Scapegoating Saxon? (Maybe, Maybe Not) Steelers Fire James Saxon, Running Backs Coach

Mike Tomlin promised changes at his year-end press conference and he is making good on his word as heads continue to roll on the South Side. The Steelers announced today that they have fired running backs coach James Saxon, marking the 2nd coaching change of this off season following Joey Porter’s dismissal last Friday.

While Joey Porter’s dismissal was not a great surprise, given his off the field issues and the lack of development of Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones before him, James Saxon’s departure is not a move many predicted.

James Saxon

Mike Tomlin has fired James Saxon. Photo Credit: 12up.com

The Steelers hired James Saxon in the spring of 2012 after Kriby Wilson left to take a job with the Minnesota Vikings (accompanied by rumors that he could not get along with Todd Haley.)

During his first season, Saxon has worked managed the three back rotation that was Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, and Jonathan Dwyer which truth be told, was starting to function well at mid-season but got untracked after Willie Colon’s season-ending injury.

In 2013, Saxon oversaw the development of Le’Veon Bell, as Bell ascended from a 2nd round pick that many questioned (although Merril Hoge didn’t) into the NFL’s best running back. Saxon also managed to coax respectable performances (the fumble against Denver notwithstanding) out of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman during the 2015 playoffs when DeAngelo Williams was hurt.

Most recently, James Saxon has helped James Conner and Jaylen Samuels make the transition from college to successful NFL running back.

Is Saxon Breathing Truth into Dick Hoak’s Parting Words?

In January 2007, Dick Hoak retired as Steelers running backs coach after serving in that capacity since 1972. When asked to reflect on his time, Dick Hoak c explained, “They say you’re hired to be fired in this business, so I guess I beat the system.”

  • One has to wonder if James Saxon making Dick Hoak’s words come true.

Mike Tomlin left little doubt that he was going to make changes to his coaching staff in the wake of the Steelers collapse from a 7-2-1 team to one that failed to make the playoffs. But to the naked eye the question must be asked, “Why fire James Saxon?

While it is true that three of the season’s pivotal plays involved fumbles by running backs, fumbles are hardly something you can blame an assistant coach for. Moreover, Jaylen Samuels came into the NFL with very little experience rushing the ball, yet he had the look of a quality number 2 NFL running back against both the Saints and the Patriots.

  • The easy conclusion is that James Saxon is a scapegoat or a fully guy.

But the easy answer isn’t always the correct one, especially when it comes to NFL assistant coaches. After ensuring a horrendous start and devastating injuries, the 2013 Steelers offensive line improved by the end of the year.

That story should serve as a word of caution that the easy conclusion might not be the right one. Fans have very little insight into what the tasks an NFL assistant coach is actually responsible for. Officially, Chan Gailey was the Steelers wide receivers coach in 1995, but his role in running the offense increased, leading the Steelers to fire Ron Erhardt after Super Bowl XXX.

Going further back, Tony Dungy joined Chuck Noll’s staff as a defensive backs assistant, yet research profiling Tony Dungy career as a Steelers assistant coach revaled that he spent much of his first year dealing with linebackers.

  • Of course we know that because the Steelers let reporters interview assistant coaches back then.

Today they do not, which means our understanding of the Steelers James Saxon firing will probably never move beyond speculation.

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James Conner’s Injury Puts Steelers Success Squarely on Ben Roethlisberger’s Shoulders

Cue the “tape” from past posts, but this is one time when a blogger begs to be wrong. The injury that James Conner suffered against the Chargers is worse than expected, and Mike Tomlin has already ruled out Conner for the Raiders game.

In early September, Jaylen Samuels‘ roster spot was seen as somewhat of a luxury pending the return of Le’Veon Bell will likely start for the Steelers this Sunday in Oakland’s Black Hole. Stevan Ridley will back him up, with Trey Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds’ brother, joining the active roster from the practice squad.

Coming off of a two game losing streak, this is the last thing the Steelers need.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner

Ben Roethlisberger hands off James Conner. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via Lockhaven.com

Steelers Success Now Rests with Roethlisberger

The irony here is that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichnter may very well have been trying to avoid this situation.

Three years ago with Le’Veon Bell out and DeAngelo Williams carrying the load, Tomlin was asked if he would try to work Jordan Todman or Fitzgerald Toussaint into the lineup to prepare them. Tomlin balked at the suggestion, arguing that such a move might backfire if production suffered.

