4 Lessons Learned & Random Thoughts on Steelers Growth Since Vikings Loss in London

When the Pittsburgh Steelers kickoff for their 2017 home opener against the Minnesota Vikings this afternoon, 1450 days will have passed since these two franchises last squared off. Normally you don’t think of intra-conference games marking milestones, but this one does.

Because if the Steelers post Super Bowl XLV rebuilding project began with the Tebowing in the playoffs against Denver in January 2011, the rebuilding effort scratched rock bottom on September 29th, as the Vikings dropped the 2013 Steelers to 0-4.

  • To put this into perspective, the previous Steelers head coach to start 0-4 was Bill Austin, in 1968.

With that in mind, let’s look at how the Steelers have changed, and remained the same, since then.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers London

Le’Veon Bell scores his first touchdown in the Steelers loss to Vikings in London. Photo Credit: Daily Mail Online

1. Sort of Failing at Left Tackle is Like Being Sort of Pregnant

By the fall of 2013 the Steelers had relegated their “Plug ‘n Patch” approach to offensive line building to history. Indeed on that day they started Ramon Foster, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert just as they will this afternoon (and they would have started Maurkice Pouency had he not been hurt.)

  • They also started Mike Adams at left guard.

Mike Adams didn’t represent any sort of Jonathan Scottesque attempt to get by on the cheap at left tackle. No, the Steelers invested a 2nd round pick in Mike Adams and made it very clear from the get go that they wanted him to win the starting job. He couldn’t do that as a rookie (and surprise, they turned again to Max Starks), but they gave him the job 2013.

  • The move was an epic fail, and the London loss to the Vikings was its supernova.

Adams struggled all day, and first and only time in his career, Ben Roethlisberger played like he had happy feet. The Vikings ended the game by sacking Roethlisberger, and while Adams didn’t directly allow the sack, he clearly didn’t win his battle at the line of scrimmage which helped collapse the pocket, paving the way for a sack.

The Vikings game in London marked Mike Adams final start at left tackle and Kelvin Beachum’s assent to the role.

2. Le’Veon Lived Up to the Hype, Jarvis Didn’t….

While neither he nor Mike Tomlin uttered the word “Rebuilding,” after the 2012 Steelers 8-8 finish Kevin Colbert as much as admitted changes were needed. Ergo, two key building blocks would come early in the Steelers 2013 Draft Class. One worked out, the other didn’t.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Ed Bouchette isn’t one to exaggerate, but even he seemed to be drinking a little Koolaid a big when he declared in July 2013 that Le’Veon Bell’s preseason debut “…will be one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

  • Le’Veon Bell’s debut didn’t come until London thanks to his Lisfranc injury.

While Le’Veon Bell’s statistics were rather pedestrian on that afternoon, he did score two touchdowns, and flashed some of the ability that the Steelers offense has come to depend upon.

On the flip side, Jarvis Jones, who’d boldly requested number 95, was making his third start at outside linebacker for the Steelers. Jones had one tackle on the day and by any measure must be considered Kevin Colbert’s only true first round bust.

3. How Long Does It Take to Rebuild Defense? Four Years

One striking observation is that there’s been very little turnover in the Steelers offense since that fateful London day. Sure, Health Miller retired and the entire tight end depth chart has turned over (thanks to David Johnson’s waiver). But the line remains intact and that was the first game that the Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown played together, and the trio has powered the offense since.

  • On defense you find an entirely different story.

Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were still manning both safety spots. Ike Taylor was still starting at corner, and Cortez Allen, the unit’s rising star, returned to the line up to get burned on a 70 yard touchdown. Aside from William Gay, who was back after a one year hiatus in Pittsburgh West, the entire Steelers secondary has turned over since the London Loss.

Looking at the linebackers, Vince Williams was making his first NFL start, and if the rookie looked woefully unable to fill Larry Foote’s shoes, no one can argue he hasn’t grown into the role. But Vince Williams is the only Steelers linebacker left from the London Game (remember, James Harrison was in Cincinnati.)

If the Viking’s victory in London marked the Vince Williams first start, it also marked Ziggy Hood’s last one, as Mike Tomlin would name Cam Heyward starter after this game. The other starters that day were Steve McLendon, who was just taking over from Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel. 1450 days later, the story remains the same on defensive line. Cam Heyward remains, everyone else is playing elsewhere or has begun “Life’s Work.”

4. Assistant Coaches Do Matter – See Mike Munchak’s Influence

People forget this, but Mike Adams wasn’t the only Steelers offensive lineman under fire 1450 days ago. Just one week earlier, in the Steelers loss to the Bears, Steelers coaches had rotated Kelvin Beachum on at both tackles.

