Sack Attack: Steelers Preseason Sack Spree Shatters (Recent) Precedents

Let’s begin, because it is important to remain firmly grounded: Its only preseason.

It IS only preseason, and the first game at that, which, in our current era of NFL football, means that the players who take vast majority of snaps will be lucky if they spend a day on an NFL practice squad. But of all of the statistics taken from the Steelers preseason win over the Giants, one sticks out:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers defenders sacked New York Giants quarterbacks 7 times.
TJ Watt, Josh Johnson, TJ Watt Josh Johnson, Steelers preseason Giants

TJ Watt drops Giants Josh Johnson for his second preseasons sack. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Tribune Review

Sure, “It’s only preseason,” but that IS part of the point. Consider this:

  • In the ‘14, ‘15, and ‘16 exhibition openers, Pittsburgh never registered more than one sack
  • 6 sacks – represented the Steelers cumulative sack totals in both ’14 and ’16 preseason campaigns
  • In 7 of 13 preseason games since ’14, the Steelers have either been held to one or zero sacks

These numbers only go back three years, because beyond that it gets hard to find preseason statistics. But it is a safe bet to say that the Steelers lack of pressure on the quarterback on those games was met with the ‘its only preseason’ mantra. But no matter how much you try to ratchet down the enthusiasm, the Steelers pass rush and an impressive evening.

Perhaps Steelers first round draft pick TJ Watt’s efforts are the most indicative of why. Here’s a look at Watt’s first sack:

https://twitter.com/steelers/status/896148169368543234

And now a look at his second:

Mike Tomlin, never one know to praise rookies, threw out some cold water on the way into the locker room at half time reminding everyone that “Those were probably the two easiest sacks of his career.” Fair enough.

That’s why you need to consider why they came so easily. Consider the analysis of “Heinzsight” who commented on Jim Wexell’s Steel City Insider site:

First sack, I thought was a picture perfect four man rush by all…. Heyward was the one that really made it go, collapsing a double team right into the QBs lap. But Watt also did a great job squeezing the OT back on a speed/power rush (which sounds like what Harrison was riding him to do last week). All 4 really squeezed the pocket, but you still have to work free to make the sack, and Watt did. Nothing heroic or mind blowing, but a very good rush by all.

One of Kevin Butler’s credos since replacing Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator has been “Get there with four.” And while the Steelers defense has improved its pass rush since Dick LeBeau “resigned,” they haven’t been “getting their with four.”

  • TJ Watt didn’t do anything special to get to the quarterback on either play.

And that’s the beauty of it. TJ Watt was able to get to the quarterback because Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave were doing theirs. Arthur Moats also notched 3 sacks, and while Mike Tomlin likened that to an 11th grader playing JV, Moats dominated when he was supposed to. That’s good and its characteristic of championship football.

Another notable sack came from training camp stand out Mike Hilton, who looks to be delivering the bang that his roommate from Ole Miss, Senquez Golson hasn’t been able to:

For the record, the Steelers 7th sack of the night came from Farrington Huguenin .

Yes, “Its only preseason.” But seven sacks on a night when neither James Harrison nor Bud Dupree nor Anthony Chickillo nor Ben Roethlisberger (ok, he doesn’t play defense) suited up is a statistic that demands respect now, even if the number will be long forgotten by the times the games count for real.

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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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Hometown Hero Homecoming: Steelers Draft James Conner in 3rd Round, RB Pitt

The close of day two of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Steelers draft James Conner running back from Pitt with their third round compensatory selection.

  • Fans will remember that the Steelers made a similar move with their 3rd round compensatory selection in the 2014 NFL Draft when they took Dri Archer.

Dir Archer turned out to be a veritable head case, but the Steelers can rest assured that James Conner won’t follow in his footsteps. It remains to be seen if Conner can deliver in the NFL, but the man’s character and work ethic are above reproach, as he bounced back from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015 to lead the Pitt Panthers rushing for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016.

Steelers draft James Conner, James Conner, 2017 NFL Draft

Steelers 3rd round draft pick James Conner rushed for 3,733 yards and 52 TD’s at Pitt. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today

Steelers running backs coach James Saxon insisted that Conner wasn’t a sentimental or character pick and James Connor’s highlight reel from Pitt backs him up:

Hearing his name called by the Pittsburgh Steelers is a dream come true for Connor, who in addition to being a standout for Pitt, is an Erie native who played at McDowell High School.

James Connor will provide an immediate boost to a running back depth chart that has struggled to keep two starting caliber running backs healthy since the 2011 season. Le’Veon Bell will remain the uncontested starter, but after Bell the Steelers only have Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis behind him, a duo whose collective yards-per-carry average is 3.15.

James Conner described getting drafted by his hometown team as:

It’s a dream come true. I’m forever grateful to them for giving me the opportunity after everything I’ve been through. I know a lot of teams were scared, but they gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, and they are going to get a great person and a great football player, and I’ll give it my all for them.

The Steelers were expected to go for a running back early in the 2017 NFL Draft and Conner’s third round selection all but confirms what has been obvious for a while, DeAngelo Williams is not in Pittsburgh’s plans for 2017.

