Report Card for Steelers 18-6 Preseason Win Over Titans

The Pittsburgh Steelers improved their 2019 preseason record to 3-0 as staff writer Tony Defeo issues his Report Card.

Devin Bush, Terrell Edmunds, Dion James, Steelers vs Titans preseason

Devin Bush and Terrell Edmunds sandwich Dion James. Photo Credit: Christopher Hanewine, USA Today, via Steel City Insider

Quarterbacks
Since the third preseason game is the one where starters play the most, Ben Roethlisberger started and played three series. It’s hard to say if Roethlisberger was rusty or just looking to get the night over with, considering most of his passes were of the very short variety.

On the night, Roethlisberger was 8 of 13 for 63 yards and a 17-yard touchdown strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster on his third and final series. Mason Rudolph entered the game late in the first quarter, and on his initial throw of the game, he connected with college buddy James Washington on a 41-yard touchdown pass. It wasn’t necessarily a stellar night for Rudolph, as he completed six of nine passes for 75 yards, a touchdown and an interception on what appeared to be some miscommunication between he and Washington. Joshua Dobbs entered the game in the second half and played the rest of the way, completing four of nine passes for 79 yards and an interception. However, his night wasn’t as bad as his stat-line indicated, and he could have used some help from rookie tight end Zach Gentry on the interception. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Running behind his full starting offensive line for the first time this preseason, James Conner looked like the player he was last year before injuries derailed him; Conner carried five times for 41 yards, while pulling in two passes for 15 yards. Even with the rookie Benny Snell Jr. out with an injury, it was a quiet night for Jaylen Samuels, who carried just four times for 16 yards and caught two passes for an additional 11. Trey Edmunds, the brother of Terrell, carried six times for 12 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
For the first time this preseason, JuJu Smith-Schuster looked like his old self. Whether that was the result of playing with his franchise quarterback or the result of getting his first extended action is a question that can’t be answered. But he did catch four passes for 37 yards and a touchdown. It was a relatively quiet night for Washington, aside from the touchdown, which was his only catch. Young hopeful, Trey Griffey reeled in one pass for 23 yards, while veteran hopeful, Johnny Holton only had two catches for 12 yards and didn’t help his cause on two sideline passes–one in-which the cornerback pulled him down out of bounds before he could get both feet in; and one in-which he was called for offensive pass interference–that could have made his night a little better. Brandon Reilly, a youngster Pittsburgh claimed off the waiver wire in July, had a decent night, pulling in two passes for 41 yards. Diontae Spencer, the punt return guru, didn’t do much in that regard, nor in the passing game, but he did gain 29 yards on an end-around. Grade: B

Tight Ends
It was another lost night for this unit. Vance McDonald, who fumbled on his lone reception a week earlier, dropped an early pass and wound up with zero on the night. The rookie Gentry had one catch for 15 yards, but could have had another had he reeled in the relatively high pass by Dobbs that resulted in his interception. Xavier Grimble continues to play uninspired football in his quest to replace Jesse James as the number two tight end. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Much to no one’s surprise, the highly decorated unit dominated when all five starters — Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Matt Feiler — were in the lineup. Roethlisberger didn’t get touched, and, to reiterate, Conner looked spectacular. Grade: A

Defensive Line

As he’s sometimes wont to do when clicking on all cylinders, Stephon Tuitt looked like a man among boys, posting two sacks and the game’s first points when one of those resulted in a safety. Cam Heyward contributed four tackles and a sack, and even Dan McCullers played extensively and recorded four tackles. Grade: A-

Linebackers
Another impressive night for the unit as a whole. As for the outside linebackers, T.J. Watt had two tackles, while roster hopeful, Tuzar Skipper added four of his own along with yet another sack. Over to the inside linebackers. Vince Williams had two tackles and a sack. Rookie Ulysees Gilbert III didn’t jump off the screen, but he was still quite active, adding five more tackles to his preseason resume. It was a quiet night for Devin Bush, but he again looked like he belonged, while long-shot Robert Spillane stated his case with five tackles and a sack. Grade: A

Secondary
No Joe Haden again, but Steven Nelson continued to look like a more than solid free-agent addition as the other starting cornerback. It was another really good showing for Artie Burns, while rookie Justin Layne appeared to improve from his pro debut two weeks earlier. As for the safeties, Kameron Kelly had yet another active night with four tackles, while starting free safety Sean Davis added two before exiting with an ankle injury. Grade: B

Special Teams
The kickers were once again perfect, as Chris Boswell connected on an extra point, while Matthew Wright added a 31-yard field goal in the second half.

