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

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

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

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

Ross Cockrell, Ross Cockrell interception, Steelers vs Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

10 Critical Dan Rooney Decisions that Shaped the Pittsburgh Steelers

As Steelers Nation mourns Dan Rooney’s passing and takes stock of his legacy, Steel Curtain Rising reviews the 10 critical Dan Rooney decisions that shaped the modern Pittsburgh Steelers and continue to impact the franchise to this day.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney obituary, Dan Rooney decisions, Dan Rooney Lombardi trophies

Dan Rooney, sitting in front of the Steelers 1st five Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steeles.com

1965: Accepting Buddyy Parker’s Resignation

Art Rooney Sr. was a noble human being, a terrific odds-maker of horses, and a terrible Pro Football owner. But The Chief’s hire of Buddy Parker was one of his better moves. Parker arrived in Pittsburgh with a 47-23 record with the Detroit Lions which included two NFL Championships.

  • Once in Pittsburgh, Parker led the Steelers to 5 non-losing seasons in 8 tries, and finished with a .520 record.

At that point in the Steelers dismal history, such a record should have earned Parker a bust on the franchise’s Rushmore wall. But as Dan Rooney observed in his self-titled autobiography, “Parker could be unpredictable on and off the field.” He had no use for rookies and consequently traded away draft picks in favor of veteran players.

Buddy Parker, Dan Rooney fires Buddy Parker,

Buddy Parker as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

By 1964, Art Rooney Sr. had ceded much of the day-to-day control of the Steelers over to Dan, and Dan warned Buddy Parker not to make cuts or trades without his approval. Parker balked at the order, and often went to The Chief to get what he wanted.

Finally, during the 1965 preseason, Parker wanted to trade Ben McGee (who later went to two Pro Bowls) and Dan refused. Parker offered his resignation, Dan accepted, but asked him to reconsider and discuss the matter in the morning. Dan discussed it with The Chief, and convinced his father this was the way to go. The next morning when Parker threatened to resign, Dan gladly accepted.

  • The Steelers would go 2-12 during the 1965 season with Mike Nixon as their head coach.

But Dan Rooney had put his foot down and made the franchise’s first significant shift away from Art Rooney Sr.’s arbitrary decision making and towards Dan’s methodical mindset.

1966: Luring Bill Nunn Jr. away from the Pittsburgh Courier

Bill Nunn Jr. covered football extensively as a columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, then one of the most influential black newspapers in the country. But he didn’t devote much coverage to the Steelers, in part because he didn’t like the way the Steelers did business.

Art Rooney Sr. was certainly no racist – Ray Kemp was an original Steeler and the NFL’s first African American player in 1933. But the same cannot be said for some of the other people in his employ (think Bill Austin).

When Dan Rooney learned of Nunn’s attitude, he asked for a one-on-one meeting, and convinced Nunn to begin working as a scout for the Steelers on a part-time basis beginning in 1966.

Bill Nunn Jr., Bill Nunn Steelers, Bill Nunn Steelers draft room

Bill Nunn inside the Steelers draft war room. Photo Credit: SteelersGab.com

By 1969, Bill Nunn was working as a full time scout for the Steelers. While Paul Brown had been one of the few NFL coaches to actively scout African American players prior to the civil rights era, Bill Nunn had an extensive network of connections to the Historically Black Colleges. Those connections paid off in the form of Ernie Holmes, Joe Gilliam, Glen Edwards, Frank Lewis, Donnie Shell, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, and John Stallworth.

  • Note, you have two Hall of Famers and at least one (L.C. Greenwood) should be Hall of Famers and perhaps a fourth (Donnie Shell.)

Dan Rooney’s views on racial equality were founded in his deeply rooted sense of justice and his decision to hire Bill Nunn at a time when there were few, if any African American scouts, coaches or front office personnel in the game, symbolized the Steelers commitment to treating everyone fairly and judging them on their contribution to the team, regardless of where they came from, what their last name was or what they looked like.

The Six Lombardi Trophies in the lobby at the South Side demonstrate the practical impact of what many would still write off as wistful “idealism.”

1969: Hiring Chuck Noll

This decision speaks for itself. Prior to 1969 the Pittsburgh Steelers set records for professional football futility. Today the Pittsburgh Steelers have more championships than any other franchise.

  • You can trace that shift to the moment Dan Rooney introduced Chuck Noll as head coach in 1969.

On the day he took the job in January 1969, Chuck Noll proclaimed that “Losing has nothing to do with geography.” Ten years later, rival Houston Oiler’s coach Bum Philip lamented that “The road to the Super Bowl runs through Pittsburgh.”

Ironically, both men and both statements were absolutely right.

1986: Firing Art Rooney Jr. as Head of the Scouting Department

Dan Rooney stuck with Chuck Noll through a very mediocre stretch in the 1980’s, just as he stood behind Bill Cowher despite The Chin’s chronic stumbles in AFC Championship games. More than a few talking heads took that as a sign that Dan Rooney was “soft.”

  • What they failed realize is that the so-called softie Dan Rooney made a tough as nails decision in 1986 to fire his brother Art Rooney Jr. as head of scouting.
Dan Rooney, Art Rooney Jr.

Dan Rooney and his brother Art Rooney Jr. at St. Vincents in Latrobe. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The quality of the Steelers drafting took a nose dive in the latter half of the 1970’s and Pittsburgh’s drafting didn’t get any better as the Steelers drafting position dropped as trips to the playoffs became rare in the 80s. There are a lot of reasons for this, and it would be horrendously unfair to scapegoat Art Rooney Jr. for the decline.

  • But it is also clear that by the mid-1980’s Chuck Noll and Art Rooney Jr. could no longer effectively function as a team.

That forced Dan Rooney into a terrible decision – do you fire your brother or do you fire the man that you and your wife respect so much you’d trust him to raise your kids? Dan opted to fire his brother, dropping the hammer in January 1986. In his 1993 must read book Dawn of a New Steel Age, Ed Bouchette concluded that firing Art Rooney Jr. didn’t improve communication between Chuck Noll and the scouting department.

Perhaps the move wasn’t a panacea, but Chuck Noll did pick future Hall of Famers Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson in his next two drafts. And his next three drafts brought Hardy Nickerson, Greg Lloyd, Thomas Everett, Merril Hoge, John Jackson, Carnell Lake and Jerry Olsavsky to the Steelers.

  • Anyone of those players represents an improvement over any player not named Louis Lipps that the Steelers drafted between 1984 and 1986.

Art Rooney Sr. was a man of integrity whose ability to treat everyone he met with dignity, kindness and respect was legendary. He passed those qualities on to his kids, but he did so with the admonition to “…never let them mistake your kindness for weakness.”