While the Steelers offensive line improved during the course of 2013, Mike Tomlin quickly fired Jack Bicknell at season’s end and replaced him with Mike Munchak, and no one argues that the Steelers offensive line is far better for Munchak’s influence.

Young Money had been all the rage prior to 2013, but the promise of those young receivers was largely unrealized, as even Antonio Brown’s play was a little uneven by the end of 2012. Mike Tomlin responded by replacing Scottie Montgomery with Richard Mann, who has clearly transformed the Steelers wide receiving corps.

As Dick Hoak reminded everyone on the day he retired (after nearly 3 and half decades of serving as a Steelers assistant coach) NFL assistant coaches are “Hired to be fired.” He’s right. Often times assistant coaches act as the fall guys when either head coaches fail or draft picks flounder as busts.

But the additions of Richard Mann and Mike Munchak show that good assistant coaches can and do make a difference in the NFL.

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Steelers Resign Stephon Tuitt to Six-Year $61-Million Contract

Bloggers live to brag when we’re right. But as the Steelers resign Stephon Tuitt to a six-year $61-million dollar contract-extension on Saturday, this is a blogger who is rejoicing to be wrong.

As per Pittsburgh Post-Gazette beat writer Gerry Dulac, who covers the team on a daily basis, the deal will keep Tuitt in Pittsburgh through the 2022 season:

“FYI to those asking: Tuitt’s new deal is 6 years–this year and five more to follow. That’s six. Total for six years is $61.05 million,” Dulac Tweeted Saturday afternoon, shortly after Tuitt’s new deal was announced.

Shortly after Stephon Tuitt fell to the Steelers in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Steel Curtain Rising praised the move, but openly mused about whether Tuitt would end the run of bad luck the Steelers had suffered with 2nd round defensive linemen AND players drafted from Notre Dame.

  • But as Stephon Tuitt proved, past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future performance.
Stephon Tuitt, Josh McCown, Stephon Tuitt contract, Steelers resign Stephon Tuitt

Stephon Tuitt obliterates Josh McCown in the Steelers November 2016 win over the Browns in Cleveland. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

In fact, Tuitt began proving that almost as soon as he arrived in Pittsburgh. Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell rarely plays let alone does he start rookies not named Casey Hampton. And he stuck to that script early as fans alternatively cheered and jeered as Brett Keisel and Cam Thomas played while Stephon Tuitt watched from the bench.

Then came the faithful, final game of the “Four Warhorses,” the Steelers November 2014 loss to the New Orleans Saints that saw James Harrison, Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel and Troy Polamalu‘s final appearance on the same field together.

Brett Keisel would of course fall injured in that game, ending his career and opening the door for Stephon Tuitt.

Stephon Tuitt, from Rare Rookie Starter to Steelers Defensive Stalwart

Since ascending to the top of the depth chart in his rookie year, Tuitt, 24, has started 32 games. Overall, for his three-year career, Tuitt has recorded 80 tackles and 11.5 sacks.

Along with veteran and team captain Cam Heyward, who is signed through the 2020 season, and second-year nose tackle Javon Hargrave, the Steelers boast one of the best front-three in the NFL.

While he has yet to break through and achieve superstar status, his lucrative, new deal is an endorsement from his team that the best is yet to come for Stephon Tuitt.

 

 

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Celebrate Good Times Come On! Antonio Brown’s Touchdown Celebrations Can Continue

Looks like you won’t have Steelers receiver Antonio Brown to kick around any longer–or at least his 15-yard penalty-inducing post-touchdown celebrations.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell published an open letter to fans on Tuesday which detailed, among other things, the league’s relaxation on the–at least in my opinion–rather absurd stance on post-touchdown celebrations.

Aside from his post-playoff victory Facebook Live feeds and his complaints about not getting enough passes thrown his way, if there’s one thing that has irked the fans about Antonio Brown in recent years, it’s his penchant for enjoying his touchdowns just a little too much. 

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Antonio Brown celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Redskins. Photo credit: CBS Sports

Why was this a thing? Because most of Antonio Brown’s touchdown celebrations, such as twerking and making love to the goalposts, drew 15-yard penalties in 2016. And this led to Chris Boswell kicking off from his own 20, which often led to….nothing really.

  • But it could have cost his team some valuable field-position, and this is what always bothered the fans so much.

Or did it?

“We know you love the spontaneous displays of emotion that come after a spectacular touchdown,” said Goodell in his open letter. “And players have told us they want more freedom to be able to express themselves and celebrate their athletic achievements.”

