Remembering Keith Willis’ Steelers Career and Underrated Contribution to Pittsburgh’s Defensive Line

As a young Steelers fan in the early 80’s, I often got the two Keiths on their defensive line mixed up.

One wore No. 92. The other wore No. 93. One was the 17th overall pick out of Oklahoma in the 1981 NFL Draft. The other was an undrafted free agent out of Northeastern in 1982. One obviously had the size and pedigree coming out of college. The other, as a 235-pound rookie, didn’t. One would obviously be given every opportunity to succeed–even after deciding to jump to the Canadian Football League for two seasons.

  • The other would have to prove his worth right out of the gate.

The Keith I want to talk about wasn’t the one with the draft pedigree and the big school on his resume. That was Keith Gary, No. 92, the aforementioned 17th overall draft pick who decided to give the CFL a try before signing with Pittsburgh in 1983.

  • In fairness to Gary, he did have a pretty good rookie year in ’83, recording 7.5 sacks for the eventual AFC Central Division champions.

Not too shabby.

Keith Willis, John Elway, Steelers vs Broncos 1980's

Keith Willis arrives a second too late to sack John Elway. Photo Credit: Pininterest

However, that same season, the undersized and undrafted free agent out of Northeastern, Keith Willis, No. 93, nearly doubled the former first round pick by posting a whopping 14 sacks for the Steelers, a record which Aaron Smith couldn’t break nor has Cam Heyward, yet….

While Keith Gary would go on to have a rather disappointing career for the Steelers that included just six seasons, 35 starts and 25 quarterback sacks, Keith Willis played 10 seasons in Pittsburgh, started 88 games and recorded a remarkable 59 sacks.

When Keith Willis left Pittsburgh following the 1991 season, he was the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks. Sure, the quarterback sack was a statistic not made official until Willis’s rookie year (yes Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood both posted higher unofficial sack totals), but that’s still a heck of an accomplishment for a player who arrived as an afterthought when he arrived to town less than three years after Super Bowl XIV.

While few realized it at the time, in part due to three straight playoff appearances in ’82, ’83 and ’84, the Steelers dynasty  of the 1970’s was fading rather than reloading by the time Keith Willis made his first roster in the strike-shortened ’82 campaign.

  • Although he rarely gets credit for it, in the wake of Mean Joe’s retirement and L.C’s release, Keith Willis really did keep the tradition of the Steel Curtain alive.

Three years after his 14-sack campaign, Keith Willis managed to hit double-digits again, when he recorded 12 for a team that lost 10 games.

While Keith Willis never got to experience the trappings of a championship-level team–the Steelers only made the playoffs four times during his career in Pittsburgh — he certainly got the most out of his undrafted pedigree.

“For certain people, you weren’t anything but a free agent but I never fell prey to that,” said Willis in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article from 2003. “My attitude from the first was ‘Come try me.”

Today, some 27 years after his Steelers career ended, Keith Willis still ranks fourth in franchise history in sacks behind James Harrison, Jason Gildon and Joey Porter. And, again, while Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood may unofficially have more, Keith Willis is officially the Steelers defensive lineman with the most career sacks.

“A lot of people never thought that a guy from Northeastern would end up leading the Steel Curtain in sacks, but there I was.”

There you were, indeed, Keith….Willis, that is, the undrafted free agent who lacked the pedigree and the size but managed to beat the odds anyway. It’s a shame that Keith Willis is sort of a forgotten defensive hero in Pittsburgh, but that’s somewhat typical of good players (think David Little) who played on some mediocre or worse Steelers teams of the 1980’s.

But championships or not, Keith Willis was one hell player, and its only fitting that we remember him and honor his contributions to the legacy of the Steelers defensive line.

Like this? Please share via Facebook, Twitter etc...

Steelers Draft Joshua Frazier in 7th Round, Uniting Alabama Alum with Karl Dunbar

What do new Steelers defensive line coach Karl Dunbar and new Steelers secondary coach Tom Bradley have in common? They both get to work with players from their respective college coaching perches.

  • Pittsburgh made sure of that when the Steelers drafted Joshua Frazier in the 7th round, reuniting the defensive lineman from Alabama with his college coach.

Earlier on day 3 of the 2018 NFL Draft, the Steelers also drafted Marcus Allen of Penn State, the same school where Tom Bradley made his name in the NCAA ranks.

Joshua Frazier, Steelers 7th round pick

Steelers 7th round pick gets a sack for his 1st career tackle

As a 7th round pick for a playoff team, Joshua Frazier was the 246th player drafted, which stands in stark contrast to the man who surpassed him on the depth chart, Da’Ron Payne who went 13th overall after the Washington Redskins called his number.

Outwardly at least, Fraizer wasn’t bitter about things, assuring reporters: “I have no regrets, no regrets. Things worked out the way they did. … I feel like I had some of the same attributes that Payne brought to the table.”

