Will New Young Steelers Receivers Morph into the Next “Young Money”?

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane to the days of 2010 and 2011.

  • Ah, those were innocent times, weren’t they?

Mike Wallace, a third-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, was catching 40-plus yard bombs on such a regular basis, people actually found it endearing that this was his best talent.

As for Emmanuel Sanders, the third-round pick from the 2010 NFL Draft, he was developing into a fine number three receiver and showing signs of morphing into much more. Speaking of morphing, Antonio Brown, who was picked three rounds later than Sanders in the same draft, was just starting to blossom into one of the best, young receivers in all of football.

In-fact, Antonio Brown had blossomed so much after his rookie season–a freshman campaign that included a spectacular and game-saving helmet catch vs. the Ravens in a thrilling divisional round playoff victory at Heinz Field–not only did he supplant the legendary Hines Ward in the starting lineup in 2011, he made his very first Pro Bowl.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

Will JuJu Smith-Schuster lead another “Young Money” movement for the Steelers?. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Things were looking up for the Steelers pup-like receivers, a trio that quickly dubbed itself Young Money –for both financial and clutch purposes. The future was bright for Pittsburgh’s wide-out position, so bright, in-fact, it was not uncommon for fans and even experts to proclaim the unit the best in the entire NFL.

  • Then 2012 came along, and Mike Wallace, who was in-search of a long-term deal worth lots of money, decided to negotiate by holding out of all off season activities and the start of training camp.

This, of course, alienated Mike Wallace from the fans, who quickly dubbed him a one-trick pony and didn’t find his deep-threat speed quite so endearing any longer. Mike Wallace would be gone a year later.

As for Emmanuel Sanders, he would also alienate the fans by, one, not leaving in-exchange for the Patriots 2013 third-round pick (New England had signed Emmanuel Sanders, who was a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet which the Steelers matched, rather than allowing him to walk for a fairly high draft choice).

Emmanuel Sanders would go on to further anger the fans late in the 2013 season by dropping an admittedly tough catch on a two-point try in a Thanksgiving Night loss to the Ravens (Pittsburgh missed the playoffs by a Ryan Succop field goal weeks later).

Emmanuel Sanders then went on to sign a lucrative deal with the Broncos prior to the 2014 season — but not before unethically trying to leverage teams into giving him even more money. As a member of the Broncos, Sanders further “endeared” himself to Steelers fans by saying that his new quarterback, Peyton Manning, was so much more disciplined than his old quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.

  • When it came to Antonio Brown, the man everyone would soon affectionately call “AB,” he appeared to be the working man’s wide-receiver.

He played hard and worked (as in, worked out) even harder. His work-ethic and attention to detail were second-to-none. Not only did Brown quickly become the fan favorite among the Young Money trio, he was rewarded with a five-year, $42 million contract extension in the summer of 2012 — or right when Mike Wallace was holding out of training camp.

Not only did Antonio Brown blossom into one of the best, young receivers in the NFL, he soon morphed into not only the very best in the business, but one of the best of all-time–his six-year run that includes 686 catches for 9,145 yards from 2013-2018 is unmatched in NFL history.

  • Antonio Brown was not only a huge fan favorite, he was an all-time Steelers great.

Then the 2018 season ended, and, well, you know what happened. Since I don’t want to focus on Antonio Brown much more than I have to in this piece, let’s just say he did just about everything he could to ensure that he would have the ugliest divorce of any Steelers legend in franchise history.

The question now is, how will the Steelers press on in the aftermath of Young Money? In Brown’s absence is JuJu Smith-Schuster, a third-year man out of USC, who not only became one of the most popular Steelers right out of the gate, he has become one of the new faces of the NFL.

Oh yeah, he’s also a really good wide-out, complete with over 100 receptions and a Pro Bowl bid in 2018. Smith-Schuster has all the potential to be the next in a long-line of great Steelers receivers. But will be also morph into a problem child? Will he be the next in a long-line of diva receivers who the fans can’t wait to see leave town?

  • It’s way too early to know for sure, but Smith-Schuster appears to be more Hines Ward than he does Antonio Brown.

Not only is he a fierce competitor that loves to block almost as much as he loves to catch, he has great character–and it seems genuine. He has all the makings of a team leader, someone who would rather set a good example by being on-time to meetings, than demand preferential treatment while showing up late to them.

  • Not only that, his personality and charm are contagious–like Alejandro Villanueva once said, “Everyone needs a little JuJu in their life.”

Speaking of character, there’s no question the Steelers have been targeting not only talented athletes in recent drafts, but youngsters with few red flags that may morph into the total package one day–including team leaders and captains.

The jury is still deliberating about the future of James Washington, the team’s second-round pick from a season ago. But, so far, his only off-the-field activities seem to involve farming and fishing.

It’s way too early to know the exact future of the Steelers receiving corps as a whole, but given the character of JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington, it’s hard to see the unit giving birth to more problem children.

In other words, there will be no reboot of Young Money in Steeler Nation.

 

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Painful? Yes. But Steelers Make Right Decision to Move on from Antonio Brown

All good things come to an end. So it is with Antonio Brown and the Steelers. After dominating the headlines for the first two months of 2019, the on-going Antonio Brown Soap opera reached the beginning of the end as Antonio Brown met with Art Rooney II and the two sides agreed to seek a trade.

