Review of Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel – Jack Lambert Liked It and So Will Serious Steelers Fans

Who are former Pittsburgh Steelers Bill Dudley, Elbie Nickel, John Reger and Myron Pottios and what they mean to the franchise’s legacy? Unless you’re in your mid-60’s or older, you’ve probably never heard of them, let alone considered their importance.

After you read Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel, an 187 page volume published in 2006 and reissued in 2011, you’ll know more about 36 men who wore the Black and Gold before during and after the Super Bowl era and what’s more, Wexell’s work will make you care about their contribution to the Steelers legacy.

  • At first glance, Jim Wexell’s lean, simple structure to Men of Steel might appear to be a drawback, but in truth it is one of the book’s greatest strengths.

Each of the 36 Steelers Wexell profiles gets between four and five pages to tell their story, including first hand interviews, highlights from the player’s career and an update on each player’s “Life’s Work.”

Jim Wexell, Jim Wexell Men of Steel

Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger on the cover of the 2011 edition of Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel

Wexell effectively employs this spare approach to lend a rich relevance to the stories of familiar players to players from yesterday that even the most diehard Steelers fans will struggle to recognize.

The average “educated Steelers fan” might be vaguely familiar with the Steelers role in effectively ending the career of Y.A. Title, but most probably don’t know that the man who sacked Tuttle on that fateful play was John Baker, a man who went on to serve as sheriff of Wake County, North Carolina for the better part of two decades.

Devoting so much space to pre-Noll era Steelers might seem counter-intuitive from a commercial stand point, but Wexell explains, “I wanted to get the same amount of Steelers from each era, with the stipulation that I have to talk to them.”

Expanding on this goal, Wexell details, “I heard that Steelers fans wanted more of the stars, but I just assumed they had access to the internet. I’ve always wanted to know about some of the older players.” Wexell learned and shared stories.

And on that front, Wexell delivers, benefitting on guidance from the Steelers legendary PR man Joe Gordon, who for example, pointed him in the direction of Johnny Lattner, the only Heisman Trophy winner to sign with the Steelers.

Jim Wexell weaves each tale by starting with a key fact or action taken by the player, establishing its significance to the narrative and then providing the reader with a firsthand account from the player. After that, Wexell navigates seamlessly through the player’s college, pro and post-football careers.

  • Each chapter ends with the player moving on just as the reader turns the page to begin the next in medias res narrative a new player.

A book browser who might pick up Men of Steel, scan its table of contents, and see that Wexell takes 16 chapters to get to the beginning of the Super Steelers era could easily put the book down thinking there’s nothing interesting in there for fans focused on rooting for Mike Tomlin to bring home Lombardi Number Seven.

  • They’d be making a grave error however.

Wexell combines crisp, succinct sentences with detailed, game-specific research to deliver compelling stories about men who blazed the trails that opened the way for the NFL and the Steelers to become the icons we adore today.

Wexell matches his economy of words with copious research, as he relates, “There’s really my art. I love research. I love sitting in libraries and poring through microfiche.”

Men of Steel Narrative Galvanized by Super Bowl Era and 80’s Stories

The majority of Wexell’s Men of Steel is devoted to telling the stories of the Steelers from the Chuck Noll era onward. Steelers fans will see names that they know, starting with Joe Greene and ending with stories on Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger.

Wexell secured an exclusive interview with the Steelers signal caller prior to Super Bowl XLV and also documents a pre-draft nugget linking Roethlisberger to Steelers scout Mark Gorscak (the need for greater insight into the Steelers draft evaluation process has long been a pet cause of this site.)

Along the way, Wexell scores a rare interview with Jack Lambert. When prodded about how he got the reclusive Steelers legend to speak, Wexell shares that he’d tried, and failed to get an interview for his first book, Tales from Behind the Steel Curtain and for Men of Steel:

[For] , Men of Steel, I made the cursory call. He didn’t answer. I left a message, again, figuring he wouldn’t call back. But he did. “I don’t usually return calls to people like you,” he said with a pause. “But I thought your first book was the best Steelers book ever written. How can I help you?”

Jack Lambert, Jack Lambert Sports Illustrated Cover

Photo Credit: Tony Tomsic, Sports Illustrated

Lambert not only answered Wexell’s questions, but was surprised that the author only wanted to speak with him for 45 minutes and confesses, “To this day I’m kicking myself for not having more philosophical questions for a guy who obviously wanted to talk about pure football.”

Still, Wexell got enough to impress one of the most popular Pittsburgh Steelers of all time, as after sending him a copy, Jack Lambert wrote Wexell back:

It’s New Years Eve and I’m sitting down in the basement with my friends, a Michelob bottle and a pack of Tareytons. A long overdue thank you for sending me “Men of Steel.” … I just finished it and enjoyed catching up on some of my old teammates.

Aside from Lambert, Wexell also had the foresight to include stories on then yet-to-be Hall of Famers Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson and Kevin Greene.

But that’s essentially a function of the fact that we already know so much about those men. You’re not surprised when you enjoy reading Merril Hoge’s reflections on how special the 1989 Steelers playoff run is the way you unexpectedly crave more after learning of John Reger’s role in the 1955 MNF season opening win over the Chicago Cardinals at Forbes Field.

  • And, to be clear, Wexell succeeds in providing fresh insights on modern-era Steelers.

For transparency’s sake, its important to note that Men of Steel is not a perfect work and does contain a few factual errors. But just as a quarterback can throw an interception but still play a great game, these mistakes don’t keep Men of Steel from being a great book.

When asked what Steelers fans in 2018 can expect to gain by reading Men of Steel, Wexell concedes that he hasn’t given the question much thought, but then offers, “I love writing biographies because that’s where I learn the most.”

This reviewer concurs. Jim Wexell’s love for his subject matter is apparent on every page of the book, and so are the lessons he’s learned from those Men of Steel.

As of this posting, limited copies of Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel remain available on Amazon.com.

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Watch Tower: Did Munchack Help Push Haley Out? Journalistic Freudian Slip on Le’Veon Bell & More

It is mid-April. Free has worked itself out. The NFL draft is almost here as the Steelers 2018 off season reaches its critical mass, leaving the Watch Tower with plenty of material to shine its lights on.

