Steelers 2017 Training Camp: 4 Question Pittsburgh Must Answer “Yes” to Bag Lombardi Number 7

As the Pittsburgh Steelers assemble for their 52nd training camp at St. Vincents in Latrobe, the franchise gathers with an unusual urgency. Everyone knows why. While smarting for yet another AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, Steelers signal caller Ben Roethlisberger uttered the dreaded “R” word last January.

  • The elephant in the room has been unmasked.

Super Bowl windows are notoriously hard to pry open and are wont to slam shut without warning. In the modern NFL, having a franchise quarterback forms a necessary, yet insufficient element to bringing home a Lombardi.

  • A quarterback can’t do it alone, even if his last name is Marnio, Elway, Brady and yes Roethlisberger.

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have known this and made their personnel choices accordingly since the Steelers rebuild began in earnest after 2012. The franchise returned to the playoffs in 2014, got a playoff win in 2015, and knocked on heaven’s door in 2016 only to be turned away.

Here are 4 Steelers 2017 Training Camp Questions whose answers will determine whether  Pittsburgh can bring home Lombardi Number 7 in 2017.

Beny Roethlisberger, Beny Roethlisberger St. Vincents, Steelers 2017 training camp

Can Ben Roethlisberger help Steelers bag Lombardi Number 7? Time will tell. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

1. Can Burns, Davis and Hargrave Avoid the Dreaded Sophomore Slump?

My, how times have changed. When decline of the Steelers defense became indisputable in 2013 commentators rightly pegged the dip to the to the 1,279 snaps logged by rookies during Dick LeBeau’s second to last year as defensive coordinator.

  • Three years later, it looked like rookies would write a similar story for Keith Butler’s second year as defensive coordinator.

People forget, but as Steelers scribe Carlos Ortega pointed out, at the middle of the 2016 the Steelers defense was on pace to match the 1988 Steelers defense’s records for futility. The turnaround of the Steelers defense on the back end of the 2016 is certainly one of the under-reported stories and it happened in large part because Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave stopped playing like rookies.

  • On paper, all three men will pick up right where they left off.

Think about it. Who were the only two Steelers to touch Tom Brady during the AFC Championship game? Davis and Hargrave. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler need these men to grow in their second years. And while that’s a reasonable expectation, it is far from a given.

Troy Edwards won the Steelers 1999 rookie of the year, and returned to training camp defended his lax training regimen by complaining that he couldn’t race air. Kendrell Bell looked like a Chad Brown, James Farrior, Ryan Shazier composite as a rookie 2001, but injuries and an unwillingness to learn coverage schemes surfaced at St. Vincents in the summer of 2002.

A sophomore slump by any of these stud 2016 rookies could have catastrophic consequences for the Steelers defense in 2017.

2. Can T.J. Watt (or perhaps Chickillo) Become Starter Capable at Outside Linebacker?

The emergence Burns, Davis and Hargrave only partially explains the Steelers 2016 defensive turnaround. The rest of the turn around was fueled by Bud Dupree’s return to the lineup and James Harrison’s promotion to starter.

  • James Harrison is, by definition, a living legend.

And if the 2016’s James Harrison wasn’t the same as the 2008 version of Harrison that won the NFL’s defensive player of the year award, he was still better than any other outside linebacker the Steelers had.

But it would be foolish for anyone to expect James Harrison to remain a 16 game 3 down, four quarter starter in 2017.

If the Steelers are to seriously contend for Lombardi number 7 in 2017, someone else must step up. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert drafted TJ Watt to be that man, and if OTAs are any indication, the linebacker clearly has the athletic skills. The Steelers need to use training camp to get him ready to contribute early and often.

The other alternative would be to see if Anthony Chickillo can contribute on the right side. That’s not something that Steelers coaches seem to be considering, but we suggested it last year and will do so again.

3. Can Senquez, Sensabaugh or Sutton Turn the Corner?

The narrative on Pittsburgh’s defense since getting torched by Aaron Rogers in Super Bowl XLV has been that the Steelers need to get better at cornerback. This narrative has played for so long that William Gay, one of the “culprits” in 2010, has gone from scapegoat to “Big Play Willie Gay” to a player whose skills are seen as being on the decline.

  • Keenan Lewis looked ready to break out in 2012, yet the Steelers let him go, gambling on Cortez Allen offering more “upside.”

Ike Taylor failed in his footrace with father time. Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin and Justin Gilbert came and went. If Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell give the Steelers two solid options as starting cornerbacks, the AFC Championship revealed their limits. But the depth behind him is simply unproven, save for William Gay whom many pundits argue should be gone.

The good news is that with Coty Sensabaugh, Senquez Golson, Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, the Steelers for the first time in a long time, bring some real quantity to training camp with them. If the Steelers are going to make a serious Super Bowl run, Carnell Lake must find a way to coax come quality out of that unit over the next few weeks on the grass of Chuck Noll Field.

4. Can the Steelers Build Viable Depth at Running Back Behind Bell?

It says here that any running back sets both regular season and playoff rushing single game rushing records that neither Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis could touch is special. But the self-life of NFL running backs is precariously short.

It also says here that the process of trying to extend Le’Veon Bell’s shelf life by limiting his carries a simple exercise on paper but a horrendously complicated endeavor when you try to do it in the heat of a game.

  • Did anyone really want to see Tomlin spell Le’Veon Bell with Fitzgerald Toussaint in his record setting performance over the Bills?

