Is the Steeler 2019 Draft Need @ Running Back Stronger than Conventional Wisdom Indicates?

Ask a fan, a journalist or even a team employee what the Steelers top needs are entering the 2019 NFL Draft and they’ll tell you inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver – probably in that order.

  • Few would, or should argue.

But after those positions, there’s little agreement over what comes next. Some would argue for edge rusher, others tight end while still others will insist that the Steelers add another safety. Those arguments all have their merits.

Few, however, think of, let alone mention running back – is this a mistake? Let’s find out.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

Home town hero and cancer survivor James Conner became an immediate fan favorite when the Steelers picked the former Pitt Panther in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. James Conner saw little action in his rookie season which unfortunately ended in the December showdown against the New England Patriots.

  • James Conner’s body of work was so scant that the Steelers did not seriously consider him as an alternative to Le’Veon Bell.

Nonetheless, with Le’Veon Bell made good on threats to hold out/backed away of his stated intention to report and play in the franchise tag (Bell made both), James Conner became the Steelers starting running back.

James Conner proved to be up to the task as a quick look at his performance reveals.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

James Conner not only proved to be a capable replacement to Le’Veon Bell, by some measures, he was an improvement to Le’ Veon Bell. (One of those, unfortunately, was not ball security.) James Conner of course got hurt in the Steelers loss to the Chargers, but his return in week 17 should do nothing to dissuade fans that Conner is a championship caliber NFL running back.

  • The other Steelers starter at running back would be Roosevelt Nix, their fullback.

While Roosevelt Nix continued to play well when called upon by the Steelers, but in Randy Fichtner’s offense, Roosevelt Nix’s role decrease, as his 2018 snap count dropped to 9.86%, down from 16.37% in 2017.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

Behind James Conner the Steelers have Jaylen Samuels who was thrust into the starting role after Conner’s injury despite never having worked as a starting running back in his NFL life.

Given his lack of experience, the rookie Jaylen Samuels did incredibly well, rushing for 256 yards on 56 carries and catching another 26 passes for 29 yards which included 3 through the air.

Behind Samuels, the Steelers also have Trey Edmunds, brother of Terrell Edmunds, who got activated from the practice squad when Conner got injured, and remains an unknown commodity.

For those of you taking notes at home, the Steelers also have running backs Malik Williams and Ralph Webb on their roster.

Steelers Need @ Running Back Going into the 2019 NFL Draft

Although he only has a year of starting experience under his belt, James Conner already shares something in common with Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell, Isaac Redman and DeAngelo Williams.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • What might that be?

James Conner, like his Tomlin-era predecessors, suffered a late season injury that complicated “December football” for the Steelers because there was little proven depth behind him.

To be fair to the coaching staff, as soon as it became clear that Le’Veon Bell’s holdout would become permanent, the Steelers dramatically cut down on his workload as the table above indicates.

Perhaps that’s a sign that Mike Tomlin is learning that he shouldn’t take his credo of rushing a running back until his wheels start to fall off too literally.

  • However, the Steelers made no apparent attempt to target a running back during free agency.

And that leaves a bare cupboard behind James Conner and Jaylen Samuels. Steel Curtain Rising is already on record saying that beefing up running back depth is one of the under appreciated Steelers 2019 off season priorities. And with that in mind, the Steelers need at running back going into the 2019 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate High.

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Hits Keep Coming. Mike Munchak Bolts to Broncos. Steelers Promote Shaun Sarrett to Offensive Line Coach

The NFL’s 2019 off season hasn’t even officially started, yet the hits keep coming for the Pittsburgh Steelers. When the Denver Broncos passed on signing Mike Munchak as their head coach, Steelers Nation breathed a sigh of relief.

  • Yesterday, that sign became a gasp of desperation as the Broncos named Mike Munchak as their offensive line coach.

The Steelers moved swiftly to fill the position, naming offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett who had formerly served as Munchak’ s assistant. Shaun Sarrett has worked with the Steelers since 2012 as an offensive assistant.

Mike Munchack, Shaun Sarrett, Steelers offensive line coaches

Shaun Sarrett & Mike Munchack at the 2018 Pro Bowl. Photo Credit: 247 Pittsburgh

The Munchak Legacy in Pittsburgh

Mike Munchak was easily the highest regarded assistant coach on Mike Tomlin’s staff. And his record shows why.