And to be certain, Fraizer’s highlight video supports him:

Steelers defensive line coach Karl Dunbar also shared this on his former and current protégée “It’s the luck of the draw sometimes when you go to a team that has a lot of talent. It’s almost like the Wally Pipp story. He took a day off and never got the job back,” while assuring “He’s a big, strong kid and he can command two blockers.”

As a 7th round pick, Joshua Frazier must make the team in training camp. Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave have the starting spots locked up while Tyson Alualu has the number 4 lineman spot secured. That means pits Fraizer against L.T. Walton and Daniel McCullers for what will likely be the 53rd spot on the active roster.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Joshua Frazier.

Like this? Please share via Facebook, Twitter etc...

Steelers 2018 Defensive Line Draft Needs – Is Line Deep Enough for a Super Bowl Run?

“Rebuilding.” It is a term that both Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin passionately rejected when the Steelers were enduring twin 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013.

  • Semantics aside, the Steelers were rebuilding following Super Bowl XVL, particularly on defense.

Kevin Colbert adopted a front-to-back approach to rebuilding and while each position area on the defensive depth charts has seen its ups and downs, Colbert has clearly enjoyed the most success with the defensive line. Is that success sufficient to sustain the Steelers quest for Lombardi Number 7, or should the Steelers again look to defensive line heading into 2018 NFL Draft? Let’s take a look.

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

Consume draft day comments from team executives with a grain of salt. No head coach or general manager is going blurt out:

Yeah, believe it or not  all 8 of the guys we thought would be on the board and anted to pick were gone and, to be frank, the trade offers we got were shitty. So we had no other choice but to take Joe Smith. But hey, we’re glad to have him on the team, and are excited to welcome him to city. No, really….

However, when the Steelers drafted Cam Heyward 1st round in the 2011 NFL Draft, Kevin Colbert proclaimed it a “historic day” for the franchise. Kevin Colbert was right. Cameron Heyward was the first player to join the Steelers following Super Bowl XLV, and it is hard to conceive of a better player to begin your rebuild project with.

Cam Heyward has been a difference maker for the Steelers since becoming a starter in mid-2013, but his efforts have largely been ignored outside of Pittsburgh. In 2017 Cam Heyward made the 1st team AP All Pro team, after recording a record 12.5 sacks.

  • Next to Heyward, the Steelers have Stephon Tuitt, who has had to deal with nagging injuries and might not have matched Heyward’s numbers, but is clearly an elite defensive end.

Playing between these two giants, is Javon Hargrave, the Steelers 3rd round pick from the 2016 NFL Draft. Javon Hargrave had a phenomenal rookie year in 2016, and started 2017 off strong, only to be dogged by back injuries during the later portion of the season.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

Rotation fueled much of the success of former Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell’s system. Whether he was starting Kevin Henry, Joel Steed and Ray Seals, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel or the Steelers current starting trio, Mitchell believed in mixing in a fresh body throughout the game.

  • During 2014, 2015 and even 2016 the Steelers lacked the personnel to effectively.

Cam Thomas simply wasn’t good enough and while Ricardo Mathews represented a bit of an upgrade, the Steelers played the 2nd half of 2016 without Cam Heyward.

Last spring the Steelers signed Tyson Alualu who provided that vital fourth man the makes the Steelers defensive line rotation work. 2017 marked a big year for L.T. Walton, who saw his snap count almost double, and he recorded his first two sacks in wins against Tennessee and Green Bay. Newly resigned Daniel McCullers will be back, as apparently Karl Dunbar would like to extend the young man yet another chance.

Steelers 2018 Defensive Line Draft Needs

The Steelers defensive line is a unit influx. Since Keith Butler took the reigns, the Steelers have played in their base, 3-4 defense less frequently including alignments that employ four down lineman. Recently, as pointed out by a questioner on Bob Labriola’s Asked and Answered, the Steelers  now list Cameron Heyward as a defensive tackle.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

However, health as opposed to any of those changes are the important drivers of the Steelers 2018 defensive line draft needs.

Javon Hargrave struggled with injuries during the later half of 2017 and didn’t appear to play much during the playoff loss to the Jaguars. L.T. Walton played in his place, and he too had elbow surgery. Stephon Tuitt missed four games due to injury and was also on the injury list going into the playoffs.

  • Do those injuries offer a warning sign for 2018? Only the Steelers medical staff knows.

Absent any insight, its best to assume that this medical wild card won’t come into play and, while the Steelers could use someone to push Daniel McCullers, their depth at defensive line remains solid, and therefore the Steelers 2018 defensive line draft needs should be considered Moderate-Low.

Like this? Please share via Facebook, Twitter etc...

Success of John Mitchell’s Steelers Coaching Career Defined by Names Like Tuitt, Keisel & Smith

You have to feel for Karl Dunbar, the new Steelers defensive line coach who returns to Pittsburgh finding very shoes to fill. So just how big are John Mitchell’s shoes? How long of a shadow does John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career cast? Well consider this:

  • The Steelers drafted Karl Dunbar in the 8th round of the 1990 NFL Draft, and the position coach he failed to impress that summer at St. Vincents was none other than Mean Joe Greene.

