Steelers 2017 Draft Needs at Offensive Line

The Steelers offensive line building strategy has seen a sea change during the Mike Tomlin era, perhaps like no other spot on the depth chart.

  • During the first part of the Tomlin era, the Steelers used a “Plug and Patch” approach to building their offensive line.

Whether it was because the Steelers drank their own “Weapons vs. Protection” Koolaid for real or because they won Super Bowl XLIII and went to another with a makeshift offensive line, or because Bruce Arians wasn’t interested in line building as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reported in 2013, the Steelers ignored the offensive line in Mike Tomlin’s first several drafts.

That changed as Ben Roethlisberger started taking more hits, and the question we look at here today is whether the Steelers should continue to focus on the offensive line in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Maurkice Pouncey, B.J. Finney, David DeCastro, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers offensive line, Steelers offensive line draft needs 2017

Maurkice Pouncey flanked by David DeCastro and B.J. Finney on Le’Veon Bell’s record breaking day in Buffalo. Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via lastwordonfootball.com

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

The Maurkice Pouncey anchors the Steelers offensive line having been voted to the Pro Bowl by his peers in each of his non-injury seasons. Marcus Gilbert holds down the right end of the Steelers offensive line, followed by David DeCastro, with Ramon Foster and Alejandro Villanueva playing to Pouency’s left.

While it is fair to say that the Steelers offensive line got off to a slow start in early 2016, the unit gelled as the season progressed. Ben Roethlisberger took fewer sacks than he has in any season and Le’Veon Bell tured out single game performances in both the regular season and playoffs that neither Willie Parker, nor Franco Harris, nor Jerome Bettis could accomplish.

That only happens of the Steelers offensive line is playing well.

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

Behind their starting front five the Steelers have  and B.J. Finney who can back up at guard and center. Next they have Chris Hubbard who can play both guard and offensive tackle. Ryan Harris retired, leaving 2016’s 4th round draft pick Jerald Hawkins and Brain Mihalik as the primary backups at offensive tackle.

Both Chris Hubbard and BJ Finney saw action in during 2016, and both men played well, although Finney is stronger at guard than he is at center.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Offensive Line

The Steelers offensive line is as talented and as deep as it has been at any time in during the Mike Tomlin era. The Steelers starters and depth at guard are both strong. Depth at center isn’t quite as strong, but BJ Finney has shown he’s at least serviceable there, and he also possesses the proverbial “Upside.”Steelers 2017 Draft Needs offensive line

  • Depth remains more of a concern at offensive tackle.

Chris Hubbard started four games at tackle and also served as a third tight end as part of the Steelers “Big Boy Package.” In a perfect world Jerald Hawkins would give the Steelers 2 viable backups at offensive tackle, but Hawkins is an untested commodity.

Fate has had a nasty way of reminding Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert that the old saying “You can never have too many good offensive lineman” during more than one season in recent memory. And that leads one to the temptation to rate offensive line a higher priority, but the Steelers essential need at offensive line is to build depth, and therefore Steelers 2017 draft need at must be considered Moderate/Low.

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The Pro’s & Con’s of Steelers Original Round Tender to Restricted Free Agent Ross Cockrell

Cornerback has been a liability for the Pittsburgh Steelers since at least 2013 and perhaps longer. While some of the criticism of Kevin Colbert’s attempt to address cornerback on the cheap (think Antwon Blake & DeMarcus Van Dyke) is legitimate, let’s also remember that the Steelers won Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII by starting two corners drafted in 4th round (Ike Taylor & Deshea Townsend).

But all of Kevin Colbert’s cornerback bargain hunting exhibitions have come up empty, and Steelers restricted free agent cornerback Ross Cockrell provides the perfect example.

The Steelers have already made an original round restricted free agent tender to Ross Cockrell, and here we review the merits of their decision.

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

Capsule Profile of Ross Cockrell’s Steelers Career

After the 2015 pre-season’s first cut down day, the Steelers made a curious move – they claimed cornerback Ross Cockrell off of waivers from the Buffalo Bills. The Steelers had already traded for Brandon Boykin and, at least publicly, were still committed to Cortez Allen.

In week four when Ross Cockrell picked off a Joe Flacco pass in the Steelers Monday Night loss to the Ravens the move made more sense. At mid season, when he made a touchdown saving interception in the end zone against the Raiders, it make even more sense. Cockrell appeared in 15 games for the Steelers and started in 7 games by the Steelers count.

Perhap’s Cockrell’s biggest moment for the Steelers came in the playoff win over the Bengals, as Cockrell recovered Jeremy Hill’s fumble that Ryan Shazier had forced, opening the door to the Steelers come from behind win.

  • The Steelers saw enough of Ross Cockrell in 2015 to pencil him in as their 2016 starter.

Ross Cockrell started all sixteen games for the Steelers in 2016, and while he didn’t record any interceptions, he had 14 defensed passes. Fans didn’t hear Ross Cockrell’s name a lot during 2016, and for a cornerback that is often a good sign.

The Case for the Steelers Tendering Ross Cockrell

In 31 regular season games and 5 playoff games Ross Cockrell has proven himself to be a quality NFL cornerback. Moreover, he’s grown from someone the Steelers picked up off of the wavier wire into a starter on a defense that went all the way to the AFC Championship (although they did struggle there – so did the offense.)

When addressing the Steelers needs at cornerback heading into the 2017 NFL Draft, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell offered 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. But I believe that with such a deep crop the value will be too good to pass up.

That sounds like Ross Cockrell has a lot of “upside.” Viewed from that perspective, one can only wonder if the Steelers original round tender, which would bring Pittsburgh a 4th round pick should another team sign Cockrell, is too low.

