Steelers Resign Steven Johnson, Put Cam Sutton on IR & Name Jordan Dangerfield Wavied/Injured

The NFL’s roster cut down day came and went at 4:00 pm on September 2nd, but that milestone didn’t even slow let alone stop Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin from making moves.

The Steelers were expected to make two roster moves to make room for J.J. Wilcox and Le’Veon Bell’s return. Yet the Steelers brain trust did everyone one better by making three moves:

And the beauty of all of it, for the arm chair general managers that is, is that the Steelers still must make one more move before they formally activate Le’Veon Bell prior to the 2017 season opener against the Browns at Heinz Field.

Cam Sutton

Like David DeCastro before him, cornerback Cam Sutton will start his rookie year on injured reserve. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The decision to put Cam Sutton on IR came as no surprise because by keeping him on the initial 53 man roster, he’ll be able to return at mid-season. It seems clear that this was putting Sutton on IR and resigning Steven Johnson was what Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert intended all along.

The Steelers decision to cut Jordan Dangerfield amounts to a minor surprise. While it is logical given the trade for J.J. Wilcox, Dangerfield had extensive experience with the Steelers defense having done a two year apprenticeship on the Steelers practice squad and having played last season. However, by designating Dangerfield as “injured/waived” the Steelers will retain his rights if no other team signs him.

In 2015 the Steelers placed Eli Rogers on the wavied/injured list and he returned to start for Pittsburgh in their 2016 season opener against the Redskins. In 2012 the Steelers placed David Johnson on the waived/injured list and he returned to start at tight end for Pittsburgh in the 2013 opening day disaster against the Titans.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Roster Shaped by Coates and Cockrell Trades, Haden Signing

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Roster is almost fully in focus as Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert made a flurry of moves to get their roster to the league mandated 53 man limit. And in doing so the Steelers dynamic-duo showed that they were once again unafraid to venture outside their comfort zone, including:

  • trading Sammie Coates and a 2019 7th round pick to Cleveland for a 2018 6th round pick
  • trading Ross Cockrell for an undisclosed draft pick

While trading a player in lieu of cutting them isn’t terribly unorthodox, it hasn’t been the Steelers standard operating procedure, especially when it comes on the heels of the Vance McDonald trade and the signing of Joe Haden. Beyond that the Steelers made a number of cuts which count as surprises:

Mike Hilton, a training camp and preseason sensation, also made the team as the Steelers will keep 7 cornerbacks.

Steelers 2017 roster, Ben Roethlisberger, Martavis Bryant

Hopefully, Ben Roethlisberger cheering as Martavis Bryant takes off will become a familiar sight. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Steelers 2017 Roster by Position

Quarterbacks (3)
Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, and Joshua Dobbs.

No surprises here.

Running Backs (4)
Le’Veon Bell*, Terrell Watson, James Conner and Roosevelt Nix

Terrell Watson’s power rushing pushed veterans Fitzgerald Toussaint and Davis off the team. Note, Le’Veon Bell doesn’t officially count against the 53 man roster yet.

Wide Receivers (6)
Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Eli Rogers, Justin Hunter and Darrius Heyward-Bey.

No surprises among the first four. Keeping Justin Hunter around will make Ben Roethlisberger happy, and DHB makes team largely because of special teams.

Tight Ends (3)
Vance McDonald, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble.

Jake McGee played well in preseason, but will likely head to practice squad. This site’s got a soft spot for underdogs, making it tough to see David Johnson go.

Offensive Line (9)
Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, Chris Hubbard, B.J. Finney, Jerald Hawkins and Matt Feiler.

9 offensive lineman might seem a little high, but if the Steelers 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 season painfully proved, you can never have enough good offensive lineman.

Defensive Line (6)
Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, L. T. Walton and Daniel McCullers.

A late push by McCullers saves his roster spot. On paper, this is the deepest defensive line Johnny Mitchell has ever had to work with – and he’s been coaching despite being given every chance. Assume he’ll be back on the practice squad.

Outside Linebackers (5)
Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, James Harrison, Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats.

Keeping 5 outside linebackers might seem like a luxury, but remember Arthur Moats has position flexibility to move inside in a pinch.

Inside Linebackers (4)
Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort.

If Shazier stays healthy, this group should be OK. Still it looks a lot less athletic with Timmons in Miami.

Cornerbacks (7)
Artie Burns, Joe Haden, William Gay, Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton, Coty Sensabaugh and Brian Allen.

It almost seems like the Steelers are trying to use quantity to compensate with quality issues…

Safeties (4)
Mike Mitchell, Sean Davis, Robert Golden and Jordan Dangerfield.

To the naked eye this looks good for the Steelers. However, Mike Mitchell has been injured for most of cap, Jordan Dangerfield got injured in the final preseason game, and Robert Golden is not a long term starter.

