The “Other” Steelers 2019 Off Season Priority: Beefing Up Running Back Depth

What’s the Pittsburgh Steelers biggest priority of the 2019 off season? Well, improving at inside linebacker and at cornerback (if not safety as well) top everyone’s list. As they should. Next comes finding someone to “replace” Antonio Brown.

  • That’s where most people’s lists tend to end. They should not.

There’s another off season priority for the Steelers, and while it make take a backseat to the priorities listed above, ignoring it will only come at Pittsburgh’s peril. The Steelers need to strengthen the depth of their offensive backfield. In doing so they’d be wise to remember the contributions of the Mewelde Moore back in 2008…

Mewelde Moore, David Jones, Steelers vs Bengals 2008

Mewelde Moore, the unsung hero of the Steelers 2008 season. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

 

Steelers Busted Up Backfield Syndrome

It is kind of funny if you think about it. Steelers fans find no shortage of topics to criticize Mike Tomlin on these days, whether its clock management, challenges, talent evaluation, locker room control or getting tripped up on trap games.

Yet the numbers are there for all to see. Whether we’re talking about Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell or the duo of Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, Mike Tomlin has shown little inclination to limit the work load of his starting running backs.

  • While that’s a debatable strategy to begin with, it is even more dubious if when you fail to adequately staff your running back depth chart.

This is after all the team that started Ben Tate, Josh Harris and Dri Archer in the playoffs one year, and Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman a year later.

First Step – Admitting You Have a Problem

While the Steelers brass hasn’t issued a mea culpa, there are signs that the coaches have realized they have a problem. Before it became clear that Le’Veon Bell’s hold out would become permanent, James Conner was on track to touch the ball 378 times this year.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

Although the Steelers dramatically cut back on Conner’s carries starting with the Panther’s game, James Conner got hurt anyway. That forced rookie Jaylen Samuels into the starting role despite never having played running back full time in his football life.

Fortunately, Samuels was up to the task. Unfortunately, it left the Steelers one play away from starting Stevan Ridley or Trey Edmunds as their starting running back.

The Steelers offense couldn’t control the clock, and airing the ball out resulted in more turnovers – even if Ben Roethlisberger’s interception percentage was down.

Solution Staff Moore Running Back Depth

While it is easy to play arm chair head coach and criticize Mike Tomlin and Randy Fitchner for passing too much, the fact is that their personnel left them little choice. This is one case where the arm chair general managers have the upper hand. Steelers history backs this up.

  • It certainly is true that the passing game is preeminent in today’s NFL
  • It may also be true that “Three yards and a cloud of dust” smash mouth “Steelers football” only delivered wins in Super Bowl’s IX and Super Bowl XL

But it is also true that the Steelers lone Lombardi Trophy of the Tomlin era came in 2008, when the front office had the foresight to staff a running back depth chart that was 3 and arguably 4 players deep. The plan was rely on Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall, with Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell serving as backups.

Mewelede Moore hadn’t just been overlooked by the Pittsburgh media, having signed as a free agent the same day Ben Roethlisberger signed his first extension, the coaches had ignored him too as Carey Davis got the call when Mendenhall got injured in Baltimore.

Moore rushed for 120 yards the following week, and piled up just under 800 all-purpose yards while only making 4 starts. I’ve long argued that Mewelede Moore was the unsung hero of the Steelers 2008 season which ended in victory at Super Bowl XLIII.

  • How might have 2018 turned out had the Steelers dedicated a roster spot to another running back instead of say, Justin Hunter?

We’ll never know. But we do know that the Steelers brass’ decision to staff running back depth charts which are essentially only two players deep has carried steep costs in December and January time and time again.

James Conner and Jaylen Samuels give the Steelers two good backs going into 2019. Regardless of whether he comes from free agency or the 2019 NFL Draft, the Steelers must bring a third running back to Pittsburgh; Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin must find the 2019 equivalent of Mewelde Moore.

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Le’Veon Bell’s Holdout Leaves Steelers Depth Chart at Running Back in Familiar, Precarious Position

Le’Veon Bell’s absence and refusal to sign his franchise tender has been discussed to death in Steelers Nation. But there’s one story element that has largely been ignored: Le’Veon Bell’s holdout leaves the Steelers running back depth chart in both a familiar and precarious position.

Last week, while heading down to La Boca for the Buenos Aires edition of the #SteelersWorldWide photo, Agustin Esposito asked me, “¿No te parece con Nix, Conner, Ridley, Samuels, Nix y Bell y los Steelers estan quedando con demasiados corredores?”

James Conner, Steelers vs Bengals, Jesse James, Leveon Bell's holdout

James Conner 4th quarter run in 2017 Steelers win over Bengals. (Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Fansided.

Since most of you don’t speak Spanish, Agus was asking if by keeping James Conner, Stevan Ridley, Jaylen Samuels Roosevelt Nix and Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers weren’t carrying too many running backs.

  • My response was no, the Steelers weren’t keeping too many running backs.

The answer surprised Agus and he asked me to explain. And I pointed out to the Steelers of starting Ben Tate, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Dri Archer and Jordan Todman in all too recent playoff games.