And in the 28 years since, Steve Furness is the only other man besides John Mitchell to hold the title “Steelers defensive line coach.” To put that in perspective, Mike Tomlin has employed four different offensive line coaches since 2007.

But longevity doesn’t define John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career. John Mitchell defined his coaching career with the men he mentored and molded as defensive line coach.

John Mitchell, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell, John Mitchell's Steelers coaching career

Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell at his best – teaching in the trenches. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Defensive Line Goes from “Boom” to “Bust” as 70’s Become 80’s

In the ‘70’s, Pittsburgh’s famed Steel Curtain, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes set the NFL diamond standard for defensive line excellence.

In the ‘80’s changed things fast. The Steelers drafted Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera, Darryl Sims and Aaron Jones all first round picks, yet undrafted rookie free agent Keith Willis and 1986 2nd round pick Gerald Williams were Pittsburgh’s best two defensive lineman during the decade.

The 90’s failed to bring better times. In the 1990 NFL Draft, in addition to drafting Dunbar, the Steelers took defensive lineman Kenny Davidson and Craig Veasey in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. When neither man was delivering during the 1991 season, a reader asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola what the problem was.

  • A resigned Labriola responded that success in the draft involved a certain amount of luck, and suggest that perhaps the Steelers luck with drafting defensive lineman had run dry.

Sometimes, when luck runs out, its best to blow everything up and start from zero.

The 90’s — John Mitchell’s First Act with the Steelers

NFL position coaches don different hats. Sometimes they strategize. Other times they motivate and manage egos. They scout and evaluate talent. And they teach. John Mitchell excelled at teaching and you can see it in the methodical way Mitchell revived the Steelers defensive line.

As a defensive line coach, John Mitchell was known for taking you defensive lineman, stripping away everything they’d been taught in college, and building their skill sets up from zero. It would make a nice story to say that is what he did when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1994, but that’s not quite accurate.

Its true that Bill Cowher had fired Steve Furness, a firing which Furness never understood or got over, after a 1993 campaign with a defensive line that featured Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans at defensive end (recognize those names? No, well there’s no reason to.)

  • But the Steelers had picked Joel Steed in the 3rd round of the 1992 NFL Draft, and Steed was already a starter.

The Steelers had already drafted Kevin Henry in the 1993 NFL Draft, and Henry had already worked his way into the lineup. Steed’s emergence allowed the Steelers to move Gerald Williams to defensive end, and the Steelers signed Ray Seals in free agency. So Mitchell didn’t have to start from zero with the group of players he inherited.

  • But one fact stands out from that period of Mitchell’s early tenure.

Brentson Buckner made it into the starting lineup as a rookie, thanks to injuries suffered by Williams, and other than Buckner in 1994 and Casey Hampton in 2001, no rookie became a regular starter on Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line until Stephon Tuitt in late 2014.

Still, the Steelers defensive line was an undisputed position of strength of the 1994 Blitzburgh defense and remained that way for the 1995 squad that went to Super Bowl XXX.

  • The truth is that the, while never a weakness, the Steelers defensive line wasn’t as strong during the rest of the 1990’s.

To be sure, Joel Steed emerged as a Pro Bowler by 1997, but his knees started giving out on him, and those injuries certainly played a part in the late season collapses of the 1998 and 1999 Steelers. And while Orpheus Roye’s emergence in the late 1990’s was a bright spot for the Steelers and Mitchell, the end of the decade didn’t leave a lot to smile about.

But those dark days did set the stage for John Mitchell’s best work.

The Year 2000 – Kevin Colbert Arrives and John Mitchell Excels

Dan Rooney made changes after the Steelers 7-9 and 6-10 1998 and 1999 campaigns, both of which featured late season melt downs. Rooney fired Tom Donahoe and hired Kevin Colbert.

  • Its hard to know whether Kevin Colbert’s arrival directly or indirectly impacted him, but John Mitchell’s coaching brilliance quickly became evident in the 21st century.

One of Kevin Colbert’s first moves as Director of Football Operations was to sign Kimo von Oelhoffen to replace Joel Steed. After six years in Cincinnati, von Oelhoffen could charitably be described as a journeyman. Under Mitchell’s tutelage, Kimo von Oelhoffen became a fixture on the Steelers defensive line, starting 94 games and ending his tenure in Super Bowl XL.

The summer of 2000 at St. Vincents yielded another surprise for the Steelers defensive line. A young, 6th round pick from the 1999 NFL Draft came out of nowhere to win the Steelers starting job at defensive end.

The 2001 NFL Draft brought Casey Hampton to the Steelers, giving John Mitchell a nose tackle that could effectively eliminate the middle of the field from the opposing team’s running game. Casey Hampton was of course a first round pick, and its easy to credit Hampton’s talent over Mitchell’s coaching, but Hampton succeeded where so many Steelers 1st round defensive lineman had failed.

