How Steelers 39-38 Win Over Ravens Illustrates the Power & Peril of #Shalieve50

The Pittsburgh Steelers 39-38 win over the Baltimore Ravens clinched the franchise’s second consecutive AFC North Championship. Winning in such dramatic fashion without Ryan Shazier, must be regarded as a positive because Ryan Shazier was a leader of the Steelers defense.

  • Yet the Steelers path to victory also revealed the double-edge sword that accompanies rallying around a fallen comrade.

The true test of leadership is the ability of the rest of the team to excel in a leader’s absence. But it’s also often observed that efforts of those left behind are doomed “poor for the leader’s absence.” Both of those things were evident in Steelers win over the Ravens at Heinz Field, and together they form a new “Elephant” in Mike Tomlin’s room.

Ben Roethlisberger, Terrell Suggs, David DeCastro, Steelers vs. Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger scrambles as Terrell Suggs closes in. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live

Soaring on the Wings of #Shalieve50

Ryan Shazier might have been in the hospital at UPMC but his teammates certainly made sure everyone at Heinz Field felt his presence on Sunday against the Ravens. Cameron Heyward and James Harrison carried his jersey out of the tunnel during introductions. Several players wore Number 50 shirts under their pads. #Shalieve50 signs littered the stadium.

  • So it was only fitting that 8 plays into the game, Sean Davis would intercept a pass at the goal line and return it 35 yards.

It only took 7 plays and a couple of Ben Roethlisberger hook ups with Martavis Bryant, Jesse James and Le’Veon Bell to move into the Red Zone, and from there Ben Roethlisberger connected with Le’Veon Bell who was in the end zone with the help of 3 missed tackles by the Ravens.

The Steelers defense forced a punt, and then it was Ben Roethlisberger to Vance McDonald and Antonio Brown on the ground with help from Le’Veon Bell and James Conner on the ground. By the beginning of the second quarter, the Steelers were knocking on heaven’s door again. Bell ran it in from the 1, and the Steelers were up 14 to 0.

The entire Steelers roster was feeling the full force of #Shalieve50 and it was a beautiful moment to be a part of Steelers Nation….

2nd Quarter – Shakiness of Going Shazierless Sets In

The phenomenon of a team rallying around an injured teammate is very real. Last year Cam Heyward’s injury seemed to doom the Steelers 2016 season. But the defense staged a 180, and Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line was very much a part of the change.

  • But the rallying effect has its limits, as emotion can rarely completely compensate for a loss of talent.

And so it was for the Steelers defense in the second quarter. Credit John Harbaugh, Joe Flacco and the rest of the Ravens. To borrow a Tomlinism, they refused to blink.

Steelers vs Ravens, Mike Mitchell, Barry Reeger

Mike Mitchell struggles to stop Alex Collins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Rather than panic and try to play quick catch up, the Ravens attacked the Steelers defense where it was most vulnerable, running Alex Collins up the middle gouged the Steelers for a couple of decent runs before Chris Moore got ahead of Coty Sensbaugh and behind Sean Davis for 30 yard touchdown pass.

  • The Steelers only managed a 52 yard Chris Boswell field goal in response before the Ravens were back at it again.

First it was Alex Collins taking a short screen for 37 yards as Arthur Moats, Sean Davis and Vince Williams inexplicable failed to either tackle him or push him out of bounds. After that, came an expertly executed pass fake that saw NBC’s camera, as well as the entire Steelers defense lose track of Alex Collins.

  • By the time the Steelers figured out Collins had the ball, he was already closing in on the pylon.

The Steelers answered with another field goal to end the first half, which has been their MO this season. The Ravens had clearly regained their footing. Pittsburgh, in contrast, was wobbling.

3rd Quarter Impact of Ryan Shazier’s Absence Painfully Evident

If the Ryan Shazierless Steelers defense had begun to wobble in the 2nd quarter, the ground slipped completely out from under Pittsburgh’s in the 3rd period.

The Baltimore Ravens began the 2nd playing from behind and within 14 minutes they transformed a 6 point deficit into a 11 point advantage! In between Pittsburgh’s defense self-destructed in perhaps every way possible, from inane personal fouls, to a costly if questionable Artie Burns pass interference play in the end zone.

Steelers vs Ravens, Sean Spence, Patrick Richard

Sean Spence is too late to stop Patrick Ricard’s touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reed, PennLive.com

Time will tell if Sean Spence was available in early December for a good reason, but against the Ravens he clearly looked like someone who’d been out of football since October. He failed to get off his blocks, missed tackles and was a half-step behind the Ravens running backs who were tearing through the second level.