I don’t think so either. Regardless of whether he had a choice or not, Todd Haley over used Le’Veon Bell down the stretch in 2016. Yes, lack of a number two wide receiver to complement Antonio Brown had a lot to do with that, but the fact is the Steelers cupboard was bare at running back.

On paper, the Steelers have given themselves better options for improving running back depth in 2016, by saying goodbye to DeAngelo Williams, drafting James Conner, and signing Knile Davis. And Fitzgerald Toussiant will be back as well.

The days when the Steelers RB depth chart would read Bettis, Huntley, Zereoue, Fuamatu-Ma’afala and Witman, with some guy named on Kreider on the practice squad have ended and will never return. But the Steelers have rolled the dice for several seasons by going with an offensive backfield that was 2 or at and a half players deep.

  • And they’ve paid for it in the post season, in three straight years.

Even if Le’Veon Bell can stay completely healthy for a 19 straight games (yes, that’s counting on a 1st round playoff bye) Steelers running backs coach James Saxon needs to use his time at St. Vincents to establish solid depth behind his starter.

Has Ben Roethlisberger‘s Career Come Full Circle?

As a rookie, injuries forced Ben Roethlisberger into the lineup where he lead team that had finished 6-10 the season before to a 15-1 finish an a playoff run that ended with a AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots.

The loss was devastating to Jerome Bettis, who’d planned to retire and felt he’d lost his shot at a championship. On the sidelines, rookie Ben Roethlisberger implored “The Bus” to return, promising he’d get him his ring. Roethlisberger delivered as the Steelers triumphed in Super Bowl XL.

Now, as Roethlisberger contemplates parking his own bus, the question remains as to whether his teammates can deliver as he did for Bettis 12 years ago.

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Steelers Rookie Cornerbacks Cam Sutton & Brian Allen Aren’t Only Options for Boosting Secondary

As we move further away from the 2017 NFL Draft and into such things as rookie mini-camp, there are still those who don’t think the Pittsburgh Steelers did enough to try and improve their secondary.

  • But that’s usually the case with post-draft analysis, isn’t it?

For every pundit or fan who was happy with Pittsburgh’s selection of Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt in Round 1 and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in Round 2, there was at least one person who thought the Steelers should have picked other players or addressed different areas of the roster.

As it pertained to the secondary, the Steelers did address it, when they selected cornerbacks Cam Sutton (Tennessee) and Brian Allen (Utah) in the third and fifth rounds, respectively.

Cam Sutton,

Cam Sutton returning an interception for the Tennessee Volunteers. Photo credit: CBS Sports.

So, was the third round a little too late to take a corner, which was the case with Cam Sutton, a four-year starter who recorded seven interceptions and 30 passes defensed during his college career?

Some might say that it was, but when you consider Pittsburgh used its first two picks of the 2016 NFL Draft to take defensive backs–cornerback Artie Burns in the first round; and safety Sean Davis in the second round–it may put the draft strategy in a better context.

  • After all, you can’t address every single need in the first and second rounds. And since when were third round picks not expected to become starters sooner rather than later?

Now, if you want to argue that the selection of Brian Allen, a converted wide receiver who, by most accounts is a tremendous athlete but very green for his new position, could wind up on the cutting floor at training camp in August, you may be on to something.

Despite drawing some raves for his one-handed interception during Day 2 of the Steelers rookie mini-camp on Saturday, Brian Allen is most-likely a project player and may have to spend some time on the practice squad during his rookie season; or, if he’s lucky, he could make the team but be a healthy scratch each and every week, as he learns his craft under the guidance of Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake.

Like any other renovation project, there was still a great deal of dust visible in the Steelers secondary last season, this despite the defense improving  from 30th against the pass in 2015 to 16th. For example, there was the entirety of the AFC Championship game, in-which several Patriots receivers–including the little-known Chris Hogan–roamed through the defensive backfield almost totally uninhibited.

  • Speaking of which, the mantra among the fans since  the 36-17 beat-down in New England has been that the team needs to find a way to beat the Patriots.

Playing a zone against a quarterback as decorated as Tom Brady has pretty much been a recipe for disaster for the Steelers, going back to the days of Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu. But when you examine the resumes of Artie Burns and Cam Sutton, you’ll see that playing man coverage is something they excelled at in college.

Àrtie Burns,

Artie Burns following a 2016 interception. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

When the Steelers drafted Artie Burns with the 25th pick a year ago, many wondered how a defense that specialized in zone coverage could have taken a corner that excelled in man.

  • Maybe because the defense doesn’t want to specialize in zone coverage any longer.

It was argued that Pittsburgh couldn’t really switch to man coverage against the Patriots because it didn’t have the personnel for it. That may have been true then, but it could be a different story moving forward, if Burns continues to make progress, and a player like Sutton quickly shows that his college skill-set can translate to the pro level.

When you study what the Steelers have done in with the secondary in recent years, you’ll see that the transformation may have begun in 2014, with the free-agent signing of safety Mike Mitchell

There were high hopes within the organization that Senquez Golson, a very productive player who had 10 interceptions during his senior year, could step right in and be the slot corner. Unfortunately, due to injuries, not only did Golson miss his entire rookie year, he missed all of his second season as well.

  • As for Doran Grant, who, if memory serves me correctly, was drawing Allen-esque raves about two years ago, he never quite caught on.

There may still be hope for Senquz Golson, who certainly hasn’t suffered any catastrophic injuries and may just be hindered by a lack of experience. Then again, there those who fear that Senquez Golson could be this generation’s Kris Farris (ok, that’s a plug for another article on this site, but hey, its a good article.)

