Steelers Trade for Ryan Switzer, Kicker Returner WR Acquired from Raiders for 5th Rounder

The Pittsburgh has a new kick returner, as the Steelers traded for Ryan Switzer from the Oakland Raiders, acquiring the return specialist for a 5th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. The Steelers also get the Raider’s 6th round pick as part of the deal.

Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that Mike Tomlin plans to immediately insert Ryan Switzer into the Steelers lineup and hopes to play him in the Steelers preseason finale on Thursday evening against the Carolina Panthers.

Mike Tomlin explained how Ryan Switzer fits in with the Steelers:

We’ll put him in the mix with these guys and hopefully get him ready to go Thursday night and just continue to build our football team in trying to be strong in all areas.

To make room for Switzer, the Steelers waived Justin Thomas, who’d hopped to make the team as a returner or slot receiver.

Ryan Switzer, Steelers trade for Ryan Switzer

New Steelers kick returner Ryan Switzer celebrating touchdown with Cowboys. Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images via 24/7 Sports

Originally drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the 3th Round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Ryan Switzer averaged 25 yards on 24 kickoff returns in 2017. While he didn’t take one to the house, he did have a long return of 61 yards. Switzer also returned 29 punts for an 8.8 yard average and including one 83 yard punt return for a touchdown.

  • The Cowboys seldom threw to Switzer, who caught 6 passes for 41 yards.

During preseason, Switzer caught 1 touchdown for yards and returned 3 punts for -0.5 yards.

Bad News for Quadree Henderson?

Ryan Switzer’s arrival is bad news for any number of hopeful undrafted rookies and 2nd year players hoping to make the team. Pitt standout Quadree Henderson was signed as a rookie free agent with an eye towards using him as a returner, but he has not impressed thus far as a return specialist.

The Steelers have also used cornerback Cam Sutton as a punt returner and last year they used Eli Rogers in that capacity, but Eli Rogers remains on the PUP list and would serve a 1 game suspension for substance abuse anyway.

  • Ryan Switzer can also play as a slot receiver.

That decreases Markus Tucker and Trey Griffey chances of making the final roster, as well as those of Damoun Patterson. Current Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and rookie James Washington are locks to make the Steelers roster at wide receiver. Ryan Switzer would figure to be the 4th.

Veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey is primarily in the mix, although his value to the team is more on special teams than as a wide out.

Colbert’s Luck with Trades

For a long time, even into the Mike Tomlin era, it was rare for the Steelers to acquire players by trade. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert did trade to acquire kick returner Allen Rossum in 2007.

  • But starting in 2013 summer trades became more comment for the Steelers.

The Steelers traded Adrian Robinson for Felix Jones in 2013, traded for Levi Brown during the regular season, traded for Brandon Boykin in 2015, Justin Gilbert in 2016, and J.J. Wilcox and Vance McDonald in 2017. Of the sextet of players acquired by trade, only Vance McDonald has delivered anything of value on the field, and his 2017 season was limited by injury (and he’s been injured during the entire summer.)

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Running Back by Committee? First Let’s Try Steelers Keeping RB1 & RB2 Healthy for a Full Season

The Steelers failure to reach a long-term deal with Le’Veon Bell has prompted many fans to call for Pittsburgh to lift the franchise tag, let Le’Veon Bell walk and rely on running back by committee.

Sounds feasible on paper. (Actually it doesn’t.) But even if it, there’s a problem:

  • During Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers have struggled to keep their 1st and 2nd string running backs healthy.

The tendency took root in 2007 and has continued almost unabated since then. In 2007, Mike Tomlin vowed to run Willie Parker until “the wheels fell off.” The wheels fell off in week 16, forcing the Steelers to start Najeh Davenport in the playoffs with Verron Haynes coming off the couch as a backup.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers running back injuries

Le’Veon Bell injured in the 2014 season finale vs. Bengals. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP, via SportsNet.ca

In 2008 the Steelers planned to use both Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall. A week 3 Willie Parker injury led to Mendenhall’s first start in week 4, where Baltimore broke his collar bone. Fortunately, the Steelers had solid running back depth with Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell filling the void until Parker’s return.

  • The Steelers kept their top two running backs relatively healthy in 2009 and 2010, with Willie Parker only missing a handful of games in ’09.

The Steelers streak continued in 2011 until Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the season finale against Cleveland, as Isaac Redman started in the playoff Tebowing in Denver (for the record, Redman rushed for 121 yards on 17 carries.)