  • The Steelers offense didn’t do the team any favors in the 3rd quarter either.

While it is hard to pin point the reason why, but for 15 minutes the Steelers offense reverted to the ineffectiveness that plagued Pittsburgh for much of the first half of the season.

4th Quarter – a Resilient Roethlisberger and a Brilliant Brown at Their Best

While Steelers did manage to begin the 4th quarter with a Chris Boswell field goal, when they got the ball back  with 10:29 left to go, they still faced an 8 point or two score deficit.

  • Which is hardly enough to make Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown break a sweat.

It took the duo less than 75 seconds to get the Steelers to the one, where Ben Roethlisberger connected with Roosevelt Nix to pull Pittsburgh within two.

And then, almost as if on cue, Sean Davis and Artie Burns committed penalties, paving the Ravens return to the end zone. So with six minutes left, the Steelers had another 9 point deficit to beat.

Steelers vs Ravens, Antonio Brown, Tony Jefferson

Antonio Brown stiff arms Tony Jefferson in the 4th Quarter. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

And again, Ben Roethlsiberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Eli Rogers were up to the task, driving 68 yards in just over 3 minutes to narrowing the score to a difference of two with 3:29 left to play. For once, the Steelers defense found its footing as Joe Flacco failed to convert a 3rd and 3 thanks to some smart work by Arthur Moats and Sean Davis.

From there Ben Roethlisberger, with help from Jesse James, did what he’s done time and time again this season:

  • Put Pittsburgh in a position to win in a race against the clock.

Leaving Joe Flacco and the Ravens 42 seconds on the clock is a dangerous thing to do, but Flacco misfired on two deep passes before connecting with Mike Wallace for 15. With one more shot, Flacco faded back, not noticing that T.J. Watt had switched sides strong side to make a strip sack that ended which game.

The Steelers were AFC North Champions

A New Elephant Arrives in Mike Tomlin’s Room…

Two weeks ago Mike Tomlin defied conventional wisdom and called out the New England Patriots, and the Steelers have lived on edge since Tomlin acknowledged “The Elephant in the Room.“

To steal an idea for Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, the past two weeks have exposed a new Elephant in Mike Tomlin’s room: Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco have carved up the Joe Hadenless and Ryan Shazierless Steelers defenses with relative ease, and neither is the caliber of quarterback that Tom Brady is.

  • Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler need to find some way to slow Brady down to give the Steelers offense a chance to keep pace.

That’s a pretty big elephant to manage inside a “room” that gives Pittsburgh zero margin for error. Unless Joe Haden defies expectations and can play, Tomlin and Butler need to corral the proverbial elephant with the pro football equivalent of spit, duct tape and bubble gum.

But if Tomlin and Butler can pull it off, then the spirit of #Shalieve50 combined with the resiliency of the 2017 Steelers just might carry the day.

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Steelers Resign Sean Spence in Wake of Shazier, Matakevich Injuries

Injuries to Ryan Shazier and Tyler Matakevich have forced the Pittsburgh Steelers to resign Sean Spence.

The Steelers arrived a Paul Brown Stadium for their 23-20 Monday Night Football win over the Cincinnati Bengals with four healthy inside linebackers but left with only two.

In a move that has been rumored for over a day saw Pittsburgh Steelers resign Sean Spence, the inside linebacker whom they drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, kept on injured reserve during both the 2012 and 2013 campaign and who split time as a starter with Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams during 2014 and 2015.

Sean Spence, Steelers vs Texans, Steelers resign Sean Spence

Sean Spence after securing a key fumble recovery in the Steelers 2014 win over the Houston Texans. Photo Credit: SteelersWire

When he finally returned to full health, Sean Spence did everything the Pittsburgh Steelers asked of him, as he started 13 games over two seasons, where he record 2 sacks, over 60 tackles and a key fumble recovery in a game against the Houston Texans.

  • Facing a crowded inside linebacking depth chart, Sean Spence rejoined Dick LeBeau during the 2016 off season.

However, despite the his familiarity with the Dick LeBeau’s system, Spence only managed to start six games for the Titans, although he appeared in 15 contests where he recorded 3 more sacks, defensed 3 passes and forced a fumble.

During the 2017 off season, Dale Lolley mentioned that the Steelers might be intersted in bringing Spence back as a backup, but Spence instead signed with the Indianapolis Colts. However, Spence only saw action in 3 games with the Colts and found himself on the waiver wire back in October.