Art Rooney II, Antonio Brown, Steelers to trade Antonio Brown

Art Rooney II & Antonio Brown agree to part ways. Photo Credit: Twitter

If reports are correct, Antonio Brown first met with Art Rooney II while Brown’s father Eddie Brown was in the room. Once the two sides agreed to a trade, agent Drew Rosenhaus along with Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan joined entered to discuss next steps.

  • Significantly, the Steelers did not grant Drew Rosenhaus permission to explore trade opportunities with other teams.

This is important, because it underlines the fact that the Steelers are holding on to one of the key cards they have left to play in this deck – determining where Antonio Brown lands. (Preferably somewhere in the NFC.)

It Sucks, But the Steelers Made the Right Decision

There’s no way to sugar coat it, the Pittsburgh 2019 offense will be poorer for Antonio Brown’s absence. However, this move had to be made, however painful it might be.

  • As Jeremy Fowler’s report detailed, Antonio Brown got preferential treatment from Mike Tomlin.

While this outrages a lot of fans, the truth is that star athletes get special treatment from a lot of organizations, at all levels of organized sports. But abandoning your teammates in the heat of battle – with the playoffs on the line – simply cannot be tolerated.

  • One can argue that this sets a bad precedent, that in the future disgruntled players can social media temper tantrum their way off the team.

That could happen.

  • But that pales in comparison to sending a signal to the locker room that quitting is OK.

Like most fans, when news of this incident broke, I clung to some sort of hope that this would somehow just “all go away.” And the Steelers seemed to leave the door open in early January. Perhaps, in a pre-social media era that might have even been possible.

But it takes two to tango, and nothing Brown has done since walking out on the Steelers prior to the Bengals game indicates he’s willing to do his part of the dance.

Make No Mistake About It: Losing Brown Will Hurt

Antonio Brown is a Hall of Fame talent. Losing him will hurt. A lot.

Rarely can a team make a one-for-one replacement for a Hall of Famer as the Steelers did when they transitioned from Mike Webster to Dermontti Dawson. More often than not, you end up with situations akin to what the Steelers found themselves in the 80s when they replaced Lynn Swann with Louis Lipps or Jack Lambert with David Little.

  • Lipps and Little only sins as Steelers were to be merely good instead of great.

Sure, Ben Roethlisberger still has JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald as weapons. God willing James Washington will develop and James Conner will stay healthy. And, as it has been noted, the Steelers won Super Bowl XL with Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El and Super Bowl XLIII with Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington.

Just in case you forgot.

Nonetheless, Art Rooney II has made the right decision.

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Reminder Steelers Nation: Lombardi Trophies are an Achievement, Not an Entitlement

Super Bowl Sunday has arrived and the Pittsburgh Steelers are not playing in it. And while that’s a disappointment, it hardly qualifies as an injustice.

  • Lombardi Trophies are an achievement not an entitlement.

This should be obvious, but certain segments of Steelers Nation seem to have lost sight of the fact. Many bemoan the fact that Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger have only gone 1-1 in Super Bowls and haven’t sniffed the big game since 2010.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney Lombardi Trophies, Dan Rooney obituary

Dan Rooney sitting in front of the Steelers 5 Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Yes, It IS Hard to Feel Good about the Steelers Right Now

Before proceeding, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room:

  • It is very hard to feel good about the Pittsburgh Steelers these days.

Heck, yours truly started in article musing about the potential for a Steelers rebound in 2019 that Tony Defeo finished while on I vacation. During that time even MORE negative news surfaced about the Antonio Brown AND Morgan Burnett publicly asked for his release.

Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward have sounded off on the situation. Who knows? Before this is over, we might expect to hear from Preston Gothard. OK, we won’t, but you get the point.

All of this provides a poignant backdrop to the harsh reality that since losing the 2016 AFC Championship game to the Patriots, the Steelers have taken two successive steps backwards.

  • Why have the Steelers regressed?

There are many reasons. The hand of fate has been felt acutely. Think Ryan Shazier’s injury or even the injuries that ruined Senquez Golson’s NFL career before it began.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns tie, Mike Tomlin rain

Mike Tomlin after the Steelers 21-21 tie against the Browns. Photo Credit: Scott R. Galvin, USA TODAY, via ActionNetwork.com

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have all made mistakes. None of what follows absolves them of their errors. But it should remind us of just how hard their job is.

Winning a Super Bowl Is Hard

The Pittsburgh Steelers have appeared in 8 of 53 Super Bowls. You’ll find no better example of institutional excellence, but spoils Steelers fans into forgetting just how hard it is to bring home a Lombardi.
Just how hard is it to win a Super Bowl?

Well, let’s begin with the fact that the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions have never appeared in a Super Bowl. While the Jaguars and Texans joined the league as expansion teams in the ‘90’s and 00’s, Lions and Browns fans are waiting ½ century and counting for their first shot at a Lombardi.

  • The Pittsburgh Pirates 1971 and 1979 World Series wins practically qualify Bucos as a dynasty by comparison.

Super Bowl appearances are nice, but it is the wins that really count. Minnesota Vikings and Buffalo Bills fans can attest. Those two franchises lead the league in lost Super Bowls with 4 apiece. In total, there are 12 teams that have never won a Super Bowl in the 53 year history of the event.