The Case Against the Steelers Tendering Ross Cockrell

The Pittsburgh Steelers need quality cornerbacks. Rookie Artie Burns, whom the Steelers took in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, showed a lot of promise in his first year. But William Gay showed signs he might be losing a step.

While Ross Cockrell was an improvement over Antwon Blake, that’s kind of like saying the Steelers improved at quarterback in 1988 after trading Mark Malone and starting Bubby Brister. The restricted free agent tender the Steelers offered Ross Cockrell is just under 2 million dollars per year.

  • Is Ross Cockrell really worth that much money?

Ben Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl window is shrinking, perhaps faster than thought even a year ago. The Steelers need proven production out of their cornerback position, not uncertain potential. Offering Ross Cockrell a restricted free agent tender is tantamount to trying to apply a BandAid to a wound that needs stitches.

Curtain’s Call on Ross Cockrell and the Steelers

Deciding on whether to tender or not to tender a restricted free agent can be tricky business for a team. While a tender does allow a team to hedge its bets, it also commits them to a certain dollar value (although RFA tenders are not guaranteed).

  • Ross Cockrell has shown enough in during his time in Pittsburgh that the rest of the NFL knows he can play cornerback.

He’s not a player like Stevenson Sylvester, whom the Steelers can opt not to tender and expect to get back in August or September should they decide they need him after all. Offering a right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard probably wouldn’t deter another team from making an offer to Ross Cockrell.

By giving Ross Cockrell an original round tender, the Steelers will force any team to sacrifice a 4th round draft pick to take him away, and Pittsburgh retains the right to match the offer. The Steelers have had teams make runs at their restricted free agents before, once with Jerrol Williams in 1993 and again in 2013 with Emmanuel Sanders.

The key to both situations is in both situations, the Steelers refused to panic. Given how great of a commodity cornerbacks are and how thin the Steelers are at the position, it’s possible that an original round tender for Ross Cockrell doesn’t carry a high enough cost to deter opposing General Managers.

But the Steelers conserve their options and will ultimately control what happens. That’s the right move. Ross Cockrell is the type of player who can help you win a Super Bowl, and the Steelers have ensured that they’ll be able to keep in in Pittsburgh.

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Steelers Restricted Free Agent Tender to Chris Hubbard is a Low Risk No Brainer

When talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers group of upcoming free-agents, reserve offensive lineman Chris Hubbard probably doesn’t enter into most discussions among fans and the media.

But that’s the thing about backup offensive linemen in the National Football League:

  • You never know when you’re going to need them.

Such was the case for the Steelers and Hubbard early last season, when starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert and veteran backup swing tackle Ryan Harris were both lost in a 43-14 Sunday night victory over the Chiefs at Heinz Field.

Chris Hubbard, Chris Hubbard restricted free agent, Chis Hubbard tight end

Chris Hubbard lines up as a tight end in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Chris Hubbard’s Steelers Career

Chris Hubbard, a 2013 undrafted rookie free-agent out of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), bounced back and forth between the team’s practice squad and active roster during 2013, 2014 and 2015 before finally finding a permanent job among the final 53 in 2016.

Its a bit ironic when you look back, as Mike Golic Jr. and Nik Embernate aka “Embernasty” got all the headlines when the Steelers 2013 undrafted rookie free agent class was announced, but four years later, it was Chris Hubbard who was suiting up for the AFC Championship game.

A versatile lineman who can play guard, center and tackle, Hubbard proved his worth against Kansas City in that aforementioned Week 4 match-up, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had perhaps his best game of the season, passing for 300 yards and five touchdowns.

With Marcus Gilbert and Ryan Harris both ruled out against the Jets seven days later, Chris Hubbard got his first career start at right tackle. The result: a more than satisfactory performance in a 31-13 Steelers victory over the Jets at Heinz Field.

  • A week later, Chris Hubbard struggled quite a bit in a 30-15 loss at Miami, as Pittsburgh also lost Ben Roethlisberger with a torn meniscus.

Chris Hubbard started two more games at right tackle before Marcus Gilbert finally returned from his ankle injury, and the young lineman would  remain the backup tackle the rest of the year, as Ryan Harris, who suffered a shin injury against the Chiefs, ultimately had to be placed on Injured Reserve.

Chris Hubbard also saw extensive spot-duty as a third tight end in the Steelers “Big Boy” package, helping David Johnson and Jesse James open holes for Le’Veon Bell.

Pro’s & Con’s of Steelers Decision to RFA Tender to Chris Hubbard

As the Steelers approach free-agency, Hubbard is of the restricted free agent, meaning the Steelers retain the right of first refusal should any other team offer Chris Hubbard a contract.

  • Will there be any offers for Hubbard, 25? Probably not. Should have tendered him a right of first refusal option (as they have) anyway?

If you were to say linemen of Hubbard’s pedigree are a dime a dozen, you would be correct. If you also were to say that Jerald Hawkins, Pittsburgh’s fourth round pick out of LSU in 2016, is someone the team probably is counting on to make strides in 2017, you are also surely correct.

  • Fact is, the Steelers seem set at both tackle positions for the near-future.

Marcus Gilbert is signed through 2019, while left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who only has two years of NFL experience and is an exclusive-rights free-agent, meaning he simply must take whatever offer Pittsburgh gives him.

A year ago Chris Hubbard was a “nice to have” type player to have on your depth chart, now he’s one play away from protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside.

Obviously, the Steelers could fill the backup tackle void with just about anyone, but why not with a player who has been in their system for some time now and also has had and will continue to have the privilege of being coached my Mike Munchak, perhaps the best in the business at what he does and certainly the most respected assistant coach on Pittsburgh’s staff.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Chis Hubbard

When you see the improvements of the likes of Marcus Gilbert and more notably Alejandro Villanueva in recent years, Chris Hubbard is certainly in good hands, and if any offensive line coach can get max out of his abilities, it’s Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak.