  • By drafting James Conner on the third round the Steelers revived what had once been a robust franchise tradition: Giving Pitt Panthers the possibility to play in the NFL.

The Steelers have drafted over 46 players from the University of Pittsburgh, but have not taken a Panther in the NFL Draft since choosing Hank Poteat in the 2000 NFL Draft.

That’s a far cry from the 1980’s, when the Steelers took 6 Pitt Players in the draft, including 3 in the 1989 NFL Draft in the form of Tom Ricketts, Jerry Olsavsky and Carlton Haselrig who was a Pitt-Johnstown graduate.

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Steelers Draft TJ Watt in 1st Round of 2017 NFL Draft. Is He “Unicorn” 3-4 OLB Pittsburgh Seeks?

While it took an inordinate amount of time, especially for those of us who live 1 hour ahead of Eastern time, but Pittsburgh got its man in the 2017 NFL Draft as the 30th pick saw the Steelers draft T.J. Watt, Outside Linebacker out of Wisconsin.

T.J. Watt is of course the younger brother of the Houston Texan’s JJ Watt.

Steelers draft TJ Watt, Mike Tomlin, TJ Watt, Art Rooney II, Steelers 2017 1st Round Draft

Mike Tomlin, with T.J. Watt and Art Rooney II

When asked about coming to Pittsburgh Watt offered this:

The Steelers are a hardworking organization that does it the right way. They have a great bond within the locker room and with the coaches as well. I am really looking forward to it. It’s a great fit for me. It will be a great transition coming from Wisconsin to here and that is why I am so excited.

Based on TJ Watt’s highlights from his junior year at Wisconsin, the Steelers are excited too.

You can be forgiven if you conclude that T.J. Watt brings an extensive resume to Pittsburgh. He doesn’t. After sitting out his Red Shirt Freshman year at tight end, he moved to defense, and then had difficulty making the transition to defense, only playing 8 games as a sophomore.

  • However, his junior year was impressive, as he recorded 11 sacks, 15.5 tackles for a loss, and made 63 tackles with one interception.

However, that experience didn’t deter the Steelers as Mike Tomlin explained:

T.J. is a rock solid young man who has a lot of upside. He doesn’t have a lot of experience at the position, but at the same time we saw some things that were exciting to us. His hand usage in particular for a guy with his short resume at the position was exciting. His production speaks for itself. He’s just a quality guy and a quality pick for us.

Although several names mocked to the Steelers were gone by the time they picked 30th, In picking Watt, the Steelers passed on an number of cornerbacks who will probably no longer be there late in the second round.

Is T.J. Watt the “Unicorn” OLB the Steelers have Been Seeking?

While outside linebacker, or “Edge Rusher” was seen as a major Steelers need heading into the draft, a strong sentiment existed that favored the Steelers drafting secondary first (pun intended), given edge rushers are not as effective against quick release quarterbacks.

This is nothing new.

Prior to the Steelers picking Cameron Heyward with their first round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Tim Gleason, aka “Mary Rose” from Behind the Steel Curtain lobbied for the Steelers to take a cornerback, arguing that “Tom Brady will get rid of the ball before Cameron Heyward can even touch him.”

  • What has changed, however, is that the Steelers play in their base 3-4 defense less and less frequently.

That has led some writers, such as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, to suggest that the Steelers abandon their search for a quality 3-4 linebacker, who can rush the passer, set the edge against the run, AND drop into coverage and focus on getting a player who more closely matches a 4-3 defensive end.

However, a few days before the draft, Wexell’s colleague at Steel City Insider, Matt C. Steel rated T.J. Watt as 3rd best overall fit for the Steelers in the draft explaining:

This guy might be the unicorn they’re looking for at outside linebacker. Watt still has the frame to put on another 10-15 pounds, and with only one year of playing defense, his upside is tremendous. The knee injuries prevent me from putting him first on this list, but I’m hearing the Lions, Cowboys, and Packers are all showing heavy interest, so I’d be surprised if he makes it to pick 30.

T.J. Watt himself seems to be aware that he’s being brought in Pittsburgh to play just that role, as he told Jim Wexell:

That’s something I’ve been doing at Wisconin [sic] these past two years and I think that’s why I translate so well to the (Steelers) defense. I’ve shown on film I can play a 3-technique if I really have to. I can set the edge really good, and I can get after the passer. I think that’s ultimately what makes a really good football player and I think having great players around me is what’s going to make us a great team.

And so it is. Four years ago the Steelers went down this route in their first attempt to replace James Harrison when they drafted Jarvisy Jones with the 13th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft. As we know, the Jarvis Jones experiment failed miserably.

  • Jarvis Jones had a great college track record, but poor mesaurables.

In contrast, T.J. Watt seems has measurables but not a lot of college production. So the Steelers are taking the opposite tact in trying to replace a man who is irreplaceable. Let’s hope they have better luck.

Welcome to Steelers Nation, T.J. Watt.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line: Low-Moderate

Getting “Younger and stronger” on defensive line was one of Mike Tomlin’s stated objectives when the Steelers 2008 off season began. As it was, the Steelers would continue to open with the same starting threesome for the next 3 seasons, and it wasn’t until the beginning of the 2015 season that Steelers defensive line had been completely renewed.