  • In other words, 37.5% of NFL teams have never hoisted a Lombardi.

And that percentage does not control for timeliness.

The Jets, Chiefs and Dolphins all have Lombardi’s to display. New York’s arrived as to product of one of the greatest upsets in the history of North American sports.

  • That upset also happened 8 days before Richard Nixon put his hand on the Bible to be sworn in as President.

Hank Stram and the Kansas City Chiefs also pulled off an upset of their own in Super Bowl IV, a victory which came three months before the Beatles officially broke up.

The Miami Dolphins won their last Super Bowl in January 1974, back when Star Trek seemed condemned to be forgotten as a cult series relegated to perpetual re-run status on UHF channels.

Going 1-1 in Super Bowls over an 11 year period doesn’t sound quite has bad, does it? (Special nod to Ivan Cole who pointed many of these stats out via email.)

Building Back-to-Back Super Bowl Eras Is Harder Yet

If winning a Super Bowl is difficult, then stitching together back-to-back Super Bowl eras is harder yet. Think of the franchises fortunate enough to field successive franchise quarterbacks.

George Seifert replaced Joe Montana with Steve Young. He also had Jerry Rice, arguably giving him a better quarterback, wide receiver combos than Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. He only won one Super Bowl with Joe Montana and one with Steve Young.

The Green Bay Packers had Brett Farve for 16 years and went 1-1 in Super Bowls. succeeded him with Aaron Rodgers, yet have only added 1 more Lombardi to the case under his watch.

  • The Colts of course followed Peyton Manning with Andrew Luck but are still waiting on their latest Lombardi.

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have indeed authored a Super Bowl era that has lasted 18 years an counting, an incredible achievement which they very well might add to this evening.

But even the vaunted Patriots went 10 years between Lombardi Trophies. And while we’re at it, just how many trophies did Pete Carroll’s Legion of Boom bag?

Hum, going 1-1 in Super Bowls and never dropping below .500 seems a little more appealing now, doesn’t it?

Yeah, But the Steelers Have Had a Franchise Quarterback….

True. And, given what was discussed above, the familiar refrain that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert are squandering Ben Roethlisberger’s prime years certainly rings true.

  • But how does sentiment stand up to logic?

Let’s see. Don Shula had Dan Marino and only managed one Super Bowl appearance and zero wins. Dan Reeves lost 3 Super Bowls with John Elway. Marv Levy lost 4 Super Bowls with Jim Kelly. Sean Payton and Drew Brees only have one Lombardi to their credit, and have endured 4 losing seasons since winning a Super Bowl.

  • Franchise quarterbacks come with a sort of Catch 22.

Today, a franchise quarterback is (almost) essential to winning a Super Bowl. Yet a franchise quarterback sucks up salary cap space and all but ensures that his team will draft late in every round. That means a franchise quarterback can take you to the Mountain Top, maybe more than once, but his presence also makes it hard to mount a serious comeback should you get knocked off the top.

Steelers Still Have a Shot at a Third Ring

To repeat:  It is hard to feel good about the direction the Pittsburgh Steelers are heading in. As I have said before and will again, it is entirely possible that the window to Lombardi Number Three for the Ben Roethlisberger era closed the moment Ryan Shazier suffered his spinal contusion.

But the emergence of T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald and James Conner alongside stalwarts like Cam Heyward and Joe Haden at least give the Steelers a chance to keep the window open.

  • Will the Steelers walk through the window before Ben Roethlisberger begins his “Life’s Work?”

Time will tell. But let’s enjoy the ride that might still take us back to the Mountain Top while we still can.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs the New Orleans Saints – a 31 Year Retrospective

The Steelers history against the New Orleans Saints has Pittsburgh taking a 7-8 record down to the Big Easy where the Steelers are 4-5 vs. 3-3 at Heinz Field and Three Rivers Stadium.

As the Steelers prepare for their 10th trip to New Orleans for a game that could make or break their 2018 season, here is a look at highlights of the Steelers last 31 years of history against the Saints.

Steelers history vs Saints, Antonio Brown, P.J. Williams

Antonio Brown stiff arms P.J. Williams. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports via, Tribune-Review

1987 – Steelers Playoff Potential Nothing More than a Tease

November 29th @ Three Rivers Stadium
New Orleans 20, Pittsburgh 17

The 1987 Steelers were looking to build on a 6-4 record as Pittsburgh was very much alive in the AFC Central playoff picture during that strike shortened season. The Steelers took a 14-3 lead into the locker room at half time on the strength of a Dwayne Woodruff pick six and a Walter Abercrombie touchdown.

However, Pittsburgh faltered in the 2nd half as the Saint scored 17 unanswered points, aided by 3 Mark Malone interceptions. The Saints took an intentional safety at the end of the game to bring Pittsburgh to within 4, but the Steelers could not mount a comeback.

  • The game was typical of the 1987 Steelers who teased playoff potential but ultimately fell short against a quality Saints team.

1990 – Joe Walton’s Ineptitude on Full Display in Steelers win

December 16, 1990 @ The Superdome
Pittsburgh 9, New Orleans 6

The 1990 Steelers entered the game with a 7-6 record and an an offense floundering under Joe Walton’s mismanagement. And this game shows just how badly Joe Walton had neutered the 1990 Steelers offense, as a single Gary Anderson field goal were the only points it could score for 3 quarters.