You throw Senquez Golson into the pot with Artie Burns, Mike Mitchell, Sean Davis, Cam Sutton, Brian Allen and, yes, Ross Cockrell, a former fourth round pick by the Bills who started all 16 games at corner last year and was often lined up against the other team’s top receiver, and you may have the makings of a pretty decent secondary sooner rather than later.

An old building isn’t renovated overnight, and neither is a struggling secondary.

 

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Steelers Draft Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback, Tennessee – The “Shouldn’t Have Been” Surprise

“Steelers Draft Josh Dobbs, in 4th round, quarterback, Tennessee.”

Raise your hand if you were both surprised and dumbfounded by the Steelers 4th round draft pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. (Mine’s raised.)

Raise your hand if you felt the Steelers had far more pressing needs to address with a pick as valuable as a 4th round draft selection. (Mine’s raised.)

Raise your hand if you felt that, given Ben Roethlisberger’s sentiments towards retirement, you felt that ALL of the Steelers 2017 draft capital should be devoted giving ben the weapons and players need to bring home one last Lombardi before Big Ben begins his “Life’s Work.” (Mine is STILL raised.)

  • If you’re hand has been raised, then you’ve likely got a lot of company in Steelers Nation.
Steelers draft Josh Dobbs, Joshua Dobbs

Steelers 2017 4th round pick Joshua Dobbs, former Tennessee Volunteer. Photo Credit: Jamie Squire, Getty Images

But you know what? All of us should have known this was coming back in January. Why argue that? Look no further than to the words of Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II who declared, “We haven’t drafted a quarterback for several years now, so we’re probably due to look at the position.”

  • While the Steelers President didn’t quite commit to anything, there’s also not a lot of ambiguity in Art II’s words.

As Observer-Reporter scribe Dale Lolley put those words into context for his readers, offering, “The Steelers will likely take a shot at a quarterback in the middle rounds of this year’s draft, much like they did with Jones a few years ago.”

Which is exactly what happened.

  • Let’s be clear, given the Steelers needs at inside linebacker and tight end, Steel Curtain Rising isn’t on board with using a 4th round pick on a quarterback.

But, as we’ve admitted more than once in recent days, there’s a reason why Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are drafting players, and yours truly is blogging. After the Steelers disastrous 2008 NFL Draft, the one player that this site took issue with was the pick of Dennis Dixon.

And while it’s true that Dennis Dixon never developed into the replacement quarterback for Charlie Batch, he did compile a 2-1 record as a starter, which isn’t bad for a 5th round pick.

Reviewing the Steelers Pick of Josh Dobbs on Its Merits

Necessary or not, Josh Dobbs is now a Pittsburgh Steeler. Dobbs brings the Steelers a 22-13 record, and combines strong arm strength with excellent mobility and an ability to throw well under pressure. While at Tennessee, Dobbs also earned a degree in Astrospace Engineering, which is not something you see every day in the NFL.

As Dobbs highlight reel reveals, excellent football players can indeed by smart:

When asked why he’s subjecting his body (and potentially his mind) to the rigors of playing football, Dobbs offered this:

I love the game of football. I have loved it since I played it when I was five. My mom signed me up at five years old, when we were running around in helmets bigger than your body. Football is all I know. Going to college, I could have played football or baseball, but I chose football because that was the sport I couldn’t see myself not playing. I love the game. I give it all, every time I step onto the field. It’s great to have a backup plan for 15 years down the road when I can’t play football. But until that day, I am giving it all to the sport I love.

When ask for his take on the Steelers 2017 fourth round selection Neal Coolong, Founder of NFL Wire Network which is part of USA Today Digital Properties, provided this evaluation:

Joshua Dobbs is a nice prospect. I see more in him than I did or do Landry Jones. Brings a nice athletic element. Forces competition for Landry Jones’s job next year, the final year of his contract, and they’d have him cheap for two years after that. While I can’t say overall I’m thrilled with the position they selected, I don’t mind Dobbs in the fourth.

So be it. Like it or not, the Steelers made Joshua Dobbs their 4th round pick. As noted a year ago when evaluating Kevin Colbert’s history with 4th round draft picks, the 4th round represents the balance point of the draft.

In time, we’ll know which direction Joshua Dobbs will go in. For now we’ll simply say Welcome to Steelers Nation Mr. Dobbs.

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Season Preview: Steelers 2016 Super Bowl Hopes Depend on Defense’s Improvement

The Pittsburgh Steelers quest for Lombardi Number 7 begins on Monday Night Football against the Washington Redskins. Many already peg Pittsburgh as AFC if not Super Bowl favorites. But journalists don’t award Lombardi trophies, teams win them. So the question must be asked:

  • Are the Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes legit?

Yes, Pittsburgh Steelers begin 2016 legitimate Super Bowl contenders. But, as Bill Cowher demonstrated in the 90’s, the chasm that separates contenders from champions is far wider than the one that splits pretenders from contenders.

The good news is that the Pittsburgh Steelers have the talent to leap that chasm. But contrary to conventional wisdom, the Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes depend on their defense….

steelers 2016 super bowl hopes, stephon tuitt, ryan shazier, keith butler defense, steelers defense

Improvement by defenders like Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier might key the Steelers 2016 Super Bowl Hopes. Photo Credit: Matthew Emmons, USA Today Sports

Steelers 2016 Offense – Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men….

235 days ago it all seemed so simple.

