Steelers Draft Needs @ Inside Linebacker – Betwixt & Between at an Evolving Position

Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebackers “evolve.”

Pittsburgh’s first player at the position was Jack Lambert, who “evolved” from a middle linebacker to an inside linebacker. Both Mark Barron and Miles Killebrew the Steelers last two free agent signings at the position started as safeties and “evolved” into inside linebackers.

In between, Huey Richardson was drafted and listed as an inside linebacker, but in 2014 the Steelers Media Guide suddenly started listing him as a defensive end.* So this Steelers most infamous 1st round bust managed to evolve at his position 22 years after Bill Cowher traded Huey Richardson in a fire sale.

Injuries and COVID-19 infections forced the Steelers to evolve on the fly at inside linebacker multiple times in 2020. But how will that unpleasant experience impact their plans in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Devin Bush, Darren Fells, Steelers vs Texans

Devin Bush breaks up a touchdown pass intended for Darren Fells. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Chart at Inside Linebacker: The Starters

Who, other than Ben Roethlisberger, was the Steelers most indispensable player in 2020? Prior to the season, the Athletic’s Mark Kaboly argued it was Devin Bush.

  • What happens if Devin Bush goes down?

The ominous answer was that Robert Spillane would have to play. He did. And he played well. In the battle of the undefeated he Derrick Henry at the goal line play that could ONLY have reminded his position coach Jerry Olsavsky of a similar stop he made of Christian Okoye back in 1989. The next week he took one of Lamarr Jackson’s passes to the house providing Pittsburgh with a critical point differential.

Robert Spillane might not be a superstar in the making, but his play was solid enough to convince the Steelers to cut Vince Williams, the starter opposite him.

Devin Bush’s sophomore season only lasted 5 games, but that was long enough to register 2 half sacks, pat down 3 passes and log 3 quarterback hits.

Steelers Depth Cart at Inside Linebacker: The Backups

The story for the Steelers here changed dramatically for the better last week when Vince Williams announced he was rejecting other offers and returning to Pittsburgh on a reduced salary. While that may seem odd, as few if any Steelers have ever done that, Vince Williams will likely slide into the role he played earlier in his career as part-time starter.

In 14 games during 2020, Vince Williams sacked the quarterback 3 times, recovered 2 fumbles and generally laid in the wood when it needed to be laid in.

The Steelers also signed Miles Killebrew, who as mentioned above, began his career as a safety before moving to inside linebacker. Killebrew played for 5 years in Detroit, appearing in 78 games but only starting 5. He did log two interceptions at safety early in his career, and could become a “Dime Linebacker” that the Steelers have been seeking.

The Steelers also have Marcus Allen, yet another converted Safety who started two games this past season, registering 2 tackles for losses and hitting the quarterback twice while struggling against the run.

Finally, Ulysees Gilbert III the Steelers 3rd 6th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft who has only appeared in 11 games.

Steelers Draft Needs @ Inside Linebacker in 2021

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftThe Steelers are betwixed and between at inside linebacker.

On the one hand, they’re blessed with 1 up and coming starter and two starter capable players alongside him. That’s a good thing.

  • But both Spillane and Williams are upgradeable, and Pittsburgh has little proven depth behind them.

Miles Killebrew came out of the free agent bargain bin, Marcus Allens’ play there was hardly convincing and Ulysees Gilbert has done little more than get injured during his time in Pittsburgh. Given that the Steelers draft needs at Inside Linebacker must be considered Moderate-High.

*The plan was to use Richardson at inside linebacker and defensive end. He played there in his strong preseason debut, but his career imploded immediately after that. Now you’re ready if you get “Steelers Draft Busts” as a Final Jeopardy category – so get back to work.

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The Extension: Yes, Mike Tomlin Deserves Criticism. But He’s Earned Far More Credit

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced they have extended head coach Mike Tomlin’s contract for 3 more years. His new current contract will keep him in Pittsburgh through the 2024 season.

Tomlin’s contract extension might not be a surprise, but it does come a bit off schedule as the Steelers typically have extended their coaches during the summer, either shortly before or during training camp.

The decision also indicates that Mike Tomlin will oversee at least the beginning of the post-Ben Roethlisberger era. Mike Tomlin’s last extension mirrored Ben Roethlisberger’s, leading to speculation that Tomlin, Roethlisberger and Kevin Colbert would simultaneously retire.

  • That appears far less likely now.

In a prepared statement Art Rooney II extolled his 14 year head coach:

Mike is one of the most successful head coaches in the National Football League. We are confident in his leadership to continue to lead our team as we work to win another championship.