Specialist (3)
Chris Boswell, Jordan Berry, Kameron Canaday.

It seems that Kameron Canaday and not Colin Holba is the heir Greg Warren.

Finally, to the surprise of no one, the Steelers cut Senquez Golson, their 2nd round draft pick from the 2015 NFL Draft whose NFL career at this point consists of a handful of training camp practices. When fans have asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola about whether Golson would return to the practice squad, his stock answer is that he needs to be healthy enough to practice first.

  • Beyond signing their practice squad, the Steelers will also likely need to make another move as Le’Veon Bell does not yet count against their 53 man roster.

There’s a good chance that the Steelers will create space for Le’Veon Bell by putting Cam Sutton on IR, but the Steelers have hardly been predictable of late.

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Steelers Sign Joe Haden. Is 2nd Time Charm for Pittsburgh & a Retread Cleveland Cornerback?

…Adding new players to their roster, it would seem. Just one day after trading to acquire the San Francisco 49er’s Vance McDonald, the Steelers signed Joe Haden, the recently cut cornerback of the Cleveland Browns, and they did it to the tune of a 3 year, 27 million dollar contract that reportedly comes with 7 million in guarantees.

The Steelers are of course familiar with Joe Haden’s body of work, as Haden has played in 11games against the Steelers, covering the likes of Hines Ward, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant.

Joe Haden, Antonio Brown, Steelers sign Joe Haden

Joe Haden will be covering Antonio Brown more frequently now that he’s a Pittsburgh Steeler. Photo Credit: Ken Blaze, WKYC

While Joe Haden might not have reached “Shut Down” corner status, he quickly established himself as one of the best corners in the league as he made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and 2014. Injuries have taken their toll since then. A concussion kept Haden out of action for 10 games in 2015, and last season several groin injuries hobbled him, which required surgery in the off season.

  • During much of the 2017 both the press and the Steelers fan base made a lot of noise about Pittsburgh’s in ability to bolster their pass defense following the AFC Championship disaster.

The Steelers were rumored to be targeting Dre Kirkpatrick or some other big name corner in free agency, but no deal ever materialized. Instead, the franchise settled for Coty Sensabaugh, a mid-level cornerback at best.

The Steelers did of course draft Cam Sutton and Brian Allen in the 2017 NFL Draft, but both players have been injured for much of the summer. Likewise, this was to be the summer at St. Vincent’s when Senquez Golson finally emerged from the training room. But Sutton and Allen have been injured for most of the summer, and Senquez Golson only lasted a few practices before finding his way back to the injured cart.

  • During the preseason wins over the Falcons and losses the Colts the Steelers pass defense has struggled.

Mike Tomlin reacted by trading for Dashaun Phillips and giving Coty Sensabaugh at shot at Ross Cockrell’s starting job. Now both men will have to yield to Joe Haden, because the Steelers are paying Haden starter money.

  • Whether Haden can boost a struggling Steelers secondary remains an open question.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell quoted sources in Cleveland that described Haden as “tentative” and another who declared that Haden is no longer capable of covering number 1 NFL wide receivers. However, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Joe Starkey pointed out, the key isn’t whether Joe Haden can be the next Rod Woodson, Mel Blount or even Ike Taylor, its whether he’s better than Ross Cockrell and Coty Sensbaugh.

  • This is of course not the first time the Steelers have looked to a recycled Cleveland Browns cornerback to bolster their secondary late in the summer.

A year ago the Steelers traded for Justin Gilbert, whom they coveted in the 2014 NFL Draft, only to see Gilbert play a handful of snaps and then be cut in the off season.

The Steelers signing of Joe Haden will certainly have ripped effects elsewhere on the roster. Artie Burns will switch sides, and one other cornerback will find himself on the wavier wire. Salary concerns could mean that person is Ross Cockrell, which would be quite unfortunate for the young man.

It could also impact the Steelers plans to extend the contract of Stephon Tuitt, but Bob Labriola’s comments seem to indicate that the Steelers have structured his deal so that this will not happen.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Fall to 2-1 in Preseason Following 19-15 Loss to Colts Saturday Night

In the now famous dress-rehearsal, the Steelers took on but ultimately succumbed to the Colts at Heinz Field in their third preseason game Saturday night.

  • Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger saw his first preseason action against Indianapolis, as did receiver Antonio Brown, and they were joined by the entire starting offensive line.

Pittsburgh took the opening kickoff and moved effortlessly down the field on the legs of running back Knile Davis, who had runs of 11 and 10 yards on the drive, along with a nine-yard gain on a short pass from Roethlisberger.