In 2012 the Steelers employed a variant of running back by committee, rotating carries and starts between Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall. Injuries contributed to this situation, but Mike Tomlin also wanted one of the trio to establish himself as the starter. None of them did.

  • The Steelers unhealthy running back syndrom returned with a vengeance in 2013.

Rookie Le’Veon Bell injured his Lisfranc in Latrobe, leaving Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Felix Jones as the running back committee. Problem? LaRod Stephens-Howling’s Steeler career ended after 8 touches and Isaac Redman was already playing with injures that would end his career before Halloween.

In 2014 the Steelers made a wise disciplinary move in cutting LeGarrette Blount, but that forced them to sign Ben Tate after Le’Veon Bell’s pre-playoff injury. In 2015 injuries and suspension limited Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams to 5 join appearances, and DeAngelo Williams season finale injury at Cleveland forced Pittsburgh to start Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman in the playoffs.

Any plans the Steelers had to spell Le’Veon Bell with DeAngelo Williams in 2016 went out the window when Williams injured his knee in week 6, limiting the tandem to 4 games together.

And of course last season the Steelers only opted to give James Conner a handful of carries, but an injury against New England in week 14 forced the Steelers to sign Stevan Ridley two weeks before the playoffs.

Calk it up to fate or chalk it up to mistake, but Mike Tomlin cannot seem to kept his top two running backs healthy, which doesn’t bode well for a shift to running back by committee. Or does it?

Counterpoint: Could Running Back by Committee Be the Cure?

In On Writing, Stephen King advises authors against plotting out stories in favor of putting characters in situations and then following them to their conclusion. King’s lesson is relevant to sports blogging, because sometimes your conclusions can morph into something else as you write.

  • This is one of those times.

Mike Tomlin has seen his running backs suffer injuries early in the season (Parker and Mendenhall in ’08, Bell and Redman in ’13, Bell in ’15 and Williams in ’16.) But the most devastating running back injuries have occurred late in the season (Mendenhall in ’11, Bell in ’14, Williams in ’15, Bell in the 2016 AFC Championship).

Both the laws of attrition and laws of probability would suggest that running back by committee could mitigate these dangers.

Moral of the Story? Better Running Back Depth In Order

In the final analysis, I’m not ready to join the chorus calling for the Steelers to rescind the franchise tag and part ways with Bell. This tweet sheds a little light on my thinking:

That isn’t to say that the Chuck Noll’s offenses struggled to run the ball with Frank Pollard, Earnest Jackson and Walter Abercrombie. They didn’t. Nor could Mark Malone and David Woodley provide the type of air support that Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown provide today.

  • But Le’Veon Bell offers more to the Steelers 2018 offense than would a modern day equivalent of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie.

And James Conners, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels have yet to prove they’re modern day equivalents of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie. But perhaps they can provide the type of quality and quantity of depth at running back behind Le’Veon Bell that the franchise hasn’t enjoyed since 2008….

…You remember, the season that ended at Super Bowl XLIII.

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4 Solutions for the Steelers 2016 Running Back Depth Deficiency

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 Draft Class added both quantity and, on paper at least, talent to the team’s most glaring weaknesses on the depth chart. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin also added depth to several other key areas.

  • One area that Colbert and Tomlin failed to address was running back.

As things stand today, the Steelers 2016 running back depth promises to be dangerously thin. Here’s a look at how Colbert and Tomlin might address that need before the season.

How the Steelers Running Back Depth Got So Depleted

The Steelers 2016 Draft Needs Matrix pegged running back as the Steelers 4th most urgent area of need not because of talent issues, but because of the Steelers thin depth at running back.

Fitzgerald Toussaint has the look of a solid backup based on his playoff performances, his fumble not withstanding. After Toussaint, the Steelers have zip in terms of proven depth behind him. If Art Rooney II’s words offer any guide, the Steelers expect Le’Veon Bell to be back at full strength.

That’s fine, but in 2016 Bell will begin his fourth season on a league where the average running back’s career lasts just above three. And he’s coming off a complicated MCL, PCL injury. And he’s missed time due to injury in each of his first three seasons. running backs average less than 3. DeAngelo Williams will turn 33.

For a franchise that started its 4th string running back in 3 consecutive post-season appearances those factoids hardly encourage confidence.

  • Colbert and Tomlin know this and responded by trying to trade the 5th round.

The Steelers found no takers, at least at a reasonable asking price. So which running backs did the Steelers miss a chance to draft?

  • So which running back did the Steeler miss?