  • But if Casey Hampton was “supposed” to succeed, the same cannot be said of the Steelers next two defensive line acquisitions.

After drafting Hampton in 2001, the Steelers brought in an undrafted rookie free agent name Chris Hoke and a year later they took Brett Keisel with their 7th round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.

Chris Hoke didn’t develop into a superstar under John Mitchell and didn’t even appear in a game until 20014. But over the next 8 seasons Hoke appeared in 114 games and started 18 of them and never let the Steelers defensive line down.

Brett Keisel’s story is well known. He quietly worked his way into the line up during 2002 and 2003, because a regular part of the rotation in 2004 and essentailly pushed out von Oelhoffen to become the starter in 2006.

  • Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel gave the Steelers their defensive line trio of the 3-4 era.

When reporters asked John Mitchell what he would do when Smith, Hampton and Keisel retired Mitchell said he’d join them. He wasn’t entirely joking. But fortunately he didn’t have to.

John Mitchell Supervises Defensive Line Rebuild

Fortunately, for the Steelers, Mitchell stuck around for the rebuild of the defensive line. Although far from a “bust,” Ziggy Hood didn’t work out as planned. But the Steelers hit a grand-slam home run in the 2011 NFL Draft when they picked Cam Heyward.

  • Three years later they did it again by taking Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

For a while they were joined by another young man who’d come to Pittsburgh as part of the 2009 undrafted free agent class. He saw his first action in the 2010 Steelers win over the Titans, and while Steve McLendon wasn’t a superstar, he did turn into a pretty solid nose tackle.

McLendon’s departure paved the way for the Steelers to draft Javon Hargrave, who like Casey Hampton before him won the starting job out of the gate. Hargrave had a spectacular rookie year, and if he suffered some growing pains in his second year, the arrow is still pointed up on the nose tackle from South Carolina.

In a word, John Mitchell has left Karl Dunbar with the tools he needs to do his job. And then some.

John Mitchell Transitions to True Assistant Head Coach Role

One of Mike Tomlin’s first moves after getting hired as Steelers head coach in 2007 was to add the title “Assistant Head Coach” to John Mitchell’s title. But as Bob Labriola implied, that was mainly a ceremonial title that carried few responsibilities.

  • One of the surprises of the Steelers 2018 off season was that John Mitchell would be stepping aside as defensive line coach and assuming the role as Assistant Head Coach full time.

Part of Mitchell’s role will be to take administrative tasks off Tomlin’s shoulders. He’s also going to help outreach efforts with former players from the Tomlin era. And word is part of his job is to give everyone “Tough Love” be it a player, an assistant coach or even Mike Tomlin himself when he sees something amiss.

  • That’s a new role for John Mitchell, and a new role for the Steelers.

But if Mitchell can reproduce the results he delivered as defensive line coach, then this might just be the change that pushes Pittsburgh’s quest for Lombardi Number Seven over the hump.

Like this? Please share via Facebook, Twitter etc...

Success of Johnny Mitchell’s Steelers Coaching Career Defined by Names Like Tuitt, Keisel, Smith & Steed

You have to feel for Karl Dunbar, the new Steelers defensive line coach who returns to Pittsburgh finding very shoes to fill. So just how big are John Mitchell’s shoes? How long of a shadow does John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career cast? Well consider this:

  • The Steelers drafted Karl Dunbar in the 8th round of the 1990 NFL Draft, and the position coach he failed to impress that summer at St. Vincents was none other than Mean Joe Greene.

And in the 28 years since, Steve Furness is the only other man besides John Mitchell to hold the title “Steelers defensive line coach.” To put that in perspective, Mike Tomlin has employed four different offensive line coaches since 2007.

But longevity doesn’t define John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career. John Mitchell defined his coaching career with the men he mentored and molded as defensive line coach.

John Mitchell, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell, John Mitchell's Steelers coaching career

Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell at his best – teaching in the trenches. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Defensive Line Goes from “Boom” to “Bust” as 70’s Become 80’s

In the ‘70’s, Pittsburgh’s famed Steel Curtain, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes set the NFL diamond standard for defensive line excellence.

In the ‘80’s changed things fast. The Steelers drafted Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera, Darryl Sims and Aaron Jones all first round picks, yet undrafted rookie free agent Keith Willis and 1986 2nd round pick Gerald Williams were Pittsburgh’s best two defensive lineman during the decade.

The 90’s failed to bring better times. In the 1990 NFL Draft, in addition to drafting Dunbar, the Steelers took defensive lineman Kenny Davidson and Craig Veasey in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. When neither man was delivering during the 1991 season, a reader asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola what the problem was.

  • A resigned Labriola responded that success in the draft involved a certain amount of luck, and suggest that perhaps the Steelers luck with drafting defensive lineman had run dry.