  • Incumbent punter Jordan Berry posted 200 yards on four boots, while challenger Ian Berryman added 90 yards on two.

Ryan Switzer was the surprise kick-returner on the evening, averaging 19 yards on three returns, while also returning one punt for 20 yards. Grade: B+

Unsung Hero

Brandon Reilly for his totally unexpected contributions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can the Steelers Salvage Something from Artie Burns? Perhaps There’s Hope in Pittsburgh.

If the Steelers and Artie Burns were an actual romantic couple, one might say the two sides have moved on — if not physically, certainly mentally and emotionally.

  • Or, perhaps more accurately, the Steelers have moved on.

After making Artie Burns a bit of a controversial first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft (25th, overall), the rookie cornerback worked his way into the line-up in the second half of the season, starting nine games and intercepting three passes.

Artie Burns started all 16 games in 2017, and even though he often showed lapses in performance — including an inability to play zone coverage on a consistent basis — Burns still seemed to have legitimate “upside.”

That was especially the case during the 2018 training camp, when the third-year man out of Miami reportedly more than held his own against the legendary Antonio Brown.

Artie Burns, Antonio Brown, Steelers 2018 Training Camp

Artie Burns intercepts a pass intended for Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

But Artie Burns’ inconsistency in 2017 mushroomed into downright consistent poor play at the start of the regular season. After starting six games, Burns was eventually replaced in the lineup by veteran journeyman Coty Sensabaugh.

  • Artie Burns was a non-factor down the stretch and contributed nothing in the secondary for a team that missed the playoffs by a mere half of a game.

At a time when Artie Burns should have been coming into his own as an NFL cornerback — there were some who said he had the potential to be the best cornerback from the 2016  NFL Draft — Burns was justifiably labeled a bust by many at season’s end.

The Steelers certainly acted like the label was apt, as their first big free agent move was to ink veteran cornerback Steven Nelson to a fairly lucrative three-year contract.

Fast-forward to the 2019 NFL Draft, and the Steelers doubled-down on the cornerback position by picking Michigan State’s Justin Layne in the third round. Perhaps the final nail for Artie Burns came shortly after that when Pittsburgh announced that it would not be picking up Burns’ fifth-year option, meaning 2019 will be his final one before he hits free agency.

Is Artie Burns a Lost Cause?

Truth be told, while nothing the Steelers have done at the cornerback position should give Artie Burns confidence that they have, well, confidence in him, this doesn’t mean he can’t win back their trust by reviving a career that has already had a few shovels of dirt thrown on it.

William Gay, a 2007 fifth-round pick out of Louisville, once struggled so much at the cornerback position, it didn’t seem like his career would last much beyond the 2010 season.

But in 2011, William Gay suddenly “got it,” and was so effective, he parlayed his uptick in performance into a decent free agent contract with the Cardinals in 2012. William Gay returned to the Steelers one year later, following his release from Arizona, and soon became Pittsburgh’s number one corner, starting a combined 40 games between 2013-2015.

Keenan Lewis, a third-round pick out of Oregan State in the 2009 NFL Draft, did next to nothing during his first three seasons, before suddenly putting it all together in 2012. In fact, Keenan Lewis was arguably Pittsburgh’s best cornerback that year, and the timing couldn’t have been better for him, as he was a much-sought after free agent who signed a huge deal with the Saints.

Point is, the Steelers could have very easily parted ways with both William Gay and Keenan Lewis during the lowest points of their respective careers, yet they were each allowed one more chance to prove their worth–and they were successful in doing so.

Artie Burns may not know who he will be playing for in 2020 (or even 2019, for that matter), but that doesn’t mean it still can’t be Pittsburgh. Joe Haden is scheduled to hit free agency next spring, and I’m sure the Steelers wouldn’t mind finding a younger replacement who is just as effective.

