The Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed in their third preseason outing of the summer at Heinz Field where they triumphed over the Detroit Lions26-20. Although “its only preseason” the contest was not nearly as close as the final score suggests.
Here are 6 quick, “Its Only Preseason But” observations.
Pat Freiermuth catches 1 of 2 TDs. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
1. Meet the New Ben, Same as the Old Ben?
All eyes were on Ben Roethlisberger as he took the field for the first time following the Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic disaster in the playoffs against Cleveland. Since then Ben Roethlisberger agreed to take a 5 million dollar pay cut to return while admitting that his arm did not hold up well during the course of 2020.
So how did he do?
Pretty well. On the plus side Ben showed his old mobility in the pocket, dodging around to buy time and hitting receivers down the field. Likewise, his arm strength looks just fine, as he rifled off two touchdown passes in the Red Zone.
Throwing down field as more of a mixed bag.
He was right on the money in trying to hook up with Eric Ebron, but Ebron couldn’t hold on.
However, his pass to Diontae Johnson looked to be a little underthrown. Johnson noted, and slowed to adjust his route. Roethlisberger himself admitted that he put too much air into that ball. That’s good, but make no mistake, the Buffalo Bills will destroy the Steelers on that type of play when the regular season starts.
2. Too Early to Worry about the Run Defense?
The Lions top four rushers had long runs of 12, 13, 10 and 9 yards. OK, one of those was a scramble by David Blough and we are talking about an offense that didn’t get on the board until the first minute of the fourth quarter.
Sometimes these preseason tendencies are little more meaningful than an April batting average; sometimes they signal season-long problems.
3. Welcome to Pittsburgh Paty Freiermuth
Sometimes preseason stars are just that – preseason stars. Anyone even remember Matthew Thomas? Neither did I. Had to look up his name. This might jog your memory:
This same Matthew Thomas whom Jim Wexell reported that coaches had hopes could come in an earn playing time by the time the leaves began to fall. The same Matthew Thomas the Steelers cut on December 3rd of that year. The same Matthew Thomas Baltimore signed in January only to cut in August.
Then there are players who prove they are the real deal.
No one’s asking that question this morning, when Freiermuth caught not one, but two touchdown in the end zone. Both times he had double coverage, both times Ben Roethlisberger found Freiermuth. Both times he made it look easy.
4. Kalen Ballage Secures Backup Slot
Najee Harris and Anthony McFarland both put in strong nights. But if the Mike Tomlin era has taught us ANYTHING its that the Steelers need a running back depth chart that’s at least 3 players deep.
(How might 2014, 2015 and/or 2018 turned out if the equivalent of a Mewelde Moore and/or Gary Russell had been on the roster. We’ll never know. And that’s the point.)
Kalen Ballage looks like he can be that player. Ballage was one of Kevin Colbert’s unheralded free agent signings and brought a pedestrian resume to Pittsburgh. But he’s looked strong in preseason. Benny Snell, who began the summer as running back number 3, remains out with injury.
And while Jaylen Samuels looked strong against the Eagles, he didn’t play as well against the Lions.
5. T.J. Who? Well, No, Quite
Neither Melvin Ingram nor Alex Highsmith put up any gaudy stats against the Lions, but both men were around the ball. While no one is going to suggest that their performance gives the Steelers cause to stall in their contract negotiations with T.J. Watt, it looks like the Steelers have 3 viable outside linebackers.
NFL “Street Free Agents” are just what the name implies. Players who get signed off of the street. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert has a pretty good record when it comes to signing Street Free Agents. Kickers Matt McCrane and Randy Bullock provide to recent examples.
Stevan Ridley is another one of Kevin Colbert’s Street Free Agent signings and his impending free agency provides a good time to assess how well the Stevan Ridley reclamation project has worked.
