The Wild Ride of William Gay’s Steelers Career Comes to an End. Thank You Big Play Willie Gay!

In a long anticipated move, the Steelers cut William Gay the veteran cornerback who has served as a pillar of stability in Pittsburgh’s secondary for the last decade. In doing so they severed ties with the final draft pick from the 2007 NFL Draft, the Steelers first draft with Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at the helm.

Defensive back is a young man’s game, and William Gay will be 4 months shy of his 34th birthday on the Steelers opening day in 2018. He also carries a $1,750,000 salary that the Steeler figure to use more constructively elsewhere.

Judging by his Instagram post, he isn’t ready to being “Life’s Work” but with his time in Pittsburgh over, we now look back at the wild ride that was William Gay’s Steelers career and take a moment to say “Thank you Big Play Willie Gay.”

William Gay, William Gay Pick Six, William Gay interception, Big play Willie Gay, Steelers vs Falcons

William Gay’s 52 yard pick six vs Falcons in 2014. Photo Credit:

2007-’08 – William Gay Goes from “Trying to Survive” to Starter

With Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden topping the depth chart, cornerback didn’t figure to be a priority for Pittsburgh in the 2007 NFL Draft. After going (almost) all-in on defense by drafting Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan McBean with their first, second and fourth picks the Steelers went back to defense in the 5th round, drafting William Gay out of Louisville.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell pointed out, when questioned about an impressive preseason outing Mike Tomlin responded “William Gay’s just trying to survive!” William Gay not only survived but contributed in his rookie year, but his efforts were confined to special teams and spot duty in the secondary.

  • But it was in in 2008 William Gay began to turn heads.

Due to injuries, Gay made 4 starts at cornerback and effectively alternated with Bryant McFadden at other times. The Steelers 2008 defense was a special unit, and Gay’s played a small, yet important role in their success that culminated in Super Bowl XLIII.

William Gay played so well in 20018 that made Bryant McFadden expendable as he departed for Pittsburgh West aka Arizona.

2009 – William Gay Not Ready for Prime Time

Unfortunately, William Gay wasn’t quite ready for Prime Time.

  • 2009 proved to be a rough year not only for Gay, but for the entire Steelers secondary.

Troy Polamalu got injured in the season opener, and the Future Hall of Famer only played 4 more games that season. The rest of the Steelers defensive backfield struggled in his absence. By late November Steelers 2009 secondary was shell-shocked, and William Gay was in far enough in over his head that Mike Tomlin rotated Joe Burnett with him in the Steelers infamous ’09 loss to Cleveland.

William Gay seemed destined to become a footnote in Steelers secondary history.

2010- ’11 – Moving to the Slot Rejuvenates William Gay’s Steelers Career

Bryant McFadden’s return to Pittsburgh seemed to spell doom for Gay as it forced him into the role of slot corner. Instead the move probably rejuvenated his career. During the 2010 season, Gay led the Steelers in passes defensed and also recorded two sacks.

Going into 2011 Bryant McFadden remained the starter nod, but injuries led to Gay starting most of the season, where he defensed another 13 passes, and recorded two interceptions, including a game-clincher against Cincinnati in November.

However, with Cortez Allen on the rise (or so we thought) and Keenan Lewis showing signs of development, the Steelers opted to let Gay sign with Pittsburgh West and, once again, William Gay’s Steelers career seemed to have come to and end.

2013-’17 – “Big Play Willie Gay” Shines in His Second Steelers Act

…And like Bryant McFadden before him, William Gay’s stay with the Cardinals would only last one season. The Cardinals cut him, and the Steelers wasted little time in resigning him. Second acts with the Steelers have become a stable of the Colbert-Tomlin era, as Larry Foote, Antwaan Randle El, Byron Leftwich, Will Allen and Matt Spaeth all departed Pittsburgh as free agents only to return.

  • But Big Play Willie Gay probably had the brightest second act of any Steeler.

When the Steelers resigned William Gay in March of 2013, it was rightly interpreted as a Moneyball type move made in an effort to sort of secure a compensation prize for franchise too salary cap strapped to resign Keenan Lewis.

That may have been the case, but it was Moneyball at its best. The Steelers brought William Gay into man the slot, but Ike Taylor’s decline and Cortez Allen’s implosion led to Gay starting 52 games between 2013 and 2017.