With that, we take a look at new insights into Todd Haley’s departure and the Steelers ownership situation, some extra detail behind an unusual free agent signing while awarding kudos for adding primary details to the story on the Steelers secondary.

Todd Haley, Mike Munchak

Todd Haley and Mike Munchak at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via PennLive.com

Did Munchak Help Push Todd Haley Out?

The off season’s first piece of news was the departure of Todd Haley, a move which Steelers Nation greeted with adulation. The last edition of the Watch Tower recognized the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette for breaking the story and awarded kudos accordingly.

The conventional wisdom, which falls in line with Bouchette’s story is that hat the Steelers parted ways with Todd Haley keep Ben Roethlisberger happy. That almost certainly factored into the decision. But it seems like that wasn’t the Steelers only motive, if Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell is correct:

The Steelers, in fact, hold Munchak in such high regard that some in the organization believe he, not Ben Roethlisberger, forced the departure of offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
On the same day Mike Tomlin announced Haley wouldn’t be brought back, Munchak turned down a second interview to become head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. [Emphasis added.]

True to his style, Wexell casually weaved that scoop into the text of an article detailing Steelers offensive line prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft. While the Watch Tower can’t see behind (enough) paywalls to be certain that Wexell is the only reporter to come up with the Mike Munchak angle in Haley’s departure, some quick Googling appears to confirm this.

Yet again, Wexell earns Watch Tower kudos for his keen reporting.

Reading Between the Lines on Le’Veon Bell

ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler made curious comment while surmising the situation between the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell:

The Steelers would prefer players not divulge negotiations through the media. They also understand Bell can say what he wants; he’s not under contract. The fact they haven’t leaked any negative press about him over the past few months can be perceived as a good sign. [Emphasis added]

Fowler might not have intended this, but the implication behind his words is that Seelers HAVE leaked negative information about Bell. The Steelers leaking information about a player isn’t earth shattering. When news broke that Bell had been late for a walk through, a reader on Steel City Insider suggested that Steelers management had leaked the information, saying he knew an agent that and seen that tactic used against him.

A veteran reporter like Fowler isn’t going to “break Kayfabe” (pro wrestling term, Google it if need be) over something like this, but the Watch Tower wonders if this wasn’t the journalistic equivalent of a Freudian slip….

Zeroing in on the Steelers Secondary

The Steelers have cleaned house in their secondary this off season, from changing secondary coaches (the Watch Tower still isn’t 100% convinced that Carnell Lake‘s departure was 100% voluntary, but let’s not get side tracked, to cutting two former starters and a key backup in the form of Mike Mitchell, William Gay and Robert Golden.

  • And they’ve of course made moves in free agency to replace both.

While many of these moves were anticipated, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette provided some of the first real insight into the change, as he correctly reported that Steelers would cut Mike Mitchell, although his report also indicated J.J. Wilcox would probably go as well, and Wilcox is still with the team.

In doing so, Gerry Dulac also provided some detailed reporting on how the Steelers see Sean Davis, their rookie standout from 2016 who appeared to struggle in 2017. While there might not have been anything overly earthshaking about Dulac’s insights, he was clearly getting his information from someone well-versed in the team’s thinking, and he deserves credit for delivering that to his readers.

About those Steelers Minority Owners…..

The last edition of the Watch Tower also awarded kudos to Ed Bouchette for his reporting on the apparent (since denied) unrest amoug the Steelers minority owners. The real news nugget that earned Bouchette praise was the insight he offered into the stake that minority owners hold in the Steelers.

Here’s the quote in question from Bouchette:

But, again if true, it’s the audacity that a couple of the Steelers’ 18 listed limited partners think they can have an influence on the coach by ringing up Rooney. Collectively, these guys might own 5 percent of the team — or less. They sound like college boosters.

Until that point, very little information on who owned how much of the Steelers had entered the public eye, save for the knowledge that the Rooney family (and/or the Rooney family and the McGinley family) maintained control.

However, a report by ESPN on Steelers minority owner David Tepper’s quest to by the Carolina Panthers appears to contradict Bouchette’s reporting. In writing about Tepper’s bid ESPN’s Darren Rovell, David Newton offered:

Tepper, the founder of the global hedge fund firm Appaloosa Management, has a net worth of $11 billion, according to Forbes. He currently owns 5 percent of the Steelers.

So which is it? Do the Steelers minority owners own less than 5% of the team or does Tepper, one of 13 non-Rooney, non-McGinley owners listed own 5% by himself? Or, are the equity advisers supporting Tepper’s acquisition puffing up his stake in the Steelers in order to make their client look more attractive?

  • It is impossible for the Watch Tower to know for sure….

…But this is what the Watch Tower thinks. Look closely at Bouchette’s quote. While his words are (in all likelihood intentionally) vague, it seems like Bouchette only referring to the specific minority owners who made noises about pressuring Art Rooney II to fire Mike Tomlin, not the entire group.

And if that is the case, then it would follow that Bouchette knew the identities of the minority owners in question or that he was at least told by someone inside the organization – “Hey, these guys don’t even own 5% of the team.”

Finally, it suggests that, despite Art Rooney II’s protestations that “he never got the letter,” some of the minority owners did push for Tomlin’s ouster.

An Interesting Detail to an Unusual Free Agent Signing

The Steelers opening salvo in free agency involved a rare move with a low profile player, namely punter Jordan Berry. The Steelers resigned Jordan Berry between the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl.

  • The Steelers bringing back Jordan Berry is no surprise.

But everything else about the deal was a little off rhythm. The Steelers announced the signing, long before it was time to tender restricted free agents and more over the contract was below the minimum tender. The Steelers have offered long term-deals to exclusive rights and restricted free agents before, see Willie Parker, James Harrison, Alejandro Villanueva or even Roosevelt Nix this year.

  • But those were all long term contracts for well above the minimum tender amounts.

As it turns out, the Jordan Berry needed a contract to keep his work visa valid, and the Steelers moved quickly to accommodate him, and even structured the contract so he’d earn at the level of a restricted free agent.

