Steelers 2021 Preview: Roethlisberger’s Last Ride to be a Rough One?

The wait will soon end.

Its been 245 days since the Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns and a lot has happened since then. Some of it completely predictable, some of it surprising:

Through it all, Kevin Colbert managed once again to perform the salary cap equivalent of the Loaves and the Fishes. Thanks to COVID-19 the Steelers were facing their worst salary cap situation since 2012 and 2013, yet Colbert managed to put together a roster on paper that is far stronger than anyone had a right to expect on the lonely January night when Roethlisberger and Pouncey commiserated on the sidelines.

But the time for measuring roster moves on paper has ended and the time for judgement rendered on the gridiron is about to begin.

So what can we expect?

J.J. Watt, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Texans

J.J. Watt pressures Ben Roethlisberger in 2014. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

Roethlisberger’s Final Ride Likely a Rough One

Times like these force oneself to channel their inner Jesse Ventura and “Call it as I see it McMahon.” And the truth is that if this is Ben Roethlisberger’s last ride, it looks to be a rough one.

  • That’s not the call I want to make, but the one my eyes tell me I have to make.

Why?

First let’s consider what caused the Steeler once promising 2020 season to end in an unmitigated disaster:

  • Ben Roethlisberger inability to throw the long ball caught up with him.
  • The running game disappeared
  • Injuries ravaged the defense, neutering a dominant group

Word is that Ben Roethlisberger has recovered his long ball, but given his limited action in preseason we’ll simply have to wait to see if that comes true. The Steelers dumped Randy Fichtner and replaced him with Matt Canada, which should help. As for the defense and injuries, well let’s get to that.

When salary cap Armageddon loomed, the chief concerns for the Steelers were:

Can they preserve their pass rush?
Can they field a competitive secondary?
Can they rebuild the offensive line?

Let’s see where the Steelers stand on the eve of the 2021 season.

Pass Rush

So the Steelers lost Bud Dupree, but still have Alex Highsmith, resigned T.J. Watt and added Melvin Ingram. So, on paper that’s perhaps a net positive. However, Stephon Tuitt, who accounted for 11 sacks is beginning the season on injured reserve. And Tyson Alualu is also injured.

The Steelers should field a strong pass rush this year, but its doubtful they can field a better one.

Secondary

After years of being a liability, the Steelers secondary was finally a strength during the 2019 and 2020. Yet going into the 2021 off season, everyone expected a salary cap casualty to come out of the defensive backfield.

  • But few expected that casualty to be Steven Nelson instead of Joe Haden.

The Steelers plan was to go with Haden, Cameron Sutton, and James Pierre with Joe Haden and Antoine Brooks pushing as the 4th corner. Justin Layne got arrested and Brook got hurt. The Steelers sallied on during preseason, mixing and matching various configurations of their cornerbacks. Their final decision? They traded yet another draft pick for Ahkello Witherspoon.

Offensive Line

Let’s say this. No one can accuse the Steelers of standing pat on the offensive line. When the Steelers open against the Bills, Kelvin Dotson will be the only player working in the same place he was last season against the Giants.

  • But does change equal improvement?

That’s the bigger question. What isn’t a question is that this is another situation that did not evolve according to plan. Mike Tomlin’s idea was to start is experienced tackles Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor on the right and left sides. But Banner got hurt and left tackle proved to be too much for Okorafor.

Dan Moore’s performance has elicited nothing but positive commentary since he was drafted in the third round, but rookies starting a left tackle in the NFL are rare.

As it stands, on opening day the Steelers will start 2 rookies on offensive line, one sophomore who literally looks like a “rising sophomore,” a veteran who was unemployed in late June and veteran who is back at right tackle after not being able to cut it on the left side.

It might work. But would you bet your 401(k) balance on it?

Wimp Out Disclaimer

After writing 753 of gloom and doom its now time for the “Wimp Out Disclaimer.”

The red and yellow flag flying above the Steelers offensive line, secondary and pass rush are real but so has Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s reaction to them. When it became clear that Banner’s injury issues weren’t going away and Okorafor struggled, the Steelers started working Dan Moore into the line up.

The first thought here was that Mike Tomlin was planning to use Moore the way he used Kelvin Beachum in 2013, roating him in on both sides to push both starters. But Tomlin didn’t do that. He made the change immediately.

You can see a similar pattern elsewhere, from signing Melvin Ingram, to trading for Joe Schobert, to trading for Witherspoon.