Dan Rooney was a kind man but a tough man, tough enough to fire his own brother.

1988: Managing the Christmas Coaching Crisis with Chuck Noll

In 1988 Steelers finished at 5-11, giving them their worst season since 1970. Chuck Noll himself quipped that his team would struggle to beat a grade school team. After one particularly egregious loss, Dan Rooney decried the “Stupid play calling.”

That 1988 Steelers squad set several new standards for franchise ineptitude, but Dan Rooney had enough wisdom to see he needed a surgeon’s scalpel and not a sledgehammer to set things right. The ’88 Steelers had, after all, finished 3-1 after Thanksgiving and prior to that tested several playoff teams to the wire.

  • Rooney determined that several assistant coaches, including Chuck Noll’s favorite Jed Hughes, had to go.

This was the first time Dan Rooney had never questioned one of Noll’s staffing decisions. Noll resisted Rooney when they discussed the subject before the season, and after Christmas The Emperor went as far as to inform his assistants he that was intent on resigning. Joe Greene alerted Rooney to Noll’s intentions, and Rooney and Noll agreed to continue discussions.

Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Chuck Noll Hall of Fame

Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll at Noll’s Hall of Fame induction in 1993. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Noll ultimately agreed to fire several assistants, although he saved a job or two in the process per Ed Bouchette’s reporting, and Dan Rooney in turn offered to make him a lifetime employee of the team.

  • Dan Rooney’s deft handling of a delicate situation remains important for several reasons.

First, he proved that “The Steelers Way” – a middle path between the extremes that normally govern most franchise operations – worked. Second, he also showed that it was possible to honor loyalty and tradition while forcing difficult changes. Third, move also saw the elevation of Tom Donahoe’s profile in the organization, which would be critical to the Steelers success in the 1990’s.

1992: Hiring Bill Cowher

NFL owners face a daunting task when forced to replace a legendary NFL coach. There are a lot more Richie Petitbons and Ray Handleys than there are Jimmy Johnsons. But replacing a legend was just what Dan Rooney needed to do after Chuck Noll stepped down on December 26th 1991.

Rooney left the day-to-day mechanics of the search to Tom Donahoe, but the Steelers employed a methodical approach that saw the Steelers interview well over a dozen candidates. Rooney wanted, although he didn’t insist on, a candidate who had a link to the city. He also made it clear he didn’t want to consider re-tread coaches.

  • The process of course ended with Dan Rooney selecting Crafton native Bill Cowher.

The move proved, once again, that Dan Rooney was an owner who was capable of moving outside of his comfort zone. Chuck Noll was about as stoic as an NFL head coach can be, while Bill Cowher was an extrovert’s extrovert.

Dan Rooney, Bill Cowher, Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney

Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney after Cowher’s signing as Steelers head coach in 1992. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Likewise, Rooney’s decision dispensed with any illusion that sentimentality guided his decision making. Joe Greene had entered the process as a favorite, but Rooney set aside the tremendous affection and respect he holds for Joe Greene, and determined that Mean Joe wasn’t ready to be a head coach.

While some fans might still insist that Dan Rooney was too patient with Bill Cowher’s repeated AFC Championship losses, a little 20/20 hindsight shows that Bill Cowher’s ability to make it that far with a rookie quarterback once and Kordell Stewart twice is a testament to Cowher’s coaching acumen.

The Steelers won more games during Bill Cowher’s tenure than any other NFL team and of course brought the Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XL.

2000: Replacing Tom Donahoe with Kevin Colbert

As hinted above, Tom Donahoe certainly deserves more credit than he gets for the Steelers reclaiming the mantel of contender in the 1990’s. In the days before Heinz Field was built, the Steelers struggled to compete in free agency. Tom Donahoe helped map out the Steelers strategy of resigning key free agents before their contracts expired, and he uncovered under the radar free agency signings such as Kevin Greene, John Williams and Ray Seals.

Tom Donahoe, Tom Modark, Dan Rooney, Bill Cowher, Steelers 1992 draft room

Tom Donahoe, Tom Modark, Dan Rooney and Bill Cowher in the Steelers 1992 draft room. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Likewise, Donahoe’s ability to find mid and late round draft gems allowed the Steelers to continually reload in the face of annual free agent exoduses of the mid-90’s.

  • But, as the breakdown between Noll and Art Rooney Jr. illustrated, having a great coach and a great front office matters not if the two men don’t get along.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe worked well together at the beginning, but their relationship quickly deteriorated. The rift became public after Fog Bowl II and, by 1999, they were barely speaking to each other. Dan Rooney had to make a choice, and he chose Cowher over Donahoe, a move that was extremely unpopular both inside and outside the South Side.

  • For the record, my own first reaction was that Rooney had chosen the wrong man.

But Tom Donahoe floundered as president of the Buffalo Bills, while Kevin Colbert gave Cowher his second wind.

Want to know why the Steelers were champions in the 00’s but only contenders in the ‘90’s? Look no further than Kevin Colbert’s 15-1-1 record with first round draft picks and his uncanny ability to uncover undrafted rookie free agents such as Willie Parker and James Harrison. Clearly, Dan Rooney knew more than his critics.

2004: Drafting Ben Roethlisberger

After the 2002 season, the Steelers thought they had a Super Bowl quarterback in Tommy Maddox. While Maddox struggled in 2003, quarterback wasn’t perceived as a major area of need heading into the 2004 NFL Draft.

And, when the Steelers turn came to draft, the focus was on picking Arkansas tackle Shawn Andrews. But Rooney, haunted by the ghosts of the 1983 draft and the team’s two decade struggle to replace Terry Bradshaw, steered the conversation toward Ben Roethlisberger.

Like his choice of Chuck Noll, this decision speaks for itself. There are 3 quarterbacks in this era who wear multiple Super Bowl rings. Roethlisberger is one of them for a reason.

2007: Signing Off on Mike Tomlin’s Hire

You’ll find no shortage of fans in Steelers Nation who’ll disagree with this one. They’re entitled to their opinions of course. The facts however speak for themselves.

  • Taking over a Super Bowl contender is no sure bet to success (just ask Ray Handley or Mike Martz for that matter.)

But Mike Tomlin took an 8-8 2006 Steelers squad and brought home an AFC North Division title in his first season, and bagged Lombardi Number Six in his second in Super Bowl XLIII.

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Dan Rooney, Super Bowl XLIII

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin and Dan Rooney celebrate the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XLIII. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Two years later he got the team back to the Super Bowl but fell short. Since then has overseen a rebuilding effort without going under .500, and included and an almost heroic turnaround from a disastrous 2-6 start in 2013.