Against the hostile environs of Mile High Stadium, the Pittsburgh Steelers had fallen a fumble and a failed stop on a 3rd and 12 conversion short of beating the future Super Bowl champions Denver Broncos.

Yes, “The Standard is the Standard.” Mike Tomlin’s Steelers don’t do moral victories. But Pittsburgh’s “almost upset” came against the NFL’s best defense with Ben Roethlisberger playing below 100%, without Antonio Brown, without Maurkice Pouency, without DeAngelo Williams, and without Le’Veon Bell. Moreover, in consecutive playoff games Martavis Bryant had proven he could deliver.

  • Yes, it seemed simple.

Pittsburgh’s skill players would return to full health, and in 2016 the Steelers would field a fully armed and operational Death Star-like offense. Yes, 235 days ago it all seemed simple.

But then Heath Miller retired. And Martavis Bryant got suspended. Again. And Ladarius Green landed on the PUP. And Le’Veon Bell got suspended. Again. Suddenly, things aren’t quite so simple.

  • Make no mistake Steelers Nation, the Steelers offense will not regress in 2016.

If the Steelers preseason offensive masterpiece vs. New Orleans offers any indication, Pittsburgh’s offense will be plenty potent in 2016. But realistically, the Steelers won’t field the type of offensive juggernaut that both fans and coaches envisioned last January.

  • For starters, the Steelers are a mess at tight end.

Ladarius Green was supposed to give the Steelers offense another vertical threat. Instead, he’s yet to catch a pass in practice from Ben Roethlisberger. Jesse James has shown some ability to catch the ball, but he’s a long, long way from matching Heath Miller’s uncanny dependability.

At this point labeling Jesse James’ blocking as “suspect” is charitable at this point. David Johnson is a better blocker and can perhaps provide some relief, but this is one case where quantity can’t make up for quality. And that’s a reality that will impact both the passing and the running game.

  • But the Steelers are hardly doomed on offense.

Assuming the Steelers stay relatively healthy on both the offensive line and at the skill positions, Pittsburgh should have the weapons to overcome their apparent weakness at tight end.

The 2016 Steelers will field an offense that is worthy of a legitimate Lombardi contender. But the offense will need help if Pittsburgh is to win its 7th Lombardi Trophy.

Defensive Improvements Drive Steelers 2016 Super Bowl Hopes

At the beginning of the 2011 season Warren Sapp derided the Steelers defense as “Old, slow and done.” The Pittsburgh Steelers defense starts 2016 “Young, deep, and hungry.” Statisticians can quibble over whether and how much the Steelers defense improved from 2014 to 2015. But there’s one reality no one can dispute:

  • Keith Butler’s defense brought the big play back to Pittsburgh.

Measured in pure numbers, the 2015 Steelers 30 takeaways and 47 sacks were dramatic improvements over 2014. But more importantly, Keith Butler’s defenders revealed an uncanny ability to make splash plays with games on the line or when the opponent threatened in the Red Zone.

Steel Curtain Rising makes no apologies for defending Dick LeBeau, but the truth is his last several defenses had been starved for turnovers. In 2015, the defensive take away, once again became a weapon in the Steelers offensive arsenal.

  • It isn’t enough, however, for Keith Butler to find a way for the Steelers defense to continue these trends.

If the Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes are to come true, the Steelers defense must improve on third downs. Turnovers were spare Dick LeBeau final years, but the Steelers defense ranked 10th on third down in 2014 and 5th on third down in 2012. Last season, the Steelers fell 21st on 3rd down. Not unrelated to that troubling trend is the struggle the Steelers had in stopping tight ends in 2015.

  • It says here that Keith Butler’s front seven will be up to the task.

Yes, Cameron Heyward and Javon Hargrave are nursing injuries. Yes Bud Dupree is on the injured reserve. But the Steelers have the depth to compensate at linebacker and on the defensive line. Ricardo Mathews provides an immediate upgrade from Cam Thomas, and Daniel McCullers should also deliver more in his third season.

  • During the past off season Bob Labrolia remarked that the “over previous couple of seasons, the Steelers had an obscene wealth of depth at inside linebacker.”

With Vince Williams, L.J. Fort, Steven Johnson and Tyler Matakevich backing up Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier, the 2016 Steelers may actually be deeper at linebacker. On the outside, losing Bud Dupree hurts, but the Steelers should be able to pressure the passer by James Harrison, Arthur Moats, Jarvis Jones and yes, Anthony Chickillo.

Steelers Secondary Gamble is Primary Factor in Super Bowl Success

Outside of William Gay and Ross Cockrell, the Steelers will field a completely new complement of cornerbacks in 2016. So be it. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin ripped their depth chart at cornerback to shreds following the 2015 season.

  • To put this into perspective, when the Steelers cut Doran Grant, he of one defensive snap, they cut their most experienced backup cornerback.

Given that neither Cortez Allen, nor Brandon Boykin, nor Grant holds a spot on an active NFL roster, no one in the NFL has second guessed his move. Still, attempting to completely rebuild the bottom 3 slots of your cornerback depth cart with untested talent counts as a bold move. The Steelers need this move to work. Put simply:

Carnell Lake must employ some combination of Sean Davis, Artie Burns and Justin Gilbert to improve the Steelers pass defense.

The Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes depend on it.

A Word about Tomlin and the Trap Games

Criticizing Mike Tomlin’s teams for giving up trap games has become somewhat cliché in Steelers Nation. Sure, 23 of Mike Tomlin’s 52 losses have come to teams with losing records. But he’s also won 92 games and many of those came against winning teams. Which would you trade for?

