Celebrate Chris Hubbard as a Steelers Success Before He Leaves Pittsburgh as a Free Agent

Times have changed. As NFL free agency turns 25, Steelers fans who remember the 1990’s will recall when Steelers routinely developed young talent only to see it leave in free agency.

  • The Rooneys kept their word when Heinz Field opened, and the Steelers have been much more competitive in retaining home-grown players.

But sometimes tough choices mean that a budding star will seek greener pastures. The conventional wisdom that Steelers free agent tackle Chris Hubbard is all but certain play 2018 somewhere other than Pittsburgh. Today our Steelers 2018 Free Agent Focus looks at whether that should and will happen.

Chris Hubbard, Steelers vs Colts

Chris Hubbard in the Steelers 2016 Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Chris Hubbard’s Steelers Career

In about five months or so we’ll be flooded with blog posts, tweets, Facebook comments and full-blown articles bemoaning preseason football that call for sharply curtailing it or perhaps eliminating it altogether.

  • When you see such rants next August remember Chris Hubbard’s story.

The Steelers 2013 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class was heavy on offensive lineman, and included the much ballyhood Mike Golic Jr. and Nik Embernate aka Nik Embernasty. No one paid any attention to Chris Hubbard.

And when Steelers Nation got its first look at the undrafted rookie free agent out of Alabama-Birmingham, it seemed like on one should pay attention to him. As Steel City Insider reader “Heinzsight” observed:

Hubbard was a good lesson/reminder for me. I remember his first preseason game against the Giants at LG. I thought he was so irredeemably awful that they should do everyone a favor, including Hubbard, and cut bait and not waste any more of anyone’s time on him. He really was that bad. His pass pro was nonexistent, and spent most of the run game on the ground, getting shrugged, jerked, or ragdolled. No center, always getting out over his hands, and tossed/discarded. Look at him now. Obviously wasn’t irredeemable.

Non-Steel City Insider subscribes will have to accept this author’s assurances that “Heinzsight” knows more about the fundamentals football than 90% of bloggers, including this one, will ever forget.

Chris Hubbard made the Steelers practice squad in 2013 and returned in 2014 to make the active roster. He saw his first professional action in the Steelers 2014 win at Carolina, one of the first truly impressive “scary good” performances of the offensive line of the entire Tomlin era.

Hubbard would see action in 7 games in 2015, saw action in 15 games in 2016 including four starts. Chris Hubbard started 10 games and appeared in 16 regular season games for the Steelers in 2017, proving himself to be that all-so-invaluable 3rd starting swing tackle charged with opening holes for Le’Veon Bell and protecting Ben Roethlisberger.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Chris Hubbard

You can never have too many good offensive lineman? How many times during has fate taught that lesson to the Steelers during the Mike Tomlin era?

Chris Hubbard is the real deal. He’s a legitimate, quality starting tackle in league that puts a premium on this position. On top of that, he’s another guy like his counterpart Alejandro Villanueva or Kelvin Beachum who the rest of the NFL looked over, and said, “No Thanks” to. The Steelers were smarter, invested the time and effort into developing him. Why shouldn’t he stay in Pittsburgh?

  • Sentimentally doesn’t and shouldn’t drive free agent decisions.

The truth is that the will turn 27 this year, while Marcus Gilbert will turn 30, and Gilbert has more than his share of injuries on his frame having missed significant time in 2017 to injuries. The smart salary cap money says cut Gilbert, who’ll get signed in a snap, and resign Hubbard.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Chris Hubbard

It’d be easy to say that cutting Marcus Gilbert in favor of Chris Hubbard isn’t part of “The Steelers Way.” And it would give Steelers fan a warm and fuzzy feeling inside if we said it.

  • Unfortunately its not true.

The Steelers cut veterans before the end of their contracts, and during the early portion of the Tomlin era this was standard operating procedure especially on offensive line (just ask Justin Hartwig, Willie Colon, Kendall Simmons, Max Starks and Chris Kemoeatu.)

But the truth is the if the Steelers cut Marcus Gilbert, they’d take close to a 5 million dollar dead money salary cap hit, and this is the game that needs to get every bit of football out of its salary cap dollars as it can. And given that the Steelers extended Gilbert in 2014, Hubbard would certainly command a higher salary cap number.

You’d like to keep a guy like Chris Hubbard, but the numbers just don’t add up.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Chris Hubbard

Kevin Colbert is a wiz a plucking gems from the undrafted rookie free agent pool, and Mike Tomlin is a coach whose dedicated to giving those young men a fair shot. You know their names. Roosevelt Nix, Ramon Foster, Willie Parker, and James Harrison. To name a few.

  • In another year, with a healthier cap situation, the Steelers might take a shot at keeping Hubbard.

But the Steelers salary cap situation simply doesn’t afford them that luxury. The Steelers gave Chris Hubbard an opportunity, he took full advantage of it, and he deserves to cash in. It won’t be in Pittsburgh, but that’s simply the way things work out.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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X-Factors Cloud Steelers Choices on Free Agent Kelvin Beachum

Of all the free agent choices the Pittsburgh Steelers must make in 2016, perhaps none is surrounded by as many X-Factors as the decision they must make on soon to be free agent left tackle Kelvin Beachum.