By all accounts, it was Art Rooney II who made the decision to hire Mike Tomlin in 2008, but Dan Rooney signed off on the choice.

2009: Accepting the Ambassadorship to Ireland

Dan Rooney’s decision to accept his country’s call to service at age 77 to work as the United States ambassador to Ireland speaks volumes about his character and his commitment to serving the greater good.

  • But it also had an important impact on the Steelers.
Ben Roethlisberger, Ashley Roethlisberger, Patrica Rooney, Dan Rooney

The Rothlisbergers and the Rooney’s stand outside the US ambassador’s residence in Ireland. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Accepting the ambassadorship meant that Dan Rooney had to relinquish any formal role with the Steelers and the NFL. While Art Rooney II had been given the role of “President” of the Steelers in 2004 and had been groomed to take control of the team in since the early 1990’s, he would now need to go it alone.

  • Art Rooney, in effect, had a chance to do what few in his position would ever get a chance to do: He got to test drive running the Steelers on his own.

When asked about Steelers issues while he was ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney routinely rebuffed and redirected questions to his son. While that was to be expected, if press accounts are accurate, Rooney really did remove himself from decision making.

He did, however, resume his role as Chairman in 2012, and you can imagine that he and Art II had plenty of discussions over what went right and what went wrong during his absence and this can only help Art Rooney II make better decisions moving forward.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Pittsburgh Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney Dies

The news is hitting Steelers Nation like a shock wave:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney has passed away at the age of 84.

No cause of death has been reported and the news comes as a shock as there have been no reports of Rooney battling health problems. Nonetheless, it caught this blogger’s attention that Dan Rooney appeared to be absent in the photo that the Steelers published following the 2016 NFL Draft.

"Dan

Dan Rooney was born in 1932, one year before his father Art Rooney Sr. founded the Pittsburgh Steelers, then known as the Pirates. Although he was the owner’s son, Dan Rooney literally pulled the pro football equivalent of working his way up from the shop floor onward, first working as a ball boy, then working in various aspects of the Steelers management.

  • During this time the Pittsburgh Steelers were the worst franchise in the NFL.

Those lessons were not lost on Dan Rooney, however. Quite the contrary, Rooney learned from his father’s mistakes, and by the time Art Rooney Sr. turned over control of the franchise to him in the 1960’s, Rooney was already laying the blueprints for the foundation that would support the greatest dynasty the NFL has ever known.

It was at Dan Rooney’s behest that the Steelers parted with Buddy Parker, who insisted trading away draft picks in favor of washed up veterans. It was Dan Rooney who convince the Pittsburgh Courier’s Bill Nunn Jr. to begin scouting for the Steelers. Bill Nunn’s connections of led the Steelers to draft such veterans as Mel Blount, John Stallworth and L.C. Greenwood.

  • His most important decision of course came in 1969 when Rooney hired Chuck Noll.

Chuck Noll would go one to be the first NFL coach to win 4 Super Bowls, and the only man to win 4 championships in 6 years. Dan Rooney did it again in 1992 when he hired Bill Cowher and, while the decision to hire Mike Tomlin is reported to have been Art Rooney II’s, Dan fully signed off on that move as well.

It should also be noted that, during the 2004 NFL Draft, while the Steelers were on the clock it was Dan Rooney who spoke up and suggested Ben Roethlisberger‘s name when Cowher and Kevin Colbert appeared ready to draft an offensive line man.

Aside from giving the franchise a legacy of stability in the “Not for Long” league, Rooney’s wise management decisions directly resulted in the Steelers winning 6 Super Bowls, or more than any other franchise.

Editors Note: Steel Curtain Rising will have further coverage on Dan Rooney’s life and legacy. Check back soon.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Steelers Free Agent Focus: Shamarko Thomas – 4 Years Later Thomas Fails to Disprove Doubters

The Pittsburgh Steelers do not like to trade future draft picks. The franchise went down that road too many times in the Pre-Noll era and paid the price repeatedly. Nonetheless Noll did it in the summer of 1973 when he traded the Steelers 1974 3rd round pick to the Raiders to acquire Glen Ray Hines.

Because of that trade, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley and Bill Nunn were forced to sit on their hands after drafting Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert during the Steelers 1974 Draft in hopes that no one took John Stallworth in the 3rd round.

Neither did Tom Donahoe or Bill Cowher, and neither did Kevin Colbert until the 2013 NFL Draft when the Steelers traded their 2014 third round pick to get the Cleveland Browns 2013 4th round pick to grab Shamarko Thomas in the 4th round, and four years later Shamarko Thomas enters free agency have failed to disprove the doubters.

Shamarko Thomas, Markus Wheaton, Steelers 2013 training camp, Shamarko Thomas free agent, Shamarko Thomas rookie

Shamarko Thomas & Markus Wheaton as rookies in 2013 at Latrobe. Photo Credit: Ryan Wilson, CBSSports.com

Capsule Profile of Shamarkoy Thomas’ Steelers Career

Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake explained Pittsburgh’s break from character by arguing that if Shamarko Thomas, who stands at 5’10”, were two inches taller, he’d have been a first round pick.

  • In a word, Pittsburgh as hot on Shamarko Thomas.

The Steelers immediately worked Shamarko Thomas into the defense, a rarity for a rookie in Dick LeBeau’s system. The Steelers goal was to groom Shamarko Thomas as Troy Polamalu’s successor, and the first step in that process was to get Shamarko on the field covering slot receivers as a nickel back.

Most of those came at the beginning of the season, before he got injured forcing the Steelers to bring back Will Allen. While Allen remained “The next man up” when Shamarko Thomas got healthy, Thomas still got some work with the defense, although that ended after the Steelers 2013 debacle against the Patriots.

Shamarko Thomas, Shamarko Thomas workout

Shamarko Thomas working out during the 2014 off season

The Steelers 2014 OTA’s brought the first sign that the Steelers might be having second thoughts about Shamarko’s ability to succeed Troy Polamalu. Will Allen was the number 2 safety on the depth chart, and Shamarko Thomas suffered an injury early in the season. When he returned, his action came exclusively on special teams.

  • Mike Tomlin explained away the move by suggesting that Thomas was simply struggling to board a “Moving Train” as would any player would.

Rookie defensive coordinator Keith Butler gave Shamarko Thomas his first extended shot at earning the starting strong safety job during the summer of 2015. The Steelers started Shamarko Thomas throughout preseason, but Thomas continued to make mistake after mistake. Shortly before the season opener, the Steelers benched Shamarko Thomas in favor of Will Allen.

