First, wherever you’re reading this, it is our sincere wish that you and your family are both healthy and safe. That is far more important than anything and everything else that appears on this blog.
Clearly, the inability to make timely updates to a Steelers blog ranks pretty low when it comes to the disruptions caused by the Coronavirus. Which brings us to Chris Wormley’s addition to the Steelers defensive line.
And with Steelers Nation spending its time streaming while on quarantine, a little cinematic twist to the headline only seemed appropriate.
Javon Hargrave deflects a Blake Bortles pass while Cam Heyward is blatantly held. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com
To no one’s surprise, the Steelers lost Javon Hargrave in free agency. Hargrave will move to the other side of the state after having signed a $39 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles that includes $26 million of fully guaranteed money.
The Steelers could have put together a competitive deal along those lines, but only at the expense of losing Bud Dupree.
Since Bud Dupree is on the field for 90% of the Steelers snaps and Javon Hargrave is on for only 63%, you can see why Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin chose Dupree over Hargrave.
Nonetheless, the move left a rather important hole in the middle of the Steelers defensive line. Hargrave had made 52 starts, recorded 10 sacks over the last two years and was clearly a peer alongside Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.
In 3 years with the NFL, Chris Wormely has made just 15 starts and recorded just 2.5 sacks. He’s also made 9 QB hits, or one more than Javon Hargrave made in his 3rd year in the NFL.
Considering that both men were 3rd round draft picks, the Steelers certainly seem to come out poorer for the swap.
And if the only movie we were watching here was Trading Places, there’s no question the Steelers would come out on the short end of the stick. But Kevin Colbert is also streaming MoneyBall in tandem, and that pulls two other numbers into this equation: $3,450,000 and $2,133,000.
The former is Javon Hargrave’s cap number for 2020, the latter is Chris Wormley’s.
And this of course ignores the fact that the Eagles have already cut Hargrave a check for 11 million and change. Clearly, Javon Hargrave is a better defensive lineman than Chris Wormley.
Kevin Colbert, however, is betting that he can get more bang for his salary cap buck out from Chris Wormley than he could out of Hargrave.
Colbert makes these gambles every spring. One of the best examples came in the spring of 2013 when Colbert reasoned that dollar-for-play, he could get more out of William Gay than Keenan Lewis. (He was also expecting big things from Cortez Allen, but that’s another story.)
Lewis had budded into a pass-defending machine in his 4th year in Pittsburgh, and seemed to offer an oasis for a team starved for quality cornerback play. William Gay had gone to Arizona and, like Bryant McFadden before him, was back in Pittsburgh a year later.
McFadden’s 2nd stint in the Steel City barely registers on the memory-radar.
Yet, William Gay’s return to Pittsburgh heralded the days of Big Play Willie Gay, where he notched 8 interceptions and 5 pick sixes in 5 seasons. Keenan Allen got paid a lot more money in New Orleans, but only had 1 strong season before injuries derailed his career.
Of course, these MoneyBall gambles don’t always work. The Steelers essentially swapped Al Woods for Cam Thomas in 2013 and their defensive line suffered because of it.
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’s 52 yard pick six vs Falcons in 2014. Photo Credit: Steelers.com
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’sJim 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.
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
About five years ago, there may not have been a more vilified sports figure in the Pittsburgh area than William Gay.
Yes, in a sports market that included Pirates owner Bob Nutting, Penguins goaltender Marc Andre Fleury and Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, Gay was in select company as a player fans blamed a large part of their team’s sports ills on.
After all, Gay, a fifth round pick out of Louisville in 2007, was the man Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin championed to be his starting corner in 2009, after veteranBryant McFadden left for Arizona as a free agent.
But after being handed the keys to the number two cornerback spot, opposite Ike Taylor, Gay performed so poorly, the Steelers re-acquired McFadden during the 2010 NFL Draft weekend, and Gay was demoted back to the slot position.
Gay’s 2010 demotion, along with his being victimized by tight end Rob Gronkowski during a home loss to the Patriots in November, helped greatly in turning Gay from promising youngster to perennial whipping boy.
Quietly, however, Gay turned himself into a pretty decent corner in 2011, but, by this time, he was a free-agent, and like McFadden three years earlier, signed with the Cardinals. However, Gay was released after just one season, and Pittsburgh re-signed him with little hype.
William Gay takes it to the house vs. Andy Dalton and the Bengals (photo credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America)
But, hype or no hype, Gay picked up where he left off in 2011, and has started 30 games at cornerback over the past three seasons. Speaking of the last three seasons, Gay set an NFL record, when he became the first player to return five-straight interceptions for touchdowns. In doing so, Gay also tied Hall of Fame legend Rod Woodson for most pick-sixes in team history.
Honestly, the Steelers would probably be better off if other players stepped up to seize the top two starting corner spots on the roster, while Gay took up residence in his more natural slot position. But if Gay is the Steelers’ top corner again next year, he certainly won’t be considered the major liability he was even a few years ago.
William Gay has 11 career interceptions to his name and zero Pro Bowl appearances.
