Surprise! Steelers Promote Fitzgerald Toussaint from Practice Squad, Cut Terrell Watson. What’s Going On?

Its the last week of November, so it must be time for the Pittsburgh Steelers to….

…If you guessed “Promote Fitzgerald Toussaint from the practice squad” you’d be right, as that’s just what the Steelers did 24 hours ahead of their show down with the Green Bay Packers at Heinz Field. In a move that comes as a surprise, the Steelers cut rookie Terrell Watson and promoted the veteran Toussaint from the practice squad.

Fitzgerald Toussaint, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger

Fitzgerald Toussiant runs in the Steelers 2015 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Photo Credit: The SteelersWire

Two years ago, almost to the day, the Steelers activated Fitzgerald Toussaint from their practice squad ahead of their 2015 matchup against the Seattle Seahawks.

At the time, the move Steelers appeared to be protecting Toussaint from practice squad poaching, as the Ravens had just lost Justin Forsett, and Fitzgerald Toussaint had been with the Ravens in 2014.

  • This time the Steelers motives appear murkier.

Le’Veon Bell has been getting the lion’s share of the carries, with James Conner getting a few carries per game. Instead of risking Ben Roethlisberger on quarterback sneaks, Terrell Watson gotten the call as a short yardage back with mixed effectiveness and for the record had 5 carries for 8 yards.

While this site has taken heat on Twitter for being somewhat of a homer for Fitzgerald Toussaint, Watson had out performed Foussaint during training camp and preseason and won the job.

  • Might the Steelers have concerns about either Le’Veon Bell or James Conner’s health?

Or are the Steelers simply engaging in the type of roster shuffling on their running back depth chart similar to what they have done on the inside linebacking depth chart where Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Jerry Olsavsky have alternated L.J. Fort and Steven Johnson on the active roster and practice squad throughout the year.

  • That’s a possibility, its also possible that Fitzgerald Toussaint is looking better than Watson in practice.

While he won’t strike fear into the hearts of any opposing defensive coordinator, Fitzgerald Toussaint has proven to be a serviceable number 3 running back in his time in Pittsburgh.

His biggest game came in the Steelers 2015 playoff win over the Bengals, where he earned over 100 yards from scrimmage, although many fans still haven’t forgiven him for his fumble in the Steelers playoff loss to Denver the following week.

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

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

  • The elephant in the room has been unmasked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has Ben Roethlisberger‘s Career Come Full Circle?

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

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

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

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Why Pitt Standout James Conner’s Impact with Steelers Could Come Sooner than You Think….

“I’ve seen him play. You’ve seen him play. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be good.”

That quote was from me to my brother last week, shortly after the Steelers selected Pitt running back James Conner with their compensatory third-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

James Conner, Steelers 2017 3rd round draft pick

James Conner rushing for Pitt @ Heinz Field. Photo credit: PennLive.com

Obviously, being from Pittsburgh and a huge fan of the University of Pittsburgh, my opinion about James Conner may be partially due to homerism. After all, leading up to the draft, how many football fans expressed a desire for their favorite pro team to draft a player from their favorite college team?

This happens all the time.

But I wasn’t the only one who reacted joyfully to the news that Conner’s college home stadium–Heinz Field–would turn into his professional home stadium.

  • First, who doesn’t love everything about James Conner?

After rushing for 1,759 yards in his sophomore year of 2014, Conner was named the ACC Player of the Year.

  • But just when it appeared that Conner was headed for greatness, he received a double punch to the gut.

The first punch was a torn MCL, which he sustained in the 2015 season opener. The second, more devastating strike occurred many months later, when Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer  that was discovered by doctors while he was undergoing rehab for his injured knee.

You know the story by now: Conner absorbed both punches and kept on fighting. By May of 2016, he was declared cancer-free; and in his final season at Pitt, he rushed for 1,092 yards on 216 attempts.

  • Obviously, less than a year after the physical toll that chemo and the MCL tear took on his body, the burst and explosiveness weren’t quite the same.

It’s impossible to know where James Conner would have been drafted without those setbacks, but he was selected high enough that he’ll be given much more than a puncher’s chance to have a decent career with the Steelers.

  • And why does it have to be just decent?