  • The Steelers locker room is rallying around James Conners, who has had a strong preseason.

Maurkice Pouncey even argued that were it not for his injury history, former Pitt Panther James Conners would have been a first round pick. I don’t follow college ball, but Pouncey went to a major NCAA program, so he has the credentials to speak on the subject.

James Conner ran very well in his limited opportunities in 2017, and he authored a very strong preseason. And if Conners comes out and rips off a 100 yard game against the Browns and then again against the Chiefs, momentum will build in the Steelers Nation for Kevin Colbert to simply lift the tag and let Le’Veon Bell walk (which he won’t do.)

  • But what if James Conner gets hurt?

Stevan Ridley brings the Steelers solid experience, and his resume is that of a respectable number 2 NFL running back. But could he carry the load over the long or even medium term? Jaylen Sanders started the summer slow, but finished preseason as one of the player whom Mike Tomlin termed as “leaning into the tape.”

That probably earned Sanders a spot in the roster, although the suspicion here is that had Bell reported on Labor Day, Jaylen Sanders very well might have joined Olasunkanmi Adeniyi on IR. Sanders will be on the roster and likely get a helmet on game day against the Browns.

Which is good. Expect the rookie’s pass catching skills to be in demand with Vance McDonald out, and an injured Xavier Grimble starting opposite Jesse James in the number 2 tight end spot.

Pro offenses have evolved, and the Steelers roster composition has evolved with it. The days of carrying 5 running backs and a fullback are probably over. Moreover, when Ben Roethlisberger is your quarterback, investing so much salary cap and roster space in your running back depth chart makes even less sense.

  • But carrying only 3 running backs plus a fullback is cutting things a little too close.

As observed here last month, the Steelers have struggled to keep their top two running backs healthy for an entire season during the Mike Tomlin era. In 2008, the Steelers lost Willie Parker for a spell, then lose Rashard Mendenhall. Fortunately they had Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell to shoulder the load.

In 2010 Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman remained healthy for the entire season, with Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer only seeing spot duty carrying the ball.

  • Both of those season ended with the Steelers going to the Super Bowl.

That remains Pittsburgh’s goal this year, but even if James Conner performs above expectations, Le’Veon Bell’s holdout greatly reduces the Steelers ability to adsorb an injury at running back.

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

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

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

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

Steelers draft James Conner, James Conner, 2017 NFL Draft

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

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

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

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

James Conner described getting drafted by his hometown team as:

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

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

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

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

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

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DeAngelo Williams Reaches Free Agency – Arm Chair Steelers General Managers Beware…

On paper, staffing a backup running back seems simple: Once a feature back establishes himself, you find a good number two back to slot him behind him. Your starter carries the bulk of the load, but you use your number two to keep your starter fresh and your backup sharp.

  • The process couldn’t be any simpler on paper.

Something simple like this is what the Pittsburgh Steelers had in mind when they signed DeAngelo Williams as a free agent during the 2015 off season. And while bringing DeAngelo Williams to Pittsburgh has been one of Kevin Colbert’s wiser free agent acquisitions, very little has gone according to plan.

Now, at age 34 and after 11 NFL seasons, DeAngelo Williams is a free agent, and the Steelers need to decide if he’s in their plans for the future.

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs. Patriots, DeAngelo Williams touchdown AFC Championship, DeAngelo Williams free agent

DeAngelo Williams AFC Championship touchdown may be his last, for Steelers at least. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of DeAngelo Williams Steelers Career

It says here that Mike Tomlin made the right move in cutting LeGarrette Blount after he abandoned his teammates during the Steelers 2014 win over the Titans. It also says here that Le’Veon Bell’s injury against the Bengals left the Steelers with their pants down when the playoffs arrived.

Clearly, the Steelers needed to find a reliable backup to Le’Veon Bell. Many were skeptical given that DeAngelo Williams was 32 and his production and been declining. Knowing that Le’Veon Bell was facing his first suspension, the Steelers were banking heavily on DeAngelo Willams to deliver.

  • And deliver he did, with two strong performances during the first two games of the 2015 season.

After Le’Veon Bell’s return, DeAngelo Williams saw his touches drop to single digits, but against the Bengals DeAngelo Williams was once again forced to carry the load for the Steelers rushing offense, as Le’Veon Bell was lost for the year. And DeAngelo Williams delivered again, proving to be a weapon rushing on the ground and catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger through the air.

  • Unfortunately, DeAngelo Williams got injured in the Steelers season finale against the Browns, and missed the playoffs.

In 2016, DeAngelo Williams again opened the season as the Steelers starting running back as Le’Veon Bell served his second suspension for substance abuse, and once again DeAngelo Williams delivered on the ground and through the air.

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs Raiders, DeAngelo Williams free agent

DeAngelo Williams ran for 170 yards and caught passes for 55 more in the 2015 Steelers win over the Raiders. Photo Credit: Kirby Lee, USA Today

Word was the Steelers would use Williams to spell Bell, but it didn’t work out that way, as DeAngelo Williams only touched the ball 8 times after Bell’s return. Nonetheless, those 8 touches were sufficient for Williams to injure himself, as he missed all but the final game of the Steelers 2016 season recovering from minor knee surgery.

