Steelers 2017 Training Camp: 4 Question Pittsburgh Must Answer “Yes” to Bag Lombardi Number 7

As the Pittsburgh Steelers assemble for their 52nd training camp at St. Vincents in Latrobe, the franchise gathers with an unusual urgency. Everyone knows why. While smarting for yet another AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, Steelers signal caller Ben Roethlisberger uttered the dreaded “R” word last January.

  • The elephant in the room has been unmasked.

Super Bowl windows are notoriously hard to pry open and are wont to slam shut without warning. In the modern NFL, having a franchise quarterback forms a necessary, yet insufficient element to bringing home a Lombardi.

  • A quarterback can’t do it alone, even if his last name is Marnio, Elway, Brady and yes Roethlisberger.

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have known this and made their personnel choices accordingly since the Steelers rebuild began in earnest after 2012. The franchise returned to the playoffs in 2014, got a playoff win in 2015, and knocked on heaven’s door in 2016 only to be turned away.

Here are 4 Steelers 2017 Training Camp Questions whose answers will determine whether  Pittsburgh can bring home Lombardi Number 7 in 2017.

Beny Roethlisberger, Beny Roethlisberger St. Vincents, Steelers 2017 training camp

Can Ben Roethlisberger help Steelers bag Lombardi Number 7? Time will tell. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

1. Can Burns, Davis and Hargrave Avoid the Dreaded Sophomore Slump?

My, how times have changed. When decline of the Steelers defense became indisputable in 2013 commentators rightly pegged the dip to the to the 1,279 snaps logged by rookies during Dick LeBeau’s second to last year as defensive coordinator.

  • Three years later, it looked like rookies would write a similar story for Keith Butler’s second year as defensive coordinator.

People forget, but as Steelers scribe Carlos Ortega pointed out, at the middle of the 2016 the Steelers defense was on pace to match the 1988 Steelers defense’s records for futility. The turnaround of the Steelers defense on the back end of the 2016 is certainly one of the under-reported stories and it happened in large part because Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave stopped playing like rookies.

  • On paper, all three men will pick up right where they left off.

Think about it. Who were the only two Steelers to touch Tom Brady during the AFC Championship game? Davis and Hargrave. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler need these men to grow in their second years. And while that’s a reasonable expectation, it is far from a given.

Troy Edwards won the Steelers 1999 rookie of the year, and returned to training camp defended his lax training regimen by complaining that he couldn’t race air. Kendrell Bell looked like a Chad Brown, James Farrior, Ryan Shazier composite as a rookie 2001, but injuries and an unwillingness to learn coverage schemes surfaced at St. Vincents in the summer of 2002.

A sophomore slump by any of these stud 2016 rookies could have catastrophic consequences for the Steelers defense in 2017.

2. Can T.J. Watt (or perhaps Chickillo) Become Starter Capable at Outside Linebacker?

The emergence Burns, Davis and Hargrave only partially explains the Steelers 2016 defensive turnaround. The rest of the turn around was fueled by Bud Dupree’s return to the lineup and James Harrison’s promotion to starter.

  • James Harrison is, by definition, a living legend.

And if the 2016’s James Harrison wasn’t the same as the 2008 version of Harrison that won the NFL’s defensive player of the year award, he was still better than any other outside linebacker the Steelers had.

But it would be foolish for anyone to expect James Harrison to remain a 16 game 3 down, four quarter starter in 2017.

If the Steelers are to seriously contend for Lombardi number 7 in 2017, someone else must step up. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert drafted TJ Watt to be that man, and if OTAs are any indication, the linebacker clearly has the athletic skills. The Steelers need to use training camp to get him ready to contribute early and often.

The other alternative would be to see if Anthony Chickillo can contribute on the right side. That’s not something that Steelers coaches seem to be considering, but we suggested it last year and will do so again.