  • Bubby Brister only threw for 154 yards passing, while Merril Hoge and Tim Worley couldn’t combine to break the 100 yard rushing mark.

For its part, the Steelers defense held the Saints to two Morten Andersen second half field goals, until Gary Anderson booted two more 4th quarter field goals to give the Steelers the win.

  • The 1990 Steelers went 9-7 yet only one two games against teams that finished with winning records. This was one of them.

1993 – Rod Woodson’s Career Day

October 17th 1993 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 37, New Orleans 14

The 1993 Steelers started 0-2 leading many to question whether Cowher Power’s 1992 debut had been a mirage. But Pittsburgh won its three games, leading up to a showdown with the then undefeated Saints.

Rod Woodson intercepted Wade Wilson’s opening pass and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown. Two series later Rod Woodson picked off Wilson again. On Pittsburgh’s next procession, Neil O’Donnell hit Barry Foster for a 20 yard touchdown pass, and the Steelers were leading 14-0 in less than 8 minutes.

  • And Pittsburgh was just warming up.

By half time the Steelers were up 24-0, and the Saints hadn’t even managed a first down. Carnell Lake intercepted Wade Wilson’s first pass of the second half, which made way for two more Gary Anderson field goals, followed by an Eric Green touchdown.

Wade Wilson had arrived in Pittsburgh as the NFL’s number 3 passer, only to have the Steelers intercept him three times and limit him to 6 completions on the day as Donald Evans, Levon Kirkland, Joel Steed and Kevin Greene sacked him 5 times.

  • While the 1993 Steelers would ultimately underachieve, this game revealed that their championship potential was real.

2002 – Poor Defense Dooms Tommy Gun’s First Start

October 6th, 2002 @ The Superdome
New Orleans 32, Pittsburgh 29

The 2002 Steelers had started 0-2 and only won in week three thanks to a blocked field goal plus Bill Cowher’s decision to bench Kordell Stewart late in the game for Tommy Maddox.

But the Steelers defense gave up 13 points early in the game before Tommy Maddox and Plaxico Burress connected to get Pittsburgh on the board before the half. The Steelers mounted a spirited effort in the 2nd half with Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward and Terance Mathis scoring touchdowns, the but Saints scored 13 points to keep ahead of the Steelers.

  • The game confirmed, if there had been any doubt, that the once vaunted Steelers secondary was a shell of its former self.

2006 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees I

November 12th, 2006 @ The Superdome
Pittsburgh 38, New Orleans 31

The 2006 Steelers took a Super Bowl Hangover induced 2-6 record to New Orleans to face the 6-2 Saints. Fireworks ensued as the Saints and Steelers fought to a 24 to 17 half time score. The Steelers fought back in the second half, scoring as Ben Roethlisberger connected for a touchdown to Cedric Wilson in the air as Willie Parker ran for two more on the ground.

Deuce McAllister put the Saints within striking distance of a comeback with a fumble returned for a touchdown with 8:31 remaining in the 4th quarter. But the Steelers defense burned nearly 4 minutes off of the clock, and closed the game as Tyrone Carter and Ryan Clark teamed up to end a Saints comeback effort with a forced fumble and recovery.

  • The game marked the 6-2 rebound of the 2006 Steelers that would ultimately allow Bill Cowher to retire during a non-losing season.

2010 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees II

October 31st, 2010 @ The Superdome
New Orleans 20, Pittsburgh 10

If the first battle between Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees was a shootout, their second meeting took on the character of a slug fest.

Both teams were scoreless during the entire 1st quarter, and when they both got on the board in the 2nd quarter it was only with field goals. In the second half New Orleans put 10 points on the board, but the Steelers moved to within three on a Rashard Mendenhall touchdown.

However, the Steelers defense couldn’t hold on, as Drew Brees connected with Lance Moore at just over the two minute mark to give the Saints a 10 point lead. Ben Roethlisberger attempted to rally the Steelers and got them to mid field but Leigh Torrence intercepted him as he attempted to hit Mike Wallace.

  • Lot’s of commentators suggested that this loss spelled gloom and doom for the 2010 Steelers, but the tam of course finished in Super Bowl XLV.

2014 – Ben Roethlisberger vs Drew Brees III

November 30th, 2014 @ Heinz Field
New Orleans 35, Pittsburgh 32

Don’t let the close score fool you. The Saints marched into Heinz Field and blew out the Steelers, with Pittsburgh only getting in theoretical striking distance of pulling ahead thanks to a 2 point conversion pass to Lance Moore, of all players, as time expired.

  • The story of this game was Ben Roethlisberger.

The offensive line gave him time, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown served as reliable targets, but Ben Roethlisberger’s passes were too often off target. Roethlisberger threw two picks, but that number could have easily been double.

Drew Brees only threw for 257 yards, but he threw 5 touchdowns, as an unknown Kenny Stills lit up the Steelers defense for 162 yards.

  • This was Brett Keisel’s last game, Troy Polamalu’s final regular season game, Ike Taylor’s penultimate game and the final time the trio was to play with James Harrison.
  • This late November loss to the Saints seemed to signal that Pittsburgh was nothing more than average, but the 2014 Steelers rebounded for 4 straight wins

The Steelers history vs the New Orleans Saints offers a mixed bag, with both some impressive wins and tough losses. But none of the outcomes had season-defining implications. Today’s contest could be quite different in that respect.