DeAngelo Williams started in the Steelers New Year’s Day win overtime win over the Browns in a performance that didn’t make many fantasy owners happy, but D William’s performance was a lot better than statistics indicated.

DeAngelo Williams stepped in when Le’Veon Bell got injured in the AFC Championship, and ripped off a few impressive runs, including a touchdown, but overall the Patriots defense contained him on the ground, although he did do well catching the ball out of the backfield.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning DeAngelo Williams

Let’s acknowledge that an NFL running back who is about to turn 34 offers no “Upside” whatsoever. But does mean that a running back in his mid-30’s has nothing to contribute? Not at all. In fact, the opposite can often be true.

Last year this site set out to prove that because of his age, DeAngelo Williams was in danger of suffering a sharp drop-off from one season to the next because of his age. Logically, this seems like a no-brainer.

  • Research reveals that the opposite often comes to pass.

It is counter intuitive, but if an NFL running back both the talent and the durability to continue playing into his mid-30’s then, more often than not, he continues to perform at a reasonably high level. (Seriously, it took a ton of research, so click here and please read the article.)

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs Redskins, DeAngelo Williams Free Agent

DeAngelo Williams, at age 33, imposed his will on the Washington Redskins in the Steelers 2016 opener. (Photo Credit: Brad Mills, USA Today.)

Indeed, during the past two season, DeAngelo Williams has played in 28 games and missed 8 due to injury, whereas Le’Veon Bell has played in 20 games and missed 8 to injury.

  • Which Steelers running back has had more durability issues?

In DeAngelo Williams the Steelers have a viable number 2 running back who serves as a dual threat. If Le’Veon Bell can’t go, the Steelers offense is clearly in better hands with DeAngelo Williams in the backfield than Fitzgerald Toussaint.

Sure, DeAngelo Williams yards-per-carry might have dropped by a full yard between 2015 and 2016, but a big part of that drop is due to Williams getting carries in obvious kill the clock situations. DeAngelo Williams may be aged, but in this case age doesn’t signify “old” but rather “experienced.”

The Steelers should resign DeAngelo Williams.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning DeAngelo Williams

The story of the “should be over the hill football player defying father time” should stir the sentiments in any Steelers fan who saw players like John Stallworth, Dwayne Woodruff and Jerome Bettis perform at a high level long after they weren’t supposed to and leave the game on their own terms.

Those stories hold their rightful place in Steelers lore, but such sentimentality won’t win the Steelers a Seventh Super Bowl. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin know that, and Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II understand that too. The Steelers wanted to draft a running back last year, but couldn’t find one. This year they plan to address the position early in the 2017, and that’s the smart move.

  • Part of the reason the Steelers ran Le’Veon Bell so much during their 9 game winning streak was no one else was available.

The Steelers need a backup running back who will be available for 16 games, and DeAngelo Williams hasn’t quite done that, and expecting him to do it at age 34 simply isn’t realistic. The Steelers also need to think of the future at the position.

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs Browns, DeAngelo Williams free agent, DeAngelo Williams injury

DeAngelo Williams, carted off the field in the Steelers 2015 finale against the Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Sporting News

Should that prove to be his final year, either due to free agency or, God forbid, injury who is going to take over in 2018? Certainly not DeAngelo Williams nor Fitzgerald Toussaint. The Steelers need to draft and develop another running back, which makes DeAngelo Williams a luxury the Steelers can’t afford.

DeAngelo Williams has been a tremendous free agent pickup. He’s added a lot in the locker room and to the community. But it is simply time to move on.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers & DeAngelo Williams – Beware the Arm-Chair GM

If there’s any position that gets arm-chair general managers into trouble, it is running back. This writer knows this from bitter experience. The first lesson came in the 1995 Steelers run to Super Bowl XXX.

John L. Williams, 1995 Steelers

John L. Williams. Photo Credit: Scout.com

John L. Williams, the fullback the Steelers had signed to replace Merril Hoge, had arrived in 1994 at age 30 and upgraded the position (and these words come from a fan who practically worshiped Merril Hoge.) In 1995, Williams got injured and saw his production drop off. Yet, Williams made several critical plays during the Steelers regular-season close and playoff run.

  • Bringing him back to Pittsburgh seemed like a no-brainer.

Except it wasn’t. Not only did John L. Williams not return to Pittsburgh, he never got a wiff from another NFL team.

While Willie Parker’s injuries allowed Rashard Mendenhall to claim the starting role in 2009, Parker continued to get work and continued to perform well a backup. In the closing series of Steelers 2009 season finale against Miami, Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians opted to give Willie Parker 10 straight carries.

Willie Parker delivered with a display of power rushing that would have done Franco Harris proud, finishing with 91 yards and 7.98 yards per carry against a defense that knew he was coming. Willie Parker seemed to be making a statement that he was far from done.

  • Alas, Willie Parker would never carry in a regular season game again.

