Turning points in sports can be curious things. Sometimes you can see them coming. Other times they surprise yet are obvious immediately after the fact. And yet, on some occasions, a turning point can occur yet not be obvious until a long time after.
Monday December 4th, 2017 marked a clear turning point for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense.
Everyone immediately knew that Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion represented a clear season-changer for the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers. Shazier’s injury impacted the rest of the 2017 season, and arguably every decision the Steelers made during the 2018 off season.
Yet the loss of Ryan Shazier may not have been the only turning point for the Steelers defense that evening.
Cam Sutton made his NFL debut that night, and the only turning point that the rookie cornerback’s debut seemed to mark was the one where the Steelers coaches officially reached the point of desperation.
Cam Sutton and Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Saturday Down South
Pittsburgh had lost Joe Haden halfway through the Colts game, since losing Haden the Steelers had given up a 57 yard touchdown pass in every 27 and a half minutes of play. And here were Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake, activating to a rookie 3rd round draft pick from IR who’d had all of 6 quarters of preseason experience.
Yeah, the Steelers certainly seemed desperate.
Things are very different going into the second game of the 2018 season. Joe Haden injured his hamstring in the Steelers 21-21 tie with the Browns and is likely to miss the game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Yet no one is panicking.
Cornerback has been pegged as one of Pittsburgh’s weaknesses since Super Bowl XLV.
Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have tried to address the weakness with a mix of high-profile players (i.e. Cortez Allen) and MoneyBall type signings (bringing William Gayback in 2013, signing Brice McCain) with mixed success.
Cam Sutton still must prove himself in his first start, and Artie Burns needs to translate the flash he showed at St. Vincents to Heinz Field, while Mike Hilton can be counted on to continue to deliver.
But if they can accomplish that, then Cam Sutton’s addition to the secondary will have officially marked at turning point for the Steelers at cornerback.
It’s time to grade the Steelers draft. No, not the Steelers 2018 Draft but rather the Steelers 2013 draft.
You know, the draft that saw the Steelers make a bold trade involving a third round pick, replace a veteran wide out and draft of a quarterback? Sounds like the Steelers 2018 draft, doesn’t it? The comparison is intentional because reinforces a fundamental lesson:
Accurately grading an NFL draft class takes time.
The Steelers 2018 draft class has spawned waves of criticism, while the Steelers 2013 draft class won its share of instant applause. SB Nation gave the Steelers 2013 draft an A, NFL.com awarded it an A-.
Those grades don’t look so sharp today, do they?
Which doesn’t mean the Steelers 2013 Draft was a failure, but rather one that contained both failure and success as you’ll see below.
Is there anything new to say about Jarvis Jones? There’s not much. But it is useful to remember that Bucky Brooks of NFL.com claimed Jarvis Jones was the best pick made in the entire AFCNorth. Mel Kiper lauded Jarvis Jones as a “great pick.”
Other analysts, such as Gil Brandt, remained skeptical.
The skeptics were right. The Steelers were perhaps too patient with Jarvis Jones (ah, if only James Harrison had been on the field against Dallas….) As it is, Kevin Colbert’s first and only unqualified first round bust is Jarvis Jones. Grade: Bust.
True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight
Steelers 2013 2nd Round – Le’Veon Bell – Grand Slam
Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated conceded that Le’Veon Bell “Fits this offense but may not have warranted pick 48.” Mel Kiper Jr. wasn’t thrilled with the Le’Veon Bell pick, but leave himself wiggle room by suggesting Bell might benefit from the Steelers line.
Le’Veon Bell’s 2nd franchise tag contract squabbles have damped his popularity, but Meril Hoge hit the nail on the head when he declared Le’Veon Bell the best back taken in the 2013 NFL Draft. Grade: Grand Slam.
Steelers 2013 3rd Round – Markus Wheaton – Serviceable Pickup
Nothing against NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks, but Brooks commended the Steelers for making Markus Wheaton the AFC North’s “steal of the draft.” Markus Wheaton wasn’t a steal. “Serviceable” is a better word to describe Markus Wheaton.
3rd round picks should become starters, and Markus Wheaton started 22 games his two healthy seasons with the Steelers.
He wasn’t a superstar, but in some ways Markus Wheaton’s ability to come up with clutch third down catches brought to mind Hines Ward’s early years in the trenches. But injuries marred Markus Wheaton’s rookie and 4th seasons, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown missed Markus Wheaton him down the stretch in 2016.
The injuries weren’t his fault, but they limited Markus Wheaton’s value to the team. Grade: Serviceable Pickup
Steelers 2013 4th Round A – Shamarko Thomas – Bust
The Steelers, like the rest of the league have been more active in trading for players, but trading away future premium picks to move up in the draft goes against the Steelers DNA.
Aside from some immediate work with the secondary during his first few rookie games, Shamarko Thomas’s defensive snap total might be countable on a single hand. Thomas was a good gunner on special teams, but players that cost you a 4th and next year’s third round pick must deliver more. Grade: Bust
Steelers 2013 4th Round B – Landry Jones – Quality Value Pick
The 2013 NFL Draft marked a change in the Steelers backup quarterback philosophy. The Steelers had always staffed a veteran backup quarterback since Bill Cowher’s 1992 arrival.