The question heading into the 2017 NFL Draft is whether the Steelers want to stand pat or continue that renewal process.

Stephon Tuitt, Tyrod Taylor, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Defensive line

Tyrod Taylor is road kill in Stephon Tuitt’s wake. Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via Bleacher Report

Steelers Depth Chart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starters

Two studs in the form of defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt bookend the Steelers defensive line.

During his first two years with the Steelers Cam Heyward doubters were easy to find, but in 2013 he beat out Ziggy Hood for the starting job and since then has established himself as one of the best defensive ends in the league. Cameron Heyward has 25 sacks, 18 passes defensed and a pair of forced fumbles and fumble recoveries to his name, but staistics do not do the man justice.

Week in and week out, Cameron Heyward makes the types of plays that don’t always show up on the stat sheet – unless you count the Steelers keeping more points on the board than their opponents.

Injuries to Brett Keisel thrust Stephon Tuitt into the starting line up late in the 2014 season, and no one has looked back since. With Cameron Heyward out for the second half of 2016, Stephon Tuitt stepped up as a leader of the unit, and despite Cam’s absence, the Steelers defense improved during the latter part of the season.

If you’re surprised to discover that Javon Hargrave didn’t start the entire year, so was I. He had to wait until week to get his first start, but held on to the job from that point in the season, and established himself along side Artie Burns and Sean Davis as one of the three rookies who made an immediate impact to improve the Steelers defense.

Like his fellow rookies, something clicked for Hargrave during the second half of the season, as Hargrave got his first sack and first fumble recovery in the Steelers road win over the Cleveland Browns. Hargrave got another sack in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts, and also got to Tom Brady early in the AFC Championship game loss.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Finding depth on the Steelers defensive line has been a challenge for Pittsburgh, forcing Johnny Mitchell give his starters more snaps than he would like.

  • In 2016 the Steelers defensive line took a step in the right direction, as L.T. Walton stepped up in Cam Heyward’s absence as did Ricardo Mathews.

The Steelers have taken another step in that direction by signing free agent Tyson Alualu, a former first round pick out of Jacksonville who can play either at defensive end or a nose tackle.

Tyson Alualu’s arrival might spell the end for backup nose tackle Daniel McCullers. The Shady Tree offers and imposing physical presence, standing at 6’7” 352 pounds and his snap count percentage did jump from 9.5% in 2015 to 17.4% in 2016, which is good, but given all of the injuries the Steelers suffered on the defensive line, you’d expect to see McCullers getting even more playing time.

Injuries forced practice squad player John Maxey into the action in late in 2016 and Maxley did his part to help prove Mike Tomlin’s “The Standard is the Standard.”

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Defensive Line

The Steelers quest to rebuild their defensive line took longer than expected, although part of that is due to the longevity of Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton (although whiffing on Ziggy Hood didn’t help the cause.)Steelers 2017 Draft Needs defensive line

  • Yet, even after the Steelers found three competent starters on defensive line, they struggled to back them up.

Time was that when the Steelers had to play without either Cameron Heyward or Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers run defense became a sieve and the team lost. That fact seemed to doom the Steelers chances after Cameron Heyward went on injured reserve in 2016.

However, the rest of the defensive line responded and not only survived but thrived despite Cam Heyward’s absence. That shows that the Pittsburgh Steelers have real depth on their defensive line, and the unit got deeper with the addition of Alualu Tyson.

Let’s be clear, in the contemporary NFL, the difference between an outside linebacker and a defensive end is getting blurred by the concept of “Edge Rusher” and that’s not even taking to account that the Steelers depend on their nickel package, which includes four down lineman, all the more frequently.

  • Edge Rusher” is clearly a Steelers priority, and if they find someone who falls into that category who happens to play defensive line, then the rating you’re about to read is rendered moot.

However, if we’re confining our conversation to conventional 3-4 defensive lineman then the Steelers depth chart is as solid as it has been during the Mike Tomlin era, and Steelers draft need at defensive line can be considered Low-Moderate.

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Steelers Free Agent Signings of Hunter, Davis Sensabaugh & Tyson Alualu Offer Insurance

Ever notice how a certain album produces a few hit singles, while another just sort of hits you with one nice song after another, until you look up in February and realize it was just nominated for a Grammy?

When it comes to the NFL’s annual free-agent frenzy, the Pittsburgh Steelers never have any hit singles, let alone a few. This year was no exception, as big-time name after big-time name went off the proverbial “big board,” while Pittsburgh just sat back and made its entire fan base feel unfilled. (The re-signings of backup quarterback Landry Jones and journeyman tight end David Johnson did nothing to satiate anyone’s appetite.)

Nearly a week past, before Pittsburgh made news again (kind of), by agreeing to terms with both cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and running back/return specialist Knile Davis. 

Saving the best for last, the Steelers came to terms with veteran defensive lineman Tyson Alualu on a two-year deal for $6 million.

Senquez Golson, Senquez Golson injury, cotty sensabaugh

The Steelers signed free agent Cotty Sensabaugh as insurance that Senquez Golson can’t provide. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Actually, the addition of Tyson Alualu to an already talented defensive line was seen as a sound move by Pittsburgh, a signing that could pay huge dividends this season, as Alualu will no doubt be an upgrade over the likes of Ricardo Mathews and Cam Thomas, two free-agent signings who provided depth along the defensive line to varying degrees of success in recent years.

