Does Steelers Restricted Free Agent Fitzgerald Toussaint Fit in Pittsburgh?

The NFL practice squad is at once a tenuous lifeline to an NFL dream, a way point for roster bubble babies, and a proving round for future starters and even All Pros.

Fitzgerald Toussaint has been a waypoint type practice squad player while in Pittsburgh, and as he reaches Restricted Free Agency, Toussaint will learn whether that time translates into bigger and better things.

Fitzgerald Toussaint, James Wright, Steelers vs Bengals,

Fitzgerald Toussaint returns a kick against the Bengals in 2016. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Fitzgerald Toussaint Steelers Career

The Steelers added Fitzgerald Toussaint to their practice squad in November of 2015 after the Baltimore Ravens parted with him. The Steelers activated Toussaint in late November likely to keep the Ravens from claiming him. That move proved to be schrewed, as DeAngelo Williams got injured in the 2015 season finale against Cleveland.

  • That set the stage for Fitzgerald Toussaint to start the Steelers playoff games against the Bengals and Broncos.

The Steelers brought back Fitzgerald Toussaint in 2016, where he served on the active roster, but only saw spot duty despite the fact that Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams rarely were healthy enough to play together.

Fitzgerald Toussaint was in the running to earn the third running backs slot in 2017 behind Bell and James Conners, but ultimately gave way to Terrell Watson. Watson however didn’t pan out as expected, and the Steelers promoted Toussaint to the active roster in late November where he saw action as a kickoff returner.

The Case for the Steelers Tendering Fitzgerald Toussaint

In three seasons, Fitzgerald Toussaint has proven to be a serviceable body to man the 3rd running back slot. And fate has forced the Steelers to turn to that slot more than once late in the season.

Many Steelers fans will never forgive, or forget, Toussaint’s fumble against the Broncos, but the fact is that the young made did quite well for what was essentially a 5th string running back starting in the playoffs. In fact, Toussaint had over 100 yards from scrimmage in the Steelers playoff win over the Bengals.

That’s the kind of depth you want to have at running back.

The Case Against the Steelers Tendering Fitzgerald Toussaint

As Fitzgerald Toussaint is a restricted free agent, the Steelers must make him a qualifying tender to retain some sort of first-refusal right and/or get compensation should someone sign him. While restricted free agent tenders are not guaranteed, even a low tender will portrayal come in at around 1.8 million dollars.

Fitzgerald Toussaint is a good number 3 running back, but committing 1.8 million dollars in salary cap dollars to a third running back is not a wise more even in the abstract, and certainly not given the Steelers tight salary cap situation.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Fitzgerald Toussaint

When James Conners got hurt and the Steelers needed to rest Le’Veon Bell, they went to the street and signed Stevan Ridley. And it was Ridley’s number that got called thereafter, and in the regular season finale against the Browns.

  • A year ago, when Fitzgerald Toussaint was an exclusive rights free agent, this site took a lot of heat for citing him as a Kevin Colbert success story.

The point then wasn’t to say that Toussaint was a Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, or even Merril Hoge in the making. Far from it. He was a decent waiver wire pickup, and a serviceable 3rd running back. That was true then and it remains true today.

The Steelers can let Fitzgerald Toussaint become an unrestricted free agent and stand a good shot at bringing him back at or near the veteran minimum. He’s certainly a player worth bringing to training camp but treating him as anything else entering free agency would be folly.

Scrambling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Free Agency Tracker

Franchise tags are being slapped on star players. Teams, real NFL teams not fantasy ones, are putting together blockbuster trades that they can’t even execute. Instead of talking about sacks, Red Zone performance and third down conversion, football fans fling around words like “cap value,” pro-rated, roster bonus and “dead money.”

Roosevelt Nix, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers 2018 free agent focus

Roosevelt Nix blocking for Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via The Athletic

The start of NFL Free Agency is almost upon us, and with that Steel Curtain Rising rolls out our Steelers 2018 Free Agent focus, by publishing what will be our Steelers 2018 Free Agent Tracker.

Let’s look at who the Black and Gold at risk of losing during the 2018 Free Agency signing period.