The fact that the Steelers brass felt they needed to make these moves is worrisome, but their willingness to act decisively is encouraging.

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Doomed? Steelers Cut David DeCastro as Infamous “June Curse” Returns

Just when you thought that the Steelers news cycle was about to grind to a near halt for the next month, the brain trust on the South Side decides to drop a bomb:

The move, while a surprise, does not come as a total shock. David DeCastro was absent from OTAs and only attended one day of the mandatory mini-camp. He watched in street clothes did not participate in any drills.

Mike Tomlin declined to explain why DeCastro was not participating, and when asked if it was because of injury, he issued a quasi non-denial-denial. The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly pointed out that David DeCastro was the only Steelers starter who was not made available to the press via a Zoom call.

Then, as OTAs drew to a close, word leaked that the Steelers had worked out Trai Turner, a five time Pro Bowl player with 89 starts to his name.

When asked about it in his mail bag, The Athletic’s Ed Bouchette responded “You don’t bring in a vet of Turner’s resume — a five-time Pro Bowl guard not yet 30 — just to kick the tires,” after downplaying the likelihood of injury, he continued, “There’s some smoke here, though.”

This is one case where smoke clearly meant fire. The only question now is whether that fire will consume whatever the 2021 Steelers already meager Super Bowl dreams.

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line quite simply needs to step it up. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Steelers Were Depending on DeCastro. Are They Doomed Now?

For the record, the Steelers waived DeCastro with a non-football injury designation, which frees them of any injury settlement obligations. The Steelers also gain around $8.75 million in salary-cap space, although the extra space is of little consolation

  • Because complete upheaval on the Steelers offensive line has just become official.

Assuming he starts and remains healthy, Zach Banner will be the only starting offensive lineman from the Steelers 2020 opener against the Giants to return in 2021. (OK, Kevin Dotson started in place of DeCastro, so he’ll be back too.) Chuks Okorafo now becomes the “veteran” leader with all of 19 starts to his name.

While David DeCastro has been one of the NFL’s best offensive lineman for much of the last decade. He missed the 2020 opener and his return helped spur James Conner to his first 100 yard game. Still, it is generally acknowledged that his play slipped in 2020, and the entire line suffered because of it.

  • But there is no calculus that results in the Steelers offensive line becoming stronger without DeCastro.

NFL Network reporter Mike Garafolo suggests that persistent ankle injuries are an issue and hints that DeCastro is “evaluating his future.” Regardless of whether this was a solely a Steelers decision, it came at DeCastro’s request or it was a mutual choice, this was clearly not in the Steelers plan.

  • To replace DeCastro, the Steelers have indeed reportedly signed Trai Turner.

That’s good. But Turner only played 9 games last year and has not played more than 13 games in a season since 2016.

The Steelers of course drafted Kendrick Green in 3rd round of the 2021 NFL Draft and also brought back B.J. Finney both of whom are potential replacements for DeCastro, although both were seen as contenders to start at center…

And for good measure, the NFL today told the Steelers they could not hold training camp at St. Vincents. Just to keep things interesting.

…Repeat, this was NOT in the plan.

Steelers June Curse Continues

Before the NFL pushed OTAs and mini-camps into June a few years ago, it was the only real period of dead space on the league calendar. News was sparse, as millennials and Generation Zers learned what the NFL off season was like prior to the Freeman McNeil verdict which brought free agency.

  • Yet the month of June has not been kind to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

While it has been dormant for the past few years, the Steelers June Curse has struck back with a vengeance. Consider:

And of course Chuck Noll died in June of 2014. While only a few days in the month remain, June can’t end fast enough for the Steelers.

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Friend-Foe Axis Updates: Steelers Sign Arthur Maulet; Villanueva Runs to Ravens

In the “Watch what we do, not what we say” department, the Steelers made their first personnel addition following the 2021 NFL Draft when they signed former New York Jets safety Arthur Maulet to a one year contract.

Sean Davis, who was the number one back up at both positions last season, signed with the Colts. The team has Antoine Brooks, who was their 6th round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, but Brooks only appeared in four games during 2020. He began the season on the practice squad and was activated in November and saw his first action in the win over the Bengals.

  • This is bad news for Jordan Dangerfield, who served as a backup safety and special teams captain.

The move suggests that the Steelers were looking to address safety earlier in the draft than they did, when they picked Tre Norwood with their first 7th round pick.