A dispassionate analysis of William Gay’s contributions during this time would likely credit him with providing stability to a secondary staffed by plugins and accidental starters (see Antwon Blake and Brice McCain). But it was his penchant for explosive plays that earned him the love of Steelers Nation:

William Gay also had another interception returned for a touchdown negated by a penality in the Steelers 2016 win over the Bills. While he didn’t add any more pick sixes, Gay did intercept a pass against the Colts on Thanksgiving and again in 2017 in the Steelers home win against the Bengals.

As it happens to all great athletes, Father Time began gaining in the footrace with William Gay in 2016, as Artie Burns displaced him as the starter by the middle of the season, and rookie Mike Hilton took over the slot role in 2017.

There’d been talk of moving Gay to safety, and while Gay did play in a little bit of a hybrid safety-linebacker in 2017, the role never really emerged.

William Gay’s Place Among Steelers Corners + Thank You

When history ranks great Pittsburgh Steelers cornerbacks Hall of Famers Mel Blount, Rod Woodson and Jack Butler will come first followed by Ike Taylor and then probably Dwayne Woodruff. That gives Steelers Nation an undisputed top 5.

  • Should the work William Gay put on tape for the Steelers earn him a spot some where in the top 10?

Steel Curtain Rising will leave that for others to debate and decide. But there’s no disputing the fact that from 2013 until 2017 William Gay was most consistent contributor to the Steelers secondary.

He was also class act in the lockeroom and pillar of the community, and someone Steelers Nation should be proud to have had as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Thank you on behalf Steelers Nation and Good luck and God Speed Big Play Willie Gay!

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Will Steelers Target Free Agent Justin Hunter for Return to Pittsburgh?

While big-dollar, high profile free agent signings dominate NFL free agency, lower paid free agents typically make up most of the moment. The Steelers have been particularly active in singing these lower-rung free agents either at or very close to the veteran minimum in recent years.

Others, such as Guy Whimper? Not so much. Then there are players like Justin Hunter, the wide receiver the Steelers inked one year ago who, although he didn’t do much in his first season in Pittsburgh, could return to the Steelers if the tea leaves are correct.

Justin Hunter, Justin Hunter touchdown, kevin Johnson, Steelers vs Texans

Justin Hunter lone 2017 touchdown catch. Photo Credit: Bob Levey, Getty Images via

Capsule Profile of Justin Hunter Steelers Career

With Antonio Brown resigned and Martavis Bryant headed back from suspension, wide receiver wasn’t perceived as a need for the Steelers heading into free agency a year ago.

Although Hunter made the Steelers roster, he only saw action in Steelers road win over the Ravens, the home loss to the Jaguars, the Lions and Packers wins, the home win against the Ravens, the Christmas win against the Texans and the season finale against the Browns.

Trough it all, Hunter got targeted 10 times, for four four catches, including one touchdown. In two games, neither Ben Roethlisberger nor Landry Jones targeted Hunter. He scored a touchdown against Houston, and his longest pass reception of the season was for 7 yards.

The Case For the Steelers Resigning Justin Hunter

That’s a pretty thin resume. Word is that Ben Roethlisberger likes Hunter and his 6’4” height. But Hunter has done little, even though Eli Rogers took most of the season to establish himself as the Steelers 4th wide receiver behind JuJu Smith-Schuster (Todd Haley chose to split Le’Veon Bell wide early and often, heck even Roosevelt Nix found himself splitting wide….)

Still, if Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell is correct, Justin Hunter improved during the course of the year and was catching incredibly well in practice by season’s end.

No one is going to throw  money at Justin Hunter, so the Steelers could easily bring him back in what would essentially be a no-risk high, reward move.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Justin Hunter

No only did Justin Hunter only have 4 catches in all of 2017, he couldn’t get any targets in the Steelers season-finale against Cleveland. Assuming Vance McDonald and Jesse James maintain their level of performance in the Steelers passing game in 2018, the 4 wide receiver slot in the Steelers offense isn’t critically important – assuming no one gets injured.

With that said, the Steelers surly can find another veteran wide receiver and/or rookie who can match Justin Hunter’s production and who offers more “Upside.”

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Justin Hunter

Practice makes perfect. You win championships by doing things ordinary things extraordinarily. Football games are won on Sunday through preparations made Wednesday through Friday. Each one of those statements is true.