  • In other words, no more No Fun League!……sort of.

Among the celebrations that will now be free of penalty are using the football as a prop, group demonstrations and going to the ground to celebrate.

Why were any of those things ever subject to penalty in the first place?

It’s hard to say. But there are Cardinals fans to this day that insist former Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes should have been penalized in the waning seconds of Super Bowl XLIII for using the football to do his LeBron Jameschalk toss” post-touchdown celebration after making one of the greatest catches in NFL history (thanks to a perfectly placed pass from Ben Roethlisberger).

That’s right, there are fans out there who wanted to potentially alter a championship thanks to a benign celebration by the guy who caught the game-winner.

  • But going strictly by the book, Super Bowl XLIII could have gone down differently, had the officials on hand called things to the letter of the law.

Thank goodness they didn’t.

However, there was a time, way back in Week 16 of the 2012 season, when an excessive celebration may have cost Pittsburgh a spot in the postseason.

  • As I said, going to the ground to celebrate will now be permitted in 2017. Unfortunately for Brett Keisel and the Steelers of five seasons ago, it wasn’t.

In the early moments of Pittsburgh’s crucial tilt with the Bengals at Heinz Field on December 23, 2012 (the Steelers had to win in-order to keep their playoff hopes alive), Brett Keisel recorded a sack on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and proceeded to do his signature bow-and-arrow post-sack celebration.

Sadly, since Brett Keisel went to one knee in-order to perform his celebration, the defense was hit with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty, and, instead of punting, Cincinnati was awarded a first down.

In a game that was ultimately decided by three points (the Bengals went ahead, 23-20, on a last-second field goal), this penalty on Brett Keisel could have been more costly than anyone is willing to admit.

  • All because The Beard was just trying to enjoy a special moment.

Anyway, back to the “sort of” part I alluded to earlier.

  • While the league has loosened its stance on excessive celebrations, ones that are sexually sugestive, such as twerking, will still be subject to penalty.

Why? Beats me, but given that twerking was one of Antonio Brown’s signature celebrations in 2016, the diva-live receiver may not yet be out of the woods.

But at least the NFL is making progress.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line: Low-Moderate

Getting “Younger and stronger” on defensive line was one of Mike Tomlin’s stated objectives when the Steelers 2008 off season began. As it was, the Steelers would continue to open with the same starting threesome for the next 3 seasons, and it wasn’t until the beginning of the 2015 season that Steelers defensive line had been completely renewed.

The question heading into the 2017 NFL Draft is whether the Steelers want to stand pat or continue that renewal process.

Stephon Tuitt, Tyrod Taylor, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Defensive line

Tyrod Taylor is road kill in Stephon Tuitt’s wake. Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via Bleacher Report

Steelers Depth Chart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starters

Two studs in the form of defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt bookend the Steelers defensive line.

During his first two years with the Steelers Cam Heyward doubters were easy to find, but in 2013 he beat out Ziggy Hood for the starting job and since then has established himself as one of the best defensive ends in the league. Cameron Heyward has 25 sacks, 18 passes defensed and a pair of forced fumbles and fumble recoveries to his name, but staistics do not do the man justice.

Week in and week out, Cameron Heyward makes the types of plays that don’t always show up on the stat sheet – unless you count the Steelers keeping more points on the board than their opponents.

Injuries to Brett Keisel thrust Stephon Tuitt into the starting line up late in the 2014 season, and no one has looked back since. With Cameron Heyward out for the second half of 2016, Stephon Tuitt stepped up as a leader of the unit, and despite Cam’s absence, the Steelers defense improved during the latter part of the season.

If you’re surprised to discover that Javon Hargrave didn’t start the entire year, so was I. He had to wait until week to get his first start, but held on to the job from that point in the season, and established himself along side Artie Burns and Sean Davis as one of the three rookies who made an immediate impact to improve the Steelers defense.

Like his fellow rookies, something clicked for Hargrave during the second half of the season, as Hargrave got his first sack and first fumble recovery in the Steelers road win over the Cleveland Browns. Hargrave got another sack in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts, and also got to Tom Brady early in the AFC Championship game loss.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Finding depth on the Steelers defensive line has been a challenge for Pittsburgh, forcing Johnny Mitchell give his starters more snaps than he would like.

  • In 2016 the Steelers defensive line took a step in the right direction, as L.T. Walton stepped up in Cam Heyward’s absence as did Ricardo Mathews.

The Steelers have taken another step in that direction by signing free agent Tyson Alualu, a former first round pick out of Jacksonville who can play either at defensive end or a nose tackle.