The move also suggests, against logic, that the Steelers are comfortable with the depth they have behind Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt.

Arthur Maulet, James Washington, Steelers vs Jets 2019

Aruthur Maulet horse collars future teammate James Washington. Photo Credit: Adam Hunger, AP via Jets Wire.

From Foe to Friend Arthur Maulet

Arthur Maulet broke into the NFL in 2017 as an undrafted rookie free agent with the New Orleans Saints. He appeared in six games for the Saints in 2017. In 2018 he made the active roster for New Orleans, but was cut, was signed by the Colts where he saw action in 5 games. The Colts cut him, and he was resigned by the Saints and he played one game for them.

  • The Saints cut him in late January and the New York Jets signed him immediately.

During 2019 and 2020, Maulet appeared in 23 games for the Jets, making 11 starts, and participating in about 1/3 of the defensive snaps, while also being active on special teams. During his NFL career, he has made 2 interceptions and one sack.

During the Steelers 2019 loss to the Jets, Maulet made 4 tackles, and his illegal contact penalty against James Washington set up a Mason Rudolph to Diontae Johnson touchdown one play later, with 9 seconds remaining in the first half. (He was also fined for a horse collar tackle, picture above.)

From Friend to Foe Villanueva Signs with Ravens

In the from friend to foe department, former Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva signed with the Baltimore Ravens for two years. The move was widely reported prior to the draft and was expected.

Steel Curtain Rising will have more on this move later.

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Steelers Draft Dan Moore, Jr. in 4th Round. Tackle from Texas A&M

He arrived a day (or two) later than many expected and a few fans demanded, but the Steelers drafted Dan Moore Jr., offensive tackle from Texas A&M with their first fourth round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

  • It is almost as if Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are following our Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix.

The 2021 Draft Needs Matrix rated the Steelers needs going into the draft as running back, tackle, center and tight end. Had we heeded Tony Defeo’s rating, tight end would have come in as the Steelers 2nd greatest area of need.

(Editorial note to self: Never debate the Defeoman’s logic.)

Seriously and thankfully, neither Colbert nor Tomlin has ever set eyes on this site, and Steelers fans should be thankful for that, because this scribe’s first reaction to hearing of the Ben Roethlisberger pick back in 2004 was “This is a mistake.”

  • Hopefully the decision to bring Dan Moore Jr. to Pittsburgh is not a mistake.

Steelers offensive line coach Adrian Klemm wasted little time in doubling down on his decision to draft Don Moore declaring, “I don’t view him as a project at all. We’ll throw him into the mix as far as competing.”

Dan Moore Jr., Steelers 4th round picks 2021 NFL Draft

Steelers 2021 4th round picks Dan Moore. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Dan Moore Jr. Video Highlights

Dan Moore Jr. stands at 6’5” and weighs in at 311 pounds. Played through his senior year at Texas A&M where he made 36 straight starts starting with his sophomore year. Moore also got a start during his freshman year, although that came at guard.

Here is a look at his highlight reel:

Looks impressive.

How Dan Moore Fits into Steelers Offensive Line

While there might not be much precedent for the Steelers starting a fourth round rookie at tackle, at his pre-draft press conference Mike Tomlin confirmed that Chukwuma Okorafor was penciled in to start at left tackle but made no bones about how temporary that status is.

  • And lest that sound like bluster, last year’s fourth round pick, Kevin Dotson, came in and started several games as a guard.

The addition of Dan Moore gives the Steelers four offensive tackles, and helps bolster an offensive line that has been seen a steep decline over the past two seasons.

  • Drafting an offensive tackle in the 4th round doesn’t signal a dramatic shift of direction, but it’s a start.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Dan Moore.

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Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix – Who to Pick If Need Must Drive Decision

The 2021 NFL Draft is here. The Pittsburgh Steelers have 8 picks to fill enough holes with just enough talent to give themselves an shot at making what will, perhaps, be one final Super Bowl run with Ben Roethlisberger.

steelers press conference,

Steelers in Far Stronger Shape than Expected

When the Steelers 2020 season ended in flames with the playoff loss to the Browns, things looked bleak. Pittsburgh faced salary cap Armageddon thanks to COVID-19. But they’re far stronger than expected, thanks  to Ben Roethlisberger taking one for the team with a 5 million dollar pay cut.

Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert also stepped step outside their comfort zone with voidable year contracts that kept JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton and Eric Ebron in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers have also done some free agent bargain bin hunting, to give themselves depth at offensive line, cornerback, tackle, defensive line and a few other spots. Make no mistake about it:

  • The Steelers roster is weaker than the one that got beaten badly the Browns in the playoffs.

The Steelers have real needs they must fill in the 2021 NFL Draft. So what are those needs?

Steelers Needs Heading into the 2021 NFL Draft

Over the last few weeks, with the help of Tony Defeo, we’ve reviewed each part of the Steelers depth chat, classifying steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftPittsburgh’s need using the following scale.

  • The Steelers needs tier pretty quickly into three categories: Serious needs, almost serious needs, and  “Nice to Haves.”

The Steelers serious needs come at running back, tackle, center, and tight end. Note, Tony Defeo classified tight end as “High” but for the Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix, I’m classifying that is “High-Moderate.”

What that means in plain English is that the Steelers could draft tonight or tomorrow night who could win the starting job in training camp.

Below that we have “almost serious needs” where we place Cornerback as High-Moderate, Inside Linebacker as Moderate-High, Outside linebacker as Moderate (although that could easily go Moderate High). Those are followed by Safety, Defensive line an guard which are both “Moderate.”

  • In simple terms, its is less likely that the Steelers could draft a starter here, but possible.

And even if that player isn’t a starter, he could end up providing critical depth at the position. Guard might be the outliner there, particularly depending on what happens at center.

  • Finally, you have our “Nice to Haves” which are wide receiver and quarterback.

With Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins AND Joshua Dobbs under contract, the Steelers really don’t have room for a quarterback, unless a 1983 type situation unfolds and it won’t. Likewise, with JuJu back, and Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson still having plenty of “upside” using a premium pick on a wide out is a luxury the Steelers don’t have in 2021.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix

So how do you determine the Steelers pecking order in terms of needs? Well, for that we give you the Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix

Running back gets the nod over offensive tackle because the Steelers have two starters, albeit unproven ones, at tackle, whereas they do not have a legitimate number 1 NFL running back. Tackle gets preference over center because you need field two tackles an only one center. Center gets the nod over tight end because Eric Ebron is a better tight end than either B.J. Finney or J.C. Hassenauer is a center.

  • And there’s a chance that Kevin Radar can be a legit number 1 NFL tight end, at least in terms of blocking.

Tight end beats cornerback because the Steelers have two starter-capable players there, and cornerback trumps inside linebacker because someone could come in and beat out either Robert Spillane or Vince Williams.

But the Steelers have no one behind them, so outside linebacker trumps safety, where the Steelers do have some younger depth. But the depth at safety is even more untested than it is at defensive line so that gets the next nod. Guard comes in next because the Steelers should be OK there, but it is clearly a higher need that wide receiver or quarterback.

As always we offer our caveat, the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix does not suggest that Steelers should reach to fill needs.

But the needs matrix is intended to act as a sort of tie breaker for when and if the Steelers turn comes to pick and two men have the same draft grade (not that Mike Tomlin or Kevin Colbert will ever read this – nor should they.)

Finally, while more hype and hoopla surrounds the draft than their needs to be, but let’s keep in mind Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr.’s words, “Everyone’s a winner on draft day.” While the The Chief’s words were more of a compliant than an aspiration, the truth is that the NFL draft is the day a dream comes true for 250 or so young men.

Let’s give them there day, hope they enjoy it and, in turn, let their enthusiasm fuel our own hopes for the Steelers 2021 season and beyond.

 

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Offensive Tackle is a Critical Need Steelers Must, er um, Tackle in the 2021 NFL Draft

American football is difficult to comprehend for most outside of North America. Yet, even people from outside of the US, Canada and Mexico can easily understand the role and importance of offensive tackles in football thanks to Sandra Bullock’s intro to On the Blind Side.

“The first check goes for the mortgage, the second to the insurance.”

Offensive tackles are seen as the sentinels that protect the quarterback. While its possible that their value gets overrated, the wise will remember that the 0-4 2013 Steelers fortunes only started improving after Mike Tomlin made change at left tackle.

The Steelers are in a transition at tackle after a period of stability there, but just how great of a priority is tackle for Pittsburgh in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Zach Banner, Steelers vs Giants, Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger comforts Zach Banner after his injury. (Photo Credit: Seth Wenig)

Steelers Depth Cart at Tackle: The Starters

How’s the old cliché go? “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry?” If not, that’s close enough. Rewind back to the Steelers 2018 road loss to the Broncos. Everyone remembers Xavier Grimble’s fumble (but they forget James Conner’s.) They remember Ben Roethlisberger’s interception and the friction with Antonio Brown.