Isaac Redman did something similar. In October 2012 he was rushing for 150 yards against the defending Super Bowl Champion Giants. In October 2013 he got cut and was out of football.

In all three cases this writer thought that each of those running backs had something left; Steelers coaches concluded differently.

  • In all three cases the Steelers brain trust was right.

Word out of the South Side is that Steelers management has decided to move on from DeAngelo Williams. This writer would love to protest that they’re wrong, but history has shown that the Steelers have a pretty good eye for determining when it’s time for a running back (Franco who?) to hang it up.

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

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Watch Tower: Insight into What Makes Tomlin Tick, Steelers Situation @ Safety and Much More

The  NFL’s “true off season” doesn’t leave many Steelers stories for the Watch Tower to shine its light on, but a few do stick out ranging from the new insight into how Mike Tomlin operates, Steelers situation at safety, the evolution of the Steelers defense and creative approaches to “content” in this otherwise dead period for Steelers news. Read on…

Mike Tomlin, Bruce Arians, Art Rooney II

Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians; Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press

Insight into How Tomlin Ticks via Arians Interview

The Bruce Arians firing made news recently. Again. If you’re reading this, you already know the details and have your own opinion formed on it. No need to repeat. HBO’s Real Sports mostly milked an established story for shock value, but in doing so it lent some insight into Mike Tomlin:

I got a call on Monday and said, ‘I can’t get you the money.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ He said, ‘No, I can’t get you a contract.’ I said, ‘Are you firing me?’ He said, ‘No…’ ‘Well… it’s just a matter of words, Mike. Okay. If I don’t have a contract, I’m fired.’ And he said, ‘I’m going to fly down and talk.’

So where’s the insight, you ask? Unlike Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin has never had an itchy trigger finger when it comes to firing assistant coaches. Yet, if Arians’ account is correct, shows that not only does he have a difficult time doing it, he also struggles with breaking bad news.

  • This is the second example we have of Tomlin breaking bad news by distancing himself from it.

As the Watch Tower noted last July, Dani Bostic, then writing for Behind the Steel Curtain, reported that when the Steelers cut Isaac Redman, Tomlin took much of the same tact, declaring “’I tried fighting for you.’” The Watch Tower freely concedes that this insight into Tomlin falls into the category of “interesting, but not terribly useful.” Nor should it suggest anything negative about Mike Tomlin as a person, coach or leader.

Chuck Noll, a man of unquestioned integrity, struggled when delivering bad news to players or coaches headed out the door. But its oft been argued that the Tomlin that Steelers Nation sees in front of the cameras isn’t the same Tomlin behind the scenes, and the HBO report helped pull back the veil.

“New” Name in Mix for Steelers @ Safety?

For the second consecutive year, Steelers secondary remains the team’s biggest question mark heading into training camp. In fact, one could argue that the question mark has grown from 2015 to 2016.

There’s perhaps in bigger position battle than that at free safety. Robert Golden enters camp as the front runner, with second round draft pick Sean Davis in the mix and Shamarko Thomas in contention (on paper at least.)

In an article covering Robert Golden’s determination to claim the starting roster spot, Kaboly observed: “…and there even is talk about Will Allen being an eventual option.” Will Allen is of course not a “new” name to the Steelers, but Mark Kaboly is the first credentialed Steelers journalist to report that there’s a serious possibility of Will Allen returning.

If the Steelers do turn to Will Allen all will not have gone well in training camp, but Mark Kaboly will be able to claim bragging rights.

Popjoy Adds Something Significant to the Archer Story

In 2016 “Content aggregation” forms a fundamental part of the sports media landscape. By necessity, any site (including this one) that doesn’t have access to original sources practices it. At its best it works like this: Someone else publishes a story, a blogger rehashes that story; the better bloggers either expand upon the story or find some way to add their own twist.

  • The news that the Jets cut Dri Archer and that Archer then refused show up for practice when claimed by the Bills offers a perfect example.

Nearly every Steelers blogging site wrote an obligatory post on the failed Steelers third round draft pick continuing to flounder outside of Pittsburgh. Curt Popejoy of USA Today’s SteelersWire however, provided a good example of content aggregation at its best. Popejoy went beyond the “this shows Archer did have off the field issues” angle of the story, by informing his readers that the Steelers, by all accounts, did not have a pre-draft visit with Archer.

In other words, instead of simply recycling someone else’s story, Popejoy found a way to add new information by connecting dots that no one else thought to connect. And for that Curt Popejoy wins Watch Tower Kudos.

Wexell on Evolution of Steelers Defense

The evolution of the Steelers defense from a 3-4 zone blitz focused unit pioneered by Dom Capers, Dick LeBeau and Bill Cowher to a 4-3ish Cover 2 is hardly a unique topic in Pittsburgh and has been discussed frequently in the 2016 off season. But perhaps no one has covered it in as much detail as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell and an early May piece by Wexell caused the Watch Tower to raise its antenna.