  • Yet excellence on the practice field doesn’t always translate into excellence on Sunday afternoons.

Going into the Steelers 2015 playoff game against the Broncos, the Steelers PR staff did its best to puff Sammie Coates progress. And while Sammie Coates did play well in the playoff game, the rest of his Steelers resume is defined by the plays he didn’t make.

After the 2013 and 2015 seasons, respectively, Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell talked up the prospects of Justin Brown and Xavier Grimble based on what these two gentleman had shown in their practice squad apprenticeships.

Brown made the team in and got playing time early in the year, but the Steelers cut Justin Brown in December. Xavier Grimble has solid, serviceable 3rd tight end for the Steelers.

At the end of the day, there’s no real risk in the Steelers resigning Justin Hunter to a veteran minimum contract, and if the press reports of his performance in practice are a guide, Pittsburgh will do just that.

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A Look at Greg Ducre (Who?), the Steelers Restricted Free Agent Corner You Never Heard Of

One of the downsides of the age of the internet and instant communication is that it can be hard for serious fans to be surprised to learn something about their favorite team. But those moments still happen, and one such came in the form of a Bob Labriola “Asked and Answered” column when he listed Greg Ducre as one of the Steelers restricted free agents.

  • My response to reading Greg Ducre’s name was to ask, “Who?”

Certainly, I’ve got plenty of company. But Greg Ducre’s still a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers and he’s set to become a restricted free agent, so let’s take a deeper look.

Greg Ducre, Sammie Coates

Greg Ducre breaks up a pass headed for Sammie Coates at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: AP via

Capsule Profile of Greg Ducre’s Steelers Career

The Pittsburgh Steelers signed cornerback Greg Ducre to a futures contract on January 30th 2017, and they placed him on the waived-injured list on August 23rd 2017.

After he cleared waivers, his rights reverted back to the Steelers. ESPN tells us that Greg Ducre made 2 tackles in the Steelers preseason game against the Faclons. also assures us that Greg Ducre made a key special teams punt coverage play in the preseason against Indianapolis.

So I guess that sort of makes him the Steelers Nation’s equivalent of an Archibald “Moon Light” Graham, doesn’t it? (Google the name plus Field of Dreams if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)

The Case for the Steelers Tendering Greg Ducre’s

There is none.

Given that even the lowest level restricted free agent tenders will likely be about 1.8 million dollars, there isn’t even a theoretical case to be made for the Steelers offering Greg Duce a restricted free agent tender.

Not even in Bizzaroworld could you make this case.

The Case Against the Steelers Tendering Greg Ducre

See above.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Greg Ducre

Whether it’s been drafting Shaquille Richardson in 2014, picking up DeMarcus Van Dyke and Antwon Blake off the waiver wire, or signing free agents like Brice McCain or attempting to retread Donald Washington as a cornerback, the Steelers have certainly taken a “No loose stone unturned” approach to trying to improve at corner.

But the Steelers could have relinquished their rights to Greg Ducre but instead chose to protect him (and pay him) during the 2017 season. On Steel City Insider, Jim Wexell mentioned his name when reviewing the Steelers roster and implied he might still be in Pittsburgh’s plans.

Greg Ducre does have 9 games of NFL experience from the 2014 and 2015 seasons which he spent with the San Diego Chargers and Washington Redskins, and even had an interception for Washington.

Clearly Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin think that the kid has something to offer the Steelers, so it’s possible that he’ll get an invitation to St. Vincents and have another shot this summer.

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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:

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.

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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.

james harrison sacks joe flacco, james harrison, joe flacco, steelers last win vs ravens

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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Steelers Release Cortez Allen

The experiment that was Cortez Allen as a starting cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers has officially come to an end.

As reported by various outlets–including the team’s official website–Allen, 27, was released on Friday after five seasons. According to, Allen, who was scheduled to make $4.4 million in 2016, was let go after refusing to take a pay-cut.

Cortez Allen was the team’s fourth round pick out of The Citadel in the 2011 NFL Draft, and after showing a lot of promise near the end of the 2012 season–including two interceptions and a fumble recovery–and emerging as a starter in 2013, the front-office decided to reward him with a five-year contract extension prior to the 2014 season.