If Mr. Rooney were to poll the citizens of Steelers Nation, he’d undoubtedly find disagrees. Indeed, the dissenters would be many, and they would be vocal. They would also be wrong.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin Contract

The Steelers have extended Mike Tomlin’s contract by 3 years. Photo Credit: markybillson.medium.com

Debunking the Case Against Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin has one ring from Super Bowl XLIII, two AFC Championships, 7 AFC North Championships, 9 playoff appearances while compiling a 145-78-1 regular season record while never suffering a losing season. Only once, on Tomlin’s watch have the Steelers been eliminated from the playoffs before the season’s final game.

Yet for all that, based on social media reaction you’d think resume was on par Rod Rust’s 1990 campaign in New England.

Let’s debunk some of the charges leveled against Tomlin:

“No Playoff Wins in 4 Years.”

Pittsburgh’s playoff record since Super Bowl XLV certainly strings. Those last two home playoff losses sucked.

But if that’s your argument against Mike Tomlin then ask yourself this one question – would you feel different if he’d racked up a bunch of AFC Championship losses?

Seriously.

  • Bill Cowher won playoff games a plenty between 1992 and 2004.
Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher

Chuck Noll & Bill Cower after the last game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo via 6th Ring.com

Yet the knock on Cowher was, “He can’t win the big one.” After he suffered his 2nd humiliating Heinz Field AFC Championship defeat to the Patriots in 2004, there was no shortage of fans who felt he should be fired. Fortunately, Dan Rooney ignored them and the Steelers won Super Bowl XL a year later.

“He only won with Bill Cowher’s players.”

Really? Well, by that measure, Bill Cowher started losing in the late 1990’s when Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Dermontti Dawson and Carnell Lake, the Hall of Famers/All Pros he inherited from Chuck Noll, either left or started fading. He only became a champion after a franchise QB (whom he didn’t really want to pick) dropped in his lap.

And if we’re using a predecessor’s success to discredit a successor, then let’s also acknowledge that Kevin Colbert only won with Tom Donahoe’s players.

Yeah, I wouldn’t want to go there either.

“He’s had 10 YEARS to Rebuild Since Super Bowl XLV”

True. Very true. It’s also true that rebuilding around a franchise QB is hard. Don Shula went to the Super Bowl in ’82, got his franchise QB in ’83, went to another Super Bowl in ’84 and never sniffed another. Shula is generally recognized as one of the top 3 coaches of all time….

“BUT Tomlin’s had a franchise QB his ENTIRE career. And he’s ONLY won ONE Super Bowl.”

Number don’t lie. This is true. But tell me:

  • How many Super Bowls did Sean Peyton win with Drew Brees?
  • Mike McCarthy had Brett Favre and then Aaron Rodgers. How many rings does he wear?
  • Pete Carroll is a fine coach. Russell Wilson is a great QB. How many trophies do they have?
  • And, by the way, how did that Legion of Boom dynasty pan out?

Tom Coughlin did win two Super Bowl rings and he beat the Patriots to get his. Give the man credit. He also closed his chapter in New York with 3 straight losing seasons.

Would Steelers Nation trade 7-9 and twin 6-10 records for another Lombardi? We might. Throw in a playoff win over the Patriots, and I probably take that deal.

But it still shows how hard it is to sustain winning after a championship run. Oh, and how has New York done since kicking Coughlin to the curb?

Give Tomlin the Criticism Deserves and the Credit He’s Earned

Is Mike Tomlin’s record beyond reproach? Hardly.

Tomlin teams get tripped up by trap games too often. Sure, there are some mitigating circumstances in some cases. But it has happened too often to dismiss as chance.

Has he stubbornly run running backs like Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, and Le’Veon Bell into the ground while failing to staff adequate back up depth? Yes sir! This scuttled two if not 3 playoff runs.

But has wiffing on picks like Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns set the rebuild behind? Absolutely.

Does he let loyalty and personal relationships cloud his decisions on assistants? Yes, at times it seems he does.

These faults are real. But this is also real: No other coach Bill Belichick and arguably Tom Coughlin has been better than Mike Tomlin during the Tom Brady era.

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Its Official: Steelers Resign Joshua Dobbs, Notify Haskins He Won’t Be Handed Roster Spot

Yesterday the Steelers made official the news that broke last week by resigning reserve quarterback Joshua Dobbs. This move follows the second signing announced last week, that saw the return of Vince Williams to Pittsburgh, just weeks after the Steelers cut him for salary cap reasons.

Taken together, the latter move shores up depth at a critical position prior to the 2021 NFL Draft while Joshua Dobbs signing sends an important message to the quarterback’s room.