Capsule Profile of Kelvin Beachum’s Career with the Steelers

The next time someone tells you that 7th round picks are worthless, remind them of Kelvin Beachum’s story. The Steelers drafted Beachum in the 7th round of the 2012 NFL Draft, making him one of 4 7th round picks that season.

All of the other picks washed out, save for some limited contributions from David Paulson, but Kelvin Beachum began paying immediate dividends. As a rookie Beachum appeared in seven games and started in five, making his first start in the Charlie Batch led Steelers road upset over the eventual Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens.

Beachum tarted the final 5 contests at right tackle for the injured Marcus Gilbert, and heading into his sophomore season, the Steelers plan was to use Beachum as a 3rd tight end and backup at all five offensive line positions….

….That plan did not live past the Steelers first series, as an inadvertent David DeCastro collision with Maurkice Pouncey cost Pouncey the season, and Beachum was there playing center for the first time in his football life.

Fernando Velasco’s arrival alleviated freed Beachum from his duties at center, but Steelers coaches quickly began rotating him in with Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert in an effort to shore up the Steelers porous pass protection.

Following the Steelers loss in London to the Vikings, where Jared Allen tormented Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers benched Mike Adams and installed Kelvin Beachum as their starting left tackle, where he would not miss a game until tearing his ACL in the Steelers win over the Arizona Cardinals.

The Case for Steelers Keeping Kelvin Beachum

The Steelers wanted to extend Kelvin Beachum’s contract before the 2015 season began, but the two sides could not reach an agreement. In doing so, Beachum probably sacrificed several million dollars of signing bonus. Clearly, the Steelers coaches like Beachum.

Alejandro Villanueva stepped in as the starter, and while he struggle, he improved down the stretch, and gives the Steelers a more prototypical left tackle at a bargain rookie contract rate. The Steelers plan was to resign Beachum and move him to guard, but Beachum is ruling out a move to guard.

If salary cap considerations could be ignored, the Steelers could probably sign Beachum to a reasonable contract, given his injury status, and have Villanueva play as a swing tackle. But the Steelers salary cap situation does not give them that kind of flexibly.

The Case Against Steelers Keeping Kelvin Beachum

If the Steelers believe that Alejandro Villanueva is a long term starter at left tackle, then it is impossible to make the case that the Steelers should resign Kelvin Beachum as a tackle, and if he does not wish to play guard, then there really is no place for Beachum on the 2016 Steelers.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Kelvin Beachum

How serious is Kelvin Beachum when he says he will not move to guard for the Steelers or any other NFL team?

That really is the operative question. His language was clear and unequivocal, but quite frankly this is exactly what prospective free agents are supposed to say.

Even if Beachum meant it when he said it, there’s no assurance that some NFL team is going to offer him the type of starting money as a left tackle that he wants, not when he’s coming off an ACL tear. If that happens an offer from the Steeler to play guard could suddenly get more attractive.

But if the Steelers allow both Ramon Foster and Kelvin Beachum to reach free agency, they are taking a huge gamble with their left guard position heading into free agency.

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin rarely base their personnel decisions out of fear, they opened free agency in 2009 by cutting Kendall Simmons and without either Chris Kemoeatu or Trai Essex under contract, so change in the Steelers offensive line could very well be in the air.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Steelers Free Agent Analysis Ramon Foster – Keeping Him Pittsburgh Might be Hard

Taken at face value, the career prospects of an undrafted rookie free agent who signs with the defending Super Bowl Champions look pretty bleak. Yet that’s exactly where Ramon Foster found himself in April of 2009, when the Steelers signed Foster as part of their 2009 undrafted rookie free agent class, just months after victory in Super Bowl XLIII.

Yet, 7 years later, Ramon Foste can count himself is one of the Pittsburgh Steelers hottest free agent commodities.

Capsule Profile of Ramon Foster’s Career with the Steelers

Yet Foster showed enough on the fields of St. Vincents to get a shot in preseason, where he played well enough to make the final 53 man roster. Injuries to Chris Kemoeatu opened the door for Foster to crack the starting lineup, and neither Foster nor the Steelers have looked back.

Foster started 8 games in 2010, including Super Bowl XLV. He started 14 games in 2011, 16 games in 2012, 15 games in 2013, 14 games in 2014, and 16 games in 2015.

The Case for Steelers Keeping Ramon Foster

While Ramon Foster will crack the big 3-0 before opening in 2019, he’s an offensive guard with 5 straight seasons of starting experience under his belt, and no significant injuries to speak of. Not bad for an undrafted rookie free agent. Contrast that with the experience of Kendall Simmons, 2002’s first round pick whose career was essentially over thanks to injuries by the time he turned 30.

  • Ramon Foster has been a pillar of stability during a period of turmoil for the Steelers offensive line.

Ramon Foster might not be a road grading guard in the mold of David DeCastro or Alan Faneca, but his first start vs. the Ravens in 2009 marked the first game that the Steelers gave up no sacks, and his second start vs. Green Bay marked Ben Roethlisberger’s first 500 yard game. Who wouldn’t want a player like that?