Sometimes, when luck runs out, its best to blow everything up and start from zero.

The 90’s — John Mitchell’s First Act with the Steelers

NFL position coaches don different hats. Sometimes they strategize. Other times they motivate and manage egos. They scout and evaluate talent. And they teach. John Mitchell excelled at teaching and you can see it in the methodical way Mitchell revived the Steelers defensive line.

As a defensive line coach, John Mitchell was known for taking you defensive lineman, stripping away everything they’d been taught in college, and building their skill sets up from zero. It would make a nice story to say that is what he did when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1994, but that’s not quite accurate.

Its true that Bill Cowher had fired Steve Furness, a firing which Furness never understood or got over, after a 1993 campaign with a defensive line that featured Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans at defensive end (recognize those names? No, well there’s no reason to.)

  • But the Steelers had picked Joel Steed in the 3rd round of the 1992 NFL Draft, and Steed was already a starter.

The Steelers had already drafted Kevin Henry in the 1993 NFL Draft, and Henry had already worked his way into the lineup. Steed’s emergence allowed the Steelers to move Gerald Williams to defensive end, and the Steelers signed Ray Seals in free agency. So Mitchell didn’t have to start from zero with the group of players he inherited.

  • But one fact stands out from that period of Mitchell’s early tenure.

Brentson Buckner made it into the starting lineup as a rookie, thanks to injuries suffered by Williams, and other than Buckner in 1994 and Casey Hampton in 2001, no rookie became a regular starter on Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line until Stephon Tuitt in late 2014.

Still, the Steelers defensive line was an undisputed position of strength of the 1994 Blitzburgh defense and remained that way for the 1995 squad that went to Super Bowl XXX.

  • The truth is that the, while never a weakness, the Steelers defensive line wasn’t as strong during the rest of the 1990’s.

To be sure, Joel Steed emerged as a Pro Bowler by 1997, but his knees started giving out on him, and those injuries certainly played a part in the late season collapses of the 1998 and 1999 Steelers. And while Orpheus Roye’s emergence in the late 1990’s was a bright spot for the Steelers and Mitchell, the end of the decade didn’t leave a lot to smile about.

But those dark days did set the stage for John Mitchell’s best work.

The Year 2000 – Kevin Colbert Arrives and John Mitchell Excels

Dan Rooney made changes after the Steelers 7-9 and 6-10 1998 and 1999 campaigns, both of which featured late season melt downs. Rooney fired Tom Donahoe and hired Kevin Colbert.

  • Its hard to know whether Kevin Colbert’s arrival directly or indirectly impacted him, but Johnny Mitchell’s coaching brilliance quickly became evident in the 21st century.

One of Kevin Colbert’s first moves as Director of Football Operations was to sign Kimo von Oelhoffen to replace Joel Steed. After six years in Cincinnati, von Oelhoffen could charitably be described as a journeyman. Under Mitchell’s tutelage, Kimo von Oelhoffen became a fixture on the Steelers defensive line, starting 94 games and ending his tenure in Super Bowl XL.

The summer of 2000 at St. Vincents yielded another surprise for the Steelers defensive line. A young, 6th round pick from the 1999 NFL Draft came out of nowhere to win the Steelers starting job at defensive end.

The 2001 NFL Draft brought Casey Hampton to the Steelers, giving Johnny Mitchell a nose tackle that could effectively eliminate the middle of the field from the opposing team’s running game. Casey Hampton was of course a first round pick, and its easy to credit Hampton’s talent over Mitchell’s coaching, but Hampton succeeded where so many Steelers 1st round defensive lineman had failed.

  • But if Casey Hampton was “supposed” to succeed, the same cannot be said of the Steelers next two defensive line acquisitions.

After drafting Hampton in 2001, the Steelers brought in an undrafted rookie free agent name Chris Hoke and a year later they took Brett Keisel with their 7th round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.

Chris Hoke didn’t develop into a superstar under John Mitchell and didn’t even appear in a game until 20014. But over the next 8 seasons Hoke appeared in 114 games and started 18 of them and never let the Steelers defensive line down.

Brett Keisel’s story is well known. He quietly worked his way into the line up during 2002 and 2003, because a regular part of the rotation in 2004 and essentailly pushed out von Oelhoffen to become the starter in 2006.

  • Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel gave the Steelers their defensive line trio of the 3-4 era.

When reporters asked Johnny Mitchell what he would do when Smith, Hampton and Keisel retired Mitchell said he’d join them. He wasn’t entirely joking. But fortunately he didn’t have to.

Johnny Mitchell Supervises Defensive Line Rebuild

Fortunately, for the Steelers, Mitchell stuck around for the rebuild of the defensive line. Although far from a “bust,” Ziggy Hood didn’t work out as planned. But the Steelers hit a grand-slam home run in the 2011 NFL Draft when they picked Cam Heyward.