Seany Davis, Philipy Dorset, Steelers Colts preseason

Seany Davis battles Philipy Dorset but can’t quite get the interception. Photo Credit: WTHR.com

However, on first and 10 from the 33, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva was badly beaten on the outside by linebacker John Simon, who hit Ben Roethlisberger and forced a fumble that defensive end Hassan Ridgeway recovered at the 33.

      • The Colts then proceeded to march 63 yards on just four plays and went ahead 7-0 on a one-yard run by veteran back Frank Gore.

Pittsburgh answered with an 11-play, 57-yard drive that culminated in a 36-yard field goal by kicker Chris Boswell to pull the Steelers to within four points.

Two series would be it for the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, who completed six of nine passes for 73 yards, and Antonio Brown, who pulled in two passes for 28 yards.

The Colts again moved the ball down the field in a fairly effortless fashion, but after reaching the 27 yard line, a short pass from quarterback Scott Tolzien was picked off by inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, who returned it 12 yards to the Steelers’ 20.

With Landry Jones now in for Roethlisberger, the Steelers notched another field goal in the second quarter, while the Colts added two of  their own, and the visitors went into the locker room with a 13-6 halftime lead.

On the Steelers first possession of the second half, Jones, seeing his first preseason action after missing the first two games with an oblique injury, led the Steelers on an eight-play scoring drive that ended when he found tight end Xavier Grimble in the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown pass.

      • Unfortunately, Chris Boswell’s extra point was no-good, and the Steelers still trailed by one point.

The Steelers finally went ahead on their following drive, thanks to Boswell’s third field goal of the night, this time from 37 yards out, but the Colts quickly answered by marching 86 yards on 14 plays and scored on a Josh Ferguson one-yard plunge to make it 19-15 (Adam Vinatieri‘s extra point was no good).

The Steelers appeared poised to regain the lead late in the fourth quarter, after pass interference was called on Colts cornerback Chris Culliver, who was trying to cover rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.

      • Since the foul occurred in the end zone, Pittsburgh had it first and goal with 4:36 remaining.

However, one play later, Landry Jones’ pass intended for Smith-Schuster was intercepted in the end zone by Chris Milton, and the Colts held on for a 19-15 victory.

      • It was a nice enough debut for Landry Jones, who completed 21 of 31 passes for 163 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Running back Terrell Watson led the way with 40 yards rushing on eight carries, while James Conner and Davis added 26 and 21 yards, respectively.

  • Eli Rogers perhaps cemented his role as the slot receiver catching five passes for 58 yards.

It wasn’t a great night for the Steelers defense which failed to generate much of a pass rush (just one sack split by James Harrison and Vince Williams) and yielded 257 yards through the air. The Steelers shook up their secondary in the week leading up to the game, but neither Coty Sensabaugh nor Ross Cockrell stepped up to distinguish themselves.

Next up for the Steelers is their annual preseason finale against the Panthers this Thursday night at Carolina.

 

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Steelers 2017 Training Camp: 4 Question Pittsburgh Must Answer “Yes” to Bag Lombardi Number 7

As the Pittsburgh Steelers assemble for their 52nd training camp at St. Vincents in Latrobe, the franchise gathers with an unusual urgency. Everyone knows why. While smarting for yet another AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, Steelers signal caller Ben Roethlisberger uttered the dreaded “R” word last January.

  • The elephant in the room has been unmasked.

Super Bowl windows are notoriously hard to pry open and are wont to slam shut without warning. In the modern NFL, having a franchise quarterback forms a necessary, yet insufficient element to bringing home a Lombardi.

  • A quarterback can’t do it alone, even if his last name is Marnio, Elway, Brady and yes Roethlisberger.

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have known this and made their personnel choices accordingly since the Steelers rebuild began in earnest after 2012. The franchise returned to the playoffs in 2014, got a playoff win in 2015, and knocked on heaven’s door in 2016 only to be turned away.

Here are 4 Steelers 2017 Training Camp Questions whose answers will determine whether  Pittsburgh can bring home Lombardi Number 7 in 2017.

Beny Roethlisberger, Beny Roethlisberger St. Vincents, Steelers 2017 training camp

Can Ben Roethlisberger help Steelers bag Lombardi Number 7? Time will tell. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

1. Can Burns, Davis and Hargrave Avoid the Dreaded Sophomore Slump?

My, how times have changed. When decline of the Steelers defense became indisputable in 2013 commentators rightly pegged the dip to the to the 1,279 snaps logged by rookies during Dick LeBeau’s second to last year as defensive coordinator.

  • Three years later, it looked like rookies would write a similar story for Keith Butler’s second year as defensive coordinator.

