#ICYMI: Steelers Rule T.J. Watt, Marcus Gilbert Out vs Bears

Compared to some other NFL teams (knock on wood) the Pittsburgh Steelers have remained relatively healthy during 2017, but Mike Tomlin’s men will have to win today’s matchup against the Chicago Bears without the services of starting right outside linebacker T.J. Watt and starting right offensive guard Marcus Gilbert.

  • As of Saturday evening, starting defensive end Stephon Tuitt was listed as questionable.
T.J. Watt, DeShone Kizer, Steelers vs Browns

T.J. Watt closes in on DeShone Kizer in the Steelers 2017 season opening win over the Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Obsev.com

T.J. Watt injured his groin in the second quarter of the Steelers win over the Vikings, while Marcus Gilbert suffered a hamstring injury during the same game. Stephon Tuitt injured his biceps in the Steelers season opening win against the Browns.

  • Chris Hubbard will start in Marcus Gilbert’s place at right tackle, and therefore be charged with defending Ben Roethlisberger’s “sightful side.”

The question of who will start and who will play at right outside linebacker remains far more intriguing. When Bud Dupree was unable to start the Steelers season opener, Anthony Chickillo took his place. However, going into the Vikings game, James Harrison was assumed to be T.J. Watt’s backup, yet when Watt got injured the Steelers moved Chickillo over the right side.

  • Mike Tomlin explained the move as wanting to go with the “hot hand” at outside linebacker.

Tomlin’s explanation makes sense, given that Chickillo had two sacks and a special teams touchdown in the season opener (which, if you’re keeping notes, means Chickillo tied Jarvis Jones year three sack total in a single game.)

Stephon Tuitt was listed as taking snaps with the Steelers first team defense on Friday afternoon, which is a strong indicator that he’ll suit up to play against the Chicago Bears. Regardless, the Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell likes to rotate his defensive lineman, so fans can expect to see Tyson Alualu, L.T. Walton spelling Tuitt as well as Cameron Heyward and Javon Hargrave.

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Steelers Cameron Heyward vs Vikings = A Man Against Boys

If you visit any online box score pertaining to the Steelers 26-9 Week 2 victory over the Vikings at Heinz Field on Sunday, star defensive end Cameron Heyward‘s stats that include six tackles may not stand out to you.

But if you had the pleasure to be in the stands at Heinz Field like I was, you knew Cam Heyward was simply the best defensive player on the field.

If you ever wanted to know how Pittsburgh’s defense, a unit that actually started to play better a season ago, after Cameron Heyward was lost for the rest of 2016 with a torn pectoral muscle, could have performed any better down the stretch, it would been with Heyward in the starting lineup dominating.

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers 2017 defensive line

Steelers Cameron Heyward vs Vikings was a men among boys @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

In other words, just because the defense actually improved down-the-stretch during Pittsburgh’s nine-game winning-streak, doesn’t mean it couldn’t have done better.

That’s the thing about difference-makers:

  • You sometimes don’t know how much of a difference they can make until they’re back in the lineup doing  their thing.

And that brings me to the current state of the Steelers defensive line. Sure, it is still a fine unit with veteran Tyson Alualu filling in for an injured Stephon Tuitt and second-year man Javon Hargrave providing quality play, alongside Heyward’s dominance. Yes, L.T. Walton gained some valuable playing time a year ago as part of a rotation that had to make up for the loss of Heyward, and that valuable time should come in handy this year, when Walton has to do what he’s doing now, and that’s provide quality depth in Tuitt’s absence.

  • But what happens when Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave play an entire game together?

Thanks to injury, we haven’t seen that since the game against the Cowboys last November 13, when Heyward was lost for the year.

Can you just imagine how awe-inspiring this unit will be?

As a Steelers fan, I certainly can’t wait, but until Tuitt comes back, at least I have Heyward’s singular dominance to look forward to.

  • Again, if you weren’t at Heinz Field on Sunday, Cam Heyward’s box score does him no justice.

You really had to see that dominance for yourself.

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Steelers Resign Stephon Tuitt to Six-Year $61-Million Contract

Bloggers live to brag when we’re right. But as the Steelers resign Stephon Tuitt to a six-year $61-million dollar contract-extension on Saturday, this is a blogger who is rejoicing to be wrong.