Steelers 2018 Unrestricted Free Agents

Le’Veon Bell
Arthur Moats
Chris Hubbard
Justin Hunter
Sean Spence
Stevan Ridley

Steelers 2018 Restricted Free Agents

Fitzgerald Toussaint
Chris Boswell
Anthony Chickillo
Greg Ducre
Roosevelt Nix
Steelers have resigned Roosevelt Nix to 4 year contract
Eli Rogers
Jordan Berry
Steelers have resigned Jordan Berry

Steelers 2018 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

B.J. Finney
Steelers have resigned B.J. Finney to 1 year contract
Matt Feiler
Steelers have resigned Matt Feiler

The Steelers will make plenty of moves that don’t involve the men above. The Steelers 2018 Salary Cap situation is fairly tight and that means that several roster cuts are coming, as well as some restructures. A potential extenstion of Ben Roethlisberger, which Art Rooney II has suggest may happen, could also provide short-term Steelers salary cap relief.

The Steelers 2018 secondary is likely to have a very different look, as William Gay, J.J. Wilcox and perhaps Mike Mitchell will likely become cap casualties very soon. Players like Darrius Heyward-Bey could also find himself looking for new work.

Steel Curtain Rising will be following all of the action and we will update this page as news breaks.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for Playoff Loss to Jaguars – F for Total Defensive Failure

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his star pupil test out of the first round of exams, arrive early on test day, only to forget to the the home portion! Here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Mike Tomlin’s 2nd Playoff Loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Leonard Fournette, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, Joe Haden, Mike Mitchell, Sean Spence, Vince Williams

Leonard Fournette burns Vince Williams, Sean Spence, Mike Mitchell & Joe Haden on his 18 yard touchdown run. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger reads 37-58-5-1for 469, which is a Fantasy Owner’s wet dream. And to be honest, Ben Roethlisberger’s performance against the Jaguars was strong by any conventional measure. Ben Roethlisberger made some incredible throws. But in this case, his grade must go beyond those numbers and recognize that he committed two turnovers, which were detrimental difference makers. Grade: C-steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell never got a chance to take over this game the way some thought he might, largely because the Steelers were down by two touchdowns before they knew what hit them. Nonetheless, Bell ran for 67 yards and caught balls for another 88. There are LOTS of fingers to point after this loss, but none of those should aim at Le’Veon Bell. Grade: B+

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald was the Steelers 2nd leading receiver catching 10 passes for 112 yards (and replays show that he probably couldn’t have caught the ball that was intercepted.) Jesse James had one catch for 12 yards. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Steelers fans should appreciate just how good they have it in Antonio Brown. The man is the best in the game, bar none. Having come up with several critical catches, including both touchdown grabs. Martavis Bryant caught a long touchdown pass to end the first half, and it was welcome to see him as a downfield weapon. JuJu Smith-Schuster had a quite game in his playoff debut, making only 3 catches. Grade: B+

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars playoffs, A.J. Bouye

Antonio Brown makes a 4th down 4th quarter touchdown grab. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Offensive Line
The Jacksonville Jaguars sacked Ben Roethlisberger twice, including a key strip sack that put the Steelers right back in the 14 point hole they’d dug. Jaguar defenders also hit the Steelers signal caller 7 times. Roethilsberger’s stats suggest he shrugged it off, but imagine if he’d been just a little less hurried on those throws. The line also failed to open running lanes when establishing the run would have made a difference for the Steelers. And the line failed on the 4th down pitch. Grade: D

Defensive Line
The Steelers, by their own admission, have deployed Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt differently since Keith Butler arrived. The idea was to sacrifice a little run stuffing to get more pressure on the QB. Against the Jaguars, the Steelers got the sacrifice part right, but where was the pressure on Blake Bortles? As for the run defense, it was non-existent when it counted. Grade: F

Tommy Bohanon, Sean Spence, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs

Tommy Bohanon scores TD as Sean Spence watches. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Linebackers
OK. Ryan Shazier was not only head and shoulders above the rest, but he also made everyone else look better. Fine. But can ANY linebacker step up and make a play. Against the run? Against the pass? In the middle of the field? Or ANYWHERE else? Vince Williams led the unit in tackles, despite leaving the game for a time. T.J. Watt did hit Bortles twice, but was largely ineffective. Bud Dupree had 4 tackles, while Sean Spence had 5 – none of any consequence. The Steelers linebackers were terrible. Grade: F

Secondary
With the run defense failing up front, if there was ever a day to stop the Jaguars in third down, it was at Heinz on Sunday. Yet, Jacksonville went 8-14 on third down, and while Blake Bortles was a consummate “Game Manager,” he did hit the Steelers deep a few times. The situation screamed for Artie Burns, Sean Davis or Joe Haden to make a play. They didn’t. But at least they didn’t go to the Jaguars locker room and try to call them out before the game, as Mike Mitchell did. Inexcusable. Grade: F

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was perfect on PAT’s. Kick coverage was strong, and the Steelers actually got a 29 yard return out of Fitzgerald Toussaint. The Steelers special teams set up the offense to take control of the game when Robert Golden partially blocked a punt. Alas, the offense failed to capitalize.