It is unknown whether Sean Spence will have a chance to start in place of L.J. Fort or, should his health allow Tyler Matakevich, but his presence does free the Steelers from the need of having to prep Arthur Moats, who has inside linebacking experience, to do emergency duty there.

While the fact that Sean Spence was still available in early December should raise a yellow caution flag, the Steelers know him well and Sean Spence knows Keith Butler and Jerry Olsavsky.

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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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Sack Attack: Steelers Preseason Sack Spree Shatters (Recent) Precedents

Let’s begin, because it is important to remain firmly grounded: Its only preseason.

It IS only preseason, and the first game at that, which, in our current era of NFL football, means that the players who take vast majority of snaps will be lucky if they spend a day on an NFL practice squad. But of all of the statistics taken from the Steelers preseason win over the Giants, one sticks out:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers defenders sacked New York Giants quarterbacks 7 times.
TJ Watt, Josh Johnson, TJ Watt Josh Johnson, Steelers preseason Giants

TJ Watt drops Giants Josh Johnson for his second preseasons sack. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Tribune Review

Sure, “It’s only preseason,” but that IS part of the point. Consider this:

  • In the ‘14, ‘15, and ‘16 exhibition openers, Pittsburgh never registered more than one sack
  • 6 sacks – represented the Steelers cumulative sack totals in both ’14 and ’16 preseason campaigns
  • In 7 of 13 preseason games since ’14, the Steelers have either been held to one or zero sacks

These numbers only go back three years, because beyond that it gets hard to find preseason statistics. But it is a safe bet to say that the Steelers lack of pressure on the quarterback on those games was met with the ‘its only preseason’ mantra. But no matter how much you try to ratchet down the enthusiasm, the Steelers pass rush and an impressive evening.

Perhaps Steelers first round draft pick TJ Watt’s efforts are the most indicative of why. Here’s a look at Watt’s first sack:

https://twitter.com/steelers/status/896148169368543234

And now a look at his second:

Mike Tomlin, never one know to praise rookies, threw out some cold water on the way into the locker room at half time reminding everyone that “Those were probably the two easiest sacks of his career.” Fair enough.

That’s why you need to consider why they came so easily. Consider the analysis of “Heinzsight” who commented on Jim Wexell’s Steel City Insider site:

First sack, I thought was a picture perfect four man rush by all…. Heyward was the one that really made it go, collapsing a double team right into the QBs lap. But Watt also did a great job squeezing the OT back on a speed/power rush (which sounds like what Harrison was riding him to do last week). All 4 really squeezed the pocket, but you still have to work free to make the sack, and Watt did. Nothing heroic or mind blowing, but a very good rush by all.

One of Kevin Butler’s credos since replacing Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator has been “Get there with four.” And while the Steelers defense has improved its pass rush since Dick LeBeau “resigned,” they haven’t been “getting their with four.”

  • TJ Watt didn’t do anything special to get to the quarterback on either play.

And that’s the beauty of it. TJ Watt was able to get to the quarterback because Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave were doing theirs. Arthur Moats also notched 3 sacks, and while Mike Tomlin likened that to an 11th grader playing JV, Moats dominated when he was supposed to. That’s good and its characteristic of championship football.

Another notable sack came from training camp stand out Mike Hilton, who looks to be delivering the bang that his roommate from Ole Miss, Senquez Golson hasn’t been able to:

For the record, the Steelers 7th sack of the night came from Farrington Huguenin .

Yes, “Its only preseason.” But seven sacks on a night when neither James Harrison nor Bud Dupree nor Anthony Chickillo nor Ben Roethlisberger (ok, he doesn’t play defense) suited up is a statistic that demands respect now, even if the number will be long forgotten by the times the games count for real.

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Steelers Start 2017 Preseason on a Positive Note with 20-12 Win over Giants

The Steelers opened their 2017 preseason schedule with a trip to MetLife Stadium Friday night to take on the Giants.

As is usually the case in these initial preseason affairs, mistakes were plentiful, but then so were the positive plays, as Pittsburgh outlasted New York, 20-12, to open with a 1-0 record in exhibition play.

Quarterback Joshua Dobbs, the team’s fourth round pick out of Tennessee in the 2017 NFL Draft, got the start in-place of backup Landry Jones, who usually takes center stage in these situations, but was sidelined with an oblique injury.

Dobbs certainly looked like a rookie in the first quarter, when he threw two interceptions that led directly to a couple of Giants field goals and a 6-0 deficit.