I realize Le’Veon Bell, and his current status as the NFL’s best running back is one reason James Conner may never get to truly make his mark at the professional level. Another reason is obviously the knee injury.

But when James Conner lines up in the offensive backfield this season, he won’t be the only Steelers running back who suffered a torn MCL at Heinz Field in 2015. Le’Veon Bell sustained that very same injury in Week 8 against the Bengals and was done for the year.

  • Which brings me back to the chance James Conner might get to make a difference for the Steelers sooner than people think.

For anyone to examine the Steelers top four picks, which also include linebacker T.J. Watt, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and cornerback Cameron Sutton and wonder if they will be able to help them in their rookie seasons may have forgotten about the depth issues the team has faced in recent years.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Bengals

Le’Veon Bell before he was injured against the Bengals. Photo Credit: USATSI via CBS.com

And that’s especially been the case at the running back spot, where Le’Veon Bell, despite his all-world talents and tremendous production, has missed a total of 17 games due to either injuries or suspensions over his first four seasons.

As for the postseason, the 2016 edition was the first Le’Veon Bell was actually healthy at the start of. And while he did set franchise records by rushing for a combined 337 yards in back-to-back victories over the Dolphins and Chiefs, he was limited in the AFC title game versus the Patriots after aggravating a groin injury he reportedly had been nursing for a couple of weeks.

Unlike the torn MCL Le’Veon Bell suffered in 2015 or the hyper-extended knee he sustained at the end of the 2014 season (both occurring after questionable tackles in games against the Bengals), it could be argued that an injured groin for a running back is a symptom of overuse.

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But the one thing that is certain is that Pittsburgh has been limited at the running back spot in each of the past three postseasons.

  • You know what they say about not learning from history.

Therefore, while it would be foolish to think James Conner is going to get any greater workload than what LeGarrette Blount and DeAngelo Williams both received while playing behind a healthy Le’Veon Bell in the past, it would also be foolish to assume he won’t be called upon to help the Steelers in 2017.

If the Steelers truly believe Bell’s injury, which required surgical repair in March, was caused by overuse, they might already be thinking about lightening the star running back’s load–even if it’s just a few less carries a game.

If the Steelers are forced to turn to James Conner for one reason or another, what kind of running back will they be getting? That’s hard to predict. Obviously, like every other draft prospect, Conner has his weaknesses, which, according to his NFL.com draft profile, include average lateral movement and a lack of elite speed. But then again, those were some of the same criticisms Bell had to overcome coming out of college–and that was before he suffered a torn MCL. 

James Conner, Steelers, Le'Veon Bell backup, Steelers backup running back

Soon former Pitt running back James Conners will be delivering stiff arms while wearning the Black and Gold. Photo Credit: Julia Rendleman, Post-Gazette

Despite his maturity issues that have led to two drug-related suspensions, Le’Veon Bell is a hard worker and has certainly gotten the most out of his abilities. If there was a do-over of the 2013 NFL Draft, instead of lasting until the second round, No. 26 would be a top-10 selection.

Will James Conner have a chance to get the most out of his abilities in Pittsburgh? There’s no doubt he’s a hard worker, willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. As per Kevin Colbert in his post-draft media appearances, Conner has a great opportunity to make a name for himself on special teams.

As for moving up the running back depth chart, James Conner obviously has to develop an all-around game that includes being a reviving target for Ben Roethlisberger out of the backfield and picking up the blitz (two things Bell also excels at, which is why he never comes off the field).

The sooner James Conner improves in areas besides just running the ball, the quicker he’ll distance himself from the likes of Knile Davis and Fitzgerald Toussaint, which shouldn’t pose too great a challenge.

  • What about the very top of the running back depth chart?

As it stands right now, why would anyone want to mess with what Le’Veon Bell is doing? The answer is, nobody would.

But in addition to his injury history and suspension issues, there could be contractual issues with Le’Veon Bell. Unless the two sides come to an agreement, Le’Veon Bell will play the 2017 season under the franchise tag. Sure, he will get paid rather handsomely, but he’s eventually going to want a multi-year deal that will annually pay him at least the $12 million he’ll earn next season.

  • What happens if the two sides never agree on Le’Veon Bell’s worth?