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Stop the James Washington Limas Sweed Comparisons. Steelers Rookie Wide Outs Often Start Slow

Steelers wide receiver James Washington has had a disappointing year thus far but comparisons to Limas Sweed must stop.

Full disclosure: If you frequent this site, you know that I called out James Washington after the loss to the Broncos and said that his play was making activating Eli Rogers an attractive option. And when Eli Rogers returned to practice, I augured that the Steelers offense currently lacks a legit number 3 wide receiver.

  • I stand by those criticisms.

James Washington, James Washington Drop, Steelers vs Jaguars

James Washington drops a pass. Photo Credit: AP, via ProFootballTalk.com

But if it is true that James Washington’s rookie campaign pales in contrast to JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s efforts just one year ago, then it’s even more true that JuJu’s rookie performance was an exception.

  • Even a cursory look at history reveals Steelers wide receivers tend to struggle as rookies.

Pittsburgh 247’s Jim Wexell took aim at the Limas Sweed comparison, and after conceding that both were from Texas, both 2nd round picks, and both having grown up on farms, he offered this insight:

Through the same points in their 2010 rookie seasons, Antonio Brown had two catches in 21 targets; Emmanuel Sanders had 13 catches in 23 targets.

Compared to Antonio Brown, James Washington is killing it with his 8 catches on 25 targets! But in that light he’s no different than other rookie Steelers wide receivers who started slowly.

Steelers Rookie Wide Receivers Tend to Start Slowly

As a rookie, Hines Ward had 15 catches on 33 targets. While targeting numbers aren’t available, Lynn Swann had 11 catches and John Stallworth had 16. Combine those numbers and they hardly project to one Hall of Fame career, let alone two.

But Yancey Thigpen, while not a rookie, had all of one catch during his first season in Pittsburgh and only 9 more his next (although 3 of those were for touchdowns.) Ernie Mills had two catches as a rookie. Both went on to author fine careers as Steelers.

Sure, at this point James Washington is best known for plays he hasn’t made as a rookie, but so was Plaxico Burress. And there’s an important difference there. In diving unnecessarily to catch Ben Roethlisberger‘s throw, James Washington was simply trying too hard. By spiking the ball in the open field when he wasn’t down, Plaxico Burress was simply being dumb.

  • There’s one other thing to keep in mind: Strong rookie seasons, while promising, guarantee nothing.

Troy Edwards caught 61 passes as a rookie and scored 5 touchdowns. He started 1 game and caught 37 passes in two more seasons in Pittsburgh, and never matched his rookie campaign in 4 more seasons in the NFL.

Saying that James Washington’s rookie season has disappointed this far is simply observing the truth, but writing him off as a bust is foolishness in its purest form.

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4 Random Thoughts to Put the Steelers Current Chaos into Context

A lot changes in one week in the NFL. Seven days ago the question facing the Steelers was whether Ben Roethlisberger could shake off the rust. Today the Steelers defense looks like a sieve, and Pittsburgh is momentarily last in the AFC North.

And to make things worse, this was a week of 10-12 hour work days, which means no blogging so instead here are 4 Random Thoughts on the Steelers 2018 season thus far.

Antonio Brown, Randy Fichtner, Steelers vs Chiefs

Antonio Brown confronts Randy Fichtner. Photo Credit: NFL.com

1. The Defense Wasn’t As Bad Against Kansas City as it Was Against Jacksonville

When the outcome of Sunday’s home opener against the Chiefs became apparent, fans rushed to compare it to the January disaster against the Jaguars. That’s not an accurate description.

  • The Steelers defense wasn’t as bad against the Chiefs as it had been against the Jaguars. It was worse.

Jacksonville’s defense scored a touchdown. The Steelers offense also gift-wrapped another. Kansas City got no such stocking suffers from the Steelers offense, although Danny Smith’s special teams did set up the Chiefs first touchdown.

But when comparing the two games consider this:

  • Sean Spence was playing whereas a month before he’d been out of football.
  • Javon Hargrave was hurt, and played very little, yielding to L.T. Walton.
  • Injuries forced Stephon Tuitt to play with essentially one arm.
  • Mike Mitchell was manning the deep safety slot.

Since that awful January performance, the Steelers have signed Jon Bostic, cleaned house in the secondary, bringing in Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds. John Mitchell has gone upstairs replaced by Karl Dunbar, while Carnell Lake has left (and no, I don’t entirely buy reports that Lake left on his own) and Tom Bradley has taken his place.

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree have switched sides. Players like Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton and Artie Burns have had another year to develop and mature. Oh, and Pittsburgh has had a full off season to work on the “communication problems” that plagued Keith Butler‘s defense.

  • As Cam Heyward reminded, there IS a lot of football left to be played.

But thus far the Steelers defense appears to be getting worse, not better. The bright side? They have no where to go but up.

2. Antonio Brown’s Antics Are No Longer “Minor Annoyances”

When asked about Antonio Brown‘s Facebook live incident, Steelers President Art Rooney II described it as “minor annoyances.” Against the Chiefs, Browns walked off of the field, and got into shouting matches with Randy Fichtner and wide receivers coach Darryl Drake.

