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.
In fact, in the last 31 years, the teams have only met nine 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 first 100 yard game. Photo Credit: Jeffrey Phelps, Associated Press
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 in his inaugural 1992 season.
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 1995 Steelersplayoff 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.”
The Steelers defense did struggle in the absence of a key member as it gave up passes of 39, 54 and 58 passes to backup quarterback Brett Hundley. But that key member was Joe Haden, who was out with a broken leg.
But Ben Roethlisberger was on fire, throwing 4 touchdown passes, one to Xavier Grimble, two to Antonio Brown and another to Martavis Bryant. The game hinged on two field goal attempts. Late in the third quarter, Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy defied common sense and attempted a 57 yard field goal and watched as Mason Crosby missed badly.
With the game tied and just 17 seconds left, Ben Roethlisberger moved the Steelers 35 yards as Chris Boswell kicked a 53 yarder to win it as time expired.
The Steelers began this game with a touchdown drive on their opening possession, something that was as rare 4 games into the Matt Canada era on offense as has been for the rest of his tenure. But it was all Packers for most of the next 45 minutes, Green Bay put up 27 points on the board while all the Steelers could manage was a 52 yard Chris Boswell field goal.
But Ben Roethlisberger flashed some of the 4th quarter magic which would characterize his final season, leading the Steelers on a 85 yard drive that ended with a Najee Harris touchdown with just over 4 minutes left to play to bring Pittsburgh to within 10.
The Steelers defense force a punt with the help of a T.J. Watt sack. But Ben Roethlisberger misfired while attempting to throw deep to Diontae Johnson, and was intercepted by Eric Stokes.
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.
Sometimes writing a Steelers season preview poses an extra special challenge. Fortunately, the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 season preview presents no special challenge because the defining themes of the Steelers 2017 season are obvious:
This 2017 Steelers squad is truly Mike Tomlin’s team
But, with Kevin Colbert at his side, Mike Tomlin has taken a Super Bowl capable team and led it to a championship in Super Bowl XLIII and got back to the big dance two years later in Super Bowl XLV. In that time he’s overseen a rebuild of every area on the depth chart and he’s done so without suffering a single losing season.
Mike Tomlin and Ryan Shazier during the Steelers 2015 win over the Oakland Raiders. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via PennLive
Along the way, Mike Tomlin has replaced both his offensive coordinator and his defensive coordinator, cycled through 4 offensive line coaches, 4 special teams coaches, 3 wide receivers coaches, 2 running backs coaches while adding former players to coach his defensive backs and linebackers.
Mike Tomlin’s thumb print falls deep and wide across the organization.
And that’s a good thing, because Mike Tomlin is one of the best at what he does. Mike Tomlin has weathered several stiff tests since winning the Super Bowl, including a 5 game losing streak in 2009, Roethlisberger’s suspension in 2010, a seemingly chronic curse of offensive line injuries for several straight seasons and a 2-6 start in 2013 that ended with a blown call keeping the Steelers out of the playoffs.
Keeping your head above water isn’t easy in the NFL, but Mike Tomlin has done it. Now it is time to soar.
For two seasons now, Steelers Nation has salivated at the prospect fielding an offense featuring all four Killer Bees: Ben, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. Injuries and suspensions have prevented that. When the Steelers open against the Browns, this will be a reality.
Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant catching touchdowns in the Steelers 2014 win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via CBS sports
During Mike Tomlin’s first several years in Pittsburgh, whether it was by design or by happenstance, the Steelers employed a “Plug and Patch” approach to building its offensive line. That worked, for a while, but the Steelers open 2017 with 5 offensive lineman playing on their second contracts.
While some elements remain relatively untested, the front seven of the Steelers defense appears to be rock-solid. And while the secondary still must prove itself, the acquisitions of Joe Haden and J.J. Wilcox represent Tomlin’s commitment to talent as opposed to staying within his comfort zone.
The lynch pin to Mike Tomlin and the Steelers rebuilding strategy has always revolved around one man: Ben Roethlisberger.
You might have to go back to the Kennedy Administration to find another Steelers starting quarterback who could say they did that.
Most fans now take it for granted that Ben Roethlisberger will hang it up after this season, but no one knows. Would another AFC Championship loss or playoff disappointment lead him to conclude it was time to start “Life’s Work?” Should things work out differently, might he decide to follow Jerome Bettis’ lead, and retire with the Lombardi in hand? Or would he return to try to tie Terry Bradshaw?
The truth is, Ben himself probably doesn’t even know.