In a perfect world, Le’Veon Bell will ink a new deal and go on to have a Hall of Fame career, while James Conner develops as a player and bides his time in Pittsburgh for four years, before signing with another team looking for a featured running back.

But this is not a perfect world, and that’s why James Conner’s impact with the Steelers could come a lot sooner than people think.

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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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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix + a 1st Round Prediction

Well, well well, the big day is here! Per the clock on Steelers.com in just 10:27: 34 the 2017 NFL Draft will finally kick off (and lucky you, by the time you read this, it will even be closer)!

Since the final gun of Super Bowl LI, Steelers Nation has enjoyed?/experienced?/endured? Hundreds of hours of Mike Maycock and Mel Kipper Jr. clips, read dozens of mock drafts and perhaps even debated “grades” some scribes give to the Steelers performance in so-and-so’s latest mock.

  • Now all that’s left is, well, to pick the players and then bring them to St. Vincents to separate the Sidney Thornton’s from the Sean Davis‘s.
2017 NFL Draft, Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin Kevin Colbert Pre-draft press conference

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert hold their pre-Draft press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

OK, with that bit of cynicism about the excess hype that envelops the NFL Draft out of the way, let’s acknowledge that championships are built and lost on draft day.

  • And for those of you who’re dying to know this sites prediction for the Steelers first round draft pick, staff writer Tony Defeo is predicting it will be Kevin King, the 6’3″ cornerback out of Washington.

And, as we noted when the Steelers 2016 draft class was complete, Pittsburgh is now at a point where the success or failure on draft day will determine whether Ben Roethlisberger can bring home Lombardi Number Seven.

With the urgent of the 2017 NFL Draft in mind, Steel Curtain Rising has taken stock of the needs presented by each area of the Steelers Depth Chart.

Using our “exclusive Steelers Draft needs scale” we’ve determined that the Steelers needs at Quarterback, Defensive Line, and Tight End can be termed as Low-Moderate. The Steelers needs at Offensive line and Safety should be considered Moderate-Low. Inside linebacker clocks in at Moderate. Wide Receiver and Running back come in in at Moderate High. While Outside Linebacker and Cornerback are High Moderate needs for the Steelers in 2017.

Similar to past years, the Steelers draft needs are very tired, with some fairly high urgency needs to fill up top, very little in the middle, and a lot down at the bottom.

How to distinguish between them? Well, that’s where our Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix comes into play.

Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix

The purpose of the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix is to give a baseline between the Steelers areas of need should two players with the same grade become available at the same time.

Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix

How did we arrive at this ranking? Fair question. To be honest, the Steelers needs for an outside linebacker or an “Edge Rusher” should he come in the form of a defensive end and a cornerback are both very high.

Even with James Harrison clocking in at age 39, the duo of Harrison and Bud Dupree arguably give the Steelers more on the field impact than does that of Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell.

  • But both Burns and Cockrell can be expected to start 16 games; James Harrison can’t.

However, anyone who would insist that Cornerback should take priority over Outside Linebacker or “Edge Rusher” wouldn’t get much of an argument for me, the Steelers need to boost their secondary as the AFC Championship so painfully illustrated.

And if Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Art Rooney II have the feeling that the next Dan Marino has dropped to them at 30, then by all means they should take him. But the reality is that isn’t going to happen, and the Steelers aren’t going to find the next Tom Brady in some later round. Given that, its best to focus on giving Ben the players he needs to win Lombardi Number Seven before he begins his “Life’s Work.”

Up until a few days ago, Steel Curtain Rising would have rated wide receiver as a higher need than running back, but Martavis Bryant‘s reinstatement changes that calculation ever so slightly. The Steelers would still be wise to add another reciever to help take heat off of Antonio Brown, but it would be wiser to invest a pick in ensuring they don’t start another playoff game with Fitzgerald Toussaint as Le’Veon Bell‘s top backup.

  • As always, let’s close comments about our Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix with a caveat.

This chart is in no way meant to suggest the Steelers should draft for need. Quite the contrary. When you draft for need Troy Edwards (and perhaps Jarvis Jones) happen.

The Steelers 2014 NFL Draft Class provides the perfect example. Heading into the draft, the Steelers 2014 Draft Needs Matrix had rated Inside Linebacker as Moderate-Low given the quality and depth the Steelers had at the position.