Picking Landry Jones in the 4th round of the 2013 NFL draft was the product of Pittsburgh’s pivot. He wasn’t NFL ready in 2013 and or in 2014, but fought off 3 challengers at St. Vincent’s during the summer of 2015 as Landry Jones worked his way past Mike Vick for the number 2 spot and closed key victories against Arizona and Oakland in the process.
A large and vocal contingent of Steelers Nation remain hardened Landry Jones haters, but he’s worked himself into a competent NFL backup. Grade: Quality Value Pick
Steelers 2013 5th Round — Terry Hawthorne – Bust
In 20/20 hindsight, this move seems like another Steelers attempt to reload at cornerback on the cheap. But that’s not a fair assessment. Ike Taylor hadn’t shown signs of slowing in 2012, andCortez Allen’s play late in 2012 made him appear like a stud poised to blossom.
And with William Gay’sreturn, the Steelers cornerback depth chart looked solid in the spring of 2013.
None of this changes the fact that Terry Hawthorne, Illinois the cornerback, both failed to catch on in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Grade: Bust
Steelers 2013 6th Round A – Justin Brown – Disappointment
Justin Brown made the practice squad in 2013 which isn’t bad for a 6th round pick.
Word at the end of 2013 was that Justin Brown was looking good in practice.
Justin Brown made the regular season roster in 2014 and saw 21 balls thrown his way and he caught 12 of them. Still, as the Steelers closed in in the playoffs in late 2014, they deemed Brown expendable and he’s been heard from since. Grade: Disappointment
Steelers 2013 6th Round B – Vince Williams – Over Performer
Vince Williams experienced baptism by fire NFL style when an opening day injury to Larry Foote sent him from street clothes to starter in 3 weeks.
Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com
And make no mistake about it, Vince Williams struggled for much of the 2013 campaign.
Yet Vince Williams improved by season’s end, and did well in relief of Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence, and Lawrence Timmons during 2014, 2015 and 2016. The Steelers signed him to a contract extension in 2016 season, and year later he was starting in Timmons place.
Vince Williams isn’t an athlete who’ll compel fans to command he shift to safety. But Vince Williams is a physical player and an asset when surrounded with the right players – you don’t get 8 sacks as an inside linebacker by accident. Grade: Over Performer
Steelers 2013 7th Round – Nicholas Williams – Farm Team
The Kansas City Chiefs reduced John Mitchell’s comparison to an academic one by poaching Nicholas Williams from the Steelers practice squad in 2014.
Pro football Reference tells us that Nicholas Williams made 26 appearances for the Chiefs and Dolphins from 2014 to 2016. Grade: Farm Team
Grading the Steelers 2013 Draft – C+
With 9 picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Steelers draft report card spans the spectrum, with 1 Grand Slam, 3 Busts, 1 Serviceable Pickup, 1 Disappointment, 1 Over Performer, 1 Quality Value Pickup and 1 Farm Team pick.
If you agree that a good draft should yield 3 starters, then the Steelers came up OK in 2013.
Yes, its true that only Vince Williams and Le’Veon Belll are starters, but Markus Wheaton was a legitimate starter when healthy, and Landry Jones was drafted to be a backup. And any draft that brings home a talent like Le’Veon Bell is by definition an “Above the Line” draft.
Yet, the Steelers 2013 NFL draft class was hardly an unqualified success.
The Steelers missed badly on Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas. Both of those misfires carried costly opportunity costs as forced Pittsburgh to redraft for the positions by picking Sean Davis in 2016 and T.J. Watt in 2017.
You can take the country from the boy, but you can’t take the boy from the country.
The part of me that was raised and reared in the US system of grading is tempted to give the Steelers 2013 Draft class a B-, “Good, but…” rating, but here in Argentina (where I’ve lived most of this century) grading is much more demanding, and so therefore I’ll give the Steelers 2013 Draft a C+.
As legend has it, Super Bowl XLV badly exposed the Steelers at cornerback and cornerback has been Pittsburgh’s persistent draft needs since then.
Like most legends, this is founded upon truth.
While Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown and a few others Super Bowl XLV veterans remain, cornerback has sat atop any reasonable assessment of the Steelers needs in just about every NFL draft since then.
Should the 2018 NFL Draft be different? Let’s take a look.
Joe Haden’s 1st Steelers interception. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live
Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter
In successive off seasons, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin answered the pleas of Steelers Nation to address the cornerback position with a high profile move. In the 2016 NFL draft the Steelers took Artie Burns in the first round. Then, at the tail end of the 2017 preseason, Cleveland Browns cut Joe Haden and Pittsburgh promptly pounced.
After getting his feet wet in the slot for a few games as a rookie, Burns went on to start where he had his ups and downs. By the end of the season, however Burns was making plays and had proven himself to be an asset to the Steelers secondary.
Burns’ sophomore season did not go smoothly. Burns struggled at times, often against the deep ball. In Steel City InsiderCraig Wolfley generously opined, “Artie Burns didn’t get worse, but he didn’t get better, either.”
People forget (and perhaps rightfully so) that during the first half of 2017, the Steelers defense flashed signs of shut-down level greatness. (The debacle in Chicago aside.)
