Steelers-Bengals Game Ball, Ryan Shazier Support Poll

Honestly, after a game in which the ESPN Deportes of Raul Allegre thought to bring up the infamous Redskins-Eagles “Body Bag” game putting up a game ball poll doesn’t seem right. Seeing Ryan Shazier lying there motionless, as the medical crew got the backboard was simply heart rendering.

For a moment there in the shower I thought to  throw up the poll and simply leave Ryan Shazier’s name on it, but that doesn’t do justice to this situation, although Ryan Shazier’s injury is all that is on anyone’s mind this morning in

Ryan Shazier, Ryan Shazier spinal contusion, Steelers vs Bengals

Steelers Ryan Shazier awaits the medical team after suffering a spine contusion against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Frank Victores, AP via PennLive.com

With that acknowledged, we are going to put Ryan Shazier on the ballot, and we ask you, in addition to voting for him, to offer your thoughts and prayers. Here’s how the rest of the ballot shapes up:

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 12-05-2017 09:37:27
end_date 12-09-2017 13:15:31
Poll Results:
Which Steelers Deserve Game Balls for the Win over the Bengals (multiple votes allowed)

We’ve kept the ballot short this morning, and that’s not simply out of respect for Shazier, situation.

The blunt reality of the situation is that the Steelers didn’t play good football last night. Watching the first half unfold called to mind Apollo Creed’s words to Rocky Balboa in Rocky III when conceded that knowing that Micky was dying had to have messed with his head, but he nonetheless scolded Rocky.

Le’Veon Bell gets the first slot on the ballot, as Bell had a tough night running, but remained patient, played to the whistle and was clearly a difference maker for the Steelers. Antonio Brown gets second billing. Antnio Brown entered the day listed as “questionable” because of a toe injury, and while he had a couple of slip ups early on, Brown rallied and again was a difference maker for the Steelers.

  • Ben Roethlsiberger was in the first half last night, and his erratic play began before any injuries took place.

But like his teammates, Ben Roethlisberger bounced back in the second half, and led the Steelers to 20 point rally which ultimately was enough for the win.

Martavis Bryant had another game in which he helped convert several critical downs, although he did have a drop on a long ball that he should have caught. Chris Boswell gets the nod for knocking in his third field goal at the buzzer.

  • On defense, there’s slim pickings.

The Steelers defense began the game without two starters, Mike Mitchell and Joe Haden, and losing Shazier created a gaping hole in the middle of the field. At one point it seemed like a preseason game as Anthony Chickillo, L.J. Fort, Cam Sutton, and Arthur Moats all seemed to be in on the field at once.

  • Perhaps that’s memory playing tricks, but it was that kind of night for the Steelers.

With that said, both Bud Dupree and Vince Williams came up with sacks in the 2nd half, and both of those were difference makers so they make the ballot.

Write in Votes Both Allowed and Encouraged

Remember, this isn’t my poll it is your poll. If you think that say, Sean Davis, James Conner or perhaps David DeCastro or another lineman did enough to stand out and deserves a vote, please write their name in.

Better yet, write their names in and leave a comment stating your case. The Steelers Monday Night Football game over the Bengals ended at 1:30 am here in Buenos Aires, so please click here for our full analysis.

 

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Should Steelers Feel Any Buyers Remorse over Trading Ross Cockrell Away?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a problem in their secondary. Labeling them “hiccups” or simply suggesting that big pass plays hindering the defense’s dominance dodges the issue. So we’ll repeat the statistic unearthed during this sites post-Packers analysis and Report Card:

Since Joe Haden left the field injured, the Steelers have given up a 57 yard touchdown pass in every 27 and a half minutes of play.

That’s a searing statistic that shows just how serious of a situation the Steelers must resolve with their secondary. To be fair to Coty Sensabaugh, Haden’s replacement, Artie Burns has been just as much at fault, if not more at fault, for these breakdowns. So have other members of the defense, who’ve literally players slip through their hands.

In other words, issues plaguing Pittsburgh’s defensive backfield might very well go beyond the secondary being different absent Joe Haden.

Which brings us to the question that no one else seems to be asking, so we’ll ask here:

  • Is it time for the Steelers to be feeling some buyer’s remorse over trading Ross Cockrell away?

OK. If you’ve come this far to read this instead of simply seeing the headline on Twitter, rolling your eyes as you click away, stay with us for a second longer.

Ross Cockrell, Steelers vs Raiders, Ross Cockrell interception, Mike Mitchell, William Gay

Ross Cockrell’s Red Zone interception against the Raiders in 2015. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

So let’s be clear, no one, not even the most wild-eyed homer, would suggest that Ross Cockrell’s should change his name to Mel Woodson Taylor. Suggesting that Ross Cockrell would develop into the next Deshea Townsend or William Gay would probably have been a stretch.

Moreover, Coty Sensabaugh appeared to be beating out Cockrell in training camp and he’s only started 4 games in New York, which is enough for Pro Football Focus to rate him as “Poor” whereas PFF rates Sensabaugh as “Average.”