Clearly, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert knew what they were doing.

Let’s hope that three years from now we can say the same thing about the decision the Steelers brain trust makes tonight. Until then let’s celebrate evening that will allow a select few young men to enjoy the movement they’ve dreamed of since they were old enough to hold a nerf football.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Running Back: Moderate High

While it may be difficult to believe here in 2017, NFL teams once looked to the running back position to provide a foundation for their championship dreams.

  • Does that sound funny to you?

Then let’s try a test. You’ve undoubtedly heard the names Jim Brown, Gayle Sayers, and O.J. Simpson. Now, can you tell me who the quarterbacks where that handed off to them? OK, you get my point.

As the game of football has evolved through the 21st century the role of the running back and indeed the larger running game has declined, so much that the concept of a “franchise running back” seems quaint.

As Steel Curtain Rising has observed on more than one occasion, Le’Veon Bell has the potential to revive the concept – if he can show he’s blessed with the longevity of the great backs from yesteryear. How the Steelers view Le’Veon Bell’s long term potential will go a long way to determining the priority status of running back heading into the 2017 NFL Draft.

steelers 2017 draft needs running back, le'veon bell, le'veon bell steelers record bills, jesse james

Le’Veon Bell breaks the Steeelers single game rushing record vs the Bills. (Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via FiveThirtyEight

Steelers Depth Chart @ Running Back Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

It is almost comical to see the way the debates about the Steelers wisdom in picking Le’Veon Bell in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft has evolved. Pittsburgh of course passed on EddieLacy and by the end of the 2013 season, the talking head were quick to pronounce the move a mistake.

Pittsburgh scribe John Steigerwald spent much of the 2013 season critiquing Le’Veon Bell, while Jim Wexell wisely kept a running comparison between Bell’s rookie performance and that of Walter Payton.

  • We now know Jim Wexell was on to something: Le’Veon Bell does have Walter Payton like talent.

That much was apparent in the 2014 season, when Le’Veon Bell was virtually unstoppable – when teams crowded the box to takeaway the run, Ben Roethlisberger hooked up with Bell to burn them in the passing game. All told, Bell accounted for 34% of the Steelers offense in his sophomore season.

Injuries and suspensions limited Le’Veon Bell to 6 games in 2015, leading to questions about his durability, but in 2016 Le’Veon Bell proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was a special talent. In 2016 Le’Veon Bell compiled for over 1900 yards from scrimmage and broke both the Steelers regular season single game rushing record and the Steelers playoff single game rushing record – twice.

In other words, Le’Veon Bell did something that neither John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis – the Steelers 3 Hall of Fame running backs, could ever do.

Sharing the title of “starter” in the Steelers offensive backfield is Roosevelt Nix, who serves as the team’s fullback. Roosevelt Nix played well as a lead blocker when called upon, but he participated in just over 9% of the Steelers snaps.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Running Back Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind the Le’Veon Bell the Steelers cupboard at running back is pretty thin. That might seem like a hypocritical assessment for a site that has sung the praises of Fitzgerald Toussaint, but my assessment is that Fitzgerald Toussaint is a quality number 3 NFL running back who has yet to prove, or even show, that he can be a number 2 NFL running back.

The Steelers of course have signed free agent running back Knile Davis to provide depth, but Knile Davis’ history rushing the ball doesn’t suggest he can be much of an upgrade over Fitzgerald Toussaint and indeed the word is that the Steelers are looking at Knile Davis as more of a kick returner than anything else.

For the record, the Steelers also have running backs Brandon Brown-Dukes – a 2016 practice squader, Dreamius Smith, Gus Johnson and Trey Williams under contract.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Running Back

One doesn’t need to be a homer to look at the Steelers running back depth chart and wonder why DeAngelo Williams remains unsigned. While injured for much of the second half of the Steelers 2016 season, DeAngelo Williams ran well when given the opportunity.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs running back

But whether you’re talking about Willie Parker, Isaac Redman, Barry Foster or even Franco Harris the Steelers tend have a very good knack for knowing when the tread has worn on a running back’s tires.