Now, when Steelers fans gather to watch the 2018 NFL Draft, it is safe to say that they’re not going to be talking about Jordan Berry’s contract, but that was an important detail missing from a story that ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler filled, and for that he wins Watch Tower kudos.

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Watch Tower: Analyzing Coverage of Unrest in Steelers Ownership Ranks, Coaching Shake Ups, Le’Veon’s Lateness

The Steelers 2017 abrupt playoff exit has drawn the season’s backstory out of the woodwork, giving the Watch Tower plenty of material to shine its lights on. So now we focus on unrest in the Steelers ownership ranks, Todd Haley’s departure, Le’Veon Bell’s lateness to practice, and much more.

Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley

Mike Tomlin yells, while Todd Haley scows. Photo Credit: Steelers 24/7

Unrest Among the Steelers Minority Owners…?

Two days after the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars, Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio reported “…some of the team’s limited partners intend to lobby owner Art Rooney to fire of Tomlin and to hire a new coach.”

By any measure, this qualifies as news.

While the Steelers 2008 ownership restructuring was big story, the minority partners have remained out of sight since then. In January 2010 rumors held some of them wanted Bruce Arians’ head, but if that’s true, they didn’t get it.

  • Outside of that, it’s safe to say that 99% of Steelers Nation hasn’t given the minority owners a 2nd thought until Florio’s report hit the web.

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Ed Bouchette added to the story immediately. While his reporting neither confirmed nor denied Florio’s report, Bouchette brought a bevy of factoids to the story that must be considered scoops.

Bouchette’s opinion piece put the Steelers supposed lack of discipline into perspective by offering:

[Bill Cowher] allowed his players in 1994 to hold a Super Bowl video rehearsal in the team meeting room before the AFC championship at Three Rivers Stadium.

The saga of the 1994 Steelers, the Super Bowl Rap video and the Chargers AFC Championship upset are well known, but this is the first time that the Watch Tower is aware of a suggestion that The Chin knew and approved of the escapade in advance.

At the time, word was that Bill Cowher hadn’t known, and when he learned he exploded at his team. Bouchette was only getting warmed up however, as he quickly dropped another bombshell:

But, again if true, it’s the audacity that a couple of the Steelers’ 18 listed limited partners think they can have an influence on the coach by ringing up Rooney. Collectively, these guys might own 5 percent of the team — or less. They sound like college boosters.

There’s never been any question as to whether the Rooneys and/or the Rooney and the McGinley families maintained majority control of the Steelers, but this is the first time the Watch Tower is aware that any enlightened observer has put a number on the stake controlled by the minority partners.

The Steelers hold the details of their ownership structure tightly to the vest. For example, Dan Rooney Jr. has been a partner, yet that only became public after his father’s death. While Bouchette leaves himself wiggle room with the language he chooses, it’s highly unlikely that Dean of the Steelers press corps would write what he did absent confirmation.

Finally, Ed Bouchette got Thomas Tull and Larry Paul on the record in favor of Art Rooney II’s stewardship, which is important because getting seldom-heard from minority owners on the record trumps anonymous sources by any journalistic measure.

This Bud’s for you Mr. Bouchette.

Shakeups on the Steelers Coaching Staff

If social media has given Steelers fans a platform to let the world know what they think about which assistant coaches should go, it still falls to credentialed media to inform us of who will actually go.

In doing so Bouchette linked Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement talk of a year ago to a harsh interaction with Haley following the AFC Championship game (although Bouchette’s language does leave wiggle room; nonetheless, he would have had to confirm this fact before reporting it.) Fellow Post-Gazette beat writer Gerry Dulac broke the news that Tomlin was not going to make changes on his defensive staff, albeit with the caveat that Bruce Arians has been told the same thing.

And of course Carnell Lake has resigned and John Mitchell is moving into a new position, paving the way for Tom Bradley and Karl Dunbar to assume new positions.

This site’s assumption, although with several others, was that Lake was being politely shown the door. Not so fast reports Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell who in responding to a reader’s question (full disclosure, yours truly posed the question) informs:

OK, Lake’s departure was not forced. He has been missing his family for a couple of years now and had the chance (put to me that way) to get back for his son’s final year of high school and jumped at it.

Wexell also informs that John Mitchell’s new job as full time assistant head coach isn’t a ceremonial or figurehead type position, but a serious gig that will include “bringing ‘tough love’ to Tomlin when he sees the need….”

Given the number of paywalls that protect Steelers-related stories these days, the Watch Tower can’t verify Wexell’s the only person reporting these details, but he did make them available through a free article on his sight, and it’s good to see these stories enriched in such public fashion.

Some Context for Le’Veon’s Lateness, Please?

The Steelers discipline, or lack thereof has been a focus all season long, both of the fans and within the credentialed press. Perhaps there has been no bigger magnet Le’Veon Bell. It once again fell to Ed Bouchette to break what has been the hottest news of the off season thus far with his fateful paragraph:

Not only did Bell arrive much later than that for the playoff game against Jacksonville (as well as one coach), he missed practically the entire Saturday walk-through the day before, showing up about five minutes before practice ended.

The ripple effect created by Bouchette’s 38 words could spawn an entire series of Watch Tower-type columns. We will make no attempt to do so here. However, one source consulted by the Watch Tower as soon as the news broke cautioned about the story’s lack of context, suggesting that perhaps Bell’s absence was excused.

To be clear, the tone of Bouchette’s report, including the headline “Le’Veon Bell blew off the Steelers’ last walk-through” doesn’t suggest that Bell had permission to be late, although this was the explanation that Bell provided when prompted by reporters.

While the Watch Tower takes no issue with Bouchette writing a story whose tone is in tune with what his sources are telling him, but rather with other reporters who could have done more to confirm the story in the five days that elapsed between Bouchette’s report and Bell’s rebuttal.

This would have been all the more useful, given that Le’Veon Bell has a history of denying reports that later turn out to be true.