Before all is said and done, Gay might push that first number closer to 20 than it is to 10. As for any Pro Bowl selections, I wouldn’t bet on it.
But that’s no big deal. The more important thing is William Gay has found himself a home with the Steelers, and he’s built a nice little career that he and the team should be proud of.
As the Pittsburgh Steelers look towards their 2016 free agent class, very few of those soon to be Steelers free agents fall into the category of “Steelers must resign him.” Then there is cornerback William Gay.
William Gay is one free agent whom the Steelers must absolutely resign.
Capsule Profile of William Gay’s Career with the Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted William Gay in the 7th round of the 2007 NFL Draft, making him the first defensive back picked of the Mike Tomlin era. Gay saw spot duty in the Steelers secondary as a rookie while playing on special teams. In 2008 William Gay started 4 games and effectively split time with co-starters Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden.
William Gay’s play in 2008 was strong enough for the Steelers to let Bryant McFadden go to Pittsburgh West, aka the Arizona Cardinals.
That decision led to some buyer’s remorse on the part of the Steelers, as William Gay, along with the rest of the Steelers secondary, struggled in the absence of Troy Polamalu who was injured for much of the season. During the2010 NFL Draft, the Steelers got Bryant McFadden back who reclaimed the starting role.
Gay however saw extensive work in the slot, where he began to make a name for himself.
William Gay led the Steelers in passes defensed, showed he could sack the quarterback on occasion, and scooped up a forced fumble during the AFC Championship game vs. the Jets, which turned out to be the final points the Steelers scored in the game.
William Gay didn’t stay in Arizona long. The Cardinals cut him in 2013, and the Steelers almost immediately resigned William Gay, and they’ve seen a lot of this since then:
William Gay has returned 5 of his six interceptions for touchdowns, and found otherwise to justify the moniker of “Big Play Willie Gay.”
The Case for Steelers Keeping William Gay
2015 was the year of the Steelers accidental secondary. William Gay should serve as a lesson to anyone who argues “There’s a reason why no one else wanted him.” The Steelers signed Gay for a song, and he’s given them an orchestra worth of plays.
The Steelers secondary is their glaring weak link heading into the 2016 offense, and William Gay is their only proven cornerback.
The Steelers not only need to resign William Gay, they should do so before he hits the free agent market.
Making the case against a third contract for William Gay is a tough task, but there are merits to the argument.
One would be that William Gay is turning 31 this year, the same age that Ike Taylor was when he signed his third contract with the Steelers. Taylor performed well during the first two years of the deal, then performance dropped precipitously.
Curtain’s Call on Steelers and William Gay
It is not a case of the Pittsburgh Steelers wanting to resign William Gay it is a case of the Steelers needing to resign William Gay. 2015 second round pick Senquez Golson might turn out to be a star. Or he could be like Kris Farris, who missed his rookie year like Golson and didn’t even make the team his rookie year.
Likewise, there’s talk that the Steelers might give Cortez Allen another shot.
All playoff losses are painful, but the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-16 loss to the Denver Broncos feels all the more poignant for one simple reason – the Steelers could have won the game. One year ago at Heinz Field the Baltimore Ravens clearly classed the Steelers out of the playoffs. The Steelers, even in their weakened state not only could have won in Denver, but would have had a shot at taking out New England.
Alas, none of that was to be.
In strict analytical terms, the Steelers had a half-full/half-empty performance against the Broncos in Denver, but at the end of the day their defeat can be traced to 3 elements: Piss poor special teams, missed opportunities, and one mortal mistake.
Steelers Special Teams Struggle in Denver
This is one time when you wish you were wrong. When Pittsburgh qualified for the playoffs Steel Curtain Rising called out the Steelers special teams a unit that needed to step up if the Steelers were to climb the Stairway to Seven. By definition, you can’t step up if you’re a liability.
The Steelers special teams were a liability against the Broncos.
Things got off to a bad start for the Steelers special teams when Omar Bolden returned the opening punt 42 yards. You don’t win playoff games by spotting Peyton Manning, even an ailing 39 year old Peyton Manning, the ball on your own 30 yard line. The Steelers defense forced a field goal, but points were precious in a game that promised to be close.
Markus Wheaton was a disaster as a punt returner. Not only did he not seem to know when to signal fair catch, he wasn’t able to catch it. On one occasion pure luck prevented a turnover, and on another it was Ross Cockrell’s alert play. That inaugurated the drive that saw Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble – no one should blame Wheaton for the fumble, but it was not the way to start a game-sealing drive.
Jordan Berry boomed off a couple of pretty punts.
He also had two 27 yard punts, one of which allowed Denver to kick a field goal, and he had another touchback when the Steelers sorely needed to pin the Broncos down near their own end zone. Chris Boswell played well with his 3-3 effort on field goals and making the touchback automatic on kickoffs, but Boswell’s game had its faults as his on sides kick was poorly executed.
If you remove the long return, the turnover on downs, and the fumble recovery, the Denver Broncos average starting field position was at their own 27. The Steelers average starting field position was at their own 20. In a game decided by field goal kickers those seven yards make a big difference.
