Never a Superstar, Steelers Free Agent Arthur Moats Is Solid Backup Who Delivers When It Counts

The Pittsburgh Steelers are not splash players in free agency. Sure, the franchise used free agency to secure the services of future Hall of Famers such as Kevin Greene and fixture starters like Ryan Clark, but the Pittsburgh has never put itself into contention for the off season Lombardi.

But most Steelers free agent signing headlines are more likely to elicit a “Who?” opposed to an, “Yes! We got him!” from fans. So, from that perspective, Arthur Moats in many ways has been a typical Steelers free agent signing, which speaks well of both him and the team. And as Moats reaches free agency again, it will be interesting to see if the Steelers offer him a third contract.

Arthur Moats, Arthur Moats strip sack Andy Dalton, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Arthur Moats strip sacks Andy Dalton. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Capsule Profile of Arthur Moats Steelers Career

Arthur Moats joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013 during a time of turmoil at outside linebacker.

After ending 3 straight seasons on injured reserve, the Steelers had parted ways with LaMarr Woodley. Jason Worilds had finally seemed to hit his stride, posting a good although not great year, prompting Pittsburgh to transition tag him. While Jarvis Jones rookie year had provided a mixed bag, the latest done jersey number 95 still had legitimate “upside.”

So it came as a bit of a surprise, when at the end of March, the Steelers signed Arthur Moats from the Buffalo Bills. The move to bring in Arthur Moats delivered almost immediate dividends, as Moats recorded a sack in relief of Jarvis Jones in the Steelers win over Carolina. Moats forced a critical fumble in the Steelers November win over the Ravens, and also downed Joe Flacco.

In 2015 the Steelers drafted Bud Dupree, but Bud Dupree’s arrival didn’t stop Moats from making splash plays, as he recovered a fumble on Cleveland’s first play of the game, setting up a Steelers score. For the season, Moats recorded 4 sacks and recovered two fumbles.

In 2016, Arthur Moats recorded 3.5 sacks and defensed 3 passes while splitting time with Bud Dupree, and finished the season with two sacks against the Browns in the finale. In 2107, Moats saw his playing time drop, as the rotation at outside linebacker ended. Still, he saw action n 14 games, including work at inside linebacker due to injuries to Ryan Shazier and Tyler Matakevich.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Arthur Moats

Let’s face it, backups don’t move the mercury of fan enthusiasm (save for perhaps DeAngelo Williams.) When you think of great Steelers outside linebackers, you think of Hall of Famers like Jack Ham and Kevin Greene, or intimidating legends like Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter or James Harrison.

  • Arthur Moats name’s never going to make that least, nor should it.

But that wasn’t what Arthur Moats was brought to Pittsburgh to do. He was brought to in to be a backup, and the first role of a good backup is to provide stability when the starter is unavailable. Arthur Moats has started 24 of his 62 games in Pittsburgh, and he’s provided solid stability with splash play making ability.

Arthur Moats is just the kind of player you want in the mix behind T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree and Anthony Chickillo. He’s only just turning 30, and he’s not going to cost a lot of money. What’s the wait?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Against Arthur Moats

For better (see keeping T.J. Watt in the game) and for worse (see the James Harrison situation), the Steelers ended their outside linebacker rotation in 2017 and there’s been no indication that will change in 2018.

The Steelers have salary cap issues, and while Arthur Moats isn’t going to command serious money from any NFL team, he is someone who deserves to get paid more than the veteran minimum. Depth is nice, but the Steelers have Kion Adams coming off of injured reserve, who could grow into a Moats type role and would do so for a lot less money.

Resigning Arthur Moats would make for a quality feel-good story, but is it a luxry the Steelers can afford?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Arthur Moats

We started by saying that in a lot of ways Arthur Moats is your typical Steelers free agent. His arrival was unheralded, he provided stability and depth in an understudy role and delivered convincingly when called upon.

  • In fact, Arthur Moats is kind of a defensive equivalent to Mewelde Moore.

When you say “Championship caliber player” you probably don’t think someone like Mewelde Moore, yet Moore was the unsung hero of the 2008 Steelers season that culminated in Super Bowl XLIII.

When it comes to winning Lombardi Number 7, Arthur Moats’ impact will never equal that of, say, Cam Heyward, but he’s shown the ability to be the “Next man up” when his number is called, and championship rosters require players who fit that role.

If the Steelers are smart, they’ll find a way to bring back Arthur Moats.

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

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Does Steelers Restricted Free Agent Fitzgerald Toussaint Fit in Pittsburgh?

The NFL practice squad is at once a tenuous lifeline to an NFL dream, a way point for roster bubble babies, and a proving round for future starters and even All Pros.