The reason for that flirtation with greatness can largely be attributed to Joe Haden.
Sound strange because you didn’t hear “Joe Haden” much early in the season? Well, that is a good thing. If you’re not convinced, consider that as soon as Haden fell injured, the Steelers starting giving up keep pass plays on a 20 minute basis.
Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups
In his rookie season with Pittsburgh, Mike Hilton delivered everything to the Steelers that injuries prevented his college roommate, Senquez Golson, from delivering.
Mike Hilton made plays all over the field, whether it was breaking up passes, sacking the quarterback, tackling players behind the line of scrimmage or intercepting the ball.
After spending the first part of the season on IR, rookie Cameron Sutton got into the game against Cincinnati, and then earned his first start in the Steelers heart breaking loss to the Patriots, and has looked good in limited exposure.
Coty Sensabaugh currently holds down a roster spot. The free agent pickup started in place of Joe Haden and did OK at times, and struggled mightily at others. Behind him, the Steelers have Brian Allen. Allen is a raw prospect whom the Steelers picked in the 5th round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Allen saw some limited action on special teams early in the season, and was active for the final 8 games of the season.
Steelers 2018 Cornerback Draft Needs
Since Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers have made many attempts address the cornerback position. They’ve invested premium/mid-round picks on players who ended up as busts (Curtis Brown,) another who flashed brilliance only to implode (Cortez Allen) and yet another who saw injuries end his career before it started (Senquez Golson.)
The Steelers have signed free agents who played above their contract and provided vital stability (William Gay) and others who also did better than expected by weren’t good enough to keep around (Brice McCain).
With the presence of Joe Haden, Artie Burns, Cam Sutton, Mike Hilton along with the potential offered by Brian Allen it’s tempting to say the Steelers have “addressed their need at cornerback” and can look elsewhere in this year’s draft.
That’s a temptation that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin must resist.
Certainly the Steelers have more pressing needs on defense alone than those at cornerback. But you need 3 starting-caliber cornerbacks in today’s NFL, and Cam Sutton while promising remains unproven, and Artie Burns lack of progress last year cannot be ignored. Therefore the Steelers 2018 draft need at Cornerback must be rated Moderate.
And while you can bet the mortgage Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin didn’t have the Marley’s words ringing in their ears the last week, the decisions to sign Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett show they’ve taken Marley’s wisdom to heart.
“How’s that?” you ask? Well, simply look back to the lessons of the 2013 and 2014 Draft.
Jarvis Jones & Ryan Shazier during a Steelers practice in January 2016. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via San Diego Union Tribune
Lessons of 2013 and 2014 Draft & the Arrival of Bostic and Burnett
In 2013, the Steelers were caught in a serious salary cap crunch. LaMarr Woodley had just finished his 2nd season on IR, Chris Carter wasn’t proving to be “the steal of the 2010 NFL Draft,” (as one journalist had claimed he’d be) and Jason Worilds had only shown flashes.
In hindsight, Steelers management erred in determining that James Harrison was nearing the end. Yet injuries had forced James Harrison to miss large chunks of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons and he’d played much of 2010 with an injured arm. And Harrison was set to make somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 to 9 million dollars.
Sure salary caponomics rather than X’s and O’s dictated that decision, but no amount of number crunching could save the Steelers from harsh reality that they had to come out of the 2013 NFL Draft with a pass rushing outside linebacker.
At the end of the 2013 season, it was clear that the Steelers secondary was in need of repair. Early on, the only question seemed to be whether the Steelers would go corner first and safety second in the draft or visa versa. Even after the Steelers signed Mike Mitchell, fans “knew” the Steelers would target cornerback early and perhaps often.
As it turns out, the Steelers had less at cornerback than they thought, erring in thinking they could get another year out of Ike Taylor while Cortez Allen’s career imploded in splendid fashion for reasons that have never been explained.
So when it came time to pick, the Steelers surprised everyone by drafting Ryany Shazier in first round.
Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett arrive in Pittsburgh with some risk in that both men have fought injuries, and the Ladarius Green experience teaches us just how quickly injuries can derail a promising free agent signing.
But the presence of both men will free Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin from having to reach to get an inside linebacker or a safety.
It’s also important to remember that drafting for need sometimes ends well, as the picks of Heath Miller and Santonio Holmes from the 2005 and 2006 drafts show us. But its sure is a lot better go enter a draft with the freedom of picking the player you want to pick, instead of taking someone you need to take.
In a long anticipated move, the Steelers cut William Gay the veteran cornerback who has served as a pillar of stability in Pittsburgh’s secondary for the last decade. In doing so they severed ties with the final draft pick from the 2007 NFL Draft, the Steelers first draft with Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at the helm.
Defensive back is a young man’s game, and William Gay will be 4 months shy of his 34th birthday on the Steelers opening day in 2018. He also carries a $1,750,000 salary that the Steeler figure to use more constructively elsewhere.
Judging by his Instagram post, he isn’t ready to being “Life’s Work” but with his time in Pittsburgh over, we now look back at the wild ride that was William Gay’s Steelers career and take a moment to say “Thank you Big Play Willie Gay.”