After detailing how the Steelers personnel has evolved away from the scheme Dick LeBeau and Bill Cowher built, Wexell shared this:

That’s reportedly what the great Tampa-2 defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin, actually liked about the Steelers’ defense this past season. When Kiffin visited practice for a short spell, I perceived it as a consultation session. I perceived the wise old genius was brought in to help out a first-year coordinator bridge two systems.

Monte Kiffin visiting the Steelers was news to the Watch Tower.

A quick Google search confirms that Kiffin had in fact been present at practices at some point in the Steelers 2015 season. In fact, Tomlin discussed Kiffin’s visit at length in a Steelers.com interview (presumably during a press conference, Steelers.com doesn’t clarify the context.) The news that Mike Tomlin’s mentor stopped by Steelers practice is hardly a bombshell, nor is the revelation that Kiffin offered advice to Keith Butler exactly ground shaking.

  • Similar to insights gained from the Arians interview, the Monte Kiffin factoid falls into the category of “more interesting than useful.”

But this was a story out waiting to be told or at least a fact out there waiting to be used to support a larger story. And once again Jim Wexell separated himself from the pack by using it to deliver an extra bit of added value to his readers and for that again he wins Watch Tower Kudos.

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Steelers 2016 Draft Needs @ Running Back – A Higher Priority Than You Think…

No team has rushed for more yards since the AFL-NFL merger than the Pittsburgh Steelers. In January 2010, Steelers President Art Rooney II described quality rushing as a “foundation of the franchise.”

In contrast to Bill Cowher, during Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers have looked to running back earlier and more often in the draft having used 3 premium picks on running backs. Will that trend continue or, perhaps better stated, should that trend continue in the 2016 NFL Draft?

Steelers Depth Chart @ Running Back Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – the Starter

Although he finished 2015 on injured reserve, Le’Veon Bell will enter 2016 as the Steelers starting running back, and if Art Rooney II’s statements are any guide, the Steelers will look to lock him up to a long-term contract.

  • It is easy to understand why, as Bell’s dynamic ability as a double threat teases to reestablish the concept of “franchise running back.”

Such lofty visions must be tempered with the reality that the shelf life of running backs in the NFL is short and continues to grow shorter, and Bell has already missed 16 of a 51 possible games to injury, including 3 playoff contests. The Steelers have confidence in Bell’s ability to recover, but on the outside that looks like a leap of faith.

While it almost seems quaint to acknowledge a fullback as a “starter” the Steelers chose undrafted rookie free agent Roosevelt Nix over Will Johnson.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Running Back Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – Backups

A year ago the Steelers signed DeAngelo Williams as an insurance policy, and many were skeptical that a 32 year old NFL running back coming off an injury and with 1432 carries on his frame could deliver.

  • Those skeptics were dead wrong.

DeAngelo Williams had his best season rushing since 2009, and showed himself a dangerous double threat, not only did Williams do damage on the ground, but he also gave Ben Roethlisberger an enticing target underneath.. Williams almost literally saved the season.

In late November, the Steelers made a curious move – they activated a guy named Fitzgerald Toussaint from their practice squad. This came before DeAngelo Williams injury, and after Mike Tomlin had assured reporters he would not attempt to groom an understudy for Williams.

The move came shortly after the Ravens put Justin Forsett on season ending IR and activating Toussaint looked like a proactive move to protect him from practice squad poaching. When the playoffs arrived, Toussaint vindicated the Steelers faith in him as he collected over 120 all-purpose yards in the playoff win against the Bengals.

For the record, the Steelers also have running backs Abou Toure, 2015 practice squader Rajion Neal and Daryl Richardson who has experience with the Rams and Browns.

Steelers 2016 Draft Need at Running Back

Running back is one slot on the depth chart where Steel Curtain Rising’s analysis likely differs from much of Steelers Nation and likely Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2016

  • The Steelers have now been forced to start their 4th string running back in three consecutive post-season contests.

OK, 2014 is somewhat of an aberration, as LeGarrette Blount’s insubordination and Dri Archer’s total failure couldn’t have been foreseen, at least not while something could be done about it. Yet, in 2015 the Steelers essentially chose to enter the season with a running back’s depth chart that was two backs deep.

By season’s end, both Bell and Williams were hurt….

  • Sure, Jordan Todman and Toussaint played well, but do you really want pin post season hopes practice squaders and waiver wire pickups?

Sure, the days when the Steelers staffed their depth chart with three or four quality running backs may seem like an anachronistic memory of a bye gone era, but it’s no secret that the Steelers won their last Super Bowl with a depth chart that went Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Gary Russell and Carey Davis – all of whom were on the opening day roster, and all of whom were at “Above the line” ball carriers.

  • It says here that drafting running back in the first round would be a mistake.

Drafting one in the second round might be too high as well. But the Steelers have rolled the dice on running back depth in two straight seasons and it has cost them in two straight post seasons which means that the Steelers 2016 draft need at running back must be considered Moderate High.

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Steelers Free Agent Jordan Todman – The Last Free Agent Profiled, but Is He the Least?

Wavier wire pickups are normally ho-hum affairs. Then there’s Steelers free agent Jordan Todman. He’s special. Why? Because Kevin Colbert’s decision to pick up Todman off of waivers sparked a major emergency in Steelers Nation.