  • With Tyson Alualu acting as the cherry on top of the cake, Pittsburgh’s current free-agent crop now doesn’t look so bad, and you kind of get an idea of what the organization’s goal was from the start.

The 2017 free-agency period wasn’t about the splash move (even if Dont’a Hightower was wined and dined before he decided to stay with the Patriots); it wasn’t even necessarily about finding a veteran who may have not been seen as very splashy, but one would have started at a position of need.

  • No, if these four signings are any indication, the Steelers were driven by providing insurance in a few key areas.

Despite losing star defensive end Cameron Heyward to a season-ending injury on November 13, Keith Butler‘s young and often struggling defense showed great improvement over the last seven games and into the playoffs. But how much better off would the unit have been had it been able to plug in a defensive lineman of Tyson Alualu’s pedigree down-the-stretch?

The 10th pick of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Jaguars, Alualu started 88 games during his seven seasons in Jacksonville. While he hasn’t quite lived up to his lofty draft-status, he is clearly a talent upgrade over the likes of Mathews and Thomas and should strengthen Pittsburgh’s defensive line rotation. And in the likely scenario that Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave or Heyward has to miss time due to injuries next season, the gap from from starter to reserve shouldn’t be as great as it was in 2016.

After the Tennessee Titans made him the 34th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, Hunter, 25, has bounced around the league.

  • Justin Hunter averaged just over 22 receptions a season, before catching 10 in 2016.

With 78 career receptions for just over 1,300 yards, Hunter has fallen well short of his lofty pre-draft potential that included a 6’4″, 200-pound frame and 4.4 speed. But if we’re going to speak of pedigree, however, fairness demands that we acknowledge that Justin Hunter has never had a quarterback with Ben Roethlisberger‘s skill-set throwing to him; maybe if he had, his potential would have been fleshed out just a bit more.

Martavis Bryant,

Martavis Bryant reviews a play on a tablet during the 2015 season. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today via stillcurtain.com

Four of Hunter’s 10 catches went for touchdowns in 2016, so maybe he could benefit from now finding himself on a roster with not only Roethlisberger but some of the NFL’s best offensive weapons in Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant.

In a worst-case scenario, if Martavis Bryant, if he doesn’t find himself back on a football field next year, and Sammie Coates can’t recover from the finger ailments that derailed what started out as a promising sophomore season in 2016, Hunter should be a much more talented alternative than the likes of Cobi Hamilton

As for Knile Davis and Coty Sensabaugh, while the Steelers would obviously be in a bad way if either had to start many games at their respective positions in 2017, they should also provide some decent insurance,

Knile Davis, for example, may never be more than competition for Fitzgerald Toussaint, but if he does win the job as the team’s third running back, this will open the door to providing his real value as a kickoff returner.

With 1,960 career return yards on his resume, Knile Davis should be a significant upgrade over Toussaint, who averaged just 21.3 yards per kickoff return last season.

Finally, Coty Sensabaugh may not have been the veteran cornerback Steelers fans were hoping for–far from it–but he did start 15 games for the Titans two years ago.

  • Besides, the Steelers secondary may not need a splashy free-agent signing to see an upgrade.

If Artie Burns and Sean Davis improve over their already rather impressive  rookie seasons, and if Senquez Golson finally sees a football field in 2017 and ultimately performs like his 2015 second round pedigree, Coty Sensabaugh will act as the best insurance policy: one you never need to cash in on.

No, the Steelers didn’t make any big-time signings, but their free-agent class seems a bit more impressive when you examine it for it what really is.

Some nice insurance.

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Steelers Sign Tyson Alualu. Has Johnny Mitchell Found the Coveted “4th Lineman” for His Rotation?

After remaining relatively inactive during the first wave of free agency, Pittsburgh as been busy this week signing three players into days with the franchise’s latest acquisition seeing the Steelers sign Tyson Alualu the free agent defensive lineman from Jacksonville to a two year contract.

  • During the 2010 NFL Draft the Jacksonville Jaguars surprised the rest of the league when they drafted Tyson Alualu with the 10th overall pick.

Since then Tyson Alualu has had a solid, but hardly spectacular career, although it should be noted that he did make several “All Rookie teams” in 2010, per reporting by Jim Wexell on Steel City Insider.

Tyson Alualu, Steelers 2017 free agents, Steelers defensive line

Steelers reserve defensive lineman Tyson Alualu in Pittsburgh after arriving as a free agent. Photo Credit: Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette

With seven seasons under his belt, Tyson Alualu provides a perfect example of a player who may not have lived up to his lofty draft status, but is very far from being a bust. He’s never missed a game due to injury, he brings the Steelers 88 games of starting experience, 17.5 sacks, and offers position flexibility with the ability to play either nose tackle or defensive end.

All of this must make for pure music in the ears of Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell

Does Johnny Mitchell Finally Have his Coveted 4th Lineman?