In the 5th round DeAndre Washington, Paul Perkins, Jordan Howard, Wendell Smallwood, Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins found homes with Oakland, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Seattle. In the 6th round Denver, Tampa Bay, San Diego, San Francisco, and Dallas welcomed Andy Jaovich, Dan Vitale, Derek Watt, Kelvin Taylor and Darrius Jackson (although Janovich, Vitale, Watt are listed as fullbacks.)

Surprisingly, Colorado’s Christan Powell was the only running back in the Steelers 2016 undrafted rookie free agent class, and he got cut after rookie minicamp. In contrast, the Steelers drafted no offensive lineman in the 2015 NFL Draft, yet brought 5 offensive lineman to Pittsburgh with their 2015 undrafted rookie free agent class.

Steelers Could Sign a Free Agent Running Back

Yes, the best free agent running backs have long been off the market, but teams can and do make roster moves after the draft. The website Sporttrack lists 23 free agent running backs that remain unsigned, including Reggie Bush, LeGarrette Blount and Arian Foster.

If the Steelers really were interested in adding depth at running back via free agency, they likely would have done so in March instead of waiting until May. Nonetheless, on May 12 unsigned players officially become “Street Free Agents” meaning teams can sign them without impacting their compensatory picks.

The Steelers could take advantage of that to add a body, but if they do it will likely be the type of free agent who isn’t even assured a roster spot in September.

Steelers Could Trade for a Running Back

Trades are rare in the NFL and until recently the Steelers rarely trade for another player. Yet, that has changed lately. In August 2013, Kevin Colbert traded Adrian Robinson for Felix Jones. Later that season, he traded for Levi Brown. Last summer Steelers traded for Brandon Boykin….

  • …And you can see why the Steelers prefer to avoid acquiring layers via trade.

Arguably, Felix Jones was the most productive of the three, and that’s not saying much. Levi Brown got injured in warm ups and never played a down. Brandon Boykin spelled Antwon Blake late in the season and perhaps provided an upgrade, but the Steelers think more of untested Senquez Golson than they do Boykin.

In terms of trading to build depth at running back, the Steelers actually traded for Patrick Cobbs when Duce Staley couldn’t dispel their doubts at the end of the 2006 preseason. Cobbs never played a down in Pittsburgh, although he did carry 37 times over five years in Miami….

Don’t expect the Steelers to trade for a running back.

Colbert Could Grab a Running Back from the Waiver Wire

Kevin Colbert ranks among the best NFL General Managers when it comes to finding players who can help the Steelers after they’ve been discarded by other teams. 2013’s cut down day saw the Turk visit Fernando Velasco in Nashville and Cody Wallace in Tampa Bay, but both made multiple starts for the Steelers at center later that season.

In terms of running backs, the Steelers picked Najeh Davenport off of waivers early 2006, and Davenport was a solid contributor in for two seasons. The Steelers picked up DuJuan Harris in 2012 during training camp, and he went on to contribute to Green Bay. Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint both got pink slips at the end of training camp and ended up starting for the Steelers in the playoffs.

  • One harsh reality of the modern NFL is that proven backups get cut simply because rookies offer teams more bang for their buck.

Colbert has kept many a gem from falling though the cracks of the NFL salary cap, and you’d better believe he will closely watch for running backs who reach the waiver wire all between now and September.

Steelers Stand Pat with Their Running Back Stable

Based on what we’ve seen since the 2016 NFL Draft, this appears to be the Steelers plan. Following rookie minicamp, two of the four Steelers roster moves involved replacing running backs.

While banking on undrafted rookie free agents to provide depth at running back is a roll of the dice, remember is the same franchise that saw a little known running back who hardly played in North Carolina named Fast Willie Parker go from training camp surprise in 2004 to a run from scrimmage record setter in Super Bowl XL in January of 2006.

Both Carey Davis and Gary Russell had some NFL experience prior to joining the Steelers in 2007, and while no one will ever confuse the tandem with Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris, both men helped win Super Bowl XLIII.

At the Steelers rookie minicamp, Mercyhurst’s Brandon Brown-Dukes impressed Jim Wexell, although Wexell did describe him as “diminutive.” Dale Lolley reports that Cameron Stingily, who was injured in last summer’s Hall of Fame game, is running well and looking leaner than in 2015.

  • The Steelers cut running backs Rajion Neal and Christian Powel to make room for Stingily and Brown-Dukes.

While these move come squarely at the bottom of the Steelers roster, they demonstrate that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are keenly aware Steelers running back depth needs to improve.