  • With those negatives acknowledged, let’s also accept the advantages that having Ross Cockrell on the roster now would bring.

The biggest benefit that Cockrell would bring is that it would give Keith Butler and Carnell Lake some viable alternatives at cornerback. Steel City Insider’s Jon Ledyard expresses a sentiment that’s common in Steelers Nation these days, if social media is any guide:

Combine these consistent failures with Burns’ penalties and missed tackles and I think we’re all hoping Cameron Sutton shows something soon to start pushing Burns for playing time.

One reader pointed out that the more realistic scenario would be Cam Sutton  pushing Coty Sensabaugh for playing time. Both scenarios breathe new life into the old cliché of “grasping at straws.”

  • Steelers third round pick Cam Sutton has all of what, 6 quarters of preseason experience under his belt?
  • Contrast that with Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Bruns combined 110 games and 6 interceptions.

Should a serious Super Bowl contender really entertain the thought of replacing that kind of experience with a raw rookie 12 games into the season? That’s one’s hard to get your head around.

The Steelers could, however, entertain making the same sort of switch with Ross Cockrell. Sure, Cockrell struggled in the AFC Championship, but which Steelers (other than perhaps Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown) didn’t struggle that night?

Prior to that Ross Cockrell defended 15 passes, including a key 3rd down pass breakup on the road in Cincinnati, while making two interceptions in 15. Perhaps Cockrell is struggling in New York, although playing on a 2-9 team does have the way of bringing out the worst in a player. But last winter when the Steelers laid and original round tender on Cockrell, Steel City Insider editor Jim Wexell observed this:

Here’s another thing: Ross Cockrell is a treasure. He works so hard that no one will dismiss his chances. Therefore, no ones [sic] going to leak that they’re dissatisfied with their outside guys. And really, with how hard Cockrell works and how smart he is, there’s no certainty a high draft pick will beat him out.

And before you write off Wexell as a homer, Pro Football Focus was labeling Ross Cockrell as one of the Steelers “secret superstars” as recently as early July 2017.

Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake have forgotten far more about defensive back development than I will ever know. So has Kevin Colbert, who also understands how to make the cost-benefit calculations that the salary cap demands, and economics certainly factored into the Cockrell trade.

  • But Cockrell could have at least potentially pushed Burns and/or Sensabaugh whereas Cam Sutton is too young and William Gay is too old.

Which means the Steelers really need to find a way to coax Artie Burns out of his slump and get Sutton some help from either Mike Mitchell and/or Sean Davis. Barring that, the Steelers need Joe Haden to get healthy fast.

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NFL Suspends Marcus Gilbert for Four Games. The Bright Side? Steelers Decision on Cam Sutton Just Got Easier

The big story leading into the week following the Steelers Thursday Night trashing of the Tennessee Titans was who would lose their roster spot when the Steelers activated rookie cornerback Cam Sutton from IR. Of course the story took an unexpected twist before the day ended….

Marcus Gilbert, NFL suspends Marcus Gilbert, Mike Mitchell, Steelers vs Rams

Marcus Gilbert celebrates with Mike Mitchell during the Steelers 2015 win at St. Louis. Photo Credit: Rob Cornforth, UPI

On Steel City Insider, writer Jim Wexell focused on L.J. Fort whose been cut and resigned several times and Daniel McCullers, who hasn’t been active yet. He also mentioned backup tackles Matt Feiler and Jerald Hawkins. And on his message board, most of the talk focused on the backup tackles. The fact that the Steelers added offensive tackle Jake Rogers only fueled that fire.

Yet, as the day wore on and the debate developed,  Wexell cautioned:

Jim Wexell’s works on Steelers backup tackles proved to be prophetic

Now we know why.

The NFL suspended Marcus Gilbert for 4 games for use of performance enhancers, meaning the Chris Hubbard will need to protect Ben Roethlisberger’s right side in the Steelers up coming matchups with Green Bay, Cincinnati, Baltimore and yes, New England.

Gilbert issued a statement via Twitter:

While Chris Hubbard already started 6 games this season, the Marcus Gilbert’s suspension deprives the Steelers of one of their best lineman during the stretch run. Gilbert will not appeal the suspension, an appeal which could have impacted his availability for the playoffs. Either way, the move will cost Gilbert:

There is a bright side to the story, however. With Marcus Gilbert off the roster for four weeks, the Steelers will not have to release anyone to activate Cam Sutton from the injured reserve list. The Steelers of course drafted Cam Sutton in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

Sutton spent most of 2017’s training camp out injured, but saw playing time in both the Steelers 3rd and 4th preseasons games and made the final 53 man roster, only to be put on IR. Sutton began practicing with the Steelers 3 weeks ago, and Pittsburgh must decide to activate him or leave him on IR for the rest of the season.

While expecting Cam Sutton to come in and contribute immediately is highly unrealistic, Joe Haden is out with a broken leg, leaving the Steelers shorthanded at cornerback with only William Gay and Brian Allen behind Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Burns.

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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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