Later this week Antonio Brown explained his outburst as a non-outburst, and offered that his non-outburst was fueled by the fact that the Steelers were losing by 40.

  • Except they weren’t, because James Conner was barreling into the end zone with an impressive second effort to tie the game.

All wide receivers want the ball. Hines Ward, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were no different. Yet none of them became Divas. While Antonio Brown has flashed signs of Diva like behavior in the past, it wouldn’t have been fair to have labeled him as such before.

  • Is it fair to label Antonio Brown a Diva now?

Time will tell, but at this point his behavior has passed the point of being “minor annoyances.”

3. Mike Tomlin Has “Lost Control of the Locker Room”

That’s a popular narrative. And to some degree, whenever you’re losing, everything your critiques they say is true. But there’s really not a lot of evidence to support the “locker room is out of control” missive.

  • Yes, Antonio Brown is a distraction (see above).
  • Yes, Le’Veon Bell‘s absence is an on-going story.

But is there anyone else in the locker room that is a problem child? So far, no. And sure, the Steelers do seem to have serious issues on defense. But let’s keep those in context.

In 1990, Joe Walton arrived, and installed an offense that his players hated and struggled to grasp. The 1990 Steelers went one month without scoring an offensive touchdown. Assistant coaches could be heard screaming at each other through the headsets.

  • Even Joe Greene remarked, “I hope this isn’t our identity” when quizzed about Walton’s finesse offense.

There may be some legit issues in terms of the Tomlin-Butler relationship on managing the defense, but 2 weeks into the season, the Steelers locker room has hardly gone rouge.

4. Tomlin and Colbert’s Gambles Look a Lot More Questionable Today

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin gambled 14.5 million dollars in salary cap space that Le’Veon Bell would be back. That’s 14.5 million that could have gone to the defense. At the time it looked like a wise gamble.

  • As of now, the Steelers are getting nothing form that 14.5 million, and next spring all the extra cap space won’t knock any years off of Ben Roethlisberger’s age.

On defense the Steelers gambled that they could bring in Jon Bostic as a stop gap measure and stuck to their guns in the 2018 NFL Draft when they couldn’t get one of the inside linebackers they wanted. The thought was that the Steelers could compensate by deploying extra defensive backs.

  • Thus far that doesn’t look to be the case.

But week 3 is only beginning, and there’s still a lot of football left to play.

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Can the Steelers “Band of Brothers” Spirit Weather Le’Veon Bell’s Disruptive Antics?

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin their 2018 season today at Cleveland against the Browns. Like all other seasons, a Lombardi Trophy will define success or failure. Earlier this week this site laid out 4 key questions the Steelers needed to answer affirmatively to bring up a 7th Super Bowl.

Now, thanks to Le’Veon Bell’s hold out has added a 5th question:

  • Can the Steelers maintain the “Band of Brothers” mentality in the locker room?

Building a coheshive locker room is critical to winning championships. In his self-titled autobiography, Dan Rooney reflected on Hines Ward’s 2005 holdout by saying he felt the team had the closeness that is necessary for championships.

Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Colts

Happier Times: Antonio Brown & Le’Veon Bell celebrate a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Concerned that contract squabbles could jeopardize this closeness Dan Rooney had Jerome Bettis bring Hines Ward to the Latrobe airport for a one-on-one. The results was that Hines Ward reported to camp, got a new contract, and the Steelers season ended with victory in Super Bowl XL.

Except it wasn’t that simple. The 2005 Steelers faced more than their share of ups and downs, and injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch and inconsistency on the part of Tommy Maddox led Bill Cowher to start 3 quarterbacks that fall.

  • The Steelers overcame those difficulties, in no small part, because they remained united, and focused.

Fast forward to 2018. Everyone knows that Le’Veon Bell has refused to sign his franchise tender and is not part of the 2018 Steelers. Until this point, the rest of the Steelers locker room had been neutral, if not supportive of Bell,

But when Bell failed to show up for practice on Wednesday the gloves came off. One by one, from David DeCastro, to NFLPA Rep Ramon Foster to center Maurkice Pouncey criticized Bell.

Pittsburgh 247 writer Jim Wexell made what might have been the defining analytical quote of the 2018 season when he observed: “Losing Pouncey? That’s analogous to Lyndon Johnson losing Cronkite. Google it.”

That’s a pretty dramatic statement, but if there is any reporter who has an accurate pulse of the Steelers locker room, it is Jim Wexell. Right now the Steelers locker room is united, but what happens when Le’Veon Bell returns?

The Buffalo Bills easily had the most talent roster in the AFC in the early 1990’s, making for straight Super Bowl appearances. They lost each one of them. While the ’91 Redskins and the ’92 and ’93 Cowboys held clear talent edges, Buffalo didn’t help themselves by creating an atmosphere that led them to be labeled as the “Bickering Bills.

Antonio Brown has extended an olive branch, assuring that Bell will be welcomed as family when he returns. While fans may not be so welcoming, locker room divisions serve no one.

As Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler confided to Jim Wexell, “The good thing we’ve got, I think, is our locker room. Probably our strongest suit is our locker room. That’s going to always be the case here.”

Le’Veon Bell’s eventual return promises to put the later part of Butler’s statement to the test.