William Gay’s 52 yard pick six vs Falcons in 2014. Photo Credit: Steelers.com
2007-’08 – William Gay Goes from “Trying to Survive” to Starter
With Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden topping the depth chart, cornerback didn’t figure to be a priority for Pittsburgh in the 2007 NFL Draft. After going (almost) all-in on defense by drafting Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan McBean with their first, second and fourth picks the Steelers went back to defense in the 5th round, drafting William Gay out of Louisville.
As Steel City Insider’sJim Wexell pointed out, when questioned about an impressive preseason outing Mike Tomlin responded “William Gay’s just trying to survive!” William Gay not only survived but contributed in his rookie year, but his efforts were confined to special teams and spot duty in the secondary.
But it was in in 2008 William Gay began to turn heads.
Due to injuries, Gay made 4 starts at cornerback and effectively alternated with Bryant McFadden at other times. The Steelers 2008 defense was a special unit, and Gay’s played a small, yet important role in their success that culminated in Super Bowl XLIII.
William Gay played so well in 20018 that made Bryant McFadden expendable as he departed for Pittsburgh West aka Arizona.
2009 – William Gay Not Ready for Prime Time
Unfortunately, William Gay wasn’t quite ready for Prime Time.
2009 proved to be a rough year not only for Gay, but for the entire Steelers secondary.
Troy Polamalu got injured in the season opener, and the Future Hall of Famer only played 4 more games that season. The rest of the Steelers defensive backfield struggled in his absence. By late November Steelers 2009 secondary was shell-shocked, and William Gay was in far enough in over his head that Mike Tomlin rotated Joe Burnett with him in the Steelers infamous ’09 loss to Cleveland.
William Gay seemed destined to become a footnote in Steelers secondary history.
2010- ’11 – Moving to the Slot Rejuvenates William Gay’s Steelers Career
Bryant McFadden’s return to Pittsburgh seemed to spell doom for Gay as it forced him into the role of slot corner. Instead the move probably rejuvenated his career. During the 2010 season, Gay led the Steelers in passes defensed and also recorded two sacks.
Going into 2011 Bryant McFadden remained the starter nod, but injuries led to Gay starting most of the season, where he defensed another 13 passes, and recorded two interceptions, including a game-clincher against Cincinnati in November.
But Big Play Willie Gay probably had the brightest second act of any Steeler.
When the Steelers resigned William Gay in March of 2013, it was rightly interpreted as a Moneyball type move made in an effort to sort of secure a compensation prize for franchise too salary cap strapped to resign Keenan Lewis.
That may have been the case, but it was Moneyball at its best. The Steelers brought William Gay into man the slot, but Ike Taylor’s decline and Cortez Allen’s implosion led to Gay starting 52 games between 2013 and 2017.
A dispassionate analysis of William Gay’s contributions during this time would likely credit him with providing stability to a secondary staffed by plugins and accidental starters (see Antwon Blake and Brice McCain). But it was his penchant for explosive plays that earned him the love of Steelers Nation:
William Gay also had another interception returned for a touchdown negated by a penality in the Steelers 2016 win over the Bills. While he didn’t add any more pick sixes, Gay did intercept a pass against the Colts on Thanksgiving and again in 2017 in the Steelers home win against the Bengals.
As it happens to all great athletes, Father Time began gaining in the footrace with William Gay in 2016, as Artie Burns displaced him as the starter by the middle of the season, and rookie Mike Hilton took over the slot role in 2017.
There’d been talk of moving Gay to safety, and while Gay did play in a little bit of a hybrid safety-linebacker in 2017, the role never really emerged.
William Gay’s Place Among Steelers Corners + Thank You
The Pittsburgh Steelers announced that former Penn State Interim Head Coach Tom Bradley will join Mike Tomlin’s staff as defensive backs coach. Tom Bradley replaces Carnell Lake who announced his resignation as secondary coach a day earlier.
Tom Bradley played for Penn State as a defensive back, and joined Joe Paterno’s staff in 1979, working his way up from graduate assistant to defensive coordinator, a title he assumed in 2000.
Bradley also served as interim head coach in the fall of 2011, after the Penn State Board of Directors fired Joe Paterno as the result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Following his time at Penn State, Bradley served as assistant head coach at West Virginia in 2014, and then moved on to UCLA where he served as defensive coordinator until last season.
2016 draft picks Sean Davis and Artie Burns at the Steelers South Side Facility. Photo Credit: Via GZ Sports Report
Tom Bradley Inherits a Steelers Secondary at the Crossroads
Tom Bradley arrives in Pittsburgh as defensive backs coach at a moment when the Steelers secondary is at a crossroads. Following Super Bowl XLV, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin began rebuilding the Steelers defense from the back up, starting with defensive line, moving on to linebackers (with mixed success – contrast Jarvis Joneswith Ryan Shazier) and finally moving to the secondary.
It may not be fair to “blame” Carnell Lake, but Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas were to early building blocks in that rebuilding effort both were tremendous disappointments.Those failures forced the Steelers to expend precious draft capital to re-draft those positions.