Notice how I didn’t throw “cheaper” into the mix, and that’s because Artie Burns can still pull a William Gay or Keenan Lewis and suddenly “get it” just in time to cash in. And if he doesn’t do that in Pittsburgh, well, there will be plenty of teams looking to throw money at the cornerback position next spring.

Artie Burns may have been left for dead by many — including his employers–but that doesn’t mean he’s buried…not yet.

 

 

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Steelers Draft Justin Layne, Cornerback Michigan State with 2nd Third Round Pick in 2019 NFL Draft

Kevin Colbert swears that he never, ever drafts for need. “Ni en pedo” is what he would swear where he an Argentine porteño.

Yet the Pittsburgh Steelers biggest 2019 draft needs were Inside Linebacker, Cornerback and Wide Receiver. Could it just be a coincidence that the Steelers first picks in the draft went Inside Linebacker, Wide Receiver and Cornerback?

  • Yeah, tell me you believe it is a coincidence and I’ll get you a REALLY good price on the Roberto Clemente Bridge.

Using their own 3rd round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to Justin Layne, cornerback from Michigan State. Justin Layne grew up in Cleveland as the son of a devoted Browns fan, but as Jim Wexell reports, he has already clarified that “Man, my dad threw away all his Browns stuff.”

Justin Layne, Steelers draft Justin Layne, Ron'Quavion Tarver

Steelers drafted Justin Layne in 3rd round of 2019 NFL Draft. Photo Credit: Mike Mulholland, MLive.com

Justin Lanye’s past family ties with the Brown can and should be forgiven. After all Chuck Noll was a former Cleveland Brown player and Justin Layne is a graduate of Benedictine High in Cleveland as was Chuck Noll.

  • Like his colleague Brian Allen, Layne arrives in the NFL new to the cornerback position.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reminds us, Brian Layne actually began his career for the Michigan State Spartans playing wide receiver, not switching until midway through the 2016 season when he took an interception 43 yards for a touchdown in his first game as corner.

  • How does that cliché go, if defensive backs had hands, they’d be wide receivers?

Perhaps with experience on the other side, Justin Layne can break the mold, as he make 3 more interceptions and broke up 24 passes (while interceptions are coveted, passes defensed is often viewed as the better key performance indicator by secondary coaches.)

Justin Layne’s Highlight Tape

If some were quick to say that the Steeler reached for their first 3rd round pick, wide receiver Diontae Johnson, people just as quickly asked why someone of Justin Layne’s pedigree was still on the board so late in the third round.

Justin Layne’s measurable are solid. He stands just under 6’2” ran 4.5 in the 40, has a 37.5 vertical jump and has strong agility times running a 4.09 shuttle and a 6.9 3-cone. He also has 33 inch arms. New Steelers defensive assistant Teryl Austin was asked of Layne had a flaw in his game and retorted, “I’m not sure what the flaw is.”

Here’s a look at Layne’s tape:

His ball skills are evident and Justin Layne appears to be a solid tackler. The question of how and where Justin Layne will fit into the Steelers secondary will be an interesting one. When asked if he would play in the slot, which would make him an immediate threat to Mike Hilton, Teryl Austin countered by saying he saw Layne as more of an outside corner.

Joe Haden and Steven Nelson‘s status as the Steelers starting cornerbacks would not appear to be disrupted by Justin Layne’s arrival in Pittsburgh. However, it likely decreases any chance that the Steelers resign 2018’s starter Coty Sensabaugh.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Justin Layne.

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Steelers 2019 Draft Needs Matrix

The 2019 NFL Draft is just hours away and when it does the Pittsburgh Steelers will have already logged one of the most unusual off seasons in franchise history.

  • They’ve traded away their best player for near fire sale value
  • The national media has piled on the team and its franchise quarterback
  • Kevin Colbert has been uncharacteristically aggressive in free agency

The latter point is the one that is most relevant one to keep in mind. A year ago the Steelers responded to the playoff disaster against Jacksonville by making piecemeal moves in free agency, and defying the critics and going offense heavy in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2019 pre draft press conference

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their 2019 pre draft press conference.

This year Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin moved swiftly to address the Steelers most glaring roster needs by signing cornerback Steven Nelson, inside linebacker Mark Barron and wide receiver Donte Moncrief.