When Mike Munchak arrived in January 2014, the Steelers offensive line seemed to be in a natural state of chaos. Whether it was because of injuries or ineffectiveness, offensive lineman shuffled in and out of the Steelers lineup from game to game, sometimes even during games themselves.

  • Mike Munchak changed that.

While the Steelers had been moving away from the “Plug and Patch” offensive line philosophy that characterized the early Tomlin era, it was Mike Munchak who ensured that those draft picks paid dividends.

A look at the development of Marcus Gilbert is telling, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizik observed shortly before Munchak’ s arrival, “…Gilbert maintained his starting role at right tackle all season but allowed 11 of the 43 sacks of Roethlisberger and 30 quarterback hurries.”

  • While is career has been hobbled by injuries, under Munchak, Marcus Gilbert grew into one of the NFL’s better right tackles.

While Maurkice Pouncey was already flourishing before Munchak arrived and David DeCastro probably would have flourished as well, Mike Munchak’ s real genius showed in his work with players like Kelvin Beachum, Chris Hubbard, B.J. Finney, Matt Feiler and especially Alejandro Villanueva, who didn’t even play offensive line in college.

Of the men mentioned above, only Beachum got a call on draft day, and then as a 7th round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but all of them have stepped in as starters on the Steelers offensive line and effectively provided protection for Ben Roethlisberger or opened holds for the likes of Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams or James Conner.

The details behind Mike Munchak’s decision to bolt to the Broncos remain unknown. One of Munchak’ s daughters and grand children live in Denver, and that is why Munchak is so strongly attracted to the Broncos head coaching job. Others have suggested he wishes to escape the Antonio Brown circus.

Regardless, Mike Munchak did a tremendous job in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers will miss him.

Don’t Sell Shaun Sarrett Short

While losing Mike Munchak is clearly a blow for the Pittsburgh Steelers coaching staff, it would be a mistake for Steelers fans to sell Shaun Sarrett short. Mike Tomlin’s decision to fire Jack Bicknell immediately after the 2013 season surprised many. The Steelers 2013 offensive line had started very poorly, but improved by season’s end.

As Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette observed at the time:

Curiously, the offensive line improved as the season wore on.
After allowing 36 sacks in the first nine games, the Steelers allowed just seven in the final seven games. And the running game that averaged just 3.4 yards in the first 11 games averaged 4.1 yards in the final five games.

Why would Mike Tomlin fire his offensive line coach after seeing such improvement? Because as the 2013 season wore on, the offensive assistant Shaun Sarrett, and not Bicknell, began giving the lineman their individual instruction.

  • If Mike Munchak proved anything during his time in Pittsburgh, it was that he was an excellent teacher.

Shaun Sarrett has been at Mike Munchak’s side as he has mentored and molding one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and it is fair to conclude that Munchak taught Sarrett a thing or two about coaching.

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Scapegoating Saxon? (Maybe, Maybe Not) Steelers Fire James Saxon, Running Backs Coach

Mike Tomlin promised changes at his year-end press conference and he is making good on his word as heads continue to roll on the South Side. The Steelers announced today that they have fired running backs coach James Saxon, marking the 2nd coaching change of this off season following Joey Porter’s dismissal last Friday.

While Joey Porter’s dismissal was not a great surprise, given his off the field issues and the lack of development of Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones before him, James Saxon’s departure is not a move many predicted.

James Saxon

Mike Tomlin has fired James Saxon. Photo Credit: 12up.com

The Steelers hired James Saxon in the spring of 2012 after Kriby Wilson left to take a job with the Minnesota Vikings (accompanied by rumors that he could not get along with Todd Haley.)

During his first season, Saxon has worked managed the three back rotation that was Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, and Jonathan Dwyer which truth be told, was starting to function well at mid-season but got untracked after Willie Colon’s season-ending injury.

In 2013, Saxon oversaw the development of Le’Veon Bell, as Bell ascended from a 2nd round pick that many questioned (although Merril Hoge didn’t) into the NFL’s best running back. Saxon also managed to coax respectable performances (the fumble against Denver notwithstanding) out of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman during the 2015 playoffs when DeAngelo Williams was hurt.

Most recently, James Saxon has helped James Conner and Jaylen Samuels make the transition from college to successful NFL running back.

Is Saxon Breathing Truth into Dick Hoak’s Parting Words?