People forget, but as Steelers scribe Carlos Ortega pointed out, at the middle of the 2016 the Steelers defense was on pace to match the 1988 Steelers defense’s records for futility. The turnaround of the Steelers defense on the back end of the 2016 is certainly one of the under-reported stories and it happened in large part because Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave stopped playing like rookies.

  • On paper, all three men will pick up right where they left off.

Think about it. Who were the only two Steelers to touch Tom Brady during the AFC Championship game? Davis and Hargrave. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler need these men to grow in their second years. And while that’s a reasonable expectation, it is far from a given.

Troy Edwards won the Steelers 1999 rookie of the year, and returned to training camp defended his lax training regimen by complaining that he couldn’t race air. Kendrell Bell looked like a Chad Brown, James Farrior, Ryan Shazier composite as a rookie 2001, but injuries and an unwillingness to learn coverage schemes surfaced at St. Vincents in the summer of 2002.

A sophomore slump by any of these stud 2016 rookies could have catastrophic consequences for the Steelers defense in 2017.

2. Can T.J. Watt (or perhaps Chickillo) Become Starter Capable at Outside Linebacker?

The emergence Burns, Davis and Hargrave only partially explains the Steelers 2016 defensive turnaround. The rest of the turn around was fueled by Bud Dupree’s return to the lineup and James Harrison’s promotion to starter.

  • James Harrison is, by definition, a living legend.

And if the 2016’s James Harrison wasn’t the same as the 2008 version of Harrison that won the NFL’s defensive player of the year award, he was still better than any other outside linebacker the Steelers had.

But it would be foolish for anyone to expect James Harrison to remain a 16 game 3 down, four quarter starter in 2017.

If the Steelers are to seriously contend for Lombardi number 7 in 2017, someone else must step up. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert drafted TJ Watt to be that man, and if OTAs are any indication, the linebacker clearly has the athletic skills. The Steelers need to use training camp to get him ready to contribute early and often.

The other alternative would be to see if Anthony Chickillo can contribute on the right side. That’s not something that Steelers coaches seem to be considering, but we suggested it last year and will do so again.

3. Can Senquez, Sensabaugh or Sutton Turn the Corner?

The narrative on Pittsburgh’s defense since getting torched by Aaron Rogers in Super Bowl XLV has been that the Steelers need to get better at cornerback. This narrative has played for so long that William Gay, one of the “culprits” in 2010, has gone from scapegoat to “Big Play Willie Gay” to a player whose skills are seen as being on the decline.

  • Keenan Lewis looked ready to break out in 2012, yet the Steelers let him go, gambling on Cortez Allen offering more “upside.”

Ike Taylor failed in his footrace with father time. Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin and Justin Gilbert came and went. If Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell give the Steelers two solid options as starting cornerbacks, the AFC Championship revealed their limits. But the depth behind him is simply unproven, save for William Gay whom many pundits argue should be gone.

The good news is that with Coty Sensabaugh, Senquez Golson, Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, the Steelers for the first time in a long time, bring some real quantity to training camp with them. If the Steelers are going to make a serious Super Bowl run, Carnell Lake must find a way to coax come quality out of that unit over the next few weeks on the grass of Chuck Noll Field.

4. Can the Steelers Build Viable Depth at Running Back Behind Bell?

It says here that any running back sets both regular season and playoff rushing single game rushing records that neither Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis could touch is special. But the self-life of NFL running backs is precariously short.

It also says here that the process of trying to extend Le’Veon Bell’s shelf life by limiting his carries a simple exercise on paper but a horrendously complicated endeavor when you try to do it in the heat of a game.

  • Did anyone really want to see Tomlin spell Le’Veon Bell with Fitzgerald Toussaint in his record setting performance over the Bills?

I don’t think so either. Regardless of whether he had a choice or not, Todd Haley over used Le’Veon Bell down the stretch in 2016. Yes, lack of a number two wide receiver to complement Antonio Brown had a lot to do with that, but the fact is the Steelers cupboard was bare at running back.

On paper, the Steelers have given themselves better options for improving running back depth in 2016, by saying goodbye to DeAngelo Williams, drafting James Conner, and signing Knile Davis. And Fitzgerald Toussiant will be back as well.

The days when the Steelers RB depth chart would read Bettis, Huntley, Zereoue, Fuamatu-Ma’afala and Witman, with some guy named on Kreider on the practice squad have ended and will never return. But the Steelers have rolled the dice for several seasons by going with an offensive backfield that was 2 or at and a half players deep.

  • And they’ve paid for it in the post season, in three straight years.

Even if Le’Veon Bell can stay completely healthy for a 19 straight games (yes, that’s counting on a 1st round playoff bye) Steelers running backs coach James Saxon needs to use his time at St. Vincents to establish solid depth behind his starter.

Has Ben Roethlisberger‘s Career Come Full Circle?

