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 Antonio 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 UPI.com, 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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Vote Steelers Nation on Steelers 2015 Roster Needs Heading into Training Camp

The real Steelers 2015 off season has arrived. Since the Steelers season-ending playoff loss to Baltimore, the Steelers have weathered free agency and the retirements and releases of franchise pillars like Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel in addition to saying goodbye to Dick LeBeau.

No NFL team intentionally weakens itself during the off season, but the salary cap and the draft force tough choices that carry opportunity costs.

The Steelers have done a lot to strengthen the roster holes were exposed at various times in 2014, but the operative questions are has Pittsburgh done enough and where are the Steelers still weak? Got idea of your own, well….

[yop_poll id=”17″]

The Steelers will answer these questions themselves come July 25th at St. Vincent’s in Latrobe, but Steel Curtain Rising is giving you a chance to answer the questions now.

Steelers Roster Needs Heading Into Training Camp

The Pittsburgh Steelers have made their choices. As the Steelers June Curse has shown, things could still happen that impact the roster between now and July 25th (think Willie Colon’s injury or worse yet Ben Roethlisberger’s motorcycle accident), but barring a return of Julian bad luck, the 2015 Steelers will win and lose with their current roster.

The Steelers chose part ways with Lance Moore, to let Brice McCain become a Dolphin, but made sure that Arthur Moats, Matt Spaeth, Will Allen, and James Harrison remain in the Black and Gold. They drafted 2 corners, two outside linebackers, one defensive end, a wide receiver, a tight end and a safety in 2015 draft.

steelers, draft, needs, depth chart, pecking order, priority, 2015

Pecking order of the Steelers 2015 Draft Needs

But the Steelers ignored offensive line and running back in the draft and free agency, and these were areas where lack of depth stung the team in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

And while they’ve added numbers at cornerback and outside linebacker there’s no guarantee that the Steelers can find quality in all of that quantity.

  • Objectively speaking the 2015 Steelers will arrive at St. Vincents a stronger unit than they have in the past.

Just two years ago in 2013 the Steelers commenced training camp depth so thin that they knew they were essentially one injury away from disaster at inside linebacker or offensive line. And as fate would have it, both Maurkice Pouncey and Larry Foote were lost on opening day. In 2014 the Steelers rolled the dice that they could get through the season with Jarvis Jones, Arthur Moats, and Jason Worilds at outside linebacker and of course they were unretiring James Harrison three weeks into the season.

Other than quarterback, where Ben Roethlisberger remains indispensable, there’s no roster area depth is so precariously thin that a single injury would leave the team in dire straits. In that sense, the Steelers have given themselves a better shot at success.

But training camp is all about transforming potential into reality. Someone will fall injured, perhaps even ending his NFL dream (think Plaxico Burress rotator cuff tear in 2013.) There will be surprises and disappointments.  But for that we’ll have to wait until the Steelers start training camp on July 25th.

Until then, you have your chance to make your voice heard in our poll.

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Steelers 2015 Free Agency Scorecard Delivers Mixed Bag for Steelers Nation

The Steelers continue to make piece meal free agency moves and could — and they most certainly should resign Will Allen before all is said and done. They could possibly add a corner at a bargain basement veteran minimum price.

  • But by and large the table is set.

And a lot of Steelers Nation is not happy about some of the choices the team has made, although their M.O. has been the same as it always has been:

  • Look to fill a few holes,
  • Do some bargain hunting,
  • Refuse to overpay,
  • Invest in resigning their own players

Most fans wanted the Steelers to sign a corner and/or an outside linebacker and the Steelers appeared to be interested in doing either of the two things, but ultimately found the market too expensive.

The Steelers did of course sign DeAngelo Williams to back up Le’Veon Bell (and start in his place when his suspension for a DWU becomes official).

Pittsburgh Steelers, 2015 Free Agents, Harrison, Polamalu, Kesiel, fans, poll

Steel Curtain Rising Readers Speak

The Steelers had 14 unrestricted free agents heading into the 2015 off season in addition to two aging roster veterans who were on the bubble.

The decision to resign or let a player walk is always an emotional one, and one that fans often do not understand. Yours truly can remember a moment, in 1993 or 1994, when the internet was in its infancy seeing a fan lay into Dan Rooney and Tom Donahoe for resigning Dermontti Dawson while he still had 1 year on his deal. If memory serves, the fan wrote:

  • “Dan Rooney needs to understand that the point of free agency is to sign guys from other teams, not your own.”

Of course Daniel Snyder spent his first dozen years as owner instructing his coaches and personnel staff to do just that, and the results speak for themselves. Oh, and during that time Dermontti Dawson has been elected to the NFL Hall of Fame.

  • Still, the poll that Steel Curtain Rising ran during February and March is revealing about the wants of this little corner of Steelers Nation.

With that in mind, how does the Steelers 2015 Free Agency scorecard stand up against the desires of fans, or at least against the desires of our readers here at Steel Curtain Rising.

James Harrison, Arthur Moats, and Matt Spaeth found a lot of love from visitors to this site, and the Steelers came through, resigning each player. Brett Keisel, Jason Worilds, and Brice McCain also found a lot of love, but none will return to Pittsburgh in 2015.

  • Readers also reaped a ringing endorsement for Troy Polamalu back.

This came in spite of one article arguing that it the ideal situation would be for Troy Polamalu to retire, and another saying that Will Allen presented a wiser choice for a veteran safety back up. It’s hard to say goodbye, and yours truly won’t be too upset of Polamalu came back at the veteran minimum.

As for the rest of the depth chart, Ike Taylor has found little love here, and probably rightly so as his phone isn’t ringing in Free Agency.

  • The rest of the depth chart didn’t evoke much passion from our loyal readers, although the restricted free agents remain popular.