For the record, Shamarko Thomas played 20 snaps with the Steelers defense in 2015 and 5 snaps in 2016…

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Shamarko Thomas

In 2016, whenever the Steelers needed help at safety, the Steelers looked to Jordan Dangerfield, signaling the definitive end to the Shamarko Thomas experiment.

  • But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a case for the Steelers resigning Shamarko Thomas.

If Shamarko Thomas has been a brutal disappointment at safety, he’s been a quality often times standout special teams player. Yes, he’s made mistakes, but he’s arguably been the Steelers best gunner for the past several years.

Clearly, if Shamarko Thomas has a future in the NFL it is on special teams. Clearly on one will pay him much more the than the veteran minimum, if even that. If Shamarko Thomas is bound to be racing downfield to stop kick and punt returners, doesn’t it make sense for him to be doing it in Pittsburgh?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Shamarko Thomas

When things don’t pan out with a high-profile draft pick (think Jarvis Jones), often times it is in the best interests of both parties to go their separate ways. Yes, Shamarko Thomas is a quality special teams player and, to be brutally frank, Danny Smith’s special teams don’t have the luxury of cavalierly showing good players to the door.

Fair enough. But the truth is even if the Steelers bring Shamarko Thomas back on a veteran minimum salary to play special teams, that means that he’ll be taking a roster spot that could be occupied by another young player who can both do Shamarko’s job on special teams, and potentially contribute something, either now or in a future season, to the offense or defense.

  • Shamarko Thomas isn’t going to contribute anything to the Steelers defense.

That’s simply the reality. As early as 2015 people were already labeling the 2013 NFL Draft as one of the worst in history. If that’s true, then the Steelers came out of that draft with Le’Veon Bell, Landry Jones, Markus Wheaton and Vince Williams, giving them a pretty successful haul.

But the Steelers missed on Jarvis Jones and missed on Shamarko Thomas, and it is time for them to move on from both mistakes.

Curtain’s Call on Shamarko Thomas and the Steelers

The Shamarko Thomas situation promises to be one of the more interesting, albeit low-profile decisions the Steelers make during the 2017 off season. Reading the tea leaves from reporters such as Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell, there are some signs that the Steelers have some interest in bring Thomas back.

  • But he won’t be a priority, which means he’ll get a chance to test the market.

If the Steelers can bring him back at or near the veteran minimum, he’d be a good addition to their special teams. If someone wants to offer him more than that, then Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin will wisely thank him for his service and send him on his way.

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.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Celebrating Tony Dungy’s Steelers Coaching Legacy

Tony Dungy now sits from his rightful perch in in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an honor he earned through his efforts in transforming the perennial loser Tampa Bay Buccaneers into contenders and for securing the first Super Bowl win by an African American head coach with the Indianapolis Colts.

  • But Tony Dungy’s roots run Black and Gold, a fact Dungy brought home by tapping Donniey Shell to present him.

Dungy’s time in playing in Pittsburgh as well as Tony Dungy Steelers coaching resume were all about overcoming the odds, an experience that served him well in Tampa and Indy. The Pittsburgh portion of Dungy’s resume is plenty impressive, and Steelers Nation must embrace it and celebrate it.

tony dungy, tony dungy's steelers coaching career, chuck noll, keith gary, mike mayock, anthony washington

Keith Gary , Mike Mayock, Anthony Washington, Tony Dungy and Chuck Noll; Photo Credit: Donald J. Stetzer, Post-Gazette

Tony Dungy’s Time as a Steelers Defensive Back

By the spring of 1977 the Pittsburgh Steelers had won two Super Bowls and just lost the 1976 AFC Championship game with the team that, almost to a man, the Super Steelers insist was the most talented of the decade.

  • Such a talented team wouldn’t leave much room for an undrafted rookie free agent, would it?

Fortunately Chuck Noll’s philosophy flowed in a different direction. As Dungy later told Jim O’Brien of the Pittsburgh Press:

…You think you’re just a little ol’ free agent and you’d think you don’t belong, but the coaches give you as much time as they give everybody else. They really try to help you make the team. So do the veterans.

Tony Dungy not only earned spot on the team, but played extensively as the Steeler’s 5th defensive back and third safety behind Mike Wagner and Donnie Shell. During 1977 and 1978, Dungy appeared in 30 games, making two starts and hauling down 9 interceptions. Highlight’s of Dungy’s Pittsburgh Steelers playing career include:

  • Leading the team with 6 interceptions in 1979
  • Recording AND throwing an interception as an emergency Quarterback in 1977
  • Forcing a Randy White fumble in Super Bowl XIII, setting up the Steelers final score

The Steelers traded Dungy to the 49ers following 1979, where Dungy played for a year before getting traded, and ultimately cut by the New York Giants.

While Dungy didn’t have a Hall of Fame playing career for the Steelers, he did earn a Super Bowl ring, and he now joins Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth as the 10th player from the Steelers Super Bowl XIII Championship team to reach the Hall of Fame.

Not bad for an undrafted rookie free agent trying to break into the league with a team laden by Super Bowl veterans….

Noll Brings Dungy to Pittsburgh as Defensive Backs Assistant

As the exploits of Dungy’s brief playing days reveal, he might not have had the athletic talents, but he certainly possessed football smarts. New York Giants head coach Ray Perkins came to that conclusion based on Dungy’s brief time there, and gave Dungy his first interview in 1981.

tony dungy, donnie shell, hall of fame

Donnie Shell takes instruction from former teammate Tony Dungy

When Dungy called Steelers defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer for advice, Widenhofer arranged a meeting with Noll, and Dungy joined the team as a defensive backs coach.

  • By his own admission, however, Dungy spent 75% of his time during his first year working with the Steelers linebackers.

Nonetheless, Chuck Noll saw enough to send incumbent secondary coach Dick Walker packing while promoting Dungy to defensive backs coach. Tracing the impact of positions coaches was just as difficult in the early 80’s as it is today, but Dungy’s made close to an immediate impact, coaching his players to read the quarterback instead of focusing on receivers.

The fact that Dungy was able to make such a quick impact as a position coach is a little eailser tunderstand when you realize that the 27 year old Dungy had enough confidence to suggest technique changes to Mel Blount, who was well into his mid-30’s and already clear first ballot Hall of Famer.

When Woody Widenhofer left Pittsburgh to take the USFL’s Oklahoma Outlaw’s head coaching position, Chuck Noll only had one place to look….