Fitzgerald Toussaint has been a waypoint type practice squad player while in Pittsburgh, and as he reaches Restricted Free Agency, Toussaint will learn whether that time translates into bigger and better things.

Fitzgerald Toussaint, James Wright, Steelers vs Bengals,

Fitzgerald Toussaint returns a kick against the Bengals in 2016. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Fitzgerald Toussaint Steelers Career

The Steelers added Fitzgerald Toussaint to their practice squad in November of 2015 after the Baltimore Ravens parted with him. The Steelers activated Toussaint in late November likely to keep the Ravens from claiming him. That move proved to be schrewed, as DeAngelo Williams got injured in the 2015 season finale against Cleveland.

  • That set the stage for Fitzgerald Toussaint to start the Steelers playoff games against the Bengals and Broncos.

The Steelers brought back Fitzgerald Toussaint in 2016, where he served on the active roster, but only saw spot duty despite the fact that Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams rarely were healthy enough to play together.

Fitzgerald Toussaint was in the running to earn the third running backs slot in 2017 behind Bell and James Conners, but ultimately gave way to Terrell Watson. Watson however didn’t pan out as expected, and the Steelers promoted Toussaint to the active roster in late November where he saw action as a kickoff returner.

The Case for the Steelers Tendering Fitzgerald Toussaint

In three seasons, Fitzgerald Toussaint has proven to be a serviceable body to man the 3rd running back slot. And fate has forced the Steelers to turn to that slot more than once late in the season.

Many Steelers fans will never forgive, or forget, Toussaint’s fumble against the Broncos, but the fact is that the young made did quite well for what was essentially a 5th string running back starting in the playoffs. In fact, Toussaint had over 100 yards from scrimmage in the Steelers playoff win over the Bengals.

That’s the kind of depth you want to have at running back.

The Case Against the Steelers Tendering Fitzgerald Toussaint

As Fitzgerald Toussaint is a restricted free agent, the Steelers must make him a qualifying tender to retain some sort of first-refusal right and/or get compensation should someone sign him. While restricted free agent tenders are not guaranteed, even a low tender will portrayal come in at around 1.8 million dollars.

Fitzgerald Toussaint is a good number 3 running back, but committing 1.8 million dollars in salary cap dollars to a third running back is not a wise more even in the abstract, and certainly not given the Steelers tight salary cap situation.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Fitzgerald Toussaint

When James Conners got hurt and the Steelers needed to rest Le’Veon Bell, they went to the street and signed Stevan Ridley. And it was Ridley’s number that got called thereafter, and in the regular season finale against the Browns.

  • A year ago, when Fitzgerald Toussaint was an exclusive rights free agent, this site took a lot of heat for citing him as a Kevin Colbert success story.

The point then wasn’t to say that Toussaint was a Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, or even Merril Hoge in the making. Far from it. He was a decent waiver wire pickup, and a serviceable 3rd running back. That was true then and it remains true today.

The Steelers can let Fitzgerald Toussaint become an unrestricted free agent and stand a good shot at bringing him back at or near the veteran minimum. He’s certainly a player worth bringing to training camp but treating him as anything else entering free agency would be folly.

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

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Alert – Road Grading Ahead in Pittsburgh: Steelers Sign Roosevelt Nix to 4 Year Contract

Free agency is still a month away, but things are already heating up on the South Side as the Steelers signed restricted free agent fullback Roosevelt Nix to a 4 year contract, binding him to the team through 2021.

  • What is it about undrafted rookie free agents from Kent State University and the Pittsburgh Steelers?

James Harrison was of course a Kent State product, as was Roosevelt Nix, who while playing defensive line in college, joined the Steelers in January of 2015 signing on to play fullback. Rosie Nix did well enough to make the 2018 Pro Bowl.

Roosevelt Nix, Le'Veon Bell, Roosevelt Nix contract

Steelers fullback Roosevelt Nix clearing the way for Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via The Athletic

When training camp ended in 2015, segments of the fan base howled over the decision to carry two fullbacks (the other was Will Johnson), yet Nix proved his worth on special teams, including forcing a fumble at a critical moment in the Steelers win over the Oakland Raiders.

With Roosevelt Nix guiding the way, Le’Veon Bell broke the Pittsburgh Steelers regular season AND post season rushing records, helping Bell do something that neither Jerome Bettis nor Franco Harris was ever able to accomplish. Nix has also helped pave the way for the success of backup running backs DeAngelo Williams and James Conner, while providing an extra pair of blocking hands to protect Ben Roethlisberger when need be.