As per Pittsburgh Post-Gazette beat writer Gerry Dulac, who covers the team on a daily basis, the deal will keep Tuitt in Pittsburgh through the 2022 season:

“FYI to those asking: Tuitt’s new deal is 6 years–this year and five more to follow. That’s six. Total for six years is $61.05 million,” Dulac Tweeted Saturday afternoon, shortly after Tuitt’s new deal was announced.

Shortly after Stephon Tuitt fell to the Steelers in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Steel Curtain Rising praised the move, but openly mused about whether Tuitt would end the run of bad luck the Steelers had suffered with 2nd round defensive linemen AND players drafted from Notre Dame.

  • But as Stephon Tuitt proved, past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future performance.
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Stephon Tuitt obliterates Josh McCown in the Steelers November 2016 win over the Browns in Cleveland. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

In fact, Tuitt began proving that almost as soon as he arrived in Pittsburgh. Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell rarely plays let alone does he start rookies not named Casey Hampton. And he stuck to that script early as fans alternatively cheered and jeered as Brett Keisel and Cam Thomas played while Stephon Tuitt watched from the bench.

Then came the faithful, final game of the “Four Warhorses,” the Steelers November 2014 loss to the New Orleans Saints that saw James Harrison, Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel and Troy Polamalu‘s final appearance on the same field together.

Brett Keisel would of course fall injured in that game, ending his career and opening the door for Stephon Tuitt.

Stephon Tuitt, from Rare Rookie Starter to Steelers Defensive Stalwart

Since ascending to the top of the depth chart in his rookie year, Tuitt, 24, has started 32 games. Overall, for his three-year career, Tuitt has recorded 80 tackles and 11.5 sacks.

Along with veteran and team captain Cam Heyward, who is signed through the 2020 season, and second-year nose tackle Javon Hargrave, the Steelers boast one of the best front-three in the NFL.

While he has yet to break through and achieve superstar status, his lucrative, new deal is an endorsement from his team that the best is yet to come for Stephon Tuitt.

 

 

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line: Low-Moderate

Getting “Younger and stronger” on defensive line was one of Mike Tomlin’s stated objectives when the Steelers 2008 off season began. As it was, the Steelers would continue to open with the same starting threesome for the next 3 seasons, and it wasn’t until the beginning of the 2015 season that Steelers defensive line had been completely renewed.

The question heading into the 2017 NFL Draft is whether the Steelers want to stand pat or continue that renewal process.

Stephon Tuitt, Tyrod Taylor, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Defensive line

Tyrod Taylor is road kill in Stephon Tuitt’s wake. Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via Bleacher Report

Steelers Depth Chart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starters

Two studs in the form of defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt bookend the Steelers defensive line.

During his first two years with the Steelers Cam Heyward doubters were easy to find, but in 2013 he beat out Ziggy Hood for the starting job and since then has established himself as one of the best defensive ends in the league. Cameron Heyward has 25 sacks, 18 passes defensed and a pair of forced fumbles and fumble recoveries to his name, but staistics do not do the man justice.

Week in and week out, Cameron Heyward makes the types of plays that don’t always show up on the stat sheet – unless you count the Steelers keeping more points on the board than their opponents.

Injuries to Brett Keisel thrust Stephon Tuitt into the starting line up late in the 2014 season, and no one has looked back since. With Cameron Heyward out for the second half of 2016, Stephon Tuitt stepped up as a leader of the unit, and despite Cam’s absence, the Steelers defense improved during the latter part of the season.

If you’re surprised to discover that Javon Hargrave didn’t start the entire year, so was I. He had to wait until week to get his first start, but held on to the job from that point in the season, and established himself along side Artie Burns and Sean Davis as one of the three rookies who made an immediate impact to improve the Steelers defense.

Like his fellow rookies, something clicked for Hargrave during the second half of the season, as Hargrave got his first sack and first fumble recovery in the Steelers road win over the Cleveland Browns. Hargrave got another sack in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts, and also got to Tom Brady early in the AFC Championship game loss.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Finding depth on the Steelers defensive line has been a challenge for Pittsburgh, forcing Johnny Mitchell give his starters more snaps than he would like.