Stevan Ridley rips off a revenge run against the Patriots. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA Today Sports
Stevan Ridley saw immediate action in the Steelers Christmas win against the Texans and in their season finale against the Browns. The Steelers resigned him in the 2018 off season, and Ridley began the 2018 season as James Conner’s primary backup, ahead of Jaylen Samuels.
Ridley only got 29 carries and saw 3 balls thrown his way, managing a 2.8 yard per carry average. Worse yet, he fumbled twice.
The Case for the Steelers Resigning Stevan Ridley
Those statistics don’t paint a pretty picture for Stevan Ridley, and make it hard for build a case for bringing Ridley back to Pittsburgh. On a recent Post-Gazette chat, Gerry Dulac quipped to a reader that Ridley “led the league in 2 yard carries.”
It IS true that Stevan Ridley’s ball security are at issue, and that his average is unimpressive.
Yet the sample size is small, and Stevan Ridley also looked good at times, including in the Steelers win over the Patriots. The Steelers need depth at running back, and Stevan Ridley provides an experienced hand behind Conners and Samuels.
The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Stevan Ridley
Depth in the NFL is about quality not quantity. Stevan Ridley is going to be 30 next season, and 30 year old running backs don’t offer much in the way of “upside.”
It is hard to justify a modest signing bonus and even a roster spot on Stevan Ridley when the Steelers should be looking to fill that role with a young player for the 2019 NFL Draft.
Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Stevan Ridley
Stevan Ridley’s future in Pittsburgh could largely depend on the Steelers overall approach to building their running back depth chart.
For the last several seasons, the Steelers have opted to go with a starter, a competent backup and untested younger player manning the third running back slot with Roosevelt Nix rounding out the group at fullback.
If the Steelers stick to form, and only carry 3 running backs plus a fullback, it would be a mistake to keep Stevan Ridley as that third running back. However, if the Steelers find a good back to complement James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, a 2019 equlivent of 2008’s Mewelde Moore, than Stevan Ridley could be a good candidate to occupy that 4th slot, much as Gary Russell did in 2008.
What’s the Pittsburgh Steelers biggest priority of the 2019 off season? Well, improving at inside linebacker and at cornerback (if not safety as well) top everyone’s list. As they should. Next comes finding someone to “replace” Antonio Brown.
That’s where most people’s lists tend to end. They should not.
There’s another off season priority for the Steelers, and while it make take a backseat to the priorities listed above, ignoring it will only come at Pittsburgh’s peril. The Steelers need to strengthen the depth of their offensive backfield. In doing so they’d be wise to remember the contributions of the Mewelde Mooreback in 2008…
Mewelde Moore, the unsung hero of the Steelers 2008 season. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via Zimbo.com
Steelers Busted Up Backfield Syndrome
It is kind of funny if you think about it. Steelers fans find no shortage of topics to criticize Mike Tomlin on these days, whether its clock management, challenges, talent evaluation, locker room control or getting tripped up on trap games.
While that’s a debatable strategy to begin with, it is even more dubious if when you fail to adequately staff your running back depth chart.
This is after all the team that started Ben Tate, Josh Harris and Dri Archer in the playoffs one year, and Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman a year later.
First Step – Admitting You Have a Problem
While the Steelers brass hasn’t issued a mea culpa, there are signs that the coaches have realized they have a problem. Before it became clear that Le’Veon Bell’s hold out would become permanent, James Conner was on track to touch the ball 378 times this year.
The Steelers offense couldn’t control the clock, and airing the ball out resulted in more turnovers – even if Ben Roethlisberger’s interception percentage was down.
Solution Staff Moore Running Back Depth
While it is easy to play arm chair head coach and criticize Mike Tomlin and Randy Fitchner for passing too much, the fact is that their personnel left them little choice. This is one case where the arm chair general managers have the upper hand. Steelers history backs this up.