However, following cornerback Mike Hilton’s recovery of a Donte Deayon muffed punt late in the second quarter, Dobbs connected with receiver Cobi Hamilton on a 28-yard touchdown pass with just seven seconds remaining in the first half to give Pittsburgh a 10-9 lead at the break.

In the second half, following the Giants’ fourth field goal of the game, the Steelers scored 10 unanswered points–including a 15-yard scamper by reserve running back Terrell Watson–to open the preseason with a very satisfying eight-point victory.

That’s the box score; what about some individual efforts?

How about the debut of rookie first round pick T.J. Watt, who recorded sacks on back-to-back plays in the first quarter and also had a quarterback pressure later in the first half?

Then there’s veteran outside linebacker Arthur Moats, who bested the rookie with six tackles, three sacks and an interception early in the second half that led to a Chris Boswell field goal.

As for Dobbs, he completed eight of 15 passes for 100 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He also had a second touchdown to Xavier Grimble called back due to a penalty.

Hamilton also played a pivotal role in the game, catching two passes for 72 yards and touchdown, as he stepped up and threw his hat in the ring for one of the final receiver spots, what with Sammie Coates still nursing an injury and rookie second round pick,

Photo credit: Steelers Wire

JuJu Smith-Schuster, leaving the game early with what appeared to be a concussion.

Next up for the Steelers is a 4 p.m. tilt with the NFC Champion Falcons at Heinz Field on Sunday, August 20.

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Steelers 2017 Salary Cap is Offensively Lopsided. And That’s a Good Thing.

Steelers 2017 training camp starts in 34 days and perhaps the only bit of football drama that will pass between now and then is whether the franchise comes to a long-term agreement with Le’Veon Bell. But even if they don’t one thing is certain:

  • At 101 million dollars, the Steelers will field the NFL’s most expensive offense.

As Steelers Wire’s Simon Chester details, seven of the Steelers top 10 salary cap hits will come on offense. To the naked eye, spending over 60% of your salary cap on half of your team might seem like an unfavorable imbalance.

  • But its not, and in fact shows that things are, in many respects, going according to plan.
Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Dolphins playoffs, Steelers 2017 salary cap offense

Ben Roethlisberger throws to Le’Veon Bell in Steelers 2016 playoff win vs. Miami. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Zimbo

The Steelers 2017 salary cap structure follows the franchise’s rebuilding effort that has been in the works since Super Bowl XLV. Salary cap mechanics can get tricky, but you don’t need to be an accounting or math wiz to understand what’s going on here.

All of the Steelers projected starters on offense, outside of Jesse James, Roosevelt Nix, Martavis Bryant, and Alejandro Villanueva are playing on their second or third contracts. And by the time the season starts, Villanueva might have his own long term deal.

  • On defense the difference is stark.

The only projected starters playing on second contracts are James Harrison, Cameron Heyward and Mike Mitchell. William Gay, Coty Sensabaugh and Arthur Moats are also well removed from their rookie contracts, but their contracts are relatively cap friendly.

As soon as the 2011 lockout ended the Steelers giving second (or third) contracts to Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Willie Colon. Management invested heavily in keeping the core of players together who’d brought Pittsburgh into 3 Super Bowls in six years.

  • Unfortunately, the plan failed.

But, for as frustrating as 8-8 seasons might have been, the Steelers invested wisely in building their offensive line to protect Ben Roethlisberger and in populating their skill positions with weapons to complement Antonio Brown. It is safe to say that by 2014, the Steelers had enough championship caliber talent on offense to make them viable contenders.

That’s a question that Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler’s boys can only answer on the field – as spreadsheet calculations will never drive Tom Brady into the turf on third and long.

But the key to winning in the salary cap era is to get the most bang for your salary cap buck, and one of the best ways to do that is to draft players who can start delivering that bang while they’re still playing on their rookie contracts. Cam Heyward did that. Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt have done that. Sean Davis, Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave showed signs that they can do that. God, willing T.J. Watt and Cam Sutton will do that.

Their ability to keep doing that this season forms the key part of any road map that leads Lombardi Number Seven to Pittsburgh in 2017.

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How Carlos Emmons’ Story Offers Hope for Steelers 2017 7th Round Draftee Keion Adams

he end of the 2017 NFL Draft in Pittsburgh saw the Steelers draft Keion Adams, outside linebacker from Western Michigan in a pick that saw immediate comparisons to Arthur Moats.

For the record, the Steelers 2017 7th round pick stands at 6’2” and weighs in at 245 and led the MAC conference with 17 tackles for a loss and posted 13 sacks over two seasons as a starter.