3. Can Senquez, Sensabaugh or Sutton Turn the Corner?

The narrative on Pittsburgh’s defense since getting torched by Aaron Rogers in Super Bowl XLV has been that the Steelers need to get better at cornerback. This narrative has played for so long that William Gay, one of the “culprits” in 2010, has gone from scapegoat to “Big Play Willie Gay” to a player whose skills are seen as being on the decline.

  • Keenan Lewis looked ready to break out in 2012, yet the Steelers let him go, gambling on Cortez Allen offering more “upside.”

Ike Taylor failed in his footrace with father time. Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin and Justin Gilbert came and went. If Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell give the Steelers two solid options as starting cornerbacks, the AFC Championship revealed their limits. But the depth behind him is simply unproven, save for William Gay whom many pundits argue should be gone.

The good news is that with Coty Sensabaugh, Senquez Golson, Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, the Steelers for the first time in a long time, bring some real quantity to training camp with them. If the Steelers are going to make a serious Super Bowl run, Carnell Lake must find a way to coax come quality out of that unit over the next few weeks on the grass of Chuck Noll Field.

4. Can the Steelers Build Viable Depth at Running Back Behind Bell?

It says here that any running back sets both regular season and playoff rushing single game rushing records that neither Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis could touch is special. But the self-life of NFL running backs is precariously short.

It also says here that the process of trying to extend Le’Veon Bell’s shelf life by limiting his carries a simple exercise on paper but a horrendously complicated endeavor when you try to do it in the heat of a game.

  • Did anyone really want to see Tomlin spell Le’Veon Bell with Fitzgerald Toussaint in his record setting performance over the Bills?

I don’t think so either. Regardless of whether he had a choice or not, Todd Haley over used Le’Veon Bell down the stretch in 2016. Yes, lack of a number two wide receiver to complement Antonio Brown had a lot to do with that, but the fact is the Steelers cupboard was bare at running back.

On paper, the Steelers have given themselves better options for improving running back depth in 2016, by saying goodbye to DeAngelo Williams, drafting James Conner, and signing Knile Davis. And Fitzgerald Toussiant will be back as well.

The days when the Steelers RB depth chart would read Bettis, Huntley, Zereoue, Fuamatu-Ma’afala and Witman, with some guy named on Kreider on the practice squad have ended and will never return. But the Steelers have rolled the dice for several seasons by going with an offensive backfield that was 2 or at and a half players deep.

  • And they’ve paid for it in the post season, in three straight years.

Even if Le’Veon Bell can stay completely healthy for a 19 straight games (yes, that’s counting on a 1st round playoff bye) Steelers running backs coach James Saxon needs to use his time at St. Vincents to establish solid depth behind his starter.

Has Ben Roethlisberger‘s Career Come Full Circle?

As a rookie, injuries forced Ben Roethlisberger into the lineup where he lead team that had finished 6-10 the season before to a 15-1 finish an a playoff run that ended with a AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots.

The loss was devastating to Jerome Bettis, who’d planned to retire and felt he’d lost his shot at a championship. On the sidelines, rookie Ben Roethlisberger implored “The Bus” to return, promising he’d get him his ring. Roethlisberger delivered as the Steelers triumphed in Super Bowl XL.

Now, as Roethlisberger contemplates parking his own bus, the question remains as to whether his teammates can deliver as he did for Bettis 12 years ago.

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3rd Time the Charm? Steelers Draft Cam Sutton in 3rd Round, Cornerback from Tennessee

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Cam Sutton in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft, adding the cornerback from Tennessee to a secondary desperate need of depth at corner.

  • Cornerback has been at the top of the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix seemingly every season since the Steelers loss to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV.

Slow development and salary cap miscalculations (see letting Keenan Lewis walk in favor of counting on Cortez Allen) attempts to get by with waiver wire pickups (see Antwon Blake), late draft picks (see Trent Hawthorne) and just plain bad luck (Senquez Golson) have created this seemingly chronic need at cornerback.