The redos at cornerback and safety came in the form of Artie Burns and Sean Davis in the first and second rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft. While both players struggled a bit early in their rookie years, they both made important strides during the second half of the season and were a big part of the turnaround of the Steelers 2016 defense.
Unfortunately, neither man appeared to grow much as a player in 2017 and perhaps it’s fair to argue that Artie Burns regressed.
With Ben Roethlisberger set to turn 36 before opening day 2018, the Pittsburgh Steelers simply cannot afford to hit the reset button with either Artie Burns or Sean Davis. And Burns and Davis’ development is hardly the only area of concern in the Steelers secondary.
Mike Mitchell, who only has one year left on his contract, did not play well in 2017.
His backup, Robert Golden, can hardly be considered as anything other than a “In case of emergency, break glass” replacement. William Gay rumored move to safety never materialized, and he looks more like a cornerback ready to begin “Life’s Work” than one set to learn a new position.
Joe Haden gives the Steelers stability on the other side, Mike Hilton offers promise in the slot, and Cam Sutton got a baptism by fire in the NFL, but turned in a strong rookie year, all things considered. Tom Bradley can also look forward to working with Brian Allen, who has little experience as a defensive back, but possesses the all-important measureables.
The bottom line is that the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary hasn’t been a strength on the defense since Ryan Clark was forced to curb his hard-hitting play and Troy Polamalu was striking hesitation into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks.
With Bud Dupree’s development stalled and Ryan Shazier only now standing, the Steelers defensive backfield must deliver more than it has been, and now its Tom Bradley’s job to ensure that this happens.
[Editors Note: The Steelers also hired Karl Dunbar as their defensive line coach. More on that tomorrow.]
I have decided to return to California to be able to be a part of my youngest son’s last year of high school football.
I want to thank Mr. Art Rooney II and the Rooney family, Coach Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, the coaching staffs I have worked with throughout my time in Pittsburgh, and the entire Steelers organization. It has been a privilege and honor to play and coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I also want to thank all of the players I have coached during my seven years with the team – it truly was an honor to work with them. Finally, I would like to thank Steelers fans for their support and for being the best fans in the NFL during both my time as a player and coach.
Like Donnie Shell before him and Troy Polamalu after him, Carnell Lake became a fixture at the back of the secondary for the better part of a decade, including moving to cornerback twice in the Steelers 1995 and 1997 seasons.
If Carnell Lake’s contributions as a player are unquestionable positive, the same can not be said of his coaching tenure.
What of the Lake Effect?
When Carnell Lake arrived in Pittsburgh, cornerback was seen as an overwhelming liability, with Ike Taylor the only consistent performer while William Gay and Keenan Lewis were regarded as disappointments.
Yet William Gay made impressive strides in 2011 and Keenan Lewis had an outstanding year in 2012, and Cortez Allen appeared to be a superstar ready to burst.
However, not all of the players under Lakes tutelage thrived.
Cortez Allen flashed a little in his first year as a starter in 2013, but remained inconsistent. In 2014 Allen got demoted, benched, and ultimately banished to IR. His 2015 campain consisted of a few snaps. Injuries were a factor, but Allen’s fizzout was never fully explained.
And while it doesn’t get talked about as often, Steelers were attempting to groom Ryan Mundy for a more prominent role as a safety when Lake arrived, and that grooming continued until early in 2012 when Mundy got benched in favor of Will Allen, and the Steelers defense improved accordingly. Finally, Lake also spoke glowingly of Antwan Blake, a corner who perhaps wasn’t bad as a waiver wire pickup, but clearly never developed into starter material.
Did Carnell Lake Resign Voluntarily?
Juding a position coach soley on the development of his players isn’t quite fair. Dick Hoak was a fine running backs coach, but Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis probably didn’t need Hoak to get them to the Hall of Fame. Mike Whipple, Ken Anderson and Randy Fichtner have helped Ben Roethlisberger, but Ben supplied the raw materials to start with.
Both men quickly became starters, struggled a bit, but posted strong 2nd halves of their rookie years. Yet neither man appeared to make that fabled “2nd year developmental leap.” Word also broke that Mike Tomlin began taking over a larger role in the defensive backs meeting room.
Given the fact that Art Rooney II still hasn’t address the Pittsburgh press following the 2017 season, one can only suspect that Carnell Lake’s sudden resignation isn’t entirely voluntary, especially because Mike Tomlin had told Keith Butler and the rest of his defensive staff that they’d be returning.
In a move that has been anticipated for at least two years, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann has announced his retirement. And while Richard Mann might not have the profile of other position coaches, make no mistake about it, his presence will be missed.
Former Steelers WR coach Richard Mann offers instruction. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette
Go back to 2012 and the days when “Young Money” aka Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown were all the rage in Steelers Nation.
Together the threesome was supposed to form the most fearsome wide receiver trio the NFL has seen this side of Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Jake Reed. It made for excellent copy during the off season and training camp.
Then the games that counted started.
While the Steelers offense had a fairly strong start to 2012, the unit fell off the rails during the second half of the season. While an injury to Ben Roethlisberger took its toll, the value of “Young Money” was measured in pennies rather than dollars. The whole was less than the sum of its parts.
After the season, Wide Receiver’s coach Scotty Montgomery, returned to coach at Duke, despite no position being associated with his hiring.