Steelers Missed Opportunities vs. the Broncos
Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell chose to make missed opportunities the focus of his post-game analysis and so he should. In general, the Steelers played smart football vs. the Broncos, but they still left a couple too many plays on the field.
Markus Wheaton dropped a touchdown pass that would have dramatically altered the game’s dynamic
On 1st down with Denver at their own 5, Steve McLendon and Lawrence Timmons missed shots on CJ Anderson’s 34 yard scramble, setting up an eventual Denver field goal
William Gay missed an interception on Denver’s game willing drive (credit Emmanuel Sanders with a great pass defense)
You can expand or modify this list in any number of ways. But the bottom line is simple: if the Steelers make plays in those situations, they likely win the game. Even though they left those plays on the field, the Steelers controlled the game and were closing in on the kill with 11 minutes left to play….
One Mortal Mistake Dramatically Shifts Momentum to Denver
Webster’s on-line dictionary defines “Fumble” as “To fail to catch or hold the ball.” That’s a rather mundane definition for a play that transforms a football field into a scene of pure chaos in a millisecond. Fumbles differ from interceptions because, even when they’re forced, they bounce in unpredictable ways, offering an unexpected opportunity to whoever can recover it.
4th quarter fumbles in playoff games often take on a life of their own.
In the 21st century, the Pittsburgh Steelers have an uncanny relationship with 4th quarter fumbles. Jerome Bettis opened the 4th quarter of the Steelers 2004 divisional playoff game vs. the Jets by fumbling to the Jets, but the Steelers defense forced a punt. A year later against the Colts, a late 4th quarter fumble by Bettis was negated by a Ben Roethlisberger shoe string tackle, Bryant McFadden’s career play, and Mike Vanderjet’s missed field goal.
From Ben Roethlisberger, to Mike Tomlin, to Art Rooney II, the Pittsburgh Steelers have acted with class and refused to use Fitzgerald Toussaint’s fumble as a scapegoat for this loss. And, as indicated here, had the Steelers made plays in other areas that fumble could have been little more than a footnote. (And for the record, Toussaint wasn’t being careless with the ball, Bradley Roby made a heck of a play.)
Commentators overuse the concept “momentum changer” in football, but the simple reality is that Toussiant’s fumble dramatically shifted momentum in Denver’s favor.
Prior to that play, Denver’s offense didn’t so much move down the field, as it muddled down it.
But the fumble breathed new life into Denver. Perhaps Peyton Manning is only an average passer at this point in this career, but he remains a master on-the-field tactician, and the fumble gave him a much needed second wind. As he did in his first game against the Steelers, Peyton Manning outfoxed the Steelers defense, adding insult to injury by burning close to 7 minutes off the clock in doing so.
The Steelers had 3 minutes to make a go of it, but ultimately they could not.
Going Where Mike Tomlin Will Not
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin walks the walk. The Pittsburgh Steelers define “success” with Lombardi Trophies. Chuck Noll set that standard in the ‘70’s and Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin unflinchingly accepted it.
But if there was ever a season where a Steelers coach could be granted a dispensation and allowed to accept a moral victory it was the Steelers 2015 season.
Reporters asked Mike Tomlin on the impact of injuries on the game and the season. He stopped them cold. “We’re not into that” – End that entire line of questioning. A big part of the 2015 Steelers success is the locker room’s embrace of the “Next Man Up” philosophy.
Mike Tomlin doesn’t mouth those words: He lives them.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos are not playoff “rivals” the way the Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, Houston Oilers, Baltimore Ravens, and New England Patriots are, but the Steelers and Broncos have a rich playoff history.
Sunday’s divisional playoff game between the Broncos and the Steelers marks the 8th time Pittsburgh and Denver have squared off in the NFL post season. For the record, the Broncos enter this Sunday’s game with a 4-3 edge in playoff games.
Scroll down or click on the gold links below to relive a key moment in Steelers Broncos playoff history.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Backstory: Histories of the 1970’s “Super Steelers” regard the 1977 season as “The Lost One.” Unlike 1976, which saw the Steelers open and close the season with devastating injuries while playing with absolute domination in between, distractions defined the Steelers 1977 season. Al Davis sued Chuck Noll and the Steelers. Mel Blount took offense to Noll’s “Criminal element” comment. L.C. Greenwood temporarily signed with the World Football League. And this only begins the list….
Stats that Standout: Terry Bradshaw’s three interception game is a biggie, and Lynn Swann going 1-6 is another. The Steelers tied the game twice, but never led. Steelers Broncos Playoff History Takeaway: The Denver Broncos scored 34 points on the Steel Curtain defense, the most that unit ever gave up in the post-season. Aftermath: The 1977 Denver Broncos went on to win the AFC Championship, but lost in Super Bowl XII to the Dallas Cowboys. The 1977 Steelers early playoff exit loss prompted Noll to make a number of roster changes and update his offensive philosophy.…
Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: Of all of Chuck Noll’s teams, the 1978 Steelers are regarded as the best. The defense was still excellent while the offense was exploding. The 1978 Steelers took the NFL by storm, going 14-2 in the regular season, only dropping games to the LA Rams and the Houston Oilers.