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Steelers Free Agent Analysis Brandon Boykin – Cornerback Not Likely to Return to Pittsburgh

Of the 20 players the Pittsburgh Steelers have who will soon become unrestricted free agents, perhaps there is no greater mystery than that surrounding free agent cornerback Brandon Boykin. Steel Certain Rising’s Steelers free agent analysis takes a look at Boykin and tires to see if we can make sense from the noise…

Capsule Profile of Brandon Boykin’s Career with the Steelers

Brandon Boykin holds the distinction of being the first Steelers acquisition that learned about through my wife…. The Steelers of course traded for Brandon Boykin from the Philadelphia Eagles.

Neither player amounted to much, and perhaps that was a bad omen for the Boykin trade. When Boykin arrived, many expected him to push for a starting job. As it was, he found himself unable to get on the field in a year when the Steelers:

Instead, Boykin stood and watched as Antwon Blake struggled and Ross Cockrell got reps ahead of him. Boykin did start seeing regular reps with the Steelers defense following the loss to Seattle.

He got an interception vs. the Colts and ended up working a sort of “closer” for Antwon Blake, although Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell down played Boykin’s role in the Steelers comeback win over the Broncos in the regular season.

On the flip side, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell singled out Boykin’s mental error on Denver’s critical 3rd and 12 conversion during the Broncos go ahead score vs. the Steelers in the playoffs

The Case for Steelers Keeping Brandon Boykin

Brandon Boykin came to the Steelers with 48 games and 6 starts of experience, including one playoff start with the Eagles. The “knock” on him was that he fell out of favor with Chip Kelly, which is something you hear a lot… If there is one area on the Steelers depth chart that is screaming for help it is cornerback.

  • It says here that Brandon Boykin is not the answer for the Steelers at cornerback.

But they gave up a 5th round pick to get him, spent a year letting him learn the system, and they know what they have in him.

The Case Against Steelers Keeping Brandon Boykin

One of the prime reasons why the Steelers let Dick LeBeau go and promoted Keith Butler was to simplify the system so that new comers could learn it more easily. Boykin, by all accounts, struggled to learn the Steelers defense.

While Boyking did make contributions when he started to get reps late in the season, he whiffed on what was arguably the biggest play for the Steelers. That’s not to say it was all his fault, but the playoffs are (generally) a good crucible for seeing which direction a player will go (Ziggy Hood in the 2010 playoffs being an exception.)

The Steelers have looked into bringing Brice McCain back.

Who wouldn’t have preferred McCain in 2015 to Boykin?

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Brandon Boykin

As Jim Wexell has noted, as a free agent Brandon Boykin is going to draw interest from the rest of the NFL. The Steelers are likely interested to, but the fact is that the greatest probability scenario is some other team will make Boykin an offer that the Steelers are not interested in matching.

If that doesn’t happen, and the Steelers can bring Brandon Boykin back at a low value “prove it” contract, that would be a wise move. But that is not likely to happen.

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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DeAngelo Williams Foot Injury Highlights Thin Steelers Running Back Depth, Changing Times

As everyone knows, Ben Roethlisberger‘s name heads the Steelers injury report as Pittsburgh prepares to play the Cleveland Browns this week. That comes as no surprise after his leaving the Steelers victory over Oakland in the 4th quarter.

The next two names are linebackers James Harrison and Ryan Shazier. Clearly the Steelers are better with those two in the lineup than without, but both have a couple of three players who can take their place.

Last week the Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell to an MCL tear and this week DeAngelo Williams misses practice due to a swollen foot….? Neal Coolong of The Steelers Wire pointed out the Steelers 2015 playoff hopes might hinge on Landry Jones’ arm.

Because those are the “next men up” should DeAngelo Williams be unable to play vs. Cleveland, or at any other point in the remainder of 2015. For the record, Todman has 3 careear starts, 113 carries and 464 yards on his NFL rushing resume. He even has 3 touchdowns and has 3 receptions (although not 3 touchdowns for 3 receptions.) Pead has 19 carries for 78 yards.

Certain segments of Steelers Nation will no doubt wish to pick up the pitch fork and man the barricades to condemn Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert for allowing such a situation to come to pass. But the truth is that DeAngelo William’s swollen foot merely highlights the precarious nature of the Steelers thin running back depth, which simply a symptom of a larger, league wide problem.

Steelers Running Back Depth Long a Franchise Hallmark

Throughout Steelers history, the franchise has long boasted depth charts that were at least three deep at running back.

In 1976, the Steelers had two 1,000 yard rushers in the form of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Six years later the Steelers had three 1st round running backs on their depth chart as they did in 1982 with Harris, Greg Hawthorne and Walter Abercrombie along with work horse Frank Pollard.