  • Fair enough.

But remember that in 2008 the Steelers dropped contests to the Colts, Giants, Titans and Eagles – all playoff teams, while cleaning up in the games they were “supposed to win.” The 2008 Steelers of course also won both contests against the Ravens. Those later two facts gave the Steelers a much-needed bye and home field advantage in the playoffs.

  • The fact is trap games trip up Mike Tomlin teams just as overconfidence self-destructed so many Steelers squads during the Cowher-Donahoe era.

Ben Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl window remains open, but it’s closing nears with each season, and that means that Mike Tomlin must find a way to keep his team from playing down to the competition.

If he can do that, and if the front seven builds on its progress it made in 2015, and if the secondary can achieve respectability, then the Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes can be a reality, and Pittsburgh can climb the Stairway to Seven.

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Steelers Sign Running Back David Cobb to Practice Squad, Waive Cameron Stingily; Grant to Buffalo

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin continue to teak the Steelers roster ahead of Pittsburgh’s 2016 season opener vs. the Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football. Their latest move saw the Steelers sign running back David Cobb to the practice squad.

  • To make room for Cobb, the Steelers waived Cameron Stingily.
david cobb, steelers sign running back david cobb,

Steelers sign David Cobb to their practice squad. Photo Credit: Associated Press, used on Titans.com

The Minnesota Vikings originally drafted David Cobb in the 5th round of the 2015 NFL Draft, but parted ways with the running back after a disappointing rookie season that saw Cobb gain just 146 yards on 52 carries. All told, Cobb appeared in 7 games and made one start. Cobb spent training camp with the Tennessee Titans.

Drafted players generally aspire to do more than secure a spot on a practice squad, but injuries to Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams prompted the Steelers to start practice squad running backs in their last three playoff games.

The move likely spells the end of Cameron Stingily in Pittsburgh. Cameron Stingily joined the Steelers as part of their 2015 undrafted rookie free agent class, only to get injured in the Hall of Fame game. The Steelers brought him back in May, right after the 2016 NFL Draft, and word was that Stingily had lost weight and reported in excellent condition.

However, during the Steelers 2016 preseason, Cameron Stingily struggled, rushing twice for a net zero yards.

Doran Grant to Buffalo

The Pittsburgh Steelers really meant when they cut Doran Grant this time. A year ago the Grant made the Steelers inital 53 man roster, only to get cut to make way for two waiver wire pickups, causing a firestorm in Steelers Nation. Grant of course returned to the practice squad, and eventually the regular season roster.

Doran Grant headlined the Steelers 2016 roster cuts, but many expected the Steelers to resign him after putting Senquez Golson on injured reserve. Instead, the Steelers opted to put Bud Dupree on IR and bring Steven Johnson back.

  • Grant nonetheless had practice squad eligibility and their were other moves the Steelers could have made to free a spot in the 53 man roster.

Instead, the Steelers opted to allow rookie first round pick Artie Burns and new arrival Justin Gilbert to vie for the 4th cornerbacks slot. Doran Grant has signed with the Buffalo Bills practice squad.

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Steelers Cut Doran Grant, Steven Johnson, Travis Freeney and DeMarcus Ayers to Reach 53 Man Limit

The Pittsburgh Steelers waived 22 players to reach the NFL mandated limit of 53. Most significantly, the Steelers cut Doran Grant, former free agent Steven Johnson and their Travis Freeney and DeMarcus Ayers, their 6th and 7th picks from the 2016 NFL Draft.

  • The Steelers also traded for Cleveland Browns cornerback Justin Gilbert.
Doran Grant, Steelers vs. Lions preseason, steelers cut doran grant

Steelers cut Doran Grant and 21 others to reach NFL’s 53 man roster limit. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA TODAY Sports used on BTSC

The Steelers Justin Gilbert trade could explain the Steelers decision to cut Doran Grant, who’d gotten extensive work with the Steelers first team defense. Assuming Doran Grant clears waivers however, the Steelers could resign him, assuming the Steelers place Senquez Golson on injured reserve.

However, Golson has vowed to return in 2016, and by putting Golson on their initial 53 man roster, Golson will be eligible to return after the 8th week of the season. Steelers decision to waive Doran Grant last season caused a major firestorm in Steelers Nation, although Grant made it back via the practice squad, and then the active roster.

  • Given Grant’s higher profile role in the Steelers preseason defense, there’s no assurance that he will go unclaimed.

So the Steelers cut Doran Grant, but take a measured risk in doing so.

Steven Johnson Caught in a Numbers Game @ Inside Linebacker

Johnson’s departure amounts to a minor surprise, as the Steelers rarely cut unrestricted free agents whom they’ve signed. The Steleers signed Steven Johnson to provide depth at inside linebacker following the free agent departures of Sean Spence and Terence Garvin.

However, with Vince Williams locked in for another 3 years, and with the emergence of rookie Tyler Matakevich aka “Dirty Red” and L.J. Fort the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker is set.