Cam Sutton, Steelers draft Cam Sutton, Steelers 2017 3rd round pick Cam Sutton

Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 3rd round pick Cam Sutton

While Steelers 1st round pick from the 2016 draft Artie Burns did have a strong second half to his rookie year, the Steelers still need help at corner.

According to Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake, Cam Sutton brings Pittsburgh:

Cameron is a press corner and plays close to the line of scrimmage but can also play off. He does a good job of mirroring the receiver. He stays close, and that shows in his productivity as a corner for Tennessee over the years in his career. He has led his team and is the all-time leader in passes defensed for Tennessee. He knows how to cover, he stays close, and that is something that we’ve been looking for in the draft. In the third round, he was available and that’s why we took him.

Cam Sutton stands at 5-11 1/4, weighs 188 pounds, but has short 30-inch arms and a 4.52 40 time, which explains why he stayed on the bard so long. At the NFL Combine he only benched only 11 times but did post Combine workouts saw him post decent numbers in the vertical jump (34), broad jump (10-0) and 3-cone (6.81). His shuttle time of 4.23 is acceptable.

Here is what his highlight tape tells us:

As you can see, he also has experience returning punts, so perhaps the Steelers can finally send someone other than Antonio Brown out there.

Cam Sutton brings the Steelers a wealth of experience, having started for four straight seasons for the Tennessee Volunteers, playing as their team captain during his senior year. Leadership is another asset which he can potentially bring to the Steelers secondary, as indicated by his response to the question of whether he sees himself as a coach on the field:

Most definitely. I was voted captain my senior year, but that leadership role is something I embraced over time in my four years in college. Usually when I first start off in a new area or team, I kind of want to sit back and observe the guys that are around me and kind of get a feel for the personalities. But I am a guy that seeks out those guys, and I have a different way of talking to people. Not every player you’re able to talk to the same way. I’m able to decipher those guys. Some you can harp on, some you have to pull to the side. I’m able to do that. Whatever gets the guys going the right direction helps us all be successful.

By picking Cam Sutton in the third round the Steelers have set themselves up for a traning camp competition at cornerback. Artie Burn and Ross Cockrell will open camp as starters, with William Gay probably penciled in as their slot corner, assuming the Steelers do not move Gay to safety.

Sutton will have a shot to compete with Senquez Golson and Coty Sensabaugh for right to challenge Gay for the nickleback position.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Cam Sutton.

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Ross Cockrell Signs Restricted Free Agent Tender – Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

Dan Rooney’s passing might have consumed the attention of Steelers Nation for the better part of six days but the business of football continues. On Monday Steelers restricted free agent cornerback Ross Cockrell signed his one year tender, ending any possibility that he would defect away from Pittsburgh.

  • The news comes with the proverbial glass half-empty half-full catch.

On the one hand, Ross Cockrell has made tremendous strides since the Steelers claimed him off of waviers in August 2015. So it is good that to know that he his continues on his upward trajectory the Steelers will benefit, at least for another season.

Ross Cockrell, Ross Cockrell interception, Steelers vs Ravens

Ross Cockrell brings down his first interception in the Steelers September loss to the Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

On the flip side, there’s the simple fact that 31 other NFL teams, many of which are flush with salary cap space, didn’t think enough of his current talent or “upside” to part with a 4th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to secure his services.

  • What’s a law abiding citizen of Steelers Nation to conclude?

It says here that Ross Cockrell returning to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017 is a good thing. When Ross Cockrell arrived in Pittsburgh, the common response was “Who?”

On the face of it, the fact that the Steelers picked a player who’d been waived in the first round of training cuts made it appear like the Steelers were continuing to try to fill their need at cornerback on the cheap, as they’d done with the Brice McCains, Antwon Blakes and Brandon Boykins.

  • But as Bob Labriola cautioned on Asked and Answered, its hard to judge a DB soley on tape because you don’t know what he’s being asked to do.