  • But what they forget is that the game was to feature the offensive line to come.

The Steelers started rookie 3rd round pick Chukwuma Okorafor to face off against Von Miller while moving Matt Feiler to right guard. A year later, ahead of the game against the Rams, the Steelers did the same thing. That was supposed to be the offensive line of the future.

And it worked pretty well. Alas, it didn’t signal good times to come. Zach Banner beat out Chukwuma Okorafor for the starting job, only to tear his ACL for the season, and Matt Feiler struggled as a guard. Pro Football Focus ratings are overrated, but for what they’re worth, Chuks graded out as 57.5 allowed 3 sacks and was flagged for 5 penalties.

Rumors have said that he could return to the Steelers, but that might happen after the NFL Draft.

Steelers Tackle Depth Chart: The Backups

For the past several seasons, the Steelers have had the luxury of dressing 3 starter capable tackles, with the 3rd tackle working in as a 3rd tight end in the jumbo package. Those days are over. Other than Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor the Steelers have Joe Haeg who brings 67 games worth of experience for the Colts and Buccaneers, Aviante Collins, who last played with the Vikings in 2019, Jarron Jones, Brandon Walton, Anthony Coyle and John Leglue.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Tackle

You can never have enough good offensive lineman, and if you don’t have good tackles even the best interior line play is for naught.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL Draft

The Steelers may have two quality starting tackles in Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor. Joe Haeg might provide that critical veteran depth. Someone might distinguish himself from the body of players the Steelers have here on futures contracts.

But that’s hardly how you set yourself up for a Super Bowl run, particularly with an aging Ben Roethlisberger’s whose back for one final ride.

While the Steelers are probably in a strong enough position that they don’t have to draft a starter at tackle, it is still possible that a premium pick could come to Pittsburgh and win the starting job. Given that, the Steelers needs at tackle going into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered High-Moderate.

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Fretting about Free Agency? The NFL Draft is the Steelers Christmas Tree, Free Agents are Just Stocking Stuffers

If you’re a Steelers fan, you’re likely not all that comfortable with their activity during the first two weeks of the NFL’s unrestricted free-agency period.

But you should have known they weren’t going to do much, right? The salary-cap problems were well-documented, and, besides, the Steelers’ history of making free-agent splashes should have been another clue.

Perhaps the re-signing of Cam Sutton and the surprise re-signings of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tyson Alualu weren’t enough. Also, the outside signings of free agents such as Joe Haeg and Miles Killebrew probably didn’t move the needle on your excitement meter.

  • Do you know what always moves the excitement needle for Steelers fans?

The annual NFL Draft. I mean, my goodness, the talk about the popular event — an event whose television ratings always eclipse those of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final — begins the second the Steelers’ season comes to an end and doesn’t stop until well-after their final pick is announced on Day 3 of draft weekend.

There are millions of NFL fans who probably love the draft more than they do an actual football game. I don’t, but I can certainly appreciate the sentiment. Why? Because the draft is the life-blood of the National Football League. It’s actually the life-blood of every professional sports league.

Justin Layne, Steelers vs Cardinals

Justin Layne’s early NFL action against the Cardinals in 2019. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

The Steelers and the NFL Draft

Every viable prospect is poked, prodded and interviewed countless times in the weeks and months leading up to the draft. There are few secrets by the time the annual event rolls around every April.

Teams are looking for players to help them win now and in the future. They’re searching for prospects that will lead them to the Promised Land–better known as the Super Bowl.

My point is, we dissect every single Steelers’ draft choice — and even the undrafted free agents — once they arrive and speculate on what they can do for the team now and in the future. Yet, the second unrestricted free agency rolls around every March, we forget about many of those players and want Pittsburgh to go shopping for shiny new toys.

Take cornerback Justin Layne, for example. The Steelers made Justin Layne a third-round draft choice out of Michigan State just two years ago. People were excited about him. Many were of the opinion that he was a great value pick and could wind up being a steal. When a player is selected in the third round, I think it’s reasonable to expect him to at least be competing for a starting job by his third season.

Here we are in 2021, and Layne is heading into his third season. I was as disappointed by the release of Steven Nelson as anyone. The Steelers obviously did this to save money, sure, but maybe Pittsburgh also cut Nelson knowing that Layne was ready to make the jump from backup to starting corner.