It certainly is true that the passing game is preeminent in today’s NFL
It may also be true that “Three yards and a cloud of dust” smash mouth “Steelers football” only delivered wins in Super Bowl’s IX and Super Bowl XL
But it is also true that the Steelers lone Lombardi Trophy of the Tomlin era came in 2008, when the front office had the foresight to staff a running back depth chart that was 3 and arguably 4 players deep. The plan was rely on Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall, with Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell serving as backups.
Moore rushed for 120 yards the following week, and piled up just under 800 all-purpose yards while only making 4 starts. I’ve long argued that Mewelede Moore was the unsung hero of the Steelers 2008 season which ended in victory at Super Bowl XLIII.
How might have 2018 turned out had the Steelers dedicated a roster spot to another running back instead of say, Justin Hunter?
James Conner and Jaylen Samuels give the Steelers two good backs going into 2019. Regardless of whether he comes from free agency or the 2019 NFL Draft, the Steelers must bring a third running back to Pittsburgh; Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin must find the 2019 equivalent of Mewelde Moore.
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.
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.
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.
Mike Tomlin has vowed numerous times to “Leave no loose stone unturned” in his effort to improve whatever ails the Pittsburgh Steelers. The aftermath of Steelers decision to cut Shuan Suisham’s illustrates just how serious Tomlin takes his own words.
To fill Shaun Suisham’s spot, the Steelers signed Penn State’s Brandon Johnson, he of 4 carries to his NCAA rushing resume.
One of Brandon Johnson’s four carries while @ Penn State; Photo Credit: Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports
Now Brandon Johnson has a shot at his NFL dream, however slim it might be.
When one things of unheralded, rookie free agent running backs names like Willie Parker or Gary Russell come to mind (even if Russell didn’t come to the Steelers as a true UDFA.) When Willie Parker proved he belong in the NFL, fans wondered why he didn’t play more for the North Carolina Tar Heels. But Parker logged 285 carries at Chapel Hill. Gary Russell only played two years in college, but the Minnesota Gophers trusted him enough to put the ball in his hands 210 times.
In contrast, Brandon Johnson got carries in two games, and turned his 4 carries into 23 yards.
The website Go PSU Sports further informs us that the former walk-on Brandon Johnson appeared 19 games total, almost all on special teams. Jacob Klinger of Penn Live reports that his measurable from Penn State’s Pro Day were 4.43 40-yard dash and vertical jumped 39 inches.
No matter how you look at it, Brandon Johnson’s pedigree is thin.
But the Steelers Brandon Johnson signing really does represent a “loose stone turn over signing” much like Donald Washington’s does. (The Steelers signed “veteran cornerback Donald Washington, who has been out of the NFL since 2011 and only played a handful of snaps in the CFL since then.)
Past Steelers Running Backs from Penn State
It says here if Brandon Johnson gets a couple of carries late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers first preseason game, he will have beaten the odds. Still the fact that he has a pre-training camp roster spot means that Bradon Johnson has a chance of being the first Nittany Lion running back to play for the Steelers since fullback Jon Witman made the team in 1996.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 Draft Class added both quantity and, on paper at least, talent to the team’s most glaring weaknesses on the depth chart. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin also added depth to several other key areas.
One area that Colbert and Tomlin failed to address was running back.
As things stand today, the Steelers 2016 running back depth promises to be dangerously thin. Here’s a look at how Colbert and Tomlin might address that need before the season.
How the Steelers Running Back Depth Got So Depleted
The Steelers 2016 Draft Needs Matrix pegged running back as the Steelers 4th most urgent area of need not because of talent issues, but because of the Steelers thin depth at running back.
Fitzgerald Toussaint has the look of a solid backup based on his playoff performances, his fumble not withstanding. After Toussaint, the Steelers have zip in terms of proven depth behind him. If Art Rooney II’s words offer any guide, the Steelers expect Le’Veon Bell to be back at full strength.
