam Vinatieri‘s extra point was no good).

The Steelers appeared poised to regain the lead late in the fourth quarter, after pass interference was called on Colts cornerback Chris Culliver, who was trying to cover rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.

      • Since the foul occurred in the end zone, Pittsburgh had it first and goal with 4:36 remaining.

However, one play later, Landry Jones’ pass intended for Smith-Schuster was intercepted in the end zone by Chris Milton, and the Colts held on for a 19-15 victory.

      • It was a nice enough debut for Landry Jones, who completed 21 of 31 passes for 163 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Running back Terrell Watson led the way with 40 yards rushing on eight carries, while James Conner and Davis added 26 and 21 yards, respectively.

  • Eli Rogers perhaps cemented his role as the slot receiver catching five passes for 58 yards.

It wasn’t a great night for the Steelers defense which failed to generate much of a pass rush (just one sack split by James Harrison and Vince Williams) and yielded 257 yards through the air. The Steelers shook up their secondary in the week leading up to the game, but neither Coty Sensabaugh nor Ross Cockrell stepped up to distinguish themselves.

Next up for the Steelers is their annual preseason finale against the Panthers this Thursday night at Carolina.

 

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Steelers sign Alejandro Villaneuva to 4-year deal

You can make that one training camp holdout for the Steelers as they began preparations for the 2017 regular season.

While star running back Le’Veon Bell has yet to sign his $12.1 million franchise tag and hasn’t reported to training camp, several outlets–but most reliably their official website–are reporting the Steelers signed starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva to a new four-year contract-extension as players reported to camp on Thursday.

Villanueva, a decorated military veteran who served several tours in Afghanistan, played his college ball at Army, where he tried his hand at several positions–including left tackle, defensive end and tight end–before entering the NFL as an undrafted free-agent in 2014.

He signed with the Eagles, who wanted him to play defensive end.

After failing to make Philadelphia’s active roster, Villanueva made his way to the Steelers practice squad in 2014, and that’s where he remained for the rest of the year, while he added weight to his 6’9″ frame and learned the left tackle position under legendary offensive line coach Mike Munchak.

Villanueva made the Steelers active roster as a reserve offensive lineman in 2015 and got his big career break later in the year, when starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum suffered a season-ending ACL tear in a Week 6 victory over the Cardinals at Heinz Field.

Villanueva started the final 10 games of the 2015 season and all 16 in 2016.

As an exclusive-rights free-agent, Villanueva, 28, had no real leverage but to show up and play in 2017. But as training camp approached, there were rumors that Villanueva would hold out in pursuit of a new deal.

However, with Thursday being the official date for players to report to St. Vincent in Latrobe, Pa., the new agreement for Villanueva means he will get to continue to improve on his craft.

As per usual, the Steelers didn’t disclose any financial terms for Villanueva’s deal, but Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com, citing an unnamed source, is reporting the contract is worth $24 million. 

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs at Offensive Line

The Steelers offensive line building strategy has seen a sea change during the Mike Tomlin era, perhaps like no other spot on the depth chart.

  • During the first part of the Tomlin era, the Steelers used a “Plug and Patch” approach to building their offensive line.

Whether it was because the Steelers drank their own “Weapons vs. Protection” Koolaid for real or because they won Super Bowl XLIII and went to another with a makeshift offensive line, or because Bruce Arians wasn’t interested in line building as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reported in 2013, the Steelers ignored the offensive line in Mike Tomlin’s first several drafts.

That changed as Ben Roethlisberger started taking more hits, and the question we look at here today is whether the Steelers should continue to focus on the offensive line in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Maurkice Pouncey, B.J. Finney, David DeCastro, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers offensive line, Steelers offensive line draft needs 2017

Maurkice Pouncey flanked by David DeCastro and B.J. Finney on Le’Veon Bell’s record breaking day in Buffalo. Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via lastwordonfootball.com

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

The Maurkice Pouncey anchors the Steelers offensive line having been voted to the Pro Bowl by his peers in each of his non-injury seasons. Marcus Gilbert holds down the right end of the Steelers offensive line, followed by David DeCastro, with Ramon Foster and Alejandro Villanueva playing to Pouency’s left.

While it is fair to say that the Steelers offensive line got off to a slow start in early 2016, the unit gelled as the season progressed. Ben Roethlisberger took fewer sacks than he has in any season and Le’Veon Bell tured out single game performances in both the regular season and playoffs that neither Willie Parker, nor Franco Harris, nor Jerome Bettis could accomplish.

That only happens of the Steelers offensive line is playing well.

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

Behind their starting front five the Steelers have  and B.J. Finney who can back up at guard and center. Next they have Chris Hubbard who can play both guard and offensive tackle. Ryan Harris retired, leaving 2016’s 4th round draft pick Jerald Hawkins and Brain Mihalik as the primary backups at offensive tackle.