After watching Keenan Lewis, a third round pick in 2009, develop into perhaps the team’s best cornerback in 2012 and then leave via free-agency that offseason, Pittsburgh didn’t want to make the same mistake with Allen. Unfortunately, injuries and ineffective play stymied Allen’s 2014 season, and by the time the Steelers were marching towards the playoffs and their first AFC North crown in four years,  he had been surpassed on the cornerback depth chart by journeymen Antwon Blake and Brice McCain and was pretty much a non-factor.

  • The 2015 season would not prove to be a resurgence for Allen, as injuries reduced his season to just one game.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin pointedly refused to give Allen a vote of confidence in his season-ending press conference following the loss to the Broncos in the divisional round. And after months to think things over, Tomlin again hinted that Allen’s time with the team had pretty much come to an end when he addressed the media in March while in Boca Raton, Florida, for the annual owners’ meetings.

With Allen’s release following the free-agent departures of Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin, at the very least the Steelers will have to address their cornerback depth in the 2016 NFL Draft, which kicks off on April 28.

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Antwon Blake Agrees to Deal with Titans

You can add cornerback Antwon Blake to the growing list of Steelers defensive free-agents who won’t be around in 2016.

  • As per their official team website, the Titans have reached an agreement on a one-year deal with Blake, who started 16 games in Pittsburgh a year ago.

Blake, an undrafted free-agent out of UTEP in 2012, played one year with the Jaguars, before winding up in Pittsburgh for the 2013 season. Blake was simply on the peripheral of things until about midway through the 2014 campaign, when he began to emerge as a key component in the Steelers’ struggling secondary.

  • Blake teamed up with Brice McCain to shore up the pass-defense, after it was apparent that Cortez Allen, he of the lucrative new offseason contract, simply wasn’t up to the task.

By the end of the 2014 season, Allen was benched, and Blake was a major contributor, recording six passes defensed and an interception. However, Blake’s biggest contribution came in Week 17, when he both forced and recovered a fumble of Bengals receiver A.J. Green late in the fourth quarter that preserved a 20-17 lead and paved the way for the Steelers’ first AFC North title in four seasons.

A season ago, Blake was entrusted as a starting corner, and despite recording 11 passes defensed, along with a 70-yard pick-six against the Chargers in Week 5, he was mostly the subject for fan scorn and ridicule, as Pittsburgh’s defense finished 30th against the pass.

Blake may not have been the answer in the secondary, but the question of who is still remains.

As of right now, the Steelers have veteran William Gay and youngster Ross Cockrell as corners, to go along with veteran Mike Mitchell and unproven youngster Robert Golden at the safety spots.

You have to assume that the experiment with Allen is all but over after five years and one contract extension. As for Shamarko Thomas, the safety Pittsburgh traded a third round pick to move up in the fourth round of  the 2013 NFL Draft to select, he impressed so little in 2015 (the year he was supposed to succeed the legendary Troy Polamalu), he barely got on the field.

Senquez Golson and Doran Grant, two members of the 2015 draft class, may provide some answers in the secondary. Also, veteran safety Will Allen is still unsigned, as is corner Brandon Boykin, who spent last season with the Steelers. If one or both of those players can be added back to the secondary mix for 2016, you may feel better about things.

  • As of right now, however, there are far too many unknowns in the Steelers’ defensive backfield to feel confident about an improved pass-defense for the 2016 season.

Along with Blake and Spence, the Steelers’ defense has also lost nose tackle Steve McLendon and linebacker Terrence Garvin to free-agency so far this offseason.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Steelers Free Agent Antwon Blake – Why Steelers Nation’s Favorite Whipping Boy Will Be Back

Football fans, at least  Pittsburgh Steelers fans, typically focus on free agency as a time when their favorite franchise allows talented players to walk out the back door while doing precious little to entice new ones to enter the front door. There’s a lot of history to back up that perception.

  • But there’s a flip side to free agency that fans too often forget.

Free agency gives the team a chance to cleanse the locker room of players who are too often below the line. Historically you can see this in the departures of players such as Aaron Jones in 1992 and Ziggy Hood after 2012, and most probably Cam Thomas in 2016.

In 2016, most of Steelers Nation wishes to see the same thing happen with Steelers free agent cornerback Antwon Blake, although the odds are against that happening an perhaps that’s a good thing….