  • The Steelers have already offered Chris Hubbard a right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard.

Exact figures for 2017’s right of first refusal offers are suggested to be in the 1.85 million dollar range. So its doubtful that another team will try to sign Chris Hubbard away.

Its says here the Steelers made the right move in protecting Chris Hubbard. The Steelers have invested heavily in his development, and the truth is Chris Hubbard will be on someone’s roster in 2017. He he might as well be on the Steelers’ because you just never know when his services will be needed.

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Ryan Harris Retires, Steelers Depth at Offensive Tackle Just Became a Higher Priority

In a move that counts as disappointing, if not terribly surprising, Pittsburgh Steelers reserve offensive tackle Ryan Harris has announced his retirement.

https://twitter.com/salaams_from_68/status/837819366309769217

Ryan Harris’ ride with the Steelers was, in a word, short.

The Steelers signed Ryan Harris last year in free agency after losing Kelvin Beachum to the Jacksonville Jaguars to provide depth and/or competition to Alejandro Villanueva for the left tackle spot. Harris had been drafted by the Denver Broncos in 2007, played there for four years, spent 2 in Houston, one in Kansas City only to return to Denver in time for their Super Bowl run.

Ryan Harris, Ryan Harris retirement, Steelers vs Eagles

Ryan Harris pressed into duty at right tackle in the 2016 Steelers loss to the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Fortunately, the Steelers never got a chance to see how good of a job Ryan Harris could do protecting Ben Roethlisberger‘s blindside as Alejandro Villanueva won the starting job in training camp.

Ryan Harris did see duty in all four of the Steelers first four games in 2016, and got pressed into starting service with Marcus Gilbert got injured during the Kansas City Chiefs game.

That stint as the Steelers starting right tackle didn’t last long, however, as Ryan Harris would suffer a leg hematoma and was done for the year.

Impact of Ryan Harris’ Retirement on Steelers Free Agency & Draft Plans

Given the serious nature of Ryan Harris leg injury, the Steelers certainly knew Ryan Harris’ retirement was a possibility, if not a probability and the move explains the Steelers decision to offer a 1.85 million dollar right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard.

  • Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva are set as the Steelers starting tackles, with Chris Hubbard as their the swing tackle backup.

This would have likely been the case regardless of Ryan Harris’ decision to retire. The Steelers are also counting on Jerald Hawkins, their 4th round pick from the 2016 NFL Draft, to return and compete for a roster spot. It is unlikely the Steelers would invest salary cap dollars into a backup offensive tackle via the free agent market, but the absence of Ryan Harris could boost the need or desire to draft an offensive tackle in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Ryan Harris Steelers Experience Had Quality, if it Lacked Quantity

While he only suited up for four games with the Steelers, that was long enough for Harris become emersed in “the Steelers way.” As Ryan Harris told Steelers Digest’s Teresa Varley:

It’s amazing to see the Rooney family multiple times a day or a week. The fact that Mr. (Dan) Rooney knows my name is incredible, especially being a fan of the game for so long. Just everything, from the medical staff, to the coaches, to everyone involved, this is a championship organization and you feel it immediately when you get here.

The culture of the Steelers and the type of character we have here makes it fuller.

That’s an incredible statement, given that Ryan Harris played in the NFL for four teams over 9 years, and his time in Pittsburgh counts for just over 3% of the games he played.

Steelers Nation thanks Ryan Harris, and wishes his well in his retirement.

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Steelers 2017 Free Agent Cody Wallace – Does B.J. Finney’s Rise Mean Wallace’s “Life’s Work?” has Arrived?

In the modern, salary-cap era of the NFL, getting a pink slip on cut down day doesn’t necessarily spell doom. Current Steelers Fitzgerald Toussaint, Anthony Chickillo and James Harrison have been cut only to see another NFL Day.

  • But when The Turk came knocking down in Tampa in September 2013, Cody Wallace had to fear The End had arrived.

After all, Cody Wallace had bounced around between the 49ers, Lions, Texans, and Jets rosters and practice squads from 2008 to 2011 and landed a spot duty position with Tampa in 2012. When you’re a 28 year old NFL offensive lineman who has been with 5 teams in 5 years and you get cut, “Life’s Work” is usually comes next.

But even then, Cody Wallace appeared to be an insurance pickup. Maurkice Pouncey was continuing the Steelers tradition of stability at center that runs (almost) unbroken from Ray Mansfield, to Mike Webster, to Dermontti Dawson to Jeff Hartings. Little did they know, the Steelers would need Wallace’s services and need them soon.

That was four years ago and now the Steelers must decide if free agent Cody Walllace’s services are still worth it.

cody wallace, cody wallace free agent, steelers vs packers, steelers 2017 free agents

Cody Wallace starting at center in the Steelers 2013 game against Green Bay at Lambeau Field. Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch, USA TODAY Sports

Capsule Profile of Cody Wallace’s Steelers Career

When Maurkice Pouncey went down on opening day 2013 against the Titans, Cody Wallace was in street clothes. The Steeler signed Fernando Velasco who started the next 11 games until he too got injured in the Steelers Thanksgiving loss to the Ravens.

It was Cody Wallace’s turn to be the next man up, and Wallace finished that game and started the final four games of the Steelers 2013 season. In 2014 Cody Wallace appeared in 15 games and gave two solid performances starting at guard.