While Roosevelt Nix is a Steelers fullback more in the mold of Dan Kreider than Merril Hoge, Nix has caught 6 of the 8 balls thrown his way, including catching his first NFL touchdown in 2017 during the Steelers Christmas win over the Houston Texans.

  • They say the fullback is a dying position in the NFL, but players like Roosevelt Nix are helping keep it alive.

Roosevelt Nix follows Jordan Berry as the second Steelers restricted free agent to sign a new contract before testing the market. Last week the Steelers signed Jordan Berry to a 1 year deal.

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

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

In the End, Pennsylvania Delivers. Eagles Super Bowl Win Preserves Steelers “Sixburgh” Status

The message of Super Bowl LII, for Pittsburgh at least? In the end, count on Pennsylvania to deliver. The Philadelphia Eagles brought the first ever Lombardi Trophy back to the City of Brotherly love with a thrilling 41-33 victory over the New England Patriots that went all the way to the wire.

  • Nick Foles, Jeffery Lurie and all of the Philadelphia fans fully deserve all of the celebration and accolades that come with this win.

The Eagles earned it, they overcame adversity and they never lost faith in themselves even when they were playing their backup quarterback. They humbled the mighty Tom Brady and while they didn’t stop, they contained Gronk. Good for them.

They also did the franchise that sits down on the opposite end of the Pennsylvania Turnpike a bit of a favor by preventing New England from netting its 6 Lombardi and preserving the Steelers status as the only football team to win six Super Bowls.

  • So, for another year at least, Pittsburgh is “Sixburgh” and the Steelers Nation can proudly tease the rest of the NFL, “Got Six?”

That doesn’t make up for the disappointment that was the 2017 season. But its nice to see some of the Steelers records intact, even another franchise has to do the dirty work.

Tom Brady, Brandon Graham, Super Bowl LII

Tom Brady following Brandon Graham’s strip sack in Super Bowl LII. Photo Credit: Matt Stone, Boston Herald

In 2014, the Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell going into the playoffs and the team was not ready. As a result, New England tied Chuck Noll’s record. In 2015, the Steelers reached the divisional round without DeAngelo Williams, Antonio Brown and with a less than 100% Ben Roethlisberger. The Broncos stopped the Patriots anyway, but one has to wonder if Pittsburgh would have been up to the task.

Last year the 2016 Steelers Super Bowl run petered out in the AFC Championship, as Steelers again lost Bell early on, while Martavis Bryant was out suspended and JuJu Smith-Schuster was yet to be drafted.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers were of course the first team to win 3, 4 and 6 Super Bowls.

The franchise was good at setting those records, but not so good at defending them. Even with Hall of Famers  like Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson, the likes of Bubby Brister, Louis Lipps and Merril Hoge weren’t going to stop the 49ers from getting to 4 in the 80’s.

And of course the 1994 Steelers blew their chance to face off against the 49ers in the Super Bowl, and a year later in Super Bowl XXX Neil O’Donnell to Larry Brown paved the way for Dallas, not Pittsburgh to reach 5 Super Bowls first.

So be it. You always prefer to count on yourselves and never on another team to defend franchise honor. The Seahawks came up short, and the Falcons folded in the 4th last year. But our fellow Pennsylvanians the Philadelphia Eagles delivered. Thank You Philly.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Does Ben Roethlisberger Target Antonio Brown Too Often? The Numbers Paint an Interesting Picture

Does Ben Roethlisberger target Antonio Brown too often?

Early in the Steelers 2017 season, the answer appeared to be an unequivocal “Yes.” Ben to Brown seemed to be the only thing working, and that seemed to be holding the offense back. In the Steelers win over the Vikings, Tony Defeo noted that Roethlisberger appeared to be ignoring receivers in an attempt to force the ball to Brown.

Martavis Bryant’s outbursts, even if uncalled for, also appeared to at least indirectly lend credence to the “Ben’s too intent on forcing it to Brown story line” even if rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster was the target of his Instagram tirade.

While the Steelers offense has improve during the second quarter of the season, Ben to Brown remains its most potent combination, but do the numbers suggest that Ben is trying too hard to get the ball to Brown? Let’s take a look.

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats, Antonio Brown targets

Does Ben Roethlisberger try too hard to force the ball to Antonio Brown? Find out below. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

Ben Roethlisberger’s Pass Distribution History

Eight games gives you a good base of data to see what types of trends are developing during a football season. Sometimes a trend can rapidly reverse itself (think the Steelers anemic sack production during the first half of 2016 vs. the second half of 2016), but 8 games give you an idea of where things are heading.