And, for the second time in a month, the Steelers again show that sometimes it is best when bloggers are slow at the switch.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Panthers preseason

Joshua Dobbs scores touchdown in preseason. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Haskins Shouldn’t Doubt Dobbs’ Ability to Defy Odds

One of the Steelers first moves this off season was to take a flyer on former first round pick from Washington, Dwayne Haskins. Haskins added a third quarterback to the Steelers roster, making it the first time the Steelers have had two former first round quarterbacks on their roster since Ben Roethlisberger and Tommy Maddox held spots in 2005.

  • And, to the uneducated eye, Haskins’ arrive seemed to complete the Steelers quarterback room.

With Ben Roethlisberger returning and Mason Rudolph backing him up, why would the Steelers really need another quarterback, right?

Wrong. The Steelers like Joshua Dobbs, the quarterback who moonlights as a rocket scientist. The coaches like him and so do the players – notice Dobbs sitting with a tablet next to Ben Roethlisberger thought the 2020 season.

When the Steelers drafted Mason Rudolph in 2019, everyone assumed that Joshua Dobbs was the odd man out, going into preseason. After all, they’d sent 5 years developing Landry Jones to be a back up, and Mason Rudolph was set to learn below him.

Yet, as Joshua Dobbs was one of the players who Mike Tomlin praised for “leaning in” during the 2018 preseason finale and earned himself a roster spot.

Word is that the Steelers like Haskins talent, and they’re taking a flyer on him to see if he can match that talent with the discipline needed to succeed in the NFL. But had the Steelers followed the conventional wisdom and stood pat with their 3 quarterbacks, only adding the proverbial 4th arm, Haskins could arrive at St. Vincents in comfort.

  • With Joshua Dobbs in the quarterback room, he will not have the luxury.

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have served notice to Dwayne Haskins that he will have to earn is roster spot.

Vince Williams Breaks Precedent

The Steelers don’t often cut home grown players in salary cap moves. As Steel City Insider’s Ian Whetstone has pointed out, they lead the league in fulfillment of 2nd and 3rd contracts for drafted players.

But when they do do it, there almost always the caveat: He could come back for less.

  • Except they never do.

But Vince Williams did. Vince Williams took less money to stay in Pittsburgh, and that’s good for the Steelers. Its also good for this blogger, because yours truly never got around to writing an article on his departure and documenting his career as a Steeler.

The article was to be titled, “I Only Realized Vince Williams was the Steelers Linebacker I’ve Been Waiting for Until he Was Gone.” And for the second time in the off season, the last one being Tyson Alualu’s reversal and return to Pittsburgh, delays in getting “Content” published has its upsides.

Even better than that, Vince Williams still has more to add to his Steelers story.

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Steelers are Deep @ Wide Receiver. So is 2021 NFL Draft. What Happens Next?

Everyone knows the Pittsburgh Steelers are great at drafting wide receivers. Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Martavis Bryant are just some of the names Pittsburgh has drafted and developed over the past decade-plus.

The Steelers seemingly take a receiver in either the second or third round each year, but now that they head into the upcoming season with four recently-drafted youngsters still on the roster, do they need to address the position in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Colts

Diontae Johnson catches a 39 yard bullet for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Chart at Wide Receiver: The Starters

The unexpected re-signing of JuJu Smith-Schuster at the end of the first week of unrestricted free agency means that the Steelers are getting back an all-around receiver who can make the tough catches, block and is a much better big-play threat than people give him credit for. After exploding onto the scene during his first two seasons — including catching 111 passes for 1,426 yards in his sophomore campaign–Smith-Schuster’s production slipped a bit over his next two years. There were a few contributing factors, of course, namely injuries and the near season-long absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2019.

When Diontae Johnson was selected in the third round out of Toledo in 2019, it surprised a few folks. But watching him on tape, there was no question that he shared a lot of the same physical traits as one Antonio Brown, who the Steelers had recently traded in a very public and very messy divorce.

Despite Pittsburgh’s subpar quarterback play, Johnson turned in an impressive rookie season, catching 59 passes for 680 yards and five touchdowns. Johnson’s production predictably increased in 2020 with the return of Roethlisberger, as the former caught 88 passes for 923 yards and seven touchdowns. Johnson has struggled with ball-security issues over his first two seasons, including a high drop-rate — he led the NFL in that category in 2020.

However, Johnson is a youngster and, more importantly, his pluses appear to outweigh his minuses.