In January 2007, Dick Hoak retired as Steelers running backs coach after serving in that capacity since 1972. When asked to reflect on his time, Dick Hoak c explained, “They say you’re hired to be fired in this business, so I guess I beat the system.”

  • One has to wonder if James Saxon making Dick Hoak’s words come true.

Mike Tomlin left little doubt that he was going to make changes to his coaching staff in the wake of the Steelers collapse from a 7-2-1 team to one that failed to make the playoffs. But to the naked eye the question must be asked, “Why fire James Saxon?

While it is true that three of the season’s pivotal plays involved fumbles by running backs, fumbles are hardly something you can blame an assistant coach for. Moreover, Jaylen Samuels came into the NFL with very little experience rushing the ball, yet he had the look of a quality number 2 NFL running back against both the Saints and the Patriots.

  • The easy conclusion is that James Saxon is a scapegoat or a fully guy.

But the easy answer isn’t always the correct one, especially when it comes to NFL assistant coaches. After ensuring a horrendous start and devastating injuries, the 2013 Steelers offensive line improved by the end of the year.

That story should serve as a word of caution that the easy conclusion might not be the right one. Fans have very little insight into what the tasks an NFL assistant coach is actually responsible for. Officially, Chan Gailey was the Steelers wide receivers coach in 1995, but his role in running the offense increased, leading the Steelers to fire Ron Erhardt after Super Bowl XXX.

Going further back, Tony Dungy joined Chuck Noll’s staff as a defensive backs assistant, yet research profiling Tony Dungy career as a Steelers assistant coach revaled that he spent much of his first year dealing with linebackers.

  • Of course we know that because the Steelers let reporters interview assistant coaches back then.

Today they do not, which means our understanding of the Steelers James Saxon firing will probably never move beyond speculation.

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James Conner’s Injury Puts Steelers Success Squarely on Ben Roethlisberger’s Shoulders

Cue the “tape” from past posts, but this is one time when a blogger begs to be wrong. The injury that James Conner suffered against the Chargers is worse than expected, and Mike Tomlin has already ruled out Conner for the Raiders game.

In early September, Jaylen Samuels‘ roster spot was seen as somewhat of a luxury pending the return of Le’Veon Bell will likely start for the Steelers this Sunday in Oakland’s Black Hole. Stevan Ridley will back him up, with Trey Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds’ brother, joining the active roster from the practice squad.

Coming off of a two game losing streak, this is the last thing the Steelers need.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner

Ben Roethlisberger hands off James Conner. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via Lockhaven.com

Steelers Success Now Rests with Roethlisberger

The irony here is that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichnter may very well have been trying to avoid this situation.

Three years ago with Le’Veon Bell out and DeAngelo Williams carrying the load, Tomlin was asked if he would try to work Jordan Todman or Fitzgerald Toussaint into the lineup to prepare them. Tomlin balked at the suggestion, arguing that such a move might backfire if production suffered.

  • Well, DeAngelo Williams did get injured, and the Steelers started Todman and Toussaint in the playoffs.

As noted in our review of the meltdown against the Chargers, Ben Roethlisberger has now thrown 45 passes or more in 4 of his last 5 games. James Conner has touched the ball less than 20 times in 4 out of those same 5 games.

While Steel Curtain Rising has exactly ZERO inside information to back this up, this shift happened just as it was becoming clear that Le’Veon Bell was going to sit out the entire year. While I can’t prove it, I suspect that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have been trying to reduce Conner’s work load by passing more.

  • How does the saying about “Best intentions of Mice and Men” go?

While Jaylen Sammuels has shown promise, he’s never been a number one back before.

Mike Tomlin talked about taking a running back by committee approach, but the fact is that the success of the Steelers offense rests squarely on Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to connect with Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald, Jesse James and James Washington.

One of the takeaways from the Chargers game should have been that the Steelers needed a more balanced approach on offense, as Ben Roethlisberger seems to be trying to do too much. Now the Steelers have no choice but to air it out.

Steelers Shuffle Roster Due to Injuries

Up until now, the Steelers 2018 roster has been fairly stable with very few in season moves. That changed today as the Steelers put Justin Hunter on injured reserve making room for Trey Edmunds.

Not taking any chances, the Steelers signed former New England Patriots running back Ralph Webb to their practice squad and cut linebacker Farrington Huguenin.