The wisdom came from the late Bill Nunn Jr., the legendary Steelers scout, and had Nunn lived to see Cockrell play, he’d have been proud, as Cockrell made two interceptions as a rookie and recovered the fumble that Ryan Shazier caused in the 2015 AFC Wild Card game against the Bengals, enabling Ben Roethlisberger’s heroic comeback.

The Steelers promoted Cockrell to starter in 2016, and while he did not come away with any interceptions, he did have 14 defensed passes, including a key one in the December win over the Bengals.

A lot of critics suggested the Steelers were low balling Ross Cockrell by only giving him an original round tender, and many suggested that this signified that they the franchise really didn’t regard him as starter material. That may be the case, but the Steelers actual risk factor was low, as they retained the right of first refusal.

The gamble they made with Cockrell really was no different than the ones they made with Emmanuel Sanders and Steve McLendon in 2013.

  • Both men returned to start, and both men remain starters in Denver and New York.

Ross Cockrell returning to the Steelers is a decidedly half full proposition for Pittsburgh. Had the Steelers lost him, they’d almost have been forced to take a cornerback in the 1st round of the 2017 NFL Draft as Artie Burns has only played on year, William Gay is fading and newly signed Coty Sensabaugh remains unproven.  After that, the Steelers cornerback cupboard is pretty thin – unless you’re ready to count on Senquez Golson.

The Steelers should and probably will take a cornerback with one of their first 3 if not first 2 picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, but having Ross Cockrell back for a year relieves Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin of the need to reach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capsule Profile of Ross Cockrell’s Steelers Career

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

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

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

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

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

The Case for the Steelers Tendering Ross Cockrell

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

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

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

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

The Case Against the Steelers Tendering Ross Cockrell

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

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

  • Is Ross Cockrell really worth that much money?

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

Curtain’s Call on Ross Cockrell and the Steelers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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16 Defining Moments of the Steelers 2016 Season

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

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

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

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

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

1. Steelers Sign Alejandro Villanaueva

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

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

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

2. Heath Miller Retires

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

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

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

3. Martavis Bryant Suspended

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

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

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

4. Steelers Release Cortez Allen

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

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

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

5. Steelers Draft Burns, Davis and Hargrave

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

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

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

6. David Johnson Returns

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

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

7. Senquez Golson injures Lisfranc

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

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

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

8. Steelers Sign Cobi Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Le’Veon Bell Returns

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

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

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

11. Big Ben Gets Injured in Miami

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

12. Ryan Shazier Returns to Full Health

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

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

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

James Harrison, James Harrison color rush, defining moments steelers 2016

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

13. James Harrison Returns to Full Time Stater

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

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

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

14. Steelers Christmas Comeback over the Ravens

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

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

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

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Dolphins, Le'Veon bell breaks playoff rushing record, le'veon bell dolphins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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6 Changes in Pittsburgh Since the Steelers Last Win vs Ravens

The Pittsburgh Steelers Christmas Day show down with the Baltimore Ravens has turned out to be everything the schedule makers hoped it to be: A contest to determine the AFC North champions.

While the Steelers are taking a superior 9-5 record and a six game winning streak into the game, they’re also fighting another inconvenient truth:

  • The Steelers last win vs Ravens came 784 days ago.

Yes, the Ravens arrive in Pittsburgh with their own four game winning streak vs. the Steelers.

For the record, the Steelers last win against the Ravens came on November 2nd, at Heinz Field on the night that Joe Greene joined Ernie Stautner as the only Pittsburgh Steeler to have his number retired. A lot has changed in Pittsburgh since the Steelers last win vs. the Ravens.

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James Harrison sacks Joe Flacco in the Steelers November 2014 win over Baltimore. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Baltimore CBS Local

1. Keith Butler Replaces Dick LeBeau at Defensive Coordinator

This represents what is likely the biggest change since the Steelers last win against the Ravens. Following Super Bowl XLV, Dick LeBeau did what he could to compensate for the declining talent on defense and kept the Steelers competitive on the defensive side of the ball in 2011 and 2012.