Here’s how Ben Roethlisberger’s pass distribution has gone during the first 8 games of 2017:

Ben Roethlisberger targets 2017, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats 2017, Antonio Brown targets 2017, Le'Veon Bell targets 2017, JuJu Smith-Schuster targets 2017, Jesse James targets 2017, Martavis Bryant targets 2017

Ben Roethlisberger’s top 5 targets 8 games into 2017

Well, now the data really seems to make the case doesn’t it? Not only is Anotnio Brown Ben Roethlisberger’s top pass target, but he’s more than doubling the targets of the next guy below him, Le’Veon Bell. What’s more at 26% the combined total targets of his next two wide receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant, still fall 8 percentage points of Antonio Brown’s 34.1%.

  • That data also suggest that there’s a justification of Ben’s forcing the ball to Brown (if in fact he’s forcing it)

Antonio Brown’s catches account for just shy of 40% of the Steelers receiving yards. The only player who remotely seems to have an argument that he should be the ball more is JuJu Smith-Schuster.

But before closing this case, perhaps its wise to take a look at how pass distribution broke down in 2016. Given the rash of injuries the Steelers experienced at wide receiver, and given the relative inexperience of the rest of the depth chart, its quite probable that Ben Roethlisberger targeted Antonio Brown even more, right?

Let’s see what the data tells us:

Ben Roethlisberger targets 2016, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats 2016, Antonio Brown targets 2016, Le'Veon Bell Targets 2016, Jesse James Targets 2016, Eli Rogers Targets 2016, Sammie Coates Targets 2016

Ben Roethlisberger’s top 5 targets in 2016

The data in fact tells us something else. Ben Roethlisberger targeted Antonio Brown far less in 2016 and Brown accounted for a much smaller slice of the Steelers receiving yards. This suggest that Brown was double and triple teamed a lot.

  • But Brown’s catch percentage also suggests that Roethlisberger’s passes to him were more accurate.

The Steelers 2016 season was abnormal in terms of injuries to the wide receiver corps. Let’s see what data from 2015 tells us which was more of a typical year.

Ben Roethlisberger targets 2015, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats 2016, Antonio Brown targets 2015, Markus Wheaton Targets 2015, Martavis Bryant Targets 2015, DeAngelo Williams Targets 2015, Heath Miller targets 2015

Ben Roethlisberger’s top 5 targets in 2015

In 2015 we can see that Ben Roethlisberger targeted Antonio Brown 32.7% of the time, or just over 1% less than he’s targeting Antonio Brown in 2017 thus far. We can also see that Brown is still making the most of is catches, as he accounted for 38% of the Steelers receiving yards, or about 1.5% less than he’s accounted for in 2017 thus far.

That data from 2015 also helps us appreciate that an aging Heath Miller was still more productive than Jesse James in either his 2nd or 3rd year, although James is proving to be a fairly reliable target.

We can also see how much more dynamic Le’Veon Bell is as a pass catcher than DeAngelo Williams, although Williams did well when thrown the ball.

To complete the picture, let’s go back to 2014 to view Ben Roethlisberger’s ball distribution in the 1st year that the Steelers 4 Killer Bees played together:

Ben Roethlisberger targets 2014, Ben Roethlisberger pass distribution stats 2014, Antonio Brown Targets 2014, Markus Wheaton targets 2014, Martavis Bryant Targets 2014, Le'Veon Bell Targets 2014, Heath Miller targets 2014

Ben Roethlisbergers top 5 targets in 2014

2014 marks the first year (in this survey) that Brown’s target percentage from dipped below 30% (we should note that Landry Jones and Mike Vick threw a portion of those passes in ’15 and ’16.) It looks like it was Le’Veon Bell and Heath Miller who took those targets away from Bryant, although Markus Wheaton’s 14.1% is a healthier targeting percentage than any of the Steelers other receivers.

Conclusion: Ben Roethlisberger Isn’t Targeting Antonio Brown Too Often

There are a lot of different takeaways from this data. Le’Veon Bell seems to be almost as reliable of a pass catcher as he was two years ago, although his yards after catch appear to be down. That could be due to the absence of Heath Miller’s and Matt Spaeth’s blocking, however.

Martavis Bryant, for all of his big play capability, he’s never been much more than a 50/50 catch to catch what’s thrown his way. Sammie Coates was clearly a dud down the stretch in 2016.

  • But the data also shows that Ben Roethlisberger isn’t trying too hard to force the ball to Antonio Brown.

Indeed, if we really are seeing Father Time begin to exact his toll on Ben Roethlisberger’s abilities, then we can know for certain than Ben Roethlisberger is very lucky to have Antonio Brown on his team.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

4 Keys to the Steelers Success in the 2nd Half of the 2017 Season

The bye week was good to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Without improving on their 6-2 record, the Steelers gained a game on both the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North race, and saw Kansas City drop a game to the Dallas Cowboys, transforming what was once a 3 way tie for AFC dominance into a two way tie.