Wolfley Howls on SCI, and ESPN Gets a Clue (for now)

Veteran Steelers sideline reporter Craig Wolfley ears poised to step up his profile on Steel City Insider this off season and if his recent two part Q&A series is any indication, readers are in for a treat.

Wolfley answered well over a dozen questions and pulled no punches, offering frank commentary on everything from Mike Mitchell‘s play, to stories from the Chuck Noll era which make 2017’s supposed “lack of discipline” look tame by comparison, to tackling complex X’s & O’s questions.

  • Along the way, Steel City Insider Jim Wexell has reported a previously undisclosed Bud Dupree injury, which might not qualm fans criticism of the Steelers 2015 1st round pick, but is a nonetheless useful factoid.

Finally, the end of the 2017 playoffs has brought a welcome change to those who access to ESPN’s NFL site via Latin America (or at least Argentina.)

As the Watch Tower reported earlier, at the beginning of the 2017 season visitors who tried to access ESPN’s NFL site in English were automatically forced to the Spanish page, with no option to navigate back to English. Fortunately, during the week of the conference championships, visitors were once again free to browse the English language site.

While the Watch Tower expects to encounter the same problem next September, the change for the off season is appreciated.

 

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Carnell Lake Resigns as Steelers Secondary Coach. Did the Defensive Backs Coach Resign Voluntarily?

The dust from the Pittsburgh’s 2017 season still hasn’t settled on the South Side as Carnell Lake resigns as Steelers defensive backs coach. The Steelers announced the news on their website, with the following statement from Lake:

I have decided to return to California to be able to be a part of my youngest son’s last year of high school football.
I want to thank Mr. Art Rooney II and the Rooney family, Coach Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, the coaching staffs I have worked with throughout my time in Pittsburgh, and the entire Steelers organization. It has been a privilege and honor to play and coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I also want to thank all of the players I have coached during my seven years with the team – it truly was an honor to work with them. Finally, I would like to thank Steelers fans for their support and for being the best fans in the NFL during both my time as a player and coach.

Carnell Lake joined the Mike Tomlin’s staff in the spring of 2011 shortly after Super Bowl XLV, as he replaced Ray Horton who headed to Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals to take over as their defensive coordinator.

Carnell Lake, Carnell Lake Resigns Steelers secondary coach,

Carnell Lake resigns as Steelers secondary coach. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Lake’s return to Pittsburgh made him the first of several former Steelers players to join Mike Tomlin’s staff. The Steelers drafted Carnell Lake in the 2nd round of the 1989 NFL Draft, and converted a then linebacker into a strong safety. Lake not only won the starting job as a rookie, a rarity in a Chuck Noll coached defense, but pushed 1988’s starter Cornell Gowdy off of the roster.

Like Donnie Shell before him and Troy Polamalu after him, Carnell Lake became a fixture at the back of the secondary for the better part of a decade, including moving to cornerback twice in the Steelers 1995 and 1997 seasons.

If Carnell Lake’s contributions as a player are unquestionable positive, the same can not be said of his coaching tenure.

What of the Lake Effect?

When Carnell Lake arrived in Pittsburgh, cornerback was seen as an overwhelming liability, with Ike Taylor the only consistent performer while William Gay and Keenan Lewis were regarded as disappointments.

  • Yet William Gay made impressive strides in 2011 and Keenan Lewis had an outstanding year in 2012, and Cortez Allen appeared to be a superstar ready to burst.

Lake in fact, had made a point to take Keenan Lewis under his wing after much of the rest of the Steelers coaching staff had given up on him, per Rebecca Rollet’s reporting. Blogger Ivan Cole dubbed this as “The Lake Effect.”

  • However, not all of the players under Lakes tutelage thrived.

Cortez Allen flashed a little in his first year as a starter in 2013, but remained inconsistent. In 2014 Allen got demoted, benched, and ultimately banished to IR. His 2015 campain consisted of a few snaps. Injuries were a factor, but Allen’s fizzout was never fully explained.

Likewise, Carnell Lake positively gushed about Shamarko Thomas after the Steelers drafted him in 2013, yet Shamarko Thomas was an unabashed bust as a strong safety.

And while it doesn’t get talked about as often, Steelers were attempting to groom Ryan Mundy for a more prominent role as a safety when Lake arrived, and that grooming continued until early in 2012 when Mundy got benched in favor of Will Allen, and the Steelers defense improved accordingly. Finally, Lake also spoke glowingly of Antwan Blake, a corner who perhaps wasn’t bad as a waiver wire pickup, but clearly never developed into starter material.

Did Carnell Lake Resign Voluntarily?

Juding a position coach soley on the development of his players isn’t quite fair. Dick Hoak was a fine running backs coach, but Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis probably didn’t need Hoak to get them to the Hall of Fame. Mike Whipple, Ken Anderson and Randy Fichtner have helped Ben Roethlisberger, but Ben supplied the raw materials to start with.

Both men quickly became starters, struggled a bit, but posted strong 2nd halves of their rookie years. Yet neither man appeared to make that fabled “2nd year developmental leap.” Word also broke that Mike Tomlin began taking over a larger role in the defensive backs meeting room.

Given the fact that Art Rooney II still hasn’t address the Pittsburgh press following the 2017 season, one can only suspect that Carnell Lake’s sudden resignation isn’t entirely voluntary, especially because Mike Tomlin had told Keith Butler and the rest of his defensive staff that they’d be returning.

Lake’s departure marks the 3rd major coaching change to Mike Tomlin’s staff, following the firing of Todd Haley and the retirement of Richard Mann.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Season Review – Time to Take Mike Tomlin to Task

The tone to the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 season review stands in stark contrast to its last several predecessors. The Pittsburgh Steelers measure success in Lombardi Trophies and each of the last 3 seasons has ended with the franchise closer to the Super Bowl than the year before.

  • You could even argue that the 6-2 close after a 2-6 start in 2013 counted as progress.

No 2017 post-mortem assessment makes that argument and none should. While Steel Curtain Rising has been and remains a Mike Tomlin supporter, that doesn’t change the fact that the Steelers head coach has some explaining to do.