Tony Dungy, Youngest, 1st Black Coordinator

At age 29, Chuck Noll at once made Tony Dungy the youngest coordinator in the NFL and also the first African American coordinator. While Noll admitted he’d talked to several candidates “…but not with a really open mind.”

Earning such a prestigious promotion at age 29 might seem like an uncanny a stroke of good luck, but Tony Dungy got nothing handed to him. If anything, fate worked against him:

  • News of Blount and Bradshaw’s retirements dominated the news conference announcing Dungy’s hire.

Worse yet, Jack Lambert’s career ended 3 starts into this Tony Dungy’s tenure as Steelers defensive coordinator. Undaunted, Dungy took the reins of a Steelers defense that was literally shedding Hall of Famers and defied the odds. By end of the Steelers 1984 season, the Steelers defense had the NFL’s number 5 defense (in total yards) two notches below 1983’s edition and Steelers defenders ranked 2nd in interceptions, a rank above the previous year.

In the 1984 Steelers playoff upset win over the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium, the Steelers defense dominated John Elway, sacking him 4 times and brutalizing him so badly he could barely stay in the game. Years later, a cousin of mine recounted how Elway was forced to take snaps with one hand – press accounts do not confirm that, but Elway injured his groin, bruised a kneed and twisted an ankle.

Asked about the 1984 Steelers defense following the game, Elway conceeded, “They dictated. They more or less did what they wanted.”

Tony Dungy put an exclamation point on Elway’s concession with the game tied at 3:45 left to play, with the Broncos attempting to rally on 2nd and 5 from their 20 yard line. The Steelers defense showed zone coverage, Elway looked at safety Eric Williams and assumed he had a one-on-one with Ray Alexander.

  • Except that Williams was playing man coverage, intercepted Elway’s pass and returned it to the Steelers 2.

It was Elway’s second interception of the day, and his last as it set up Frank Pollard’s go-ahead touchdown.

Pittsburgh would of course fall to the Miami Dolphins the next week in the AFC Championship, but the 1984 Steelers had shocked the world in won the AFC Championship, ruining the ’84 49er’s perfect season and upsetting Elway’s Broncos at Mile High. And Tony Dungy’s defense had led the way.

1985-1987 Tony Dungy’s Star on the Rise

Unfortunately, the 1984 Steelers success was largely a mirage. Chuck Noll had managed to coax above average performance with average talent. But as the last of the Super Steelers faded, the Steelers slipped into mediocrity during 1985 and 1986.

  • Yet Tony Dungy’s kept the Steelers defense competitive.

The 1985 Steelers finished 7-9, Chuck Noll’s first losing effort since 1971, but the Steelers defense finished 6th overall in yards allowed. The rest of the NFL took note of Tony Dungy’s Steelers coaching career.

tony dungy, steeles, defensive coordinator, african american, chuck noll

In 1984 Chuck Noll made Tony Dungy the NFL’s Youngest Defensive coordinator

In the winter of 1986, Dungy found himself a head coaching candidate, as the Philadelphia Eagles interviewed him for the job that ultimately went to Buddy Ryan. Dungy didn’t get the job, but by that point he was widely expected to become the NFL’s first African American head coach.

The 1986 Steelers slipped even further, dropping to 6-10,and the Steelers defense slipped to 18th in yards allowed.

The 1987 NFL draft saw Chuck Noll reload on defense, picking future stars like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Thomas Everett, and Hardy Nickerson (in addition to one-year wonder Delton Hall.) Armed with the infusion of talent, Tony Dungy oversaw a defensive rebound, as the Steelers defense improved to 13th overall, was 3rd in interceptions, and returned 7 interceptions for touchdowns, leading the league.

  • Indeed, the Steelers defense carried Pittsburgh to a 8-7 record (6-6 in non-strike games), and kept them competitive in games they had no right to contest.

Some fans insisted that the Steelers were “A quarterback away from the Super Bowl.” In 20/20 hindsight, such observations were clearly wishful thinking, but the Steelers defense appeared to be on the rise. After the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bruce Kredan quipped that the Steelers had applied the finishing touches to Curtain II by drafting Aaron Jones, he wasn’t being entirely sarcastic.

Steelers Dreadful 1988 Campaign and Dungy’s Demise in Pittsburgh

The 1987 Steelers finished one game out of the final Wild Card slot for the playoffs. Yet, the fact that they almost won that game on thanks to 4th quarter, 45 yard pick six by Cornell Gowdy, teased that the Steelers defense was once again knocking on dominance’s door.

  • Again, the hopes of Steelers Nation fell into disappointment.

The 1988 Steelers opened with a win over Tom Landry’s Cowboys, and closed with a win over Don Shula’s Dolphins, but struggled mightily in between only winning three other contests. While the Steelers special teams and offense had their liabilities, the fact is that the 1988 Steelers saw 4th quarter lead after 4th quarter lead evaporate.

  • Statistics confirmed the defense’s decline, which slipped to 28th in yardage, worst in the NFL

The decline of the Steelers defense in 1988 defies easy explanation. 1988 saw Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, and Hardy Nickerson blossom into full time starters. Alongside these upstarts were players like Bryan Hinkle, David Little, Gerald Williams, Keith Willis and Dwayne Woodruff who were still playing in their primes.

  • Most likely, the 1988 Steelers defense regressed because they could not get on the same page.

Steelers linebackers coach Jed Hughes had designs on converting Aaron Jones into an outside linebacker. Tony Dungy disagreed, and wanted Jones to remain at defensive end. Jed Hughes went over Dungy’s head, and Jones spent part of the season at outside linebacker.

  • The damage this move did to Dungy’s standing with the Steelers, and the rest of the NFL should not be underestimated.

Ed Bouchette detailed it in a Dawn of a New Steel Age. In his book, Double Yoi, Myron Cope also delved into the incident, sharing that reporters silently rooted for Dungy in his struggle with Hughes, but ultimately arguing:

…I could not help but think that word travels on the football grapevine – Tony had let the linebackers coach steal Noll’s ear. Was he head coaching material or a wimp? In time, he answered the question, but the grapevine may have delayed his rise to the top for years.

The is plot actually thicker here, involving other revered Steelers legends here, which Ivan Cole documents on Going Deep with the Steelers, based on conversations with Bill Nunn.

  • Regardless, Dan Rooney didn’t like what he saw, and demanded that Chuck Noll fire several assistants.

Noll resisted, contemplated resigning until relenting. Jed Hughes name was on the hit list, Tony Dungy’s was not. But, the Steelers did ask Dungy to take a demotion. Dungy declined and resigned, ending his time in Pittsburgh.