  • While a 6-2 record translates to a 12-4 overall record, past performance is not an indicator of future results.

And that might be a positive thing, because 12-4 almost certainly won’t be enough to secure home field advantage in the playoffs, or even enough to get one of those coveted first round byes.

So with that, here are 4 things the Steelers must do during the second half of the season.

Bud Dupree, Alex Smith, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers 2017 season

Bud Dupree sacks Alex Smith in the Steelers win over Kansas City. Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA Today via Yahoo! Sports

1. Put It Together on Defense

8 games into 2017, Keith Butler’s defense brought a mixed bag on game day. Consider:

  • The Steelers rushing defense got gouged left and right against Chicago and Jacksonville yet has been in shutdown mode most of the rest of the time
  • The Steelers took a strong pass defense to Detroit, and then gave up 420 yards
  • That same defense took a weak Red Zone record into Detroit and came out with one of the strongest Red Zone performances in memory

Let’s agree that the arrow is pointing up on the Steelers defense. Contributions from newcomers like T.J. Watt and Joe Haden are proving to be difference makers as is depth provided by players like Tyson Alualu and Anthony Chickillo.

But the Steelers defense needs to put it together for an entire game. Going into full shut down mode for one half might have worked against Cincinnati and Kansas City. It won’t work against Tom Brady in December…. Or, God willing January.

2. Get it Done in the Red Zone

Let’s get this straight: The Pittsburgh Steelers offense, complete with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant and new comer JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves the bye week just a hair above the absolutely bottom in Red Zone effectiveness.

  • Chris Boswell is the team’s number 1 weapon inside the 20.

Sometimes it’s been because of an over reliance on the passing. Other times its been an over reliance on the run. Other times it’s been the failure to use Roosevelt Nix and the “Big Boy” Package. Other times execution has flat out failed.

Regardless of the reason, the Steelers Red Zone Offense must Improve. Period

3. Stop Ringing The Bell So Much

In hindsight, Chuck Noll made it look so easy. It didn’t matter whether he had legends like Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, journeymen like Frank Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie or under appreciated players like Merril Hoge and Warren Williams, Noll never had a problem splitting carries between his backs.

  • Ok. NFL offenses have changed.

In fact they’ve changed so much that, in the post-Chuck Noll era, about the only time you see the Steelers splitting carries between running backs is when injury has forced their hand (think Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis in 2004).

And Steel Curtain Rising has acknowledged an unfortunately reality a multiple times:

Its also true that limiting carries of the primary ball carrier wasn’t a practical option in 2014 thanks to LeGarrette Blount’s antics, Bell’s injury in 2015, and DeAngelo William’s injuries in 2016.

But James Conner and Terrell Watson are both healthy and Le’Veon Bell is on pace for 458 touches in the regular season alone. Todd Haley must find a way to work Conner and Watson into the running game.

4. Expect and Embrace the Unexpected

OK, expecting and embracing the unexpected is stealing a from this site’s lessons from 2016 column. But the lesson remains valid.

  • Yes, the Steelers are 6-2 at the bye, and yes that’s a very good place to be.
  • And yes, Mike Tomlin teams have historically gotten stronger in the 2nd halves of seasons.

But streaks don’t necessarily carry over from the first half of a football season to the second. Did anyone have the 2007 or 2011 New York Giants pegged as Super Bowl champions halfway through the year?

  • Steelers history provides its own examples.

In 2009, the Steelers beat the Denver Broncos in their 8th game and finally looked like defending Super Bowl Champions. They then promptly went out and lost 5 straight games. Everyone remembers the 2012 Steelers for their late-season implosion, but people forget that team stacked four strong wins in the middle of the season and was looking very strong 8 or 9 games in.

  • The key here is to both expect the unexpected and to embrace it.

The Steelers lost Cameron Heyward 9 games into 2016. This site’s reaction was to say, “Cam Heyward lost for the season = “Game Over” invoking Bill Paxton’s quote from Aliens. Yet, the Steelers defense staged a remarkable turn around thanks to James Harrison re-joining the starting lineup and Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave playing like veterans instead of rookies.

The second half of 2017 will bring unanticipated challenges and inopportune injuries.

  • Mike Tomlin’s Steelers won’t  have a choice about the challenges they’ll face in the future, but they do have it in their power to choose how they react to those challenges.

That choice, perhaps more than anything else, will define the final 8 games of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 regular season.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Why Pitt Standout James Conner’s Impact with Steelers Could Come Sooner than You Think….

“I’ve seen him play. You’ve seen him play. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be good.”