Tyson Alualu’s arrival might spell the end for backup nose tackle Daniel McCullers. The Shady Tree offers and imposing physical presence, standing at 6’7” 352 pounds and his snap count percentage did jump from 9.5% in 2015 to 17.4% in 2016, which is good, but given all of the injuries the Steelers suffered on the defensive line, you’d expect to see McCullers getting even more playing time.

Injuries forced practice squad player John Maxey into the action in late in 2016 and Maxley did his part to help prove Mike Tomlin’s “The Standard is the Standard.”

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Defensive Line

The Steelers quest to rebuild their defensive line took longer than expected, although part of that is due to the longevity of Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton (although whiffing on Ziggy Hood didn’t help the cause.)Steelers 2017 Draft Needs defensive line

  • Yet, even after the Steelers found three competent starters on defensive line, they struggled to back them up.

Time was that when the Steelers had to play without either Cameron Heyward or Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers run defense became a sieve and the team lost. That fact seemed to doom the Steelers chances after Cameron Heyward went on injured reserve in 2016.

However, the rest of the defensive line responded and not only survived but thrived despite Cam Heyward’s absence. That shows that the Pittsburgh Steelers have real depth on their defensive line, and the unit got deeper with the addition of Alualu Tyson.

Let’s be clear, in the contemporary NFL, the difference between an outside linebacker and a defensive end is getting blurred by the concept of “Edge Rusher” and that’s not even taking to account that the Steelers depend on their nickel package, which includes four down lineman, all the more frequently.

  • Edge Rusher” is clearly a Steelers priority, and if they find someone who falls into that category who happens to play defensive line, then the rating you’re about to read is rendered moot.

However, if we’re confining our conversation to conventional 3-4 defensive lineman then the Steelers depth chart is as solid as it has been during the Mike Tomlin era, and Steelers draft need at defensive line can be considered Low-Moderate.

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Steelers Sign Tyson Alualu. Has Johnny Mitchell Found the Coveted “4th Lineman” for His Rotation?

After remaining relatively inactive during the first wave of free agency, Pittsburgh as been busy this week signing three players into days with the franchise’s latest acquisition seeing the Steelers sign Tyson Alualu the free agent defensive lineman from Jacksonville to a two year contract.

  • During the 2010 NFL Draft the Jacksonville Jaguars surprised the rest of the league when they drafted Tyson Alualu with the 10th overall pick.

Since then Tyson Alualu has had a solid, but hardly spectacular career, although it should be noted that he did make several “All Rookie teams” in 2010, per reporting by Jim Wexell on Steel City Insider.

Tyson Alualu, Steelers 2017 free agents, Steelers defensive line

Steelers reserve defensive lineman Tyson Alualu in Pittsburgh after arriving as a free agent. Photo Credit: Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette

With seven seasons under his belt, Tyson Alualu provides a perfect example of a player who may not have lived up to his lofty draft status, but is very far from being a bust. He’s never missed a game due to injury, he brings the Steelers 88 games of starting experience, 17.5 sacks, and offers position flexibility with the ability to play either nose tackle or defensive end.

All of this must make for pure music in the ears of Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell

Does Johnny Mitchell Finally Have his Coveted 4th Lineman?

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell has been with the team since the fall of 1994, having replace Steve Furness as part of Bill Cowher‘s coaching purge following the 1993 season. During Johnny Mitchell’s watch and, particularly during the Kevin Colbert era, the Steelers defensive line has been a model of stability.

While each of those starters played a critical role in securing Lombardi Trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII, their impact and importance of their understudies cannot be under stated. Johnny Mitchell’s system relies heavily on rotating defensive lineman in and out throughout the game.

  • But for Mitchell’s system to be effective, the Steelers can’t suffer a drop of in quality of play when the starter has taken a breather.

For a long time, players like Chris Hoke, Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason were good enough to allow Mitchell rotate Keisel, Smith and Hampton in out as needed. In his two years in Pittsburgh, Al Woods looked he was growing into that same role but the Steelers stint in salary cap purgatory in prevented the team from keeping Al Woods in Pittsburgh in 2014.

They signed Cam Thomas instead, who was decidedly not up to the role. Daniel McCullers whom the Steelers drafted during the 2014 NFL Draft has flashed, but has yet to show he can take that role. Ricardo Mathews performed well after Cam Hewyard was lost for the season and so did L.T. Walton.

  • But the Steelers appear to have found an upgrade from both men in Tyson Alualu.

During the heyday of Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel’s tenures, Johnny Mitchell quipped – not altogether jokingly – the he would retire when this trio began their “Life’s Work.” The arrival of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and most recently Javon Hargrave has provided Mitchell with another fearsome threesome.