Another example is Chukwuma Okorafor, an offensive tackle that was selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Okorafor has already started a number of games–including 15 last year. Heading into his fourth season, perhaps Pittsburgh is confident that he can be the long-term answer at either left or right tackle.

We really don’t know how the Steelers feel about players like Layne and Okorafor, but we might get our answer by how they address both corner and offensive tackle during the early rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft.

As for Alex Highsmith, the outside linebacker taken in the third round last year, we knew right away that the former Charlotte walk-on was selected to be the heir apparent to Bud Dupree, who had designs on making a ton of money as an unrestricted free agent–he did.

After a promising rookie season, Highsmith will now get that chance in 2021. What’s wrong with that plan? What’s wrong with promoting Layne if he’s ready?

This is what the draft is for. Heck, people are tracking the Pro Day visits of head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert as if they’re foreign spies.

There’s obviously a lot of time and money that goes into the NFL and these prospects. If you can hit on a class or two, it allows you to remain competitive for years.

Take the Steelers 2017 Draft class, for example. I think T.J. Watt‘s career speaks for itself. You can argue about many aspects of Smith-Schuster’s game and non-football exploits, but you can’t say that he hasn’t been a productive NFL receiver. As for Sutton, a third-round pick from Tennessee, he may wind up being more than just the starting slot corner; he may be the number two corner.

The Steelers drafts of 2008 and 2009 produced very little in terms of long-term production (at least for the Steelers), and by the time those Super Bowl veterans from the 2000s were ready to get on with their life’s work, the cupboard was pretty bare; the Steelers didn’t miss the playoffs in both 2012 and 2013 by accident.

In conclusion, the Steelers didn’t do a whole lot in free agency, but maybe that’s because they believe in their recent draft choices.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

 

 

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What Will be the Fate of Steelers Matt Feiler in Free Agency?

The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line during most of the Mike Tomlin era has been a study in contrasts. For the better part of the last decade, the Steelers have fielded one of the best, if not the best offensive line in football.

  • But the route they’ve taken to get their is more circuitous than Glass Run Road

(Sorry, if you’re not from or at least familiar with Pittsburgh then Googling “Glass Run Road” it won’t cut it here. So you’ve just got to trust me on this, or otherwise go to Pittsburgh and drive it on a rainy night on a Learner’s Permit.)

On the one hand, it has featured high-profile draft picks, such as Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro. On the other side of the spectrum, you’ve unheralded draft picks and/or undrafted free agents. Matt Feiler is the latest in the latter group, and he’s about to become a free agent. 

Will he find his fortune in Pittsburgh?

Matt Feiler,

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Unnestricted Free Agent Matt Feiler, Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Capsule Profile of Matt Feiler’s Career with the Steelers

One year after signing with the Houston Texans as an undrafted free agent out of Bloomsburg, Matt Feiler latched on with the Steelers in 2015. After spending a few seasons honing his skills under the tutelage of offensive line coach–and position guru– Mike Munchak.

Feiler got his big break in 2018 when he started 10 games at right tackle in place of the injured Marcus Gilbert. How well did Feiler do? So well, Pittsburgh felt more than comfortable trading Gilbert to the Cardinals in the 2019 offseason. Feiler justified the move that regular season by starting all 16 games at right tackle. In 2020, Feiler, who was a versatile backup before becoming a starter, was moved to left guard to take the place of the retired Ramon Foster. Feiler appeared to struggle much more at that position, however, than he did at right tackle.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Matt Feiler in 2021

2020 could have just been an off year for Feiler, 28. Either that, or it was simply a mistake moving him to the guard position, one that could easily be corrected by putting him back at right tackle in 2021. Beyond that, the Steelers, in a word, need offensive lineman.

  • They need both quality and quantity. 

Matt Feiler was part of what was still one of the best offensive lines in football in 2018. He’s a proven commodity at a position the Steelers need to strengthen.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Matt Feiler in 2021

Feiler isn’t an exclusive rights free agent or a restricted free agent. He’s now an unrestricted free agent who is free to shop his services wherever he desires. I personally feel that Feiler’s best position is right tackle and if I’m thinking that, perhaps various NFL general managers are, as well.

And if Feiler wants to really cash in, he’s surely thinking that. What could Feiler command on the open market as a tackle? If it’s anything approaching what other Steelers offensive tackles received in free agency, such as Kelvin Beachum (five years, $45 million from the Jaguars in 2015) and Chris Hubbard (five years, $36.5 million from the Browns in 2018), it will likely be much too much for the salary cap-strapped Steelers.