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell has been with the team since the fall of 1994, having replace Steve Furness as part of Bill Cowher‘s coaching purge following the 1993 season. During Johnny Mitchell’s watch and, particularly during the Kevin Colbert era, the Steelers defensive line has been a model of stability.

While each of those starters played a critical role in securing Lombardi Trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII, their impact and importance of their understudies cannot be under stated. Johnny Mitchell’s system relies heavily on rotating defensive lineman in and out throughout the game.

  • But for Mitchell’s system to be effective, the Steelers can’t suffer a drop of in quality of play when the starter has taken a breather.

For a long time, players like Chris Hoke, Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason were good enough to allow Mitchell rotate Keisel, Smith and Hampton in out as needed. In his two years in Pittsburgh, Al Woods looked he was growing into that same role but the Steelers stint in salary cap purgatory in prevented the team from keeping Al Woods in Pittsburgh in 2014.

They signed Cam Thomas instead, who was decidedly not up to the role. Daniel McCullers whom the Steelers drafted during the 2014 NFL Draft has flashed, but has yet to show he can take that role. Ricardo Mathews performed well after Cam Hewyard was lost for the season and so did L.T. Walton.

  • But the Steelers appear to have found an upgrade from both men in Tyson Alualu.

During the heyday of Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel’s tenures, Johnny Mitchell quipped – not altogether jokingly – the he would retire when this trio began their “Life’s Work.” The arrival of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and most recently Javon Hargrave has provided Mitchell with another fearsome threesome.

Tyson Alualu just might provide the type of talent and stability that Mitchell needs to get his rotation humming.

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Thoughts on Mike Tomlin, Lawrence Timmons and Steelers Head Coaches First Draft Picks

Lawrence Timmons decision to sign with the Miami Dolphins marked a sad day in Steelers Nation. For ten years Lawrence Timmons had been a mainstay of the Steelers defense, first giving Dick LeBeau and the Keith Butler a durable, reliable presence in the middle of the field.

  • Lawrence Timmons had also been Mike Tomlin’s first draft pick.

Commentators were quick to assert that a head coach losing his maiden draft selection to the free agent market means something, and it does, but just what does it actually mean?

Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior, Ryan Clark, Brett Swain, Super Bowl XLV

Lawrence Timmons goes for a loose ball in Super Bowl XLV. Photo Credit: Streeter Lecka, Getty Images via Zimbio

It sounds sexy to say that a new head coach defines his legacy with his first draft pick and sometimes it’s true. Jimmy Johnson certainly defined his legacy in Dallas for the better by picking Troy Aikman just as Norv Turner did the opposite by picking Heath Shuler.

  • But in other cases the analogy falls flat.

Does anyone really want to try to argue that Bill Walsh in any way defined his legacy in San Francisco by picking making James Owens his first pick in 1979?

Which brings us to the question – how, and to what extent does Lawrence Timmons define Mike Tomlin’s legacy in Pittsburgh?

Steelers Head Coaches & Their First Picks

Steelers history gives a mixed bag when it comes to head coaches and their first picks. And this is a lot more difficult discussion to have in Pittsburgh than say in Cleveland or Washington, as the Steelers have only had 3 head coaches since the end of the Lyndon Johnson administration.

Buddy Parker’s first picks was Len Dawson, which is painfully appropriate for his legacy. Dawson is one of various quarterbacks the Steelers brought into the league that won Super Bowls and/or NFL Championships for someone other than Pittsburgh.

Bill Austin’s first pick ever was a fullback by the name of Dick Leftridge who played all of one season and had a total of 8 yards rushing and got cut the next summer for show up overweight.

Some have suggested that Dick Leftridge could have been a victim of Bill Austin’s racism, while another source consulted to verify this argues that Leftride did in fact lack  the commitment to conditioning. Either way Austin’s pick of Leftridge was certainly indicative of the Steelers failure with the draft.

Joe Greene, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Sr.

Chuck Noll and Joe Greene Shake hands in front of Art Rooney Sr. in 1982. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On the flip side, picking Joe Greene first most certainly defined Chuck Noll’s legacy as Joe Greene’s arrival in Pittsburgh was the fulcrum that turned a perennial loser on to the path to being the greatest football team in the history of the sport.

In contrast, assessing the impact of Bill Cowher’s decision to pick (along with Tom Donahoe) Leon Searcy on The Chin’s legacy is a little more nebulous. To a certain degree, picking Searcy signaled a full-throated embrace of physical, power football that characterized the Cowher years in Pittsburgh.

  • But would anyone ever argue that Leon Searcy was a legacy defining pick?

I daresay the answer is no.

2007 Tomlin Takes Charge, Picks Lawrence Timmons First

The Steelers turned heads in the 2007 NFL Draft when they picked two outside linebackers, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley with picks number one and number two. (Yes, the Steelers originally picked Timmons as an outside linebacker.)

Unfortunately, Lawrence Timmons early career doesn’t give opponents of the “Tomlin’s only won with Cowher’s players” nonsense much ammunition. Timmons played very little as a rookie and, while he made impressive contributions in spot duty in 2008, most of those came at outside linebacker in relief of James Harrison. Timmons started in 2009, but the fact that he split time with Keyaron Fox had some fans labeling him a bust.