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Le’Veon Bell No Shows @ Steelers Practice. Time to Get Pissed, But Not to Panic

Fans arguing for running back by committee shift for the Steelers offense might get their wish as Le’Veon Bell no showed at Steelers practice. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert issued the following statement:

We are disappointed Le’Veon Bell has not signed his franchise tender and rejoined his teammates. Coach Tomlin and the coaching staff will continue to focus on preparing the players on our roster for our regular season opener on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.

Colbert’s statement is a long way from “Franco who?” but it also underlines that the Steelers really have form of compelling Bell to rejoin the team. Per Jeremy Fowler’s report on ESPN, neither the Steelers nor people close to Bell is surmised by the All Pro running back’s no show, and given Bell’s erratic behavior this off season perhaps they shouldn’t be.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell Holdout,

Le’Veon Bell was absent for the Steelers 1st practice. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Time to Panic? No. Time to Get Pissed? Yes.

Le’Veon Bell has broken rushing records which neither Hall of Famers Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, and John Henry Johnson nor Super Bowl record setter Willie Parker could touch. Among NFL players with 60 or more games, Le’Veon Bell leads them all in total yards from scrimmage.

  • Despite those on-the field achievements, Le’Veon Bell has managed to make himself one of the most unpopular players in recent Steelers history.

And today’s no-show at practice reveals why. While Bell had threatened to retire if the Steelers hit him with the franchise tag again and hinted at holding out all season, he later clarified that he intended to report the regular season. And when the Bell and the Steelers failed to reach a long-term deal, Bell issued the following statement:

Steel City Blitz’s Ben Anderson is speaking for a large swath of Steelers Nation, including many of those who scoffed at the idea of running back by committee.

Let’s clarify one thing. Unlike Hines Ward in 2005, Barry Foster in 1993 or Mike Merriweather in 1988, Le’Veon Bell has absolutely zero contractual or legal obligation to play for the Steelers. He’s not under contract, and has the option of giving up the 14.5 million franchise tender in exchange for sitting out the year. Some, such as James Harrison have advised Bell to do just that.

  • But if that were Bell’s intent, he should have said so all along.

So Steelers fans have every right to be upset with Le’Veon Bell. When an athlete makes it clear he’s not giving any hometown discounts and that he’s firmly focused on the bottom line, such mercenary attitudes can rub us the wrong way, but at least the athletes are being honest.

When the talk a good game a la Neil O’Donnell about money not being their sole motivating factor and then behave differently, that’s something else. With that said, there is no reason for fans to panic at this point at least.

Yes, Le’Veon Bell’s value to the Steelers offense is undeniable:

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell statistics, Le'Veon Bell stats, Le'Veon Bell Steelers offense

Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense.

James Conners, Stevan Ridley, and Jaylen Samuels showed a lot of promise, but expecting the trio to make that up simply isn’t realistic. And with Vance McDonald‘s status unknown, there’s no obvious replacement as a check down option for Ben Roethlisberger when Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington are covered downfield.

But given Le’Veon Bell’s erratic behavior, he could merely be intent on enjoying a full Labor Day weekend before reporting or perhaps he’s planning on reporting in before the Browns game soon enough that he can collect his $852,000 game check but late enough that Mike Tomlin will not play him.

  • In order to accrue a full season of seniority, Le’Veon Bell must report for at least 6 weeks before the end of the season.

To get to that point, Bell will have to forfeit nine million dollars in change. And for all antics thus far, Le’Veon Bell hasn’t shown himself as someone willing to leave that much money on the table. Yet.

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Le’Veon Bell No Shows @ Steelers Practice. Time to Get Pissed, But Not to Panic

Fans arguing for running back by committee shift for the Steelers offense might get their wish as Le’Veon Bell no showed at Steelers practice. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert issued the following statement:

We are disappointed Le’Veon Bell has not signed his franchise tender and rejoined his teammates. Coach Tomlin and the coaching staff will continue to focus on preparing the players on our roster for our regular season opener on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.

Colbert’s statement is a long way from “Franco who?” but it also underlines that the Steelers really have form of compelling Bell to rejoin the team. Per Jeremy Fowler’s report on ESPN, neither the Steelers nor people close to Bell is surmised by the All Pro running back’s no show, and given Bell’s erratic behavior this off season perhaps they shouldn’t be.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell Holdout,

Le’Veon Bell was absent for the Steelers 1st practice. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Time to Panic? No. Time to Get Pissed? Yes.

Le’Veon Bell has broken rushing records which neither Hall of Famers Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, and John Henry Johnson nor Super Bowl record setter Willie Parker could touch. Among NFL players with 60 or more games, Le’Veon Bell leads them all in total yards from scrimmage.

  • Despite those on-the field achievements, Le’Veon Bell has managed to make himself one of the most unpopular players in recent Steelers history.

And today’s no-show at practice reveals why. While Bell had threatened to retire if the Steelers hit him with the franchise tag again and hinted at holding out all season, he later clarified that he intended to report the regular season. And when the Bell and the Steelers failed to reach a long-term deal, Bell issued the following statement:

Steel City Blitz’s Ben Anderson is speaking for a large swath of Steelers Nation, including many of those who scoffed at the idea of running back by committee.