Stats that Standout: Robin Cole, Steve Furness, Donnie Shell, Dwight White and Joe Greene combined for 6 sacks of Craig Morton. John Stallworth also caught 10 passes for 156 yards, his first 100+ post season effort. Steelers Broncos Playoff History Takeaway: Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, and Franco Harris all scored touchdowns, a post season first for a trio that would go on to terrorize opposing defenses over the next 20 games or so. Aftermath: The Steelers crushed the Houston Oilers in the AFC Championship game the following week to the tune of 35-5 in a sleet-filled fest at Three Rivers Stadium. Shortly thereafter, in only the Super Bowl matchup between multiple Super Bowl winners, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII. Red Miller’s Broncos faded in the seasons to come.
Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: After missing the playoffs in 1980 and 1981, 1984 marked Pittsburgh Steelers third straight playoff appearance. But this one carried a big difference. Terry Bradshaw had retired, giving way to Mark Malone. Most had expected the 1984 Steelers to sink, but they flew winning the AFC Central Division Championship and ruining the San Francisco 49ers almost-perfect season along the way. In his second season, John Elway led Denver to a 13-3 regular season record.
Stat that Stands Out: Mark Malone threw no interceptions, John Elway threw two. Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away: This was the last playoff win for John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Bennie Cunningham and Jack Lambert (although Lambert was injured, and did not play). The Aftermath: A week later in the AFC Championship game vs. Miami, Dan Marino made the Steelers sorely regret not drafting him. The 1984 Steelers were a surprise, and one could be forgiven for thinking the Steelers reloading process following the first Super Bowl era was gaining momentum.
Alas, the opposite was true. It would be five years before Chuck Noll would return to the playoffs, and he’d post losing records in 3 of the 4 seasons in between, causing Dan Rooney to fire his brother Art Rooney Jr. as the head of scouting.
1989 – ’89 Steelers (Barley) Miss a Mile High Miracle
Stat that Stands Out: Heretofore unknown and/or horrendously underappreciated outside of Pittsburgh, Steelers fullback Merril Hoge dominates Denver with 100 yards rushing by the first half, and 180 all-purpose yards from scrimmage, cementing his status as one of Steeler Nation’s first heroes of the post-Super Bowl era. Plays You Wanna Have Back: Trailing 24-23 with 2:20 left to play and needing 45 yards to get into Gary Anderson’s range, Bubby Brister fires a missile at rookie Mark Stock who drops it at the Steelers 41… Plays You REALLY Wanna Have Back: Two plays later, on 3rd down, Chuck Lanza, (who was drafted to be Mike Webster’s heir apparent) is in for future Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson. A poor Lanza snap causes a Brister fumble and a Broncos recovery. Aftermath: The Denver Broncos go on to beat the Cleveland Browns in the 1989 AFC Championship, but get slaughtered in the Super Bowl by George Seifert’s San Francisco 49’s to the score of 55-10. Despite the 89 Steelers playoff loss to the Broncos, Chuck Noll remains convinced that, with players like Dawson, Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake, and Greg Lloyd, he has the talent to win big. However, he hiresJoe Walton as his offensive coordinator, a decision that turns out to be a disaster for all parties involved.
Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: Two years prior, the 1995 Pittsburgh Steelers had lost a heart breaker inSuper Bowl XXX. Despite free agent turnover at quarterback, right tackle, outside linebacker, defensive end, safety and cornerback Bill Cowher’s Steelers seemed to defy gravity. Meanwhile at age 37, John Elway was facing “Now or never” time in his career, but for the first time he had a good defense and offensive weapons, not the least of which was Terrell Davis.
Stat that Stands Out: Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart threw two interceptions in separate goal line situations as Chan Gailey chose to throw rather than pound it in with Jerome Bettis. What IF Moment: Despite the picks, Kordell Stewart brought the Steelers to within three with just over 2 minutes left to play. Unfortunately, the Steelers defense could not get the ball back as the Broncos offense killed the clock. Carnell Lake, playing cornerback due to the ineffectiveness of Donell Wo0lford, said that he felt the Steelers would have won the game had Rod Woodson still been in Pittsburgh. The Aftermath: The Denver Broncos went on win the Super Bowl, the first of two for Elway. The Steelers lost more free agents that year John Jackson and Yancey Thigpen but, unlike in years past, the players the Steelers had drafted to replace them couldn’t cut the mustard.
Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: At 7-5 and coming off a 3 game losing streak, the NFL had left the 2005 Steelers for dead. Bill Cowher challenged his team to run the table, and they complied. They beat the Bengals in the Wild Card game, shocked the Colts by upsetting them in the AFC Divisional Playoff round. The Broncos, for their part were number 2 seeds, and had just knocked off the defending Champion New England Patriots.