When Maurkice Pouncey went down for the count in 2015, Cody Wallace started all 16 of the Steelers regular season games and both playoff games at center. Going into 2015 the Steelers had a pretty good record when Cody Wallace started, and during 2015 Ben Roethlisberger enjoyed solid protection the entire time, and Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams had solid run blocking.

Cody Wallace only appeared in one game during 2016 and was put on injured reserve just before the Steelers game road game against the Ravens.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Cody Wallace

Cody Wallace gives the Steelers veteran depth at the offensive line and the ability to step in and start at not one but two positions. While the NFL injury gods haven’t tortured the Steelers in recent years the as badly as they did at the beginning of the decade, the Steelers have learned the lesson that you can never have too many good offensive lineman.

Cody Wallace knows Mike Munchak’s system. He’s a quality player who has shown the ability to deliver when called upon time and time again.

The Cast Against the Steelers Signing Cody Wallace

B.J. Finney and Chris Hubbard. Both are younger lineman benefited from Wallace’s injury and absence in 2016. While both players offer the rare combination of experience and youth. They’re known commodities.

  • In contrast, Cody Wallace will turn 33 this year and he’s coming off of an injury.

The Steelers also have 2016’s 3rd round pick Jerald Hawkins coming back in 2017. While Hawkins plays tackle he’s another younger lineman that the Steelers will need reserve a roster spot for. Given that, Cody Wallace isn’t worth even a minimal signing bonus. The Steelers can get the same depth with younger, cheaper players.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Cody Wallace

If this were simply and X’s and O’s decision, and if my medical staff assured me Cody Wallace’s injury wasn’t long-term, then this arm-chair general manager would bring him back. It is true that B.J. Finney did an exceptional job as a guard.

On the Steelers first several 3rd downs ended in sacks as, the Browns ran right at Landry Jones and on came Jordan Berry. That was fine for a meaningless game against the Browns, but if you’re Mike Tomlin, do you really want to roll the dice with letting that happen to Ben Roethlisberger?

But of course personnel decisions in today’s NFL don’t simply come down to the X’s and O’s, they’re just as much about the bang for your salary cap dollar.

  • And in that analysis, the argument for letting Cody Wallace walk gets a lot stronger.

And at the end of the day, the Steelers will almost certainly hold off on making any sort of an offer to Cody Wallace, see who they can pick up in the 2017 NFL Draft, and only then seriously consider bringing him back.

In all likelihood, while the door isn’t completely closed, the Steelers look set to move on from Cody Wallace.
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Steelers Free Agent 2017 Fan Poll – Who Stays? Who Goes? You Decide Steelers Nation

You’ve got to love technology. The original plan was to include this poll in yesterday’s Steelers 2017 free agent tracker post and begin with our Steelers 2017 free agent profiles today. It worked perfectly, except the short code for the poll wouldn’t embed to the right, making for a LONG post with a lot of scrolling.

Le'Veon Bell, Landry Jones, Steelers 2017 free agents

Landry Jones hands off to Le’Veon Bell. Both Steelers are free agents. (Photo Credit: Shelley Lipton, UPI via UPI top news)

So we go to Plan B and include the poll in a separate post, which you can vote on below:

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 02-06-2017 11:04:27
end_date 04-11-2017 11:30:59
Poll Results:
Which 2017 free agents should the Steelers resign/should have resigned? (Multiple votes allowed)

Please note that we’ve left the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights free agents off of the poll because those guys aren’t going anywhere and it would make the poll too long. Also note that you can vote for as many players as you like.

The Steelers are expected to tender restricted free agents Ross Cockrell and Chris Hubbard with the possibility that they’ll seek a long term deal with Cockrell – here’s your chance to sound off.

Conventional wisdom also indicates that the Steelers biggest three unrestricted free agents are Le’Veon Bell, James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons. Management wants all three back, all three men want to stay in Pittsburgh.

  • Perhaps you’re a contrarian and have a different idea, well now is the time to make your voice heard.

Both Landry Jones lovers and haters can express their view of Ben Roethlisberger’s backup. Conventional wisdom has both Jarvis Jones and DeAngelo Williams headed out of Pittsburgh on a fast boat down the Ohio. Maybe you think there’s a way either man still fits in. Excellent, then cast your vote accordingly.

Then there are the guys on the margins, the ones that no one ever talks about, you don’t see articles written about, and depending on when things happen, the newspapers might not write about if they leave Pittsburgh (think Mewelde Moore in 2012 and Doug Legursky in 2013).

This year Cody Wallace, Shamarko Thomas, David Johnson and Ricardo Mathews are four lower profile free agents that no one seems to care about, except for perhaps you. So if you think they belong in Pittsburgh or think its time for them to move on, vote accordingly.

There’s also Markus Wheaton. The Steelers don’t normally give wide receivers not named Antonio Brown or Hines Ward second contracts, but some people think he deserves to be an exception particularly if he’s affordable. Again, your opinion is what counts here.

Finally, we’ve included long snapper Greg Warren and linebacker/special teamer Steven Johnson in our poll. The Steelers have already resigned both men, but you can endorse that wisdom or express your outrage as you see fit.

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Steelers 2017 Free Agent Tracker

The month of March is here which means that Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 off season is set to spring to life NFL Free Agency begins.  In 2017 the Pittsburgh Steelers have a total of 27 players who will be (or would have been) either Exclusive Rights, Restricted or Unrestricted Free Agents.

Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Steelers 2017 free agency, Steelers 2017 free agents, steelers vs giants

Last season Lawrence Timmons & James Harrison closed in on Eli Manning together. Now they’re both closing in on free agency (Photo Credit: Steelers.com)

Here is our Steelers 2017 Free Agency tracker, which we’ll update as events occur.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Unrestricted Free Agents

Click on a player’s name for a full-length free agent profile of each player, including the pro’s and con’s of resigning the player or letting him walk.