  • Well, DeAngelo Williams did get injured, and the Steelers started Todman and Toussaint in the playoffs.

As noted in our review of the meltdown against the Chargers, Ben Roethlisberger has now thrown 45 passes or more in 4 of his last 5 games. James Conner has touched the ball less than 20 times in 4 out of those same 5 games.

While Steel Curtain Rising has exactly ZERO inside information to back this up, this shift happened just as it was becoming clear that Le’Veon Bell was going to sit out the entire year. While I can’t prove it, I suspect that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have been trying to reduce Conner’s work load by passing more.

  • How does the saying about “Best intentions of Mice and Men” go?

While Jaylen Sammuels has shown promise, he’s never been a number one back before.

Mike Tomlin talked about taking a running back by committee approach, but the fact is that the success of the Steelers offense rests squarely on Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to connect with Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald, Jesse James and James Washington.

One of the takeaways from the Chargers game should have been that the Steelers needed a more balanced approach on offense, as Ben Roethlisberger seems to be trying to do too much. Now the Steelers have no choice but to air it out.

Steelers Shuffle Roster Due to Injuries

Up until now, the Steelers 2018 roster has been fairly stable with very few in season moves. That changed today as the Steelers put Justin Hunter on injured reserve making room for Trey Edmunds.

Not taking any chances, the Steelers signed former New England Patriots running back Ralph Webb to their practice squad and cut linebacker Farrington Huguenin.

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More Mile High Misery: 3 Turnovers Fuel Broncos 24-17 Win Over Steelers

Denver’s Mile High Stadium is the site of landmark Steelers victories such as the 1984 playoff upset of the Orange Crush and the 2005 AFC Championship win that paved the way for Super Bowl XL. But it is also the same venue where Steelers have suffered several agonizing defeats:

With that backdrop, Mike Tomlin’s 2018 Steelers traveled to Mile High Stadium and lost a hard fought game to the Denver Broncos to the tune of 24 to 17. And, like so many defeats before, what stings the worst about this loss is its self-inflicted nature.

 

Xavier Grimble, Xavier Grimble fumble, Jack Dempsey, Steelers vs Broncos

Xavier Grimble thinks he has a touchdown, but Will Parks is about to force a fumble. Photo Credit: Jack Dempsey, AP via Tribune-Reivew

Steelers Sketch Game Narrative by Leaving 10 Points on the Board

Every football game tells its own story. In some games, the protagonists spontaneously interact against each other on the field leaving the outcome in doubt until the final bell. Last week’s win over the Jaguars offers a perfect example of that type of game.

  • The story of other games is formulaic, evolving like a plotted novel whose finale is predictable from the first page onward.

Pittsburgh’s loss to Denver was an example of that second type of game. The Steelers established the narrative in the contest’s first 16 minutes, and they kept going back to its familiar refrain until the bitter end.

  • On their very first possession, the Steelers marched down the field to the Broncos 30 where Justin Simmons blocked a Chris Boswell field goal.

The Broncos have been blocking kicks all season, and Justin Simmons has already blocked a field goal. Danny Smith knew this, but it still happened. Only 9:36 had elapsed in the game, and Steelers special team’s failures had already taken 3 points off the board.

The Broncos didn’t respond with anything spectacular, save for transforming a blown Jon Bostic coverage into a 29 yard gain, but they managed to kick a field goal without anyone from Pittsburgh touching it.

Ben Roethlisberger, mindful of the to need stay out of Von Miller’s sights, nickeled and dimed his way down the field with short passes to Jesse James and Ryan Switzer, until reaching Denver’s 27 where he hit Xaiver Grimble in the middle.

With most of the Broncos defense concentrated on the strong side of the Steelers offense, Grimble had a straight shot to the end zone. However, Will Parks arrived in time to hit him at the goal line and knocked the ball lose where it rolled out of bounds in the end zone. So it was touchback Denver instead of touchdown Pittsburgh.

The game was only 16 minutes old and the Steelers had left 10 points off the board.

Plot Twist: Fake Field Goal and Quick Strike TD Keep People in Their Seats

Even the most serialized Hollywood sitcom manages to provide enough plot twists to keep the audience in their seats, and so it was with the Steelers at Mile High. At the end of the first half the Steelers authored the first of two plot twisting teasers that they executed well enough to convince everyone that this was a game that might go off script.