While all those were positives for the special teams, Steelers failed at their 15th consecutive on sides kick recovery. While those are by definition low percentage plays, the Steelers absolutely needed that one and they didn’t get it. That result brings the grade down. Grade: C-

Coaching
Let’s get the elephant out of the room right away, this is probably the only site in Steelers Nation that’s not up in arms over the fourth down pitch that failed so miserably.

  • No, it was not a “great call” nor was it a “good” play call.

And the pitches to the outside hadn’t worked prior to that. But, if properly executed, it could have plausibly gotten the yardage and perhaps even sprung Bell lose. But the Steelers execution was piss poor. That’s not to let Todd Haley (who might be gone anyway) off the hook.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs

Mike Tomlin after losing to Jaguars. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

  • The Steelers really could have used a strong start to the game, and the offense didn’t get going until they were behind by 21 points.

Still, had you told any Vegas book maker that you knew the Steelers were going to score 42 points, he’d have predicted a big Pittsburgh win.

  • The culpable coordinator here is Keith Butler.

The Steelers knew Leonard Fournette would run the ball. They knew Leonard Fournette could run the ball against the defense — with Ryan Shazier in the lineup. Keith Butler and his staff had had two weeks to prepare for him, and by all accounts they Steelers did use those two weeks to prepare for the Jaguars.

  • Not that anything the Steelers defense did make them look remotely prepared for this game.

That’s a damming observation, and one that extends equally to Mike Tomlin. It wasn’t Tomlin or Butler who were missing those tackles, taking bad angles, or failing to fill gaps. But it’s their job to ensure that the players are in position to execute and they failed miserably at that on defense.

It says here that the Steelers weren’t “looking past the Jaguars,” and it also says here that Mike Tomlin isn’t at fault for the turnovers, which were killers.

While the Jacksonville Jaguars are a good team, position-by-position, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a more talented team. But the score board fails to reflect that, and that’s Mike Tomlin’s fault. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
Early in the game it took the Steelers time to get their offense going. But one player who was on the mark from the very get go was Eli Rogers, who caught 4 of 5 passes that were thrown his way, and was a critical element to getting the offense moving when everything else was going wrong and for that Eli Rogers wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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Steelers Report Card for Patriots Loss – A Truly Valiant Effort Comes Up Short

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who has just watched his students make a valiant effort only to fall short – an all perhaps because of an idiotic administrative error – here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Patriots, JuJu Smith-Schuster 69 yard pass Patriots, Eric Rowe

JuJu Smith-Schuster romps for 69 yards. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger faced the loss of his biggest weapon and managed to keep moving the chains and keep the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands. Roethlisberger was in “the zone” as he has been for several games, even taking it upon himself to run for several key gains. Ben was sharp in the Red Zone, hitting two touchdown passes. However, at the very end of the game Ben Roethlisberger made a mistake in trying to thread the needle (even if the referees ignored blatant pass interference.) An easy mistake to make, given the circumstances, but a costly one nonetheless and the Report Card grades on performance an results, so the interception brings his mark down. Grade: B-