The Case Against Steelers Keeping Ramon Foster

Back in the1980’s, the Washington Redskins had a middle linebacker named Neal Olkewicz. Olkewicz was one of those players who wasn’t quite big enough or fast enough, but he was good enough. Nonetheless, Joe Gibbs and Bobby Bethard continually tried to replace him, and Olkewicz continually beat back the Young Turks until retiring after a decade at age 32.

  • That little ditty highlights the difference of today’s NFL with the pre-free agency NFL.

The Redskins repeated attempts to replace Olkewicz were no-risk propositions because they neither had to worry about losing his services via free agency nor tying up salary cap money.

The Steelers are not so lucky with Ramon Foster. To that end, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell offers some interesting insights:

…when I asked two different coaches over the last two seasons whether [Kelvin} Beachum is a guy they’ll always be looking to replace, the exact answer each time was “No, but Ramon Foster is.”

The Steelers, word has it, want more mobility at left guard than Foster can give him, and will apparently consider their options.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Ramon Foster

There are no easy choices here. The Steelers leaked their ideal scenario and it is one that does not include Ramon Foster coming back. That scenario has Kelvin Beachum signing and extension and moving to guard while Alejandro Villanueva takes over at tackle with Mike Adams serving as a backup.

OK. Beachum is about to become a free agent and offensive takcles make more money than guards do.

So Beachum’s supposed to say he’ll never play guard. But those kind of statements indicate at least a willingness to test the market. If the Steelers give priority to Kelvin Beachum that means there’s no way to sign him before he becomes a free agent, and also likely means that Foster will be allowed to test the market.

  • While the Steelers salary cap situation is OK, there is still no shortage of teams with money to throw at experienced offensive lineman.

Offensive line depth is nothing to trifle with. The safe move would be to sign Beachum and allow Foster to test the market but that option is not likely open to the Steelers. Will the Steelers commit to signing Foster before he hits the market? Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin don’t make personnel decisions out of fear.

It would make another great “Steelers undrafted rookie free agent does good” story for Ramon Foster to ink and extension which give him a shot at ending his career in Pittsburgh. And that very well may happen. But the stars don’t quite seem to be lining up that way.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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A Primer on Steelers Broncos Playoff History

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos are not playoff “rivals” the way the Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, Houston Oilers, Baltimore Ravens, and New England Patriots are, but the Steelers and Broncos have a rich playoff history.

Sunday’s divisional playoff game between the Broncos and the Steelers marks the 8th time Pittsburgh and Denver have squared off in the NFL post season. For the record, the Broncos enter this Sunday’s game with a 4-3 edge in playoff games.

Scroll down or click on the gold links below to relive a key moment in Steelers Broncos playoff history.

1977 – Distractions Detour Super Steelers

1977 AFC Divisional Playoffs
December 24, 1977, @ Mile High Stadium
Denver Broncos 34, Pittsburgh Steelers 21

Steelers Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  Histories of the 1970’s “Super Steelers” regard the 1977 season as “The Lost One.” Unlike 1976, which saw the Steelers open and close the season with devastating injuries while playing with absolute domination in between, distractions defined the Steelers 1977 season. Al Davis sued Chuck Noll and the Steelers. Mel Blount took offense to Noll’s “Criminal element” comment. L.C. Greenwood temporarily signed with the World Football League. And this only begins the list….

Stats that StandoutTerry Bradshaw’s three interception game is a biggie, and Lynn Swann going 1-6 is another.  The Steelers tied the game twice, but never led.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Takeaway: The Denver Broncos scored 34 points on the Steel Curtain defense, the most that unit ever gave up in the post-season.
Aftermath:  The 1977 Denver Broncos went on to win the AFC Championship, but lost in Super Bowl XII to the Dallas Cowboys. The 1977 Steelers early playoff exit loss prompted Noll to make a number of roster changes and update his offensive philosophy.…

1978 – Steelers Offense Unleashed

1978 Divisional Playoffs
December 30th, 1978 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh Steelers 33, Denver Broncos 10

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  Of all of Chuck Noll’s teams, the 1978 Steelers are regarded as the best. The defense was still excellent while the offense was exploding. The 1978 Steelers took the NFL by storm, going 14-2 in the regular season, only dropping games to the LA Rams and the Houston Oilers.

Stats that StandoutRobin Cole, Steve Furness, Donnie Shell, Dwight White and Joe Greene combined for 6 sacks of Craig Morton. John Stallworth also caught 10 passes for 156 yards, his first 100+ post season effort.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Takeaway:  Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, and Franco Harris all scored touchdowns, a post season first for a trio that would go on to terrorize opposing defenses over the next 20 games or so.
Aftermath:  The Steelers crushed the Houston Oilers in the AFC Championship game the following week to the tune of 35-5 in a sleet-filled fest at Three Rivers Stadium. Shortly thereafter, in only the Super Bowl matchup between multiple Super Bowl winners, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII. Red Miller’s Broncos faded in the seasons to come.