Keion Adams, Steelers 2017 7th round pick

Steelers 7th round pick Keion Adams closes in on Central Michigan’s Cooper Rush. Photo Credit: Bryan Bennett, Kalamazoo Gazette

If you were to play a quick game of word association with a citizen of Steelers Nation and said “Keion Adams” the likely response would be “practice squad.” And landing on the Steelers practice squad wouldn’t be a bad outcome for a 7th round pick.

  • But Steelers history suggests that Keion Adams quest to make the final 53 man roster is far from hopeless.

Oh, to be certain, the odds are long. He’s looking at a Steelers outside linebacker depth chart that lists Bud Dupree and James Harrison as starters, with Moates and Anthony Chickillo as backups along with 2017’s 1st round draft pick T.J. Watt ahead of him.

  • Suffice to say, Keion Adams certainly shouldn’t commit himself to a long-term lease anywhere in greater Pittsburgh.

And like seemingly every NFL draft hopful, Keion Adams has a YouTube highlight clip:

Ok… That highlight clip doesn’t exactly conjure memories of Lambert and Lloyd. Fair enough. But Carlos Emmons was in Keion Adam’s shoes once before, and his story gives the Steelers 2017 7th round pick every reason to chin up.

Carlos Emmons and the Steelers 1996 Draft Class

Future Hall of Famer Kevin Greene departed Pittsburgh following the Steelers loss in Super Bowl XXX. But one of the reasons why the Steelers were ready to let Greene go was because Jason Gildon was ready to start.

  • 20/20 hindsight tells us that Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe made a mistake in letting the great Greene go in favor of the merely good Gildon.

But that fact wasn’t apparent on the fields of St. Vincents in the summer of 1996 and even if it had been, it would have meant nothing to Carlos Emmons, the outside linebacker that the Steelers had drafted in the 7th round of the 1996 NFL Draft.

Carlos Emmons, Steelers 7th round picks,

Steelers 1996 7th Round Pick Carlos Emmons’s story offers 2017 7th rounder hope Keion Adams. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Rantsports.com

Mind you, as Super Bowl losers the Steelers were drafting 2nd to last in each round. That made Carlos Emmons the 242nd player drafted out of 254 names called during the 1996 NFL Draft. As if those odds weren’t daunting enough, in addition to Gildon, the Steelers had just resigned Greg Lloyd and had drafted Steve Conley in the third round.

They also had Eric Ravotti who could play on both the inside and outside and, while Chad Brown was a fixture at inside linebacker, the team knew he should shift to the outside should the need arise (as it did, when injuries felled Greg Lloyd in the season opener.)

If that didn’t complicate things enough, the Steelers also had Jerry Olsavsky, Donta Jones and Earl Holmes behind Levon Kirkland and Brown on the inside.

  • Clearly, 1996 did not figure to be a good year to be a linebacker drafted by the Steelers in the 7th round.

As you’d expect, Carlos Emmons wasn’t a player most fans were eager to get a look at once preseason started. But during the Steelers America Bowl game in Tokyo, Emmons made the most of his time and recorded a sack late in the 4th quarter.

Carlos Emmons, Steelers Carlos Emmons,

Carlos Emmons tackles a Kansas City Chief. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette, Peter Diana

Dick LeBeau and Bill Cowher continued to give Emmons opportunities in preseason and, if memory serves, he led the team in sacks during that five exhibition game series. When cut down day came the Steelers had a quandary. Their linebackers all looked good.

  • So the Steelers did the unconventional thing, and kept 10 linebackers on their 1996 opening day active roster.

Seven of those linebacker dressed for the Steelers 1996 home opener at Jacksonville, and by the end of the game only 4 of them were in uniform. Greg Lloyd tore his patella tendon, Jason Gildon suffered a knee injury, and so did Steven Conley.

Things looked so bad that Dick LeBeau openly discussed moving to a 4-3, but that wasn’t necessary as Gildon was back in the lineup sooner than expected.

Carlos Emmons had been in street clothes for the season opener, but he played in all 15 of the Steelers other games, and by the end of 1997 he was starting in after Greg Lloyd’s season ended injury. Emmons would go on to start during 1998 and 1999 before leaving for Philadelphia as a free agent, where he played for four years and then went on to play 3 more in for the Giants.

To be clear, when you talk about the Steelers lineage at outside linebacker you typically start by rattling off the name of Jack Ham, and perhaps you throw in Bryan Hinkle before getting to Lloyd, Greene, Gildon, Joey Porter, Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

  • You never stop to mention the name “Carlos Emmons.”