Besides all of that, the Steelers appear to have their left guard of the very immediate future in Kevin Dotson, last year’s fourth-round pick; Dotson did so well while starting in place of both Feiler and perennial All-Pro David DeCastro, he probably would have been the team’s rookie of the year if not for Chase Claypool.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Matt Feiler

It’s going to take much work for the Steelers to get in cap compliance this offseason. Zach Banner, a fellow free agent, is most likely returning after missing the vast majority of 2020 with a torn ACL. Chukwuma Okorafor, a third-round pick in 2018, is heading into the final year of his rookie deal and took Banner’s place at right tackle last year.

I think the Steelers are going to give those two youngsters every opportunity to win the tackle spots in 2021. As for the left guard position? Dotson appears to have a bright future. Again, I feel that Feiler would be wise to market himself as a tackle in free agency.

  • I think it’s best for the Steelers to move on.

Given that the Steelers don’t have the flexibility to make luxury signings on the offensive line, expect them to do just that.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Can Steelers Free Agent Zach Banner Lead an Offensive Line Rebuild?

The general consensus among most Steelers media members and fans is that the team needs to rebuild an offensive line that used to be the envy of the NFL.

  • But where do they start? What avenues do they explore?

Shortly after the 2020 season came to a close, Pittsburgh moved on from offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett and promoted assistant Adrian Klemm to the position. With KIemm now in place, will the Steelers give him new prospects to work with from the 2021 NFL Draft? Will they look outside the organization and sign a more proven veteran in free agency? Speaking of free agents, how about the ones currently in-house, namely, tackle Zach Banner? Is he someone worth resigning following an unfortunate ACL tear in Week 1 of the 2020 season? We’re about to find out.

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

 

Capsule Profile of Zach Banner’s Career with the Steelers

Zach Banner was a fourth-round pick by the Colts in the 2017 NFL Draft. Despite coming from a high-profile college, the USC product was waived by Indianapolis and finished out his rookie season with the Browns. After his release by Cleveland the following offseason, Banner briefly spent time in the Panthers organization before finding his way to Pittsburgh.

Banner didn’t appear in any games for the Steelers in 2018, but he began to make a name for himself the following season (at least as a cult-like fan-favorite) as an eligible receiver in the team’s jumbo packages. Banner bet on himself last offseason and signed a one-year, $1.75 million deal to stay with the Steelers.

He soon found himself in a close training-camp battle with Chukwuma Okorafor for the team’s starting right tackle spot. Banner won the competition and started the first game of his career in Week 1 against the Giants. Unfortunately for Banner, his 2020 season was cut way too short when he sustained a torn ACL and was soon placed on Injured Reserve.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Zach Banner

Banner appears to still have some room for growth, at least in terms of his play. In terms of his physique, Banner has already displayed more than enough dedication to his craft by dropping from 400 pounds right out of college to his current weight of around 335.

With the Steelers looking to get younger along the line, maybe they can convince Banner to sign yet another “prove it” team-friendly deal for 2021 and allow him to compete for one of the two starting tackle spots. The opinion of some scouts is that Okorafor is a better left tackle than right tackle. With veteran left tackle Alejandro Villanueva also a free agent, and someone whose play is no longer on par with what it would cost to retain his services, bringing Banner back for 2021 may actually be critical.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Zach Banner

It’s hard to judge Banner’s career because he really hasn’t had much of one up until now. Sure, he won the starting right tackle spot last summer, but his season was cut short long before we could find out if he was the real deal. How much are the Steelers willing to pay an unproven 27-year old tackle coming off a major knee injury? The team might view even a slight raise as too much of a gamble.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Zach Banner

As I alluded to already, I think Banner’s potential is intriguing. The Steelers should try to retain his services for at least one more year. He could wind up being one of the key building blocks for a struggling offensive line.

  • Now, can Pittsburgh pull this off given their salary cap constraints?

Ah, the answer question my friends, remains to be seen.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Bengals: No Christmas Reprieve Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who fears it might be time for his star pupil to graduate to his “Life’s Work” and is in no mood to offer a Christmas reprieve here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2020 loss to the Bengals a Paul Brown Stadium.