  • That means the Steelers must look to the 2017 NFL Draft to find Le’Veon Bell’s understudy.

There’s also the ugly reality that NFL running backs have short shelf life. Le’Veon Bell showed no signs of a drop off in his play despite suffering a serious injury in 2015 against the Bengals, but neither was Willie Parker when the Steelers drafted Rashard Mendenhall in the now infamous 2008 NFL Draft.

Given those realities, the Steelers 2017 draft need at running back must be considered Moderate-High.

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Steelers Free Agent Signings of Hunter, Davis Sensabaugh & Tyson Alualu Offer Insurance

Ever notice how a certain album produces a few hit singles, while another just sort of hits you with one nice song after another, until you look up in February and realize it was just nominated for a Grammy?

When it comes to the NFL’s annual free-agent frenzy, the Pittsburgh Steelers never have any hit singles, let alone a few. This year was no exception, as big-time name after big-time name went off the proverbial “big board,” while Pittsburgh just sat back and made its entire fan base feel unfilled. (The re-signings of backup quarterback Landry Jones and journeyman tight end David Johnson did nothing to satiate anyone’s appetite.)

Nearly a week past, before Pittsburgh made news again (kind of), by agreeing to terms with both cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and running back/return specialist Knile Davis. 

Saving the best for last, the Steelers came to terms with veteran defensive lineman Tyson Alualu on a two-year deal for $6 million.

Senquez Golson, Senquez Golson injury, cotty sensabaugh

The Steelers signed free agent Cotty Sensabaugh as insurance that Senquez Golson can’t provide. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Actually, the addition of Tyson Alualu to an already talented defensive line was seen as a sound move by Pittsburgh, a signing that could pay huge dividends this season, as Alualu will no doubt be an upgrade over the likes of Ricardo Mathews and Cam Thomas, two free-agent signings who provided depth along the defensive line to varying degrees of success in recent years.

  • With Tyson Alualu acting as the cherry on top of the cake, Pittsburgh’s current free-agent crop now doesn’t look so bad, and you kind of get an idea of what the organization’s goal was from the start.

The 2017 free-agency period wasn’t about the splash move (even if Dont’a Hightower was wined and dined before he decided to stay with the Patriots); it wasn’t even necessarily about finding a veteran who may have not been seen as very splashy, but one would have started at a position of need.

  • No, if these four signings are any indication, the Steelers were driven by providing insurance in a few key areas.

Despite losing star defensive end Cameron Heyward to a season-ending injury on November 13, Keith Butler‘s young and often struggling defense showed great improvement over the last seven games and into the playoffs. But how much better off would the unit have been had it been able to plug in a defensive lineman of Tyson Alualu’s pedigree down-the-stretch?

The 10th pick of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Jaguars, Alualu started 88 games during his seven seasons in Jacksonville. While he hasn’t quite lived up to his lofty draft-status, he is clearly a talent upgrade over the likes of Mathews and Thomas and should strengthen Pittsburgh’s defensive line rotation. And in the likely scenario that Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave or Heyward has to miss time due to injuries next season, the gap from from starter to reserve shouldn’t be as great as it was in 2016.

After the Tennessee Titans made him the 34th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, Hunter, 25, has bounced around the league.

  • Justin Hunter averaged just over 22 receptions a season, before catching 10 in 2016.

With 78 career receptions for just over 1,300 yards, Hunter has fallen well short of his lofty pre-draft potential that included a 6’4″, 200-pound frame and 4.4 speed. But if we’re going to speak of pedigree, however, fairness demands that we acknowledge that Justin Hunter has never had a quarterback with Ben Roethlisberger‘s skill-set throwing to him; maybe if he had, his potential would have been fleshed out just a bit more.

Martavis Bryant,

Martavis Bryant reviews a play on a tablet during the 2015 season. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today via stillcurtain.com

Four of Hunter’s 10 catches went for touchdowns in 2016, so maybe he could benefit from now finding himself on a roster with not only Roethlisberger but some of the NFL’s best offensive weapons in Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant.