Let’s look back at how Tomlin and the 2017 Steelers got to this juncture.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2017 season review, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin yells during the Jaguars loss. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Going All in to Get Through an Open Window

The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers went on a roller coaster ride that saw them swoon deeply only to rebound all the way to the AFC Championship game. Yet once, there Tom Brady decimated the Steelers defense, while the offense struggled in kind.

In truth, Ben Roethlisberger was only acknowledging the proverbial elephant in the room. Everyone knew “Life’s Work” was approaching Roethlisberger, Ben simply uttered it aloud.

The Steelers brain trust took heed, drafting T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton and James Conners with their first four picks, addressing 3 of the 4 most glaring needs exposed in the AFC Championship.

  • The Steelers entered free agency interested in signing a corner and went into the draft looking to pick up a tight end.

Neither avenue bore fruit. But in a flurry of late-August activity, the Steelers signed Joe Haden when he became available, traded for Vance McDonald and J.J. Wilcox. Pittsburgh was far outside its comfort zone.

Perhaps it was simply because talent unexpectedly became available. Perhaps it’s because Art Rooney II is a little bit more of a risk taker than his father was. Or perhaps it was because the Steelers brain trust felt 2017 equaled “Now or Never” territory.

It doesn’t matter. The Pittsburgh Steelers went “All In” on their 2017 roster.

Steelers 2017 Defense Defies Expectations Only to Dip into Decline

The story on the Steelers 2017 season was supposed to read like this:

  • With the Four Killer Bees finally united, the Steelers offense would blow opposing teams out of the water while the defense kept the opposing team a score or so behind.

Or something like that.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, A.J. Bouye

Antonio Brown scores 4th down 4th quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Except it never happened. When the 2017 regular season kicked off and Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant finally took the field together, the Steelers offense sputtered rather than soared.

  • Yet the Steelers took a 6-2 record into their bye week.

And they did so because of their defense. Keith Butler’s defense only gave up an average of 14 points during the first 11 weeks of the season – a figure which includes the 5 interception disaster against the Jaguars.

  • Both inside and outside of Pittsburgh, commentators were collocating “shutdown” with “Steelers 2017 defense”

The during the first half of the win over Kansas City and the second half of the win over Cincinnati the Steelers defense was “Scary Good.” The Lions piled up gobs of yards in a fantasy owner’s delight, but inside the Steelers Red Zone, Detroit took 17 shots and came up with zero points.

And then of course Ryan Shazier got injured, transforming the middle of the Steelers defense to a sieve. On paper Sean Spence, Tyler Matakevich, L.J. Fort and Arthur Moats provided respectable depth at inside linebacker, paper promises which never materialized on the field.

Fortunately, by that point in the regular season, the Steelers offense had found its rhythm.

Roethlisberger Stumbles then Roars to Life

Ben Roethlisberger did not play well at the beginning of 2017. Sure, Martavis Bryant also looked lost, but it says here that Antonio Brown made Ben Roethlisberger look like a lot better quarterback than he really early in the season. Le’Veon Bell also took several weeks to find his stride, and Vance McDonald also took time to acclimate to the new offense.

  • The offense finally turned things around in the 2nd half against the Colts.

The Steelers offense didn’t suddenly transform itself into the NFL equivalent of Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons, but Pittsburgh’s points scored average jumped by 9.2 points season’s final eight games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster emerged as a superstar, and even with him and Bryant missing games, the Steelers offense keept humming. With the Shazierless defense faltering, it seemed like that might be enough for the playoffs. It wasn’t.

Taking Mike Tomlin to Task

We’ll never know how a healthy Haden and Shazier would altered the Steelers 2017 playoff fortunes. And that’s a shame, because this unit flashed greatness at midseason.

  • But no one will remember that thanks to the playoff debacle against the Jaguars.

In 2016 the Steelers were eliminated in AFC Championship, in 2017 year they were eliminated in the AFC Divisional round. That’s a clear regression, but consider the context makes Pittsburgh’s backwards step all the more poignant:

  • Last year the Steelers didn’t have a first round bye
  • Cam Heyward was on IR and Tyson Alualu wasn’t on the roster
  • Ross Cockrell and William Gay were number 2 and number 3 corners
  • Vance McDonald was in San Francisco and Jesse James was the Steelers starter at tight end
  • Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers and Sammie Coates were the Steelers #2, #3 and #4 receivers
  • Instead of T.J. Watt, James Harrison was dropping into coverage
  • Le’Veon Bell got hurt a half dozen plays into the game
  • The 2016 Steelers got eliminated in one of the toughest places to play, in 2017 they played at Heinz Field

Even without Ryan Shazier the Steelers defense, position-by-position is more talented than the 2016 edition. Yet you’d never know it by watching them against the Jaguars.

After the game fans began calling for the heads of Keith Butler, Carnell Lake and Joey Porter. When no defensive staff changes occurred, word leaked that Mike Tomlin had taken control of the defense. If that’s true, then let’s credit Tomlin for not forcing his lieutenants to take the fall.

  • But extolling Tomlin’s character does nothing to erase the inept, confused and bewildered that defined the defense throughout the Jaguars game.
Ryan Shazier, Ryan Shazier injury, Steelers 2017 season review

Losing Ryan Shazier dealt a dramatic blow to the 2017 Steelers defense. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA TODAY via BTSC

We don’t know the circumstances or context of Mike Tomlin’s role in running the defense. Perhaps it has been this way since Dick LeBeau departed. Or perhaps stepped in as a leader, and took a more active role when Shazier went down. The latter makes sense, because the Steelers defense clearly looked like a group of players who had to many voices whispering in their ear holes.

  • If that’s the case, then this is an issue Butler and Tomlin can solve during the off season.

But regardless, this doesn’t touch another root issue that doomed the Steelers defense down the stretch – the lack of apparent development by Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave following strong closes to their rookie years.

If there’s a lesson out of Michael MacCambridge’s biography on Chuck Noll, His Life’s Work, that applies to 2018, its that very little of what truly drives the Steelers makes it into public light.

  • So its possible that the tone and tenor of season-ending conversations evolved far differently than we imagine.