1984 – Steel Curtain Crushes the Orange Crush

1984 AFC Divisional Playoffs
December 30, 1984 @ Mile High Stadium
Pittsburgh Steelers 24, Denver Broncos 17

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  After missing the playoffs in 1980 and 1981, 1984 marked Pittsburgh Steelers third straight playoff appearance. But this one carried a big difference. Terry Bradshaw had retired, giving way to Mark Malone. Most had expected the 1984 Steelers to sink, but they flew winning the AFC Central Division Championship and ruining the San Francisco 49ers almost-perfect season along the way. In his second season, John Elway led Denver to a 13-3 regular season record.

Stat that Stands OutMark Malone threw no interceptions, John Elway threw two.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away:  This was the last playoff win for John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Bennie Cunningham and Jack Lambert (although Lambert was injured, and did not play).
The Aftermath:  A week later in the AFC Championship game vs. Miami, Dan Marino made the Steelers sorely regret not drafting him. The 1984 Steelers were a surprise, and one could be forgiven for thinking the Steelers reloading process following the first Super Bowl era was gaining momentum.

Alas, the opposite was true. It would be five years before Chuck Noll would return to the playoffs, and he’d post losing records in 3 of the 4 seasons in between, causing Dan Rooney to fire his brother Art Rooney Jr. as the head of scouting.

1989 – ’89 Steelers (Barley) Miss a Mile High Miracle

1989 Divisional Playoffs
January 7, 1990 @ Mile High Stadium
Denver Broncos 24, Steelers 23

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: The Denver Broncos bounced back from an 8-8 season in 1988 and were the odds-on favorite for the AFC Championship. In contrast, the 1989 Steelers started the season losing their first two games by a combined score of 92-10 and were shut out 3 times during the season. But Chuck Noll stood behind his team, and the 1989 Steelers made the playoffs, and then shocked the world by upsetting the Houston Oilers in the Astrodome.

Stat that Stands Out:  Heretofore unknown and/or horrendously underappreciated outside of Pittsburgh, Steelers fullback  Merril Hoge dominates Denver with 100 yards rushing by the first half, and 180 all-purpose yards from scrimmage, cementing his status as one of Steeler Nation’s first heroes of the post-Super Bowl era.
Plays You Wanna Have Back:  Trailing 24-23 with 2:20 left to play and needing 45 yards to get into Gary Anderson’s range, Bubby Brister fires a missile at rookie Mark Stock who drops it at the Steelers 41…
Plays You REALLY Wanna Have Back:  Two plays later, on 3rd down, Chuck Lanza, (who was drafted to be Mike Webster’s heir apparent) is in for future Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson. A poor Lanza snap causes a Brister fumble and a Broncos recovery.
Aftermath:  The Denver Broncos go on to beat the Cleveland Browns in the 1989 AFC Championship, but get slaughtered in the Super Bowl by George Seifert’s San Francisco 49’s to the score of 55-10. Despite the 89 Steelers playoff loss to the Broncos, Chuck Noll remains convinced that, with players like Dawson, Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake, and Greg Lloyd, he has the talent to win big. However, he hires Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator, a decision that turns out to be a disaster for all parties involved.

1997 – 2 Goal Line Interceptions Is Too Many

1997 AFC Championship Game
January 11, 1998 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Denver Broncos 24, Pittsburgh Steelers 21

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: Two years prior, the 1995 Pittsburgh Steelers had lost a heart breaker in Super Bowl XXX. Despite free agent turnover at quarterback, right tackle, outside linebacker, defensive end, safety and cornerback Bill Cowher’s Steelers seemed to defy gravity. Meanwhile at age 37, John Elway was facing “Now or never” time in his career, but for the first time he had a good defense and offensive weapons, not the least of which was Terrell Davis.

Stat that Stands Out:  Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart threw two interceptions in separate goal line situations as Chan Gailey chose to throw rather than pound it in with Jerome Bettis.
What IF Moment: Despite the picks, Kordell Stewart brought the Steelers to within three with just over 2 minutes left to play. Unfortunately, the Steelers defense could not get the ball back as the Broncos offense killed the clock. Carnell Lake, playing cornerback due to the ineffectiveness of Donell Wo0lford, said that he felt the Steelers would have won the game had Rod Woodson still been in Pittsburgh.
The Aftermath:  The Denver Broncos went on win the Super Bowl, the first of two for Elway. The Steelers lost more free agents that year John Jackson and Yancey Thigpen but, unlike in years past, the players the Steelers had drafted to replace them couldn’t cut the mustard.

2005 – Steel Curtain Begins to Rise

2005 AFC Championship Game
January 22, 2006 @ Invesco Field at Mile High
Pittsburgh Steelers 34, Denver Broncos 17

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory: At 7-5 and coming off a 3 game losing streak, the NFL had left the 2005 Steelers for dead. Bill Cowher challenged his team to run the table, and they complied. They beat the Bengals in the Wild Card game, shocked the Colts by upsetting them in the AFC Divisional Playoff round. The Broncos, for their part were number 2 seeds, and had just knocked off the defending Champion New England Patriots.