Complete List of Steelers 2016 Cuts

The complete list of Steelers roster cuts is as follows:

Wide Receivers
Demarcus Ayers, Cobi Hamilton, and Marcus Tucker

Running Backs
Brandon Brown-Dukes and Cameron Stingily

Offensive Linemen
Shahbaz Ahmed, Antoine Everett, Matt Feiler, and Wade Hansen

Cornerbacks Montell Garner, Doran Grant, Al-Hajj Shabazz, and Donald Washington

Defensive Linemen
Lavon Hooks, Caushaud Lyons, and Johnny Maxey

Linebackers
Travis Feeney, Steven Johnson, and Jermauria Rasco

Quarterback
Bryn Renner

Safety
Ray Vinopal

The Steelers also designated tight end Paul Long as waived/injured.

Steelers 2016 Practice Squad Candidates

Travis Freeney and Demarcus Ayers could return to the Steelers via the practice squad, and so too could quarterback Bryn Renner, although the Steelers normally do not use practice squad slots on quarterbacks. Wide receiver Cobi Hamilton cornerback Al-Hajj Shabazz also had strong preseasons, and remain viable practice squad candidates.

  • However, cut down day 2016 likely spells the end of the pro football dreams of Donald Washington.

The Steelers gave Donald Washington’s NFL hopes a last summer of life this spring after he impressed sufficiently at rookie mini-camp. Washington, however was no rookie, having played safety for Todd Haley’s Kansas City Chiefs from 2009 to 2011. Washington therefore has no practice squad eligibility and the Steelers decision to waive him likely ends his last chance at NFL glory.

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5 Times When Steelers Preseason Troubles Signaled Regular Season Stumbles

The lackluster loss to the Lions started the Steelers 2016 preseason campaign. Steelers Nation is already weighing poor performances from the likes of Alejandro Villanueva and Sammie Coates along with the poor tackling against solid play by the likes of Daryl Richardson, Landry Jones and Doran Grant.

  • Both sides of the discussion will punctuate their arguments with “Its only preseason.”

And rightly so. Steelers preseason results seldom indicate much about the coming regular season, and that’s even when stars like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams are in the game.

But Steelers history also shows us that exceptions do exist. Click below for 5 times when preseason troubles signaled regular season Steelers stumbles.

Pittsburgh Steelers, steelers vs. lions preseason, Shamarko Thomas

Shamarko Thomas drops a should be interception in Steelers preseason loss to Lions; Photo Credit: Steelers.com

1. 1990 – Steelers Tread Treacherous Terrain of Walton’s Mountain

One surprise following the 1989 Steelers story book season was Chuck Noll’s decision, under pressure from the front office, to dismiss Tom Moore and hire Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator. On paper, the move looked smart. Walton’s offensive mind was well-regarded throughout the league.

  • The reality was something different.

In an August preseason game vs. the Washington Redskins, (yours truly’s first pro football game) the Steelers offense played dazed and confused, as Bubby Brister, Rick Strom and Randy Wright combined for 148 yards, most of which was gained during the game’s final two minutes. Afterwards, Chuck Noll opined that the only place the Steelers offense had to was up….

The 1990 Steelers opened the season without scoring an offensive touchdown during September.
Although the offense did find some rhythm in the middle of 1990, missed opportunities, misused personnel and miscommunication ultimately characterized Joe Walton’s tenure as Steelers offensive coordinator.

2. 1995 Bam is No Barry

Injuries, attitude and declining production prompted Pittsburgh to part ways with one-time franchise running back Barry Foster in the 1995 off season. The emergence of Bam Morris in 1994 made the Steelers decision much easier.

  • Steelers running back’s coach Dick Hoak raved about Morris during training camp.

But the truth is, Bam Morris’ preseason performances were forgettable.

Statistics are not easily available from those preseason contests. The record shows that Bam Morris did run well vs. the Bills in the Steelers first outing, going 4 for 24, but he went 7 of 16 in the next.

The latter performance telegraphed Bam Morris’ lack luster start to the 1995 season, where he just barely averaged over 3 yards a carry during the seasons first seven games, before Bill Cowher benched him in favor of Erric Pegram, who was an unsung hero of the 1995 AFC Championship season.

3. 1996 3 Headed Quarterback Derby Spins Its Wheels

When Neil O’Donnell departed after Super Bowl XXX the Steelers opted to promote from within as Bill Cowher held a three way quarterback competition in training camp between Mike Tomczak, Jim Miller and Kordell Stewart.

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Mike Tomczak and Kordell Stewart quarterbacked the Steelers in the mid-late 1990’s. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

  • The Steelers meticulously split time between the three quarterbacks, down to ensure equal practice snaps.

Bill Cowher hopped that one man would establish himself.

Unfortunately none did. Bill Cowher declared Jim Miller the starter just before the regular season, but clarified he was making a gut decision. Cowher didn’t trust his gut that much, as Jim Miller’s time as the Steelers starting quarterback lasted all of one half, as Cowher benched him in favor of Mike Tomczak.

While Tomczak led the 1996 Steelers to a 10-6 record and an AFC Central Championship, by the time December arrived it was clear that Tomczak wasn’t going to take the Steelers on a deep playoff run as Bill Cowher began to give Kordell Stewart time, who also wasn’t ready to be a signal caller.

4. 1998 Steelers Lost without John Jackson

John Jackson got blown away in the final preseason game of the 1988 season, infuriating Chuck Noll so much that the Emperor had to be talked out of cutting him. Fortunately Noll listened to his assistants, as John Jackson would be a mainstay at left tackle for the Steelers for the next decade.

But when John Jackson reached free agency at age 32 in 1997 and the San Diego Chargers offered to make Jackson the highest paid offensive lineman in the league, the Steelers said so long.

  • It was a wise move, and the Steelers had invested heavily in drafting offensive lineman to replace him.