Steelers Depth Chart at Wide Receiver: The Backups

With the Steelers running so many three and four-receiver sets these days, it’s hard to say who’s number one, number two, number three, etc. on the depth chart. Chase Claypool, the team’s second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame last spring, certainly didn’t seem like a backup, as he burst onto the scene in a Randy Moss-like fashion.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles, Steelers rookie touchdown record

Rookie Chase Claypool scores the first of four touchdowns vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

At 6’4′ and 238 pounds, and blessed with 4.4 speed, the Canadian product quickly proved to be a matchup problem for both defensive backs and linebackers, alike. Claypool caught 62 passes for 873 yards and nine touchdowns, while also adding two more scores on the ground. Claypool became the first rookie in franchise history to score four touchdowns in one game in a victory over the Eagles on October 11 at Heinz Field.

James Washington, a second-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2018, has always seemed like the odd man out in the Steelers receivers’ room.

After a rather forgettable rookie campaign that saw him catch just 16 passes for 217 yards, Washington rebounded rather nicely in 2019, leading the team in receiving yards with 735. Washington’s production dipped again in 2020–30 receptions for 392 yards and five touchdowns–but I think this was more a result of Claypool’s emergence than an indictment of Washington’s abilities.

Ray-Ray McCloud, a sixth-round pick by the Bills in 2018, was signed by the Steelers last summer and made the team as a punt returner. McCloud excelled enough in that role that Pittsburgh brought him back for 2021.

Rounding out the receivers’ depth chart are unknowns Anthony Johnson, Tyler Simmons, Cody White and Mathew Sexton.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Wide Receiver

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftEven when it was assumed that Smith-Schuster would quickly exit as a free agent, the Steelers still seemed to be in good shape at receiver. His return makes it arguably the deepest and most talented position on the team in 2021.

  • However, Smith-Schuster only signed a one-year deal and will likely test the free-agent waters again next year.

James Washington is also heading into the final year of his rookie deal and might soon want to go somewhere where he can start. Lying beneath all of that is the fact that the 2021 NFL Draft is said to be incredibly deep at wide receiver.

Given that the Steelers needs at wide receiver heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered Low-Moderate.

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Offensive Tackle is a Critical Need Steelers Must, er um, Tackle in the 2021 NFL Draft

American football is difficult to comprehend for most outside of North America. Yet, even people from outside of the US, Canada and Mexico can easily understand the role and importance of offensive tackles in football thanks to Sandra Bullock’s intro to On the Blind Side.

“The first check goes for the mortgage, the second to the insurance.”

Offensive tackles are seen as the sentinels that protect the quarterback. While its possible that their value gets overrated, the wise will remember that the 0-4 2013 Steelers fortunes only started improving after Mike Tomlin made change at left tackle.

The Steelers are in a transition at tackle after a period of stability there, but just how great of a priority is tackle for Pittsburgh in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Zach Banner, Steelers vs Giants, Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger comforts Zach Banner after his injury. (Photo Credit: Seth Wenig)

Steelers Depth Cart at Tackle: The Starters

How’s the old cliché go? “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry?” If not, that’s close enough. Rewind back to the Steelers 2018 road loss to the Broncos. Everyone remembers Xavier Grimble’s fumble (but they forget James Conner’s.) They remember Ben Roethlisberger’s interception and the friction with Antonio Brown.

  • But what they forget is that the game was to feature the offensive line to come.

The Steelers started rookie 3rd round pick Chukwuma Okorafor to face off against Von Miller while moving Matt Feiler to right guard. A year later, ahead of the game against the Rams, the Steelers did the same thing. That was supposed to be the offensive line of the future.

And it worked pretty well. Alas, it didn’t signal good times to come. Zach Banner beat out Chukwuma Okorafor for the starting job, only to tear his ACL for the season, and Matt Feiler struggled as a guard. Pro Football Focus ratings are overrated, but for what they’re worth, Chuks graded out as 57.5 allowed 3 sacks and was flagged for 5 penalties.

Rumors have said that he could return to the Steelers, but that might happen after the NFL Draft.

Steelers Tackle Depth Chart: The Backups

For the past several seasons, the Steelers have had the luxury of dressing 3 starter capable tackles, with the 3rd tackle working in as a 3rd tight end in the jumbo package. Those days are over. Other than Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor the Steelers have Joe Haeg who brings 67 games worth of experience for the Colts and Buccaneers, Aviante Collins, who last played with the Vikings in 2019, Jarron Jones, Brandon Walton, Anthony Coyle and John Leglue.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Tackle

You can never have enough good offensive lineman, and if you don’t have good tackles even the best interior line play is for naught.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL Draft

The Steelers may have two quality starting tackles in Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor. Joe Haeg might provide that critical veteran depth. Someone might distinguish himself from the body of players the Steelers have here on futures contracts.