That’s fine, but in 2016 Bell will begin his fourth season on a league where the average running back’s career lasts just above three. And he’s coming off a complicated MCL, PCL injury. And he’s missed time due to injury in each of his first three seasons. running backs average less than 3. DeAngelo Williams will turn 33.
For a franchise that started its 4th string running back in 3 consecutive post-season appearances those factoids hardly encourage confidence.
Colbert and Tomlin know this and responded by trying to trade the 5th round.
The Steelers found no takers, at least at a reasonable asking price. So which running backs did the Steelers miss a chance to draft?
So which running back did the Steeler miss?
In the 5th round DeAndre Washington, Paul Perkins, Jordan Howard, Wendell Smallwood, Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins found homes with Oakland, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Seattle. In the 6th round Denver, Tampa Bay, San Diego, San Francisco, and Dallas welcomed Andy Jaovich, Dan Vitale, Derek Watt, Kelvin Taylor and Darrius Jackson (although Janovich, Vitale, Watt are listed as fullbacks.)
Surprisingly, Colorado’s Christan Powell was the only running back in the Steelers 2016 undrafted rookie free agent class, and he got cut after rookie minicamp. In contrast, the Steelers drafted no offensive lineman in the 2015 NFL Draft, yet brought 5 offensive lineman to Pittsburgh with their 2015 undrafted rookie free agent class.
If the Steelers really were interested in adding depth at running back via free agency, they likely would have done so in March instead of waiting until May. Nonetheless, on May 12 unsigned players officially become “Street Free Agents” meaning teams can sign them without impacting their compensatory picks.
The Steelers could take advantage of that to add a body, but if they do it will likely be the type of free agent who isn’t even assured a roster spot in September.
…And you can see why the Steelers prefer to avoid acquiring layers via trade.
Arguably, Felix Jones was the most productive of the three, and that’s not saying much. Levi Brown got injured in warm ups and never played a down. Brandon Boykin spelled Antwon Blake late in the season and perhaps provided an upgrade, but the Steelers think more of untested Senquez Golson than they do Boykin.
In terms of trading to build depth at running back, the Steelers actually traded for Patrick Cobbs when Duce Staley couldn’t dispel their doubts at the end of the 2006 preseason. Cobbs never played a down in Pittsburgh, although he did carry 37 times over five years in Miami….
Don’t expect the Steelers to trade for a running back.
Colbert Could Grab a Running Back from the Waiver Wire
Kevin Colbert ranks among the best NFL General Managers when it comes to finding players who can help the Steelers after they’ve been discarded by other teams. 2013’s cut down day saw the Turk visit Fernando Velasco in Nashville and Cody Wallace in Tampa Bay, but both made multiple starts for the Steelers at center later that season.
In terms of running backs, the Steelers picked Najeh Davenport off of waivers early 2006, and Davenport was a solid contributor in for two seasons. The Steelers picked up DuJuan Harris in 2012 during training camp, and he went on to contribute to Green Bay. Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint both got pink slips at the end of training camp and ended up starting for the Steelers in the playoffs.
One harsh reality of the modern NFL is that proven backups get cut simply because rookies offer teams more bang for their buck.
Colbert has kept many a gem from falling though the cracks of the NFL salary cap, and you’d better believe he will closely watch for running backs who reach the waiver wire all between now and September.
Steelers Stand Pat with Their Running Back Stable
Based on what we’ve seen since the 2016 NFL Draft, this appears to be the Steelers plan. Following rookie minicamp, two of the four Steelers roster moves involved replacing running backs.
While banking on undrafted rookie free agents to provide depth at running back is a roll of the dice, remember is the same franchise that saw a little known running back who hardly played in North Carolina named Fast Willie Parker go from training camp surprise in 2004 to a run from scrimmage record setter in Super Bowl XL in January of 2006.
No team has rushed for more yards since the AFL-NFL merger than the Pittsburgh Steelers. In January 2010, Steelers President Art Rooney II described quality rushing as a “foundation of the franchise.”