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Resignings

Le’Veon Bell, running back
2/27/17 – Steelers place Exclusive Rights Franchise Player tag on Le’Veon Bell, ensuring his return in 2017
James Harrison, linebacker
3/1/17Steelers resign James Harrison to two year contract
Landry Jones, quarterback
3/9/17 – Steelers resign Landry Jones to two year contract
David Johnson, tight end
3/9/17 – Steelers resign David Johnson to two year contract.
Greg Warren, long snapper
2/2/17 – Steelers resign Greg Warren to 1 year deal
Steven Johnson, linebacker/special teams
2/15/17 – Steelers resign Steven Johnson

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Pickups

Justin Hunter, wide reciever
3/15/17 — Steelers sign Justin Hunter from Miami to 1 year contract
Coty Sensabaugh, cornerback
3/19/17 — Steelers sign Coty Sensabaugh from the New York Giants to two year contract
Knile Davis, kick returner/running back
3/19/17 — Steelers sign Knile Davis from Kansas City to one year contract
Tyson Alualu, defensive lineman
3/20/17 — Steelers Sign Tyson Alualu from Jacksonville to two year contract

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Losses

Markus Wheaton, wide receiver
3/9/17 – Chicago Bears sign Markus Wheaton to a contract
Lawrence Timmons, inside linebacker
3/10/17 – Miami Dolphins sign Lawrence Timmons to 2 year contract
Jarvis Jones, outside linebacker
3/14/17 – Pittsburgh West, aka the Arizona Cardinals sign Jarvis Jones

Steelers 2017 Free Agents Who Remain Unsigned

DeAngelo Williams, running back
Cody Wallace, center/guard
Shamarko Thomas, special teams/safety
Ricardo Mathews, defensive end

Steelers 2017 Restricted Free Agents

Ross Cockrell, cornerback
3/2/17 – Steelers offer original round tender to Ross Cockrell
4/17/17 – Ross Cockrell signs restricted free agent tender
Chris Hubbard, offensive tackle
3/2/17 – Steelers offer right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard

Click on either player’s name for a full-length restricted free agent profile.

By giving extending both Cockrell and Hubbard restricted free agent tenders, the Steelers retain the right to match any offer a team might make them. In addition, the Steelers would get a 4th round pick should they decline to match an offer for Ross Cockrell.

Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

Alejandro Villanueva, offensive tackleRoosevelt Nix, fullback
Resigned with Steelers
Cobi Hamilton, wide receiver
Resigned with Steelers
Anthony Chickillo, linebacker
Resigned with Steelers
Chris Boswell, place kicker
Resigned with Steelers
Fitzgerald Toussaint, running back
Resigned with Steelers
Jordan Dangerfield, safety
Resigned with Steelers
Xavier Grimble, tight end
Resigned with Steelers
B.J. Finney, guard/center

Additional Steelers Exclusive Rights Free Agents
Valerian Ume-Ezeoke, guard/center
Cole Manhart, center
Kevin Anderson, linebacker

The Steelers can bring back any Exclusive Rights Free Agent by simply making them a qualified offer. For an in-depth discussion of the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class and its larger significance, click here.

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Wanted in Pittsburgh: Steelers Red Zone Receiver to Step Up in AFC Championship vs. Patriots

Reality unfolds at its own pace.” – Jerry Brown

While this site maintains a strict “No politics” rule there is no better quote and Jerry Brown’s to illustrate the key lesson that the Steelers take from their win over Kansas City to the AFC Championship against New England. And what, pray tell, is that lesson?

  • The Steelers need a Red Zone receiver to step up if they’re to bring Lombardi Number 7 back to Pittsburgh.
Eli Rogers, Steelers red zone receiver, AFC Championship, AFC Divisional playoff, Ron Parker, Steelers vs. Chiefs

Ron Parker tackles Eli Rogers in the AFC Divisional Playoff game. Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel, AP via Honolulu Star-Advertiser

There you have it Steelers Nation. While concern about the need for someone to step up alongside Antonio Brown dates back to Markus Wheaton’s going on injured reserve, this concern more or less faded as the Steelers stacked wins in November and December.

  • Just two weeks ago Steel Curtain Rising declared the Steelers Super Bowl hopes depended on the defense.

That remains true, but two playoff games of Sean Davis breaking up critical passes, Bud Dupree pressuring quarterbacks into throws that Ryan Shazier intercepts, and James Harrison being James Harrison show that the Steelers defense is delivering.

But Pittsburgh need to have Chris Boswell boot them over the Chiefs reveals that the Steelers offense has an issue.

Steelers Tough Between the 20’s

A quick glance at the statistics the Steelers offense amassed in the playoffs against the Chiefs and you can be excused for thinking this game must have been a blow out.

  • Antonio Brown broke the 100 yard mark
  • Le’Veon Bell broke the Steelers playoff rushing record. Again.
  • Jesse James caught 5 passes for 83 yards on 6 targets averaging 16.6 yards per carry.
  • The Steelers dominated time of possession to the tune of 34:13

Those numbers are nice, but they’re largely neutered by the Steelers going 0-4 in the Red Zone. To that end, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell offers some revealing statistics. While Antonio Brown has scored 14 touchdowns this season, only four have come in the Red Zone, and Brown has only scored 2 Red Zone touchdowns in the last 10 games, including the Immaculate Extension against the Ravens.

  • It says here that Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t suddenly forget to look Antonio Brown way in the Red Zone.

But its logical to assume that keeping Brown confined inside the 20 makes efforts to double and triple team Brown more effective. And that’s really where the Steelers are missing another receiving threat.