But that’s hardly how you set yourself up for a Super Bowl run, particularly with an aging Ben Roethlisberger’s whose back for one final ride.

While the Steelers are probably in a strong enough position that they don’t have to draft a starter at tackle, it is still possible that a premium pick could come to Pittsburgh and win the starting job. Given that, the Steelers needs at tackle going into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered High-Moderate.

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James Conner Signs with Cardinals. His Steelers Career is Case of Stars Not Lining Up

Former Steelers running back and proverbial home town hero James Conner made his departure from Pittsburgh official yesterday when he signed with the Arizona Cardinals. This move was not as surprise, as all indications were that the Steelers had no interest in offering James Conner a second contract.

  • The move is nonetheless disappointing because Hollywood couldn’t have scripted the beginning of his story better.

The Steelers drafted James Conner in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Although Le’Veon Bell had just broken the Steelers single-game regular season and post-season rushing records – records that neither Hall of Famers John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis nor Super Bowl record holder Fast Willie Parker ever touched – it was clear that the Steelers needed someone to share the load with Bell.

  • James Conner seemed tailor made to fit that role.

James Conner didn’t just hail from Erie and hadn’t just played his college ball at Pitt, but he’d beaten cancer and a ACL injury to log a 1,000 yard season with the Panthers. His injury history allowed him to fall. It seemed like the Steelers were getting a starter-capable running back for a 3rd round compensatory selection.
Nice story, except things rarely work out as scripted.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns

James Conner delivers a stiff arm in his final 100 yard game. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

James Conner only carried the ball 32 times as a rookie, his blocking ability limiting his ability to serve as a complementary back to Le’Veon Bell (or maybe the coaches just wanted to feed Bell the ball.)

Unfortunately, fate did not smile more kindly on Conner following his rookie year.

The Steelers erred badly by placing the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, as Le’Veon Bell held out. At first that seemed like a boon for the Steelers. James Conner ran with authority, prompting fans to throw together all sorts of stats that implied that the Steelers were better with Conner.

When it became clear that Bell was going to hold out, coaches started cutting back on Conner’s work load in the interests of preserving his health. When Bell’s hold out became permanent, this site observed that:

Today the Steelers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders; a serious injury to James Conner immediately downgrades them to a team that, with a few breaks, could win perhaps win a playoff game.

The Steelers, fate would have it, struggled and missed the playoffs. The following year James Conner had a shaky start to 2019, as the offense struggled to adjust from the absence of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown while defenses stacked the box daring Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges to throw.

  • Injuries was strike Conner down, forcing him to miss five games and parts of several others.

In 2020, just when it seemed like Benny Snell might be eclipsing him in the offense, James Conner responded with 3 one hundred yard games between weeks 2 and 5. But Conner would find himself on the COVID-19 list, then suffered a minor injury. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s run blocking regressed to the point where it became downright pathetic.

  • 2021 brought Conner one last chance at capturing glory for his hometown.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and James Conner after Maurkice Pouency’s high snap. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via The Altoona Times.

The Steelers had a home playoff game against their historic rivals, the Cleveland Browns. It’s the opportunity every kid who, after unwrapping a football under the Christmas tree got admonished, “I don’t want to see yinz throwing that in the house” dreamed of.

For what its worth, James Conner caught the game’s final pass, a two point conversion that followed Chase Claypool’s touchdown. Good for him to end things on a high note. James Conner, giving it has all to the bitter end his who he is.

  • But on balance, James Conner’s Steelers career shows that sometimes the stars just don’t line up.

Steel Curtain Rising thanks James Conner for his 4 years with the Steelers and wishes him nothing but the best in Arizona.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Just How Big of a Need is Center for the Steelers in the 2021 NFL Draft?

It was once explained to me that the quarterback is football’s most important position because the quarterback is the only player who touches the ball on every play. No real argument there, other than the fact that the statement not actually true.

  • The center also touches the ball on each play.

While that reality doesn’t make center football’s 2nd most important position, in football, it does highlight the critical role it plays in the offense. With that in mind, just how big of a need is center for the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into the 2021 NFL Draft?

J.C. Hassenauer

Steelers center J.C. Hassenauer. Photo Credit: AP

Steelers Depth Cart at Center: The Starter

When it comes to the Steelers needs at Center in the 2021 NFL Draft the fact that Pittsburgh has no starting center tells us a lot.

While no one dispute the fact that Pouncey was the latest in a legacy of great Steelers centers, starting with Ray Mansfield, and continuing through Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings, the truth is that his play slipped.

High snaps bedeviled Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph at throughout 2019 and of course the first snap of the 2021 post season sailed high above Ben Roethlisberger’s head, and the Steelers never recovered.