In contrast to Bill Cowher, during Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers have looked to running back earlier and more often in the draft having used 3 premium picks on running backs. Will that trend continue or, perhaps better stated, should that trend continue in the 2016 NFL Draft?
Steelers Depth Chart @ Running Back Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – the Starter
Although he finished 2015 on injured reserve, Le’Veon Bell will enter 2016 as the Steelers starting running back, and if Art Rooney II’s statements are any guide, the Steelers will look to lock him up to a long-term contract.
It is easy to understand why, as Bell’s dynamic ability as a double threat teases to reestablish the concept of “franchise running back.”
Such lofty visions must be tempered with the reality that the shelf life of running backs in the NFL is short and continues to grow shorter, and Bell has already missed 16 of a 51 possible games to injury, including 3 playoff contests. The Steelers have confidence in Bell’s ability to recover, but on the outside that looks like a leap of faith.
While it almost seems quaint to acknowledge a fullback as a “starter” the Steelers chose undrafted rookie free agent Roosevelt Nix over Will Johnson.
Steelers Depth Cart @ Running Back Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – Backups
A year ago the Steelers signed DeAngelo Williams as an insurance policy, and many were skeptical that a 32 year old NFL running back coming off an injury and with 1432 carries on his frame could deliver.
Those skeptics were dead wrong.
DeAngelo Williams had his best season rushing since 2009, and showed himself a dangerous double threat, not only did Williams do damage on the ground, but he also gave Ben Roethlisberger an enticing target underneath.. Williams almost literally saved the season.
In late November, the Steelers made a curious move – they activated a guy named Fitzgerald Toussaint from their practice squad. This came before DeAngelo Williams injury, and after Mike Tomlin had assured reporters he would not attempt to groom an understudy for Williams.
For the record, the Steelers also have running backs Abou Toure, 2015 practice squader Rajion Neal and Daryl Richardson who has experience with the Rams and Browns.
Steelers 2016 Draft Need at Running Back
Running back is one slot on the depth chart where Steel Curtain Rising’s analysis likely differs from much of Steelers Nation and likely Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin.
The Steelers have now been forced to start their 4th stringrunning back in three consecutive post-season contests.
OK, 2014 is somewhat of an aberration, as LeGarrette Blount’s insubordination and Dri Archer’s total failure couldn’t have been foreseen, at least not while something could be done about it. Yet, in 2015 the Steelers essentially chose to enter the season with a running back’s depth chart that was two backs deep.
By season’s end, both Bell and Williams were hurt….
Sure, Jordan Todman and Toussaint played well, but do you really want pin post season hopes practice squaders and waiver wire pickups?
Sure, the days when the Steelers staffed their depth chart with three or four quality running backs may seem like an anachronistic memory of a bye gone era, but it’s no secret that the Steelers won their last Super Bowl with a depth chart that went Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Gary Russell and Carey Davis – all of whom were on the opening day roster, and all of whom were at “Above the line” ball carriers.
It says here that drafting running back in the first round would be a mistake.
Drafting one in the second round might be too high as well. But the Steelers have rolled the dice on running back depth in two straight seasons and it has cost them in two straight post seasons which means that the Steelers 2016 draft need at running back must be considered Moderate High.
As everyone knows, Ben Roethlisberger‘s name heads the Steelers injury report as Pittsburgh prepares to play the Cleveland Browns this week. That comes as no surprise after his leaving the Steelers victory over Oakland in the 4th quarter.
The next two names are linebackers James Harrison and Ryan Shazier. Clearly the Steelers are better with those two in the lineup than without, but both have a couple of three players who can take their place.
Last week the Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell to an MCL tear and this week DeAngelo Williams misses practice due to a swollen foot….? Neal Coolong of The Steelers Wire pointed out the Steelers 2015 playoff hopes might hinge on Landry Jones’ arm.