  • While Kevin Colbert denies those moves will impact the Steelers draft decisions, don’t believe him.

Whether the freshly signed free agents turn out to be the next Ladarius Greens and Mike Mitchells or the next James Farriors and Ryan Clarks isn’t relevant tonight. What is relevant is that the Steelers have inoculated themselves against having to reach to fill need in with one of their premium picks.

And just what are the Steelers needs heading into the 2019 NFL Draft?

Steelers 2019 NFL Draft Needs

Over the last month, with a whale of an effort from staff writer Tony Defeo, Steel Curtain Rising has broken down the Steelers need on a position by position basis. Now that all is said and done, the Steelers areas of need break down into 3 tiers.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

At the top you have cornerback and inside linebacker identified as areas of High-Moderate need, followed by wide receiver and running back which clock in at Moderate-High.

In the middle tier, you have tight end, defensive line, outside linebacker and safety which are of Moderate need.

In the bottom tier you have offensive line which is of Low-Moderate need and quarterback which is of Low need.

There’s a lot of clustering there, so how do we break the ties? For that you have our annual Steelers 2019 Draft Need Matrix.

Steelers 2019 Draft Need Matrix

The premise of the Steelers draft needs matrix is simple – it is a guide to who the Steelers should pick in the event their on the clock and have two or more players with the same grade on them. Here is the Steelers 2019 Draft Needs Matrix:

Steelers 2019 Draft Needs Matrix, Steelers 2019 Draft Needs

Inside linebacker beats cornerback by a hair. Both are positions where the Steelers could and should draft to meet immediate future need. Inside linebacker wins out because the Steelers have more bodies at cornerback i.e. Cam Sutton, Brian Allen and dare we hope Artie Burns who could still contribute.

  • Whereas Jon Bostic is the only legitimate player behind Vince Williams and Mark Barron.

Running back will surprise many. And so it should. James Washington is the X factor in the quest to replace Antonio Brown. If he pans out as reporters and coaches assure use he will, the Steelers will be OK. If not, the Steelers will fall hard this autumn.

However, as is the case with inside linebacker and cornerback, the Steelers have more bodies at wide receiver than they do at running back. We’ve written time and time again how a dearth of running back depth as derailed the Steelers in December. Adding a third running back to play along side James Conner and Jaylen Samuels could go a long way to rectifying that chronic problem.

Wide receiver beats safety because of the above mentioned X factor and the simple reality that Ben Roethlisberger no longer has a Hall of Fame talent to target. Safety trumps outside linebacker because Anthony Chickillo has shown he can contribute at a far greater level than Marcus Allen or Jordan Dangerfield.

  • Outside linebacker beats out tight end because the Steelers might need to replace Bud Dupree before Vance McDonald sniffs free agency.

Tight end beating out defensive line is a no brainer. The Steelers could use more depth at defensive line, but they’re OK there. But defensive line depth clearly outshines the need to use a mid or even late round pick on a quarterback for a third straight year.

The NFL Draft – The Day Dreams Come True

Who will the Steelers pick in the first round? Will Devin Bush fall to him, or will Kevin Colbert engineer his first day one draft trade since picking Troy Polamalu in 2003? Or might they look to corernback, and draft Rock Ya-Sin, Bryon Murphy, or Greedy Williams? Or perhaps they’ll tap a safety again, such as Justin Thronhill or Darnell Savage?

  • Maybe they’ll surprise everyone and grab a tight end or a wide receiver?
  • I don’t pretend to know who that person will be any more than I’ll pretend to pontificate on who that person should be.

But every boy who ever wrapped his hands around a Nerf football and yapped out a bogus snap count has dreamed of playing in the NFL. And for a few hundred young men, that dream is about to become true. Let’s give those young men their day and wish the good luck and God speed in the NFL.

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Steelers 2019 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs – Time to Strengthen Defense’s Center

Can a football team do something so well, for so long that when something suddenly goes wrong it doesn’t know how to react?

  • That might be what has happened to the Steelers at inside linebacker.