  • After getting on the board with a field goal of their own, the Steelers then gave up an all-too easy 75 yard touchdown drive, putting themselves behind 0-3.

But, with just over 3 minutes left, Ben Roethlisberger got the ball back, and proceeded to hit Vance McDonald and Ryan Switzer to bring the Steelers down to Denver’s 2 where the drive stalled. With little time remaining, Mike Tomlin opted to take the safe route and kick a short field goal going into the half.

  • Except the ball went directly to Chris Boswell who tossed a 2 yard strike to Alejandro Villanueva tying the score at 10.

The Steelers fireworks continued in the second half. After Denver pinned the Steelers deep into their own territory, Randy Fichtner opted to risk a pass from his own end zone, where Ben Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster with a 97 yard touchdown pass, putting the Steelers up 17 to 10.

The Steelers defense limited Denver to just two yards on the next drive as Pittsburgh gave every appearance of a superior team that was faithfully playing its role by taking control of the game….

Steelers Stick to Self-Destructive Storyline Set in First Half

…Except that the Steelers of course weren’t the superior team on this afternoon as they quickly reverted to the storyline they’d set for themselves early in the game.

On the Steelers next possession, Ben Roethlisberger targeted but badly missed Antonio Brown. Chris Harris Jr. intercepted, and it only took the Denver Broncos two plays to get Emmanuel Sanders into the end zone for the tying score.

As the third quarter ended, the Steelers again moved into scoring position as James Conner reached the Denver 21 yard line, only to fumble the ball away to the Broncos. Denver fed the ball to Phillip Lindsay who the Steelers were powerless to stop, and the Broncos scored the go ahead touchdown to begin the 4th quarter.

  • Every good story has a convincing climax, and the Steelers latest moment of Mile High Misery is no exception.

Javon Hargrave got the end game sequence started with a sack of Case Keenum that forced a punt. Ben Roethlisberger got the ball with 4:26 left to go, and he moved the offense down the field in workman like fashion. The Steelers reached to the Broncos 3 just inside the 2 minute warning.

After an unsuccessful pass and a 1 yard run, on third and goal from the two, almost as if on cue, Ben Roethlisberger tried to force the ball to Antonio Brown and Shelby Harris ended the game with an interception.

The Steelers Mile High Misery is of Their Own Making

Of course a football game isn’t a novel or a TV show. Outcomes are never pre-ordained. Whenever pushed during the season to “speak in broad strokes” about some sort of tendency, Mike Tomlin will respond by insisting that “We are still writing our own story.”

  • And so it is, as it has been with the Pittsburgh Steelers at Mile High Stadium.

While the Denver Broncos offense certainly revealed and then exploited a number of weaknesses within the Steelers defense, Pittsburgh’s offense was responsible for the defining plays in this contest.

  • And, as it does at Mile High, the Steelers offense provided the game’s defining moments by turning the ball over at critical moments.

This latest loss brings Pittsburgh record at Denver to 5-13. And like so many times before, the Steelers Mile High Misery is of their own making.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • But what if James Conner gets hurt?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Keeping Up with the Joneses: Keion Adams, Brain Allen & Nat Berhe Among Surprising Steeler Cuts

Landry Jones isn’t alone. The Steelers cutting Landry Jones wasn’t the only surprise cut to come out of Pittsburgh.

In addition to saying good bye to a man that many thought was untouchable as their backup quarterback, the Steelers cut safety Nat Berhe whom they’d signed as a free agent, linebacker Keion Adams whom they’d picked in the 7th round of the 2017 NFL Draft and cornerback Brian Allen a 5th round pick from the 2017 NFL Draft who held a roster spot throughout 2017.

Brian Allen, Steelers 2018 cuts

Brian Allen, Steelers 5th rounder from 2017 was a surprise cut. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

Both Keion Adams and Brian Allen were seen as two players with significant “upside.” However, Adams was outplayed by undrafted rookie free agent Olasunkanmi Adeniyi. Based on how one interprets one of his tweets, Nat Berhe could be returning to the Steelers, but such a move would require them to put someone in injured reserve.

  • The Steelers also parted ways with Fitzgerald Toussaint, who was having a strong camp and played a key role on special teams.

The Steelers also placed Eli Rogers on the PUP list, and designated wide receivers Damoun Patterson and Marcus Tucker, offensive lineman Joseph Cheek, safety Malik Golden and linebacker Keith Kelsey as “injured waived” freeing them to sign with another NFL team but allowing the Steelers to retain their rights should they go unclaimed.