Tyson Alualu just might provide the type of talent and stability that Mitchell needs to get his rotation humming.

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

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Why Steelers Should Let Free Agent Ricardo Mathews Walk & Seek Depth in 2017 Draft

Defensive end Ricardo Mathews was the quintessential journeyman free-agent when the Steelers signed him to a one-year veteran minimum contract for $760,000 last March.

One year later, it appears as nothing’s changed. Just days away from free-agency, Mathews will soon be free to shop his services to other teams. Will he do so, or will he set up some roots in Pittsburgh, provided Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Johnny Mitchell want him back….?

Ricardo Mathews, Ricardo Mathews free agent

Ricardo Mathews lines up in the 2016 Steelers road win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of Ricardo Mathews Steelers Career

Mathews was a seventh round pick by the Colts in the 2010 NFL Draft; after making the team out of training camp, he initially set up roots in Indianapolis, where he remained for four years. Mathews started six games as a member of the Colts, recording five sacks and 67 tackles.

In 2014, Mathews elected to sign with the Texans as a free-agent, but was waived and never appeared in any regular season games for Houston. However, Mathews found a home with the Chargers that same year and remained in San Diego through the 2015 season, before signing that aforementioned one-year deal with the Steelers.

The Steelers brought Ricardo Mathews to Pittsburgh to replace/upgrade the position previously held by Cam Thomas, who’d also come from the San Diego Chargers.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mathews 

Teams covet depth for a reason, and when star defensive end Cameron Heyward played in only seven games in 2016 due to multiple injuries, you saw why depth is so important.

In Ricardo Mathews, 29, the Steelers had a veteran player who started seven games for the Chargers the year before; they were forced to lean on that experience, as he started five games a year ago. While he only recorded eight tackles and one sack during the season, Mathews appeared in all 16 games in 2016 and played a bigger role than anyone could have anticipated.

During the Steelers embarrassing October loss against the Miami Dolphins where, Jay Ajayi ran like Walter Peyton in his prime, it appeared that the Dolphins had been targeting Ricardo Mathews.

Yet, the Steelers run defense improved during the final nine games of 2016 and that only happens if Ricardo Mathews is pulling his weight.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ricardo Mathews 

While Ricardo Mathews did play a fairly big role in 2016, he obviously didn’t make the splash plays that fellow defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt, rookie Javon Hargrave and Came Heyward are capable of. That was to be expected, of course. After all, if a journeyman defensive lineman was capable of making the same types of splash plays as superstars and promising rookies, he wouldn’t be a journeyman defensive lineman.

I believe Rotoworld summed up Mathews’ pedigree quite nicely, even before his arrival in Pittsburgh:

“A career reserve, Mathews played 525 ineffective snaps for the Chargers last season. He’s just a body for the Steelers, one who faces an uphill climb to crack the 53-man roster.”

A year later, can anyone suggest that Ricardo Mathews is anything more? Sure, he was an upgrade over Cam Thomas but so what? Keith Willis or Kevin Henry could probably come out of retirement and offer an improvement over Cam Thomas.

  • OK, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but its probably not to suggest that a health Brett Keisel could pull himself up off the couch to contribute more than Cam Thomas did.

L.T. Walton and Johnny Maxey showed they can play giving the Steelers cheaper and younger alternatives to Ricardo Mathews.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ricardo Mathews 

While Mathews did crack the 53-man roster a year ago and proved to be more than just a body for the Steelers, fact is, he’ll be 30 by the start of training camp. And in-addition to fighting the likes of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave for playing time, youngsters Daniel McCullers, L.T. Walton and Johnny Maxey are also in the mix.

While it would be nice to have a player with Ricardo Mathews’ experience on the roster in-case of injury, L.T. Walton and Daniel McCullers have now gained enough experience that they should be ready to step in and provide reasonable depth at a moment’s notice.

The Steelers would be wise to let Ricardo Mathews explore the free agent market, while looking to add defensive line depth through the draft.

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

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6 Changes in Pittsburgh Since the Steelers Last Win vs Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Keith Butler Replaces Dick LeBeau at Defensive Coordinator

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

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

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

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

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

Advantage: Steelers

2. Steelers Scrap Their Secondary and Start Over

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

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

The Steelers secondary has changed a lot since 2014…

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

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

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

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

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

Advantage: Steelers

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

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

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

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

Advantage: Steelers, unless Bell gets hurt….

4. A Carousel of Receivers has Started Opposite Antonioy Brown

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

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

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

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

Advantage: Ravens

5. Heath Miller Has Hung It Up

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

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

Advantage: Ravens

6. Steve McLendon and Brett Keisel Have Moved On

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

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

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

Advantage: Ravens

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

What does that mean?