  • But if Timmons took a few years to find his NFL footing, he exploded in 2010.
Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Steelers vs Titans, Bo Scaife

Lawrence Timmons slams Titans Bo Scaife as James Harrison looks on in Pittsburgh’s 2010 win over Tennessee. Photo Credit: New Pittsburgh Courier

And from 2010 onwards, Lawrence Timmons clearly established himself as a Mike Tomlin talent acquisition success story, even if he had a subpar 2011 campaign. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell observed:

Timmons was explosive. And productive. And he played week in and week out. Timmons started the last 111 games (counting postseason) that the Steelers played. In his eight regular seasons as the starter, he averaged 95 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 passes defensed and 1.4 forced fumbles per season.

Mike Tomlin likes to draft his players, especially premium picks, young and the statistics that Jim Wexell cites show just how effective that strategy has been. The Steelers win 8-8 reloading seasons and the “4 seasons between playoff wins” chant were frustrating for sure.

In seminal 2014 article Déjà vu All Over Again , Jim Wexell compared the post-2011 Steelers to the 1998-2000 Steeler teams and argued that the presence of Ben Roethlisberger as opposed to Kordell Stewart under center is what explains Pittsburgh’s ability to keep the franchise’s head above water.

He’s right of course, but quarterbacks can’t carry a team on their own, and Lawrence Timmons steadfast playmaking presence on the Steelers defense during those years was arguably just as important as Roethlisberger’s was to the defense during that time span.

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Lawrence Timmons downs Thad Lewis of the Browns in the penultimate play of 2012. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Think back to the Pittsburgh’s 2012 finale. The Steelers limped into the game against the Browns with an 7-8 record and, with the Steelers defending a two touchdown lead late in the fourth quarter, Lawrence Timmons ended the game with dramatic back-to-back sacks.

It was almost as if Timmons was proclaiming to the rest of the league, “Yes, the Steelers are down, but we’re not out.”

Lawrence Timmons and Tomlin’s Legacy

Lawrence Timmons continued to be the Steelers best defender for the next several seasons. By 2014 one could argue that Cameron Heyward had taken over that role, and by 2016 with Cam Heyward out, Ryan Shazier had established himself as Pittsburgh’s Alpha Male on defense.

  • But Lawrence Timmons continued to dominate, as 2016 second half surge proved.

Despite losing its best player, and despite starting rookies Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave the Steelers defense staged and impressive turn around during the second half of 2016, and Lawrence was a big part of it coming up with two sacks and two interceptions in the last 7 games, followed by his twin sacks to close the win over the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs.

It is just as unfortunate it the game marked Lawrence Timmons final game as a Pittsburgh Steeler. If Mike Tomlin is to reach the Mountain Top again, he’ll have to do it without the Law Dog.

  • In that sense, Lawrence Timmons’ impact on Mike Tomlin’s legacy falls somewhere between that of his predecessors.

Chuck Noll reached the Mountain Top with Joe Greene, and never sniffed it without him. Leon Searcy helped Bill Cowher broach the pinnacle in Super Bowl XXX, but the time The Chin summited in Super Bowl XL Searcy was a distant memory.

Mike Tomlin and Lawrence Timmons might have only reached the Mountain Top once together in Super Bowl XLIII, but Lawrence Timmons did so much to keep the Mountain Top in reach during the rest of his time in Pittsburgh.

And for that, Steelers Nation says, “Thank You Lawrence Timmons.”

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Why Steelers Should Let Free Agent Ricardo Mathews Walk & Seek Depth in 2017 Draft

Defensive end Ricardo Mathews was the quintessential journeyman free-agent when the Steelers signed him to a one-year veteran minimum contract for $760,000 last March.

One year later, it appears as nothing’s changed. Just days away from free-agency, Mathews will soon be free to shop his services to other teams. Will he do so, or will he set up some roots in Pittsburgh, provided Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Johnny Mitchell want him back….?

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Ricardo Mathews lines up in the 2016 Steelers road win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of Ricardo Mathews Steelers Career

Mathews was a seventh round pick by the Colts in the 2010 NFL Draft; after making the team out of training camp, he initially set up roots in Indianapolis, where he remained for four years. Mathews started six games as a member of the Colts, recording five sacks and 67 tackles.

In 2014, Mathews elected to sign with the Texans as a free-agent, but was waived and never appeared in any regular season games for Houston. However, Mathews found a home with the Chargers that same year and remained in San Diego through the 2015 season, before signing that aforementioned one-year deal with the Steelers.

The Steelers brought Ricardo Mathews to Pittsburgh to replace/upgrade the position previously held by Cam Thomas, who’d also come from the San Diego Chargers.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mathews 

Teams covet depth for a reason, and when star defensive end Cameron Heyward played in only seven games in 2016 due to multiple injuries, you saw why depth is so important.

In Ricardo Mathews, 29, the Steelers had a veteran player who started seven games for the Chargers the year before; they were forced to lean on that experience, as he started five games a year ago. While he only recorded eight tackles and one sack during the season, Mathews appeared in all 16 games in 2016 and played a bigger role than anyone could have anticipated.