Stat that Sticks Out: How about Ben Roethlisberger going 21-29-275-2. True, Ben threw a couple of “Almost interceptions” but clearly a franchise quarterback was blossoming before our eyes. Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away: Shortly before the game ended, Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II arrived down on the field to accept the Lamar Hunt Trophy. Dan Rooney extended his hand to Bill Cowher. As Cowher put out his right hand, his left hand shot up with his index finger pointing upward and he could be lip read saying, “We still got ONE more game.”
The message and meaning was clear: The Steelers 2005 AFC Championship victory represented a means, not a goal. Aftermath: The Steelers advanced and triumphed in Super Bowl XL, the Steel Curtain had Risen Again, and Pittsburgh’s Second Super Bowl era had begun.
Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: The Pittsburgh Steelers were declared “Old, Slow and Done” after the Baltimore Ravens devastated them on opening day. Yet the 2011 Steelers fought back, and finished 12-4 including an incredible midseason upset over the New England Patriots. Tim Tebow was the story of the 2011 Denver Broncos. While his mechanics and the quality of his play left a lot to be desired, week after wee Tebow simply seemed to find new ways to win games.
Stat that Sticks Out: Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas for 80 yards and a touchdown on the first play of overtime. Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away: Was this a lucky loss for the Steelers? Losing in overtime in such dramatic fashion demoralized Steelers Nation, but the Steelers, who entered the game with a long injured list, lost Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, and Max Starks during the game and likely would have not only been promoting players from the practice squad, but giving them snaps had they won. Final Farewell: This the last game for Super Bowl veterans James Farrior, Hines Ward, Bryant McFadden, Mewelde Moore and Chris Kemoeatu. The Aftermath: The Patriots slaughter the Broncos in the following week, and John Elway has seen enough, and brings Peyton Manning to Denver. The Steelers enter salary cap purgatory and Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin begin a rebuilding process over the course of two back-to-back 8-8 seasons.
No matter how Dick LeBeau apologists (of which I am one) attempt to dress it up, the Steelers defense has been in decline for years. While the question of whether aging talent or poor coaching fueled the decline is now irrelevant, the question of what actually defined the decline is not.
If you take total yards allowed as your metric of choice, the Steelers defense really only started to slip in 2013, having finished number 1 overall in 2011 and 2012, before slipping to 13th in 2013 and 18th in 2014.
But expand choice of metrics just a bit, and you’ll see that the roots of the Steelers decline on defense dig deeply into 2011. And there’s where the tale gets complicated….
Super Bowl XLV Exposes Steelers Secondary as Glaring Weakness
The 2011 NFL Lockout created an off season void, which Steelers Nation largely filled for itself by repeating what became accepted as iron-clad fact:
In Super Bowl XLV, Aaron Rodgers exposed the Steelers secondary and specifically its corners as Pittsburgh’s Achilles Heel.
It followed then that Bryant McFadden was a failure, Ike Taylor was slipping, Keenan Lewis was a bust, and William Gay a waste of a roster spot. Respected Steelers author and blogger, Tim Gleason aka “Mary Rose” of Behind the Steel Curtain went so far as to suggest that Art Rooney II order Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin to take a cornerback in the first round of the draft.
It was settled then. The Steelers needed to upgrade at corner, and they need to do it fast….
Steelers Pass Defense Rebounds in 2011 and 2012. But…
2011’s Debacle in Baltimore introduced “Old, Slow and Done” into NFL’s lexicon for discussing the Steelers. Yet it only 4 games into the season my friend and colleague at BTSC Ivan Cole (full disclosure, I also write for BTSC) noted a trend.
The Steelers pass defense wasn’t playing so badly. And in fact William Gay was playing pretty well. And Keenan Lewis, who’d been written off as a draft-day mistake, began to show signs of life. Ivan had a name for this. He called it, “The Lake Effect.”
Gauging the role of position coaches in player development is tricky.
Yet Carnell Lake’s tutelage undoubtedly had an impact on these young men’s careers.
Today William Gay is the unquestioned leader of the Steelers secondary, boasting more pick sixes in a season than Mel Blount had in his career, while fans (and perhaps the front office as well as the coaches) universally lament letting Keenan Lewis get away.
Beyond those individual accomplishments, during the first two seasons following Lake’s arrival, the Steelers pass defense ranked number despite the absence of a consistent pass rush.
So Carnell Lake is an unqualified success as Steelers secondary coach right? Not so fast.
Turnovers Scarce for Steelers Secondary
Another trend emerged in 2011 alongside the “Lake Effect,” and it’s one that continues today – namely a chronic inability on the part of the Steelers defense to produce turnovers. Interceptions are only one half of the turnover equation, they’re an important part.
And while interceptions can come from the defensive line or linebackers, often to great effect (see Brett Keisel vs. Houston), they’re the primary responsibility of the secondary. Numbers do not like on that measure, Lake doesn’t look so good:
Picks in short supply for Steelers secondary
Graphically, the trends are even more dramatic (note, inverse values have been used to chart the Steelers NFL rank in order to achieve visual congruity):
Steelers interceptions, by number and by rank
Looking at the numbers as a whole, it is clear that Pittsburgh has had trouble intercepting the ball throughout Tomlin’s tenure, with 2008 and 2010 standing out as exceptions. But even if the roots of the problem stretch back to Ray Horton’s tenure as defensive coordinator, the Steelers worst performances have come during Lake’s time.