In a worst-case scenario, if Martavis Bryant, if he doesn’t find himself back on a football field next year, and Sammie Coates can’t recover from the finger ailments that derailed what started out as a promising sophomore season in 2016, Hunter should be a much more talented alternative than the likes of Cobi Hamilton

As for Knile Davis and Coty Sensabaugh, while the Steelers would obviously be in a bad way if either had to start many games at their respective positions in 2017, they should also provide some decent insurance,

Knile Davis, for example, may never be more than competition for Fitzgerald Toussaint, but if he does win the job as the team’s third running back, this will open the door to providing his real value as a kickoff returner.

With 1,960 career return yards on his resume, Knile Davis should be a significant upgrade over Toussaint, who averaged just 21.3 yards per kickoff return last season.

Finally, Coty Sensabaugh may not have been the veteran cornerback Steelers fans were hoping for–far from it–but he did start 15 games for the Titans two years ago.

  • Besides, the Steelers secondary may not need a splashy free-agent signing to see an upgrade.

If Artie Burns and Sean Davis improve over their already rather impressive  rookie seasons, and if Senquez Golson finally sees a football field in 2017 and ultimately performs like his 2015 second round pedigree, Coty Sensabaugh will act as the best insurance policy: one you never need to cash in on.

No, the Steelers didn’t make any big-time signings, but their free-agent class seems a bit more impressive when you examine it for it what really is.

Some nice insurance.

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Return on Investment? Steelers Sign Knile Davis to as Kick Returner, Backup Running Back

Bargain hunting continued on Pittsburgh’s South Side Monday as the Steelers signed Knile Davis, a free agent running back who most recently played for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Knile Davis is listed as a running back, but the Steelers are eyeing him primarily as a kick returner, a specialist position which the franchise has struggled to fill for most of the Mike Tomlin Era.

Knile Davis, Sean Spence, Jarvis Jones, Steelers vs Chiefs

Sean Spence tackles Knile Davis as Jarvis Jones arrives a second too late. Photo Credit: USA Today’s Steelers Wire

To put the matter into perspective, the last time the Steelers had a kickoff returned for a touchdown as in the 2010’s game against the Tennessee Titans, when Antonio Brown took a reverse and ran it all the way in.

The only Steelers kick returners who’ve returned more than 10 kicks during Mike Tomlin’s tenure to remotely approach an average of 25 yards per return are Stephan Logan, Markus Wheaton, Chris Rainey, Emmanuel Sanders and Brown.

  • In just four seasons, Knile Daivs has already returned 73 kicks for a total of 1920 yards, for a 26.8 yard average for two touchdowns.

Given that a touchback now results in the ball being spotted at the 25 yard line, having a kick returner who can routinely better that marks a welcome addition to the return team. (For the record Stefan Logan and Chris Rainey were the only returners during the Tomlin era to average more than 25 yards.)

Now Knile Davis Impacts the Steelers Depth Chart @ Running Back

Le’Veon Bell remains the uncontested Alpha Male atop the Steelers running back depth chart, and the unsigned status of DeAngelo Williams might suggest that the he’s been replaced by Knile Davis. Davis would certainly like coaches to see it that way as indicated by his statement to reporters:

I feel like they are confident I can (complement Bell). I’ve had to fill in before. I’ve had 100-yard games in this league. I’ve done well in this league, and I’m prepared for whatever comes in the future.

That’s a little bold, but healthy nonetheless or the new arrival. However, if press reports are any indication, the Steelers primarily interest in Knile Davis is as a kick returner, not as a running back. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald Toussaint has been put on notice that he will need to defend his roster spot at St. Vincents next summer.

The Steelers tried to work Toussaint in at kick returner last year, but without much effect. And while Knile Davis’ 3.2 rushing average isn’t much to write home about it is better that Fitzgerald Toussaint’s career average of 2.9.

  • The Kansas City Chiefs drafted Knile Davis in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

He played in Kansas City for three seasons until the Chiefs traded him to Green Bay for a seventh-round draft pick in October 2016. But Davis didn’t remain a Cheesehead for long, as the Packers cut him after two games. He spent one day on the New York Jets’ roster before re-signing with Kansas City.

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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.

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Steelers 2017 Free Agent Cody Wallace – Does B.J. Finney’s Rise Mean Wallace’s “Life’s Work?” has Arrived?