Running Back
Le’Veon Bell had over 150 yards from scrimmage over 100 on the ground. While the Patriots front 7 isn’t exactly 2017’s Monsters of the Midway, they knew it was coming and (most of the time) couldn’t stop him. James Conner came in and had 3 carries and looked strong before falling injured. Fitgerald Touissant had one carry for 3 yards. Roosevelt Nix was excellent as a lead blocker. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
The number one receiver was out, New England was focusing on the run and the Steelers tight ends had had a banner day against the Ravens so naturally you’d figure…. 6 targets. Xavier Grimble was 1-1 for 8 yards. Jesse James actually only caught 2 of the 5 passes thrown his way, including his non-touchdown. However, Le’Veon Bell doesn’t break 100 yards unless the blocking is good. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Before he left the game injured, Antonio Brown succeeded in becoming the first NFL wide out to catch 100 passes in 5 straight seasons. Perhaps its only fitting then that three plays before the injury, Martavis Bryant caught his best pass of the season, a lunging 39 yarder. Bryant wasn’t done, catching a one handed touchdown where he was being blatantly interfered with. Eli Rogers caught 1 pass for 18 yards, but he took it home for a touchdown. The real star of the show was JuJu Smith-Schuster, who went 6 for 6 on target and took a sideline route in overtime 69 yards. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Patriots got more contact on Ben Roethlisberger than we’re accustomed to seeing, but the quarterback had time to throw on an afternoon when his best receiver was out. The line excelled in run blocking, making holes for Le’Veon Bell on a day when the defense knew the run was coming. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
Cameron Heyward helped set the “Yes, we’re playing to win” tone with his sack of Tom Brady. Stephon Tuitt didn’t sack Brady but did pressure him, as did Javon Hargrave. The Patriots did have some success running the ball, as Dion Lewis managed 5.2 yards per carry with a long run of 12. That brings the grade down. Grade: B

Cam Heyward sacks Tom Brady, Cam Heyward, Cameron Heyward, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots, Javon Hargrave

Cam Heyward sacks Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

Linebackers
Bud Dupree had a the team’s second sack on Tom Brady although he was finishing off work started by others. While the unit continued to struggle against the run, Sean Spence looked getter than he had on the week before, and Vince Williams had what could have been the game-turning play, nabbing the first pick for the Steelers against Tom Brady since 2005. Overall, it was a quiet night for the linebackers who still struggle against the run. Grade: B

Secondary
Artie Burns bounced back and had a strong game, although he did get flagged once, and that hurt. Mike Hilton continues to be a force, breaking up a touchdown and forcing a Brady throw away. Sean Davis actually did a passable job in covering Ron Gronkowski – at least until that crucial Patriots touchdown drive where Davis’ confidence seemed to melt. And of course he dropped an interception that would have ended the game. That brings the grade down for everyone. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell as 1 for one as he didn’t have a chance for any heroics. Jordan Berry punted the ball well, both in terms of distance and direction. The Steelers kick return efforts were respectable, but not consistent. The Steelers kick coverage was solid but punt coverage allowed one long return. Grade: B

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Patriots

Mike Tomlin during the Steelers loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Coaching
If you have said in January the Steelers will go into a game against the Patriots without Shazier, Haden lose Brown early in the game and start Cam Sutton and only lose by 3 no one would have believed you.

  • So the Steelers coaching staff deserves credit for making this game so competitive.

Yet the key variable in grading isn’t competitiveness, but in winning the competitions and here the Steelers coaches are open to criticism. Todd Haley lost arguable the best wide receiver in football, and managed to not only keep the offense scoring, but to do so in a way that kept the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands.

  • Still, the Steelers couldn’t kill the clock late in the 4th quarter when 2 first downs probably end the game.

One defense, the Steelers knew they were playing a weak hand coming into the game, and while Tom Brady ultimately prevailed, he didn’t have the kind of field day he did back during the AFC Champioship game.

  • Nonetheless, when Brady to Gronk got going, Keith Butler didn’t attempt an adjustment, and that hurt the team.

Finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin. He has led this time through a lot of adversity this season, and to be honest the Steelers didn’t blink when they lost Antonio Brown, and other members of the team immediately stepped up. And while the result might have been disappointing, Tomlin WAS right to go for the touchdown at the end. This is Tomlin being Tomlin a coach who (rarely) lives in his fears, and when the game is on the line, Tomlin isn’t going to shy away from risk.

Still, the Steelers were caught in a fire drill situation, and didn’t quite know how to act. Coaches need to prepare for these situation too, and the Steelers preparation wasn’t quite there. Grade: C+

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers were missing another key, high profile, high salary player, but no one was talking about the impact of his absence either before, during or after the game.

In fact, with Antonio Brown out, the Steelers needed to run the ball better than they have all season long, and they did so, particularly at key moments, and often times this was helped but Chris Hubbard pulling and leading the way for Le’Veon Bell and that’s why Chris Hubbard wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field.

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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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