Tony Dungy’s Arch in Pittsburgh Comes Full Circle (Sort of)

Tony Dungy had been the hot coaching prodigy in the mid and late 1980’s, often expected to be the NFL’s first black coach and/or the man to succeed Chuck Noll. Alas, Tony Dungy didn’t fufill either role, at least directly.

mike tomlin, tony dungy, steelers vs. colts 2008, steelers, colts, heinz field

Mike Tomlin and Tony Dungy prior to the 2008 Steelers-Colts matchup; Photo Credit; ESPN, used on High Court Press

In a wired twist of fate, Chuck Noll replaced Tony Dungy with Rod Rust, the recently deposed head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Tony Dungy for his part would head to Kansas City to serve as Marty Schottenhimer’s defensive backs coach, whose secondary contributed the success of Kansas City’s defense, brining Kansas City defensive coordinator Bill Cowher to the attention of the Rooneys.

Dungy parlayed his success in Kansas City into a defensive coordinator job in Minnestoa, which he used to get his first head coaching job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In Tampa, Tony Dungy hired and mentored promising young coach by the name of Mike Tomlin, giving him his first job in the NFL.

Tony Dungy’s roots not only Black and Gold, but his influence has lived on in Pittsburgh, long after his departure.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Javon Hargrave Will Be an Immediate Hit with Steelers Nation – Here’s Why

If you’re a Pittsburgh Steelers fan (and why wouldn’t you be, if you were reading this article?), you may have been clamoring for your favorite football team to draft a big, hulking defensive lineman in the first round of the recently conducted 2016 NFL Draft.

Andrew Billings, the freakishly strong interior lineman from Baylor, may have been your number one choice. In-fact, in many mock drafts, he was the guy predicted to arrive in Pittsburgh at pick 25.  If you were in the Billings camp, you were surely disappointed when cornerback Artie Burns of Miami was the top pick.

The following evening, you may have been ready to throw your laptop/smartphone when Billings wasn’t the second  round selection (it was safety Sean Davis out of Maryland).  By the third round, as teams continued to pass on Billings, you probably figured it was a no-brainer that Pittsburgh would take him with the 89th pick.

But, once again, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin thwarted your dreams and selected Javon Hargrave, an interior lineman out of South Carolina State. If you didn’t destroy whatever device you normally use to access the Internet and you researched Hargrave’s college football history, you may have said, “Andrew who?” as you quickly fell head-over-heals in-love with this potential diamond in the rough.

  • Actually, scratch that. Hargrave is no diamond in the rough.

By all accounts, he looks like a valuable diamond that happened to be on display at some mom and pop jewelry store for the past few years, instead of your traditional corporate places you find at the mall.

South Carolina State is a I-AA football program, and that as much as the weaknesses listed on Hargrave’s NFL.com draft profile, such as “squatty arms and tiny hands” is probably what made most teams shy away from him in the first or second round.

Fact is, red flags are a big deal, and while playing for a I-AA school isn’t a character flaw, it could be a competitive one. However, as Kevin Colbert told the assembled media after selecting Hargrave, the youngster did everything he was supposed to do at that level; he dominated:

  • Hargrave was named both the SBN Sports Mel Blount Defensive Player of the Year and MEAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2014 and again in 2015.

That’s some serious dominance. Don’t believe me?

  • In four seasons at South Carolina State, Hargrave had 37 sacks and 62.5 tackles for loss.

That, my friend, is a man among boys.

According to Johnny Mitchell, the Steelers defensive line coach, Hargrave didn’t have good enough grades to go to one of your traditional college powerhouses. Nevertheless, he got his chance at SCState, and, sometimes in life that’s all a person needs. Hargrave did enough in college to get noticed by the NFL, and being a third-round pick, he’ll certainly have a great chance to turn himself into a professional football player.

Speaking of Mitchell, he referenced the Steelers success in the 1970s with taking players from small and historically black colleges, when he spoke to the media shortly after his bosses gave him his latest pupil: 

The first thing I’d like to say if Mr. (Bill) Nunn is alive today, he would really like this pick. When he graduated (high school), he didn’t have the grades to go to school. He set out, worked hard, worked his way in, got there and played very well. Out of anyone coming out this year, defensive linemen or defensive tackles, this guy is pretty impressive.

If coach Mitchell likes his new prospect, you just know Steelers fans are already salivating at the thought of watching him do his thing at training camp.

A big, athletic, 300-plus defensive lineman who hails from a small school? If he contributes anything early, Hargrave will be a fan-favorite before the start of the regular season.

I know my Steelers  fans, and there is no way Javon Hargrave won’t quickly be embraced and beloved.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Filling a Need for a Nose, Steelers Draft Javon Hargrave in 3rd Round, NT from South Carolina State

Day two of the 2016 NFL Draft saw the Pittsburgh Steelers continue to tick off their needs. After drafting cornerback Artie Burns in the first round and safety Sean Davis in the second round, Pittsburgh looked to fill their next glaring area of need at nose tackle as the Steelers draft Javon Hargrave a nose tackle out of South Carolina State.

Perhaps what’s most telling about the move are the comments from Steelers defensive line coach and assistant head coach Johnny Mitchell. Mitchell is a veteran and makes no bones about the need to strip his players down to zero, and coach them up from there.

In other words, Mitchell is not known for lavishing praise on rookies. Yet, Mitchell did not hold back:

The first thing I’d like to say if Mr. (Bill) Nunn was alive today, he would really like this pick. Javon Hargrave is a self-made man,” continued Mitchell. When he graduated (high school), he didn’t have the grades to go to school. He set out, worked hard, worked his way in, got there and played very well. Out of anyone coming out this year, defensive linemen or defensive tackle, this guy is pretty impressive.

Invoking Bill Nunn’s name in connection with a third round pick his high praise in indeed, as Nunn was the scout who found such Steelers gems as Mel Blount, John Stallworth, L.C. Greenwood and of course Donnie Shell who also hailed from South Carolina State.

Video Highlights of Javon Hargrave

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert put a lot of stock on what they see on tape from potential draft prospects, and Javon Hargrave has quite a pedigree:

On Johnny Mitchell’s watch, which began in 1994 after Bill Cowher dismissed Steel Curtain veteran Steve Furness as defensive line coach, the nose tackle’s role from Joel Steed to Casey Hampton has traditionally been to clog up the middle first, with pass rushing coming second.

  • But the nose tackle is evolving under defensive coordinator Keith Butler.

The Steelers want nose tackles who an not only be stout against the run, but also pressure the passer. Steve McLendon did that in 2012 in relief of Casey Hampton, but was less of a presence in the pass rush after taking over the role in 2013.

  • Looking at his college states, Javon Hargrave can fill that need.