The trend of the Steelers fielding a deep bullpen of running back depth continued through 80’s and into the 1990’s. In 1991 the Steelers running back depth chart had Merril Hoge, Barry Foster, Tim Worley, Warren Williams and Leroy Thompson. In 2000, the Steelers running back depth chart boasted Jerome Bettis, Richard Huntley, Amos Zereoue, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala, and Jon Witman with Dan Krieder on the practice squad.

As recently as 2008, the Steelers opened the season with Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Cary Davis, and Gary Russell for depth at running back. Even in 2012, the Steelers still had Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer – hardly three super stars, but the threesome gave Pittsburgh more running back depth than they currently enjoy.

Those days ended then and there, however.

2013 a Turning Point for Running Back Depth for the NFL and the Steelers

The Steelers picked Le’Veon Bell in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Assuming the Bell makes a full recovery from his injury and resumes his stratospheric performances fans will someday wonder how a back of his talent fell out of the NFL Draft’s first round. Or they won’t.

  • The 2013 NFL Draft marked the first draft since 1936 that no running back was taken in the first round.

The trend continued in 2014 and, while the San Diego Chargers took Melvin Gordon in the 1st round of the 2015, NFL Draft, 2013 marks milestone for running back depth for both the Steelers and for the NFL.

2013 saw Bell’s early season sacrificed to a Lis-franc injury, and Redman ailing due to an undisclosed neck injury, so it fell to Dwyer and Felix Jones to carry the Steelers load at running back. The duo did not do well. By comparison’s sake, in Isaac Redman 2012 out-rushed and out received the combined ’13 rushing and receiving totals of Dwyer and Jones.

Choices Lead to Thin Steelers Running Back Depth in 2015

The Steelers thin depth at running back in 2013 was largely a product of accident, but in 2014 it became more a product of choice.

The Steelers of course signed LeGarrette Blount in the off season to back up Bell. But behind Blount the Steelers only had Dri Archer, whom they envisioned as a utility back/wide receiver, and fullback Will Johnson. (Josh Harris was on the practice squad.) LeGarrett Blount discipline problems cost him his roster spot, forcing the Steelers to sign Ben Tate after Bell went down vs. the Bengals.

  • The Blount dismissal aside, the Steelers made a conscious choice to enter 2014 only two players deep at running back.

And the made the same choice in 2015, opting to go with Bell and Williams, only picking up Todman on waivers after Josh Harris failed to impress during preseason. The NFL is a passing league, and no one argues with the Steelers giving Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates roster spots.

  • But every roster choice involves an opportunity cost.

And with Bell down for the count, and DeAngelo Williams nursing a swollen foot, the potential opportunity cost of the Steelers opting to staff such a thin depth chart at running back has just gone up.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 NFL Draft Needs: Running Back

The 2013 NFL Draft was unique in that no running backs were taken in the first round, as sign of rules changes which are heavily tilting the game in favor of the pass. Several team grabbed running backs in the second round, including the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • Now is the time to examine the Steelers draft needs at running back in 2014.

The Steelers of course took Le’Veon Bell in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft and, after an injury-slowed start, Bell gave them a lot of reason to have faith that he is “their” running back for the foreseeable future.

  • Outside of Will Johnson, however, the Steelers have looked at their current crop of rushers and found them wanting.

Jonathan Dwyer is now in Pittsburgh West, Isaac Redman found himself cut at mid-season and remains teamless, as does Felix Jones. The Steelers did sign LeGarrette Blount, who should provide excellent depth at a very fair salary cap value. After that, the cupboard is thin, very thin.

Outside of Le’veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount and Johnson, and Blount, the Steelers have Alvester Alexander and Miguel Maysonet under contract, neither of which has an NFL regular season to his name, although both have practice squad experience. In addition to Jones, the Steelers could bring back LaRod Stephens-Howling after June first.

Steelers Need RB Depth in the Draft

Times change. The Pittsburgh Steelers started the 2000 season with Jerome Bettis, Richard Huntley, and Amos Zereoue at half back, and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala and Jon Witman at fullback, both of whom were capable of carrying the ball. They also had Dan Krieder on the practice squad.

steelers 2014 nfl draft needs priorities running back

  • That’s 6 running backs who had or would get significant NFL starting experience.

However, when one says “The Steelers need running back depth” 2000 is not even remotely close to the standard. No, the Steelers last year appeared more than content to go with 3 half backs and 1 full back on the regular season roster, and it could be the same again in 2014.