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Antonio Brown smokes Justin Houston in the AFC Divisional Playoff game. Photo Credit: Medley, USA TODAY Sports via Steel City Insider

Eli Rogers has some on strong late in the season, and has come up with several clutch catches, but his end zone drop against the Chiefs shows that he still must prove he can make the leap from number 3 to number 2 wide receiver in the NFL. Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers only got 1 target a piece and Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates didn’t see Ben Roethlisberger look their way all night.

  • Those statistics reflect the Steelers run-oriented approach in the playoffs thus far than any lack of confidence in those receivers

But it also means that no one is stepping to and demanding that opposing defensive coordinators respect them in the passing game.

Solution to Steelers Red Zone Issues Must Come from Within

Jim Wexell argues “Run the thing when you’ve got them by the throat in these seemingly guaranteed situations.” Fans old enough to remember Chan Gailey calling two goal line pass plays that turned into Kordell Stewart interceptions instead of handing it to Jerome Bettis in the 1997 AFC Championship game would agree.

  • And I have no objections if we saw Roosevelt Nix, Chris Hubbard and the rest of the Big Boy package check into the game in “Whatever and Goal” situations.

But at the end of the day, the Steelers can’t win beat the New England Patriots with a one-dimensional Red Zone offense. Ladarius Green is practicing and that’s positive news, but Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley know they can’t count on him leaving the concussion protocol.

And that means that someone, be it Eli Rogers, Jesse James, DHB, Cobi Hamilton or even Sammie Coates must step up in the Red Zone.

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Steelers Report Card for Bengals Win: Chris Boswell Kicks Cincinnati Bengals Buckett

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who seen his students ace 5 straight test-sections in a row but know that it’s the six one that will determine the grade of the entire exam, here is the Steelers Report Card for the win over the Bengals.

2016 Steelers win at Cincinnati, Le'Veon Bell, David Johnson, David DeCastro, Ben Roethlisberger

David Johnson and David DeCastro open holes for Le’Veon Bell in the Steelers win at Cincinnati. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger probably didn’t make a lot of fantasy owners happy on Sunday, completing 21 passes on 36 tries for 286 yards. The truth is that Ben Roethlisberger was off a number of times, and had a few questionable balls. But Ben Roethlisberger protected the ball, the Steelers moved the chains, and his laser strike touchdown to Eli Rogers came at exactly the right time. Grade: Bsteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers vs. Bengals

Running Backs
Mike Tomlin had indicated the DeAngelo Williams might suit up for this game, but Williams did not dress, leaving it to Le’Veon Bell to carry the load for the offense again. Le’Veon Bell didn’t have the dominating type game that has been a stable of the Steelers previous four wins, but he found the tough yards on the ground to put the Steelers into manageable down and distance situation gaining 93 yards on 21 carries. As he as he always does, Bell also did his damage catching balls out of the air, catching 5 passes for 28 yards. Roosevelt Nix once again acquitted himself at fullback. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Against the Colts and the Giants, Ladarius Green showed he could be a “field flipping” tight end, which is a welcome sign. However, against the Bills he struggled a little, but bounced back against the Bengals making several tough catches in the middle, making 5 receptions for 72 yards. David Johnson had one catch for 12 yards. Chris Hubbard continued to work as an extra tight end, and Xavier Grimble and Jesse James both got extensive work as blockers. Overall, a strong performance from the tight ends. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Eli Rogers led the Steelers wide outs, making a number of key catches downfield including the team’s only touchdown. Cobi Hamilton made one 21 yard catch that help setup the Steelers last 1st half field goal, while Sammie Coates caught one pass for 10 yards on a scoring drive, but was targeted 3 other times, although he probably should have drawn pass interference penalties on at least two of those catches. A solid day by the receivers. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
In the first outing against the Bengals, Cincinnati sacked Ben Roethlisberger once, just as they did on Sunday, although Ben’s sack really came as the result of a bobbled snap. Other than that, the Steelers offensive line kept their quarterback clean. In the first outgoing against the Bengals, as a team the Steelers averaged 3.4 yards per carry, on Sunday that percentage dropped a hair to 3.3 yards, but the Steelers rushing average increases to 3.9 yards a carry if you discount Ben Roethlisberger’s kneel downs at the end.

It wasn’t a perfect day for the offensive line, as David DeCastro got flagged for a couple of penalties, but the Steelers offensive line improved in their second outing against the Bengals, and they needed it to. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line lost Stephon Tuitt early in the game and then lost Ricardo Mathews later in the game, forcing L.T. Walton, Daniel McCullers and Javon Hargrave to go it alone. If this unit struggled a bit against the run in the first half, they more than made up for it in the second half as Bengals running backs ran for 8 yards in the second half. The trio might not have put up any dazzling stats, but if these men don’t do their job, the linebackers don’t look nearly as good. Grade: A-

Linebackers
Games like this show just how badly stats can mislead. One might look at James Harrison’s totals, and think that without any sacks or hits to the quarterback or tackles for losess, Harrison simply ran up a nice tackle count. Nothing could be further from the case. James Harrison was intremental in neutralizing the Bengals rushing attack. Lawrence Timmons continued to show that he remains a vialbe, play making linebackiner in this defense, pulling down another interception and helping sustain the momentum in the second half, momentum which Ryan Shazier started by ending the Bengals first half possession with a sack. Bud Dupree had a difficult time against the Bengals offensive line, showing the limits of his athleticism. Still, he made it into the backfield on more than one occasion. Grade: A

Secondary
Mike Mitchell led the Steelers defensive backs in tackles and got his hands on a ball that could have been an interception. Sean Davis was next including a tackle for a loss that he split with Timmons. The biggest plays however came on successive third downs as first Ross Cockrell and then Artie Burns batted way sideline passes that, had they been completed, would have kept the drives alive. As Steelers Digest Editor Bob Labirola argued, a year ago the Steelers cornerbacks fail to make those plays (think about it, does Antwon Blake defense either of those passes…?) Those were difference makers in this game. Grade: A

Special Teams
First, there simply aren’t sufficient accolades to praise Chris Boswell’s performance. How many NFL kickers have made three 49 yard field goals in one game? He also hit 45 and 40 yarders. All outdoors, in December in the AFC North. Boswell of course make a critical tackle that saved a touchdown (and Keith Butler’s defense worked the short field to force a field goal.)