But based on what we know publicly Mike Tomlin owes Art Rooney II some serious answers to some tough questions. Presumptively, Tomlin’s responses satisfy Art Rooney II. Let’s hope his players can back his words up on the field.

 

 

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Steelers Wide Reciever Coach Richard Mann Retires. Is Hines Ward a Wise Replacement?

In a move that has been anticipated for at least two years, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann has announced his retirement. And while Richard Mann might not have the profile of other position coaches, make no mistake about it, his presence will be missed.

Richard Mann, Steelers wide receivers coach richard mann

Former Steelers WR coach Richard Mann offers instruction. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

Go back to 2012 and the days when “Young Money” aka Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown were all the rage in Steelers Nation.

Together the threesome was supposed to form the most fearsome wide receiver trio the NFL has seen this side of Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Jake Reed. It made for excellent copy during the off season and training camp.

  • Then the games that counted started.

While the Steelers offense had a fairly strong start to 2012, the unit fell off the rails during the second half of the season. While an injury to Ben Roethlisberger took its toll, the value of “Young Money” was measured in pennies rather than dollars. The whole was less than the sum of its parts.

  • After the season, Wide Receiver’s coach Scotty Montgomery, returned to coach at Duke, despite no position being associated with his hiring.

As The Watch Tower detailed at the time, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette issued dueling stories by Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac offering starkly contrasting interpretations of events. Dulac’s story suggested the move was Montgomery’s and one made only with great reluctance. Bouchette’s suggested Tomlin had pushed Montgomery out, and reported that, absent Hines Ward, chaos had enveloped wide receivers room.

  • Mike Tomlin responded by coaxing Aliquippa native Richard Mann out of retirement.

That’s all one blogger needs to accept Ed Bouchette’s interpretation of what transpired in 2012. The Steelers don’t allow assistant coaches much contact with the media, but when Richard Mann spoke about 3rd round pick Markus Wheaton during the 2013 NFL Draft, the man positively exuded an aura of “Been there, done that.”

  • And you’d expect that from a man whose been around long enough to coach for the Baltimore Colts, the original Cleveland Browns, and the Baltimore Ravens.

Mann also coached with the New York Jets, Washington Redskins, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he first met Mike Tomlin, and the two forged a bond evident in the words the Steelers head coached used to praise Mann upon his retirement:

I had the pleasure of working with him 15 years ago at a different capacity. My appreciation for him really kind of started there. I was a younger assistant position coach, defensive backs. He was a more senior veteran wide receiver coach. Obviously, by the nature of the positions, we worked cooperatively together in training camp. I learned a lot from watching him coach his guys on the grass and off the grass. I was appreciative of him allowing me to do that. Often times in training camp like settings, we would watch the same video of our guys together. I could hear him make coaching points to his guys about what was happening on the video. He could hear me make coaching points with my guys about what was happening on the same video. It was just a unique learning environment

He’s always been a teacher and not resistant to sharing that expertise with others and that is why I’ve always gravitated towards him. Very accomplished coach. Maybe a lot of opportunities were not afforded to him because of the generation in which he rose through the ranks. I’m cognizant of that. I am appreciative of that. I realize some of the opportunities I have been afforded in my career is because of efforts and accomplishments of men like Richard Mann. I am appreciative on a lot of levels. Probably can’t eloquently describe that level of appreciation, but he is a special man and a special coach. One that has impacted me in a lot of ways.

Richard Mann made an immediate impact when he joined the Steelers staff. People forget, but Antonio Brown’s play dropped off late in the season to the point where their were wispers about whether the Steelers had erred in giving him a long-term deal.

No one says that anymore.

Mann of course, has had a role in mentoring players such as Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster. He will be missed.

Ward a Wise Choice to Replace Mann?

Former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward is a candidate to replace Richard Mann. Ward has coached with the Steelers during training camp, and returned for a few stints during the regular season, and was present on the sideline during a number of games.

  • Hines Ward is a fan favorite and a franchise legend, but it’s a fair question to ask whether he’s a wise choice to replace Mann.

Former players returning as assistants always arrive with a sentimental cheer and such was the case each time Jerry Olsavsky, Carnell Lake and Joey Porter joined Mike Tomlin’s staff. And so it was with Joe Greene’s return to Chuck Noll’s staff in 1987 and Mike Mularkey’s return to Bill Cowher’s staff in 1996 (well maybe not on Mularkey.)

  • But, a wise fan will remember that Gerald Williams was the best defensive lineman during Joe Greene’s tenure.

If you don’t remember Gerald Williams, you’ve certainly heard his name, right? Well, you probably haven’t. Gerald Williams was a good player, but not a great player for the Steelers. True, Greene didn’t have a lot to work with (remember Donald Evans and Kenny Davidson, no? you’re lucky then) but he reportedly did lobby hard for the Steelers to pick Aaron Jones, who never amount to much more than a marginal starter.

Its perhaps a little harsh to judge position coaches by the development of their players – remember, Chuck Noll’s “Don’t over coach the kid” admonition to Dick Hoak about Franco Harris. But if William Gay and Keenan Lewis did improve under Carnell Lake, Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas were clearly mistakes.

Dupree, after an OK start to the season, disappeared from the pass rush down the stretch, although were assured that he was “going into coverage a lot and doing well against the run.” Fair enough, but let’s remind everyone that “they” said the same thing about Jarvis Jones up until the day Mike Tomlin benched Jones in favor of Harrison.

Perhaps Hines Ward will serve as an exception, but thus far no other team is breaking down the door to offer Lake, Olsavsky or Porter opportunities to climb the coaching ladder.

So word to the wise about welcoming Hines Ward back.

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Steelers Cornerback Mike Hilton – Simply Another Kevin Colbert Gem

You’ll have to excuse me if I seem a little out of sorts, following the Steelers 34-6 victory over the Texans on Christmas Day, a win that clinched at least a bye into the Divisional Round of the 2017/18 postseason.

  • I’m out of sorts because I don’t know if I watched a live NFL game, or a video game, namely Ninento’s old Tecmo Bowl.

You  remember Tecmo Bowl, don’t you? The football video game that emulated NFL teams and players from the 1990’s.