However, they will not depend on Alexander or Maysonet to deliver that depth, nor would they likely rely on Stephens-Howling as a reserve, should they choose to bring him back. That means the Steelers will be looking to add depth.

  • But don’t expect them to add a running back early.

The Steelers running back needs in the 2014 NFL Draft should be considered moderate.

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Solution to Steelers Running Back Woes? – Give Isaac Redman a 2nd Chance

LeGarrette Blount will visit Pittsburgh today, a trip delay so he could meet with Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, and Art Rooney II. Meanwhile, Behind the Steel Curtain reports that Maurice Jones-Drew will visit Oakland.

The smart money would say that those franchises awash in cash, such as the Raiders, will have a better shot at the likes of Blount and  Jones-Drew, just as they did with Al Woods and Jerricho Cotchery.

Absent a long-term deal with transition player Jason Worilds or an extension of Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers face a dilemma.  Put all of their faith in filling needs in the 2014 NFL Draft – a dubious proposition or restructure contracts to gain cap space.

  • But it doesn’t have to be this way. The Steelers have a viable option at running back.

The Steelers can sign a running back who has shown he can make tough yards. One who has 100 yard regular season and post-season games on his resume. This player has no serious injury history. He  already knows their offensive system. Perhaps best yet, the Steelers can sign this running back for the veteran minimum, with little or no signing bonus.

  • Who is this overlooked four leave clover?

None other than Isaac Redman.

  • Yes, Redman, the same player who went from Steelers Nation cult hero to “what have you done for me lately.” 

When last seen, Redman was of course fumbling away the Steelers chance to take the lead vs. the Tennessee Titans. He struggled mightily the rest of the way amassing all of 12 yards in 10 carries. He admitted to lying his way through a concussion test.

Jim Wexell reported “Even at practice last week Redman stumbled in the open field and fell down proving that he’s clearly not the runner he was two years ago.”

Well, no, Jim, that doesn’t prove that Redman wasn’t the runner he was two years ago. The “two year” reference is the fact that Redman could not seize the starting job down the stretch in 2012. No he did not. But that misses the point. Not to beat a dead horse, but….

  • The 2012 Steelers running game went the way of Willie Colon.

When Colon got settled into at guard, the Steelers ran well. When he got hurt, they began to falter. When they lost him the running game flat out faltered.

  • If Redman can be let off the hook for 2012, he was clearly in a funk in 2013.

Fair enough. It is also beyond fair to say that Redman isn’t and won’t be an NFL feature back. But before you write this off as some sort of “Return Redzone Redman Return!” romanticism, take a look below:

issac redman stats rushing receiving stats 2010 2012
Redzone “Reliable Redman” 

Number don’t lie.

And these numbers reveal a quality NFL back up running back, not too dissimilar for those of James Starks, a player the Steelers considered signing (or at least player whose agent convinced the Pittsburgh press crops that the Steelers were interested in.)

  • A superficial analysis of the graphic above might conclude that Redman’s only extended time as a starter revealed his limits as rusher.

That’s partially true, but it’s also true he was hurt at the beginning of that run, and lacked a line after it. It also shows that Redman proved himself as an able pass catcher, something often over looked.

But even if Redman’s stats from 2012 paint more accurate rendering of his rushing ability, consider how they stack up against these numbers:  381 and 127. Those would be the rushing and receiving totals of Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones from 2013.

  • That’s the combined total of both players.

Isaac Redman is never going to grow into the type of unheralded, overlooked Steelers running back turned star a la Rocky BleierMerril HogeWillie Parker that Steelers Nation dreamed of in his Redzone Redman days.

But his past performance more than suggests that he’s worthy of a veteran minimum deal. The Steelers owe it to themselves to give Isaac Redman a second chance.

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Steelers Free Agent Exodus Begins: Joanthan Dwyer to Pittsburgh West, David Johnson to San Diego

Todd Haley was brought to Pittsburgh in 2012 for many reasons, among them to establish the run. And his vision for the Steelers backfield most certainly included David Johnson, who was moving to fullback, and Jonathan Dwyer along with Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman.

  • Now all four are gone.

Redman of course was cut mid-season after opening the year as a starter. Mendenhall departed for Pittsburgh West following Bruce Arians and has since retired. And Jonathan Dwyer has followed in his tracks while David Johnson will try his luck on the West Coast with San Diego.

Steelers Nation Again Experiences the “Sucking Sound” of Free Agency

Free agency has been a fact of life in the NFL for 20 years. And it is a testament to how well run the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise is that fans below, their late 20’s have little memory of free agency as a time where the Steelers lost talent that they’d developed.