Finally, Clifton Geather’s name got left off of the poll and he was completely left out of the Steelers 2015 Free Agent focus. This was an honest oversight, but yours truly also didn’t think there was any chance he’d be back. Well, the Steelers resigned Geathers and he’ll get his shot this summer at Latrobe.

Make Your Voice Heard Steelers Nation

Voting in a poll is one thing and we thank everyone who took the time to vote (and please vote in our current poll on the Steelers needs heading into the 2015 NFL Draft. But polls are one demensional, and say nothing about why you felt/feel as you do.

So take a moment to leave a comment, and let fellow fans know your thoughts about what decisions the Steelers have made in 2015 thus far.

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Steelers Antwon Blake Signs Restricted Free Agent Tender

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Antwon Blake has signed his restricted free agent tender, ensuring he will return for the 2015 season.

After the initial roster cut in 2013, the Steelers picked up Antwon Blake, Cody Wallace and Zoltan Mesko in a bit of waiver wire bargain hunting. Blake saw no action at corner in 2013, but Carnell Lake mentioned him when reporters question the Steelers decision to wait until the 5th round of the 2014 NFL Draft to pick a corner, Shaquelle Richardson who has since been cut.

Antwon Blake began the 2014 season as the Steelers 3rd cornerback, but found himself displaced by Brice McCain, as McCain replaced Ike Taylor. However, Blake’s demotion did not last long, as he supplanted starter Cortez Allen who lost his starting job and then found himself benched altogether.

Blake’s biggest play came in the Steelers season finale defeat of the Cincinnati Bengals, when he forced an A.J. Green fumble to seal victory.

Blake made headlines this off season for the wrong reason, with a public drunkeness arrest in California, although Blake was not charged with any crime.

With Blake formally back in the fold for 2015, the Steelers now have William Gay, Cortez Allen, and B.W. Webb on their roster, and are expected to target cornerback early in the 2015 NFL Draft.

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Analyzing the Steelers Cornerback Situation…. What Options Does Pittsburgh Have?

The Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback situation entering the 2015 off season in general and free agency specifically was pretty simple: They needed to upgrade. How are things going so far? Well let’s do a quick review:

Sounds rather dire doesn’t it? Clearly, the Steelers cornerback situation isn’t evolving under ideal circumstances. But from a historical perspective, it has been worse in past off seasons, a lot worse.

Steelers Cornerback Situation Circa 1997

It has been a while, but think back to the 1997 off season and the Steelers look set at corner by comparison. The Steelers cornerback situation beginning the 1997 season saw their top three cornerbacks heading to free agency. Here’s how things played out:

  • Rod Woodson signed with San Francisco, calling the Steelers offer insulting (even though he’d turned down a very lucrative deal the previous summer)
  • Willie Williams, who started 15 of 16 games in 1996 signed with Seattle
  • Deon Figures signed with Jacksonville

At one point in the off season, the top cornerback on the Steelers depth cart was none other than Randy Fuller (the guy whose claim to fame was breaking up the Hail Mary in the 1995 AFC Championship game — Fuller never did anything else.)

So while the current Steelers cornerback situation is hardly ideal, they’re way better off today than at this point in the 1996 season.

Which isn’t to say the Steelers shouldn’t be concerned about cornerback because they should.

Steelers Options at Cornerback in 2015

But there’s a difference between being concerned, and making personnel decisions out of fear. And if there’s one thing Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have shown, is that they very rarely if ever make personnel decisions out of fear. The Steelers obviously had interest in Robinson and Moore or else they would not have brought them in for a workout at the South Side.

  • But they also wanted Brice McCain back, but had zero intention of overpaying for him.

That’s proven to be a sound personnel and salary cap strategy. After all, one could argue that extending Cortez Allen’s contract last season was a move motivated by fear, and right now it looks like it was a mistake. So don’t be upset that Kevin Colbert refused to panic.

But it will be interesting to see what decision he makes next. Right now the Steelers options would seem to be:

  • Go all in on Cortez Allen’s rebound and Antwon Blake’s development
  • Engage in some serious bargain hunting at the bottom of the free agent pool
  • Commit to getting a projected starting caliber corner in early in the 2015 NFL Draft

So the Steelers cornerback situation does leave them with options. Cortez Allen bouncing back is the ideal situation, but Cortez’s performance since his late season flashes at the end of 2012 has left a lot to be desired. Antwon Blake can be counted on to continue to improve, but he really doesn’t project as a starter.

Last year the Steelers picked Brice McCain off of the scrap heap and it turned out well, and Kevin Colbert has an incredible eye for finding talented players who no one else seems to want. But even Colbert can’t always transform a lump of cast-off coal into a golden edition to the roster. Look no further than Cam Thomas for evidence.

And the Steelers will most certainly target cornerback in the draft, something they were expected to do in 2014 NFL Draft.

How Things Played Out at Corner in 1997…

Incidentally, the last time the Steelers drafted a cornerback in the first round of the NFL draft was 1997, when they took Chad Scott out of the University of Maryland. Chad Scott won the starting job and turned out to be a pretty good corner over the course of his career, protestations of some fans to the contrary.

The Steelers also signed Donnell Woolford on the same day they drafted Scott.

  • Unfortunately, Wolford struggled mightily as a starter, and had to be benched.

Once again, Carnell Lake made the switch from safety in time for a key Steelers victory over Denver, and his move ultimately helped the Steelers reach the 1997 AFC Championship game. Carnell Lake of course remains with the Steelers as a secondary coach.

Hopefully whatever moves the Steelers make at corner don’t prompt Lake to suggest the Steelers relive the old day by shifting Shamarko Thomas, Robert Golden or Mike Mitchell to cornerback.

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