  • Three years later they did it again by taking Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

For a while they were joined by another young man who’d come to Pittsburgh as part of the 2009 undrafted free agent class. He saw his first action in the 2010 Steelers win over the Titans, and while Steve McLendon wasn’t a superstar, he did turn into a pretty solid nose tackle.

McLendon’s departure paved the way for the Steelers to draft Javon Hargrave, who like Casey Hampton before him won the starting job out of the gate. Hargrave had a spectacular rookie year, and if he suffered some growing pains in his second year, the arrow is still pointed up on the nose tackle from South Carolina.

In a word, Johnny Mitchell has left Karl Dunbar with the tools he needs to do his job. And then some.

John Mitchell Transitions to True Assistant Head Coach Role

One of Mike Tomlin’s first moves after getting hired as Steelers head coach in 2007 was to add the title “Assistant Head Coach” to John Mitchell’s title. But as Bob Labriola implied, that was mainly a ceremonial title that carried few responsibilities.

  • One of the surprises of the Steelers 2018 off season was that John Mitchell would be stepping aside as defensive line coach and assuming the role as Assistant Head Coach full time.

Part of Mitchell’s role will be to take administrative tasks off Tomlin’s shoulders. He’s also going to help outreach efforts with former players from the Tomlin era. And word is part of his job is to give everyone “Tough Love” be it a player, an assistant coach or even Mike Tomlin himself when he sees something amiss.

  • That’s a new role for John Mitchell, and a new role for the Steelers.

But if Mitchell can reproduce the results he delivered as defensive line coach, then this might just be the change that pushes Pittsburgh’s quest for Lombardi Number Seven over the hump.

Like this? Please share via Facebook, Twitter etc...

“D”= “Disappointment” Steelers Free Agent Daniel McCullers Shows Sometimes Measurables Don’t Mean Much

Editors note: Steelers resigned Daniel McCullers on 3/22/18

Sometimes measurables don’t amount to much in NFL football.

Let’s pair that opening with a confession of sorts. When I started seriously following the Steelers as a teenager (as much you could follow the Steelers from suburban Maryland in those pre-internet days) I was also very much into pro wrestling. It was the heyday of the WWF, after all.

  • And my enthusiasm for the two “sports” led me to build football rosters comprised of wrestlers on the Apple IIc version of John Madden Football.

OK, enjoy a good laugh, but remember I was in Junior High then. The point to this tangent, is that this John Madden Football “project” was inspired in no small part by wondering “What would it be like if Andre the Giant had played football?”

In some ways, the 2014 NFL Draft gave the Steelers a similar opportunity, when Daniel McCullers was on the board in the 6th round. Here was a man so immense they called him “Shady Tree.” Surely, with the right tutelage  someone so thoroughly enormous couldn’t but help dominate, right? Well, as Big D Daniel McCullers is about to become a free agent, “D” doesn’t stand for domination, it stands for “Disappointment.”

Daniel McCullers, David Andrews, Steelers vs Patriots

In one of his rare action shots, Daniel McCullers goes head-to-head against David Andrews. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Daniel McCullers’ Steelers Career

Daniel McCullers sat on the bench during his rookie season only seeing his first action in the Steelers win over the Houston Texas. McCullers appeared in 8 more games as a rookie and only recorded two tackles, but looked capable of doing what nose tackles should do, clog up the middle of the field.

  • In 2015, during his second year McCullers played in 12 games and nearly doubled his snap count from his rookie season. Things seemed to be heading in the right direction.

In 2016 McCullers saw action in all 16 games, blocking a field goal against Miami and recording a sack in the season finale against Cleveland. However, despite the season-ending injury to Cam Heyward, McCuller’s snap count only increased from 9% to 17% – rookie Javon Hargrave’s played in 47% of defensive snaps by comparison.

To the surprise of many, McCullers made the Steelers final 53 man roster in 2017, but he only played in 13 snaps during the regular season, as L.T. Walton suplanted him as the team’s top backup nose tackle. That’s 13 snaps, not 13% of snaps.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Daniel McCullers

The case for the Steelers resigning Daniel McCullers comes down to this: 6’7” 352 pounds. A guy that big has got to be able to do some damage on the football field, right? And you might as well have him during damage for you rather than against you, right?

He hasn’t done it so far, but patience is a virtue, isn’t it?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Daniel McCullers

The fact that McCuller’s measurable forms the strongest case you can make for resigning Daniel McCullers is in itself damming. After four years in the NFL, McCullers has a total of 16 tackles. The Steelers have given Daniel McCullers chances, and he has never delivered.

At this point it would be hard to justify even a veteran minimum contract for McCullers, given that there has to be a rookie out there who offers legitimate “upside.”

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Daniel McCullers

AFC Divisional playoff loss to the Jaguars should tell you all you need to know about what the Steelers think of Daniel McCullers. The Steelers knew Stephon Tuitt was ailing going into the game, and probably knew that Jarvon Hargrave was less than 100%. Yet, they chose to leave McCullers on the inactive list.