As a rookie, injuries forced Ben Roethlisberger into the lineup where he lead team that had finished 6-10 the season before to a 15-1 finish an a playoff run that ended with a AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots.

The loss was devastating to Jerome Bettis, who’d planned to retire and felt he’d lost his shot at a championship. On the sidelines, rookie Ben Roethlisberger implored “The Bus” to return, promising he’d get him his ring. Roethlisberger delivered as the Steelers triumphed in Super Bowl XL.

Now, as Roethlisberger contemplates parking his own bus, the question remains as to whether his teammates can deliver as he did for Bettis 12 years ago.

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Steelers 2017 Salary Cap is Offensively Lopsided. And That’s a Good Thing.

Steelers 2017 training camp starts in 34 days and perhaps the only bit of football drama that will pass between now and then is whether the franchise comes to a long-term agreement with Le’Veon Bell. But even if they don’t one thing is certain:

  • At 101 million dollars, the Steelers will field the NFL’s most expensive offense.

As Steelers Wire’s Simon Chester details, seven of the Steelers top 10 salary cap hits will come on offense. To the naked eye, spending over 60% of your salary cap on half of your team might seem like an unfavorable imbalance.

  • But its not, and in fact shows that things are, in many respects, going according to plan.
Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Dolphins playoffs, Steelers 2017 salary cap offense

Ben Roethlisberger throws to Le’Veon Bell in Steelers 2016 playoff win vs. Miami. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Zimbo

The Steelers 2017 salary cap structure follows the franchise’s rebuilding effort that has been in the works since Super Bowl XLV. Salary cap mechanics can get tricky, but you don’t need to be an accounting or math wiz to understand what’s going on here.

All of the Steelers projected starters on offense, outside of Jesse James, Roosevelt Nix, Martavis Bryant, and Alejandro Villanueva are playing on their second or third contracts. And by the time the season starts, Villanueva might have his own long term deal.

  • On defense the difference is stark.

The only projected starters playing on second contracts are James Harrison, Cameron Heyward and Mike Mitchell. William Gay, Coty Sensabaugh and Arthur Moats are also well removed from their rookie contracts, but their contracts are relatively cap friendly.

As soon as the 2011 lockout ended the Steelers giving second (or third) contracts to Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Willie Colon. Management invested heavily in keeping the core of players together who’d brought Pittsburgh into 3 Super Bowls in six years.

  • Unfortunately, the plan failed.

But, for as frustrating as 8-8 seasons might have been, the Steelers invested wisely in building their offensive line to protect Ben Roethlisberger and in populating their skill positions with weapons to complement Antonio Brown. It is safe to say that by 2014, the Steelers had enough championship caliber talent on offense to make them viable contenders.

That’s a question that Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler’s boys can only answer on the field – as spreadsheet calculations will never drive Tom Brady into the turf on third and long.

But the key to winning in the salary cap era is to get the most bang for your salary cap buck, and one of the best ways to do that is to draft players who can start delivering that bang while they’re still playing on their rookie contracts. Cam Heyward did that. Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt have done that. Sean Davis, Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave showed signs that they can do that. God, willing T.J. Watt and Cam Sutton will do that.

Their ability to keep doing that this season forms the key part of any road map that leads Lombardi Number Seven to Pittsburgh in 2017.

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Steelers Rookie Cornerbacks Cam Sutton & Brian Allen Aren’t Only Options for Boosting Secondary

As we move further away from the 2017 NFL Draft and into such things as rookie mini-camp, there are still those who don’t think the Pittsburgh Steelers did enough to try and improve their secondary.

  • But that’s usually the case with post-draft analysis, isn’t it?

For every pundit or fan who was happy with Pittsburgh’s selection of Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt in Round 1 and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in Round 2, there was at least one person who thought the Steelers should have picked other players or addressed different areas of the roster.

As it pertained to the secondary, the Steelers did address it, when they selected cornerbacks Cam Sutton (Tennessee) and Brian Allen (Utah) in the third and fifth rounds, respectively.

Cam Sutton,

Cam Sutton returning an interception for the Tennessee Volunteers. Photo credit: CBS Sports.

So, was the third round a little too late to take a corner, which was the case with Cam Sutton, a four-year starter who recorded seven interceptions and 30 passes defensed during his college career?

Some might say that it was, but when you consider Pittsburgh used its first two picks of the 2016 NFL Draft to take defensive backs–cornerback Artie Burns in the first round; and safety Sean Davis in the second round–it may put the draft strategy in a better context.

  • After all, you can’t address every single need in the first and second rounds. And since when were third round picks not expected to become starters sooner rather than later?

Now, if you want to argue that the selection of Brian Allen, a converted wide receiver who, by most accounts is a tremendous athlete but very green for his new position, could wind up on the cutting floor at training camp in August, you may be on to something.