Ben Roethlisberger, Carl Lawson, Steelers vs Bengals

Carl Lawson sacks Ben Roethlisberger in the first half. Photo Credit: Michael Conroy

Steelers, Report Card, grades,Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger played what were perhaps his worst 30 minutes of football during the first half against the Bengals. Officially he went 7 for 16 for 19 yards 1 interception and one fumble. But there were 2 if not at least 3 more interceptions the Bengals should have had. Worse yet, Roethlisberger was tentative, timid and unsure. He played much better in the 2nd half, but by then the Steelers were doomed. Grade: F

Running Backs
Benny Snell was perhaps the lone bright spot to come out of the Bengals game. Snell carried 18 times for 84 yards. There were times, such as the 4th and 1 that he converted, where he made yards where none were to be found. Most impressively was the determination and drive he showed. Both Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland had 1 catch and 1 carry each, doing what was asked of him. Grade: B

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron left the game with an injury, leaving the tight end duties to Vance McDonald. McDonald’s block was critical to the Claypool catch and run that sparked the 2nd half mini-rally. He didn’t have any balls thrown his way, but showed up at other times in the blocking game. Grade: C+

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool can’t come down with the ball. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had a strong game, logging 8 catches for 59 yards including a 23 yard touchdown. Chase Claypool put the Steelers back in the game with his 2nd half 37 yard scamper. JuJu Smith-Schuster only had 3 catches and he did fumble one of them, putting the Bengals firmly in control of the game. James Washington was targeted 3 times with no catches, but that’s hardly his fault. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Statistics can be deceiving. Just look at the rushing numbers and it seems like there was some quality run blocking going on. At times there were. But when the Steelers needed it the most, it wasn’t there, particularly in the 3rd quarter when someone missed a block and Benny Snell got dropped for a 2 yard loss on 3rd and one. Cincinnati’s lone sack might make it seem like pass blocking was good, but Ben Roethlisberger was hit 9 times as Alejandro Villanueva and Chukwuma Okorafor were dominated.

Now we know why Ben Roethlisberger has been throwing it so quickly all season…. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Steelers run defense ran hot and cold against the Bengals. Stephon Tuitt was strong in the pass pressure game netting a sack and 3 quarterback hits but could have been stronger against the run. Tyson Alualu had 5 tackles. Grade: C+

Linebackers
Stripped of 3 of its starters and its primary backup the Steelers linebackers did what they could. Which wasn’t enough. T.J. Watt had a sack, 1 QB hit and 3 tackles for losses. He played like a man possessed early in the game. Alex Highsmith got a pressure on Watt’s sack. Inside linebackers Avery Williamson led the unit with 7 tackles and Marcus Allen had 7. This unit struggled to contain Ryan Finley and that was a difference maker in the 2nd half. Grade: C-

Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Ryan Finley waltzes to a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Secondary
The Bengals were 4-14 on third down conversions, which is a credit to the Steelers secondary. Steven Nelson deflected 2 passes while Joe Haden deflected one. The secondary did a good job of keeping the Steelers in the game as long as they could. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long enough. Grade: B

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud’s kick and punt return numbers might not dazzle, but he seemed to regain the confidence he’d been lacking since the fumble against Washington. Steelers punt coverage was solid. Chris Boswell made all of his kicks and Jordan Berry had a fantastic night. Grade: B

Coaching
The Steelers offense had more turnovers than it did first downs in the first half. A damning statistic if there every was one. Randy Fichtner’s offense might be predictable but honestly, predictability or schematics weren’t at issue against the Bengals.

Keith Butler’s defense did well to keep the score to 17 points – OK that doesn’t account for the quality of opposition – in the first half, but got snookered in the 2nd half time and time again by Ryan Findley.

    • It says here that much of what happened isn’t Mike Tomlin’s fault.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Tyler Boyd, Joe Haden, Steelers vs Bengals

Minkah Fitzpatrick bats a pass away from Tyler Boyd. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It also says here that the Steelers showed a lot of fight. But it’s also evident that the Steelers lack the moxie that they once had. Mike Tomlin might night be “to blame” for much of what ails the Steelers, but he certainly is the person to deliver the remedy. Thus far the remedy eludes him. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Ryan Findley was killing the Steelers – and with only 7 completions to his name. Possession downs would start with the Steelers defense smelling blood in the water, and they would end with Ryan Finley burning the Steelers with his legs. One player put a stop to it, and it was the same player who deflected a touchdown pass and the same one who led the team in tackles and for that Minkah Fitzpatrick wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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