But that’s beside the point. In the spring and summer of 1996, Carlos Emmons looked like a throwaway pick 7th round picks, just as many pundits have already written Keion Adams as a throwaway 7th round picks.

But Emmons never looked at himself that way, nor did the Steelers. He never blossomed into a star, but had a decent run in Pittsburgh, and overall had a decent NFL career. Fortunately for Kion Adams, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Joey Porter will have him a chance to do the same.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker: High-Moderate

The narrative of the Steelers history at outside linebacker since Chuck Noll made the switch to the 3-4 in the early 1980’s might begin:

  • Many are called, few fail, but when they do the fail mightily.

For over two generations, the men who have manned the Steelers outside linebacker slots have inspired the imagination as the likes of Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown, Jason Gildon, and Joey Porter have terrorized opposing quarterbacks.

To Dick Haley, Chuck Noll, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s credit, the Steelers have had far more successes at outside linebacker than frustrations.

  • But when the Steelers have wiffed on an OLB pick, they’ve wiffed badly.

Think Alonzo Jackson and Jarvis Jones. They’ve been very few “Tweeners” in this group, save perhaps for Carlos Emmons and perhaps Jason Worilds.

Entering the 2017 NFL Draft, it is no secret the Steelers are looking to add an edge rushing outside linebacker to their team, the only question is how soon will they do it.

James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Outside Linebacker

James Harrison and Bud Dupree at Steelers OTAs. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports via Stillcurtain

Steelers Depth Chart @ Outside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

At this point in his career, the only question about James Harrison is how long he can stay a step ahead of Father Time. James Harrison was supposed to be done in after 2012. He went as far as to retire in 2014, only to be suiting up again less than a month later. That was supposed to be his swan song, but Harrison was back in 2015 and again in 2016.

After the Steelers demoralizing loss the Dallas Cowboys, Mike Tomlin reinserted James Harrison into the starting lineup.

  • The Steelers didn’t lose another game until the AFC Championship, and those two facts most certainly are not coincidental.

Another player who perhaps doesn’t get enough credit for the Steelers strong finish to 2016 is the man starting opposite James Harrison, Bud Dupree. The Steelers of course drafted Bud Dupree in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Dupree started strong, but finished slow, and then missed the first half of 2016 with a groin injury.

Dupree got his first start of the season against the Bills, and registered 2.5 sacks. He followed that effort up with a sack on Christmas against Baltimore, and another in the season closer against Cleveland. He also split a sack with James Harrison in the AFC divisional playoff win over the Dolphins.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Outside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind James Harrison and Bud Dupree the Steelers have Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo who split time in Dupree’s absence as starters in 2016.

When the Steelers signed Arthur Moats in 2014 he looked to be little more than a player the Steelers were taking a flyer on but, by the Steelers count, Moats has started 25 games over the past few years, and recorded 11 and half sacks.

  • Those clearly aren’t the types of numbers that get you to the Pro Bowl, let alone Canton, but they’re more than respectable given his pedigree.

The Steelers took Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft and Chickillo has already exceeded the expectations for someone picked so late. The Steelers list Chickillo as starting 7 games in 2016 during which he recorded 2.5 sacks, which is more than Jarvis Jones ever accomplished in a single season.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Outside Linebacker

The Steelers face two problems at outside linebacker.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs outside linebacker

Remember that Mike Tomlin explained his decision to start James Harrison by asking, “What are we saving him for?” While the move signaled the Steelers decision to officially call the Jarvis Jones experiment a failure, it also implied that James Harrison needed to be saved.

And he does.

James Harrison has shown that he can continue to play dominating football, but it is also clear that he can’t do it four quarters a game for 16 games. And unfortunately, both Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo play on the opposite side of James Harrison.

So the Steelers need to find and outside linebacker who they can not only bring along for the future, but they also need someone who can play well enough to get significant snaps starting on opening day.

Given that reality, the Steelers 2017 draft need at outside linebacker must be considered High-Moderate.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Inside Linebacker: Moderate

What a machine. What a consistent force and performer in the middle of the Steelers defense for 10 glorious seasons.

I’m referring, of course, to inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons who became head coach Mike Tomlin’s first draft choice, when the Steelers selected him out of Florida State with the 15th pick of the 2007 NFL Draft.

Lawrence Timmons started slowly as he learned legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau‘s sophisticated defense, but the athleticism, the explosiveness, they were on display right from the very start.

After serving an apprenticeship under veterans James Farrior and Larry Foote, Lawerence Timmons moved to the  top of the depth chart in his third season and started 124 games between 2009-2016–including a very durable 96-straight over his final six seasons in Pittsburgh.