  • Yet, but 2013 the talent deficiencies could no longer be swept under the rug.

Statically the Steelers defense dropped further in 2014, although those numbers mask a late season surge by the Dick LeBeau’s defense over the final four games of the season. Mike Tomlin nonetheless decided to make a change following the season when it appeared that Keith Butler would finally accept a defensive coordinator promotion rather than wait for LeBeau to retire.

  • During his first year, Keith Butler fielded a bend but don’t break type defense.

If yardage totals rose, they were off set by an increase in sacks, turnovers, and Red Zone play. After a slow start in this season, the 2016 defense is showing a lot of similar characteristics.

Advantage: Steelers

2. Steelers Scrap Their Secondary and Start Over

When you look at the Steelers defensive backfield depth charts from 2014 and 2016 side by side, the sea change really strikes you:

steelers secondary depth chart, steelers defensive backs depth chart, steelers depth chart defensive backfield

The Steelers secondary has changed a lot since 2014…

First, the Steelers are carrying 3 fewer defensive backs now than they were 2 years ago. Some of that was dictated by age – even the most wild-eyed optimists knew that Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu were nearing the end when 2014 started.

  • But it also appears that the Steelers were perhaps trying to substitute for quality with quantity.

The complete makeover says that their attempt failed. Of the 12 defensive backs the Steelers had on their roster the last time they beat the Ravens, only 3 remain. Yes, that number is three, because Shamarko Thomas is now exclusively a special teams player whereas Robert Golden occupied that role 2 years ago.

But gone or Antwon Blake, Brice McCain, Ross Ventrone, Cortez Allen, and Will Allen who the Steelers have replaced with Justin Gilbert, Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell, and Sean Davis.

Going into the Christmas game vs. the Ravens, the Steelers secondary looks to be improved since their last win.

Advantage: Steelers

3. Le’Veon Bell Establishes Himself as an Elite Back without a Backup

OK. This one involves a little slight of hand. Le’Veon Bell’s breakout game vs. the Tennessee Titans came two weeks after the Steelers last win over the Ravens. But that is the moment he lost his backup, when LeGarrette Blount decided to go AWOL.

  • Since then, the Steelers have struggled to find someone to back up Le’Veon Bell.

No, no one is forgetting DeAngelo Williams, but due to injuries and suspensions, you can count the number of games Williams and Bell have played in together in single digits. Williams is returning from an injury and is expected to dress, but he hasn’t played since loss to the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Advantage: Steelers, unless Bell gets hurt….

4. A Carousel of Receivers has Started Opposite Antonioy Brown

Antonio Brown was already an All Pro and then some the last time Pittsburgh beat Baltimore but injuries and suspensions have forced the Steelers to play musical wide receiver since then.

Martavis Bryant had announced his presence two games earlier and was expected to usurp Markus Wheaton as the Steelers number 2 wide receiver, but that hasn’t happened thanks to Martavis Bryant’s issues with addiction.

Darrius Heyward-Bey was basically just a special teams player when the Steelers last triumphed over the Ravens, but since then he’s emerged as a legitmate downfield threat, gotten promoted to the number 2 WR slot only to get hurt. Sammie Coates has had shots at the Steelres number 2 WR slot, but has failed to grasp them due to injuries and inefficiency.

Mike Tomlin has said that Darrius Heyward-Bey might play against the Ravens on Christmas, but at this point it looks like Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton will have serve as Ben Roethlisberger’s 2nd and 3rd choices downfield.

Advantage: Ravens

5. Heath Miller Has Hung It Up

Heath Miller has since retired since the Steelers last win against the Ravens. For the record, Miller only caught one pass in that game, but it went for 14 yards, so it probably resulted in a third down.