Because those are the “next men up” should DeAngelo Williams be unable to play vs. Cleveland, or at any other point in the remainder of 2015. For the record, Todman has 3 careear starts, 113 carries and 464 yards on his NFL rushing resume. He even has 3 touchdowns and has 3 receptions (although not 3 touchdowns for 3 receptions.) Pead has 19 carries for 78 yards.
Certain segments of Steelers Nation will no doubt wish to pick up the pitch fork and man the barricades to condemn Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert for allowing such a situation to come to pass. But the truth is that DeAngelo William’s swollen foot merely highlights the precarious nature of the Steelers thin running back depth, which simply a symptom of a larger, league wide problem.
Steelers Running Back Depth Long a Franchise Hallmark
Throughout Steelers history, the franchise has long boasted depth charts that were at least three deep at running back.
In 1976, the Steelers had two 1,000 yard rushers in the form of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Six years later the Steelers had three 1st round running backs on their depth chart as they did in 1982 with Harris, Greg Hawthorne and Walter Abercrombie along with work horse Frank Pollard.
The trend of the Steelers fielding a deep bullpen of running back depth continued through 80’s and into the 1990’s. In 1991 the Steelers running back depth chart had Merril Hoge, Barry Foster, Tim Worley, Warren Williams and Leroy Thompson. In 2000, the Steelers running back depth chart boasted Jerome Bettis, Richard Huntley, Amos Zereoue, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala, and Jon Witman with Dan Krieder on the practice squad.
As recently as 2008, the Steelers opened the season with Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Cary Davis, and Gary Russell for depth at running back. Even in 2012, the Steelers still had Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer – hardly three super stars, but the threesome gave Pittsburgh more running back depth than they currently enjoy.
Those days ended then and there, however.
2013 a Turning Point for Running Back Depth for the NFL and the Steelers
The 2013 NFL Draft marked the first draft since 1936 that no running back was taken in the first round.
The trend continued in 2014 and, while the San Diego Chargers took Melvin Gordon in the 1st round of the 2015, NFL Draft, 2013 marks milestone for running back depth for both the Steelers and for the NFL.
Choices Lead to Thin Steelers Running Back Depth in 2015
The Steelers thin depth at running back in 2013 was largely a product of accident, but in 2014 it became more a product of choice.
The Steelers of course signed LeGarrette Blount in the off season to back up Bell. But behind Blount the Steelers only had Dri Archer, whom they envisioned as a utility back/wide receiver, and fullback Will Johnson. (Josh Harris was on the practice squad.) LeGarrett Blount discipline problems cost him his roster spot, forcing the Steelers to sign Ben Tate after Bell went down vs. the Bengals.
The Blount dismissal aside, the Steelers made a conscious choice to enter 2014 only two players deep at running back.
And the made the same choice in 2015, opting to go with Bell and Williams, only picking up Todman on waivers after Josh Harris failed to impress during preseason. The NFL is a passing league, and no one argues with the Steelers giving Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates roster spots.
But every roster choice involves an opportunity cost.
And with Bell down for the count, and DeAngelo Williams nursing a swollen foot, the potential opportunity cost of the Steelers opting to staff such a thin depth chart at running back has just gone up.
Future Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis started the 2000 season with Richard Huntley, Amos Zereoue, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala and Jon Witman backing him up. Never in franchise history, perhaps, have the Pittsburgh Steelers boasted a deeper backfield.
Things changed fast. First fullback Jon Witman fell to injury and then Fuamatu-Ma’afla followed.
Injuries are always inopportune, but Pittsburgh headed into a mid-season show down with the Baltimore Ravens having to activate a little-known rookie free agent from the University of New Hampshire, football power house that it is.
Dan Kreider buckled his chin strap and challenged Ray Lewis head on, the Steelers rushed for 100 yards, Pittsburgh dealt the Ravens their last loss of 2000 and Kevin Colbert now had one of his biggest calling cards – uncanny success with undrafted rookie free agents.