  • John Mitchell took undrafted rookie free agents like Chris Hoke and Steve McLendon, and transformed them into competent, quality nose tackles.

Mitchell had four years to work with McCullers, but even the best position coaches struggle to develop potential at times. Could Karl Dunbar be the answer? The Steelers new defensive line coach brings an impressive track record to Pittsburgh an perhaps can argue that he sees something on film that would justify bringing McCullers back to St. Vincents.

That’s theoretically possible, but not practically plausible so expect McCullers and the Steelers to move in different directions.

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? Please share via Facebook, Twitter etc...

Is the Steelers 2017 Defensive Line Simply Too Talented Too Contain?

In-case you haven’t noticed, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward is having himself quite the year.

  • I’ve certainly noticed, as I’ve often caught myself Tweeting or simply saying out-loud, “What in the world has gotten into Cam Heyward?”

I almost always follow that up by saying, “He’s playing like Mean Joe Greene, circa 1972.” I always say 1972 because, according to former legends such as outside linebacker Andy Russell, it was around that time when Greene was simply unblockable.

Cameron Heyward, Marcus Mariota, Javon Hargrave, Steelers vs Titans, Steelers 2017 defensive line

Cam Heyward sacks Marcus Mariota as Javon Hargrave closes in as well. Photo Credit: Steelers.com via Steel City Underground

Back to 2017, and Heyward, who, after recording two in a 40-17 romp over the Titans at Heinz Field Thursday night, perhaps surprisingly leads the Steelers with seven sacks through 10 games.

I say surprisingly, because Cam Heyward is a 3-4 defensive end, but in-case you didn’t know, this isn’t Dick LeBeau‘s 3-4 defense any longer, where it was the job of the linemen to eat up blockers so as to allow the linebackers to roam free and make tackles.

Under third-year defensive coordinator Keith Butler, the Steelers defensive linemen have been allowed to play more of a one-gap style, which has freed them up to be disruptive and make plenty of plays of their own.

Maybe this was a product of changing times, or simply a reaction to having two stud defensive ends on the field, after Stephon Tuitt somehow managed to slip to Pittsburgh in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

If Heyward, 28, is in the prime of his career (and, if he’s not, I can’t wait to see what that looks like), Tuitt, 24, is fast-approaching that point. There is no question he’s an absolute monster when he’s on the field, as evidenced by the four quarterback hits he recorded in Pittsburgh’s 20-17 victory over the Colts in Week 10. The only problem with Tuitt so far in 2017 has been injuries, injuries that have forced him to miss four games.

Then there’s second-year nose tackle Javon Hargrave, a 2016 third around pick out of South Carolina State. Hargrave isn’t your father’s nose tackle, he’s an athletic freak of nature that the legendary Casey Hampton never was, a player who, according to Behind the Steel Curtain editor Jeff Hartman, has been the Steelers most underrated lineman this season, so good, in-fact, he probably deserves more time on the field (Hargrave usually comes out of the game when Pittsburgh puts in its nickel or dime defense).

  • I can’t believe I’ve made it this far without mentioning Tyson Alualu, a reserve defensive end that Pittsburgh signed in the offseason.

Not only has Alualu, a former first round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars back in 2010, been an important part of the Steelers defensive line rotation, he’s started those four games Tuitt had to miss due to injuries.

Steelers 2017 Defensive line, Stephon Tuitt, Josh McCown

Stephon Tuitt stops Josh McCown from gaining yardage in Steelers win over Browns. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

So, of the Steelers top four defensive linemen–three starters and a reserve–you have two first round picks (Alualu, 2010; Heyward, 2011); a second round pick in Tuitt, who surely would have been drafted in the first round had he not suffered an injury in his final season at Notre Dame; and Hargrave, a player that may have been drafted in the first round, had he not played his college ball at tiny South Carolina State.

  • Maybe what we have here is a defensive line that’s simply too talented to stop.

It seems like every offseason, we talk in absolutes about the Steelers offensive weapons, and how they’ll simply be impossible to stop if they could ever get on the field at the same time.

The Steelers tantalizing offensive weapons have spent the vast-majority of 2017 on the field at the same time, but here we are, 10 game into the season, and–Thursday night against the Titans, aside–they’ve been anything but impossible to stop.

 

The defensive line, on the other hand, has been a thing of beauty, a force that takes one back to those glory days of the early-70’s, when Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and L.C. Greenwood joined Mean Joe Green in making life miserable for offensive linemen and quarterbacks all around the NFL.

  • I realize it’s easier to double-team linemen in a 3-4 scheme. But, for one thing, you can’t double every lineman. Secondly, you still have  to deal with the four linebackers on the field.

While Ryan Shazier has continued his Pro Bowl-level play from a year ago at inside linebacker, Vince Williams is one sack behind Heyward for the team lead.