  • Since the opening of Heinz Field, free agency was largely a spectator sport in Pittsburgh

Certainly, Kevin Colbert made his moves such as bringing in Jeff Hartings and Ryan Clark. But the Steelers MO has been to resign their own players and let the likes of Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder bid themselves into oblivion.

  • But in the 1990’s free agent exoduses were an annual rite of passage in Pittsburgh.

Leon Searcy, Neil O’Donnell, Chad Brown, Ernie Mills, and Willie Williams were only a handful of players that the Steelers drafted and developed only to lose once they hit the open market.

  • Something similar is happening again, albeit not to the same degree.

At the close of business on NFL Free Agency’s second day, the Steelers had lost Dwyer, Johnson and Al Woods.

Of the three, Woods is the most problematic, and he’s been discussed elsewhere. Johnson’s lose amounts to a small surprise. Johnson certainly did not get big money thrown at him, and he has been injured for both of the past two seasons.

However, Johnson was blossoming into a solid number 2 NFL tight end. Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth have the Steelers no 1 and no 2 tight end spots locked down, but  Johnson certainly could have given David Paulson a run for the third TE slot, and if it came down to blocking, Johnson would have won hands down.

  • But Johnson likely found the new start and limited signing bonus which he would not get in Pittsburgh.

Dwyer’s case was more interesting, simply because the Steelers have no running back under contract with NFL experience behind Le’Veon Bell. Felix Jones could be resigned, but of the two Dwyer was the better back.

But Dwyer follows Bruce Arians to Arizona, where he’ll try to succeed where Joey Porter, Alan Faneca, and Clark Haggans failed before him – namely delivering more for Pittsburgh West than he did for the Steelers.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus: Need to Keep (up with) the (Felix) Joneses?

Sometimes history and happenstance hook up to and make for some uncanny encounters. In the 2008 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Rashard Mendenhall precisely one pick after the Dallas Cowboys chose Felix Jones.

And so it was that the year that the Steelers said goodbye to Mendenhall, they ended up making a rare player-for-player trade to acquire Felix Jones from the Philadelphia Eagles.

Capsule Profile of Felix Jones as a Pittsburgh Steeler

Unlike other players in this series, Jones doesn’t have much of a body of work to summarize. He appeared in 15 games for the Steelers, starting in week 2 vs. the Bengals and week 3 vs. the Bears, until giving way to Le’Veon Bell in week 4 in London vs. the Vikings.

Even when he was starting, however, Jones never saw more than 10 carries in a game.

Case for Keeping Felix Jones

When seeking depth in the form of veteran back ups, some star power is a plus, but stability is sufficient. In that respect, Felix Jones appears to fit the bill. Although his chances were limited, a review of his efforts showed him to be a confident, competent change of pace back for the Steelers.

Or did they….?

Case for Letting Jones Walk

…The perception/memory of Felix Jones and his actual performance are perhaps two different issues. Like Issac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, and Bell, Jones numbers are not terribly impressive. 48 carries for 184 yards and no touchdowns, with 9 catches for 73 yards. Dwyer only ran for 13 more yards, but Dwyer’s was used much more frequently in short yardage situations, and by most accounts put more impressive runs on tape.

If the Steelers see it as a Jones or Dwyer situation, Dwyer gets the edge, despite his checkered history. Even if it’s not, Jones 2013 performance suggests the team can do better than him as a back up.

Curtain’s Call on Felix Jones

One of new running back’s coach James Saxon will be to provide input on who should back up Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers will likely look to bring in another running back in either mid or late rounds, but a veteran presence is essential.

2013 was bad year for the Steelers once vaunted rushing attack. Perhaps that’s because of offensive line instability. Perhaps its simply because the offense has evolved to the point where Ben Roethlisberger really is the focal point. While much has been made of Bell’s low rushing totals, he only played in 13 games, far less attention has been paid to Dwyer or Jones performance.

The Steeler’s number 2 rushers in 2011, 2009, and 2008 In were Isaac Redman, Willie Parker, and Mewelde Moore.

  • Each of those back up rushers out performed Dwyer and Jones combined rushing total for 2013.