  • Jordan Berry, whose preseason performance had been mixed – put generously – avoided a visit from The Turk as the Steelers cut punter Matt Wile.

Joshua Frazier, whom the Steelers picked in the 7th round of the 2018 NFL Draft, was the only member of the Pittsburgh’s draft class to get cut, and Frazier will likely return on the practice squad.

The rest of the Steelers cuts included:

Running Backs
Jarvion Franklin
James Summers

Wide Receivers
Trey Griffey
Quadree Henderson
Tevin Jones

Tight Ends
Bucky Hodges
Pharoah McKever
Christian Scotland-Williamson

Offensive Linemen
Larson Graham
Patrick Morris
Oni Omoile
R.J. Prince
Jake Rodgers
Chris Schleuger

Cornerbacks
Dashaun Phillips
Malik Reaves
Jamar Summers

Linebackers
Matt Galambos
Farrington Huguenin

Defensive Linemen
Parker Cothren
Greg Gilmore
Lavon Hooks
Casey Sayles
Kendal Vickers

The Steelers will need to make at least one additional personnel move as Le’Veon Bell is not officially part of their 53 man roster.

Tight End Health Not a Concern – Yet

Thanks to a little inductive reasoning, we can also reasonably conclude that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert are not concerned about the health of Vance McDonald and Xavier Grimble or of Jesse James for that matter. McDonald has been injured all summer, and Xavier Grimble has had wrist/thumb surgery calling into question just how stable tight end would be for the Steelers in 2018.

The fact that the Steelers cut Bucky Hodges and Pharoah McKever would seem to indicate that they’re not concerned about the health of their tight ends.

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

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

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

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

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

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers running back injuries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Counterpoint: Could Running Back by Committee Be the Cure?

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

  • This is one of those times.

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

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

Moral of the Story? Better Running Back Depth In Order

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

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

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

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

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

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The Steelers, Le’Veon Bell Reach the Beginning of the End

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Le’Veon Bell have reached the beginning of the end. As expected, the 4:00 pm July 16th deadline for Steelers to reach a new contract agreement with Le’Veon Bell came and went without a deal. Now Le’Veon Bell is bound by the franchise tag.

  • As this site observed during the spring, perhaps a 2nd franchise tag isn’t what sides need but not what either wants.

It didn’t have to be this way. The contract offer the Steelers made and agreed to with Bell’s agent last year would have befitted everyone. Bell would have had more money in his pocket than he does now, the Steelers would have more cap space, and have locked in Bell’s services for the duration of his prime.

"Le'Veon

If press reports are correct, the Steelers offered Bell a 5 year 70 million dollar deal, with 30 million coming in the first two years. Word on how much of that was to be guaranteed has not yet leaked. But if the total is much higher than what the Steelers had on the table last year, Bell might have done the Steelers a favor.

And I write that as someone who likes Le’Veon Bell, thinks he’s got championship caliber talent, and knows he can’t be replaced by a squad of Stevan Ridley clones.

But as DeMarco Murray’s retirement poignantly reinforces the reality that the shelf-life of an NFL feature back is ever so short. In 2014 Murray led the NFL in rushing. Dallas didn’t lift a finger to resign him. Murray floundered in Philly in 2015, bounced back nicely for the Titans in 2016, but struggled in 2017. He’s now called it quits after 7 years in the NFL.

Last year’s deal made sense for the Steelers and for Bell. But Bell is a year older with another 400 plus carries on his body. Art Rooney II has seen enough running backs hand their shoes in Pittsburgh to know which ones are keepers, and he stuck his neck a bit in his bid to keep Bell, but didn’t stick it out too far.

Steelers Fans Might Get Their Running Back by Committee Wish

The next move is up to Le’Veon Bell.

Rumor is that Bell is considering holding out for all or part of the season, although he’s assured Steelers fans this will be the best season yet. Bell will lose just over $900,000 dollars a game for each game he sits out.

  • Yet Le’Veon Bell is weighing that against the toll that another 400 touches will take on his body.

Fans won’t like it, but in pure business sense, Bell might be making the right decision, however disloyal it will feel. On the flip side, those fans who’ve been clamoring for a running back by committee should be careful for what they wish for, because they may be about to get it.

Running back by committee is in vogue in the NFL, and a large contingent of Steelers fans would prefer to see Pittsburgh go that route, most of whom presumably are not old enough to remember the days when Chuck Noll and Tom Moore split carries between Earnest Jackson, Walter Abercrombie, and Frank Pollard.