In another era, the term “Number One Defense” meant yards allowed. But today, both thanks to information technology and to the way the game’s evolved itself, defenses are measured by points allowed and increasingly, by their ability to take the ball away.
The Steelers have struggled to do that. The struggle didn’t begin with Carnell Lake, but he hasn’t improve the situation either.
Of Cortez, Brice and Blake….
Cortez Allen was an unmitigated disaster for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2014. He was supposed to be the secondary’s savior, instead he was put on injured reserve because the team needed his roster spot. Shamarko Thomas was also expected to push for time at safety, but couldn’t get off special teams. While it is unfair to hang that on Lake’s neck, neither Allen nor Thomas are not one of his success stories…
For those you can look to the men who played in their places.
Brice McCain and Antwon Blake arrived at Latrobe as two players salvaged from the NFL’s scrapheap fighting for a roster spot. They finished the regular season by making the turnovers the Steelers needed to secure victory over the Bengals, and ultimately the AFC North Championship.
Again, we don’t know how much impact Lake’s had in their growth.
But we do know its Lake’s job to guide it, and he didn’t bat an eye in mentioning Blake’s name when asked why the Steelers didn’t take a corner early in the 2014 NFL Draft. Do two better than expected corners make up for the Cortez Allen disappointment? Do they vindicate Mr. Cole’s “Lake Effect Thesis.”
But Keith Butler is going to need to find a way to get the Steelers to produce more turnovers, and he’ll need to determine of Carnell Lake is capable of coaching the secondary to help do that. Butler’s choice will be interesting.
The 2013 NFL Draft is only days away which means its time for Steel Curtain Rising’s latest edition of the The Colbert Record, and in depth review of Kevin Colbert’s performance.
Last year The Colbert Record praised the Steelers General manager for never missing on a first round pick. The development (or lack thereof) of Ziggy Hood and/or Cameron Heyward might force us to revise that, but even then Kevin Colbert’s record in the 1st round of the NFL draft would remain without no peer. (Click here for a full review of Colbert’s 1st round record.)
This year we take aim at Kevin Colbert’s body of work in the second round.
Although still highly coveted, second round picks in the NFL Draft are considered second best, and they are a lot harder to evaluate. Indeed, during the 1980’s the NFL Draft’s second round became known as the Steelers “Jinx” round as Pittsburgh misfired on players like Charles Lockett and Derek Hill (to name two).
How has does Kevin Colbert’s record in the second round stack up against that of Tom Donahoe and Dick Haley? Today we take a look.
In his time in Pittsburgh, Colbert has made 11 second round NFL Draft picks, opting to trade the pick in the 2006 and 2009 NFL Drafts.
Here’s a Snap shot of Colbert’s Second Round Picks (click on the name for a more detailed profile)
When Kevin Colbert arrived in 2000 the Steelers were mess at tackle even though Tom Donahoe had invested heavily at the position throughout the late 1990’s. Unfortunately most those Donahoe picks were busts, from Jamain Stephens in 1996, to Paul Wiggins in 1997, to Chris Conrad in 1998, and Kris Farris in 1999.
Colbert sought to rectify that by picking Marvel Smith in the second round of the draft, and Smith became an immediate starter and developed into a Pro Bowler. After starting at right tackle, he moved to left tackle following Wayne Gandy’s departure, and helped anchor a line that led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL.
The Steelers traded down in the 2001 NFL Draft and still got the man they wanted, Casey Hampton. Trading down in the first allowed the Steelers to move up into the second, where they signed Kendrell Bell.
Kendrell Bell was an immediate sensation who appeared incapable of wrong . His goal line stop of Jerome Bettis during training camp and the ensuing “crack” that was heard all over Latrobe were the stuff of legend.
Bell took the league by storm as a rookie, registering nine sacks and earning AP all Rookie Honors.
Unfortunately, like previous Steelers who’d won the Joe Greene Rookie of the Year award (see Delton Hall, Troy Edwards), Kendrell Bell turned out to be a one year wonder. Injuries set him back in 2002, but when healthy he was effective. In 2003 he appeared lost, with some commentators suggesting that Tim Lewis had “coached the aggressiveness out of him.”
Injuries again were an issue in 2004, and Larry Foote replaced him in the starting line up, and he openly discussed about whether he wanted to jeopardize his value on the free agent market by playing the Steelers playoff games.
Bell clearly had athletic talent, but apparently resisted learning coverage schemes and assignments, an attitude which can cost you dearly in the NFL.
Antwaan Randle El is easily the most versatile of Kevin Colbert’s 2nd round picks. Randle El made an immediate impact as a rookie returning kickoffs, returning punts, catching passes, running reverses, and throwing passes.
Randle El continued to be a quadruple threat for the Steelers in 2003 and 2004, before graduating to the starting role in 2005. Measured in pure quantitative terms, the trend line of his production dropped after his rookie year, but in qualitative terms his contributions got larger.