Capsule Profile of Antwon Blake’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers main challenge when the broke training camp in 2013 wasn’t deciding which players to keep it was finding a way to stop the cutting, to paraphrase Chuck Noll’s old saying. The Steelers were deep in salary cap purgatory and depth at several position areas was critically thin.

Blake played almost exclusively on special teams during the 2013 season, yet when reporters questioned why the Steelers waited so long to take a defensive back in the 2014 NFL Draft, secondary coach Carnell Lake pointed to Antwon Blake without batting an eye.

  • Blake only started one game in 2014, but began to make his presence felt.

First Blake scored a 4th quarter interception of Andrew Luck in the Steelers shoot out vs. Indianapolis, then in the regular season finale, Antwon Blake forced and then recovered a fumble in to help the Steelers secure victory over Cincinnati and in the process bring home another AFC North crown.

Blake’s development was strong enough that the Steelers let Brice McCain bolt to Miami even with the full knowledge that a massive Cortez Allen reclamation project was in order. Most Steelers fans will forget, but Antwon Blake shined at times in Keith Butler’s defense during 2015 (video available as of 3/3/16):

While those contributions were real, Blake struggled at other times in 2015….

The Case Against Steelers Keeping Antwon Blake

Pro Football Focus may not publish the player ratings Gospel it pretends to, but it is one of the few organizations that attempts to quantify and track the contributions of defensive players. In that light, in this age of fantasy football, their contributions are welcome.

They also provide fodder Antwon Blake’s critics:

Those are dubious records indeed, even if they do include some exaggeration. The truth is that Blake struggled. Against the Ravens in late December, Blake missed an easy tackle that allowed Baltimore to convert a third down on a drive where they eventually kicked a field goal. It would be grossly unfair to pin that embarrassing late-season loss on Blake, but that play is indicative of the troubles he had.

Given the Steelers need to bolster their secondary, Antwon Blake appears to be part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The Case for Steelers Keeping Antwon Blake

In both seasons where he got snaps in the secondary, Antwon Blake made splash plays at critical times for the Steelers. While those plays don’t negate long gains, the ability to create turnovers should not be ignored.

  • While Antwon Blake is reaching free agency, he’s only been a viable player in the secondary for two seasons.

And that light, fans who cannot wait to run him out of town would do well to remember another cornerback who struggled mightily in his second season on the field and first season as a starter: William Gay.

OK, the analogy isn’t perfect, but William Gay’s first season as a starter in 2009 was arguably worse than Blake’s – and that’s before you credit Blake for the interceptions he made. Blake is still young, he still has room to grown and he knows the Steelers system.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Antwon Blake

The Steelers pass defense improved somewhat late in the season (Raven’s game not withstanding) and the fact that that improvement coincided with Brandon Boykin stepping in for Antwon Blake in the second halves of games does not seem to bode well for Blake.

But that everyone must take into account is the fact that Blake is perhaps the poster child for the 2015 Steelers accidental secondary.

  • Antwon Blake is not and probably won’t develop into a legitimate starting NFL cornerback.

And if Antwon Blake is starting for the Steelers for any prolonged period of time in 2016, that will most likely indicate that the Steelers drive to improve the secondary has failed. But that doesn’t mean that Blake cannot contribute valuable depth to the Steelers defensive backfield and that is where fans, like it or not, should expect him to do in 2016.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Steelers Free Agent Analysis Brandon Boykin – Cornerback Not Likely to Return to Pittsburgh

Of the 20 players the Pittsburgh Steelers have who will soon become unrestricted free agents, perhaps there is no greater mystery than that surrounding free agent cornerback Brandon Boykin. Steel Certain Rising’s Steelers free agent analysis takes a look at Boykin and tires to see if we can make sense from the noise…

Capsule Profile of Brandon Boykin’s Career with the Steelers

Brandon Boykin holds the distinction of being the first Steelers acquisition that learned about through my wife…. The Steelers of course traded for Brandon Boykin from the Philadelphia Eagles.

Neither player amounted to much, and perhaps that was a bad omen for the Boykin trade. When Boykin arrived, many expected him to push for a starting job. As it was, he found himself unable to get on the field in a year when the Steelers:

Instead, Boykin stood and watched as Antwon Blake struggled and Ross Cockrell got reps ahead of him. Boykin did start seeing regular reps with the Steelers defense following the loss to Seattle.

