Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Running Back – Time to Find Najee Harris’ Backup

Running back isn’t the glory position that it once was. Long gone are the days when a running back could serve as the focal point of an offense, let alone a franchise. This scribe wondered aloud whether Le’Veon Bell might revive the concept of “franchise running backs.”

A half dozen years later, the question seems so hopelessly quaint that’s like suggesting black & white TV sets and rotary phones will make a comeback.

But if that’s true, its also true that lack of running back depth as much as anything else derailed the Steelers chances to get Lombardi Number 3 during the Ben Roethlisberger era. The question heading into the 2022 NFL Draft is will the Steelers heed that lesson now that Roethlisberger has retired?

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Najee Harris en route to 188 yards. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Steelers Depth Chart at Running Back: The Starter

Running back has become so devalued in the modern NFL that drafting one in the first round is now concerned to be foolhardy. A year ago Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert proved once again that they march to their own drummer when they drafted Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

One could look to Najee Harris’ 1,200 yards rushing, 73 catches and 10 touchdowns as proof that Colbert and Tomlin were right. One could bolster those arguments by pointed to the fact that the Steelers run defense was horrendous for most of the season.

  • Those are all solid arguments, but neither proves the point.

For proof that the Steelers made the right call on drafting Harris look no further than the 2021 season finale on the road against the Baltimore Ravens. Harris got injured during the first half. He worked on the sidelines, learning to carry the ball with his left hand and made at least 3 critical plays during over time to get Chris Boswell in position to kick the game winner.

Technically, Derek Watt is also considered the Steelers “starter” at fullback, but he only average 6.5% of the offensive snaps.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

Behind Najee Harris the Steelers have Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland. Pittsburgh picked Benny Snell in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft. In that time, Snell has started 5 games and rushed the ball 255 times, scoring 6 touchdown.

His rushing average has dropped from 3.9, to 3.2 to 2.7 yards per carry, although he only had 36 attempts in 2021. And in all fairness to Snell, the quality of the Steelers run blocking has declined during his time with the team.

The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft out of the University of Maryland to serve as a change of pace back. In 2 NFL season McFarland has appeared in just 13 games, carrying the ball 36 times for 116 yards. He’s also caught 7 passes for 65 yards.

The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Running Back

Lack of running back depth crippled the Steelers during the latter half of the Roethlisberger-Tomlin era. Yet, until 2021, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin showed zero inclination to altering their backfield staffing strategy. Last year the Steelers went into the season with Harris, Snell, McFarland and Kalen Ballage plus Derek Watt as their fullback.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

  • So at least the running back depth chart had quantity.

But what it lacked was quality. And the Steelers still lack that quality. Mike Tomlin has tried to staff a utility back in the mold of Eric Metcalf or Dave Meggett (oh, how I do date myself) with the likes of Chris Rainey and Dri Archer. Both failed miserably. Anthony McFarland appears poised to follow in their footsteps.

In contrast, Benny Snell has shown something and even at this stage of his career retains some “upside.” But in this writer’s opinion Benny Snell isn’t a true number 2 running back and is better suited as a number 3.

The absence of a DeAngelo Williams like player who could shoulder the load should Harris go down means that the Steelers need at running back going into the 2022 NFL Draft is Moderate-High.

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Running Back Depth is a Need, but Steelers Can (and Will) Do Better than Kalen Ballage

Running back depth, or lack thereof has been the Achilles Heel for the Steelers during the latter part of the Ben Roethlisberger era. Just how bad has the problem been?

Well, consider that after their 2014 Divisional Playoff loss to the Ravens at Heinz Field, none of their top 3 running backs, neither Ben Tate, Josh Harris nor Dri Archer ever saw another NFL carry.

A year later, the Steelers went into the playoffs starting their 5th and 6th string running backs, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman. Thin running back depth hobbled the Steelers a year later in the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, with Le’Veon Bell leaving early and DeAngelo Williams ineffective.

In 2021 the staffed quantity on the depth chart behind starter Najee Harris and that included Kalen Ballage. Did he show enough quality during that time to earn a second contract?

Kalen Ballage, Pittsburgh Steelers free agent

Kalen Ballage during the Steelers 2021 preseason. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire.

Capsule Profile of Kalen Ballage Career with the Steelers

Kalen Ballage came to the Steelers as a former Miami Dolphins 4th round pick who’d bounced around to four teams in his first 3 years in the NFL. Ballage earned a spot in training camp at least in part due to an injury to Benny Snell.

  • Here’s where memory plays tricks.