After the 2016 campaign, Lawrence Timmons became a free-agent and inked a two-year deal with the Dolphins in March, leaving the Steelers with a hole at one of the inside linebacker spots…sort of. Yes, there’s a “Sort of” attached to that statement and how the Steelers define “sort of” will impact their plans for inside linebacker in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Vince Williams, Ryan Shazier, Steelers 2017 draft needs inside linebacker

Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams celebrate a turnover. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via SportsnetCA

Steelers Depth Chart @ Inside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Starters

Speaking of athleticism and explosiveness, Ryan Shazier, arguably the Steelers best player on defense, has both in bunches.

A first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Shazier was thrust into the starter’s role right from the beginning, thanks to the team’s transition period on defense from the veteran group that helped win two Super Bowls in the previous decade to the younger version that sorely needed a “splashy” play-maker. Ryan Shazier proved to be that early-on, as he intercepted a pass and made several impressive tackles during his rookie home debut in a preseason game at Heinz Field against the Bills.

  • Unfortunately for Ryan Shazier and the Steelers, Shazier missed seven games in 2014 due to a sprained knee.

Over the past two seasons, Ryan Shazier has grown into his role of the spectacular play-maker and best player on the defense. Two years ago, Ryan Shazier was the best player on the field, recovering a fumble and literally saving Pittsburgh’s season, when he stripped running back Jeremy Hill of the football in the waning moments of a come-from-behind victory over the Bengals in an AFC Wild Card game.

  • Last season, as the Steelers marched all the way to the AFC Championship game, Ryan Shazier recorded 55 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions, as he made his first Pro Bowl.

So, who will take Lawerence Timmons’ job and play alongside Ryan Shazier at the other inside linebacker spot? After inking a two-year contract-extension through the 2018 season, Vince Williams, the 2013 sixth round pick out of Florida State, figures to be the heir apparent to Timmons.

Truth be told, Vince Williams appeared to be destined for a future starter’s role, even before the start of the 2016 season. With Lawrence Timmons lame-duck status and declining play in recent years, Vince Williams’ new deal, which he signed before the start of the regular season, seemed like a proactive move by the organization.

When Ryan Shazier missed four games with a knee injury early in 2016, Vince Williams performed so well in his absence–including a combined 25 tackles in back-to-back victories over the Chiefs and Jets–many wondered if Ryan Shazier would be able to reclaim his starting spot.

Surprisingly, however, Lawrence Timmons stepped up his play so much down-the-stretch, as Pittsburgh won nine-straight games, the idea of keeping the Law Dog around for at least another season began to pick up steam. But that talk soon vanished early in free-agency, when Lawrence Timmons jumped to Miami for $11 million in guaranteed money.

With Lawrence Timmons now a former Steeler, the original sentiment of Vince Williams succeeding him at inside linebacker seems to be the plan heading into 2017.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Inside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Backups 

Behind Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams, there’s a little promise but mostly just depth.

In Tyler Matakevich, Pittsburgh’s seventh round pick out of Temple a year ago, the team has a potential tackling machine (493 tackles in college).

  • The key word in that last sentence is “potential,” because Tyler Matakevich certainly didn’t prove much a year year ago, while playing mostly on special teams.

Rounding on the backups are L.J. Fort, a journeyman out of Northern Iowa who appeared in 14 games last season but only recorded two tackles; and Steven Johnson, a veteran the Steelers signed as a free-agent a year ago who has only started seven games in his NFL career.

Although he’s played exclusive on the outside for the Steelers, reserve OLB Arthur Moats also has experience playing on the inside and could serve as an emergency backup in a pintch.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Inside Linebacker

Pittsburgh did add depth on defense during the free-agency period, but not at the inside linebacker spot (although not for lack of trying, if press reports are accurate).Steelers 2017 Draft Needs inside linebacker

Therefore, with Ryan Shazier’s propensity for injuries early in his NFL career–he’s missed 14 of a possible 48 games over three years–and with Vince Williams’s athleticism not being quite on par with what Lawrence Timmons provided for a decade, selecting an inside linebacker in the first few rounds certainly wouldn’t be out of he question for the Steelers.

  • And what happens when/if either Vince Williams or Ryan Shazier gets injured, and the Steelers are forced to go with unproven and/or less talented players to fill the starting role?

Having Vince Williams was a luxury a year ago, but unless someone like Tyler Matakevich makes that all-important first to second year leap, the Steelers might not have that same luxury in 2017 unless they hit on a player in the draft.