  • In 2016 the Steelers defensive line took a step in the right direction, as L.T. Walton stepped up in Cam Heyward’s absence as did Ricardo Mathews.

The Steelers have taken another step in that direction by signing free agent Tyson Alualu, a former first round pick out of Jacksonville who can play either at defensive end or a nose tackle.

Tyson Alualu’s arrival might spell the end for backup nose tackle Daniel McCullers. The Shady Tree offers and imposing physical presence, standing at 6’7” 352 pounds and his snap count percentage did jump from 9.5% in 2015 to 17.4% in 2016, which is good, but given all of the injuries the Steelers suffered on the defensive line, you’d expect to see McCullers getting even more playing time.

Injuries forced practice squad player John Maxey into the action in late in 2016 and Maxley did his part to help prove Mike Tomlin’s “The Standard is the Standard.”

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Defensive Line

The Steelers quest to rebuild their defensive line took longer than expected, although part of that is due to the longevity of Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton (although whiffing on Ziggy Hood didn’t help the cause.)Steelers 2017 Draft Needs defensive line

  • Yet, even after the Steelers found three competent starters on defensive line, they struggled to back them up.

Time was that when the Steelers had to play without either Cameron Heyward or Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers run defense became a sieve and the team lost. That fact seemed to doom the Steelers chances after Cameron Heyward went on injured reserve in 2016.

However, the rest of the defensive line responded and not only survived but thrived despite Cam Heyward’s absence. That shows that the Pittsburgh Steelers have real depth on their defensive line, and the unit got deeper with the addition of Alualu Tyson.

Let’s be clear, in the contemporary NFL, the difference between an outside linebacker and a defensive end is getting blurred by the concept of “Edge Rusher” and that’s not even taking to account that the Steelers depend on their nickel package, which includes four down lineman, all the more frequently.

  • Edge Rusher” is clearly a Steelers priority, and if they find someone who falls into that category who happens to play defensive line, then the rating you’re about to read is rendered moot.

However, if we’re confining our conversation to conventional 3-4 defensive lineman then the Steelers depth chart is as solid as it has been during the Mike Tomlin era, and Steelers draft need at defensive line can be considered Low-Moderate.

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Steelers Sign Tyson Alualu. Has Johnny Mitchell Found the Coveted “4th Lineman” for His Rotation?

After remaining relatively inactive during the first wave of free agency, Pittsburgh as been busy this week signing three players into days with the franchise’s latest acquisition seeing the Steelers sign Tyson Alualu the free agent defensive lineman from Jacksonville to a two year contract.

  • During the 2010 NFL Draft the Jacksonville Jaguars surprised the rest of the league when they drafted Tyson Alualu with the 10th overall pick.

Since then Tyson Alualu has had a solid, but hardly spectacular career, although it should be noted that he did make several “All Rookie teams” in 2010, per reporting by Jim Wexell on Steel City Insider.

Tyson Alualu, Steelers 2017 free agents, Steelers defensive line

Steelers reserve defensive lineman Tyson Alualu in Pittsburgh after arriving as a free agent. Photo Credit: Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette

With seven seasons under his belt, Tyson Alualu provides a perfect example of a player who may not have lived up to his lofty draft status, but is very far from being a bust. He’s never missed a game due to injury, he brings the Steelers 88 games of starting experience, 17.5 sacks, and offers position flexibility with the ability to play either nose tackle or defensive end.

All of this must make for pure music in the ears of Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell

Does Johnny Mitchell Finally Have his Coveted 4th Lineman?

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell has been with the team since the fall of 1994, having replace Steve Furness as part of Bill Cowher‘s coaching purge following the 1993 season. During Johnny Mitchell’s watch and, particularly during the Kevin Colbert era, the Steelers defensive line has been a model of stability.

While each of those starters played a critical role in securing Lombardi Trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII, their impact and importance of their understudies cannot be under stated. Johnny Mitchell’s system relies heavily on rotating defensive lineman in and out throughout the game.

  • But for Mitchell’s system to be effective, the Steelers can’t suffer a drop of in quality of play when the starter has taken a breather.

For a long time, players like Chris Hoke, Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason were good enough to allow Mitchell rotate Keisel, Smith and Hampton in out as needed. In his two years in Pittsburgh, Al Woods looked he was growing into that same role but the Steelers stint in salary cap purgatory in prevented the team from keeping Al Woods in Pittsburgh in 2014.