As The Watch Tower detailed at the time, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette issued dueling stories by Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac offering starkly contrasting interpretations of events. Dulac’s story suggested the move was Montgomery’s and one made only with great reluctance. Bouchette’s suggested Tomlin had pushed Montgomery out, and reported that, absent Hines Ward, chaos had enveloped wide receivers room.
Mike Tomlin responded by coaxing Aliquippa native Richard Mann out of retirement.
That’s all one blogger needs to accept Ed Bouchette’s interpretation of what transpired in 2012. The Steelers don’t allow assistant coaches much contact with the media, but when Richard Mann spoke about 3rd round pick Markus Wheaton during the 2013 NFL Draft, the man positively exuded an aura of “Been there, done that.”
And you’d expect that from a man whose been around long enough to coach for the Baltimore Colts, the original Cleveland Browns, and the Baltimore Ravens.
Mann also coached with the New York Jets, Washington Redskins, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he first met Mike Tomlin, and the two forged a bond evident in the words the Steelers head coached used to praise Mann upon his retirement:
I had the pleasure of working with him 15 years ago at a different capacity. My appreciation for him really kind of started there. I was a younger assistant position coach, defensive backs. He was a more senior veteran wide receiver coach. Obviously, by the nature of the positions, we worked cooperatively together in training camp. I learned a lot from watching him coach his guys on the grass and off the grass. I was appreciative of him allowing me to do that. Often times in training camp like settings, we would watch the same video of our guys together. I could hear him make coaching points to his guys about what was happening on the video. He could hear me make coaching points with my guys about what was happening on the same video. It was just a unique learning environment
He’s always been a teacher and not resistant to sharing that expertise with others and that is why I’ve always gravitated towards him. Very accomplished coach. Maybe a lot of opportunities were not afforded to him because of the generation in which he rose through the ranks. I’m cognizant of that. I am appreciative of that. I realize some of the opportunities I have been afforded in my career is because of efforts and accomplishments of men like Richard Mann. I am appreciative on a lot of levels. Probably can’t eloquently describe that level of appreciation, but he is a special man and a special coach. One that has impacted me in a lot of ways.
Richard Mann made an immediate impact when he joined the Steelers staff. People forget, but Antonio Brown’s play dropped off late in the season to the point where their were wispers about whether the Steelers had erred in giving him a long-term deal.
Former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward is a candidate to replace Richard Mann. Ward has coached with the Steelers during training camp, and returned for a few stints during the regular season, and was present on the sideline during a number of games.
Hines Ward is a fan favorite and a franchise legend, but it’s a fair question to ask whether he’s a wise choice to replace Mann.
Former players returning as assistants always arrive with a sentimental cheer and such was the case each time Jerry Olsavsky, Carnell Lake and Joey Porter joined Mike Tomlin’s staff. And so it was with Joe Greene’s return to Chuck Noll’s staff in 1987 and Mike Mularkey’s return to Bill Cowher’s staff in 1996 (well maybe not on Mularkey.)
But, a wise fan will remember that Gerald Williams was the best defensive lineman during Joe Greene’s tenure.
If you don’t remember Gerald Williams, you’ve certainly heard his name, right? Well, you probably haven’t. Gerald Williams was a good player, but not a great player for the Steelers. True, Greene didn’t have a lot to work with (remember Donald Evans and Kenny Davidson, no? you’re lucky then) but he reportedly did lobby hard for the Steelers to pick Aaron Jones, who never amount to much more than a marginal starter.
Its perhaps a little harsh to judge position coaches by the development of their players – remember, Chuck Noll’s “Don’t over coach the kid” admonition to Dick Hoak about Franco Harris. But if William Gay and Keenan Lewis did improve under Carnell Lake, Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas were clearly mistakes.
Dupree, after an OK start to the season, disappeared from the pass rush down the stretch, although were assured that he was “going into coverage a lot and doing well against the run.” Fair enough, but let’s remind everyone that “they” said the same thing about Jarvis Jones up until the day Mike Tomlin benched Jones in favor of Harrison.
Perhaps Hines Ward will serve as an exception, but thus far no other team is breaking down the door to offer Lake, Olsavsky or Porter opportunities to climb the coaching ladder.
So word to the wise about welcoming Hines Ward back.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers are the NFL’s two most storied franchises. The latter defined winning and excellence in the 1960’s; the former defined the term “NFL Dynasty” in the 1970’s. Both franchises were fortunate to hit their respective peaks as the NFL was coming of age.
Yet, due to the conference and division realignment which followed the NFL-AFL merger, these two teams have seldom faced off of late.
The Pittsburgh Steelers history vs the Green Bay Packers is pretty one-sided affair, with the Cheeseheads holding a 22-15 edge as of 2017, but much of that lopsidedness is due the the Steelers pre-Immaculate Reception Record.
In fact, in the last 25 years, the teams have only met seven times, but those meetings have contributed much to the lore of both franchises. Either scroll down to click on the links below to relive your favorite moment in Steelers-Packers history.