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

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Why Mike Tomlin’s Record vs Giants Is a Poor Indicator of Steelers in Season Progress

As I look back at Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Giants as the Steelers prepare to play the New York Giants this week, I’m struck by both the similarities and ironies marked by the Tomlin era Steelers-Giants match ups. For starters:

  • In both 2008 and 2012 the Giants were defending Super Bowl champions
  • Both games were decided by 4th quarter comebacks

Dig deeper, and you’ll see that both the 2012 game and this year’s game reveal a lot about Pittsburgh’s post Super Bowl XLV roster retooling efforts. Moreover, the Steelers current .545 winning percentage is nearly identical to the .571 winning percentage the ’12 Steelers took into the Giants game.

However for all of these similarities, both the ’08 and ’12 games served as ironically poor indicators of how those two Steelers teams would be ultimately judged.

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Isaac Redman had a career game vs. the Giants in 2012, rushing for almost 150 yards. Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky, Getty Images.

’08 Steelers Stumbles vs. Giants Ultimately Signaled Nothing….

Mike Tomlin’s 2008 Steelers welcomed the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants to Heinz Field with a 5-1 record. Despite that record, this game was widely viewed as a “statement” game for the Steelers, given the lackluster track record of the opponents they’d beaten thus far.

Here was what we had to say about the game at the time:

No one should be fooled by the score as 21-14 does not begin to reveal the poor showing the Steelers made for themselves. The Steelers lost their first game against “PrimeTime” competition, and their performance revealed some troublesome issues which Mike Tomlin and company must address if the Steelers truly want to become contenders.

After describing the Steelers “bend but don’t break” defense of the day, the assessment of the offense came down to this:

Aside from Mewelde Moore’s 32 yard run, and Ben Roethlisberger‘s long bomb to Nate Washington, the Steelers offense produced nothing all day. They could not protect their quarterback, receivers could not get open or hold on to the ball, they could not convert third downs, and they could not sustain drives.

This game came well before Steel Curtain Rising had reached its its Arians Agnostic philosophy and the article harshly critiqued Bruce Arians reluctance to establish the run before concluding:

The Steelers are seven games into their season and they’re having difficulty sustaining drives and they cannot protect their quarterback. The Giants game revealed none of these warts, as each was on display in previous games. But the Steelers were able to compensate for them up until now. In fact, they compensated so well that one wondered if they were aberrations.

The Giants game revealed that the against a legitimate contender the Steelers would not be able simply make up for a several sloppy drives with a heroic comeback.

In the afterglow of Super Bowl XLIII, it Steelers fans can easily forget that the 2008 Steelers spent a lot of time stumbling and bumbling around yet, when the game was on the line, they pulled it together for the win more often that not. The Steelers 2008 loss to the Giants, complete with James Harrison’s errant snap as emergency long snapper, was one exception to that rule.

’12 Steelers Upset New York Giants on the Road

Unlike 2008, fans remember 2012 as the year the Steelers slipped into mediocrity. But that slip was anything but apparent after the 2012 Steeles win over the Giants.

Indeed, the early word on the significance of the 2012 win over the Giants flowed like this:

The Giants appeared to offer the perfect measuring stick, and the game in New York gave the team a chance to measure themselves against the defending Super Bowl Champions, as well as providing a different sort of test for the Steelers – one where they proved to be more than worthy to the task.

The Steelers started out the day strong, scoring a touchdown on their opening drive only to give up two touchdowns thanks to two very questionable calls that went in favor of the Giants. The Steelers defense held the Giants to field goals after that, as Shaun Suisham knocked in one of his own.

Still, the Steelers began the 4th quarter staring down a 10 point deficit against the defending Super Bowl Champions. Here is how we described the Steelers 4th quarter comeback:

Since Ken Whisenhunt’s departure the debate over the proper Run-Pass balance that should define the Steelers offense has consumed Steelers Nation.Such debate misses the point. Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain observed last season, the Steelers need a dynamic offence, that can either run or pass when the situation warrants.

  • The Steelers fourth quarter performance reveals a dynamic offense par excellence.
  • Ben Roethlisberger first connected with Mike Wallace for a catch-and-run quick strike.
  • Pittsburgh then mixed passes and runs to four different ball carriers, with Isaac Redman punching it in from the one

Finally, the Steelers iced the game on a clock killing drive that featured a 16 yard completion on third down and 28 yard scamper by Redman…. Versus the Giants the Steelers had multiple opportunities to flinch. But they chose to focus instead, and in the process the played their best regular season game in over a year. Not a bad place to be at the season’s half way mark.