But there’s mistaking the fact that the Steelers will miss Pouncey’s leadership in the locker room.

Steelers Center Depth Chart: The Backups

Current the Steelers have two backup centers, J.C. Hassenauer an unrestricted rookie free agent from the 2021 squad, and B.J. Finney who joined the Steelers via the practice squad in 2015, work himself into a regular roster spot in 2016 and started 13 games over the next four season.

B.J. Finney departed in free agency in 2020, but was ultimately traded by Seattle to Cincinnati, who cut him earlier this year.

  • The Steelers wasted little time in bringing B.J. Finney back to Pittsburgh.

At this point, both J.C. Hassnuer and B.J. Finney project more like the next Sean Mahan or the next Justin Hartwig as opposed to the next Dermontti Mansfield, the next Mike Hartings or the next Maurkice Webster. But the Steelers did win a Super Bowl with Justin Hartwig and he was seen as a strong enough player to warrant a 2nd, 4 year contract prior to the 2009 season.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Center

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftBy bringing back B.J. Finney Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin brought themselves the luxury of not having to reach for a center early in the draft. This is critical.

The Steelers have too many needs in at too many other spots on the depth chart to tie their hands at center. And besides, when Colbert and Tomlin reach, Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns happen.

  • But make no mistake about it, center is one of Pittsburgh’s top needs.

The Steelers don’t need to draft a center who can come in and start right away the way Pouncey did after arriving via the number 1 pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, but they do need someone who at least projects as a full-time starter from 2022 onwards.

Therefore, the Steelers need at center entering the 2021 NFL Draft should be considered as Moderate-High.

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Big Ben @ His 11th Hour. But Steelers Won’t Seek His Replacement in the 2021 NFL Draft

“Stability.” “NFL” = not-for-long meaning stability is in short supply. Pittsburgh Steelers are the NFL’s most stable team, and they’ve enjoyed unprecedented stability at the quarterback position, thanks to the presence of Ben Roethlisberger.

  • Pittsburgh’s passion once rose and fell on news of Roethlisberger’s health.

This is no exaggeration. During his sophomore season, KDKA interrupted regular programing for updates on a minor Roethlisberger knee injury. When Roethlisberger first uttered the “R” word following the 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, he sent Steelers Nation into an anxiety attack.

That’s changed.

The Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff debacle against the Browns marked a turning point. For the first time management question whether Ben Roethlisberger would be back, while large segments of the press and the fans questions whether Roethlisberger should return.

Ben will be back, but his contract voids after the Super Bowl. Big Ben is rapidly reaching his 11th hour. So how should this impact the Steelers strategy for the 2021 NFL Draft?

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger replacement, Steelers 2021 NFL Draft

Ben Roethlisberger on September 15th 2021. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images

Steelers Depth Cart at Quarterback: The Starter

Ben Roethlisberger’s story is well known. With Pittsburgh on the clock in the 2004 NFL Draft, Bill Cowher was leaning towards Shawn Andrews, but Dan Rooney cocked his arm back imitating a throwing motion and Paul Tagliabue made it official a few minutes later.

  • It’s rare that a franchise quarterback falls into the lap of team with a championship roster.
  • But when it does the team had better capitalize on it. Fast.

Like Steve Young and the 49ers, Ben Roethlisberger delivered, leading the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. But like Dan Marino and the Dolphins, as those Super Bowl veterans aged and retired, the Steelers have struggled to rebuild their roster around Roethlisberger.

  • Many fail to appreciate just how close Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin came to pulling it off.

Steelers Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell

The Steelers Killer Bees were too true to their name. Photo Credit: pegitboard.com

Injuries and ego colluded to prevent The Killer Bees from reaching their potential, while Ryan Shazier’s injury ripped a gaping hole in the middle of the defense.

  • In many ways Ben Roethlisberger’s 2020 season mirrors that same story arc.

No one knew how Roethlisberger would play following elbow surgery. But in the first months of the season, Ben Roethlisberger played some of his best football ever. His release as lightning quick, his short and medium passes exited with laser-like precision.

He was even in the league MVP conversation.

  • Sure, the long ball was an issue.

But Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and James Washington all grew pretty adept at drawing pass interference penalties downfield. But then the running game imploded into oblivion. Defenses took away the short pass. Receivers (and tight ends – Eric Ebron) started dropping passes.

  • ACL injuries and COVID-19 ravaged the defense.

As he always did, Roethlisberger’s response was to try to take the team on his shoulders. Something he no longer has the talent to do.

Art Rooney II made it clear he wanted Ben Roethlisberger back, but only at a discount. Ben Roethlisberger agreed, and he took one for the team.