Think about it. Jack Lambert was the Steelers first inside linebacker after Chuck Noll made the switch to the 3-4 in the early 80’s. Since then, whether David Little, Levon Kirkland, James Farrior or Lawrence Timmons has been playing, inside linebacker has been a solid spot on the Steelers depth chart, if not a strength.

  • All that changed with Ryan Shazier went down and the Steelers defense has been reeling since.

The Steelers were supposed to address the need in the 2018 NFL Draft. They did not. Will the 2019 NFL Draft be different?

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

Vince Williams is the dean of the Steelers linebacking crops boasting 93 NFL games and 47 starts. The 6th round draft pick out of Florida State is in the what you see is what you get stage of his career.

Vince Williams doesn’t have the athleticism that will scare opposing offensive coordinators, but he does bring a motor that doesn’t stop and a craving for hard hits and contact. While you don’t want Vince Williams dropping too deep into coverage, he’s strong against the run and can get to the quarterback as his 12 sacks in two years as a starter prove.

  • Beside Vince Williams, the Steelers have free agent Mark Barron.

Mark Barron brings athleticism that Vince Williams lacks and as a former safety can occupy the increasingly important Dime Linebacker role that Morgan Burnett rejected. A quick look at Barron’s stat sheet doesn’t suggest anything spectacular, but he offers the Steelers a solid presence.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

For most of Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers inside linebacker depth has been the envy of the league. In 2015 or so, Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola described it as “obscene.” But that was then. Now tells a different tale.

Behind their starters, the Steelers only have one linebacker who has proven himself, and that man is Jon Bostic, the free agent Kevin Colbert brought to Pittsburgh a year ago. Jon Bostic started for the bulk of 2018.

And while Jon Bostic was no Ryan Shazier (no one expected him to) he proved himself to be a solid tackler. Coverage never was Jon Bostic’s forte, however, he proved to be better than expected.

  • Still, that was not enough for the Steelers defense.

Bostic could not give the Steelers a 3 down presence at inside linebacker, and found himself splitting time with L.J. Fort as the season wore on.

The Steelers also have Tyler Matakevich at inside linebacker. As former 7th round pick Tyler Matakevich is an NFL player in the mold of his coach Jerry Olsavsky – One who lacks the measurables but makes up for it in heart and football sense.

Unfortunately, Matakevich got hurt a few plays after Ryan Shazier, but coaches continued to express their confidence in him during the 2018 off season. However, when the dust settled following training camp and preseason, Matakevich found himself 3rd on the depth chart behind Bostic and Fort.

The Steelers 2019 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin did the right thing in aggressively addressing the Steelers need at inside linebacker through free agency, a move both men probably wish they’d taken a year earlier.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

By adding Mark Barron to their roster, the Steelers have avoided putting themselves into the position of having to either selling out to get Devin White or Devin Bush or reaching for need in the first round.

But if bringing Mark Barron on provides the roster with some immediate relief, it does little to address the Steelers need to find a long-term playmaker to occupy the center of their defense. Strength at the center of the Steelers defense, think Casey HamptonJames FarriorRyan Clark is vital to the unit’s success.

The Steelers need to strengthen that center, and they need to do it in the 2019 NFL Draft which means their need at inside linebacker should be considered High-Moderate.

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Steelers 2019 Cornerback Draft Needs – Pittsburgh’s Perpetual Priority

The 2019 NFL Draft is right around the corner, and there’s no question the Steelers have a few needs. Speaking of corner–as in cornerback–Pittsburgh–and a plethora of experts and armchair experts–have targeted that position as one of need for the team. Washington’s Byron Murphy, LSU’s Greedy Williams and Georgia’s Deandre Baker have all been linked to the Steelers at pick No. 20.

Two questions, should they pull the trigger if one or even all three were available? And just how great of a need is it, anyway?

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com


Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

After coming to the Steelers following his release by the Browns just prior to the 2017 regular season, veteran corner Joe Haden has been nothing but a blessing for Keith Butler‘s defense.

  • In 26 games with Pittsburgh, Haden has totaled three interceptions and 19 passes defensed.

On the other side will be the newly acquired Steven Nelson, a former Chiefs cornerback, who the Steelers signed as a free agent in March. In four seasons with Kansas City, Nelson started 28 games, posting four interceptions–all in 2018–and 35 passes defensed. At 26 years old and coming into his all-important second contract, Nelson is expected to be an upgrade over what the Steelers lined up opposite Haden the past two seasons.