Kalen Ballage seemed like the “next man” up after Harris, but the record shows he only had 12 carries and only saw 65 offensive snaps. That was good for 36 yards in 12 carries along with 2 catches on 7 targets. If the offensive line didn’t give him a of help, Ballage did little to help himself in spot duty.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Kalen Ballage

Yeah. This is a tough one. The Steelers need depth behind Najee Harris and Ballage gives them a veteran presence. And he’s only fumbled twice in four years in the NFL. And you can get him dirt cheap. Plus he played 20% of special teams snaps.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Kalen Ballage

If you’re not convinced by the above you shouldn’t be. Kalen Ballage was a bargin-basement free agency signing for a reason. His limited sample size has been large enough and representative enough for the Steelers to see what they have in Ballage and that is: Not much.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Kalen Ballage

A key priority for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2022 off season is finding not only a number 2 but a number 3 running back to work behind Najee Harris.

It says here that, unless the Steelers stumble on the next Tom Brady with of their 6th round pick (ooh, wouldn’t that make the Melvin Ingram experience worth it), Pittsburgh will not field a Super Bowl team in 2022. But its still instructive to remember that the last time the Steelers won a Super Bowl, its running backs depth chart was four players deep.

The point isn’t that Kalen Ballage isn’t even 2022’s version of Mewelde Moore, it’s that he’s not even Gary Russell.

Expect the Steelers to move on.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers Win Compensatory Pick Gamble. Now They Must Spend Winnings Wisely

Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin and General Manager Kevin Colbert have never “lived in their fears” when it comes to making personnel decisions. They also haven’t hesitated to play the long game, even when it comes to gambles.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2019 pre draft press conference

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their 2019 pre draft press conference.

On Tuesday, the NFL awarded the Pittsburgh Steelers a 3rd round compensatory pick in the 2020 NFL Draft bringing one of Colbert and Tomlin’s longest gambles to a close.

Devin Bush‘s price was steep. The Steelers first and second round picks from 2019, plus their third round pick in 2020. But the Steelers made that pick in part based on their calculations that they’d get a 3rd round compensatory pick for losing Le’Veon Bell.

  • While the logic was sound, the NFL has never revealed the formula it uses for compensatory picks so a third rounder was never certain.

Uncertainty shifted to despair when the Philadelphia Eagles cut L.J. Fort. Due to a little known rule, for player to count on a team’s signed/lost ledger for compensatory picks, he needed to be on his destination team’s roster by week 10 of the season.

  • The move prompted the Steelers to cut Donte Moncrief whom they’d signed as a free agent.

Granted, Moncrief had not exactly played well for the Steelers in his two outings, and he failed to log a single catch in his three games with the Carolina Panthers. However, by cutting Moncrief the Steelers were essentially giving the nod to Tevin Jones who would only last until the Steelers loss to the Bills.

Nonetheless, the Steelers gamble paid off, ensuring them two premium picks in the 2020 NFL Draft. Now they must spend their winnings wisely.

Mike Vrabel Steelers, Mike Vrabel sack Drew Bledsoe, Steelers vs Patriots divisional playoff

Mike Vrabel strip-sacks Drew Beldsoe the ’97 AFC playoffs. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

  • A generation ago the Steelers getting a third round compensatory pick meant a bonanza.

The third round was Tom Donahoe’s money round. Players such as Jon Witman, Mike Vrabel, Hines Ward, and Amos Zereoue arrived in Pittsburgh as third round compensatory selections.

Kevin Colbert hasn’t had as many third round compensatory selections, but his picks have been hit or miss. James Conner was a hit in 2017. Dri Archer was a huge miss in 2014. The Steelers need Colbert’s 2020 3rd round compensatory pick to be more of a James Conner than a Dri Archer.

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Does a QB Improve a WR? or Does a WR Improve QB? Could Donte Moncrief Answer the Question?

Does a good quarterback make a wide receiver better? Or does a good wide receiver make a quarterback better? Let’s skip the suspense and concede that Steelers free agent Donte Moncrief won’t settle one of football’s existential questions in 2019.

  • Nonetheless, he seems poised to add to the conversation.

While pundits have praised Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for their uncharacteristic aggressiveness in bringing Steve Nelson, Mark Barron and Devin Bush to Pittsburgh, reaction to Donte Moncrief’s arrival has been more tepid.

Donte Moncrief,

Steelers wide receiver Donte Moncrief, @ OTAs in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

While no one would call the 3rd round pick from the 2014 NFL Draft a “bust” (he certainly has outperformed Dri Archer, whom the Steelers took 7 picks later) thus far his NFL career “lacks the ‘Wow’ factor.” Perhaps more ominously, his catch percentage is trending towards the mid to low 50’s.

  • “Ah, but what about the quarterbacks that have been throwing to him?” Donte Moncrief defenders retort.