They signed Cam Thomas instead, who was decidedly not up to the role. Daniel McCullers whom the Steelers drafted during the 2014 NFL Draft has flashed, but has yet to show he can take that role. Ricardo Mathews performed well after Cam Hewyard was lost for the season and so did L.T. Walton.

  • But the Steelers appear to have found an upgrade from both men in Tyson Alualu.

During the heyday of Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel’s tenures, Johnny Mitchell quipped – not altogether jokingly – the he would retire when this trio began their “Life’s Work.” The arrival of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and most recently Javon Hargrave has provided Mitchell with another fearsome threesome.

Tyson Alualu just might provide the type of talent and stability that Mitchell needs to get his rotation humming.

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.

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Steelers Smash Mouth Football Dominates Bills Game Ball Winner Voting

Steelers Smash Mouth “3 Yards and a Cloud of Dust” football reigns supreme in the game ball winner voting following Pittsburgh’s 27-20 win over the Buffalo Bills.

Le'Veon Bell, Roosevelt Nix, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs. Bills

Le’Veon Bell rushes as Roosevelt Nix paves the way in Steelers 27-20 win over Bills. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

2016 Steelers vs. Bills, Steelers bills game ball winners, le'veon bell, roosevelt nix, steelers offensive line, bud dupreeAs expected, Le’Veon Bell was the top individual vote getter, pulling in a total of 19 votes between his ballot slot and the write in for #26 L.Bell. However, the second highest vote getter was for the Steelers offensive line who had 15 votes, and Roosevelt Nix came in with 14 votes of his own, quite an impressive showing in this age where the fullback is supposed to be a dying position.

  • Those three were the only vote getters on the offensive side of the ball.

Not surprisingly, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t get any votes on a day where he clearly struggled, but Antonio Brown also garnered zero votes. While Brown didn’t have a strong game statistically, he did make one field flipping catch that set up a touchdown, and he made a few shorter key catches that set up other scores.

Bud Dupree led the defensive voting with 9 votes, followed by Ryan Shazier who earned the support of 8 of our voters. Sean Davis was the next highest vote getter on defense netting 5 votes, and he was followed by Stephon Tuitt and a write in for the entire defensive line, who both got 4 votes a piece.

  • Artie Burns notched his third interception of the season, and that was good enough to earn him 3 game ball votes.

Another minor surprise comes on special teams, as Chris Boswell, who had a perfect day kicking in some horrendous conditions, yet only earned the support of one of our voters.

As always, Steel Curtain Rising thanks all of you who took time out to vote. Now it is on to the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

 

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Bruce Arians Revenge? Past Steelers Practice Squad Raids Complicate Quest for Cameron Hewyard’s Replacement

Sometimes success simply comes down to timing. Nine games in to the 2016 season, that’s a reality that leaves Bruce Arians smiling and the Steelers struggling to find Cameron Heyward’s replacement….

…The summer of 2014 saw the Steelers take a bumper crop of young defensive lineman bristling with potential to training camp. Their promise was so strong that it took a contract offer from Bruce Arians and a Brett Keisel plane ride towards Pittsburgh West to motivate Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin to bring him back.

Everyone remembers the week 7 Steelers victory over the Houston Texas as Martavis Bryant’s breakout game, but it was Brett Keisel’s stunning 16 yard pass deflection and interception that gave Pittsburgh a two score lead. Yes, the Beard was back in a big way, but alas, timing holds the key to this story.

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Today, Bruce Arians’ poaching Josh Mauro of Pittsburgh’s practice squad in 2014 stings with the loss of Cameron Heyward. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports

Three weeks later on November 13th, few noticed when the Bruce Arians and Arizona Cardinals poached defensive end Josh Mauro off the Steelers practice squad. On the next Monday night, Brett Keisel defensed two passes and made critical stops to help the defense close out the win against the Tennessee Titans. Later that week, the Steelers practice squad got raided again, this time by Kansas City Chiefs who signed nose tackle Nicholas Williams.

  • This second practice squad raid in as many weeks aroused more interest, but few worried, because of how well Brett Keisel was playing.