The Steelers of course brought Ladarius Green in to replace Heath Miller but lost Green for the first half of the season due to injury. Green has been making his presence felt since then, but is in the NFL’s concussion protocol. Given his history with concussions, it is not likely he will play.

Advantage: Ravens

6. Steve McLendon and Brett Keisel Have Moved On

The fact that Brett Keisel has retired since the Steelers last victory over the Ravens surprises no one, but Steve McLendon’s departure perhaps does. By 2014 it was clear that Steve McLendon wasn’t going to be Casey Hampton, but he didn’t need to be and he appeared to have a long future in Pittsburgh ahead of him.

However, the Steelers made a salary cap calculation not to invest in a nose tackle, and moved one.

Stephon Tuitt has replaced Brett Keisel and Javon Hargrave has replaced Tuitt. Normally that would give the Steelers a strong duo, but Stephon Tuitt is nursing a knee injury. And with Cam Heyward out for the year, that is not good.

Advantage: Ravens

There you have it. Pittsburgh has seen a lot of changes since the Steelers last win vs. the Ravens. Some of them offer promise for the Christmas day show down, others favor Baltimore.

What does that mean?

Probably that the Steelers-Ravens Christmas Day game will come down to who can hit the hardest – just as any good Steelers-Ravens game should.

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LeSean McCoy and Rex Ryan’s Buffalo Bills Promise to Provide Litmus Test for Steelers Defense

Going into their match up with Rex Ryan’s Buffalo Bills, Steelers Nation is wondering if the Pittsburgh Steelers defense is either coming into its own, or it’s just on a hot-streak.

So, which is it? With three rookies now starting and playing at a high-for-rookies level, Keith Butler‘s crew has allowed just 30 points in the last three games (23 if you don’t count garbage time last week against the Giants).

And, what about all of those fourth down stops–including two fourth and goals stands against the Colts on Thanksgiving night and three fourth down stymies last week against Eli Manning and Co.?

  • I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty darn good about the Steelers 2016 defense these days (not to mention, confident).
sean davis, ryan shazier, james harrison, william gay, mike mitchel, steelers 2016 defense

Steelers defense vs. the New York Giants. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

But, it is real or it just a byproduct of facing three compromised offenses over the past three weeks? (Even the Giants offense isn’t exactly a juggernaut these days, despite the presence of a franchise quarterback and an all-world receiver.)

If the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers defense has arrived, I think we’ll find out this week against Buffalo. Why do I say that? Pittsburgh is going  back to the place where, as head coach Mike Tomlin put it following the all-important next-to-last preseason game of 2015 in-which Bills coach Rex Ryan kept the peddle to the mettle most of the afternoon, many of his youngsters were walking dead and yielded  542 total yards in a 43-19 loss at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

  • So, why is that preseason game relevant now?

After all, a lot of the zombies in question from that defense, such as cornerback Antwon Blake, aren’t with the Steelers any longer. Also, one of Mike Tomlin’s current starting corners–Ross Cockrell–was on Buffalo’s roster at that point, just days away from being cut and picked up by Pittsburgh.

It has a lot to to do with now. For starters, the Bills might be dead-last in passing, behind quarterback Tyrod Taylor (just 181.5 yards per game), but they’re number one in rushing, averaging a shade under 162 yards a week.

  • Running back LeSean (Shady) McCoy, a Pitt Panther football product, leads the way with 949 rushing yards, but Taylor (469 yards) is certainly a threat when using his legs as a weapon.

And, let’s not forget about Charles Clay, a tight end who isn’t exactly on the same level of a Rob Gronkowski (or even Travis Kelce), but who has given the Steelers trouble in the past, when he was a member of the Dolphins.

Speaking of the Dolphins, this Sunday’s game is kind of similar to Pittsburgh’s October 16 visit to Miami, which turned out to be a 30-15 loss. In that game, not only was defensive end Cameron Heyward out with a pulled hamstring, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played the majority of the day with a torn meniscus.