In limited action in 2017, Ridley showed he could be a competent backup, Conner ran well when given the opportunity, but then got hurt and Fitzgerald Toussaint isn’t a bad number 3 back, but I’d trade him for a 1995 version Fred McAfee any day of the week.

Its possible that running back by committee can give Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, the ground game they need to do their thing, but something tells me fans who don’t think they’ll miss Bell today, may feel differently come mid September.

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Steelers Draft Jaylen Samuels in 5th Round, Adding Versatility with North Carolina Running Back

The Steelers drafted Jaylen Samuels in the 5th round, their second of two fifiths, adding the North Carolina running back and adding to the versatility of their backfield.

  • North Carolina used Jaylen Samuels as a H-Back, where he primarily caught passes out of the backfield.
Jaylen Samuels,

Steelers 5th round pick Jaylen Samuels at North Carolina. Photo via JackJaguars – WordPress.com

Several draft reports, including NFL.com, had Jaylen Samuels listed as a tight end, but In Pittsburgh, the Steelers plan to use him exclusively as a running back. However, Steelers running backs coach James Saxon assured that “He’s done a lot of different jobs. He’ll get an opportunity once he gets here to do a lot of different jobs.”

Jaylen Samuels video highlight reel backs up Saxon’s assessment:

As a senior, Samuels caught 76 balls for 597 yards and scored four touchdowns through the air. Jaylen Samuels added 12 rushing touchdowns backed 407 yards rushing. What role will Saxon play in Pittsburgh? As Saxon envisions it:

He will be able to play on third down, catch ball and create matchup problems for linebackers. In this game today, on third downs lot of teams are using a sixth DB to come in the box and cover an athlete, and that’s what he is.

Draft analysts speculated that the Steelers would seek Le’Veon Bell’s replacement in the 2018 NFL Draft. Jaylen Samuels as a fifth round pick, would not figure to be that man. He joins James Conners behind Le’Veon Bell, and will have to win a spot in training came against veterans Fitzgerald Toussiant and Stevan Ridley.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Jaylen Samuels.

 

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Steelers 2018 Running Back Draft Needs -Time to Seek Le’Veon Bell’s Replacement?

You wouldn’t think running back would be a top priority for the Steelers heading into the 2018 draft, what with star and all-world/dual-threat running back Le’Veon Bell on the roster, he of the 2,000 yards from scrimmage capabilities and multiple All-Pro/Pro Bowl decorations.

  • But for the second year in a row, Bell and the Steelers are at an impasse regarding his salary requirements.

Sure, Bell can only play in Pittsburgh in 2018, thanks to being franchise tagged for a second straight year (after earning $12 million in 2017, Bell is scheduled to make $14.5 million in 2018), but his reported demands for a deal that averages $17 million per season means the odds of him being around in 2019 seem remote at best.

Le'Veon Bell, Brandon Carr, Steelers vs Ravens,

Le’Veon Bell turns corner on Brandon Carr en route to a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Starters

Like previous years when he wasn’t out of the lineup due to health issues or because of a suspension, Bell was the workhorse of the Steelers backfield in 2017, starting 15 of a possible 16 games and accounting for nearly 75 percent of the team’s 437 rushing attempts. Le’Veon Bell also tallied another 655 yards out of the backfield on a career-high 85 receptions.

  • With 1,946 yards from scrimmage, it was Bell’s most productive season since 2014, when he had 2,215 total yards.

But in terms of effectiveness, some would say Bell’s 2017 campaign left a lot to be desired, as his 1,291 rushing yards were just 23 more than he had the previous year when he tallied 1,268 on 60 less carries. Bell also averaged 4.0 yards per attempt (his lowest since 2013), and his longest run from scrimmage was just 27 yards.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Backups

With Bell leading the way, the Steelers depth at running back doesn’t look half bad.

  • James Conner was everyone’s favorite heart warming story last season when the Steelers drafted him in the third round out of the University of Pittsburgh.

On the heels of his very public battle with cancer that was discovered in late-2015 while rehabbing from a torn MCL that wiped out all but one game of his junior season, you wanted to see James Conner do well. And in the limited exposure he did see on offense, James Conner showed great promise, totally 144 yards on 32 carries. Unfortunately, Conner’s rookie season came to an end in Week 15 when he suffered yet another MCL injury.