Such high praise might seem misplaced give the 2012 Steelers 8-8 record and their dismal 3-5 finish which saw them lose multiple games in the 4th quarter. But the Steelers defense had struggled in early 2012, but the win over the Giants served as a turning point for that unit.

Dick LeBeau’s 2012 defense never did recover the splash play potential of its predecessors, but by the end of 2012, the Steelers defense was a strength. The fact that the Steelers gave up 8 turnovers to the Browns  a few weeks later and only lost by 4 points tells you all you need to know.

In contrast, Ben Roethlisberger got injured the next week vs. Kansas City, and wasn’t himself when he returned. The Steelers also lost Willie Colon shortly thereafter, and their run blocking fell apart because of it.

Those injuries, plus the performance against the Giants gives fans legitimate grounds to ask, “What If.”

Mike Tomlin’s Games vs. Giants Highlight Steelers Roster Retooling

The Steelers 2008, 2012 and 2016 matchups against the Giants provide excellent insights into Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s retooling of the Steelers roster. On offense Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Max Starks and Willie Colon served as constants between 2008 and 2012. Rashard Mendenhall was an additional roster holdover too, but he was already on IR for when the Steelers lost to the Giants in 2008.

  • Outside of those 5, the Steelers entire offense had turned over in just four years.

Yet if the Steelers rebuilding on offense was underway in 2012, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin had hardly touched the defense. Sure, Ziggy Hood had “replaced” Aaron Smith and Cam Heyward was waiting in wings. William Gay was on his sabbatical to Pittsburgh West, while Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen split the cornerback duties with Will Allen playing for an injured Troy Polamalu.

Fast forward to 2016. On offense only Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro (who was on IR in 2012) remain. On defense the difference is even more dramatic as only James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, Cameron Heyward and Robert Golden remain.

What Does the Steelers Intra-Giants Roster Upheaval Mean?

The tar and pitchfork portion of Pittsburgh’s fan base will no doubt look at the turnover between 2012 and 2016 and point to it as proof of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s personnel deficiencies. Too be sure, there is some room for criticism.

  • But by and large, the shifts highlight’s as many successes to Colbert and Tomlin rebuilding philosophies as it does disappointments.

After 2009, the Steelers stopped playing “plug and patch” with their offensive line and focused on drafting quality lineman, and the holdovers from 2012 show that they’ve been successful. (And remember, the Steelers wanted to keep Kelvin Beachum who they’d drafted in 2012.)

2012’s running back trio has all moved on to their life’s work, with injuries derailing Isaac Redman’s career and also hitting Rashard Mendenhall who didn’t have the desire, and Jonathan Dwyer who lacked discipline. Beyond those specific factors, the average career of an NFL running back is less than 4 years, so turnover there is normal.

As for the wide receivers, the Steelers bet on Antonio Brown over Mike Wallace before 2012, and never looked back. Since free agency arrived in 1993, the Steelers policy has been to invest heavily second contracts for only one veteran wide out, so the departure of the rest of Young Money hardly surprises.

  • To the extent that the defensive rebuild had begun in 2012, Cameron Heyward is the only true success.

The Steelers made a similar Cortez Allen instead of Keenan Lewis gamble (fueled in part by salary cap limits) and they franchise rolled Snake Eyes on that one. Ziggy Hood couldn’t replace Keisel or Smith.

  • The rest of the defensive rebuild has come since then.

In theory, this Sunday’s matchup against should provide a good measuring stick of Keith Butler‘s young defense’s progress. But history shows that Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Giants has told us very little about the overall direction of the Steelers….

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Bruce Arians Revenge? Past Steelers Practice Squad Raids Complicate Quest for Cameron Hewyard’s Replacement

Sometimes success simply comes down to timing. Nine games in to the 2016 season, that’s a reality that leaves Bruce Arians smiling and the Steelers struggling to find Cameron Heyward’s replacement….

…The summer of 2014 saw the Steelers take a bumper crop of young defensive lineman bristling with potential to training camp. Their promise was so strong that it took a contract offer from Bruce Arians and a Brett Keisel plane ride towards Pittsburgh West to motivate Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin to bring him back.

Everyone remembers the week 7 Steelers victory over the Houston Texas as Martavis Bryant’s breakout game, but it was Brett Keisel’s stunning 16 yard pass deflection and interception that gave Pittsburgh a two score lead. Yes, the Beard was back in a big way, but alas, timing holds the key to this story.