While a legitimate threat running a reverse, this former college quarterback also threw four regular season touchdown passes for the Steelers, showing he could hurt the opposition in multiple ways.
And of course his most pass was the last one he threw in his first stint with the Steelers. You might remember it from Super Bowl XL:
And while the coaches were unimpressed with his speed or by how much he’d forgotten of the playbook, El gave it his all and his 2-2-0-2 passing record shows the element of unpredictability he brought to the offense.
LaMarr Woodley and/or Marvel Smith can lay a stronger claims to being Kevin Colbert’s best second round pick, Randle El was unquestionably the most exciting to watch.
Shortly after the 2003 NFL Draft the Steelers Digest published a profile of him at Steelers mini camp with a photo of Jackson warning number 95. Upon seeing that I uttered aloud (much to the confusion of my wife), “Son, you have to earn the right to wear Number 95 in Pittsburgh.” (“95” of course being the number worn by the legendary Greg Lloyd.)
Unfortunately, Jackson either never understood that or quite simply lacked the God given ability to live up to the challenges of the NFL.
In 2 seasons with the Steelers, Jackson appeared in only 9 games and recorded 2 tackles.
Amazingly Ricardo Coclough lasted 4 seasons with the Steelers, showing some promise as a rookie and in his sophomore season as he registered 2 sacks and one interception while appearing in 30 games.
Things petered out quickly for Coclough in the third game of his third season as he fielded a punt he should not have, allowing Cincinnati to back the Steelers up deep in their own territory. Bill Cowherput him in injured reserve the next day.
Mike Tomlin actually gave him a second chance, but Coclough only made token appearances in three games.
At the end of the day, Coclough was neither able to make the transition to NFL corner nor was he able to make himself a threat in the return game. Another bust.
It’s never really a good thing when play 6 years in the NFL and your best play comes in your rookie year, as Byrant McFadden’s did when he made a key pass defense in the end zone in the Steelers AFC Divisional Playoff victory vs. the Indianapolis Colts.
However, unlike Kendrell Bell, Bryant didn’t fade after his rookie year, but rather never quite seemed to realize his potential. As a second round pick Bryant was supposed to replace Deshea Townsend, but never could quite beat him out, and when he finally did, he had to split time with William Gay
The Steelers of course allowed McFadden to defect to Pittsburgh West after Super Bowl XLIII, only to bring him back during the 2010 NFL Draft. While McFadden was an improvement over William Gay (who struggled as a starter in 2009), he clearly wasn’t the answer and lost the starting job to an improving Gay in 2011.
You’d generally like to see a little more out of a second round pick, but the Steelers got decent value for B-Mac, and he certainly was no bust.
The first two picks of the Mike Tomlin era were both linebackers, and for a long time Steelers Nation often wondered if the order shouldn’t have been reversed. LaMarr Woodley did not get a ton of playing time as a rookie, but he made four sacks in spot regular seasons duty.
When the Steelers reached the playoffs in 2008, Woodley again turned it up registering two sacks in each of the Steelers playoff games, including a strip sack that ended any chance of a Kurt Warner fueled comeback in Super Bowl XLIII.
Worilds played well on special teams as a rookie and flashed in spot duty. In 2011 Worilds got extensive playing time as both Harrison and Woodley were injured for periods. Worilds performance was pedestrian at best, but the linebacking corps as a whole suffered with multiple players playing out of position.
Worilds got more time in 2012, and early in the season was the team’s sack leader. Clearly the kid has some upside, but 2013 will likely prove to be the definitive “make or break” year for Jason Worilds.
Marcus Gilbert wasn’t supposed to see action as a rookie, but an opening day injury to Willie Colon changed all that. Gilbert was forced in the starting line up, and did fairly well considering the circumstances.
Their was talk of Gilbert moving to left tackle in 2011, but that did not happen. Gilbert also had the misfortune to collide with several Steelers, either injuring them badly or ending their seasons. Gilbert struggled in 2012 and then got injured himself in mid 2012 and was lost for the year with an ankle injury.
The jury is still out on Gilbert, assuming he fully recovers from the injury. If the Steelers take a tackle early on in the 2013 NFL Draft, that’s a clear sign that they’re concerned.
Mike Adams holds the distinction of being the only collegiate player to get himself knocked off of the Steelers draft board only to work himself back on.
Adams had been projected as a first round pick, but his positive test for marijuana knocked him into the second round where the Steelers swooped him up, and immediately decided to move Willie Colon from tackle to guard.
Adams, however, did not win the starting left tackle position during training camp, but injuries to Marcus Gilbert did force him into the line up, where he did well for a rookie, until he himself got injured vs. Cleveland.
It is way too early to make a pronouncement on Adams, but clearly the Steelers are counting on him.
Out of his eleven second round picks, Kevin Colbert has drafted four players who developed into solid starters or better in the form of Marvel Smith, Antwaan Randle El, Bryant McFadden and LaMarr Woodley.
Kendrell Bell was a solid contributor for a year, then provided nothing, while Jason Worilds has delivered some value in the opportunities that he’s been given.