Both Chris Hubbard and BJ Finney saw action in during 2016, and both men played well, although Finney is stronger at guard than he is at center.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Offensive Line

The Steelers offensive line is as talented and as deep as it has been at any time in during the Mike Tomlin era. The Steelers starters and depth at guard are both strong. Depth at center isn’t quite as strong, but BJ Finney has shown he’s at least serviceable there, and he also possesses the proverbial “Upside.”Steelers 2017 Draft Needs offensive line

  • Depth remains more of a concern at offensive tackle.

Chris Hubbard started four games at tackle and also served as a third tight end as part of the Steelers “Big Boy Package.” In a perfect world Jerald Hawkins would give the Steelers 2 viable backups at offensive tackle, but Hawkins is an untested commodity.

Fate has had a nasty way of reminding Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert that the old saying “You can never have too many good offensive lineman” during more than one season in recent memory. And that leads one to the temptation to rate offensive line a higher priority, but the Steelers essential need at offensive line is to build depth, and therefore Steelers 2017 draft need at must be considered Moderate/Low.

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Steelers Restricted Free Agent Tender to Chris Hubbard is a Low Risk No Brainer

When talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers group of upcoming free-agents, reserve offensive lineman Chris Hubbard probably doesn’t enter into most discussions among fans and the media.

But that’s the thing about backup offensive linemen in the National Football League:

  • You never know when you’re going to need them.

Such was the case for the Steelers and Hubbard early last season, when starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert and veteran backup swing tackle Ryan Harris were both lost in a 43-14 Sunday night victory over the Chiefs at Heinz Field.

Chris Hubbard, Chris Hubbard restricted free agent, Chis Hubbard tight end

Chris Hubbard lines up as a tight end in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Chris Hubbard’s Steelers Career

Chris Hubbard, a 2013 undrafted rookie free-agent out of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), bounced back and forth between the team’s practice squad and active roster during 2013, 2014 and 2015 before finally finding a permanent job among the final 53 in 2016.

Its a bit ironic when you look back, as Mike Golic Jr. and Nik Embernate aka “Embernasty” got all the headlines when the Steelers 2013 undrafted rookie free agent class was announced, but four years later, it was Chris Hubbard who was suiting up for the AFC Championship game.

A versatile lineman who can play guard, center and tackle, Hubbard proved his worth against Kansas City in that aforementioned Week 4 match-up, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had perhaps his best game of the season, passing for 300 yards and five touchdowns.

With Marcus Gilbert and Ryan Harris both ruled out against the Jets seven days later, Chris Hubbard got his first career start at right tackle. The result: a more than satisfactory performance in a 31-13 Steelers victory over the Jets at Heinz Field.

  • A week later, Chris Hubbard struggled quite a bit in a 30-15 loss at Miami, as Pittsburgh also lost Ben Roethlisberger with a torn meniscus.

Chris Hubbard started two more games at right tackle before Marcus Gilbert finally returned from his ankle injury, and the young lineman would  remain the backup tackle the rest of the year, as Ryan Harris, who suffered a shin injury against the Chiefs, ultimately had to be placed on Injured Reserve.

Chris Hubbard also saw extensive spot-duty as a third tight end in the Steelers “Big Boy” package, helping David Johnson and Jesse James open holes for Le’Veon Bell.

Pro’s & Con’s of Steelers Decision to RFA Tender to Chris Hubbard

As the Steelers approach free-agency, Hubbard is of the restricted free agent, meaning the Steelers retain the right of first refusal should any other team offer Chris Hubbard a contract.

  • Will there be any offers for Hubbard, 25? Probably not. Should have tendered him a right of first refusal option (as they have) anyway?

If you were to say linemen of Hubbard’s pedigree are a dime a dozen, you would be correct. If you also were to say that Jerald Hawkins, Pittsburgh’s fourth round pick out of LSU in 2016, is someone the team probably is counting on to make strides in 2017, you are also surely correct.

  • Fact is, the Steelers seem set at both tackle positions for the near-future.

Marcus Gilbert is signed through 2019, while left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who only has two years of NFL experience and is an exclusive-rights free-agent, meaning he simply must take whatever offer Pittsburgh gives him.

A year ago Chris Hubbard was a “nice to have” type player to have on your depth chart, now he’s one play away from protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside.

Obviously, the Steelers could fill the backup tackle void with just about anyone, but why not with a player who has been in their system for some time now and also has had and will continue to have the privilege of being coached my Mike Munchak, perhaps the best in the business at what he does and certainly the most respected assistant coach on Pittsburgh’s staff.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Chis Hubbard

When you see the improvements of the likes of Marcus Gilbert and more notably Alejandro Villanueva in recent years, Chris Hubbard is certainly in good hands, and if any offensive line coach can get max out of his abilities, it’s Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak.

  • The Steelers have already offered Chris Hubbard a right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard.

Exact figures for 2017’s right of first refusal offers are suggested to be in the 1.85 million dollar range. So its doubtful that another team will try to sign Chris Hubbard away.

Its says here the Steelers made the right move in protecting Chris Hubbard. The Steelers have invested heavily in his development, and the truth is Chris Hubbard will be on someone’s roster in 2017. He he might as well be on the Steelers’ because you just never know when his services will be needed.

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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.

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