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Today, Bruce Arians’ poaching Josh Mauro of Pittsburgh’s practice squad in 2014 stings with the loss of Cameron Heyward. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports

Three weeks later on November 13th, few noticed when the Bruce Arians and Arizona Cardinals poached defensive end Josh Mauro off the Steelers practice squad. On the next Monday night, Brett Keisel defensed two passes and made critical stops to help the defense close out the win against the Tennessee Titans. Later that week, the Steelers practice squad got raided again, this time by Kansas City Chiefs who signed nose tackle Nicholas Williams.

  • This second practice squad raid in as many weeks aroused more interest, but few worried, because of how well Brett Keisel was playing.

Unfortunately, Brett Keisel’s tore his triceps in his very next, and ultimately last game against the Saints. Instead of promoting young defensive lineman they’d been grooming, Pittsburgh had to turn to Clifton Geathers….

…IF only Bruce Arians had held off two more weeks.

Ghosts of Steelers Practice Squad Poaching Return to Haunt

But Bruce Arians didn’t, and he made a smart move in signing Josh Mauro, who started two of five games in as a swing lineman Arizona in 2014, started four games in 2015, and 7 in 2016. In that time he’s registered a sack, defensed 3 passes, and forced two fumbles.

Not a bad resume.

To be fair, Ricardo Mathew’s performance in San Diego during the same time span was perhaps a little better, but Mauro is younger and on the rise, while Mathews is pushing 30 and is a career backup. For his part, Nicholas Williams has played less frequently in Kansas City, and his numbers look less impressive, but he’s still holding down a job in the NFL for a contender.

  • Either way, neither man can offer help to the Steelers when they need it.

Even with Cam Heyward at full heath, the Steelers defense was teetering on the edge of an abyss. Now, with Heyward out for the rest of 2016, the only question is how deep a decline will the Steelers defense suffer?

In addition to Mathews, the Steelers have L.T. Walton and can promote either Johnny Maxey and Caushaud Lyons. Those may not turn out to be bad options, but it appears ghosts of Steelers practice squad poaching have returned to haunt them….

…Although he certainly didn’t plan it that way, Bruce Arians may finally gotten his revenge on Art Rooney II.

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Steelers Sign Javon Hargrave – Is Hargrave a Cameron Heyward or a Stephon Tuitt?

The “Official” wind down of Pittsburgh’s OTA’s saw the Steelers sign Javon Hargrave, the 3rd round defensive lineman out of FCS South Carolina State where he twice won the SBN Sports Mel Blount Defensive Player of the Year.

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Steelers 3rd round pick Javon Hargrave; Photo credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Extended rookie hold outs have been rare for over a decade and rookie contracts have become so pro-forma since the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement that some players opt not to use an agent – far cry from 1990 when Neil O’Donnell, the Steelers 3rd round pick held out deep into August.

No, there was never any question Javon Hargrave was going to arrive at St. Vincent’s Latrobe signed and suited up for action with the rest of the Steelers 2016 draft class. The biggest question surrounding Javon Hargrave’s rookie year with the Steelers comes down to this:

That might seem like an odd question, given that the Steelers drafted Hargrave to play nose tackle while providing rotational relief at both defensive end positions but the analogy is very apt. Why? Well, comes times an infographic is worth 1,360 words:

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Steelers rookies not named Casey Hampton rarely start for Johnny Mitchell

When that inforgraphic first appeared in 2014, no Steelers rookie not names Casey Hampton had started on Johnny Mitchell’s defensive lines. OK, at the beginning of Mitchell’s tenure Brensten Buckner and later Orpheus Roye made a few starts. But since then, all rookies, including Aaron Smith, Ziggy Hood and even Cameron Heyward never got a starting nod. I wrote a lengthy piece on this for BTSC’s 2014 Renegade, which you can read at length here.

But history has changed since then.

  • Or perhaps more precisely, Stephon Tuitt has changed history since then.

Stephon Tuitt started four games as a rookie in 2014, and in doing so he registered a sack and forced a key fumble. Tuitt in fact started the final four games of 2014, which also happened to feature the best four defensive performances of the Steelers that season.

But it’s also true that the Steelers never for a second considered started Cam Thomas over Tuitt when Keisel went down. And that represented a 180 degree shift in the thinking of Mike Tomlin, Dick LeBeau and Johnny Mitchell, who watched Cam Thomas struggle when he rotated in for Heyward or Keisel early in the year, but nonetheless kept Tuitt on the bench.

If all goes according to plan (meaning there are no injuries), Heyward, Tuitt and veteran Dan McCullers will start all season long for the Steelers. But it would be nice if Hargrave showed enough for the coaches to turn to him instead of Ricardo Mathews should one of the big three fall.

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