Alonzo Jackson, Ricardo Colclough and Limas Sweed were busts, there’s no way to sugar coat that, no other available conclusion exists.
It’s too early to reach a conclusion on either Marcus Gilbert or Mike Adams.
So to score it, Kevin Colbert has 4 clear wins and 3 clear losses in the 2nd round, with one break even (summing the contributions of Worilds and Bell), with the fate of 2 undetermined picks left to be decided.
The Pittsburgh Steelers attitude towards departing free agents during the Tom Donahoe era was “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.” A player no less the stature of Rod Woodson left and wanted to comeback but were firmly told that the door did not swing both ways.
And now apparently they’ve done it again with Matt Spaeth, according to ESPN Chicago.
The Steelers drafted Matt Spaeth in the third round of the 2007 NFL draft. During his first three years with the Steelers Spaeth was primarily a blocking tight end who caught touchdowns when the Steelers threw to him.
However, in 2010 when Heath Miller was injured Spaeth struggled to perform Miller’s role in the offense, and left for Chicago via free agency.
In Chicago he was used again as a blocking tight end, and NBC’s Pro Football Talk sighted a Pro Football Focus evaluation that named Spaeth as the top blocking tight end in football.
Why Bring Back Spaeth?
The move to bring back Spaeth will likely underwhelm the masses in Pittsburgh, and for good reason. Speath is nothing special. He doesn’t even know Todd Haley’s offense.
But if Spaeth’s run blocking has improved as much as Pro Football Focus suggests, then he almost undoubtedly offers more than Leonard Pope.
With Heath Miller still ailing the Steelers opening day depth chart at tight end could easily raid David Paulson, David Johnson, and Matt Spaeth. That will scare no defensive coordinator, but could be worse one would suppose.
Post Gazette Reports Spaeth Signing to Occur Monday
The Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Gerry Dulac is reporting on Saturday March 16th the the Steelers will bring Spaeth to the South Side with the intention of signing him to a contact.
Injuries kept Lewis out of all but three games in that season, yet he came back strong in training camp the following summer in Latrobe. He looked so go that it was said he might challenge for a starting job – until he actually got his audition in Denver.
Lewis flopped badly and took out his frustrations on a sign in the Broncos locker room, an act which Mike Tomlin forced him to pay for. 2010 was tough for Keenan Lewis, he only played in nine games and then mainly on special teams in spite of Bryant McFadden’s struggles at corner.
Keenan Lewis Writes His Own History
By the summer of 2011 most of Steelers Nation had given up on Lewis. History was also against him. A quick survey of Steelers 3rd round picks showed that if they hadn’t shown “something” by the end of their second season, they never would (click here for the comparison between Keenan Lewis and previous third round picks).
Lake allowed Lewis to start with a clean slate, and Lewis rewarded his coach’s faith. By the time the Steelers had broken camp at St. Vincent’s Lewis had shown he could play, and by beginning of the season he’d earned a spot in the 3rd down rotation.
Lewis didn’t come on gang busters in 2011, but played well, breaking up passes and making a game-saving interception on Monday night vs. Kansas City.
Again, Lewis rewarded the coach’s faith in him by transforming himself into a one man pass defending machine. Week after week Lewis seemed to make odds-defying pass break up after odds-defying pass break up. By season’s end Lewis had 23 passes defensed – that’s ten more than Ike Taylor and only two less than Taylor’s career best in 2005 (source Steelers.com).
Not bad for a player labeled a bust after his “sophomore” NFL season.
Lewis benefited from what my friend Ivan Cole from Behind the Steel Curtain has called the “Lake Effect.” Credit Carnell Lake for having the faith and the ability to teach Lewis to play corner in NFL. But Lewis couldn’t have done so without ignoring the naysayers and simply focusing on playing football.
Do the Steelers Have the Cash to Keep Keenan…?
The downside is that Keenan Lewis is budding into a top NFL cornerback just as he’s reaching free agency. In the past, the Steelers have made it a point to try to sign players like Lewis before they hit the open market.
They haven’t done that here. Last summer such a move would have been too risky, and now the Steelers need to guard their salary cap dollars closely and Kevin Colbert has indicated Lewis will be allowed test the waters.
Prior to William Gay’s return, what was to happen to Lewis was anyone’s guess.
Dejan Kovacevic of the Tribune Review nailed it when he said the Steelers need to pick a number for Lewis and stick to it
The same logic holds true now, except that the number the Steelers pick will be far, far lower.
One of the clear lessons of the NFL’s salary cap age is that you can’t over pay.
Ideally Lewis can and would be an asset to the Steelers for years to come. But for as strong as Lewis has come on, Cortez Allen has come on even stronger, and could conceivably wrest the starting job from Lewis.
There’s no reason to pay a back up starter money if you don’t have to, and the Steelers are paying William Gay back up money.
Keeping Keenan Lewis would be a great success story for Carnell Lake and the Steelers secondary, but hard to imagine Lewis will not command an average salary that trends towards 8 figures on the open market.
That’s simply going to be out of the Steelers price range.