He got an interception vs. the Colts and ended up working a sort of “closer” for Antwon Blake, although Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell down played Boykin’s role in the Steelers comeback win over the Broncos in the regular season.

On the flip side, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell singled out Boykin’s mental error on Denver’s critical 3rd and 12 conversion during the Broncos go ahead score vs. the Steelers in the playoffs

The Case for Steelers Keeping Brandon Boykin

Brandon Boykin came to the Steelers with 48 games and 6 starts of experience, including one playoff start with the Eagles. The “knock” on him was that he fell out of favor with Chip Kelly, which is something you hear a lot… If there is one area on the Steelers depth chart that is screaming for help it is cornerback.

  • It says here that Brandon Boykin is not the answer for the Steelers at cornerback.

But they gave up a 5th round pick to get him, spent a year letting him learn the system, and they know what they have in him.

The Case Against Steelers Keeping Brandon Boykin

One of the prime reasons why the Steelers let Dick LeBeau go and promoted Keith Butler was to simplify the system so that new comers could learn it more easily. Boykin, by all accounts, struggled to learn the Steelers defense.

While Boyking did make contributions when he started to get reps late in the season, he whiffed on what was arguably the biggest play for the Steelers. That’s not to say it was all his fault, but the playoffs are (generally) a good crucible for seeing which direction a player will go (Ziggy Hood in the 2010 playoffs being an exception.)

The Steelers have looked into bringing Brice McCain back.

Who wouldn’t have preferred McCain in 2015 to Boykin?

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Brandon Boykin

As Jim Wexell has noted, as a free agent Brandon Boykin is going to draw interest from the rest of the NFL. The Steelers are likely interested to, but the fact is that the greatest probability scenario is some other team will make Boykin an offer that the Steelers are not interested in matching.

If that doesn’t happen, and the Steelers can bring Brandon Boykin back at a low value “prove it” contract, that would be a wise move. But that is not likely to happen.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Watch Tower: Deconstructing Bill Barnwell’s Steelers 2016 Off Season Analysis

With the Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 season over, Watch Tower focuses its light exclusively on deconstructing Bill Barnwell’s Steelers 2016 off season analysis.

Bill Barnwell’s Grudging Respect for Steelers

In the interests of transparency, this isn’t the first time the Watch Tower has dissected one of Barnwell’s columns. And in fairness to Mr. Barnwell, he was probably more right on the Steelers contracts for Troy Polamlau and Ike Taylor that we cared to admit back then.

  • Barnwell recently focused on the Steelers 2016 season on ESPN in a 2,645 word ambivalent analysis piece.

The feel of Barnwell’s breakdown of the Steelers comes down to two words: Grudging respect, as captured by the second and third sentences of his column:

This isn’t the most successful run of the storied franchise’s history, with the controversial wild-card win over the Bengals serving as their first playoff victory since beating a Mark Sanchez-led Jets team in the 2010 AFC Championship Game. But they’ve consistently been in the swing of things in the AFC.

Barnwell feels compelled to balance his concession to the Steelers constant relevance in the AFC playoff picture by devaluing the validity of the Steelers most recent playoff victories and that sets the tone for his entire analysis. Yes, his task is to provide a sort of “Pro’s and Con’s” piece on Pittsburgh’s future prospects, but he almost reads like he’s channeling his internal Bob Smizik.

Barnwell on Steelers 2016 Hopes

Bill Barnwell praises the Steelers for what everyone else is praising them for: Exceeding expectations via more sacks and turnovers on defense and exploding on offense in spite of injuries to Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger and Martavis Bryant.

In doing so he cites any number of advanced saber metrics to document the Steelers offensive performance, and raises and important point – at least statistically – about the difficulty of sustaining the increase in turnovers.

  • There’s really not much to quibble about in Barnwell’s analysis of Steelers potential upside.

One might argue that the Steelers improvement in turnovers is due to something systemic, but Barnwell’s numbers are solid. The only real issue with Barnwell’s assessment of the Steelers upside, as that he seems to forget his own points when he examines the Steelers potential downside….