Those are the rushing totals that Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker accumulated with Dan Kreider paving the way. Kreider is Steelers Football type who delivered down in the trenches time in and time out when victory or defeat lay in the balance.
Ainsley Battles An unheralded member of this list, Ainsley Battles made it as a rookie free agent in 2000 and played in all 16 games, starting two of those.
When the history of Steelers safeties is written, Battles name will seldom noted or remembered. But he did record a sack and two fumble recoveries, and returned for spot duty with the Steelers in 2004 after two years as a part-time starter in Jacksonville.
Kevin Colbert’s 2001 Rookie Free Agent Class
Keydrick Vincent Kevin Colbert plucked Keydrick Vincent out of the rookie free agent pool in 2001 and Vincent went on to start 27 games while appearing in 38. He even made starts as a rookie and as a sophomore, and then saw his value to the team soar in 2003 when injuries ravaged the offensive line.
Yet his greatest moment was in 2004, when a training camp ACL tear to Kendall Simmons threatened to derail the season. Vincent stepped up, and started 16 games in a season that saw the Steelers finish 15-1. Not bad for a guy whose phone refused to ring on draft day.
Chris Hoke – the Perpetual Unsung Hero The record reflects that Chris Hoke joined the Steelers the same year as Casey Hampton, but with a lot less fan fare. If there is an unsung hero among Kevin Colbert’s rookie free agent signings, that man is Chris Hoke.
Hoke held a roster spot for much of his first three years, but only dressed twice, until dressing regularly in 2004. At mid-season the man who was less than an afterthought stepped in when Casey Hampton tore his ACL – and the Steelers did not miss a beat in route to a 15-1 season.
Hoke gets little press, but he’s arguably the most valuable back up the team has. 108 games played and a ‘mere’ 16 starts might seem pedestrian over 10 years, but Chris Hoke does what’s asked of him and delivers when his number has called.
Kevin Colbert’s 2002 Rookie Free Agent Coup — Silverback!
James Harrison – Silverback Attack James Harrison actually made the active roster in 2002. The stories of his dismissals, recalls, and stint with the Ravens are now legendary. Since then he’s played in 107 games and started in 71 of them, but my God, do those numbers fail to do him justice.
Images can only suffice.
Harrison hinted that he was something special as early as 2004, when he laid down the law with a drunken Browns fan:
Harrison chose the Steelers 75 Anniversary Game against the Baltimore Ravens for his coming out party, a day when he exploded for 3.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 1 recovered fumble, and an interception.
And, just in case Ed Reed had any illusions about who was the baddest defender on the field that night, James Harrison erased any doubts:
James Harrison’s biggest play as a Steelers is perhaps the most over looked, which is especially rare given that it’s the longest run in Super Bowl history. While Ben Roethlisberger’s game-ending drive rightly draws rave reviews, James Harrison’s pick six of Kurt Warner in Super Bowl XLIII amounted to a four point swing in a game that finished 27-24.
A true work horse, “Fast Willie” played in 79 games starting 60 of them, and rushed for 5,378 yards and 24 touchdowns. What’s all the more impressive is that Willie did this in 6 years earning him the number 3 spot on the Steelers All-Time rushing list, and his 4.3 yards per carry average career rushing average ties Barry Foster as the best for a Steelers running back.
Who knows which Steelers scout uncovered him, Dan Rooney Jr. lives near Fast Willlie’s stomping grounds in the Carolinas, but who ever it was deserves a medal.
Kevin Colbert’s 2005 Rookie Free Agent Protégée
Nate Washington Nate Washington cut his teeth as an unrestricted rookie free agent on the 2005 Super Bowl XL championship team. Washington’s best play as a rookie may have been the pass defense he made to save an interception in the AFC Championship game against Denver.