Yet in a few hours, Jordan Todman will be an NFL free agent, and yet there’s been barely a whimper out of Steelers Nation as to whether stays or goes….

Capsule Profile of Jordan Todman’s Career with the Steelers

September 7th, 2015 a day that will live in infamy for Steelers Nation….

…Unless it doesn’t. What the hell are we talking about? Well here’s a refresher. On September 6th, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert released the Steelers initial 53 man roster and the entire Steelers 2015 draft class made the team, save for 7th round safety Gerod Holliman. Then Pittsburgh’s South Side experienced its own Pearl Harbor….

  • Kevin Colbert found a running back he liked and signed him from the waiver wire.

The running back was Jordan Todman and his arrival in Pittsburgh meant the Steelers had to cut someone, who happened to be Doran Grant, the Steelers 4th round pick from 2015 NFL Draft. The crisis that ensued on Twitter and other social media channels leaves one to shudder to imagine what it would have been like had social media existed back in 1997, when Rod Woodson departed as a free agent……

  • Yet, after all the sound and fury, the Steelers added Todman to their backfield, and there he remained in relative anonymity.

Le’Veon Bell began the season suspended, DeAngelo Williams ran strong in his place, Bell got injured, Williams continued to pick up the slack, Dri Archer got cut, Williams continued to carry the Steelers running game on his 32 year old legs. It didn’t matter. Todman remained on the bench.

  • Mike Tomlin openly admitted that he wouldn’t risk the Steelers success by attempting to groom Todman or Fitzgerald Toussaint by giving them carries

Then of course came the Steelers regular season finale vs. Cleveland Browns, where DeAngelo Williams got hurt. The Steelers didn’t need to rush much to beat the Browns, but suddenly, the Steelers were down to their 4th and 5th running backs, and the playoffs were a week away….

Far from it. The Steelers handed the ball to Todman 11 times, and he gained 65 yards and generally ran the ball strong. In the playoff loss to Denver, Todman didn’t fare as well, but there’s a reason why Denver defense powered the Broncos to a Super Bowl victory.

The Case for Steelers Keeping Jordan Todman

The 2015 Cincinnati Bengals defense will not go down alongside the Four Horseman, Monsters of the Midway, or Purple People Eaters but they have the NFL’s 7th best rushing defense. While 11 carries does not a Merril Hoge’s vs. Denver inspirational performance make, getting 5.9 yards per carry in your first NFL playoff game is respectable.

Moreover, Todman has experience, having made over 100 carries before coming to Pittsburgh. The Steelers opened the season with a backfield that was two players deep in 2015 and it hurt them, Todman shows that he can be a viable insurance policy.

The Case Against Steelers Keeping Jordan Todman

Steel City Insider’s Matt Steel has the knock on Jordan Todman, explaining:

Just about every time Todman entered the game during the playoffs, teams would know he was going to run because they couldn’t put him in a position to pass-block. Todman put up great rushing numbers with his touches but the staff doesn’t trust him to block, and rightfully so.

Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Sammie Coates look to give Ben Roethlisberger and incredible arsenal of weapons in 2016. But if there’s one thing that the Steelers offense could not, and should not allowed to become it is one dimensional.

  • And when a player, by default, telegraphs whether it’s a pass or running play, your offense is one dimensional.

This would be true under normal circumstances, but Heath Miller’s retirement heightens the importance, because Heath Miller caught the ball 72% of the times it was thrown to him, making him an incredibly reliable target regardless of the situation. Nothing personal Mr. Todman, this is a business decision.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Jordan Todman

Jordan Todman’s performance in the playoffs vs. Cincinnati confirms that Kevin Colbert gamble of exposing a 4th round pick to the waiver wire to sign him was a wise one. But Matt Steel’s point is also quite valid.

  • The Steelers are in a good position with Todman.

No other NFL team is going to rush to sign him this afternoon when he can officially join another team. Nor is Todman going to come in the second wave of free agent signings.

  • There are some NFL free agents that teams can wait to sign, usually up until or even after the draft.

That’s the category that Todman fits into. The Steelers have the luxury of looking around the league for someone else to challenge Fitzgerald Toussaint for the 3rd string running back slot. They can even consider drafting someone. And if neither of these two things work out, there is a strong chance Todman will still be looking for a job in late spring or early summer.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Coaching Report Card + Special Teams and Unsung Hero Award

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wonders if Mike Tomlin might be entering a new phase of his coaching tenure here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Coaching and Special Teams Report Card.

steelers, report card, grades, 2015 season, coaching, special teams, unsung heros

Grading the Steelers 2015 Special Teams

2015 brought a decidedly mixed bag for the Steelers special teams. On the positive side, Chris Boswell was an unqualified success and in many ways the rookie saved the Steelers season. Antonio Brown showed he could still do damage as a punt returner. Danny Smith’s special teams also created a number of fumbles on kick returns, which is much needed.

  • There’s a flip side to the Steelers 2015 special teams, and it isn’t nearly as attractive.