Demaryius Thomas stiff arms Ike Taylor en route to an 80 overtime touchdown pass in the Broncos 2011 win over the Steelers. Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger, Getty Images
The window on the first Steelers Super Bowl era slammed shut in a 6-0 loss to the Houston Oilers on a Monday Night Football game in December 1980 that I was far, far too young to stay up and watch. But I remember watching Tim Tebow sear the Steelers secondary in the playoffs and thinking, “This feels like it must have felt in 1980.”
But Ben Rothlisberger hadn’t yet turned 30. The question since that moment has been “Can the Steelers reload before Ben gets too old?” As a rookie, Ben Roethlisberger led a team of veterans in their primes on a 16 game winning streak that ended with a brutal loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship.
12 years later, Ben would take a team starting 3 rookies on defense, and throwing to wide receivers named Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers on a playoff run that ended in bitter defeat to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship.
In his sophomore year, Ben Roethlisberger rebounded from the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots to lead the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL.
Now it is time to find out if Roethlisberger can respond in similar fashion at the opposite end of his career.
Trading center Lucas Crowley to the Redskins for slot cornerback Dashaun Phillips
Coty Sensabaugh practices during the off season at Steelers South Side facility. Photo Credit: Steelers.com via Steel City Underground
Coincidence? Perhaps, but probably not. No, these moves are likely the latest in what can only be described as a Sisyphean Steelers secondary rebuild. “Sisyphean”for those of you who’re rusty on your Greek Mythology, referse to the plight of Sisyphus who was condemned for all eternity to roll a bolder up hill, only to have it get away from him halfway up, so that he could start again.
A month later, finds Senquez Golson injured, again, joined by Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, who’ve largely been kept on the sidelines during training camp and preseason. The leaves the Steelers shuffling the deck again at cornerback, much as they did in 2015 when they traded for Brandon Boykin and claimed Ross Cockrell off of waivers.
Whatever else you can say, you can’t blame Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for lack of trying.
As recently as two years ago, you could argue that Pittsburgh was trying to rebuild the secondary on the cheap, as the Steelers brain trust ignored pleas from fans and the press to draft a cornerback early in the 2012, 2013, and 2014 NFL Draft. Indeed, in 2014 Carnell Lake shoed away questions about waiting so long to draft a corner by talking up Antwon Blake.
Images like this remind us why the Steelers once counted on Cortez Allen. Photo Credit: Alchetron
For the record, the Steelers had thought they had something in Cortez Allen and had invested heavily in drafting Shamarko Thomas as an eventual starter at safety. Both of those moves count as epic failures. But that was then.
Since 2014, the Steelers have drafted five defensive backs and used premium picks to draft all four of them.
Despite all of those moves, the Steelers still find themselves turning over loose stones hoping to uncover a defensive back or two who can help bring home Lombardi Number 7.
While that might not be listed as Standard Operating Procedure in the manual of a team that fancies itself as a Super Bowl contender, fans can take heart in the fact that the Steelers track record is pretty solid here.
Antown Blake wasn’t starting material, but he delivered good value as a waiver wire pickup. And while Ross Cockrell’s demotion is disappointing (and as Steel City Insider’sJim Wexell indicates, probably permanent), the Steelers secondary was better with him starting in 2016 than it had been with Blake starting in 2015.
So the trajectory of the Steelers Secondary Rebuild remains upward. But unlike Sisyphus, the Steelers need to find a way to keep the ball rolling until they reach the mountain top. Because Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t have an eternity to wait.
Super Bowl windows are notoriously hard to pry open and are wont to slam shut without warning. In the modern NFL, having a franchise quarterback forms a necessary, yet insufficient element to bringing home a Lombardi.
A quarterback can’t do it alone, even if his last name is Marnio, Elway, Brady and yes Roethlisberger.
Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have known this and made their personnel choices accordingly since the Steelers rebuild began in earnest after 2012. The franchise returned to the playoffs in 2014, got a playoff win in 2015, and knocked on heaven’s door in 2016 only to be turned away.
Here are 4 Steelers 2017 Training Camp Questions whose answers will determine whether Pittsburgh can bring home Lombardi Number 7 in 2017.
Can Ben Roethlisberger help Steelers bag Lombardi Number 7? Time will tell. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
1. Can Burns, Davis and Hargrave Avoid the Dreaded Sophomore Slump?
My, how times have changed. When decline of the Steelers defense became indisputable in 2013 commentators rightly pegged the dip to the to the 1,279 snaps logged by rookies during Dick LeBeau’s second to last year as defensive coordinator.
Three years later, it looked like rookies would write a similar story for Keith Butler’s second year as defensive coordinator.