During the Steelers embarrassing October loss against the Miami Dolphins where, Jay Ajayi ran like Walter Peyton in his prime, it appeared that the Dolphins had been targeting Ricardo Mathews.

Yet, the Steelers run defense improved during the final nine games of 2016 and that only happens if Ricardo Mathews is pulling his weight.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ricardo Mathews 

While Ricardo Mathews did play a fairly big role in 2016, he obviously didn’t make the splash plays that fellow defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt, rookie Javon Hargrave and Came Heyward are capable of. That was to be expected, of course. After all, if a journeyman defensive lineman was capable of making the same types of splash plays as superstars and promising rookies, he wouldn’t be a journeyman defensive lineman.

I believe Rotoworld summed up Mathews’ pedigree quite nicely, even before his arrival in Pittsburgh:

“A career reserve, Mathews played 525 ineffective snaps for the Chargers last season. He’s just a body for the Steelers, one who faces an uphill climb to crack the 53-man roster.”

A year later, can anyone suggest that Ricardo Mathews is anything more? Sure, he was an upgrade over Cam Thomas but so what? Keith Willis or Kevin Henry could probably come out of retirement and offer an improvement over Cam Thomas.

  • OK, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but its probably not to suggest that a health Brett Keisel could pull himself up off the couch to contribute more than Cam Thomas did.

L.T. Walton and Johnny Maxey showed they can play giving the Steelers cheaper and younger alternatives to Ricardo Mathews.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ricardo Mathews 

While Mathews did crack the 53-man roster a year ago and proved to be more than just a body for the Steelers, fact is, he’ll be 30 by the start of training camp. And in-addition to fighting the likes of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave for playing time, youngsters Daniel McCullers, L.T. Walton and Johnny Maxey are also in the mix.

While it would be nice to have a player with Ricardo Mathews’ experience on the roster in-case of injury, L.T. Walton and Daniel McCullers have now gained enough experience that they should be ready to step in and provide reasonable depth at a moment’s notice.

The Steelers would be wise to let Ricardo Mathews explore the free agent market, while looking to add defensive line depth through the draft.

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Steelers 2016 Season Highlights Living Example of Mike Tomlin’s “Moving Train” Metaphor

Crafting a compelling, yet honest, Steelers 2016 annual review presents a challenge, but Steelers President Art Rooney II is on the right track. While Rooney’s take aways from 2016 are by and large positive, he underscored the need for more “consistency” several times.

  • Head coach Mike Tomlin offers an even better metaphor for summing up the Steelers 2016 season – the moving train.

The “Moving train” metaphor is a Tomlinism that popped into the Steelers Nation’s vernacular in 2014 when Tomlin used it to explain Shamarko Thomas and Lance Moore’s inability to get back into the lineup after an injury. This year he applied it to Ladarius Green.

The truth is that Steelers 2016 season highlights Mike Tomlin’s “Moving train” metaphor perfectly – When the Steelers were on it, they got where they wanted to go; When the Steelers failed to get on it, they stranded themselves.

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Steelers 2016 season highlights: DeAngelo Williams dives forward at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

2016 Steelers Forge Moving Train Identify Early

Like his predecessor Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin has oft asserted that an NFL team finds its identity in the first 4 to 6 weeks of the season and that was certainly true of the Steelers in 2016.

The Steelers entered the 2016 off season as Super Bowl contenders, and despite some radical personnel disruptions on offense, the Steelers 38-16 opening a day win over the Washington Redskins confirmed their status as potential champions.

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Steelers 2016 Season Highlight: Antonio Brown scores a touchdown on opening night against Redskins. Photo Credit: Washington Post

History will forget that the Redskins actually forced a turnover to start the game and then quickly leapt to a 6-0 lead before the 2nd quarter began because the Steelers, like a moving train, never appeared to lose control. The story was the same a week later in Cincinnati. The Steelers didn’t dominate their rivals, but also never trailed during a 24-16 win.

  • In Philadelphia, the Steelers found the nasty flipside to the identity they were forging.

The Steelers opened by advancing to the Eagle’s 18 in a drive that consumed 6 minutes of clock, only to have Markus Wheaton drop a touchdown pass and Chris Boswell miss a field goal. And in the blink of an eye, the Steelers were off the train as they never contested the Eagles dominance after that point.

  • And so went the entire season.

At Miami, Ben Roethlisberger’s injury knocked the Steelers off the moving train and struggled to get back on the locomotive for the next 3 weeks. The only exception to the “moving train” metaphor came in the loss to Cowboys. Yes, the loss was dramatic, and potentially devastating precisely because the Steelers contested that game until the bitter end.

  • Undaunted by such drama, Mike Tomlin pulled the Steelers back on to the moving train for Steelers for 9 straight wins.

While the Steelers certainly didn’t dominate in each of those contests, Pittsburgh never let any of those games get out of control. Even in the come from behind win over the Bengals, and even on Christmas, when the Ravens re-took the lead with 1:18 remaining, the Steelers on the field demeanor never suggested that they couldn’t regain control.