Le’Veon Bell rushes for his 1st 100 yard game in the Steelers 2013 win over the Packers @ Lambeau Field. Photo Credit: Wesley Hitt, Getty Images via Zimbo
1992 – Bill Cowher Reveals His True Nature in 1st Loss
History will long remember this as Brett Favre’s first NFL start. Conversely, it was also Rod Woodson’s career worst and Bill Cowher’s first loss.
Although the words “Hall of Fame” and “Rod Woodson” were already being collocated in 1992, Woodson fell flat in almost every conceivable way possible on this day.
If you have a strong stomach for memories you’d rather forget, you can watch the game summary from NFL Prime Time.
For Steelers fans the significance of this game is in what Bill Cowher revealed about himself.
Near the end of the game Cowher approached Woodson. Rod turned away fearing a tongue lashing. Instead, Cowher consoled him, saying that “You’ve had a bad day at he office. When that happens, you don’t quit the job, you analyze what went wrong and bounce back.”
Steelers fans loved Cowher for his fire, brimstone and in your face bravado, but…
…in his first loss as a head coach, The Chin showed that he was a head coach who was smart enough to know when to kick a player in the a_s, and when to pat him on the back.
The Steelers playoff position was set, while the Packers still had something to play for. Bill Cowher benched many starters – Fred McAfee and Steve Avery were the Steelers starting backfield.
Yet this was a hard-fought, knock down drag out game. Kevin Greene hit Brett Favre so hard that he appeared to be coughing up his brains at one point. Jim McMahon did come in for a few snaps, but Favre refused to stay out long.
The Steelers second string almost pulled it off, as Yancey Thigpen dropped a sure touchdown pass as time expired.
Rookie Hines Ward on his 3rd NFL catch as LeRoy Butler closes in. Photo Credit: Rick Stewart, Getty Images via Bleacher Report
As the fourth quarter began, Pittsburgh appeared poised to make it 34-3, until Sherman decided to get cute on the goal line. Sherman thought it would be smart to revive Slash, and sent Mike Tomczak under center with Kordell lining up as a receiver. All went well, until the snap….
A bobbled exchange leads to a fumble, which Keith McKenzie returns 88 yards for a touchdown. The Packers score 17 unanswered points, but Pittsburgh holds on. Barley.
The moral of the story there is that trick plays can give an already efficient offense a lethal edge, but they can be just as lethal for a struggling unit.
2005 – Never Underestimate the Importance to Backups….
Bryant McFadden strip sacks Brett Favre, setting up a 77 yard Troy Polamalu touchdown return. Photo Credit: Steelers.com
But the star of the day is Duce Staley, who gets his first carry of the year that day, and adds a total of 14 more for 76 yards and including a long run of 17 and a touchdown. He also catches to passes for nine yards.
As Bill Cowher said the day Pittsburgh released Staley, “If we don’t have Duce, we don’t win that game. If we don’t win that game, we don’t make the playoffs, and never get to Super Bowl XL.”
The Steelers signed Duce Staley to a generous contract in 2004, and he only ended up playing 16 games over three season. But in the end, it was money well spent.
The Steelers and Packers combined for 936 yards and the lead changed hands four times in the fourth quarter as Aaron Rodgers passed for 383 yards. Ben Roethlisberger did him better, however, passing for 503 yards and in doing so only becoming only the 10th NFL signal caller to break the half-century mark.
Hines Ward and Heath Miller both broke the 100 yard mark, but the star of the game was Steelers rookie of the year Mike Wallace. Wallace bookended his game with touchdown catches. Taking his first pass for 60 yards to the end zone, and he did it again with his last pass, hauling in a 19 yard grab with 0:03 seconds remaining.
2010 – Super Bowl XLV – Steelers Must Wait for Stairway to Seven…
And that brings us to Super Bowl XVL and the Steelers ill-fated quest for Lombardi Number Seven.
The Steelers made some early mistakes and, as Mike Tomlin, ever the class act, insisted, the Packers made some tremendous plays that put the Steelers deep in a hole.
The men in Black and Gold fought back furiously and were alive until the game’s final minute. But, when the final gun sounded, the Packers simply showed themselves to be the better team and, to their credit, the Steelers acknowledged as much.
2013 – Le’Veon Bell Finds His Rushing Feet in the Snows of Lambeau Field
Le’Veon Bell rushes against Lamari Lattimore in the snows at Lambeau Field. Photo Credit: Jeffrey Phelps, AP via the Bleacher Report
Le’Veon Bell played as if he took it personally, ripping off runs for 11, 5, and 22 yards in his first four carries. By half time, Bell had 71 yards and was in route to his first 100 yard game. But Bell’s game was hardly blemish free.
The game also featured Bell’s first NFL fumble at Pittsburgh’s 2 yard line no less.
Eddie Lacy put Green Bay ahead, but Le’Veon Bell took his next carry and shot through the Packers defense for 25 yards. The fireworks were far from over at that point, as Cortez Allen intercepted Matt Flynn and took it to the house, only to see Green Bay return to tie the score after intercepting a failed Ben Roethlisberger pass to Heath Miller.
The Steelers however, regained the lead with 1:25 left to play on another Le’Veon Bell touchdown.
A monster return saw Green Bay return the ball all the way to the Pittsburgh’s 1, but penalties prevented the Packers from scoring as time ran out.