In his NCAA career, Hargrave compiled 37 sacks, including 29.5 in his last two seasons alone. He’s got a 40 time of 4.9 which is good for a defensive lineman. As Jim Wexell points out, Hargrave even had 6 sacks in a game that he didn’t start.

A big part of the reason the Steelers let Steve McLendon go to the Jets was that he was off of the field for almost 2/3rds of the defensive snaps. Yet Johnny Mitchell sees Hargave breaking that mold, explaining “I’ll tell you this, he will give us a new dimension for a big man in our sub-package.”

Depending on Hargrave’s ability to pick up the Steelers scheme, he’s seen as someone who can also help spell Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward, allowing Mitchell to set up a rotation at defensive line, which has been on of the hallmarks of his strategy.

The Steelers will not hand Hargrave anything. Daniel McCullers will enter training camp as the team’s number one nose tackle, but Hargrave will get every chance to press McCullers for playing time and even the starting role.

  • That’s what you want to hear of a third round pick.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Just Hargrave.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Shoring Up Secondary, Steelers Sign Ross Cockrell to 1 Year Contract

Pittsburgh took its first step towards shoring up its secondary in a move that saw the Steelers sign Ross Cockrell to a one year contract. Cornerback Ross Cockrell was one of the Steelers exclusive rights free agents, meaning he couldn’t negotiate with any other team, but the Steelers still needed to make him an offer.

If the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers had one unquestionable weakness, it was in their secondary. For starters, the 2015 Steelers fielded an accidental secondary, as no one, save for Mike Mitchell, played in the role envisioned for him when he was acquired.

That might seem like a tautology but the Steelers secondaries from 2011-2013 were far from dominant, but played better without much of a pass rush to speak of. While Ross Cockrell might not be close to being a “shutdown corner,” bringing him back to Pittsburgh is a smart move.

Ross Cockrell 2015 Retrospective

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin turned a lot of heads when the Steelers claimed Ross Cockrell off of waivers after the first wave of mandatory cuts. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo saw the move as sufficiently puzzling enough to question whether the Steelers coaches and scouting teams were not on the same page, much as they had been over offensive line in general and Max Starks in particular in 2007 and 2008.

  • While not speaking directly to Ray Fittipaldo’s point, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola boosted the level of debate on the subject.

Responding to a reader’s question, Labriola cited legendary Steelers scout Bill Nunn, who instructed younger scouts not to put too much faith into the performance of defensive backs on other teams, because you had no way of knowing what those DB’s had been instructed to do.

  • Enter Ross Cockrell, the 2014 4th rounder that Rex Ryan and company couldn’t wait to get rid of.

As a wavier wire pickups go, Ross Cockrell’s 2015 season alone makes him a success. Per the Steelers rendering, Cockrell started 7 games and suited up for 15, the only game he missed was the season opener at New England. While Ross Cockrell’s 2015 performance doesn’t project him as another Rod Woodson or Mel Blount, he did give the Steelers secondary something it sorely needed – turnovers.

The fumble recover shows some particularly good concentration and execution (available as of 1/23/16 — watch it now before Roger Goodell’s You Tube police have it taken down):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GPk3MghFHA

And without question, Cockrell’s most important play of the year came in the Steelers playoff win over the Bengals. It took Jarvis Jones to stop Jeremy Hill, Ryan Shazier to strip the ball and Ross Cockrell to recover it.

The Steelers secondary needs help. Ross Cockrell might not be “The Answer” to the Steelers defensive backfield woes, but he is certainly part of the equation.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Larger Lesson Behind Ryan Shazier’s Breakout Game vs. 49ers

The Pittsburgh Steelers 43-18 win over the San Francisco 49ers gave Steelers Nation a lot of positives to chew on. The Steelers offense, down by two of its best players, showed it could be a dominate force. And the Steelers defense showed that it had zero intent on throwing in the towel and calling 2015 a “rebuilding year.”

  • But perhaps the most encouraging sign was Ryan Shazier’s breakout game against the 49ers.

Just how good was Ryan Shazier? How about 15 tackles, 3 of them for losses, a sack a forced fumble, a QB hit and a complete neutralization of Colin Kaepernick as a running threat. But there’s larger lesson that goes beyond Shazier’s statistics.

Shazier’s performance was a potentially transformative, and fully appreciating the importance of Ryan Shazier’s breakout game requires going back to words of wisdom Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell penned a year ago.

Last October, the Steelers were 3-3, licking their wounds after a loss in which the Cleveland Browns were clearly the better team. Wexell seized upon that moment to author “Deja Vu All Over Again” in what was perhaps the best piece on the 2014 Steelers.

In “Deja Vu All Over Again,” Wexell graphically reconstructs the the Steelers 2000 season, building the back story with insights that only a true insider can offer. In a nutshell, Wexell compared Mike Tomlin’s 2012, 2013, and 2014 Steelers to Bill Cowher’s 1998, 1999, and 2000 Steelers.

In Wexell’s eyes, both teams were going through the natural rebuilding growing pains that inflict even the best franchises. Wexell recounts the key decisions made by Bill Cowher and newly arrived Kevin Colbert, enumerating both the brilliant and boneheaded ones, and reminding readers that all of them were controversial at the time. (Wexell also calls out some of the more inane arguments made at the time by certain members of the Pittsburgh media).

The crux of Wexell’s argument is that chief difference between the two eras is that Mike Tomlin benefited from having Ben Roethlisberger calling his signals whereas Cowher was stuck with Kordell Stewart. Wexell’s observations made sense, and Steel Curtain Rising thought to do a detailed, position-by-position breakdown of the Steelers 1998, 1999, and 2000 rosters with their 2012, 2013, and 2014 counterparts.

Alas, there simply wasn’t time.

  • Fortunately, there is time to connect the dots between his final argument, and Shazier’s breakout performance vs. the 49ers.

Wexell concluded this piece with this observation:

Maybe one or two of these current free agents can contribute to a championship the way Von Oelhoffen did, but to tell the truth it’s all melding together in my mind at this point.
I am certain, though, that even in this state of deja vu, I have watched an organization use patience to crawl out of a hole by making one smart decision at a time. And they have no choice but to use that method once again.

The 2014 Steelers of course went 8-2 immediately after Wexell penned that article, but 8-2 seemed like a pipe dream when Pittsburgh was at 3-3. And part of the reason for the turn around, was that the Steelers were already “making one smart decision at a time.”