Since slot is considered by many to be a starting role in the modern NFL, we should include Mike Hilton in that group. An undrafted free agent out of Mississippi in 2016, Hilton made the Steelers roster one year later and quickly established himself in the slot position. Over the past two seasons, Hilton, 25, has appeared in 31 games and has recorded three interceptions, 15 passes defensed and a very impressive four sacks.

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

The confidence in Artie Burns, the Steelers first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, is believed to be at an all-time low. Artie Burns started 25 games over his first two seasons and looked like a young corner who could develop into something beyond even adequate, Burns took a big step back last year.

Repeatedly beaten early in the 2018 campaign, Artie Burns only started six games and was a virtual non-factor in the secondary down the stretch. As for Cameron Sutton, Pittsburgh’s third-round pick two springs ago, the optimism was high that he would make a huge first-to-second year leap in 2018.

  • But while he showed flashes, it’s more accurate to say Cam Sutton’s sophomore season left a lot to be desired.

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart at cornerback are unknown and unproven names such as Marcelis Branch, Kameron Kelly, Herb Waters and Jack Tochno. Brian Allen, a fifth-round pick two seasons ago, is currently listed as a safety on the depth chart despite coming into the NFL as a cornerback.

Drafted in 2017 as a bit of a project, there was a bit of optimism that Brian Allen could be molded into a decent corner. Alas, after two seasons as mostly a special teams player, perhaps Pittsburgh considers him better suited for another position.

The Steelers 2019 Cornerback Draft Needs

Having just turned 30 and on the last year of a three-year deal he signed in 2017, a deal with a base salary of $10 million in 2018, Joe Haden’s time in Pittsburgh could be coming to an end. steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Sure, the Steelers may be willing to bring the veteran back, but would they be willing to do so at the same price tag–or even in the same ballpark? 

  • And how much longer can Joe Haden continue to play at the level he’s at right now?
  • Can Artie Burns revive his drowning career? 
  • Can Cam Sutton finally meet or even exceed the expectations he fed with his flashes in late ’17? 

As if these questions don’t speak for themselves, remember that Coty Sensabaugh, a journeyman who ate up plenty of snaps in the secondary for Pittsburgh the past two years — and did so to great effect in many cases –remains currently unsigned.

Should the Steelers address the cornerback position with another premium pick? It says here that Pittsburgh needs immedate depth at cornerback and perhaps a future starter. Therefore the Steelers 2019 the draft need at cornerback  should be considered High-Moderate.

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Steelers 2019 Defensive Line Draft Needs – Time Double Down at a Position of Strength?

During the Steelers post Super Bowl XLV rebuild deserve some well earned criticism for misfiring when drafting at linebacker and in the secondary. Artie Burns, Jarvis Jones, Shamarko Thomas and perhaps Bud Dupree all provide prime examples.

  • However, the same cannot be said for their use of premium picks on the defensive line.

So heading into the 2019 NFL Draft the question is whether Pittsburgh’s dynamic draft duo should do what they’ve done best on the defensive side: Look to the defensive lineman. Let’s take a look.

Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Steelers defensive line, Steelers vs Raiders

OAKLAND, CA – DECEMBER 09: Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt during the Steelers loss to 2018 loss to the Raiders. Photo credit: W. Henderson, Getty Images via Fan Sided.com

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft

When the Steelers began their post Super Bowl XLV rebuilding effort, the lead off with a home run when they drafted Cam Hewyard in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Kevin Colbert labeled the move as a “historic day for the franchise.”

  • Historic indeed.

In the years since, Cam Heyward has not only developed into one of the league’s best defensive lineman and someone who is leader on the field and off the field. Although statistics fail to capture much of what Cam Heyward does on the field, one number stands out: 45.

  • That’s 45 sacks Cam Heyward has amassed all before hitting age 30.

To put that in perspective, Greg Lloyd had “only” registered 43 sacks before turning 30.

Playing opposite Cam Heyward is Stephon Tuitt, who the Steelers drafted in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft out of Notre Dame. Stephon Tuitt is a player in the mold of Cam Heyward, who has gotten better each year and currently has 20 sacks to his name and he hasn’t even turn 26.