Despite drawing some raves for his one-handed interception during Day 2 of the Steelers rookie mini-camp on Saturday, Brian Allen is most-likely a project player and may have to spend some time on the practice squad during his rookie season; or, if he’s lucky, he could make the team but be a healthy scratch each and every week, as he learns his craft under the guidance of Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake.

Like any other renovation project, there was still a great deal of dust visible in the Steelers secondary last season, this despite the defense improving  from 30th against the pass in 2015 to 16th. For example, there was the entirety of the AFC Championship game, in-which several Patriots receivers–including the little-known Chris Hogan–roamed through the defensive backfield almost totally uninhibited.

  • Speaking of which, the mantra among the fans since  the 36-17 beat-down in New England has been that the team needs to find a way to beat the Patriots.

Playing a zone against a quarterback as decorated as Tom Brady has pretty much been a recipe for disaster for the Steelers, going back to the days of Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu. But when you examine the resumes of Artie Burns and Cam Sutton, you’ll see that playing man coverage is something they excelled at in college.

Àrtie Burns,

Artie Burns following a 2016 interception. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

When the Steelers drafted Artie Burns with the 25th pick a year ago, many wondered how a defense that specialized in zone coverage could have taken a corner that excelled in man.

  • Maybe because the defense doesn’t want to specialize in zone coverage any longer.

It was argued that Pittsburgh couldn’t really switch to man coverage against the Patriots because it didn’t have the personnel for it. That may have been true then, but it could be a different story moving forward, if Burns continues to make progress, and a player like Sutton quickly shows that his college skill-set can translate to the pro level.

When you study what the Steelers have done in with the secondary in recent years, you’ll see that the transformation may have begun in 2014, with the free-agent signing of safety Mike Mitchell

There were high hopes within the organization that Senquez Golson, a very productive player who had 10 interceptions during his senior year, could step right in and be the slot corner. Unfortunately, due to injuries, not only did Golson miss his entire rookie year, he missed all of his second season as well.

  • As for Doran Grant, who, if memory serves me correctly, was drawing Allen-esque raves about two years ago, he never quite caught on.

There may still be hope for Senquz Golson, who certainly hasn’t suffered any catastrophic injuries and may just be hindered by a lack of experience. Then again, there those who fear that Senquez Golson could be this generation’s Kris Farris (ok, that’s a plug for another article on this site, but hey, its a good article.)

You throw Senquez Golson into the pot with Artie Burns, Mike Mitchell, Sean Davis, Cam Sutton, Brian Allen and, yes, Ross Cockrell, a former fourth round pick by the Bills who started all 16 games at corner last year and was often lined up against the other team’s top receiver, and you may have the makings of a pretty decent secondary sooner rather than later.

An old building isn’t renovated overnight, and neither is a struggling secondary.

 

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Steelers Emphasize Character in 2017 Draft Class

The more I read about the Steelers 2017 Draft Class, especially the premium picks —T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton and James Conner–I couldn’t help but notice continual key words and phrases such as “hardworking,” selfless character,” “high-character,” “great player, but an even better person,” etc. etc.

And that conspiracy had to do with the quality of character of most if not all of the eight new draft picks who will try to make a career for themselves as members of the black and gold. Draft weekends are usually love-fests, complete with hugs from family and friends for the draftees, along with high-praise from the people who drafted them.

TJ Watt, Art Rooney II,

Steelers 1st round draft pick TJ Watt with Art Rooney II. Photo Credit: KDKA

But often there are also character concerns about certain players who are drafted and make you wonder if those concerns will hinder or totally derail their development.

Thursday night, when the Steelers time on the first round clock commenced, Reuben Foster, an inside linebacker from Alabama and a top ten overall prospect, was sitting there for the taking.

Obviously, outside linebacker was the more pressing need for the Steelers heading into the draft, but Foster offered great value at pick number 30 and perhaps could have been the replacement for Lawrence Timmons, who signed with the Dolphins as a free-agent in March.

  • But like the 29 teams before them, the Steelers passed on Foster, who was ultimately selected by the 49ers one spot later.

So, why not just scoop up one of the premiere talents in the draft–what’s general manager Kevin Colbert always say about picking the best player available?

  • Unfortunately, even the best players can’t help a team if they’re not on the field.

It’s debatable as to who the most talented receiver of the 2014 NFL Draft was, but if you want to throw your name behind Martavis Bryant, it would be really hard to argue with you.

But there were concerns about Martavis Bryant’s character and work-ethic at Clemson, and this caused him to slip into the fourth round of that draft. And after a stellar rookie season, in-which he caught 26 passes for 549 yards and eight touchdowns in just 10 games, Martavis Bryant was suspended for the first month of the 2015 regular season for failing a drug test in the offseason.