Like I’m sure most young Pittsburghers during that era, I often picked the Steelers as my team when going against the computer or, more enjoyably, my little brother.

As is common with most video games, you could choose a player to control on your own, and I often picked Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson.

  • Why? Because, much like in real life, there was nothing you couldn’t do with that guy–including rush the opposing passer as often as you liked.

As I watched Steelers newly-minted slot corner sensation Mike Hilton rush Houston quarterbacks time-and-time again on Monday (eight times, to be exact) and record three sacks, I couldn’t help but think back to my youth as a bit of a gamer.

 

mike hilton, Steelers cornerback mike hilton, T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt, Taylor Heinicke, steelers vs texans

Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton after sacking Texans quarterback Taylor Heinicke. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But while Hilton became just the third Steelers defensive back to record three sacks in a game–tying safeties Troy Polamalu and Carnell Lake for the franchise mark–he did something in real life that no other cornerback in NFL history–including Woodson–has ever done outside of a video game.

That’s right, Hilton became the first cornerback in league history to post three sacks in a game since the NFL began recording it as an official statistic in 1982. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert has long had a knack for finding gems as Undrafted Rookie Free Agents and street free agents.

  • And Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton is the latest example. Hilton, who, like 2015 second round pick Senquez Golson, played his college ball at Ole Miss.

However, unlike Golson, who never played a meaningful down for the Steelers due to battling various injuries, Hilton took advantage of the chance the Steelers gave him.

After signing with the Jaguars as an UDFA in 2016, Hilton soon found himself on the Patriots practice squad, before winding up on Pittsburgh’s by the end of the season.

Coming into the 2017 training camp, there was great buzz about Hilton and what he could possibly bring to the Steelers secondary.

But isn’t every training camp filled with young unknowns with low pedigree who excite fans that are forever in-love with the underdog?

  • Yet, that buzz never subsided, and even Hilton’s coaches and teammates couldn’t help gushing over him.

And it didn’t take long–about a quarter into the Steelers first preseason game, actually–before it became apparent that, not only was Hilton likely to land on his first NFL roster, the Steelers had huge plans for him to be their starting slot corner, a position once earmarked for his former college teammate, Golson.

Not only did Hilton earn that starting corner slot, through 15 games of his rookie season, he has excelled at the position, with a total of two interceptions, five passed defensed, a forced fumble, 39 tackles and a total of four quarterback sacks.

Nobody’s draft record is perfect–including Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert. And it’s clear he missed on Golson, if not in-terms of assessing his talent, then, perhaps, in assessing his durability.

  • But if you’re going to miss on a high draft pick, you better make up for it somewhere else.

After years of struggling to find the right pieces, the Steelers now appear to have a secondary that’s close to being complete.

The unit now includes a young and promising safety in Sean Davis, playing alongside veteran Mike Mitchell, a calculated free-agent signing in 2014. The corner position is comprised of young, aggressive and also promising Artie Burns, along with accomplished veteran Joe Haden, a gift of a free-agent acquisition who miraculously fell into Pittsburgh’s lap right before the start of the season.

And, to round it all out, the Steelers now appear to have Mike Hilton as their very promising slot corner, a formerly unknown UDFA who excited fans at the onset of training camp, and is still leaving them giddy, just weeks away from the start of the postseason.

I love it when a plan comes together.

 

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Steelers Report Card for Ravens Win – Missing Shazier, but Winning Nonetheless

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is simultaneously inspired and worried at his class’ performance with the star pupil absent, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the AFC North Clinching win over the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field.

T.J. Watt strip sack flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, T.J. Watt, Joe Flacco

T.J. Watt’s strip sack of Joe Flacco secured the win for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterback
How’s this for numbers: 66 passes, 44 completions, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and 506 yards. Those were Ben Roethlisberger’s passing stats on a night when he became the first NFL quarterback to pass for 500 yards in 3 games. And this is the QB who took a supposed back seat to Brady and Manning? While the Steelers offense, including its passing game struggled in the third quarter, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 19 4th quarter points. Grade: A

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell dominated Baltimore in the first meeting but found much tougher sledding in the second, as the Ravens limited him to just 48 yards on the ground. But Bell’s blessing as a running back is his ability to be a dual threat, and on that front Bell soared paste the Ravens for 77 yards and more importantly 2 touchdowns. James Conner got some action, rushing for 6 yards while Roosevelt Nix scored a critical touchdown for the Steelers. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Wide Receivers
The NFL may have seen a better QB-WR tandem before, but there’s none more potent in today’s NFL than Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. In the 4th quarter alone, Ben and Brown hooked up on throws of 22, 34 and 57 yards – and those are only the long ones. Martavis Bryant caught 6 passes for 33 yards including some key possession downs, and Eli Rogers also did his part catch 3 passes for 33 yards. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Steelers struggled to run against the Ravens, but Ravens defense is pretty decent. ESPN’s stat sheet shows that Baltimore sacked Ben Roethlisberger 3 times – a low number by the standards of this rivalry – and also hit him 8 times. While there was more contact with Pittsburgh’s quarterback than has been the norm this season, Ben Roethlisberger had time to throw when it was critical late in the game. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The Baltimore Ravens averaged just under six yards a carry rushing against the Steelers and no Steelers defensive lineman, other than Stephon Tuitt, got to Joe Flacco. Any means of compensating for Ryan Shazier’s absence includes the entire Steelers defensive line stepping up and that didn’t happen against the Ravens, although Cam Heyward gave the rest of his teammates a piece of his mind at the end of the 3rd quarter and it appeared to do at least some good. Grade: C-

Linebackers
The Steelers linebacking crops struggled absent their leader. Vince Williams led the unit in tackles, but his compatriots Arthur Moats, L.J. Fort and Sean Spence struggled to stop Ravens rushers from making gains at the second level. Nor were the linebackers particularly effective in coverage. James Harrison saw time but didn’t make his typical impact against the Ravens, and Bud Dupree was a non-factor. T.J. Watt made some plays early on, and sealed the game with his strip-sack of Joe Flacco, which raises the grade of the unit. Grade: D