  • It was a horrible day for  the Steelers defense, which yielded 222 rushing yards–including 204 by running back Jay Ajayi.
  • Many players–including youngster and first round pick Artie Burns–screwed up assignments in the running game.

But, after winning three games in a row, Pittsburgh’s defense is in a different place than it was, some seven weeks ago. For one thing, Artie Burns has earned the trust of the coaching staff enough to be a starting corner. The result: nine passes defensed and two interceptions, not to mention better attention to detail in the run department.

While third round pick defensive lineman Javon Hargrave is probably out this week with a concussion, the fact is, this Steelers defense appears to be in a different place than it was, even a few weeks ago, when the Cowboys registered 422 yards in a 35-30 loss at Heinz Field on November 13.

Will the end-result be similar to the past three weeks or to the Dallas game three weeks ago, or even the Buffalo preseason match-up of 2015? After all, the Eagles have had Pittsburgh’s number in the preseason in recent years (remember when Troy Polamalu had an emotional outburst during a game in the summer of 2014?) and kept that ball rolling in a 34-3 regular season beat-down in Week 3 of this current regular season.

The Bills seem to be built in a similar fashion to the Eagles, Dolphins and Cowboys, and  despite Buffalo’s  rather modest 6-6 record, Rex Ryan’s Bills certainly promise to put the Steelers defense to the test this Sunday.

  • Will Keith Butler’s crew ace this exam?

Steelers Nation will have its answer soon. If it does, the Steelers might be on their way to an epic playoff run.

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ICYMI #SteelersNation (how could you?) Steelers Shamarko Thomas Experiment is Over. It Failed

Per previous posts, yours truly is, ironically travling in the United States, with limited opportunity to follow the Steelers (yep, there’s globalization for you – US expats who live in Argentina follow Steelers less when in the States.)

Nonetheless, a quick Jim Wexell tweet got my attention:

As Wexell admitted in a later tweet, he’s respected Dangerfield for a long time (pun intended) and is glad to see him get the opportunity with Robert Golden and Sean Davis both ailing. Here’s to hoping that Wexell’s right about Dangerfield deserving a shot. But the unmistakable flip side to this story is that the Steelers Shamarko Thomas experiment has failed and is over.

  • This “news” about Shamarko of course shocks no one.
steelers shamarko thomas experiment, shamarko thomas, jordan dangerfield, tom brady, steelers vs. patriots

Was getting his hands on Tom Brady the highlight of Shamarko Thomas’ career as a safety? Perhaps. (Photo Credit: Mark L. Baer, USA Today)

In truth, this is more like someone “becoming a grownup” when the graduate college, even if they’ve officially been an adult since they were 18. The Steelers Shamarko Thomas experiment ended when they benched Thomas and chose to start Will Allen on the eve of the 2015 season and never looked back.

Still, during the Steelers 2016 preseason campaign, when the defense performed well, Shamarko Thomas won scattered praise from fans for at least looking “OK.” But Steelers current situation at secondary unequivocally reveals Keith Butler, Carnell Lake and Mike Tomlin’s feelings:

  • They’ve not only given up on Shamarko Thomas, they’ve moved on.

Going into 2016 the Steelers secondary was about the only spot on the depth chart that screamed “liability.” Pittsburgh’s defensive backfield lacked in 2015, and Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin opted to attempt addition by subtraction and thus far, no one inside or outside of the South Side should be doing any second guessing.

Seriously, for as piss poor as Pittsburgh performed against Philadelphia, did anyone mutter to themselves:

Neither did I.

With that said, rookie quarterback Carson Wentz looked like Joe Montana in his prime, and plays like Darren Sproles 73 yard touchdown run, which featured Sean Davis and Artie Burns looking like very much like two clueless rookies, so just how much the inexperience of the Steelers secondary can cost them.

But Shamarko’s experience is only serving to keep him on the bench. When the Steelers drafted Shamarko Thomas out of Syracuse in the 2013 NFL Draft, Carnell Lake opined that had Shamarko been two inches taller, he’d have probably gone in the first round. Maybe he was right, because Shamarko had the other the measurables.