After an even better 2015 season, when he caught 50 passes for 765 yards in just 11 games, Bryant failed multiple drug tests and was suspended for all of 2016.

And that brings me back to Ruben Foster, who not only failed a drug test at the combine in February, he was sent home after having a verbal altercation with a medical worker.

Are these horrific offenses and should they ruin a talented player’s career? On the surface, no.

But times, they are a changing. Think of Rod Woodson.

  • Rod Woodson was one of the best players in Steelers history and arguably their greatest cornerback, (well, Mel Blount was probably better.)

But before his career really hit its stride, Woodson was arrested multiple times for various offenses. Back then, not only didn’t Woodson miss any games, he was named the 1993 NFL Defensive Player of the Year not long after his last arrest.

Thankfully, Rod Woodson matured into a person whose character matched his talents on the field and went on to have a Hall of Fame career.

Today, with social media and the 24/7 news-cycle, not to mention the public scrutiny the NFL has faced in recent years because of multiple off-field issues for several of its players, one has to wonder if someone even with Rod Woodson’s enormous talents would have survived just one arrest without it ruining his career.

So, does high character always equal success on the football field? No, but high character is often a great barometer for determining if a player will stay on the football field long enough to get the most out of his abilities.

The Steelers just drafted a group of young players whose football futures will likely be decided on talent and not on off-field issues.

 

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Does Steelers 2017 Draft Class Display Kevin Colbert’s Confidence or Cockiness?

NFL teams don’t draft in a vacuum. Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys in 1989 and Chuck Noll’s Steelers in 1969 serve as exceptions, but only expansion teams get a blank slate.

The choices those men make tell us a lot about how they see their respective teams. The Steelers 2017 Draft Class certainly qualifies.

Steelers 2017 Draft Class, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin

Kevin Colbert & Mike Tomlin during the 2017 NFL Draft

Let’s look at the context in which Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin assembled the Steelers 2017 Draft class.

After going 8-8 and out of the playoffs for two straight years, the Steelers made the playoffs in 2014, only to get booted by the Ravens at Heinz Field. A year later the Steelers discipline lifted them over the Bengals on the road, and then saw a short-handed team fall just shy of beating Denver on the road. In 2016 the Steelers won their first two playoff games, only to get shredded by New England in the AFC Championship.

Diagnosing what ailed the Steelers in New England is quite simple:

  • The Steelers couldn’t pressure Tom Brady
  • Tom Brady used the time Pittsburgh gave to him to decimate the Steelers secondary
  • Pittsburgh lacked a receiving target capable of taking heat off of Antonio Brown
  • When Le’Veon Bell went down, the Steelers struggled to run the ball effectively

With those bitter memories in mind, let’s review the Steelers 2017 Draft Class in the order they were picked:

1. TJ Watt, Outside Linebacker, Wisconsin
2. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Receiver, USC
3 a. Cam Sutton, Cornerback, Tennessee
3 b. James Conner, Running Back, Pitt
4. Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback, Tennesse
5. Brian Allen, Cornerback, Utah
6. Colin Holba, Long Snapper, Louisville
7. Keion Adams, Outside Linebacker, Western Michigan

In the 2017 NFL Draft the Steelers immediately applied their premium picks towards addressing each of those pain points the Patriots so gleefully exploited. The Steelers thinking is clear:

  • James Harrison isn’t going to outrace father time forever, so they draft in TJ Watt
  • Neither Martavis Bryant nor Sammie Coates have proven their reliability, so they draft JuJu Smith-Schuster
  • The Steelers need a 3rd corner and DBs capable of manning up, hence Cam Sutton
  • Pittsburgh’s chronic inability to keep two starter-capable running backs healthy easily explains the Jimmy Conners pick.

After that, things got fuzzy fast.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Gerry Dulac, never a journalist wont to hyperbole offered this on Twitter:

Dulac could have added 5th round pick Nathaniel Adibi whom Bill Cowher allegedly insisted on drafting over Marcus Turner. Of the fivesome, only two played in the NFL, and only Matt Kranchick played a down for the Steelers (1 catch for 6 yards, but it was a heck of a catch….)

In rapid fire, the Steelers drafted quarterback Joshua Dobbs, cornerback Brian Allen, long snapper (yes, you’d hopped the “LS” on you saw on ESPN’s draft crawl as a typo, didn’t you?)
Colin Holba and finally Keion Adams.

On the surface it appears, the Steelers devoted the top half of the draft addressing their most urgent needs, and then Colbert and Tomlin spent the rest on luxury picks. With the benefit of a few days of perspective, let’s see if that’s the case.