Barnwell on Steelers 2016 Fears

…And you can see that immediately in his first paragraph. Right after praising the young talent the Steelers have surrounded around quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Barnwell goes on to make a curious assertion:

The problem is that the Steelers have struggled to surround that young talent with the sort of solid depth that would raise Pittsburgh’s ceiling to that of a perennial Super Bowl contender.

Really? IT would seem that the Steelers depth is what allowed them to weather all of those injuries and put themselves a fumble away – made by a 4th string running back — from playing for the AFC Championship. Barnwell argues that the Steelers salary cap troubles are the main culprit behind their supposed depth issues. This was painfully true in 2013 and perhaps in part of 2014, but his supporting arguments just don’t jive:

This year, with injuries up on the offensive side of the ball, Pittsburgh’s inability to plug holes because of cap concerns became a bigger issue. Despite having one of the league’s most injury-prone quarterbacks in Roethlisberger, the Steelers had to save money on backups and paid Bruce Gradkowski and Michael Vick a combined $2.4 million, far less than even the Chase Daniels of the world get by themselves. They lacked badly-needed offensive line depth and were out of luck once Pouncey and left tackle Kelvin Beachum went down with season-ending injuries, leaving Pittsburgh with journeyman Cody Wallace and fascinating project Alejandro Villanueva in key roles for most of the season.

Where to begin….? First, the Steelers policy of keeping three quarterbacks and depending on experienced, veteran backups increasingly goes what most teams in the league do. Second, one of the reasons why the 2015 Steelers were so resilient was preciecely because Cody Wallace and Alejandro Villanueva proved to be such cost-effective backups.

  • Finally, how exactly does Barnwell conclude that Ben Roethlisberger is “one of the league’s most injury-prone quarterbacks?”

Yes, Roethlisberger did have to leave three games with injuries in 2015. But he only missed a handful of snaps in 2014 and did not miss an entire snap in 2013. Ben Roethlisberger has taken much more punishment than most of his peers – and he be one player who “gets old fast” but toughness, not fragility has been Ben’s hallmark.

Barnwell on Steelers 2016 Salary Cap

Barnwell devotes the last 1/3 of his critique of the Steelers to salary cap issues. The Watch Tower does not pretend to be a closet capologist, but Steel City Insider’s Ian Whetstone has looked at the Steelers situation and come to different conclusions. But if we accept that Barnwell perhaps has a point about the Steelers and Lawrence Timmon’s contract, he still appears to contradict himself.

Barnwell is highly critical of the Steelers secondary. So is Steelers President Art Rooney II, in so many words, so Barnwell’s critiques are on solid ground. Unlike Rooney, Barnwell names names, as he singles out the Steelers reliance on Antwon Blake and Will Allen. Then a couple of paragraphs down, he makes this assertion:

No fewer than six starters are hitting unrestricted free agency this offseason, and Pittsburgh can’t afford to lose them all. That includes three members of that secondary in Blake, Gay and Will Allen; they aren’t exactly stars by any means, but the only players in line to replace them are Cortez Allen and rookie second-rounder Senquez Golson, who combined to play one game in 2015 thanks to injuries.

Barnwell is right about the Steelers not being able to rely on Golson and Allen, but he undercuts his own consistency by critiquing the Steelers for relying on Blake and Will Allen and then turning around and critiquing them for being in danger of losing them.

His conclusion suffers from the same type of circular logic, as he tries to suggest moves the Steelers might make to free up salary cap space:

They can save $4 million by cutting Heath Miller, $1.8 million by releasing Shaun Suisham and $4.4 million by designating Cortez Allen as a post-June 1 release. That also leaves them without starters at three positions.

OK. First, Heath Miller is not going anywhere, 4 million dollar contract or not, but that misses the point. Shaun Suisham missed the entire 2015 season and Cortez Allen missed all but a handful of plays. Chris Boswell may very well have cost Suisham his roster spot, and Cortez Allen has not been considered a starter since mid 2014.

None of this is to say that Barnwell doesn’t make legitimate points. While the Steelers are no longer in salary cap purgatory, they still have a lot less room to maneuver than many of their competitors. Few people , including Barnwell himself, mentioned it, but few would doubt that keeping Brice McCain would have helped the Steelers secondary.

So it would be incorrect and unfair to write Barnwell off as a “knee-jerk naysayer.” But it also seems like Barnwell’s Steelers 2016 off season analysis suffers from a lack of objectivity on some level.

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