During his first three seasons in the NFL, Donte Moncrief was catching passes from Andrew Luck. During 2017 and 2018 he had was Jacoby Brissett and Blake Bortles tossing him the ball. So logically, with Ben Roethlisberger hawking the pigskin his way, Moncrief is going to shine, right?

  • Maybe. Maybe not.

Football is the ultimate team game. Even the best running back needs a good offensive line to excel. (See Jerome Bettis’ dip in productivity in 1998 and 1999 behind some mediocre offensive lines.)

And while the relationship between pass rush and interceptions is more tenuous than many think, a quarterback under duress is going to make more mistakes than one who has all day to throw. (Go back and watch the tape. James Harrison was closing in on Joe Flacco on Troy Polamalu’s pick-six in the ’08 AFC Championship game.)

  • Ironically, the relationship between the performance of quarterbacks and wide receivers is more directly, yet the impact is harder to define.

It is more direct because a quarterback needs a receiver to catch his passes, and the receiver obviously can’t catch passes that are never thrown. In contrast, great running backs can and do make something out of nothing when blocking breaks down.

  • Quarterbacks can improvise on broken plays, but it means little if the receiver drops the ball.

Recently, Ben Roethlisberger credited Antonio Brown for his success. This was as much about Ben Roethlisberger showing he’s a bigger man than Brown than it is about expressing truth. Yes, during Ben Roethlisberger’s 2017 early season slump, Antonio Brown DID make Ben Roethlisberger look like a better quarterback than his performance really indicated.

All three are quality wide outs. Hines Ward should but probably won’t get Hall of Fame consideration. But each is far less talented than Antonio Brown.

Moving beyond Antonio Brown, a look at how the other two third of “Young Money” have preformed outside of Pittsburgh further complicates the picture. Mike Wallace has never had a quarterback as good as Ben Roethlisberger throwing his way in Miami, Minnesota or Baltimore, and he’s struggled consistently match the performance of his Pittsburgh days.

Contrast that with Emmanuel Sanders, who has generally played better since departing for Denver. But Sanders’ success has come both with Peyton Manning throwing him the ball as well as Manning’s  successors.

  • So that really doesn’t help us answer the question.

Nor should that surprise Steelers fans, who saw John Stallworth post far better statistical seasons catching balls from Mark Malone and David Woodley than he did when Terry Bradshaw stood under center. But no one in their right mind would choose a Malone-Stallworth or a Woodley-Stallworth tandem over Bradshaw-Stallworth.

  • It is hard to know exactly what role Donte Moncrief will play in the Steelers 2019 offense.

JuJu Smith-Schuster enters the season as the number 1 receiver, and both coaches and journalists tell us that if James Washington is poised to make a leap in his sophomore year. If that happens then the best-case scenario for Donte Moncrief is that he emerges as the number 3 receiver in the Steelers offense.

  • And if Donte Moncrief shines in that role, Ben Roethlisberger will deserve some of the credit.

But it will also be true that opposing defense will have been focusing on covering Smith-Schuster, Washington and Vance McDonald. So I guess Donte Moncrief presence in Pittsburgh might not contribute much to the QB improves WR/WR improves QB quandary.

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Grading the Steelers 2014 Draft Class: Overall Grade B+

The picks are in. Coaches have held their press conferences. New players have done their photo ops. The latest installment of the NFL draft is history. Now it is time to grade the Steelers draft class.

  • The Steelers 2014 Draft Class that is.

Instant draft grades are as understandable as they are ridiculous. The NFL Draft IS the day when teams alternatively forge Super Bowl rosters or cement status as pretenders instead of contenders. The desire to evaluate such a momentous in real time is logical.

  • But it can’t be done. Like wine, NFL draft classes need time to mature or sour.

Just how long is a matter of opinion. Certainly you can start drawing a lot of meaningful conclusions after 4 or even 3 years. But Chuck Noll always used to say it took five years, and if that was good enough for the Emperor, who am I to argue? With that, we gladly grade the Steelers 2014 Draft Class.

Ryan Shazier, Tyson Alualu, Matthew Stafford, Alualu Stafford Sack, Steelers vs Lions

Ryan Shazier gloats over Matthew Stafford after Tyson Alualu’s 4th down sack. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers 2014 1st Round Pick – Ryan Shazier

If ever you sought an argument against drafting for need, look no further than Ryan Shazier. By the time the 2014 NFL Draft rolled around, the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker wasn’t exactly strong, but it was solid. Certainly, the Steelers had more glaring needs (like cornerback.)

And they were right. Ryan Shazier’s overall career statistics (7 sacks, 7 interceptions, 7 forced fumbles) might look pedestrian, but what those numbers don’t show is the timeliness with which Shazier made those plays.