Reuben Foster, a top 10 prospect out of Alabama, figures to be long gone by the time the Steelers spot comes up at 30. But some possible names to keep an eye on are Haasan Reddick out of Temple, who is projected to go in the first or second round; and Jarrad Davis from Florida, who also grades out as either a first or second round pick.

  • Finally, while Pittsburgh does have two players slated to start at the inside linebacker spot, the bottom line is the team could always use another play-maker on defense–regardless of what position he plays.

If that player happens to be an inside linebacker and his value coincides with where the Steelers happen to be drafting, it would probably be a wise choice. Given the state of their starters and backups, the Pittsburgh Steelers need at inside linebacker going into the 2017 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

 

 

 

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Jarvis Jones Signs with Cardinals, Highlights Dangers of Drafting for Need

Former Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker and first round draft pick Jarvis Jones signed with Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals yesterday, closing the book on what must be considered as Kevin Colbert’s first failure with a first round draft pick.

Jarvis Jones’ failure as a Steelers first round pick has been official for a while, but to understand why he failed one needs to look back to how he arrived in Pittsburgh.

Jarvis Jones, Steelers vs Chiefs, Mitch Morse, Jarvis Jones Pittsburgh West, Jarvis Jones Interception

Jarvis Jones returning an interception during the Steelers 2016 win over Kansas City as Mitch Morse tries to stop him. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via Arizonasports.com

The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the 2013 off season with a problem. The 2011 NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement had flattened the salary cap for the first several season it was to be in force, and the Steelers had several contracts that they’d negotiated prior to the 2011 CBA.

On top of that, James Harrison’s body appeared to be breaking down, as he missed time in both 2011 and 2012 due to injuries. His play also seemed to be leveling off, although we now know that James Harrison was far from done.

The Steelers needed some extra salary cap room, they asked Harrison to renegotiate but James Harrison declined, so the Steelers cut him.

  • That left the Steelers with a glaring need for an outside linebacker.

Chris Carter had been given chances to show he might be worthy of the job, but experience showed Chris Carter clearly wasn’t the answer. Jason Worilds had flashed, but hadn’t shown he could deliver with the consistency that the Steelers needed at the outside linebacker or “edge rusher” position.

On top of that LaMarr Woodley had seen his last two seasons ruined by hamstring injuries, and members of the Steelers locker room questioned his commitment to staying in shape. All of that meant that the Steelers needed to come out of the 2013 NFL Draft with a starter-capable outside linebacker. And you generally find those in the first round.

Years later Jim Wexell would comment that Jones got the starting job for “political reasons,” although to be fair to everyone involved, Jarvis Jones actually had a pretty impressive rookie preseason campaign. But we know how the story ended. The Steelers stuck with Jarvis Jones for 3 and a half years as Jones flashed at times but was never consistent, and never could pressure the passer as Pittsburgh needed him to.

Even after Jones’ limitations as a pass rusher became painfully evident, word was he still contributed in other ways. Then came the Steelers loss to the Cowboys:

Yes, we’ve shared this clip on the site 2 times before, but we do it because if ever there was one play for Jarvis Jones to prove his mettle as a run stuffer, it was this it and Jarvis Jones came up short.

  • Steel Curtain Rising neither claims knowledge of the Steelers 2013 Draft Board nor are we privy to Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s evaluation process.

It is indeed possible that Jarvis Jones wasn’t just the best pass rusher, but the best player the Steelers had on their board when it came time for the Steelers to select with the 2013 NFL Draft’s 18th pick. Jarvis Jones after all had terrorized opposing quarterbacks during his final two years playing for the Georgia Bulldogs. A recent column by Bob Labriola suggest that the Steelers trusted in what they saw on tape, rather than on the stop watch.

  • Clearly there was an error in the Steelers talent evaluation process with Jarvis Jones.

But in some respects, that doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that the Pittsburgh Steelers depth chart at Outside Linebacker all but obligated them to draft an outside linebacker in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Outside linebacker, or “Edge Rusher” is also a chief need for the Steelers entering the 2017 NFL Draft, but contrast their situation in 2013 with their current depth chart which features Bud Dupree, James Harrison, Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo. Yes, Aurther Moats and Anthony Chickillo start on the left side, but at least theoretically one of them could be moved to the right in a pinch.

  • The Steelers need to get an outside linebacker in the 2017 NFL Draft, but their depth doesn’t dictate that they reach for one.

And that’s a good position to be in. You never want to be forced to draft for need. Because as we’ve long said, “When you draft for need, Troy Edwards happens.” Now we can add “And so does Jarvis Jones.”

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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