  • To make up for the absence of Conner, Pittsburgh signed veteran Stevan Ridley, who was riding the couch in late-December after not being able to catch on with anyone.

In limited action down-the-stretch in relief of a resting Bell, Stevan Ridley looked decent enough, tallying 108 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. It looks like Ridley, 29, will be providing veteran depth again next season, as he and the Steelers agreed to terms on a one-year deal.

Speaking of one-year deals, the Steelers will also have Fitzgerald Toussaint back again in 2018, after he and the team reached an agreement on a one-year contract that will pay him $790,000. With just 125 yards on 38 carries as a Steeler, Toussaint is perhaps best known for being thrust into the spotlight during the 2015 postseason, one that came to a crashing halt shortly after Toussaint fumbled in the fourth quarter against the Broncos in the divisional round.

Steelers 2018 Running Back Draft Needs 

The Steelers depth at running back may not look so bad with Le’Veon Bell leading the way, but is there a future starter in the mix?

Yes, James Conner does possess great potential, but he also has two surgically repaired MCLs on his resume, and I don’t have to tell you how important healthy knees are for a running back–or how quickly damaged ones can end a career.

Ridley and Toussaint may be competent backups, but that’s just about it.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Sure, Stevan Ridley had a great season in 2012, when he rushed for over 1,200 yards as a member of the Patriots, but in running back years, 2012 was a lifetime ago, and 29 is when “Life’s Work” starts beckoning most backs.

  • As for Fitzgerald Toussaint, if he possessed any potential to be anything other than a number 3 running back, , he would have showed it by now.

This brings us back to Le’Veon Bell.

While I’m inclined to blame the less-effective 2017 season on the Bell’s off season groin surgery as well as his decision to hold out all of training camp, I’m not so inclined to say Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers will be able to reach an agreement on a lucrative deal both sides will be happy with.

This isn’t to say it’s paramount the Steelers target and draft a running back with their first or even second pick. However, if general manager Kevin Colbert decides to play his “Best Player Available” card and–much like 2008, when Rashard Mendenhall slipped all the way to the 23rd pick of the first round–a running back with a first round grade is sitting there at 28, he may be too tempting to pass up.

No, it’s not critical that Pittsburgh drafts a running back in the first round, but all things considered, the need must be rated Moderate-High.

 

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Steelers Resign Justin Hunter. Has Pittsburgh Wrapped Up its Free Agency Activity?

Capping off a busy week of low-level free agent activity, the Steelers resigned Justin Hunter, their reserve wide receiver. And with Justin Hunter‘s contract in place, the Steelers could very well have wrapped up their free agent activity for the year.

Justin Hunter, Justin Hunter touchdown, kevin Johnson, Steelers vs Texans

Justin Hunter lone 2017 touchdown catch. Photo Credit: Bob Levey, Getty Images via www.wpxi.com

Thus far, the Steelers have resigned Fitzgerald Toussaint, Daniel McCullers and Stevan Ridley all of whom were unrestricted free agents.

That leaves Sean Spence, Arthur Moats , Greg Ducre (who?), and the injured Eli Rogers as the Steelers only unrestricted free agents on the market. Neither Sean Spence nor Greg Ducre would appear to be in the Pittsburgh’s plans, and at this point their chances of getting an invitation to St. Vincents likely hinge on the Steelers inability to land depth late in the 2018 NFL Draft.

The Steelers chose not to extend a restricted free agent tender to Eli Rogers, but are believed to be interested in bringing him back once he recovers from his ACL injury.

  • Arthur Moats presents a more interesting case.

As we pointed out in our free agent profile of Arthur Moats, no one is ever going suggest he’s a superstar. Yet Moats has delivered whenever the Steelers have called his number. But Moats is turning 30 this year, the Steelers have Keion Adams returning from IR, and could well select an outside linebacker early in the draft.

Justin Hunter to Get a Second Shot

Justin Hunter had a quiet 2017 campaign with the Steelers only appearing in 7 games, getting 66 snaps or just ender 6% of the offensive snaps. He did catch 4 passes, including the touchdown pictured above.

The Steelers wide receiver depth chart is set with Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant at the top. Darrius Heyward-Bey doesn’t figure to push for time and will have to prove himself on special teams to keep his roster spot. Eli Rogers’ injury would seem to open the door for Hunter, who is said to excel in practice and has earned the trust of Ben Roethlisberger.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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