Stat that Sticks Out: How about Ben Roethlisberger going 21-29-275-2. True, Ben threw a couple of “Almost interceptions” but clearly a franchise quarterback was blossoming before our eyes.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away:  Shortly before the game ended, Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II arrived down on the field to accept the Lamar Hunt Trophy. Dan Rooney extended his hand to Bill Cowher. As Cowher put out his right hand, his left hand shot up with his index finger pointing upward and he could be lip read saying, “We still got ONE more game.”
The message and meaning was clear:  The Steelers 2005 AFC Championship victory represented a means, not a goal.
Aftermath:  The Steelers advanced and triumphed in Super Bowl XL, the Steel Curtain had Risen Again, and Pittsburgh’s Second Super Bowl era had begun.

2011 – Steelers Get Tebowed….

2011 AFC Wild Card Game
January 8, 2012 @ Sports Authority Field at Mile High
Denver Broncos 29, Pittsburgh Steelers 23

Steelers-Broncos Playoff History Backstory:  The Pittsburgh Steelers were declared “Old, Slow and Done” after the Baltimore Ravens devastated them on opening day. Yet the 2011 Steelers fought back, and finished 12-4 including an incredible midseason upset over the New England Patriots. Tim Tebow was the story of the 2011 Denver Broncos. While his mechanics and the quality of his play left a lot to be desired, week after wee Tebow simply seemed to find new ways to win games.

Stat that Sticks Out:  Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas for 80 yards and a touchdown on the first play of overtime.
Steelers Broncos Playoff History Take Away:  Was this a lucky loss for the Steelers? Losing in overtime in such dramatic fashion demoralized Steelers Nation, but the Steelers, who entered the game with a long  injured list, lost Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, and Max Starks during the game and likely would have not only been promoting players from the practice squad, but giving them snaps had they won.
Final Farewell:  This the last game for Super Bowl veterans James Farrior, Hines Ward, Bryant McFadden, Mewelde Moore and Chris Kemoeatu.
The Aftermath:  The Patriots slaughter the Broncos in the following week, and John Elway has seen enough, and brings Peyton Manning to Denver. The Steelers enter salary cap purgatory and Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin begin a rebuilding process over the course of two back-to-back 8-8 seasons.

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5 Random Thoughts for the 2015 Steelers 1st Quarterly Report

The 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers have passed the quarter pole and find themselves at 2-2. Lot’s of Steelers quarterly analysis has been bandied about, some good, some bad, and some systemic. This 2015 Steelers 1st Quarterly Report will simply offer 5 random thoughts on the state of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

steelers 2015 1st quarterly report, mike Tomlin

The 2015 Steelers 1st Quarterly Report shows Mike Tomlin using is noodle

1. The Death of the Steelers Defense has Been Greatly Exaggerated

If there was one article of faith heading into the Steelers 2015 season it was that the defense would struggle. Objectively speaking the case for a resurgent defense was strong. But during preseason the unit looked lost.

  • Four games into the season the Steelers defense looks to be a source of strength.

No one is ready to say that Keith Butler’s defense is the equal of the units Dick LeBeau fielded in 2008 or 2010. But the Steelers defense is playing well under Keith Butler. The Steelers defense is once again securing turnovers, albeit in modest numbers and, perhaps more importantly, pressuring the quarterback.

Butler has unleashed Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. Tuitt already has 3.5 sacks, and Heyward has two. Butler has also skillfully devised an outside linebacking rotation which maximizes the talents of James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Arthur Moats and Jarvis Jones.

2. The Steelers Secondary Isn’t a Primary Concern

The Steelers secondary figured to be it’s the most worrisome spot on the depth chart, with Troy Polamalu retiring, Brice McCain bolting for Miami and big question marks surrounding Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas.

  • Indeed, it seemed that the success of the Steelers secondary would hinge on the resurgence of Cortez Allen and emergence of Shamarko Thomas.

Four games into the season, nothing could be further from the truth. Cortez Allen has logged 32 snaps with the defense, or 11.4% while Shamarko Thomas has logged just four, per Pro Football Outsiders.

Despite this, the Steelers secondary, while perhaps not a strong suit of the team, is playing well enough to win. The Steelers are not giving up big plays, and both Antwon Blake and Michael Mitchell have shown an ability to deliver some vicious hits.

3. Kevin Colbert & Mike Tomlin Don’t Make Good Fear-Based Personnel Decisions

Steel Curtain Rising has long lauded Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert for their “collective pair” in refusing to make personnel decisions out of fear. After all, as the 2009 free agency period began, they cut Kendall Simmons before either Trai Essex or Chris Kemoeatu was signed.

Yet during the Steelers 2015 training camp, the duo appeared to lose their nerve.

Boykin has logged all of 12 snaps with the defense, and the Josh Scobee experiment ended in disaster. Perhaps its is a little harsh to say that the Steelers brain trust lost their nerve, but trading away draft picks is decidedly out of character for this franchise, and thus far neither trade has yielded any benefit.

4. Will the 4th Time Be the Charm for the Steelers Kicking Situation?

The 2015 Steelers woes at placekicker are well documented. There is no need to repeat the parade of injuries here. The Steelers have signed Chris Boswell, who has the resume of a versatile but untested kicker.

steelers, Chris Boswell, NCAA, kicking stats, punter,

Chris Boswell NCAA Kicking Stats

The Steelers can only hope the law of averages works in their favor with respect to Boswell.