Secondary
Sean Davis started the game with an interception which on an ideal night would have been “tone setting” for the entire unit. He finished it by helping break up a key 3rd down pass. In between he contributed some of the worst safety play the Steelers have seen since Travis Davis tenure in ’99. Artie Burns did have one nice pass break up, but committed two costly penalties. Coty Sensabaugh looks primed to keep Tom Brady fantasy owners happy. Coverage improved in the 4th quarter to keep the Steelers in the game, but going forward this is not going to be enough. Grade: D

Special Teams
Any discussion of the Steelers special teams performance must begin with Martavis Bryant’s near disaster in fielding a ball that rolled just short of the goal line. The play evoked images of Barry Foster’s lapse in 1990. Mike Tomlin’s response said it all:

Then there was the issue of the Steelers kick coverage team that was having a solid night until it allowed Michael Campanaro to return a kick 40 yards after the Steelers had just pulled within 2, which set up the Raven’s final touchdown.

Jordan Berry boomed off several impressive punts, and of course Chris Boswell went 4/4 on field goals, including a 52 yarder and a 46 yarder – neither are gimmies at Heinz – which ultimately was the difference maker. Boswell’s performance pulls the group’s grade up, but only by a smidge. Grade: D

Coaching
Devising a game plan to replace your best player on defense on the heels of a Monday Night game no less, isn’t easy, but that’s the task that fell on Keith Butler this week. To be sure, there were errors execution, sloppy tackling and some inanely stupid penalties that no scheme or amount of chalkboard planning could have compensated for.

But if the Steelers ARE clearly struggling to replace Ryan Shazier in the middle of the field, the defense did stop the Ravens cold on 3 of four 4th quarter series.

  • That at least lends some hope that Steelers coaches find something that worked schematically during tape review.

The Steelers offense offers a more interesting tale. Todd Haley’s offense had an excellent first quarter, a solid second quarter only to disappear in the third quarter. The fourth quarter performance of the Steelers offense against the Ravens is nothing short of watching a legend in the making.

Mike Tomlin had the toughest task of all. He needed to channel forces of #Shalieve50 while keeping his players focused enough to realize that emotion alone wouldn’t carry the day. Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, John Mitchell, Carnell Lake, Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter clearly have some work to do on the defense, but they did earned their pay checks this week. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
On a night when Antonio Brown performed like an incarnate angel and a massed over 200 yards receiving the stat line of 14 for 149 went almost unnoticed. It shouldn’t.

  • As 12 of those 14 catches came on scoring drives, and the Steelers needed everyone one of them on this might.

Those stats didn’t come from one player, but rather a duo. Tomorrow morning Tony Defeo will sing their praises here, but for now we’ll simply recognize the efforts of Jesse James and Vance McDonald as the Unsung Heroes of the Steelers AFC North Clinching win over the Ravens.

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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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Sisyphean Steelers Secondary Rebuild Underlined by Coty Sensabaugh Promotion, Phillips Trade

The Steelers preseason winning effort over the Atlanta Falcons didn’t come until after Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub and third-stringer Matt Simms carved up the Steelers secondary. On the Wednesday after the game, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert responded by:

Coty Sensabaugh, Steelers secondary Rebuild

Coty Sensabaugh practices during the off season at Steelers South Side facility. Photo Credit: Steelers.com via Steel City Underground

Coincidence? Perhaps, but probably not. No, these moves are likely the latest in what can only be described as a Sisyphean Steelers secondary rebuild. “Sisyphean”for those of you who’re rusty on your Greek Mythology, referse to the plight of Sisyphus who was condemned for all eternity to roll a bolder up hill, only to have it get away from him halfway up, so that he could start again.

On has to get the feeling that Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake can identify.

Steelers Secondary Rebuild Stuck in Second Gear

When the Steelers started training camp, building depth in the secondary in general, and at cornerback in particular were a key need for the team. On paper, things looked promising. For starters, the Steelers had bodies, in contrast to previous trips to St. Vincents.

Artie Burns and Sean Davis had come into their own during the second half of 2016, and Mike Mitchell had continued with another year of solid play. They’d added Coty Sensabaugh , word was William Gay was looking better than he had at the end of 2016, and Senquez Golson was also back.

A month later, finds Senquez Golson injured, again, joined by Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, who’ve largely been kept on the sidelines during training camp and preseason. The leaves the Steelers shuffling the deck again at cornerback, much as they did in 2015 when they traded for Brandon Boykin and claimed Ross Cockrell off of waivers.

  • Whatever else you can say, you can’t blame Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for lack of trying.

As recently as two years ago, you could argue that Pittsburgh was trying to rebuild the secondary on the cheap, as the Steelers brain trust ignored pleas from fans and the press to draft a cornerback early in the 2012, 2013, and 2014 NFL Draft. Indeed, in 2014 Carnell Lake shoed away questions about waiting so long to draft a corner by talking up Antwon Blake.

Cortez Allen, Torrey Smith, Steelers secondary rebuild

Images like this remind us why the Steelers once counted on Cortez Allen. Photo Credit: Alchetron

For the record, the Steelers had thought they had something in Cortez Allen and had invested heavily in drafting Shamarko Thomas as an eventual starter at safety. Both of those moves count as epic failures. But that was then.

  • Since 2014, the Steelers have drafted five defensive backs and used premium picks to draft all four of them.

Despite all of those moves, the Steelers still find themselves turning over loose stones hoping to uncover a defensive back or two who can help bring home Lombardi Number 7.

While that might not be listed as Standard Operating Procedure in the manual of a team that fancies itself as a Super Bowl contender, fans can take heart in the fact that the Steelers track record is pretty solid here.

Antown Blake wasn’t starting material, but he delivered good value as a waiver wire pickup. And while Ross Cockrell’s demotion is disappointing (and as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell indicates, probably permanent), the Steelers secondary was better with him starting in 2016 than it had been with Blake starting in 2015.

So the trajectory of the Steelers Secondary Rebuild remains upward. But unlike Sisyphus, the Steelers need to find a way to keep the ball rolling until they reach the mountain top. Because Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t have an eternity to wait.

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