That quote was from me to my brother last week, shortly after the Steelers selected Pitt running back James Conner with their compensatory third-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

James Conner, Steelers 2017 3rd round draft pick

James Conner rushing for Pitt @ Heinz Field. Photo credit: PennLive.com

Obviously, being from Pittsburgh and a huge fan of the University of Pittsburgh, my opinion about James Conner may be partially due to homerism. After all, leading up to the draft, how many football fans expressed a desire for their favorite pro team to draft a player from their favorite college team?

This happens all the time.

But I wasn’t the only one who reacted joyfully to the news that Conner’s college home stadium–Heinz Field–would turn into his professional home stadium.

  • First, who doesn’t love everything about James Conner?

After rushing for 1,759 yards in his sophomore year of 2014, Conner was named the ACC Player of the Year.

  • But just when it appeared that Conner was headed for greatness, he received a double punch to the gut.

The first punch was a torn MCL, which he sustained in the 2015 season opener. The second, more devastating strike occurred many months later, when Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer  that was discovered by doctors while he was undergoing rehab for his injured knee.

You know the story by now: Conner absorbed both punches and kept on fighting. By May of 2016, he was declared cancer-free; and in his final season at Pitt, he rushed for 1,092 yards on 216 attempts.

  • Obviously, less than a year after the physical toll that chemo and the MCL tear took on his body, the burst and explosiveness weren’t quite the same.

It’s impossible to know where James Conner would have been drafted without those setbacks, but he was selected high enough that he’ll be given much more than a puncher’s chance to have a decent career with the Steelers.

  • And why does it have to be just decent?

I realize Le’Veon Bell, and his current status as the NFL’s best running back is one reason James Conner may never get to truly make his mark at the professional level. Another reason is obviously the knee injury.

But when James Conner lines up in the offensive backfield this season, he won’t be the only Steelers running back who suffered a torn MCL at Heinz Field in 2015. Le’Veon Bell sustained that very same injury in Week 8 against the Bengals and was done for the year.

  • Which brings me back to the chance James Conner might get to make a difference for the Steelers sooner than people think.

For anyone to examine the Steelers top four picks, which also include linebacker T.J. Watt, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and cornerback Cameron Sutton and wonder if they will be able to help them in their rookie seasons may have forgotten about the depth issues the team has faced in recent years.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Bengals

Le’Veon Bell before he was injured against the Bengals. Photo Credit: USATSI via CBS.com

And that’s especially been the case at the running back spot, where Le’Veon Bell, despite his all-world talents and tremendous production, has missed a total of 17 games due to either injuries or suspensions over his first four seasons.

As for the postseason, the 2016 edition was the first Le’Veon Bell was actually healthy at the start of. And while he did set franchise records by rushing for a combined 337 yards in back-to-back victories over the Dolphins and Chiefs, he was limited in the AFC title game versus the Patriots after aggravating a groin injury he reportedly had been nursing for a couple of weeks.

Unlike the torn MCL Le’Veon Bell suffered in 2015 or the hyper-extended knee he sustained at the end of the 2014 season (both occurring after questionable tackles in games against the Bengals), it could be argued that an injured groin for a running back is a symptom of overuse.

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But the one thing that is certain is that Pittsburgh has been limited at the running back spot in each of the past three postseasons.

  • You know what they say about not learning from history.

Therefore, while it would be foolish to think James Conner is going to get any greater workload than what LeGarrette Blount and DeAngelo Williams both received while playing behind a healthy Le’Veon Bell in the past, it would also be foolish to assume he won’t be called upon to help the Steelers in 2017.

If the Steelers truly believe Bell’s injury, which required surgical repair in March, was caused by overuse, they might already be thinking about lightening the star running back’s load–even if it’s just a few less carries a game.

If the Steelers are forced to turn to James Conner for one reason or another, what kind of running back will they be getting? That’s hard to predict. Obviously, like every other draft prospect, Conner has his weaknesses, which, according to his NFL.com draft profile, include average lateral movement and a lack of elite speed. But then again, those were some of the same criticisms Bell had to overcome coming out of college–and that was before he suffered a torn MCL. 

James Conner, Steelers, Le'Veon Bell backup, Steelers backup running back

Soon former Pitt running back James Conners will be delivering stiff arms while wearning the Black and Gold. Photo Credit: Julia Rendleman, Post-Gazette

Despite his maturity issues that have led to two drug-related suspensions, Le’Veon Bell is a hard worker and has certainly gotten the most out of his abilities. If there was a do-over of the 2013 NFL Draft, instead of lasting until the second round, No. 26 would be a top-10 selection.