The salary cap has stripped the Steelers of their depth, opening the question of whether Pittsburgh has enough pieces to make a Super Bowl run, but it says here that Ben Roethlisberger showed enough to justify a return in 2021.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart: The Backups

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Drafted with an extra 3rd round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Mason Rudolph arrived as a potential successor to Roethlisberger. Since then Mason Rudolph has started nine games and logged snaps in 3 more.

  • Results have been mixed.

At times, like during the first half of the Dolphins game or the 2nd Bengals game, Mason Rudolph looked as lost and clueless as Kordell Stewart did in his lowest moments. At other moments, such has his starts against the Rams in ’19 and the Browns in ’21, he looked like a signal caller who could develop into a Neil O’Donnell like starter.

  • The Steelers brass clearly isn’t hanging its hat on the latter scenario coming to fruition.

Otherwise they wouldn’t have brought Ben Roethlisberger back, nor would they have taken a flyer on Dwayne Haskins, a failed former first rounder out of Washington.

The Steelers 2021 Quarterback Draft Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL DraftIn abstract football terms, the Steelers need for a quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft should be Moderate-High. They’re going to need a starter perhaps as early as 2022, and no sane person would commit to that starter being Rudolph or Haskins.

But, with usual “unless someone falls” caveat, the Steelers aren’t finding that starter drafting so late in the first round.

  • And drafting one in the middle rounds would be akin to drafting another Rudolph or Haskins.

The Steelers have two of those. And really, taking another Tee Martin or Dennis Dixon like flyer in the 5th or 6th round would mean using a pick on a player who can’t help in 2021. Therefore the Steelers need at quarterback going into the 2021 draft should be considered as Low.

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Upset about Steelers Cutting Steven Nelson? Call it Free Agency Reality Therapy

That didn’t take long. Less than a week after giving his agent permission to seek a trade, the Pittsburgh Steelers cut cornerback Steven Nelson. The move comes less than two years after the Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin decided that Nelson was worthy of the largest free agent contract in franchise history.

So now what?

Has the team that decided to delay the a rehash of Mark Malone, David Woodley and the 1980’s by bringing back Ben Roethlisberger for a another year instead embraced a reboot of the Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Ross Cockrell, Coty Sensabaugh, and Artie Burns?

Maybe. But if we’re honest with ourselves, this shouldn’t be such a shocker.

Josh Brown, Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson can’t prevent Josh Brown from catching a pass for a first down. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Free Agency Proceeding for Pittsburgh as Expected

Thus far free agency has evolved for the Steelers much as it was expected to. The Steelers had planned and projected for a 2021 salary cap of about 220 million dollars. Instead, thanks to COVID-19, they got one of about 183.5 million.

Cap gurus like Omar Khan can use creative accounting to get stretch and squeeze contracts into a tight salary cap.

  • But when the cap comes in a 40 million below your estimate, creativity reaches its limits.

Everyone knew that. So we were told to expect to:

  1. Say goodbye to veterans who’ve played vital roles in keeping the Steelers a contender
  2. Watch the Steelers do little more than bargain basement hunting in free agency
  3. Cut high salaried starters

Things are proceeding on schedule. Veterans like Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton are gone. So is Tyson Alualu. That was a bit of a surprise, and in a normal year the Steelers probably would have found the extra money to keep him.

The Steelers haven’t done much in free agency. Sure they’ve resigned Zach Banner and Cameron Sutton. But even those deals required using voidable years, as did JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers made 2 piecemeal signings, in addition to resigning Chris Wormley, but really haven’t done much else

And in the last week, we’ve seen the Steelers cut high-salaried starters. First it was Vince Williams, now it is Steven Nelson. Sure, as Ed Bouchette pointed out in The Athletic, the timing may be a bit off. Normally you’d expect the Steelers to make these moves before free agency to give their guys a chance to make back their money.

  • But going into free agency, there was talk that the Steelers would have to part ways with one of their cornerbacks.

They’ve just done that. Certainly, most people expected that cornerback to be Joe Haden. Joe Haden doesn’t make as much as Steven Nelson, but he is several years older. Cornerback is a young man’s game. If you’ve got a corner that’s in his mid 30’s and one in his late 20’s going with the younger one seems like a non-brainer.

  • And that’s likely the choice I would make.

But as Bob Labriola pointed out on Asked and Answered, some metrics indicated that Joe Haden had a better year than Steven Nelson. Again, banking too much on those types of metrics is dangerous but it does show that this wasn’t a slam-dunk case. And its also likely that the Steelers didn’t want to cut Nelson, but could come to some other sort of agreement.