5. Can the Steelers Prove the Other ½ of “Life without Roethlisberger”

According to Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, the Steelers are entered last Thursday’s overtime loss to the Ravens with a 1-6 record against Baltimore without Ben Roethlisberger. Now they’re 1-7 vs. the Ravens without Big Ben.

  • However, the Steelers are also 9-2 without Ben since 2004.

There’s no secret to the Steelers relative success without Ben Roethlisberger. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin believe in deep depth chart at quarterback. That’s why when Bruce Gradkowski went down, the Steelers immediately signed Michael Vick.

  • With games against San Diego, Cardinals, Bengals, Chiefs and Raiders, Michael Vick has no cake walk.

But he also has Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, arguably the NFL’s most dynamic running back and best wide receiver. He has a solid offensive line, and dependable weapons in Markus Wheaton and Heath Miller.

Vick has the tools around him, now it’s time to see if he has enough left in the tank to make it happen. His success or failure will define the Steelers 2015 second quarter.

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Watch Tower: Steelers Run Defense, Tomlin Sideline Stutter, Reviewed

Pittsburgh’s bipolar season opener vs. Cleveland sent Steelers Nation to the barricades in search of a scapegoat at the prospect of another season gone sour.  While pointing fingers is very easy, stopping to really understand what is going wrong is a little more complex. The Watch Tower begins its review of Steelers press coverage with a look at one writer who attempted to do just that.

Delving into What Ails the Steelers Run Defense

The internet lacks no shortage of “Fire Tomlin” or “Fire LeBeau” sentiment. Which isn’t to say that such conversations are entirely out of order when discussing a team that has been outscored 50-9 in 6 quarters.

Steel City Blitz took a level-headed, nuanced approach at doing just this and made some respectable points, and in conversations with commenters (full disclosure, one of these was yours truly) he clarified that one of his main trusts was that Dick LeBeau was attempting to force players into a system – a point also raised by Joe Starkey and Dale Lolley.

Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider has taken a different approach.

  • And he went where no other Pittsburgh journalist had gone – tracing the Steelers defense’s difficulties to the loss of Larry Foote.

Yes, the same Larry Foote whom the Steelers cut without much fanfare, the same Larry Foote who went to Pittsburgh West and played like a stud in their season opener. Wexell doesn’t suggest the Steelers erred in opting to go with Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons. But he does say the Steelers are missing a defender who longed for contact, the way Foote and James Harrison did.

While Wexell is far from the only commentator to single out Cam Thomas, in the space of just a few lines he delivers detailed analysis of what ails the Steelers run defense.

Tomlin, in Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood

What is the journalistic equivalent of “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” Perhaps its, “If a major news organ invests serious time in researching a hot story, but no one pays attention, does the story still count?”

  • Such was/is the plight of Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.

As everyone in Steelers Nation, really everyone who follows the NFL, knows, last year in the Steelers Thanksgiving loss to Baltimore, Mike Tomlin stepped on the field and almost impacted with Jacoby Jones.

While Cortez Allen had a good angle on Jones and probably would have tackled him anyway, Tomlin’s side line stutter step was illegal, and the biggest story of the week.

Tomlin, whose 2013 relationship with the press had been increasingly antagonistic, turned on the charm in his weekly press conference, inviting any and all questions.

One of Tomlin’s defenses was that he’d been standing where he normally stood during kickoffs, and his drifting on to the field was a product of carelessness.

  • The league seemed to accept that explanation, fined Tomlin, and moved on.

The Tribune Review however reviewed Tomlin’s behavior during kickoffs and found that, in fact Tomlin’s positioning during the Jacoby Jones return wasn’t in fact in character with past behavior. You’d think that the Trib. would have had something explosive on their hands?

  • Guess again. When presented with the new evidence, the league hid behind “No further comment.”

The story failed to gain traction (perhaps in part due to its running on a Saturday) and was largely forgotten, until Alan Robinson brought it up in advance of the Steelers Thursday night loss to Baltimore. He mentioned the research done last December by the Trib. and supplemented with quotes from Tomlin’s former team mates and NFL commentators, including Soloman Wilcots.

  • The story again failed to gain traction.

Perhaps part of the reason is that Robinson didn’t provide a back like to his own story. This practice is the rule at both the Tribune Review and the Post Gazette, although one has to wonder why, given the added time on page and SEO benefits of back linking to one’s own work.

Whether it gets widely read or not, Robinson’s story is highly relevant, as it provides another example of Roger Goodell’s office taking a selective approach to due diligence when it suits his purposes.

Kemoeatu’s Kidney

Chris Kemoeatu may have left the Pittsburgh Steelers after the 2011 season, but he was in the news recently, as all major media outlets documented Kemoeatu getting a kidney transplant from his brother Ma’ake Kemoeatu.

This is certainly a worthy story, but the Watch Tower can’t help but ask why the Post-Gazette and Tribune Review chose to cover this, but declined to run a story on Isaac Redman’s retirement, given that Redman was still starting for the Steelers just 1 year ago.