Unfortunately, Brett Keisel’s tore his triceps in his very next, and ultimately last game against the Saints. Instead of promoting young defensive lineman they’d been grooming, Pittsburgh had to turn to Clifton Geathers….

…IF only Bruce Arians had held off two more weeks.

Ghosts of Steelers Practice Squad Poaching Return to Haunt

But Bruce Arians didn’t, and he made a smart move in signing Josh Mauro, who started two of five games in as a swing lineman Arizona in 2014, started four games in 2015, and 7 in 2016. In that time he’s registered a sack, defensed 3 passes, and forced two fumbles.

Not a bad resume.

To be fair, Ricardo Mathew’s performance in San Diego during the same time span was perhaps a little better, but Mauro is younger and on the rise, while Mathews is pushing 30 and is a career backup. For his part, Nicholas Williams has played less frequently in Kansas City, and his numbers look less impressive, but he’s still holding down a job in the NFL for a contender.

  • Either way, neither man can offer help to the Steelers when they need it.

Even with Cam Heyward at full heath, the Steelers defense was teetering on the edge of an abyss. Now, with Heyward out for the rest of 2016, the only question is how deep a decline will the Steelers defense suffer?

In addition to Mathews, the Steelers have L.T. Walton and can promote either Johnny Maxey and Caushaud Lyons. Those may not turn out to be bad options, but it appears ghosts of Steelers practice squad poaching have returned to haunt them….

…Although he certainly didn’t plan it that way, Bruce Arians may finally gotten his revenge on Art Rooney II.

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As Cameron Heyward’s Season Ends – Steelers Nation Collectively Cries: “Game Over!”

The Pittsburgh Steelers are in the middle of what is already their 2nd worst losing streak of the Mike Tomlin era, and the news just got worse. Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Heyward’s season ends thanks to a pectorial muscle injury he suffered in the loss to the Cowboys.

Cameron Heyward, Cameron Heyward's season ends, cameron heyward injury

Cameron Heyward’s 2016 season ends due to injury. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers haven’t announced the move yet, but Cameron Heyward made this posting via Twitter and Instagram:

 

One can only imagine that Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Johnny Mitchell must be channeling their inner Bill Paxton:

In truth don’t expect anyone on the South Side to throw in the Towel, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are 0-4 when either Cameron Heyward or Stephon Tuitt has missed a game over the last two seasons. Cameron Heyward is easily both the Steelers best and most consistent player on the Steelers defense. He is also a leader both on and off the field. Losing Cam Heyward for the rest of 2016 would be akin to losing Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell or perhaps even Ben Roethlisberger.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Ron Cook broke the news on Twitter this morning before Mike Tomlin’s press conference.

Heyward was still being evaluated when Mike Tomlin addressed reporters, so no update came, but the Steelers have confirmed the news.

Mathews and Hargrave Next Men Up

With Cam Heyward out for the rest of 2016, the Steelers will likely turn to Ricardo Mathews and or Javon Hargrave to take his space. Hargrave has been splitting time at nose tackle with Daniel McCullers, but he has gotten reps at defensive end. Mathews started with Heyward missed the Dolphins and Patriots game with a hamstring injury, and the Dolphins targeted him in route to their 200 yard rushing game.

  • The Steelers also have Johnny Maxey and Caushaud Lyons on their practice squad, either of whom could be activated.

The Steelers picked up Caushaud Lyons last year off waivers and kept him on the active roster through the end of September. The Steelers then cut Lyons and resigned him to the practice squad. Regardless of who the Steelers bring onto the roster, the man has extremely big shoes to fill.

Johnson Out Forte Back In

It never rains but it pours. Before losing Cameron Heyward the rest of 2016, the Steelers annouced that reserve inside linebacker Steven Johnson going on injured reserve. To replace him the Steelers will active L.J. Forte, whom they cut this weekend to make way for Ladarius Green.