As I wrote before, I’m hard pressed to find a way to think of how the Steelers 2021 defense can be better than its 2020 incarnation without Steven Nelson on it. That hasn’t changed.

But this was the reality we expected going into Free Agency. It just took a little longer to set in. Welcome to Steelers Free Agency Reality Therapy.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Surprise! Steelers Resign JuJu Smith-Schuster… But Steven Nelson Exploring Trade

JuJu’s back! On Friday afternoon news broke that precisely no one in Steelers Nation saw coming: The Steelers had resigned JuJu Smith-Schuster to a 1 year contract valued at approximately 8 million dollars.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

And while his deal isn’t the type of long-term deal the latter two players got, his return is significant. First, JuJu Smith-Schuster put his money where his mouth was. Literally. JuJu has been insisting for months that he wanted to stay in Pittsburgh.

  • Many expected him to get a contract that would pay him in the neighborhood of 15 or 16 million per year.

Those offers failed to materialize, but the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles all offered JuJu Smith-Schuster more money than the Steelers, yet JuJu, like Ben Roethlisberger before him, opted to give Pittsburgh a “Home Town Discount.”

A picture is truly worth a 1000 words here. The man clearly wants to be in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers Offense Will Be Better in 2021 with JuJu

The conventional wisdom, this site included, was that JuJu Smith-Schuster is was a luxury that the salary cap strapped Steelers could not afford. With Chase Claypool on the rise, Diontae Johnson flashing greatness (when he’s not dropping the ball) and James Washington flying under the radar, the Steelers seemingly could get by without JuJu.

  • But JuJu Smith-Schuster brings intangibles to the field that the others thus far lack.

There’s no disputing the reality that things got pretty ugly for the Steelers towards the end of 2020. Injuries and COVID ailments gutted the defense. The running game evaporated. The offensive line mailed it in. Receivers struggled to hold on to the ball.

The slide began with that God-awful “win” over an injury depleted Ravens team. As we observed after the game:

By the look of it, JuJu-Smith Schuster took it personally. When the Steelers reached the end zone to begin the 4th quarter, Ben Roethlisberger tagged JuJu Smith-Schuster. The stat sheet says he only went 8 yards getting stopped four yards short of the end zone.

But in truth JuJu would not be denied.

https://twitter.com/DevinBushFan/status/1334272521235992578

Anyone surprised that Ben Roethlisberger looked to JuJu Smith-Schuster 2 plays later? Anyone surprised that JuJu caught it? Neither am I.

And that was no isolated example. JuJu Smith-Schuster gave his all down the stretch. Go back and watch the end of the 4th quarter of that Hindenburg Rescures the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns. Look at JuJu’s play. If you didn’t know the score and just judged things based on JuJu’s intensity, you’d think it was overtime in the Super Bowl.

  • JuJu’s return to Pittsburgh likely comes at a cost, and it remains to be seen if the Steelers can fit the bill.

But there’s no denying that the Steelers offense will be better in 2021 with JuJu Smith-Schuster on board than it would be without him.

Steven Nelson to Seek Trade

While news that JuJu Smith-Schuster will stay in Pittsburgh gave Steelers Nation reason to celebrate, the buzz kill came pretty fast in the form of the news that the Steelers had granted cornerback Steven Nelson permission to seek a trade.

  • Joe Haden had long been rumored to be a cap casualty.

Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Jaguars

Steven Nelson deflects a pass. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

Alternatively, both Steven Nelson and/or Haden had been rumored as targets for extensions. But few saw the Steelers parting ways with Steven Nelson. Steven Nelson arrived in Pittsburgh two years ago signing the largest contract for a free agent ever.

You didn’t hear Steven Nelson’s name much over the last two years, and that’s a good thing. I advocated for Ben Roethlisberger’s return based, in large part, on memories of misplaced youthful excitement at learning that Terry Bradshaw was calling it a career.

I also have much more recent memories of the Steelers failing miserably while trying to get by at cornerback with Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Ross Cockrell and Artie Burns. On Steel City Insider Jim Wexell offered a bit of a contrary view:

For most of the season, I wrote with incredulity at the defense’s performance as they ranked last or next to last in that statistic. They did stop the bleeding well enough to finish 28th….
…And I for not one second believe Joe Haden was the more vulnerable cornerback on that defense. So if the Steelers are done with Nelson, they must believe highly in either the young James Pierre….

Perhaps Wexell has a point. Perhaps Nelson’s situation has nothing to do with JuJu’s signing. Perhaps the Nelson trade talk will come to nothing.

But as of now, there’s no way I see the Steelers defense as anything but weaker without Steven Nelson.

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