  • Sammie Coates added some much needed sparkle by giving the Steelers a 44 yard kick off return that set up the Steelers first score.

While these positives carry the most weight in the final game for the special teams, Fitzgerald Toussaint’s poor decision making and poor returns must be taken into account. Moreover, Alex Erickson 72 yard return could have been a game changer for Cincinnati. Grade: B

Coaching

For all of its flaws, Cincinnati remains a talented team with a defense that has shown an ability to give the Steelers offense fits. While Todd Haley has a long way to go before anyone can say he’s mastered the Bengals defense, but on this Sunday, he found the right mix of ball control and vertical passing that allowed the Steelers to get enough points on the board to get out of Paul Brown Stadium with a win.

  • Keith Butler had a more complicated task, stop a talented Bengals offense short-handed on the defensive line.

As mentioned above, the Steelers completely shut out the Bengals in the second half, eliminating the run while the Steelers linebackers and secondary made Andy Dalton look like David Klingler on third downs.

Finally, Mike Tomlin and his staff took a lot of criticism here for abandoning the run against Miami; others critiqued them for sticking to the run too closely vs. Baltimore. The truth is that a good coach knows when to change things up in midstream (see last week vs. the Bills) and when to stick to his guns.

As the first half ended with Cincinnati scoring on each possession and the Steelers looking at an 11 point deficit Mike Tomlin told CBS Sports that there was nothing the Steelers needed to so much as to stop beating themselves with penalties.

  • And the Steelers did just that in the second half.

While it is impossible to credit Tomlin completely with that turnaround, the fact is that the Steelers never gave in to despair, and continued to chip away at Cincinnati’s lead until going ahead late in the 4th. That’s a sign of a well-coached team if there ever was one. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
When was the last time that Antonio Brown didn’t lead Steelers wide receivers? I’m not about to do the research, but “a long time ago” will suffice. Antonio Brown didn’t dominate as he usually does, but he made critical catches that set up scores. He also had a touchdown negated by a penalty, and drew a holding call late in the game that iced the game for the Steelers and for that Antonio Brown wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2016 win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 Bye Week Review – Does 4-3 = Glass Half Full or Empty?

The 2016 Steelers bye week finds Pittsburgh exactly where they were at week 7 a year ago 4-3 with Le’Veon Bell having missed beginning of the season and Landry Jones having already made an unexpected start.

Yet, in 2015 the Steelers 4-3 record seemed to create a more positive vibe in Steelers Nation; a year later the feeling isn’t quite so rosey because the 2016 Steelers fallen short of expectations. To understand why, the Steelers 2016 bye week review focuses on the milestones Pittsburgh needed to pass to realize their Super Bowl aspirations.

le'veon bell, steelers 2016 bye week assessment, steelers vs. chiefs, deangelo williams

No matter how you measure it, Le’Veon Bell is a bright spot in the Steelers 2016 bye week assessment. Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham

Prior to the 2016 season, Steel Curtain Rising made a number of assumptions and outlined a number of areas where the team needed to improve to transform the Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes into reality.

  • First, the Steelers depth would need to suffice to overcome injuries
  • Second, the Steelers defense had to consolidate and build upon their 2015 improvement
  • Third, the Steelers secondary gamble had to pay off
  • Fourth, Mike Tomlin couldn’t continue to get tripped by by trap games

Viewed from that vantage point, the Steelers 2016 bye week record of 4-3 looks legitimately disappointing. Our Steelers 2016 bye week review acknowledges that, but there’s also good reason for Steelers Nation to live in its hopes and not its fears during the remaining 9 games.

Steelers 2016 Depth Offers a Mixed Bag

One of the assumptions this site made on the eve of the 2016 season was that this Steelers team was deeper than its recent predecessors and that it had the depth to compensate for injuries.

  • In some cases, the Steelers have proven this assumption, in others – not so much.

Depth at tight end, and to a lesser extent, wide receiver and offensive line have proven to be the positives. When the Steeles signed Ladarius Green for big money after Heath Miller retired, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin clearly didn’t envision a tight end by committee system that Pittsburgh has been forced to use thus far this season.

  • Nonetheless, the trio of Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, and David Johnson has gotten the job done.

No this group clearly hasn’t replaced Heath Miller’s legendary reliability, nor has it offered the dynamic spread-the-field spark that Ladarius Green promised to, and blocking has been an issue at times. But no one can charge that tight end has been a liability for the Steelers thus far, and Ben Roethlisberger and Landry Jones have found ways to work all three into the passing game which has helped compensate for injuries elsewhere.

  • On the offensive line, losing Ryan Harris was a blow, but B.J. Finney and Chris Hubbard have performed better than expected, Hubbard’s struggles in Miami not withstanding.

At wide receiver, Steelers coaches hoped and expected Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates to be the proverbial two dogs struggling over the bone that is the number 2 receiver slot opposite Antonio Brown. Instead, both men have been limited with injuries. Yet Darrius Heyward-Bey, Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton have all stepped up and contributed.