The Pittsburgh Steelers could do worse than Felix Jones for depth at running back, but they owe it to themselves to see if they can do better and as such any move to resign Jones should wait until after the 2014 NFL Draft.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2013 Final Report Card: Special Teams and Coaches

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his student fall flat on his face in the first quarter of the season, pick himself up and charge ahead, only to stumble badly again, then finish things off with a very respectable head of steam, here is part III of the Pittsburgh Steelers final report card for the 2013 season, covering the Steelers special teams and coaches. Note, these are overall grades for the defense, and not averages of the weekly report cards. And as always, no other Steelers report cards were consulted.

steelers 2013 final report card grades special teams coaches

Special Teams
The Pittsburgh Steelers history of special teams coaches is that of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Staring with Jon Kolb, the franchise has alternated bad special teams coaches with good ones (with the exception of Bobby April-Ron Zook). After the Amos Jones disasterDanny Smith would appear to continue that trend.

In 2013 Steelers Nation got a chance to see what its like to make splash plays, with several key kicks returned for long yardages, a kick returned for a touchdown and a successful fake punt, in addition to a blocked field goal and blocked extra point. Antonio Brown proved himself to be a deadly punt returner, Emmanuel Sanders showed he was a dangerous kick returner, and Felix Jones was solid.

With that said, the punting unit struggled mightily early on, one punt was blocked and another negated by a blocked kick, and too many long returns were made in critical situations. Shaun Suisham was next to perfect, and while his two misses gave the Raiders their margin, his field goals gave the Steelers insurance in more than a few games. Mat McBride took over for a struggling Zoltan Mesko, and proved himself to be a serviceable upgrade. Grade: B-

Coaching
Todd Haley was a lightning rod for criticism during the Steelers 0-4 start. Many observed that the Steelers only moved the ball or scored when in the no huddle. Yet, when the offensive line stabilized and Haley got his top tight end and rushers back history repeated itself. During the middle of 2012 when the offensive line stabilized and the running backs got healthy, Haley’s offense proved itself to be very effective. Ben Roethlisberger and Haley clearly have some differences, witness timeouts burned late vs. Miami and Baltimore, but the two are proving good for each other

Somewhere in the bowels of Steelers Nation, someone got the brilliant brainwave that after 50 plus years in the NFL, Dick LeBeau suddenly woke up and forgot how to coach defense. Either that, or LeBeau got to the point where his scheming and play calling could only make up for too much age, too much and too many injuries inexperience mixed together.

  • Draw your own conclusions, but Steel Curtain Rising opts for the later.

Yes, the Steelers defense took a step back in 2013, a big one. But losing Larry Foote caused far more disruption than the average fan can fathom. Pulling Troy Polamalu from his strong safety position shifted a lot of responsibility to an aging Ryan Clark and a green Shamarko Thomas. Shifting out Casey Hampton for Steve McLendon didn’t provide the boost that many fans felt it would. That was a difficult hand that Dick LeBeau was dealt. But LeBeau was and hopefully will remain part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Finally, there is Mike Tomlin. It’s unknown how much influence Tomlin had in the roster/salary cap choices that left depth so thin that he was forced to shift his number 3 tight end, Kelvin Beachum, to center 8 plays into season (sorry, we told you losing Doug Legursky was a mistake). It’s also hard to know how much responsibility that Tomlin held for the decision to cut lose and recall so many players (see Will Allen, Stevenson Sylvester, and Jonathan Dwyer). These issues are important, as they impacted greatly in the 0-4 start. As was perhaps the decision to arrive in London late and risk jet lag, for which Tomlin was fully responsible.

Tomlin responded to that with the same kind of talk that coaches always pull out in those situations.

  • It’s what is said when the cameras are off that is important. Tomlin spoke, and his team clearly listened. 

Then, after the New England disaster, Tomlin vowed consequences for anyone who wasn’t making an effort. But he made no changes, because his review found no lack of effort. That’s the sign of a supremely self-confident coach who doesn’t feel the need to make change for change sake after the worst defensive effort in team history. Instead, Tomlin took responsibility for it all — going so far as to throw himself on a grenade with Kevin Colbert’s drafting record was questioned — rolled up his sleeves, and continued coaching.

The Steelers went 6-2 after that, and as Art Rooney II has said, they were playing their best ball at the end. Grade:  B

Unsung Heroes
An offensive line loses its best player, its most experienced player, and its signal caller. 8 plays into the season. Shortly after that it’s clear that it’s all important left tackle is in over his head. So another change needs to be made. This is of course what happened to the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers.

During all of the ensuring chaos, there were two constants, to players who had a calming influence, two players who were always part of the solution and never part of the problem. Those two players are Ramon Foster and David DeCastro. Foster continued his steady play. DeCastro began developing into a very good guard. And for that and for their consistency, David DeCastro and Ramon Foster win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2013 season.

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