A hundred yard rusher, six changes in the lead, fumbles at the goal line and snow on Lambeau Field – as John Madden would say, “This is what the game of football is all about.”
When the Pittsburgh Steelers kickoff for their 2017 home opener against the Minnesota Vikings this afternoon, 1450 days will have passed since these two franchises last squared off. Normally you don’t think of intra-conference games marking milestones, but this one does.
To put this into perspective, the previous Steelers head coach to start 0-4 was Bill Austin, in 1968.
With that in mind, let’s look at how the Steelers have changed, and remained the same, since then.
Le’Veon Bell scores his first touchdown in the Steelers loss to Vikings in London. Photo Credit: Daily Mail Online
1. Sort of Failing at Left Tackle is Like Being Sort of Pregnant
By the fall of 2013 the Steelers had relegated their “Plug ‘n Patch” approach to offensive line building to history. Indeed on that day they started Ramon Foster, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert just as they will this afternoon (and they would have started Maurkice Pouency had he not been hurt.)
They also started Mike Adams at left guard.
Mike Adams didn’t represent any sort of Jonathan Scottesque attempt to get by on the cheap at left tackle. No, the Steelers invested a 2nd round pick in Mike Adams and made it very clear from the get go that they wanted him to win the starting job. He couldn’t do that as a rookie (and surprise, they turned again to Max Starks), but they gave him the job 2013.
The move was an epic fail, and the London loss to the Vikings was its supernova.
Adams struggled all day, and first and only time in his career, Ben Roethlisberger played like he had happy feet. The Vikings ended the game by sacking Roethlisberger, and while Adams didn’t directly allow the sack, he clearly didn’t win his battle at the line of scrimmage which helped collapse the pocket, paving the way for a sack.
The Vikings game in London marked Mike Adams final start at left tackle and Kelvin Beachum’s assent to the role.
2. Le’Veon Lived Up to the Hype, Jarvis Didn’t….
While neither he nor Mike Tomlin uttered the word “Rebuilding,” after the 2012 Steelers 8-8 finish Kevin Colbert as much as admitted changes were needed. Ergo, two key building blocks would come early in the Steelers 2013 Draft Class. One worked out, the other didn’t.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Ed Bouchette isn’t one to exaggerate, but even he seemed to be drinking a little Koolaid a big when he declared in July 2013 that Le’Veon Bell’s preseason debut “…will be one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”
Le’Veon Bell’s debut didn’t come until London thanks to his Lisfranc injury.
While Le’Veon Bell’s statistics were rather pedestrian on that afternoon, he did score two touchdowns, and flashed some of the ability that the Steelers offense has come to depend upon.
On the flip side, Jarvis Jones, who’d boldly requested number 95, was making his third start at outside linebacker for the Steelers. Jones had one tackle on the day and by any measure must be considered Kevin Colbert’s only true first round bust.
3. How Long Does It Take to Rebuild Defense? Four Years
One striking observation is that there’s been very little turnover in the Steelers offense since that fateful London day. Sure, Health Miller retired and the entire tight end depth chart has turned over (thanks to David Johnson’s waiver). But the line remains intact and that was the first game that the Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown played together, and the trio has powered the offense since.
On defense you find an entirely different story.
Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were still manning both safety spots. Ike Taylor was still starting at corner, and Cortez Allen, the unit’s rising star, returned to the line up to get burned on a 70 yard touchdown. Aside from William Gay, who was back after a one year hiatus in Pittsburgh West, the entire Steelers secondary has turned over since the London Loss.
Looking at the linebackers, Vince Williams was making his first NFL start, and if the rookie looked woefully unable to fill Larry Foote’s shoes, no one can argue he hasn’t grown into the role. But Vince Williams is the only Steelers linebacker left from the London Game (remember, James Harrison was in Cincinnati.)
If the Viking’s victory in London marked the Vince Williams first start, it also marked Ziggy Hood’s last one, as Mike Tomlin would name Cam Heyward starter after this game. The other starters that day were Steve McLendon, who was just taking over from Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel. 1450 days later, the story remains the same on defensive line. Cam Heyward remains, everyone else is playing elsewhere or has begun “Life’s Work.”
4. Assistant Coaches Do Matter – See Mike Munchak’s Influence
People forget this, but Mike Adams wasn’t the only Steelers offensive lineman under fire 1450 days ago. Just one week earlier, in the Steelers loss to the Bears, Steelers coaches had rotated Kelvin Beachum on at both tackles.
Young Money had been all the rage prior to 2013, but the promise of those young receivers was largely unrealized, as even Antonio Brown’s play was a little uneven by the end of 2012. Mike Tomlin responded by replacing Scottie Montgomery with Richard Mann, who has clearly transformed the Steelers wide receiving corps.
As Dick Hoak reminded everyone on the day he retired (after nearly 3 and half decades of serving as a Steelers assistant coach) NFL assistant coaches are “Hired to be fired.” He’s right. Often times assistant coaches act as the fall guys when either head coaches fail or draft picks flounder as busts.
But the additions of Richard Mann and Mike Munchak show that good assistant coaches can and do make a difference in the NFL.