  • As for stud outside linebackers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, a strong candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year, they’ve combined for eight sacks so far this season.

With 34 sacks, the Steelers front seven has picked up where it left off a season ago, when it recorded 31 over the final nine games.

  • The Steelers pass-rush has simply been overwhelming in 2017.

I believe it all starts up front with the talented group of defensive linemen the Steelers employ.

They say football is won in the trenches. If that is the case, the Steelers 2017 defensive line may be too dominant to lose many battles in the foreseeable future.

 

Like this? Please share via Facebook, Twitter etc...

JuJu Smith-Schuster & Steelers Defense Run Away with Lions Game Ball Poll

As drama goes, the Steelers-Lions game ball poll offered very little. The story of the game revolved around one wide receiver who spent the evening streching the field, and a Steelers defense who effectively shrunk the field in the Red Zone.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Lions

JuJu Smith-Schuster sets Steelers touchdown reception record vs. Lions. Photo Credit: Tim Fuller, USA Today via Washington Post

The young wide receiver is of course the Steelers JuJu Smith-Schuster and the Steelers goal line defense.

  • Steelers vs Lions, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers Lions game ball winnersAs you can see, our voters here didn’t go out for a lot of nuance.

JuJu Smith-Schuster was the top vote getter by a whopping 23 votes, but he was course the Steelers goal line defense, anchored by Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu and Javon Hargrave.

  • Javon Hargrave led the individual voting with 4 votes, while Vince Williams followed  with 3 with another 3 for Tyson AluAlu and Cam Heyward.

Sean Davis got two votes, while Ryan Shazier polled one rounding out the defensive vote getters as Artie Burns was left shut out.

On the offensive side Ben Roethlisberger got 2 votes, the only player to draw multiple clicks.

Le’Veon Bell was shut out, which is a little surprising since he scored the team’s first touchdown and helped burn up the clock when the game’s outcome remained in doubt.

However, Bell did have a fumble, which cost the team dearly as it took 3 points off the board and gave the Lions a chance to add 3 more.

Thanks again to everyone who took time out to vote, and a special thanks to those who submitted write ins.

Like this? Please share via Facebook, Twitter etc...

Steelers Defeat Lions in Detroit – Rapid Reaction & Game Ball Poll

Wew! What a nail biter. The Pittsburgh Steelers held on to beat the Detroit Lions to the tune of 20 to 15 in a hard fought road match up that went down to the wire. As we always do here after Steelers wins, we invite you the citizens of Steelers Nation to vote Game Ball Winners.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Quandre Diggs, Steelers vs Lions

Steelers JuJu Smith-Schuster burns Quandre Diggs in his 97 yard tochdown scamper. Photo Credit: Duane Burleson

JuJu Smith-Schuster earns the top ballot slot which is no surprise.

Steelers vs Lions, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers Lions game ball winners

The esteemed Steelers rookie was easily the star of the night for Pittsburgh catching 7 passes for 193 yards including the game sealing touchdown. Right behind him however, we’re giving a nod to the entire Steelers Goal Line defense.

  • Keith Butler’s boys couldn’t do much right outside the 20, but they were impeccable at the goal.

Really, the Steelers goal line defense did the franchise’s defensive legacy proud. Joe Greene is smiling from his perch in Texas while Ernie Holmes, L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White are smiling down from above.

After that, we’re giving Ben Roethlisberger a ballot nod. Ben didn’t have the  best of nights, but he also had 2 sure touchdowns dropped. Le’Veon Bell gets a nod. Bell, who fumbled the ball, didn’t have one of his better nights either, but he ran hard and helped burn up clock late in the game. Antonio Brown also gets a nod after a quiet night that nonetheless saw him a few critical catches. Jesse James gets a ballot slot due to his 40 yard catch.

  1. On defense, Artie Burns leads the individual nominees.

Burns led the team in tackles, and recovered a fumble late in the game. Followed by Burns, we have Vince Williams, who was spectaular at the goal line. Ryan Shazier also had a strong game including breaking up at the goal line. Cameron Heyward and Tyson Alualu, who both had sacks and both excelled at the goal line also get nods.

Rounding out the defensive nominees are Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave. Davis came up big at the goal line and was 5th on the team in tackles, while Javon Hargrave simply ate Dwayne Washington alive at the goal line.

Remember, you, the citizens of Steelers Nation are not limited to these choices. If you think someone else deserves a game ball, write their name in. Or better yet, write their name in and leave a comment stating your case as to why you think they deserve one.

The Steelers win over the Lions ended at 12:30 am here in Buenos Aires and the work day looms tomorrow. But please check back for our full analysis of the Steelers latest victory.

Like this? Please share via Facebook, Twitter etc...

#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 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 John Mitchell likes to rotate his defensive lineman, so fans can expect to see Tyson Alualu, L.T. Walton spelling Tuitt as well as Cam Heyward and Javon Hargrave.

Like this? Please share via Facebook, Twitter etc...