  • Contrast that with the AFC Championship game.
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Steelers 2016 season highlights: Le’Veon Bell’s record breaking season stopped short in New England. Photo Credit: 247 Sports

The Patriots easily advanced to Pittsburgh’s 18 on their first drive, but the Steelers defense forced a in the Red Zone. However the Steelers offense answered with two strong runs by Le’Veon Bell followed Sammie Coates dropping well-placed bomb on third down. Javon Hargrave ended the Patriot’s next possession by sacking Tom Brady on 3rd down, but the Steelers offense responded with a 3 and out, the Steelers effectively out of the game at that point.

As a consequence, the 2016 Steelers were forced to watch the moving train continue to Super Bowl LI.

Why Did Mike Tomlin’s Moving Train Suddenly Stop and Start?

If Mike Tomlin’s moving train metaphor explains how the Steelers 2016 season unfolded, it does little to explain why things worked out that way. But objectively speaking, there’s no mysterious X-Factor behind Pittsburgh’s hot and cold performances of the 2016 season.

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Steelers 2016 season highlights: Art Rooney II talks consistency. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Pro Football Talk

Art Rooney II hit the nail on the head in asserting that the Steelers need to be more consistent in establish a pass rush, covering in the secondary and scoring touchdowns in the Red Zone.

  • A football genius shouldn’t need to tell you if you can’t execute in these three areas, you won’t win much.

The good news is the Steelers pass rush and pass coverage improved during the latter half of the season. The Steelers Red Zone efficiency continued to be an issue, as evidenced by twin Chris Boswell 6 field goal games in December and January.

Although it may not feel that way now that New England has unequivocally asserted its dominance as the AFC’s alpha male, the Steelers did end 2016 with the arrow pointed up, and can potentially take some lessons from that experience into 2017.

A Year Later, Steelers Still Mastering Art of Learning How to Win…

The original theme for this article was to be “Struggling to Grow, Learning to Win.” It’s catchy, there’s a lot of truth to support such a sexy narrative. Unfortunately, the title of this site’s Steelers 2015 season review was “Learning to win by Overcoming Adversity.” Beyond being repetitive, it also invites the question “When are the Steelers going to stop ‘Learning to win’ and actually go about winning a Super Bowl?”

That’s a fair point, but the art of learning how to win and/or unlearning how to lose is very real process that champions must master. There’s no better example of two teams heading in different directions along this continuum than the Steelers and Bengals during the 2015 Wild Card game.

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Steelers 2016 season highlights: Lawrence Timmons slams Colts Phillip Dorsett in Steelers goaline stand. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers goal line stands against the Colts and the Giants, Eli Roger’s and Ladarius Green’s key catches against the Bengals, Ryan Shazier’s and Lawrence Timmons fill in the blanks splash plays, Bud Dupree’s sacks vs. the Bill and all of the plays that culminated in Antonio Brown’s Christmas Day stretch count as part of the process of learning to win.

Lessons Steelers Must Take from 2016 to 2017

But those aren’t the lessons the Steelers need to take with them into 2017, instead here are 3 quick hits on what those lessons should be:

1. Expect the unexpected

To Mike Tomlin’s credit, he started preaching this the morning after Super Bowl XLIII and has reminded the team of this since. But contrast the names on the stat sheet from last year’s loss to Denver against those from the Patriots game or track the changes in the Steelers depth chart from the beginning of training camp to December 1st, and you see what Tomlin is talking about.

Sure, having Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton or Cameron Heyward would have helped the Steelers against the Patriots, but had they been available, its just as likely that someone else would have been out.

2. Toll the Bell, Just not Too Much

No one can accuse Todd Haley of being too pass happy during the second half of the season. 3 record breaking performances by Le’Veon Bell say that the Steelers executing the strategy that gave them the best chance to win.

  • But without Bell the Steelers were rudderless against the Patriots.

And, while more needs to be seen, it also seems like an over-reliance on Bell may be adding some rustiness to Roethlisberger’s game. Le’Veon Bell has Hall of Fame caliber talent, but the Steelers would be wise to remember that they had to do more than feed the ball to Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis to win their first 5 Super Bowls (well, OK, perhaps that’s not the case with Super Bowl X.)

3. Killer Bees + 1 = Steelers Success

Assuming that the Steelers can keep the trio together without busting their salary cap, and assuming that the sniping between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown doesn’t turn toxic, the Killer Bees give the Steelers a Super Bowl caliber trio along the lines of Aikman, Irvin and Emmitt.

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Steelers 2016 season highlights: Killer Bees led to a lot of Steelers success. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

But just as those Dallas teams also needed their Alvin Harpers, Jay Novacks, Charles Haleys and Thomas Everetts (yeah, that hurt), the Steelers Killer Bees can’t do it on their own. The loss to Dallas brought that to light and, quite frankly, even had Bell not gotten hurt, the Patriots probably would have provided Pittsburgh with another reminder.

  • While the Steelers would do wise to keep Ben, Brown and Bell together as long as they can, they also must be mindful the the 3 of them can’t do it alone.

The Steelers 2016 season is now history. The 2017 off season will bring new challenges and new faces while some familiar names will depart for greener pastures or otherwise begin their Life’s Work. If the Steelers 2016 season highlights a living example of Mike Tomlin’s “Moving Train” then the reality is that train could deliver Pittsburgh’s return to the Super Bowl, but it did move them a step closer.

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