Outside of Antonio Brown, the Steelers have no one to return kicks, with Markus Wheaton Jacoby Jones and Dri Archer both proving to be abject failures (at least Wheaton was a failure as a punt returner – he was OK returning kickoffs.) And while the Steelers special teams spared themselves from glaring disasters, a couple of scary returns were brought back on penalties. Likewise, Josh Scoobe was a disaster as a place kicker, and contributed to two of the Steelers losses.

On balance the Steelers special teams were slightly above average in 2015 – given the injuries to the offense, the Steelers needed more from the unit. Grade: C+

Grading the Steelers Coaches for 2015

Any discussion of the Steelers coaches in 2015 must begin with the defense, where Keith Butler embarked on a new era, tasked with succeeding the legacy of Dick LeBeau – no easy feat. Butler proved to be more than up to the task. The Steelers 2015 defense might have given up more yards in 2015 than it did in 2014, but it gave up fewer points, improved in sacks and takeaways – all with only minor adjustments for talent.

  • A closer look is perhaps warranted at the role of Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake.

The Steelers banked heavily on the development of Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas, and both men were disappointments. The responsibility for this doesn’t of course only lie on Lake’s shoulders, but he is their position coach, and by all accounts, Lake pushed hard for the Steelers to draft Thomas. He’s also spoken glowingly of Antwon Blake, who while he might get scapegoated far too often for the unit’s troubles, clearly was not the secondary’s strong link.

Moving over to offense, it is now clear with 20/20 hindsight that one of Art Rooney II’s best moves was to force Bruce Arians out. Mike Tomlin reacted by bringing in Todd Haley, and Ben Roethlisberger has grown and matured as a result of it. Yes, Roethlisberger’s late season “stupid interceptions” are a cause for concern, but that is something that can be corrected.

  • The naysayers might argue, “Ah, but Haley had all the weapons at his disposal.”

Yes, and any coach needs to have good players first – and having them is no guarantee of success. Don’t believe me? Look at the difference in performance between the Steelers 1991 and 1992 offenses. The 1991 was a muddling and bumbling at best under Joe Walton; under Ron Erhardt in 1992 the same talent performed much, much better.

  • Todd Haley started 3 quarterbacks, lost his all pro running back and center, lost wide receivers to injuries and suspensions and still fielded one of the NFL’s most lethal units.

And finally, there’s Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. Art Rooney II showed his faith in Tomlin by extending his contract in training camp. Many in Steelers Nation questioned the move, clinging to the “He’s still only won with Bill Cowher’s players.” Yeah, whatever.

This is Tomlin’s team or Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s team. And Mike Tomlin has done pretty damm good with the group of player’s he’s assembled. It is one thing to mouth the words, “The Standard is the Standard” and/or “Next Man Up.” It is another thing to believe it, and yet another to get your locker room to accept it.

Yes, Mike Tomlin teams might still have legitimate issues with “Trap Games” but he’s proven himself to be an excellent head coach. Tomlin himself will tell you that any season that doesn’t end in a Super Bowl Championship is a failure. Fair enough. But 2015 probably represented his best coaching job. Grade: A

Steelers Unsung Hero of 2015

Everyone knows that Ben Roethlisberger took a lot of punishment during the early part of Mike Tomiln’s tenure as head coach. Debates raged over how much of that was due to “Ben being Ben.” Some of it undoubtedly was. But the Steelers, for whatever reason, employed a “Plug and Patch” approach to offensive line building, and it showed.

Roethlisberger, Brown, Wheaton, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant, Heath Miller, and DeAngelo Williams put together a lot of ESPN highlight material in 2015.

  • But none of their fireworks would have been possible without the quality offensive line play week in and week out.

Mike Munchak lost 40% of his offensive line, yet the unit improved from 2014 to 2015. One can only imagine how much more might have been accomplished had Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum stayed healthy.

As it was, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Cody Wallace, Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva acted as a rock of stability for the Steelers offense, and for that the Steelers offensive line wins the Unsung Hero award for the 2015 season.

Part I of the Steelers 2015 Report Card graded the offense.
Part II of the Steelers 2015 Report Card graded the defense.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Offensive Report Card

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who thinks his start students learned a valuable lesson in — namely how to win games – here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Offensive Report Card, which grades the Steelers offense for the the 2015 season.

Quarterbackssteelers, report card, grades, 2015 season, offense, ben roethlisberger, antonio brown, deangelo williams
Everything in 2015 was supposed to hinge on Ben Roethlisberger’s health. Yet Ben Roethlisberger had to leave three games due to injury and missed four starts due to injury. The Steelers went 2-2 in those missed starts, and won 2 of 3 closes in Ben’s absence. Michael Vick didn’t have much left in the tank, but he put it all on the field in the 4th quarter vs. San Diego and without that effort, the Steelers miss the playoffs. Landry Jones provides a more interesting study. He showed himself to be a competent backup in the regular season, but struggled in the post season.