  • Rounding out the Steelers starters at defensive line is Javon Hargrave.

The Steelers drafted Javon Hargrave in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft, and Hargrave immediately became something of a unicore in John Mitchell’s system: He cracked the starting lineup as a rookie. Due to the Steelers de-empahsis on of their “base” 3-4 defense, Hargrave’s opportunities declined a bit in the 2nd half of 2017.

However, a strong performance against the Jaguars led Steelers coaches to look to work Javon Hargrave into their starting line up.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Defensive Line Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Behind their starting front 3 the Steelers have Tyson Alualu who brings the team a versatile presence that can be counted on to step up either position along the defensive line. Although he saw reduced playing time in 2018 thanks to the health of the starters, Tyson Alualu recorded 4 sacks in 2018.

Beyond Alualu, the Steelers also have Daniel McCullers, whom they drafted in 2014 in the 6th round whose presence at this point is a surprise to many. New defensive line coach Karl Dunbar took McCullers on as some sort of a project in 2018 and the Shady Tree showed enough to earn a 3rd contract from the Steelers.

The Steelers also have defensive lineman Winston Craig, Conor Sheehy, Lavon Hooks and Casey Sayles under contract.

The Steelers 2019 Defensive Line Draft Needs

At first blush investing anything more than a 6th round pick in a defensive lineman might seem like a luxury the Steelers cannot afford in the 2019 NFL Draft.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs cornerback

  • But appearances can be deceiving.

Let’s start with the Steelers defensive line itself. Officially the Steelers are still a 3-4 team, but they play in their base defense so infrequently that Cameron Heyward is now listed as a defensive tackle instead of as a defensive end.

While the Steelers pure need for a defensive lineman might be low, a legit “edge rusher” to work opposite T.J. Watt could give Pittsburgh’s defense a real shot in the arm. Now such an “edge rusher” has traditionally been an outside linebacker, but given the way positions are evolving in the NFL, that could also be someone considered as a defensive lineman.

  • Beyond that, the Steelers only have 4 quality defensive lineman on the roster as it stands today.

If Daniel McCullers shows himself to be “serviceable” in 2019 then that will be an achievement. But it is not something the Steelers can count on. L.T. Walton did everything the Steelers had asked of him from the time the Steelers drafted him until 2017. He looked to be developing into a quality 5th defensive lineman.

However, under Karl Dunbar he fell behind Daniel McCullers on the depth chart and remains unsigned. Therefore the Steelers defensive line draft needs in 2019 should be considered Moderate.

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Steelers Sign Mark Barron, Possibly Signaling Jon Bostic and/or Morgan Burnett’s Exits

“Be aggressive!” Appears to be the mantra free agency mantra of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2019 as they continued to bolster their defense by signing former Los Angeles Rams linebacker/safety Mark Barron.

If initial reports are correct, Mark Barron’s contract with the Steelers is for two years and 12 million dollars with a $5.75 million signing bonus.

While “Mark Barron” is far from a household name he does have some history with the Steelers, as he was responsible for hit that injured Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers 2015 win over the then St. Louis Rams. Although Barron’s hit was clearly against NFL rules, he was neither flagged nor fined for the transgression.

Mark Barron, Ben Roethlisberger, Mark Barron injures Ben Roethlisberger

New Steelers free agent Mark Barron injures Ben Roethlisberger in 2015. Photo Credit: Tom Gannam, via TimesWVA.com

As a result of the play, Mike Vick was forced to start 3 games in Ben Roethlisberger’s absence, with Landry Jones relieving Vick and rallying the team to a comeback win over Arizona.

  • The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Mark Barron with the 7th overall pick in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

Mark Barron entered the NFL as a safety, until they traded him to the Rams in mid-2014, who moved him to inside linebacker. Like some other recent free agent signings from past off seasons, Mark Barron comes to Pittsburgh with some injury history, having missed the first four games of 2018, before starting the final 12 including the Rams 3 playoff games.

This could spell bad news for Jon Bostic, who figured to be the incumbent starter following L.J. Fort’s free agent defection to the Philadelphia Eagles. The move could also signal a coming release of Morgan Burnett, whom the Steelers signed as a safety last season.