The man that the Steelers once traded a future third round pick to a division rival in order to move up in the 4th round now holds his roster spot solely because he’s a good special teams gunner.

Jordan Dangerfield, who spent two seasons on the Steelers practice squad before making the roster on the strength of his 2016 preseason campaign, is now ahead of Shamarko Thomas on the depth chart. This shocks no one, but it is a little sad, because by all accounts Shamarko Thomas works hard, was mentored by Troy Polamalu and is a good person.

  • All of that speaks well of Shamarko, but Mike Tomlin couldn’t and shouldn’t make sentimental decisions.

If the Steelers were ever going to give Shamarko “One last chance” it would have been now. The Steelers Shamarko Thomas experiment is over, and the only thing that could change that would be a catastrophic series of injuries at safety.

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Pittsburgh Signs Artie Burns, Highlighting Steelers 2016 Secondary Gamble

Week 3 of OTA’s saw the Steelers sign Artie Burns to his rookie contract, and while the “delay” of Pittsburgh signing their 1st round cornerback passed for “news” the fact was that the outcome was never in doubt. However, the Artie Burns signing does highlight a rather unique gamble the Kevin Colbert is taking with the Steelers secondary.

  • The outcome of this gamble is open to doubt however, and the Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes rest on its success.
steelers, artie burns, otas, cornerback, secondary, carnell lake

Artie Burns @ Steelers OTA’s with the ball in his hands; Photo Credit Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

A few numbers highlight just how dramatic of a gamble the Steelers braintrust is taking with their 2016 secondary:

  • 182 games, 42 starts and 17 interceptions vs. 1 snap

The first set of numbers represents the total number of NFL games, starts and interceptions made by Cortez Allen, Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin and the second number is the cumulative NFL experience of Doran Grant, Senquez Golson and Artie Burns.

  • To say that the Steelers have embraced a youth movement in the secondary mildly understates things.

William Gay is a proven commodity and Ross Cockrell has some solid tape, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, and Carnell Lake have gone all in on their calculation that they can perform addition by subtraction in the Steelers secondary.

Success in the NFL salary cap era often boils down to winning more calculated risks than your peers do. The Steelers are no stranger to this. The Steelers played the entire 2015 season with three starter capable defensive lineman, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Steve McLendon and the unit was a defensive strength. On the offensive line, they trusted that Alejandro Villanueva was sufficient at offensive tackle and that gamble paid off too.

Is Artie Burns the answer for the Steelers at cornerback? Here’s an answer you won’t often see on Steelers blogs – I have no idea. Some pre-draft rankings placed a firm 1st round grade on him. Others had him pegged as a 3rd or even 5th rounder.

Neal Coolong of USA Today’s Steelers Wire contends that Artie Burns lacks both a strong tape and athletic measurable. In contrast, Matt C. Steel on Steel City Insider, while conceding that Burns must develop, goes as far as to compare some of Burns measurable to Darrell Revis.

  • As with all draft picks, time whether Artie Burns was a steal, a solid value pick or a reach.

But in some ways that misses the point, because the Steelers 2016 gamble on the secondary Doesn’t just depend on Artie Burns delivering, but on Senquez Golson and Doran Grant showing themselves as players as well.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are one NFL organization that thinks long term, so the success or failure of this gamble won’t be measured solely by how well Burns, Golson and Grant play this season. But the ability of the Steelers to improve their pass defense in 2016 does likely rest on these gentleman’s shoulders.

And to bring home Lombardi Number Seven in 2016, the Steelers pass defense must get better….

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

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

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

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

1. Tomlin and Colbert Draft in Clusters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Kevin Colbert is Cocksure about His Decisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Yet after that, the Steelers went for value.

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

4. The Bengals REALLY Don’t Like the Steelers

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

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

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

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

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

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