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Running Back by Committee? First Let’s Try Steelers Keeping RB1 & RB2 Healthy for a Full Season

The Steelers failure to reach a long-term deal with Le’Veon Bell has prompted many fans to call for Pittsburgh to lift the franchise tag, let Le’Veon Bell walk and rely on running back by committee.

Sounds feasible on paper. (Actually it doesn’t.) But even if it, there’s a problem:

  • During Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers have struggled to keep their 1st and 2nd string running backs healthy.

The tendency took root in 2007 and has continued almost unabated since then. In 2007, Mike Tomlin vowed to run Willie Parker until “the wheels fell off.” The wheels fell off in week 16, forcing the Steelers to start Najeh Davenport in the playoffs with Verron Haynes coming off the couch as a backup.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers running back injuries

Le’Veon Bell injured in the 2014 season finale vs. Bengals. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP, via SportsNet.ca

In 2008 the Steelers planned to use both Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall. A week 3 Willie Parker injury led to Mendenhall’s first start in week 4, where Baltimore broke his collar bone. Fortunately, the Steelers had solid running back depth with Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell filling the void until Parker’s return.

  • The Steelers kept their top two running backs relatively healthy in 2009 and 2010, with Willie Parker only missing a handful of games in ’09.

The Steelers streak continued in 2011 until Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the season finale against Cleveland, as Isaac Redman started in the playoff Tebowing in Denver (for the record, Redman rushed for 121 yards on 17 carries.)

In 2012 the Steelers employed a variant of running back by committee, rotating carries and starts between Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall. Injuries contributed to this situation, but Mike Tomlin also wanted one of the trio to establish himself as the starter. None of them did.

  • The Steelers unhealthy running back syndrom returned with a vengeance in 2013.

Rookie Le’Veon Bell injured his Lisfranc in Latrobe, leaving Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Felix Jones as the running back committee. Problem? LaRod Stephens-Howling’s Steeler career ended after 8 touches and Isaac Redman was already playing with injures that would end his career before Halloween.

In 2014 the Steelers made a wise disciplinary move in cutting LeGarrette Blount, but that forced them to sign Ben Tate after Le’Veon Bell’s pre-playoff injury. In 2015 injuries and suspension limited Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams to 5 join appearances, and DeAngelo Williams season finale injury at Cleveland forced Pittsburgh to start Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman in the playoffs.

Any plans the Steelers had to spell Le’Veon Bell with DeAngelo Williams in 2016 went out the window when Williams injured his knee in week 6, limiting the tandem to 4 games together.

And of course last season the Steelers only opted to give James Conner a handful of carries, but an injury against New England in week 14 forced the Steelers to sign Stevan Ridley two weeks before the playoffs.

Calk it up to fate or chalk it up to mistake, but Mike Tomlin cannot seem to kept his top two running backs healthy, which doesn’t bode well for a shift to running back by committee. Or does it?

Counterpoint: Could Running Back by Committee Be the Cure?

In On Writing, Stephen King advises authors against plotting out stories in favor of putting characters in situations and then following them to their conclusion. King’s lesson is relevant to sports blogging, because sometimes your conclusions can morph into something else as you write.

  • This is one of those times.

Mike Tomlin has seen his running backs suffer injuries early in the season (Parker and Mendenhall in ’08, Bell and Redman in ’13, Bell in ’15 and Williams in ’16.) But the most devastating running back injuries have occurred late in the season (Mendenhall in ’11, Bell in ’14, Williams in ’15, Bell in the 2016 AFC Championship).

Both the laws of attrition and laws of probability would suggest that running back by committee could mitigate these dangers.

Moral of the Story? Better Running Back Depth In Order

In the final analysis, I’m not ready to join the chorus calling for the Steelers to rescind the franchise tag and part ways with Bell. This tweet sheds a little light on my thinking:

That isn’t to say that the Chuck Noll’s offenses struggled to run the ball with Frank Pollard, Earnest Jackson and Walter Abercrombie. They didn’t. Nor could Mark Malone and David Woodley provide the type of air support that Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown provide today.

  • But Le’Veon Bell offers more to the Steelers 2018 offense than would a modern day equivalent of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie.

And James Conners, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels have yet to prove they’re modern day equivalents of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie. But perhaps they can provide the type of quality and quantity of depth at running back behind Le’Veon Bell that the franchise hasn’t enjoyed since 2008….

…You remember, the season that ended at Super Bowl XLIII.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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