Darnell Stapleton Darnell Stapleton may not have had the staying power of some of the other offensive lineman on this list who made the team as undrafted rookie free agents, but he did step into the starting role when Kendall Simmons was injured against Baltimore in 2008.
And if his post-season performance and his knee injuries at Latrobe in 2009 made the coaches leery of bringing him back, Darnell Stapleton was good enough at right guard for 14 games on a Super Bowl championship team, which is nothing to sneeze at.
Kevin Colbert’s 2009 Rookie Free Agent Foursome
Who would think that four free agent rookies would make the roster of the defending Super Bowl Champions? It happened with Colbert’s 2009 free rookie agent class, and a year later three of those four would play a vital role in bringing the Steelers to the brink of capturing the team’s 7th Lombardi.
“Mr. Versatility” Doug Legursky Mike Tomlin has routinely praised “position flexibility” and perhaps no player has epitomized that more than Doug Legursky throughout is 24 games played and four starts. After making the practice squad in 2008, Legursky cracked the 53 man roster in 2009 seeing spot duty.
But in 2010 the team needed every bit of of Legusrsky’s versatility, and Legursky lined up at Center, Guard, fullback, and it would surprise me none to learn that he perhaps played a few snaps at tackle.
Ramon Foster Ramon Foster found no love on draft day 2009, but the Steelers had plenty of love for him in late 2009 when injuries thrust him into the starting line up. He began 2010 on the bench, but by mid-season Mike Tomlin sent Trai Essex to the pine and Foster again joined the starting line up all the way through Super Bowl XLV.
Normally undrafted rookie free agents fill out training camp rosters, play special teams, and perhaps grow into role players. If a rookie free agent holds his own in spot duty then he’s considered a success. Developing into a number one back up or unheralded starter is a decided plus.
Over the past decade Colbert, his scouts, and the Steelers coaches have developed just shy of one starting-caliber rookie free agent per season, and his two greatest finds, James Harrison and Willie Parker, authored the two of the most dramatic plays in history.
The Steelers success in staying competitive speaks for itself. Outsiders marvel at their record, asking “how do they do it?”
Those on lookers need do nothing more than browse the list above.
Kevin Colbert, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin have drafted well, but their consistent success with rookie free agents has pushed Pittsburgh over the top. Lombardi’s number five and six offer proof.
There’s been plenty of talk about Larry Foote and Gary Russell on this site, but there are two more items of interest before putting the story to bed.
No Ill Will Toward Larry But….
It is hard to wish someone who has been such a reliable player and upstanding citizen ill will, and I certainly do not desire that for Larry Foote.
But his comments about feeling “limited” by the Steelers prior to Lawrence Timmons arrival leave a little bit of a bitter aftertaste.
Larry Foote is a good player, a very good player. But has he done anything to elevate himself to the elite level of linebacking that is at the core of the Steelers defensive identity?
James Harrison has. As has James Farrior. LaMarr Woodley is giving plenty of signs he’s headed in that direction too. Joey Porter was there, as were linebackers like Levon Kirkland and Greg Lloyd before them.
I dare say no.
Foote won two Super Bowls with Pittsburgh. He has now forced his way out of the only franchise to win six Super Bowls to sign with the only team to go 0-16.
He has certainly found a place with plenty of room to grow.
Give the man credit. He signed a one year deal with an eye toward proving himself and cashing in. He is putting his money where his mouth is.
Gary Russell Redux
Ed Bouchette made a very interesting comment in his recent chat. Someone asked him if Russell would still be with the team had the Steelers chosen to move Foote earlier.
In his previous chat Bouchette stuck by his reporting that Russell had been cut for cap reasons, but when pressed by Steel Curtain Rising, Bouchette admitted that he only “sort of” bought the explanation.
Rumors have abounded to explain the Steelers motive for letting Russell go. All are unsubstantiated so they will not be repeated here, but suffice to say, it looks like those who thought there was something else to the story were probably correct.
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