 

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Javon Hargrave Injures Knee, Leave Steelers Practice Early

How does the cliché go? NFL stands for “Not for Long.” Rookie Javon Hargrave might be in the painful process of proving just how true that is.

javon hargrave, javon hargrave injures knee, steelers starting nose tackle 2016

Just hours after being named starter, rookie Steelers nose tackle Javon Hargrave injures his knee and leaves practice early. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK on Pittsburgh Sports

While little information is available, the headline “Javon Hargrave injures knee, leaves Steelers practice early,” offers window into cruel ironies that rule daily life in the NFL, because Javon Hargrave suffered his injury just hours after Mike Tomlin named him as the Steelers starting nose tackle for the Monday night season opener at FedEx Field against the Washington Redskins.

The Steelers drafted Javon Hargrave in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft, in a move that made normally reticent Johnny Mitchell gush. Our own Tony Defeo predicted that Hargrave would be a hit with Steelers Nation.

Javon Hargrave entered preseason behind Daniel McCullers on the depth chart during preseason, but the Steelers liked what they saw, as Hargrave got to the quarterback on a number of occasions.

Pittsburgh Tribune Review reporter Mark Kaboly offered this account of Javon Hargrave’s injury:

Daniel McCullers provided an update to Chris Bradford of the Beaver County Times:

The Steelers have not provided an update on the Javon Hargrave’s status, and any real news must likely wait for Mike Tomlin’s weekly press conference.

Should Hargave be unable to play, Daniel McCullers will likely step into the starting role, with Ricardo Mathews working in as needed. Steelers starter Cameron Heyward is already nursing a high ACL sprain and his status is not known for the Redskins game.

Thus far, Stephon Tuitt and L.T. Walton appear to be just fine. Which is welcome news to Steelers Nation, because the headline “Javon Hargrave injures knee…” provides enough drama the first Steelers practice of the 2016 regular season.

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Steelers Sign Javon Hargrave – Is Hargrave a Cameron Heyward or a Stephon Tuitt?

The “Official” wind down of Pittsburgh’s OTA’s saw the Steelers sign Javon Hargrave, the 3rd round defensive lineman out of FCS South Carolina State where he twice won the SBN Sports Mel Blount Defensive Player of the Year.

steelers, 3rd round pick, defensive lineman, javon hargrave, otas

Steelers 3rd round pick Javon Hargrave; Photo credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Extended rookie hold outs have been rare for over a decade and rookie contracts have become so pro-forma since the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement that some players opt not to use an agent – far cry from 1990 when Neil O’Donnell, the Steelers 3rd round pick held out deep into August.

No, there was never any question Javon Hargrave was going to arrive at St. Vincent’s Latrobe signed and suited up for action with the rest of the Steelers 2016 draft class. The biggest question surrounding Javon Hargrave’s rookie year with the Steelers comes down to this:

That might seem like an odd question, given that the Steelers drafted Hargrave to play nose tackle while providing rotational relief at both defensive end positions but the analogy is very apt. Why? Well, comes times an infographic is worth 1,360 words:

Johnny Mitchell, rookie starts, steelers defensive line, casey hampton, stephon tuitt

Steelers rookies not named Casey Hampton rarely start for Johnny Mitchell

When that inforgraphic first appeared in 2014, no Steelers rookie not names Casey Hampton had started on Johnny Mitchell’s defensive lines. OK, at the beginning of Mitchell’s tenure Brensten Buckner and later Orpheus Roye made a few starts. But since then, all rookies, including Aaron Smith, Ziggy Hood and even Cameron Heyward never got a starting nod. I wrote a lengthy piece on this for BTSC’s 2014 Renegade, which you can read at length here.

But history has changed since then.

  • Or perhaps more precisely, Stephon Tuitt has changed history since then.

Stephon Tuitt started four games as a rookie in 2014, and in doing so he registered a sack and forced a key fumble. Tuitt in fact started the final four games of 2014, which also happened to feature the best four defensive performances of the Steelers that season.

But it’s also true that the Steelers never for a second considered started Cam Thomas over Tuitt when Keisel went down. And that represented a 180 degree shift in the thinking of Mike Tomlin, Dick LeBeau and Johnny Mitchell, who watched Cam Thomas struggle when he rotated in for Heyward or Keisel early in the year, but nonetheless kept Tuitt on the bench.

If all goes according to plan (meaning there are no injuries), Heyward, Tuitt and veteran Dan McCullers will start all season long for the Steelers. But it would be nice if Hargrave showed enough for the coaches to turn to him instead of Ricardo Mathews should one of the big three fall.

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