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Ex-Steelers in the News for Both Wrong and Right Reasons

While the NFL’s been having some its worst weeks in history, (see why Goodell should be fired) a duce of ex-Steelers have made the news for both the right and wrong reasons.

On the dark side of things, former Steelers and current Pittsburgh West aka Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer was of course arrested for domestic violence this week.

On Twitter, Walter Maselli summed up what everyone in Steelers Nation was thinking:

This is not to make light of domestic violence, which is a serious crime. But although he never had any history of off the field issues in Pittsburgh, it fits Dwyer’s history to a T.

  • The man simply doesn’t get it.

Both his rookie and sophomore years in the NFL he showed up to came over weight and made the team due to injuries. In 2012 he had a chance to grab the starting job, but couldn’t. In 2013 he got cut, and to his credit played well.

Still, when it came time to decide on whether to keep him in Pittsburgh or not, we said this:

Steel Curtain Rising’s call is for the Steelers to bring back Jonathan Dwyer, but with the caveat that the signing bonus of any second contract must be rock bottom.
If Dwyer balks at that or if some other team is foolish enough to open the check book for him, the Steelers need to let him walk.

Dwyer left quickly in free agency to join Bruce Arians in Arizona. Apparently the Steelers didn’t have interest in even offering him a bargain basement contract. Smart move on the part of the Steelers brass.

In addition, Pittsburgh West announced that it had cut Chris Rainey. Rainey of course had been the Steelers 5th round draft pick in 2012, only to be cut after a domestic incident of his own. Bruce Arians I am sure will assure you that both roster moves were coincidental.

Kemoeatu’s Kidney Transplant

Negative news is what makes the headlines and generates the page views, but one should never allow that to define things, and the Kemoeatu story out of the University of Maryland Medical Center shows why.

The Pittsburgh Steelers of course drafted Chris Kemoeatu in the 6th round of the 2005 NFL Draft. After a year on the practice squad and another two on the bench, he broke the starting lineup in 2008 under Mike Tomlin and held it there until mid 2011.

Despite his impressive size, Kemoeatu never developed into the dominate lineman he was projected to be, and was known for his nasty temperament and penchant for holding, including one call on the Steelers final drive of Super Bowl XLIII, which earned him the wrath of Ben Roethlisberger.

  • The Steelers cut Kemoeatu after 2011, and he was out of football.

However, he had Kidney issues, and needed a transplant. His brother Ma’ake Kemoeatu, himself a former Baltimore Raven, Carolina Panther, and Washington Redskin, donated one, and the transplant was made successful.

When asked about the decision, Ma’ake’s response was simple: “It’s my duty to take care of my younger brother. If he needs blood, I’ll give blood and if he needs a kidney, I’ll give a kidney.”

Love doesn’t get any purer than that. Yes, ladies and gentleman, there are good men in the NFL.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus: Ramon Foster

Ramon Foster joined the club as part of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2009 rookie free agent class and since then has developed into another shining example of Kevin Colbert’s unrestricted rookie free agent success.

Foster got a baptism by fire, starting in the Steelers 2009 away loss to Baltimore Ravens on the night when Dennis Dixon was their lone starting quarterback, which was also the first time that season where no sacks were allowed. Foster would go on to start vs. Green Bay, Baltimore, and Miami that season.

In 2010 Foster began the season on the bench, but began starting vs. New England when Chris Kemoeatu was injured, and started the second half of the seasons and all of the post-season.

Despite that, he started 2011 on the bench, but injuries and Kemoeatu’s ineffectiveness led Foster to start 14 games that year.

The arrival of David DeCastro was supposed to relegate Foster back to the bench, but David DeCastro’s injury and Foster’s solid play kept him in the line up. He, along with Max Starks, were the only offensive lineman to start all 16 games, although Foster did do double duty at tackle.

Steelers Likely to Say Farewell to Foster

Under normal circumstances, with that pedigree, the Steelers would be looking to lock up Foster to a long term deal.

However, that is unlikely to happen. Like fellow unrestricted free agent Max Starks, Foster is likely to fall victim to the Steelers salary cap crunch. Unlike Max Starks, Foster is now breaking into his prime years as an athlete and his prime earning years.

He has far less incentive than Starks to offer a “home town discount,” and even if he were its hard to imagine that another team will not reward him far more lucratively that the Steelers can.

  • Expect Ramon Foster to play in colors other than Black and Gold in 2013 and beyond

This is unfortunate, but most probably a mathematical necessity.

Scenario for the Fixing up the Steelers with Foster

There’s a big X Factor for Foster’s future with the franchise, and that comes by the name of Willie Colon.

Once Willie Colon successfully transitioned to guard he transformed the entire line. But he got injured, and finished his third straight year on IR. A decision by the Steelers to cut Colon would clear the way for Foster’s return.

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Steelers Shed Salary, Super Bowl Rings, and Locker Room Leadership….

Institutional memory is a curious concept. Clearly one can neither precisely define or measure it, but institutional memory nonetheless remains a tangible quality.

One of the lessons that the Steelers organization took from the ‘70’s is that they held on to too many Super Steelers veterans too far past their prime.