Does Steelers 2017 Draft Class Indicate Colbert’s Confidence, or Cockiness?

The Joshua Dobbs pick was the first one that Steel Curtain Rising took issue with.

Dobbs, by all accounts is a solid pickup in the 4th round, but at the time the Steelers still had more pressing needs at inside linebacker and perhaps tight end. However, their subsequent decision to release Zach Mettenberger explains a lot.

The Steelers had 20 weeks to workout Mettenberger work, and they clearly they saw enough. If they don’t think he’ll be ready to challenge Landry Jones for the right to backup Ben Roethlisberger in 2017, its best to invest salary cap dollars in someone who will do it in 2018.

  • Looking at the other picks, however, it is hard not to recall Art Rooney Jr.’s reflections on the late 1970’s.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were of course a drafting juggernaut during the first half of the 70’s, only to see the quality of their drafts drop off a cliff as the decade closed. It’s easy to chalk that decline up to lousy draft position, but the 49er’s of the 80’s and the Patriots of his century have shown winning championships and quality drafting can go hand-in-hand.

  • Tension between Rooney Jr. and Noll, and moving the draft into spring hurt the Steelers.

But the Steelers also hurt themselves. With their roster laden with Super Bowl veterans, they got away from taking the best player on the board, an instead tried to identify and then draft players who fell for one reason or another. Looking at the latter picks of the Steelers 2017 Draft Class, it’s tempting to wonder if Colbert and Tomlin aren’t succumbing to the same temptation.

Cornerback Brian Allen, Carnell Lake assured us, would have been drafted higher had he played defense for more than two seasons in college. Colin Holba was one of the few “draftable long snappers” in this draft, so the Steelers took him. And those who roll their eyes at the concept of a “draftable long snapper” Bill Belichick drafted a long snapper with a fifth round pick in 2014 and won a Super Bowl. Keion Adams is a guy who has “really developed over the last few years.”

  • Fair enough. But these Steelers lack the pedigree of their 70’s predecessors and their Patriots contemporaries.

No one can argue that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin didn’t address the Steelers most pressing needs with their first four picks of the 2017 NFL Draft. Colbert and Tomlin draft choices also represent a tacit endorsement of Vince Williams, Ladarius Green and Jesse James.

In a word, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin with the confidence that indicates that the Pittsburgh Steelers really are only a couple of three players away from winning the Super Bowl. So be it.

  • Regular readers know that Steel Curtain Rising doesn’t do post-day draft grades.

The Steelers 2017 Draft Class will be graded by the same criteria used to grade their 2016 draft class – whether this group of players helps Ben Roethlisberger bring home Lombardi Number Seven before he begins his “Life’s Work.”

If that happens, then Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert will get an “A” for this draft, regardless of whether any of their Day 3 picks ever play a down in the NFL.

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Steelers Draft Brian Allen in 5th Round, Amidst Familiar Carnell Lake Refrain

The 5th round of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Pittsburgh Steelers draft Brian Allen a cornerback from Utah.

Brian Allen was the second cornerback the Steelers took in this draft, after taking Cam Sutton with their first pick in the 3rd round of the Draft. Since drafting Senquez Golson in the 2nd round of the 2015 NFL Draft, the Steelers have taken 4 cornerbacks in the last 3 drafts.

  • At 6’3” and weighing in at 215 pounds Allen represents the larger cornerback that the Steelers used to seek for their defense.

However, Brian Allen is a converted wide out who only has two years under his belt at corner, and one year as a starter. That college track record mirrors that of 1st round pick T.J. Watt, but unlike Watt, Allen’s combine times however were a little wanting.

Steelers draft Brian Allen, Brian Allen

Steelers 5th round pick Brian Allen intercepts a pass for Utah. Photo Credit: via USA Today’s SteelersWire.com

Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake didn’t address Allen’s measurable but did suggest “I think with some more games under his belt, he probably would’ve been drafted a lot higher.”

If that sounds familiar, it should. After the Steelers drafted Shamarko Thomas in 2013 and Senquez Golson in 2015 Carnell Lake suggested that had both men been two inches taller they’d have been 1st round picks.

Welcome to 2017 ladies and gentleman, where even 6th round picks have their own highlight reels prepared for them.

The Steelers selection of Brian Allen adds him to a depth chart which includes starters Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell, veteran William Gay, Senquez Golson, Coty Sensabaugh, Cam Sutton and Al-Hajj Shabazz. Even if William Gay makes the rumored transition to safety, Brian Allen’s best bet is probably the practice squad.

That’s not a bad way to cut your teeth as a future Pittsburgh Steeler, as Chris Hoke, Jordan Dangerfield Steve McLendon and James Harrison can attest to. Welcome to Steelers Nation Brian Allen.

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