Will James Conner have a chance to get the most out of his abilities in Pittsburgh? There’s no doubt he’s a hard worker, willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. As per Kevin Colbert in his post-draft media appearances, Conner has a great opportunity to make a name for himself on special teams.

As for moving up the running back depth chart, James Conner obviously has to develop an all-around game that includes being a reviving target for Ben Roethlisberger out of the backfield and picking up the blitz (two things Bell also excels at, which is why he never comes off the field).

The sooner James Conner improves in areas besides just running the ball, the quicker he’ll distance himself from the likes of Knile Davis and Fitzgerald Toussaint, which shouldn’t pose too great a challenge.

  • What about the very top of the running back depth chart?

As it stands right now, why would anyone want to mess with what Le’Veon Bell is doing? The answer is, nobody would.

But in addition to his injury history and suspension issues, there could be contractual issues with Le’Veon Bell. Unless the two sides come to an agreement, Le’Veon Bell will play the 2017 season under the franchise tag. Sure, he will get paid rather handsomely, but he’s eventually going to want a multi-year deal that will annually pay him at least the $12 million he’ll earn next season.

  • What happens if the two sides never agree on Le’Veon Bell’s worth?

In a perfect world, Le’Veon Bell will ink a new deal and go on to have a Hall of Fame career, while James Conner develops as a player and bides his time in Pittsburgh for four years, before signing with another team looking for a featured running back.

But this is not a perfect world, and that’s why James Conner’s impact with the Steelers could come a lot sooner than people think.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Hometown Hero Homecoming: Steelers Draft James Conner in 3rd Round, RB Pitt

The close of day two of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Steelers draft James Conner running back from Pitt with their third round compensatory selection.

  • Fans will remember that the Steelers made a similar move with their 3rd round compensatory selection in the 2014 NFL Draft when they took Dri Archer.

Dir Archer turned out to be a veritable head case, but the Steelers can rest assured that James Conner won’t follow in his footsteps. It remains to be seen if Conner can deliver in the NFL, but the man’s character and work ethic are above reproach, as he bounced back from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015 to lead the Pitt Panthers rushing for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016.

Steelers draft James Conner, James Conner, 2017 NFL Draft

Steelers 3rd round draft pick James Conner rushed for 3,733 yards and 52 TD’s at Pitt. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today

Steelers running backs coach James Saxon insisted that Conner wasn’t a sentimental or character pick and James Connor’s highlight reel from Pitt backs him up:

Hearing his name called by the Pittsburgh Steelers is a dream come true for Connor, who in addition to being a standout for Pitt, is an Erie native who played at McDowell High School.

James Connor will provide an immediate boost to a running back depth chart that has struggled to keep two starting caliber running backs healthy since the 2011 season. Le’Veon Bell will remain the uncontested starter, but after Bell the Steelers only have Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis behind him, a duo whose collective yards-per-carry average is 3.15.

James Conner described getting drafted by his hometown team as:

It’s a dream come true. I’m forever grateful to them for giving me the opportunity after everything I’ve been through. I know a lot of teams were scared, but they gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, and they are going to get a great person and a great football player, and I’ll give it my all for them.

The Steelers were expected to go for a running back early in the 2017 NFL Draft and Conner’s third round selection all but confirms what has been obvious for a while, DeAngelo Williams is not in Pittsburgh’s plans for 2017.

  • By drafting James Conner on the third round the Steelers revived what had once been a robust franchise tradition: Giving Pitt Panthers the possibility to play in the NFL.

The Steelers have drafted over 46 players from the University of Pittsburgh, but have not taken a Panther in the NFL Draft since choosing Hank Poteat in the 2000 NFL Draft.

That’s a far cry from the 1980’s, when the Steelers took 6 Pitt Players in the draft, including 3 in the 1989 NFL Draft in the form of Tom Ricketts, Jerry Olsavsky and Carlton Haselrig who was a Pitt-Johnstown graduate.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Running Back: Moderate High

While it may be difficult to believe here in 2017, NFL teams once looked to the running back position to provide a foundation for their championship dreams.

  • Does that sound funny to you?

Then let’s try a test. You’ve undoubtedly heard the names Jim Brown, Gayle Sayers, and O.J. Simpson. Now, can you tell me who the quarterbacks where that handed off to them? OK, you get my point.

As the game of football has evolved through the 21st century the role of the running back and indeed the larger running game has declined, so much that the concept of a “franchise running back” seems quaint.