Ben Roethlisberger played extremely well in 2015, although his late season penchant for “Stupid interceptions” was worrisome. However, he protected the ball in the playoffs. Taken altogether, the Steelers quarterbacks had a very good 2015. Grade: B+

Running Backs
2015 was supposed to be the year Le’Veon Bell proved that the concept of “franchise running back” was not dead. And had Bell played for more than six games, he might have. However, suspension and injuy ruined his 2015 and the lion’s share of the Steelers rushing effort fell to DeAngelo Williams, who played far better than any 32 year old running back had a right to. Fullback Roosevelt Nix also proved he belonged in the backfield, as did Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman. Dri Archer was the group’s only disappointment, but that cannot bring this grade down. Grade: A

Tight Ends
There are more than a few whispers with Heath Miller could be a Steelers salary cap casualty. Word is “Heath is slowing a step.” Let’s hope that is idle chatter rather than legitimate leaks coming out of the South Side. The numbers don’t really suggest Heath Miller is slowing a step. His catches are down slightly, but his catches per-target are up. His average yards receiving is down, but that could be due to the presence of other weapons. Matt Spaeth did not figure much into the passing offense, but his blocking helped the running game. Jesse James didn’t play until mid-season, but did what was asked of him, and looks to have a bright future. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
No disrespect to Cam Newton, but Antonio Brown deserved deeper consideration for NFL MVP. Antonio Brown’s performance is approaching that of a “Generational Player” – a special player like Joe Greene or Troy Polamalu who only comes along once a generation.

  • Below Brown, the Steelers situation at wide receiver is a little more muddled.

Martavis Bryant lost 4 games to suspension. He did play well early on, but struggled late in the year, only to bounce back in the playoffs. Markus Wheaton started fairly strong, and then struggled, but also finished the year on a strong note, although he did not step up quite as well in the playoffs. Darrius Heyward-Bey played extremely well in Bryant’s absence, and then again in the playoffs in Brown’s absence. Sammie Coates didn’t get much time during the regular season, but played very well in the playoffs. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
What a difference a little bit of depth on offensive line makes? The Steelers lost 40% of their starting offensive line, yet you wouldn’t have known it save for a few games and a few isolated plays. Cody Wallace filled in admirably for Maurkice Pouncey, and Alejandro Villanueva played incredibly well at left tackle for a man who was new to the position. David DeCastro continued to emerge as a the road grader the Steelers drafted him to be, while Ramon Foster quietly played well. Marcus Gilbert vindicated the extension the Steelers gave him. Grade: A

Part II of the Steelers 2015 Report Card series grades the Steelers defense.
Part III grades the Steelers coaches and special teams.

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Steelers Sign Levi Norwood, Dustin Vaughan, Adding a Kick Returner and Quarterback to Off Season Roster

The Pittsburgh Steelers continue to add to their 2016 off season roster by signing a wide receiver and a quarterback to futures contracts. The latest development saw the Steelers sign Levi Norwood, who is nominally a wide receiver but the Steelers are likely eyeing him as a kick returner.

Levi Norwood played his college ball at Baylor, where he appeared in 49 games and caught 128 passes for 1626 yards for 11 touchdowns. Norwood returned 64 punts for the Baylor Bears for 559 total yards and an average of 8.7 yards per return and scored two touchdowns. He also 38 kickoffs for 768 yards.

Thanks to the magic of YouTube, every NCAA football player seems to have his own highlights collage on the internet, and here is a shot of Levi Norwood returning a punt against SMU from 2014

The Chicago Bears signed Levi Norwood as an undrafted rookie free agent, but he did not make either the regular season roster or the practice squad. The Steelers will undoubtedly look to pick someone in the 2016 NFL Draft that can return kicks. But the Steelers need someone to relieve Antonio Brown of his punt return duties. Dri Archer clearly wasn’t that person, nor was Markus Wheaton.

Vaughan to Provide 4th Arm at Training Camp

One of the areas that could see the most turnover during the Steelers 2016 off season is the quarterback depth chart. Ben Roethlisberger is of course going no where, but at this date no one on the depth chart below him should even consider an invitation to Saint Vincents safe.

Bruce Gradkowski spent the entire year on IR, and whisperings have it that he may not be wanted back. Landry Jones did not look good in the playoffs, and Mike Tomlin declined to give him a vote of confidence. Michael Vick appears to have thrown his last NFL pass.

The Steelers signed Dustin Vaughan a quarterback who played for Divison II’s West Texas A&M. Vaughan spent the 2014 season with the Dallas Cowboys, but saw no action. The Buffalo Bills took him to training camp in 2015, where Vaughan 35-67-343-0-2 in four preseason games.

  • Dustin Vaughan He did not make Buffalo’s final regular season roster, but did spend some time on their practice squad.

During the 1990’s a 4th or 5th quarterback who went to training camp with the Steelers had legitimate hopes of making the team. Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe gave roster spots to Mike Quinn in 1997 and Anthony Wright in 1999.

  • Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin both believe in a 3 quarterback system, but have played it more by the book.

The Steelers are likely looking at Vaughan as nothing more than a 4th arm for OTA’s, mini camp, training camp – if he makes it that far – but he will get his shot to impress.

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