The Steelers plan was to start Morgan Burnett at safety, but injuries led to Terrell Edmunds getting the start, and Edmunds played well enough to keep the strong safety spot for the balance of the season. Morgan Burnett did work his way into the lineup, but as a dime linebacker, a move which prompted Burnett publicly request his release.

Although the Steelers have now made high-profile free agent signings at inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver, Pittsburgh is expected to target all three positions in the 2019 NFL Draft.  The moves however, frees Pittsburgh from the need to reach to fill any of the areas on their depth chart.

  • A generation ago the saying went, “When you draft for need, Troy Edwards happens.”

Today you could say, “When you draft for need, Jarvis Jones or Artie Burns happen.”

Word to the Wise: Official Word on Barron Signing Pending

A quick word to the wise:  News of the Steelers signing Mark Barron broke on Twitter on Sunday the 17th. By Monday the Post-Gazette and Tribune Review were running the story, seemingly having confirmed Adam Schefter’s report on ESPN.

  • However, as of Tuesday, March 19th at 7:30 am Eastern the Steelers had still not officially announced the signing.

While the delay is likely due to logistical issues, it is possible that the deal hit a snag. Back in 2008, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette announced that the Steelers had signed Bud McFarland. That deal never materialized. However, in that case the Tribune Review had clearly and consistently reported that no deal had been reached with Bud McFarland.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Sign Steve Nelson to 3 Year Contract. First Big Free Agent Move @ Corner in 20 Years

Could a cycle be forming? In Pittsburgh’s 2019 home opening loss, the Kansas City Chiefs used and abused the Steelers secondary revealing it as a major weakness that needed to be corrected. To be sure, Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds stepped up their play from that awful day to begin making improvements during the season.

  • And now, as a first off season step towards shoring up that secondary the Pittsburgh Steelers have signed cornerback Steve Nelson from the Chiefs.

If reports are correct, Steve Nelson’s contract is for 3 years and $25.5 million, although there is no information on guarantees and signing bonuses at this point. Nelson cannot “officially” sign with Steelers at until 4:00 pm today.

Steve Nelson, Steve Nelson Steelers, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs. Chiefs

Steve Nelson attempts to tackle Antonio Brown in the Steelers 2016 playoff win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Twitter

Given the money the Steelers are paying him, Steve Nelson will undoubtedly be slotted as the starter opposite Joe Haden. The move also ensures that the Steelers will not pick up the 5th year option on Artie Burns, although exercising that option would have been insane under any circumstances given Artie Burns track record.

Coty Sensabaugh, the incumbent starter, is a free agent who will not get a ton of money thrown at him, but is also not the type of player you can bring back at the veteran minimum. That in turn could be good news for Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen. Mike Hilton looks set to arrive at St. Vincents as the Steelers starting slot corner, but Burns, Sutton or Allen could conceivably mount a challenge.

Steelers First Big Free Agent Move at Cornerback in 20 Years

Cornerback has been a sore spot for the Steelers defense since at least Super Bowl XLV if not before. Despite that, the Steelers Steve Nelson signing is the first time the franchise has made a big-name free agent signing at cornerback since bringing Dwayne Washington to Pittsburgh in 1998.

By any measure, Steve Nelson is a counts as a major free agent signing by the Steelers. In 2018, he totaled 68 tackles, defensed 15 passes and made four interceptions. That 4 interception total tops the season high-total for any Steelers player since Troy Polamalu recorded 7 interceptions in 2010.

  • However, those were the first interceptions of Steve Nelson’s career.

That shouldn’t be necessarily be considered as an ominous sign – as Nelson had 16 passed defensed in 2016 and many scouts will tell you the passes defensed is a better performance metric for judging defensive backs.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Steve Nelson.

Steelers Free Agent News Coming Fast and Furious

While players cannot officially sign until 4:00 pm, a lot has already happened. Jesse James is headed to Detroit and Le’Veon Bell is flying off to the New York Jets. However, Anthony Chickillo will be returning to Pittsburgh.

Stay tuned. Steel Curtain Rising will have more in depth commentary on the moves above.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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