As Steel Curtain Rising has observed on more than one occasion, Le’Veon Bell has the potential to revive the concept – if he can show he’s blessed with the longevity of the great backs from yesteryear. How the Steelers view Le’Veon Bell’s long term potential will go a long way to determining the priority status of running back heading into the 2017 NFL Draft.

steelers 2017 draft needs running back, le'veon bell, le'veon bell steelers record bills, jesse james

Le’Veon Bell breaks the Steeelers single game rushing record vs the Bills. (Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via FiveThirtyEight

Steelers Depth Chart @ Running Back Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

It is almost comical to see the way the debates about the Steelers wisdom in picking Le’Veon Bell in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft has evolved. Pittsburgh of course passed on EddieLacy and by the end of the 2013 season, the talking head were quick to pronounce the move a mistake.

Pittsburgh scribe John Steigerwald spent much of the 2013 season critiquing Le’Veon Bell, while Jim Wexell wisely kept a running comparison between Bell’s rookie performance and that of Walter Payton.

  • We now know Jim Wexell was on to something: Le’Veon Bell does have Walter Payton like talent.

That much was apparent in the 2014 season, when Le’Veon Bell was virtually unstoppable – when teams crowded the box to takeaway the run, Ben Roethlisberger hooked up with Bell to burn them in the passing game. All told, Bell accounted for 34% of the Steelers offense in his sophomore season.

Injuries and suspensions limited Le’Veon Bell to 6 games in 2015, leading to questions about his durability, but in 2016 Le’Veon Bell proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was a special talent. In 2016 Le’Veon Bell compiled for over 1900 yards from scrimmage and broke both the Steelers regular season single game rushing record and the Steelers playoff single game rushing record – twice.

In other words, Le’Veon Bell did something that neither John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis – the Steelers 3 Hall of Fame running backs, could ever do.

Sharing the title of “starter” in the Steelers offensive backfield is Roosevelt Nix, who serves as the team’s fullback. Roosevelt Nix played well as a lead blocker when called upon, but he participated in just over 9% of the Steelers snaps.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Running Back Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind the Le’Veon Bell the Steelers cupboard at running back is pretty thin. That might seem like a hypocritical assessment for a site that has sung the praises of Fitzgerald Toussaint, but my assessment is that Fitzgerald Toussaint is a quality number 3 NFL running back who has yet to prove, or even show, that he can be a number 2 NFL running back.

The Steelers of course have signed free agent running back Knile Davis to provide depth, but Knile Davis’ history rushing the ball doesn’t suggest he can be much of an upgrade over Fitzgerald Toussaint and indeed the word is that the Steelers are looking at Knile Davis as more of a kick returner than anything else.

For the record, the Steelers also have running backs Brandon Brown-Dukes – a 2016 practice squader, Dreamius Smith, Gus Johnson and Trey Williams under contract.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Running Back

One doesn’t need to be a homer to look at the Steelers running back depth chart and wonder why DeAngelo Williams remains unsigned. While injured for much of the second half of the Steelers 2016 season, DeAngelo Williams ran well when given the opportunity.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs running back

But whether you’re talking about Willie Parker, Isaac Redman, Barry Foster or even Franco Harris the Steelers tend have a very good knack for knowing when the tread has worn on a running back’s tires.

  • That means the Steelers must look to the 2017 NFL Draft to find Le’Veon Bell’s understudy.

There’s also the ugly reality that NFL running backs have short shelf life. Le’Veon Bell showed no signs of a drop off in his play despite suffering a serious injury in 2015 against the Bengals, but neither was Willie Parker when the Steelers drafted Rashard Mendenhall in the now infamous 2008 NFL Draft.

Given those realities, the Steelers 2017 draft need at running back must be considered Moderate-High.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Steelers Nation Doesn’t Get What it Wants: Law Dog Topped Steelers Free Agent Fan Poll

Would it surprise anyone if the most requested song at WDVE this spring was “You can’t always get what you want” by the Rolling Stones?” It wouldn’t surprise anyone who has seen or participated in Steel Curtain Rising’s 2017 free agency poll.steelers 2017 free agency poll

The Steelers of course have moved on from free agency, per Kevin Colbert’s comments of a few weeks ago, but work responsibilities have kept yours truly from doing much in the way of blogging about it. Hence, our free agency poll remained open.But it is past time to bring the poll to a close and discuss its results.

To some extent, the headline is a bit misleading. The notion of keeping Le’Veon Bell and James Harrison netted the most votes but it is also true that there was no chance either man would play 2017 in another team’s colors.

And heading into February, the conventional wisdom was that there was little chance that Lawrence Timmons would depart either fans wanted to keep him here, and of course Lawrence Timmons departed to the Dolphins. An even greater number of fans voiced support for Ross Cockrell and still remains unsigned, as is DeAngelo Williams who is also unsigned.

In contrast, approximately half as many fans wanted to see Landry Jones and David Johnson resigned, both of whom got new contracts.

As always, Steel Curtain Rising thanks all who voted.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!