After parting ways with Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, Chris Kemoeatu, and James Farrior no one can hurl that accusation at Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, and Mike Tomlin.

In 1976 the Steelers left their 1975 first round pick Dave Brown unprotected in an expansion draft…

  • …Brown went Seattle where he made a Pro Bowl, two UPI All Pro Teams and one AP All Pro teams

In 1979 the Steelers kept a rapidly fading Dwight White over rookie training camp sensation Dwaine Board

  • White was done within two years, whereas Bill Walsh snapped up Board, who posted three double digit sack seasons with the 49ers in the ‘80s.

And of course in the spring of 1983 the Steelers figured the could squeeze a couple of three more seasons out of Terry Bradshaw, opting to pass on a kid named Marino…

  • …Steelers Nation knows how passing on Dan Marino turned out.

Who knows?

Were memories of those mistakes echoing through Art Rooney II’s head as he gave the word to Kevin Colbert to lower the hammer on yet another franchise icon?

Or did salary cap realities simply force any shred of sentimentality out of the Steelers?

No one can be sure.

The Steelers did start the off season $20 to $25 million over the 2012 salary cap. Colbert and Omar Khan did they damdest to giggle the numbers to the extent where its reasonable to ask whether the Steelers are mortgaging their future.

But the contract restructurings of Ike Taylor, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Ben Roethlisberger were all to get the Steelers under the cap.

Which only reaffirms the status quo.

  • Positioning the Steelers for the future required untethering the organizations it from its recent past.

So now gone are James Farrior, Chris Kemoeatu, Aaron Smith, Hines Ward, Arnaz Battle, and Bryant McFadden.

Giving these six players their walking papers freed up approximately 10 million dollars in salary cap space.

  • But the Steelers are also saying goodbye to 12 Super Bowl rings if you throw in Chris Hoke’s retirement.

That statement is perhaps overly dramatic, because 5 of the 6 players had seen age, injury or ineffectiveness drastically reduce their role from 2010 to 2011. James Farrior was the only starter released, the only player with no heir apparent, and the only one who arguably could have contributed in 2012 were salary on consideration.

But winning is just as much about the intangible as it is about the measurable.

  • James Farrior, Hines Ward and Arnz Battle were all captains of their respective units
  • When William Gay and Kennan Lewis sent Bryant McFadden to the bench, McFadden embraced his role on specials teams with relish.
  • Aaron Smith never hesitated to take younger players whom he knew had been drafted to replace him, under his wing.

However necessary their departures might have been, each of the men the Steelers parted wasy with was an important leader, both on and off the field.

That’s not something to gloss over lightly, as the Redskins experience of the 90’s reveals.

The first Joe Gibbs era in Washington ended just as the salary cap era was beginning. In the blink of an eye veterans like Art Monk, Ernest Byner, Charles Mann, Ricky Sanders and other Super Bowl veterans were gone. These were players who had learned how to win, a lesson which their successors are still struggling to master almost 20 years later.

The Steelers recent “termination” binge was not as wholesale as Washington’s was in the mid-90’s. By all accounts the organizational culture on the South Side is far different that of Redskins Park, and one that’s strong enough to manage the coming locker room leadership transition.

  • But the Redskins lesson reminds us that there is no set formula for letting go of Championship Era players as they grow old.

Regardless of whether you let your veterans go too late or too soon, its always about getting the next decision right, and it is rarely just a question of simple numbers.

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Steelers to Part Ways with Aaron Smith, Chris Kemoeatu

One day after saying good bye to Hines Ward, their franchise leading and future Hall of Fame wide receiver, the Steelers also decided to part ways with the best 3-4 defensive end in franchise history.

Ed Bouchette is reporting that Aaron Smith will not be back with the Steelers in 2012. Unlike Ward, Smith will likely begin, in Chuck Noll’s words, his “life’s work” as he has indicated that he has zero interest in playing elsewhere, which is most likely a sound decision, given his history of injury.

Smith finished the 2007, 2009, and 2011 seasons on injured reserve. Likewise he sat out most of 2010 injured.

2008 was the last full season where Smith played healthy. Its no concidence that that was season in which the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII that year.

Chris Kemoeatu Also Cut

Ed Bouchetee is also reporting that the Steelers will cut Chris Kemoeatu. Kemoeatu was as sixth round pick in the 2005 draft. Possessing incredible size, Kemoeatu always tantalized.

However, he did not start until the 2008 season, after Alan Fanaca’s departure, and did a serviceable job as a starter over the next four seasons.

However by 2011 poor play and inane penalties landed Kemoeatu on the bench, and his release was widely anticipated.

With these latest moves, the Steelers have freed between 8 and 10 million dollars from the salary cap, which will allow them to sign their draft picks and give them a shot at resigning their own players and perhaps players from outside the organization.

Casey’s Turn at Bat?

If reports are correct, the Steelers have yet to finish their house cleaning. It is generally assumed that either James Farrior or Larry Foote will be waived in the coming days and, although Kevin Colbert’s comments at the scouting combine might indicate otherwise, Casey Hampton’s name has been mentioned as a possible cut.

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