Whether it was forcing a fumble in the playoffs against the Bengals, grabbing an interception against the Colts or making another play at the right time, Ryan Shazier was broaching Troy Polamaluesque lay making ability before suffering the spinal contusion that has most likely ended his career. Grade: Grand Slam

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Steelers 2014 2nd Round Pick – Stephon Tuitt

When the Steelers picked Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round fate appeared to have stacked the deck against the rookie. The Steelers had a long history of drafting defensive lineman in the 2nd round that blossomed into busts, and they hadn’t had much luck of late in drafting players from Notre Dame.

  • But Stephon Tuitt proved that past performance doesn’t dictate future results.

Tuitt broke into the starting lineup as a rookie because of Brett Keisel’s injury and began making an immediate impact. He built on that in his “sophomore” year, was limited a bit in his next two years by injury, yet had his best year yet in 2018. Grade: Grand Slam.

Steelers 2014 3rd Round Pick – Dri Archer

What a double whammy. This is one that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomiln wanted back two times over. In the 2013 NFL Draft the Steelers traded away their 2014 3rd round pick to move up to draft Shamarko Thomas, in part because they expected to get a 3rd round compensatory pick in 2014.

  • They got that pick and promptly used it to draft Dri Archer, the fastest man in the NFL 2014 Draft.

The Steelers thought to use Dri Archer as a utility back while working him in as a wide receiver. They also wanted him to return kicks. It quickly became clear he could do none of the above. Dri Archer was so bad that when Le’Veon Bell suffered an injury before the playoffs, the Steelers had to go out and sign Ben Tate off of the couch. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2014 4th Round Pick – Martavis Bryant

Martavis Bryant is an interesting pick to grade. Clearly he is one player who never lived up to his potential, yet as a 4th round pick, with all of his issues, Martavis Bryant delivered decent value.

  • As both a rookie and in his second year, Martavis Bryant made some game-breaking plays.

After coming back from his suspension, Martavis Bryant didn’t make many game breaking plays but started making critical 3rd down catches late in the season. And, while this shouldn’t impact a draft grade, strictly speaking, the Steelers actually got a 3rd round pick for Martavis Bryant, and one that they used to draft Mason Rudolph, a potential starter.

Not bad value for a 4th rounder that you essentially took a flyer on. Grade: Quality Value Pick.

Steelers 2014 5th Round Pick – Wesley Johnson

The Steelers drafted Wesley Johnson in the 5th round of the 2014 NFL Draft, and the young man made the roster, which was no small accomplishment for an offensive line which was already becoming deep. Unfortunately, injuries force the Steelers to cut Johnson with an eye towards putting him on the practice squad.

  • The New York Jets had other ideas and claimed him off of waivers.

Since then, Wesley Johnson has appeared in 53 NFL games and started 24. Not bad for a 5th rounder. Grade: Farm Team

Steelers 2014 6th Round Pick – Jordan Zumwalt

Sometimes injuries end NFL careers before they get started. Such is the case with Jordan Zumwalt. The Steelers put him in injured reserve during preseason of his rookie year. They designated him injured/waived in 2015, but took him back when no one else claimed him. They gave him another shot in 2016, but ended up cutting him.

It is hardly fair to label someone like that a Bust, but the Steelers didn’t get any value out of this pick. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2014 6th Round Pick – Daniel McCullers

At first glance, a guy as big as Daniel McCullers shouldn’t be able to fail on the football field. Yet Daniel McCullers saw a decent amount of action as a rookie, and then saw his snap count dwindle year after year.

The Steelers surprised by resigning Daniel McCullers in 2018, and then again in 2019. Still, it is hard to label Daniel McCullers NFL career as anything other than what it has been. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2014 7th Round Pick — Rob Blanchflower

Labeling a 7th round draft picks as a “bust” is a bit harsh. Yet the career paths of Brett Keisel and Kelvin Beachum serve as a reminder 7th round picks can become good players. Rob Blanchflower earned a spot on the Steelers practice squad in 2014, and got invited back to camp in 2015 but got cut at the end of summer. Grade: Bust

Overall Grade for the Steelers 2014 Draft

In 2014 the Steelers had the 15th draft position, tying 2007 for the best draft positioning Pittsburgh has had since 2004, when they picked Ben Roethlisberger. Just like 2007, the Steelers made excellent picks in the first two rounds, and made a solid pick in the 5th round, albeit one that other teams are benefiting.

Their 4th round pick had issues, but delivered value. And their 6th round pick is still in the league. Overall Grade: B+

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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.

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.)

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.

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, 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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