Landry Jones will never nature into a franchise quarterback, but as a backup he’s earned the respect of Steelers Nation, even if portions of it will refuse to grant it.

Steelers 2016 Defense Has Struggled – Thus Far

If the Steelers offense has at least held its own thus far in 2016, the same is decidedly not true about Pittsburgh’s 2016 defense. Not only has Keith Butler failed to build on the improvement his unit displayed last season, it appears to have regressed.

  • The Steelers have 3 interceptions and just 8 sacks 7 games into the season.

These numbers are terrible, prompting one Mexican blogger to compare it to the 1988 Steelers defense.

Perhaps the comparison to Tony Dungy’s disasterous 1988 defense is a little exaggerated, but there is nothing to gloss over or sugar coat when it comes to the Steelers 2016 defense. 7 games into 2016, the Steelers are failing to pressure the passer, failing to secure turnovers and giving up yards in gobs against the run.

Losing Bud Dupree to injured reserve has hurt the pass rush, and clearly Jarvis Jones, Arthur Moats, Anthony Chickillo and James Harrison are not picking up the slack. Indeed, Cameron Heyward has more sacks than all of the Steelers outside linebackers combined – and Cam Heyward has missed 2 games.

If Vince Williams can help make up for the loss of Ryan Shazier, the same cannot be said of Ricardo Mathews. The Miami Dolphins ran his way early and often, and kept the Steelers off balance for the entire afternoon because of it.

  • Too little attention has been paid to the center of the Steelers defensive line.

While Javon Hargrave and Daniel McCullers do not deserved to serve as scapegoats, one has to wonder if the Steelers wouldn’t like to reexamine the cost-benefit analysis that led them to allow Steve McLendon to depart.

Perhaps the biggest area of concern is the Steelers secondary.

Steelers 2016 Secondary Gamble Slow to Show Returns

As has been discussed on this site before, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and Carnell Lake made the collective decision to destroy their cornerback depth chart from 2015 and start anew.

  • Clearly, no one is calling for the return of Cortez Allen, Brandon Boykin and Antwon Blake.

Nor should they. But if that trio (or quartet, if you add in Will Allen at safety) lacked talent, it didn’t lack for experience. At this point Antwan Blake had at least logged a pick six and Will Allen an interception – we’re still waiting to see the first interception from the Steelers 2016 secondary.

For what it is worth, the Steelers pass defense has “improved” from 30th against the pass in total yards to 27th. Does that offer hope that Sean Davis and Artie Burns can deliver more during the second half of the season? When late November and early December rolled around, Bill Cowher was famous for saying that at that point, rookies weren’t rookies anymore.

One has to hope that Artie Burns and Sean Davis soon reach the point where they outgrow their rookie growing pains as it would greatly improve the Steelers Super Bowl chances.

Tripping Up Tomlin with Trap Games – Or Not

While Steel Curtain Rising has been and remains an unabashed supporter of Mike Tomlin, this site has not hesitated to criticize his teams from playing down to the competition. And if Tomlin does deserve much of the heat that he gets for the Steelers falling into tramp games, perhaps the situation is not as dire as it seems.

Over on Behind the Steel Curtain, Tony Defeo has offered a vigorous defense of Mike Tomlin. We won’t steal Defeo’s thunder but strongly encourage you to click here to read his article (seriously folks, do it, we’ll wait.) Taking a more cerebral approach over on Steel City Blitz, Ben Anderson has contrasted Mike Tomlin’s record against sub .500 teams on the road (and at home) with that of Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher. As Anderson argues, numbers don’t line: Mike Tomlin’s performance in this respect is in line with his predecessors.

  • Fair enough.

And let’s acknowledge that the Philadelphia Eagles are probably a pretty good football team and that the Miami Dolphins perhaps might not be as bad they seemed early in the season.

But if that is true, then it is also true that the Steelers came out flatfooted vs. the Eagles, and appeared to fall right into the Dolphins game plan. And there’s another element that comes into play which is Ben Roethlisberger’s play on the road. Steel Curtain Rising will take a closer look at that this week.

One thing is clear, however. Mike Tomlin must alter his approach when it comes to preparation for games against “weaker” opponents.

Steelers 2016 Bye Week Review = Glass Half Full, Half Empty

In seven games thus far, the Steelers have looked like legitimate Super Bowl contenders in victories against the Redskins, Chiefs and Jets. They’ve also found a way long a divisional win against the Bengals. They struggled in two old fashioned spankings on the road at the hands of the Dolphins and Eagles. And they had a non-moral moral victory against the Patriots.

  • And they’ve done it short-handed since the beginning of the season.

Any Steelers 2016 bye week review is going to paint the classic “Glass Half Full vs. Glass Half Empty” scenario, as the Steelers have both struggled and dominated without showing much in between.  At the end of the day, the key for the Steelers during the bye week is to get healthy.

The Standard Might be the Standard, but the Steelers defense is not the same without Cam Heyward and Ryan Shazier, getting those two men back full time, and keeping them on the field will do wonders for the defense.  Bud Dupree, should he return, won’t be a savior, but the Steelers pass rush can hardly get worse.

On offense the Steelers need to keep Ben Roethlisberger in one piece, and need a return to health by both Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates, and they need Ladarius Green to show he can contribute.

  • But as Mike Tomlin would insist, injuries are a reality that every NFL team must overcome.

The truth is, even if the Steelers take a healthy 53 man roster down to Baltimore, Pittsburgh won’t play the rest of its 2016 schedule with a perfect bill of health.

But if they can check enough boxes in the health column the Steelers 2016 bye week review concludes that these Steelers can play with anyone.

 

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