Today that might seem self-evident, but that was hardly the case on draft day 2014. Going into the 2014 NFL Draft everyone knew the Steelers were going to take a cornerback. The only question seemed to be whether they get a shot at Justin Gilbert, Kyle Fuller, or Calvin Pryor. Were those men absent, (and Gilbert was supposedly the one the Steelers wanted), Pittsburgh would look to wide receiver.

  • Inside linebacker wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen.

Steel Curtain Rising’s 2014 Steelers Draft Need Matrix had cornerback and wide receiver at its top. The Steelers 2014 draft needs at inside linebacker was rated as 7th, citing the presence of Lawrence Timmons, improved play by Vince Williams, potential by Terance Garvin, and the possibility that Sean Spence could rebound.

  • Shazier’s game vs. the 49ers proves that it is a good thing that neither Mike Tomlin nor Kevin Colbert ever read Steel Curtain Rising.

Seriously. Tomlin and Colbert, along with Keith Butler, Dick LeBeau and Carnell Lake clearly knew that even in April 2014 inside linebacker was far deeper than defensive back for the Steelers. They also knew they’d be without the services of Jerricho Cotchery and couldn’t have seen enough of Markus Wheaton to be comfortable at WR.

  • In the end, it didn’t matter.
Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley

Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room

The Steelers brain trust saw a potential super star in Ryan Shaizer and did the same thing they’re Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, and Bill Nunn did in 40 years earlier in the Steelers 1974 Draft when they had two “good” wide receivers in Frank Lewis and Ron Shanklin. They saw the chance to grab two great ones in the form of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

  • And that’s the lesson behind Ryan Shazier’s breakout game vs. the 49ers.

Sure, the Steelers might be in a personnel slump with their secondary. Perhaps Pittsburgh’s playoff chances in 2015 will be limited because of it. But in just his 7th official NFL start, Shaizer showed Steelers Nation that he can be truly great.

And in picking him in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Steelers were simply “making one smart decision at a time” as Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the 49er’s offense can attest.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Is Cause of Steelers Secondary Slump Simple Bad Luck?

Yesterday’s Watch Tower edition reviewed Ray Fittipaldo’s suggestion in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that the Steelers current inability to find competent cornerback is rooted a failure by the front office and coaching staff to get on the same page.

  • It says here that Ray Fittipaldo may be on to something.

Especially if you consider that the current personnel “crisis” isn’t limited to cornerback. Arguably, entire Steelers secondary suffers from a personnel slump. The Steelers secondary has failed to produce turnovers in force since 2010, and the only quality defensive backs rafted and developed by the Steelers since Super Bowl XLIII, Keenan Lewis and Ryan Mundy, are now employed by the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears. Consider the contrast with the guys still in Pittsburgh:

Both the subjective and objective evidence at hand is not favorable. But it’s possible that the Steelers secondary slump has an entirely different root cause. It’s one that once bedeviled the Steelers at a different spot on the depth chart for over a decade. Fans in the “fire us crowd” won’t like to read this, but that doesn’t make the explanation any less plausible:

  • Bad luck

Yes, you read that right. Bad luck could be the culprit behind the Steelers struggle to man the secondary with serviceable if not quality players.

Pittsburgh Suffers Post Steel Curtain Defensive Line Drought

The Steelers gave the NFL its first dynasty defined by its defensive line. Chuck Noll drafted Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood in 1969, Dwight White in 1971, and added Ernie Holmes as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1972. Before the Steelers even won their second Super Bowl, Time magazine was putting the original Steel Curtain on its cover.

By the time Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood suited up for their last Pro Bowl in 1980, the defensive lineman had made a collective 18 Pro Bowl appearances for Pittsburgh Steelers in ten years.

  • You don’t assemble quartet of that caliber without a strong eye for talent.

But talent evaluation skills aren’t the only factor in play, as suggested by this next factoid:

  • Joel Steed would be the next defensive lineman to get Pro Bowl honors in 1998.

That’s right, the franchise that once established the gold standard for defensive line excellence in the 70’s went 18 years without sending a single defensive lineman to the Pro Bowl. It wasn’t as if the Steelers didn’t try. In the 1980’s alone, the Steelers drafted defensive lineman Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera and Aaron Jones in the first round.

The Steelers also targeted the defensive line in the second round, picking John Goodman in 1980, Gerald Williams in 1986, and Kenny Davidson in 1990. Of the threesome, Gerald Williams was the only quality player, but the Steelers were forced to use him at nose tackle instead of defensive end because they could never find anyone else to play in the middle.

The Steelers only used one third rounder on a defensive lineman during that era, and he was Craig Veasey, taken in 1990 and Veasey was a total bust, making only 5 starts over 6 years in stops in Pittsburgh, Miami, and Houston.

In fact, the Steelers most accomplished defensive lineman during the 1980’s was Keith Willis, who made the team as an undrafted rookie free agent.

  • Things improved in 1992 with Bill Cowher’s arrival.

The Steelers added Steed in 1992, Kevin Henry in 1993, and Brensten Buckner in 1994, Oliver Gibson in 1995, and Orpheus Roye in 1996. That was an improvement on the previous decade, but Tom Donahoe also paid a hefty price to move up to pick Jeremy Staat, a person better known for his tattoos and later service in the US military than for his exploits on the field.

Successful NFL Draft = Art + Science + Luck

What happened? The Steel Curtain was scouted by a team comprised of Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, Bill Nunn Jr. and Tom Modrak and Chuck Noll make his picks based on their reports. Clearly these 6 men didn’t suffer collective case of defensive line evaluation stupidity the moment the clock struck midnight on December 31st, 1979.

Dan Rooney realized that things weren’t working and removed his brother as head of the Steelers scouting department in October 1986. Chuck Noll drafted Hall of Famers Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson in his next two drafts.

Noll’s next four drafts brought Hardy Nickerson, Greg Lloyd, John Jackson, Merril Hoge, Carnell Lake, Jerry Olsavsky, Neil O’Donnell and Barry Foster. In a word, communication between scouting and coaching improved enough for Noll to draft the players who would fuel the Steelers early 1990’s resurgence under the Cowher Power banner.

  • But notice, there’s not a defensive lineman named above.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe did find decent to good defensive lineman in their first 7 drafts, but it wasn’t until their 8th draft that they bagged a great defensive lineman one, in the form of Aaron Smith.

  • The moral of the story is that draft NFL personnel evaluation is a blend of science, art and luck.

The Steelers secondary slump appears to be serious. Could it sink the Steelers 2015 season? It is way, way too early to say so. Might its roots be found in a failure by Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, and Carnell Lake to get on the same page as Kevin Colbert and his scouts? Perhaps.

But the Steelers personnel strike outs in the secondary might also be a simple, if however maddening, case of bad luck.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!