People forget, but as Steelers scribe Carlos Ortega pointed out, at the middle of the 2016 the Steelers defense was on pace to match the 1988 Steelers defense’s records for futility. The turnaround of the Steelers defense on the back end of the 2016 is certainly one of the under-reported stories and it happened in large part because Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave stopped playing like rookies.
On paper, all three men will pick up right where they left off.
Think about it. Who were the only two Steelers to touch Tom Brady during the AFC Championship game? Davis and Hargrave. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler need these men to grow in their second years. And while that’s a reasonable expectation, it is far from a given.
Troy Edwards won the Steelers 1999 rookie of the year, and returned to training camp defended his lax training regimen by complaining that he couldn’t race air. Kendrell Bell looked like a Chad Brown, James Farrior, Ryan Shazier composite as a rookie 2001, but injuries and an unwillingness to learn coverage schemes surfaced at St. Vincents in the summer of 2002.
A sophomore slump by any of these stud 2016 rookies could have catastrophic consequences for the Steelers defense in 2017.
2. Can T.J. Watt (or perhaps Chickillo) Become Starter Capable at Outside Linebacker?
The emergence Burns, Davis and Hargrave only partially explains the Steelers 2016 defensive turnaround. The rest of the turn around was fueled by Bud Dupree’s return to the lineup and James Harrison’s promotion to starter.
James Harrison is, by definition, a living legend.
And if the 2016’s James Harrison wasn’t the same as the 2008 version of Harrison that won the NFL’s defensive player of the year award, he was still better than any other outside linebacker the Steelers had.
But it would be foolish for anyone to expect James Harrison to remain a 16 game 3 down, four quarter starter in 2017.
If the Steelers are to seriously contend for Lombardi number 7 in 2017, someone else must step up. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert drafted TJ Watt to be that man, and if OTAs are any indication, the linebacker clearly has the athletic skills. The Steelers need to use training camp to get him ready to contribute early and often.
The other alternative would be to see if Anthony Chickillo can contribute on the right side. That’s not something that Steelers coaches seem to be considering, but we suggested it last year and will do so again.
3. Can Senquez, Sensabaugh or Sutton Turn the Corner?
The narrative on Pittsburgh’s defense since getting torched by Aaron Rogers in Super Bowl XLV has been that the Steelers need to get better at cornerback. This narrative has played for so long that William Gay, one of the “culprits” in 2010, has gone from scapegoat to “Big Play Willie Gay” to a player whose skills are seen as being on the decline.
Keenan Lewis looked ready to break out in 2012, yet the Steelers let him go, gambling on Cortez Allen offering more “upside.”
The good news is that with Coty Sensabaugh, Senquez Golson, Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, the Steelers for the first time in a long time, bring some real quantity to training camp with them. If the Steelers are going to make a serious Super Bowl run, Carnell Lake must find a way to coax come quality out of that unit over the next few weeks on the grass of Chuck Noll Field.
4. Can the Steelers Build Viable Depth at Running Back Behind Bell?
It says here that any running back sets both regular season and playoff rushing single game rushing records that neither Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis could touch is special. But the self-life of NFL running backs is precariously short.
It also says here that the process of trying to extend Le’Veon Bell’s shelf life by limiting his carries a simple exercise on paper but a horrendously complicated endeavor when you try to do it in the heat of a game.
Did anyone really want to see Tomlin spell Le’Veon Bell with Fitzgerald Toussaint in his record setting performance over the Bills?
I don’t think so either. Regardless of whether he had a choice or not, Todd Haley over used Le’Veon Bell down the stretch in 2016. Yes, lack of a number two wide receiver to complement Antonio Brown had a lot to do with that, but the fact is the Steelers cupboard was bare at running back.
The days when the Steelers RB depth chart would read Bettis, Huntley, Zereoue, Fuamatu-Ma’afala and Witman, with some guy named on Kreider on the practice squad have ended and will never return. But the Steelers have rolled the dice for several seasons by going with an offensive backfield that was 2 or at and a half players deep.
And they’ve paid for it in the post season, in three straight years.
Even if Le’Veon Bell can stay completely healthy for a 19 straight games (yes, that’s counting on a 1st round playoff bye) Steelers running backs coach James Saxon needs to use his time at St. Vincents to establish solid depth behind his starter.
The loss was devastating to Jerome Bettis, who’d planned to retire and felt he’d lost his shot at a championship. On the sidelines, rookie Ben Roethlisberger implored “The Bus” to return, promising he’d get him his ring. Roethlisberger delivered as the Steelers triumphed in Super Bowl XL.
Now, as Roethlisberger contemplates parking his own bus, the question remains as to whether his teammates can deliver as he did for Bettis 12 years ago.