Unfortunately, none of them were up to the task. Bill Cowher tried various combinations at both tackle positions throughout the preseason as Jerome Bettis struggled to finding holes. Finally, Cowher moved Will Wolford to left tackle, slide Justin Strzelczyk to right tackle, and the offensive line was OK, until Strzelczyk got injured in a Monday night contest vs. the Kansas City Chiefs.

Jamain Stephens, 1996’s first round draft pick, finally got his chance to start, but the image of Bettis lighting into Stephens for not blocking well enough is the enduring memory of his tenure at right tackle.

It wouldn’t be until 2000 that the Steelers restored stability to left tackle, and their entire offensive line, but the troubles the Steelers experienced during their 1998 preseason campaign foreshadowed it all.

5. 2013 0-4 Preseason Foreshadows 0-4 Steelers Start

Look at the Steelers preseason results from 2007 to 2012 and there’s one constant X-1. The Steelers never lost more than a single game in preseason, irrespective if they finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs or playing in the Super Bowl.

  • Then came the Steelers 2013 preseason campaign.

For the first time in the Mike Tomlin era and the first time since Bill Cowher’s final season, the Steelers laid a goose egg in preseason. Commentator’s cautioned “Its only preseason” and Mike Tomlin explained the losses away, indicating that the men largely responsible for those losing efforts would find themselves on the waiver wire.

  • And they did. But those preseason losses also revealed the limits of the Steelers depth.

Depth that injuries to the starting running back, the two chief backup running backs, two starting tight ends, starting center, starting cornerback, and starting inside linebacker would test to the limit. The end result was the Steelers 0-4 start after an embarrassing loss in London to the Vikings.

In 2014 and 2015 the Steelers went 1-3 and 1-4 in the preseason, yet finished in the playoffs both times, so the “its only preseason” credo held true then. But 2013 was one year when piss-poor preseason performance signaled real trouble, at least at the start of the season.

 

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Lack Luster Steelers Drop Preseason Game to Lions, 30-17

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their 2016 preseason schedule with a 30-17 pasting at the hands of the Detroit Lions Friday night at Heinz Field, as several key members on the offensive side of the ball were given the night off.

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Sammie Coates can’t hold on as Steelers Lose to Lions 30-17 in 2016’s first preseason outing; Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham, AP via ESPN.com

Pittsburgh jumped out to a 7-0 lead in the second quarter, after cornerback Doran Grant intercepted a pass from Detroit backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky and raced 39-yards down the near sideline and into the end zone.

Later in the second quarter, with the Steelers leading, 7-3, backup quarterback Landry Jones, starting in-place of Ben Roethlisberger, hooked up with Darrius Heyward-Bey to increase the advantage to 14-3.

  • From there, it was all Detroit, as the Lions scored 27 of the next 30 points.

Detroit dominated in every facet of the game–including total yards (379-187), time of possession (34:02-25:58) and first downs (20-10).

Preseason or not, first game or not, the overall performance of his team couldn’t have been pleasing to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who didn’t appear to be very happy on the sideline, even as his team nursed a 14-13 lead in the first half.

The Steelers second string defense and special teams missed countless tackles in the second half, namely during the 96-yard kickoff return by Dwayne Washington and on the 27-yard touchdown catch and run by Jace Billingsley.

Some Steelers Shine, Despite Lackluster Performance

Despite the Steelers lackluster performance, Pittsburgh does take some positives away from the game.  For starters, Landry Jones looks like he has solidified his position as the backup to Ben Roethlisberger. Despite completing just six of 12 passes for 55 yards and a score, Jones looked to be in command of the offense and probably deserved a better fate, as his receivers appeared to drop several catchable passes.

  • Second round pick Sean Davis saw extensive action in the secondary, and while he didn’t dazzle, the stage didn’t appear to be too big for him, as Mike Tomlin might say.
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James Harrison closes in in Matthew Stanford in Steelers preseason loss to Lions; Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Daryl Richardson, a virtual unknown at running back, may have put himself firmly on the radar of his coaches and the fans, after rushing for 45 yards on 12 carries. With Le’Veon Bell‘s suspension looming and DeAngelo Williams pushing 33, the Steelers need a solid number 3 running back.

Ricardo Mathews, the reserve defensive end Pittsburgh signed in March, had a big night pressuring the quarterback, and his near-sack of Orlovsky in the second quarter led to a horrible decision that landed in the waiting arms of Grant, who scored the night’s first touchdown.

And, finally, James Harrison, the 38-year old wonder of a linebacker, beat left tackle Taylor Decker, the Lions’ first round pick, on a play in the first quarter and stripped Matthew Stafford of the football (the first of two takeaways for the defense).

As for negatives. Aside from the lopsided box score, Sammie Coates, a receiver being counted on heavily  this year to replace the suspended Martavis Bryant, had a night he’d like to forget; not only did Coates catch just three passes for 18 yards, he dropped another pass and fumbled twice.

On the injury front, quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who missed all of last season, left the game in the second half with what was reported as a hamstring injury and never returned.

Next up on the preseason schedule is a date with the Eagles next Thursday night at Heinz Field.

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Senquez Golson’s Lisfranc Injury = 1 Moment a Blogger Begs to Be Wrong

There are times when bloggers want to blast to the world: “I was right.” Then there are times when bloggers beg to have been wrong. Senquez Golson’s Lisfranc injury falls into the latter category.