In the modern, salary-cap era of the NFL, getting a pink slip on cut down day doesn’t necessarily spell doom. Current Steelers Fitzgerald Toussaint, Anthony Chickillo and James Harrison have been cut only to see another NFL Day.

  • But when The Turk came knocking down in Tampa in September 2013, Cody Wallace had to fear The End had arrived.

After all, Cody Wallace had bounced around between the 49ers, Lions, Texans, and Jets rosters and practice squads from 2008 to 2011 and landed a spot duty position with Tampa in 2012. When you’re a 28 year old NFL offensive lineman who has been with 5 teams in 5 years and you get cut, “Life’s Work” is usually comes next.

But even then, Cody Wallace appeared to be an insurance pickup. Maurkice Pouncey was continuing the Steelers tradition of stability at center that runs (almost) unbroken from Ray Mansfield, to Mike Webster, to Dermontti Dawson to Jeff Hartings. Little did they know, the Steelers would need Wallace’s services and need them soon.

That was four years ago and now the Steelers must decide if free agent Cody Walllace’s services are still worth it.

cody wallace, cody wallace free agent, steelers vs packers, steelers 2017 free agents

Cody Wallace starting at center in the Steelers 2013 game against Green Bay at Lambeau Field. Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch, USA TODAY Sports

Capsule Profile of Cody Wallace’s Steelers Career

When Maurkice Pouncey went down on opening day 2013 against the Titans, Cody Wallace was in street clothes. The Steeler signed Fernando Velasco who started the next 11 games until he too got injured in the Steelers Thanksgiving loss to the Ravens.

It was Cody Wallace’s turn to be the next man up, and Wallace finished that game and started the final four games of the Steelers 2013 season. In 2014 Cody Wallace appeared in 15 games and gave two solid performances starting at guard.

When Maurkice Pouncey went down for the count in 2015, Cody Wallace started all 16 of the Steelers regular season games and both playoff games at center. Going into 2015 the Steelers had a pretty good record when Cody Wallace started, and during 2015 Ben Roethlisberger enjoyed solid protection the entire time, and Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams had solid run blocking.

Cody Wallace only appeared in one game during 2016 and was put on injured reserve just before the Steelers game road game against the Ravens.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Cody Wallace

Cody Wallace gives the Steelers veteran depth at the offensive line and the ability to step in and start at not one but two positions. While the NFL injury gods haven’t tortured the Steelers in recent years the as badly as they did at the beginning of the decade, the Steelers have learned the lesson that you can never have too many good offensive lineman.

Cody Wallace knows Mike Munchak’s system. He’s a quality player who has shown the ability to deliver when called upon time and time again.

The Cast Against the Steelers Signing Cody Wallace

B.J. Finney and Chris Hubbard. Both are younger lineman benefited from Wallace’s injury and absence in 2016. While both players offer the rare combination of experience and youth. They’re known commodities.

  • In contrast, Cody Wallace will turn 33 this year and he’s coming off of an injury.

The Steelers also have 2016’s 3rd round pick Jerald Hawkins coming back in 2017. While Hawkins plays tackle he’s another younger lineman that the Steelers will need reserve a roster spot for. Given that, Cody Wallace isn’t worth even a minimal signing bonus. The Steelers can get the same depth with younger, cheaper players.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Cody Wallace

If this were simply and X’s and O’s decision, and if my medical staff assured me Cody Wallace’s injury wasn’t long-term, then this arm-chair general manager would bring him back. It is true that B.J. Finney did an exceptional job as a guard.

On the Steelers first several 3rd downs ended in sacks as, the Browns ran right at Landry Jones and on came Jordan Berry. That was fine for a meaningless game against the Browns, but if you’re Mike Tomlin, do you really want to roll the dice with letting that happen to Ben Roethlisberger?

But of course personnel decisions in today’s NFL don’t simply come down to the X’s and O’s, they’re just as much about the bang for your salary cap dollar.

  • And in that analysis, the argument for letting Cody Wallace walk gets a lot stronger.

And at the end of the day, the Steelers will almost certainly hold off on making any sort of an offer to Cody Wallace, see who they can pick up in the 2017 NFL Draft, and only then seriously consider bringing him back.

In all likelihood, while the door isn’t completely closed, the Steelers look set to move on from Cody Wallace.
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