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Senquez Golson throws his helmet in frustration after his Lisfranc injury; Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

The Pittsburgh Steelers set a daunting challenge for themselves during 2016 training camp: Rebuild the secondary on the backs of 4 young and untested in the form of first round pick Artie Burns, second round pick Sean Davis, 2015’s 4th round pick Doran Grant, and 2015’s 2nd round pick Senquez Golson.

As noted when the Steelers signed Artie Burns, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake have gone all in on the youth movement at secondary, trading Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin and Cortez Allen’s cumulative 82 game appearances, 42 starting performances and 17 interceptions for a grand total of 1 snap of NFL experience.

  • Colbert and Tomlin gambled boldly, but the duo rarely makes personnel decisions based in fear

Fair enough, but four days into training camp Senquez Golson’s Lisfrac injury shows just how thin the Steelers margin of error is. With William Gay and Ross Cockrell, the Steelers should be set at their number 1 and number 2 cornerback positions. The slot remains a mystery. The Steelers had been hoping Golson would emerge as the slot cornerback, which would have given the team greater flexibility manning their Dime defense.

Many outsiders have pegged Davis as the member of the Steelers 2016 draft class most likely to contribute in 2016, giving him an outside chance of unseating incumbent starter Robert Golden. While Davis chances of unseating Golden just took at hit, the probability of him seeing playing time in September just increased exponentially.

Senquez Golson’s Lisfranc Injury Latest Unlucky Twist

The Steelers turned a lot of heads when they picked Golson in the 2nd round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Golson put a lot to like on tape while at Ole Miss, but at his 5’9” frame does not exactly qualify him as a prototypical NFL cornerback.

  • At this point in the young corner’s career, Golson’s same frame suggest fragility.

As Sean Spence showed in 2014, two consecutive injuries hardly spell doom for a promising young player. Spence missed 2012 and then 2013, only to add depth and stability in 2014 and helped author one of the biggest one year-swings in depth chart quality in Steelers history.

Along those lines, a Lisfranc injuries rarely end seasons, as Matt Spaeth and Le’Veon Bell suffered Lisfranc injuries during training camp in 2013 and both returned to post strong season.

  • In other words, fans foaming at the mouth to label Senquez Golson a bust should cool their jets.

Still, a torn rotator cuff ended Senquez Golson’s rookie year, a “mysterious” MRI during Steelers OTA’s, four practices and now a Lisfranc injury will sideline him for at least 12 weeks define Senquez Golson’s NFL resume. Clearly Senquez Golson suffers from an uncanny string of bad luck. And that’s a shame for the Steelers secondary.

Even before his MRI or the the Lisfranc injury, Steel Curtain Rising wondered aloud if Senquez Golson might be this generation’s Kris Farris. Senquez Golson’s lisfranc injury moves that prophecy a notch closer to fulfillment – and Steel Curtain Rising sorely hopes it will move no closer.

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Pittsburgh Signs Artie Burns, Highlighting Steelers 2016 Secondary Gamble

Week 3 of OTA’s saw the Steelers sign Artie Burns to his rookie contract, and while the “delay” of Pittsburgh signing their 1st round cornerback passed for “news” the fact was that the outcome was never in doubt. However, the Artie Burns signing does highlight a rather unique gamble the Kevin Colbert is taking with the Steelers secondary.

  • The outcome of this gamble is open to doubt however, and the Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes rest on its success.
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Artie Burns @ Steelers OTA’s with the ball in his hands; Photo Credit Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

A few numbers highlight just how dramatic of a gamble the Steelers braintrust is taking with their 2016 secondary:

  • 182 games, 42 starts and 17 interceptions vs. 1 snap

The first set of numbers represents the total number of NFL games, starts and interceptions made by Cortez Allen, Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin and the second number is the cumulative NFL experience of Doran Grant, Senquez Golson and Artie Burns.

  • To say that the Steelers have embraced a youth movement in the secondary mildly understates things.

William Gay is a proven commodity and Ross Cockrell has some solid tape, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, and Carnell Lake have gone all in on their calculation that they can perform addition by subtraction in the Steelers secondary.

Success in the NFL salary cap era often boils down to winning more calculated risks than your peers do. The Steelers are no stranger to this. The Steelers played the entire 2015 season with three starter capable defensive lineman, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Steve McLendon and the unit was a defensive strength. On the offensive line, they trusted that Alejandro Villanueva was sufficient at offensive tackle and that gamble paid off too.

Is Artie Burns the answer for the Steelers at cornerback? Here’s an answer you won’t often see on Steelers blogs – I have no idea. Some pre-draft rankings placed a firm 1st round grade on him. Others had him pegged as a 3rd or even 5th rounder.

Neal Coolong of USA Today’s Steelers Wire contends that Artie Burns lacks both a strong tape and athletic measurable. In contrast, Matt C. Steel on Steel City Insider, while conceding that Burns must develop, goes as far as to compare some of Burns measurable to Darrell Revis.

  • As with all draft picks, time whether Artie Burns was a steal, a solid value pick or a reach.

But in some ways that misses the point, because the Steelers 2016 gamble on the secondary Doesn’t just depend on Artie Burns delivering, but on Senquez Golson and Doran Grant showing themselves as players as well.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are one NFL organization that thinks long term, so the success or failure of this gamble won’t be measured solely by how well Burns, Golson and Grant play this season. But the ability of the Steelers to improve their pass defense in 2016 does likely rest on these gentleman’s shoulders.

And to bring home Lombardi Number Seven in 2016, the Steelers pass defense must get better….

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