Let’s clarify one thing. Unlike Hines Ward in 2005, Barry Foster in 1993 or Mike Merriweather in 1988, Le’Veon Bell has absolutely zero contractual or legal obligation to play for the Steelers. He’s not under contract, and has the option of giving up the 14.5 million franchise tender in exchange for sitting out the year. Some, such as James Harrison have advised Bell to do just that.

  • But if that were Bell’s intent, he should have said so all along.

So Steelers fans have every right to be upset with Le’Veon Bell. When an athlete makes it clear he’s not giving any hometown discounts and that he’s firmly focused on the bottom line, such mercenary attitudes can rub us the wrong way, but at least the athletes are being honest.

When the talk a good game a la Neil O’Donnell about money not being their sole motivating factor and then behave differently, that’s something else. With that said, there is no reason for fans to panic at this point at least.

Yes, Le’Veon Bell’s value to the Steelers offense is undeniable:

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell statistics, Le'Veon Bell stats, Le'Veon Bell Steelers offense

Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense.

James Conners, Stevan Ridley, and Jaylen Samuels showed a lot of promise, but expecting the trio to make that up simply isn’t realistic. And with Vance McDonald‘s status unknown, there’s no obvious replacement as a check down option for Ben Roethlisberger when Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington are covered downfield.

But given Le’Veon Bell’s erratic behavior, he could merely be intent on enjoying a full Labor Day weekend before reporting or perhaps he’s planning on reporting in before the Browns game soon enough that he can collect his $852,000 game check but late enough that Mike Tomlin will not play him.

  • In order to accrue a full season of seniority, Le’Veon Bell must report for at least 6 weeks before the end of the season.

To get to that point, Bell will have to forfeit nine million dollars in change. And for all antics thus far, Le’Veon Bell hasn’t shown himself as someone willing to leave that much money on the table. Yet.

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By Nurture or Nature Steelers Must Develop Defensive Talent This Summer

Going into January’s playoff debacle vs the Jaguars, the Steelers had invested 9 of their last 12 premium draft picks on defense. Yet with 8 them on the field, Blake Bortles and Leonard Fournette still hung 45 points on the Steelers defense….

In other words, assuming good health and no production drop off for Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and, yes, Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers 2018 Super Bowl hopes rest in the development of Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Javon HargraveTerrell EdmundsJon Bostic and/or Tyler Matakevich.

Terrell Edmunds, Steelers 2018 training camp

Steelers 2018 1st round draft pick Terrell Edmunds. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

  • But what exactly does “Develop talent mean?”

Does it mean that Kevin Colbert and his scouting team simply did a good job in picking guys who have God-given talent? Or does it mean that Mike Tomlin and his staff molded that talent into NFL-caliber technique? The question is not as simple as one might think. Consider the stories of two safeties:

  • One arrived at St. Vincents unheralded, neutralized the need for a proven starter, won the starting job and led the team with 6 interceptions.
  • The other landed in Latrobe as a first rounder, failed to beat out the journeyman starter and forced 1 fumble and made 2 sacks as his “Splash” plays.

The first is Darren Perry, who in 1992 as an 8th round pick out of Penn State blew past veterans Larry Griffin and Gary Jones and allowed the Steelers to end Thomas Everett’s hold out via trade. Troy Polamalu is the second safety. He didn’t start a game and looked lost early and often as a rookie, but recovered to author a Hall of Fame career.

No one drafting today would pick Perry over Polamalu.

  • But it begs the question: Why was Perry ready to go on Day One whereas Polamalu wasn’t?

This is certainly a nurture vs. nature question that defies a definitive answer. Clearly, Polamalu was the superior athlete, but Darren Perry arrived in the NFL as the better football player. Polamalu simply needed a little more nurturing. But it isn’t always so simple.

Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher’s third draft pick was nose Joel Steed, whom they wanted to groom to replace Gerald Williams, so that Williams could move to defensive end.

However, when Gerald Williams got hurt it wasn’t Joel Steed who went in, but rather undrafted rookie free agent Garry Howe. Howe not only secured playing time at Steed’s expense, but if memory serves, he came up with a key fumble recovery.

  • Joel Steed won the nose tackle starting job the next summer and bloomed into a Pro Bowler.

As for Garry Howe? The Steelers cut him and if Pro Football Reference is accurate, he played a game for Cincinnati in 1993 and one for the Colts 1994 and was done.

  • Considering these examples, you’d be tempted to suggest that a little football skill trumps raw athleticism when a player first arrives in the NFL.

You’d be tempted, but you’d be wrong, as the career trajectories of Troy Edwards and Kendrell Bell illustrate. The Steelers picked Troy Edwards (narrowly passing on Jevon Kearse) with the 13th pick in 1999 NFL Draft, and Edwards won the starting job alongside Hines Ward and led the team with 61 receptions.

Going into his second year, facing criticism about his commitment to off season training, Edwards scoffed explaining that “You can’t race air.” Edwards never started another game for the Steelers, and had one decent year in Jacksonville but never matched his rookie production.

  • The Steelers traded for Kendrell in 2001 NFL Draft, and even as a 2nd round pick, Bell looked like a steal.

With nine sacks, 70 tackles, a forced fumble and a defensed pass on his rookie resume, comparisons to Jack Lambert seemed warranted. But that was it for Bell. To be fair to Bell, he suffered one of those dreaded “high ankle sprains” during his second year and suffered other injuries.

  • But years later word also leaked out that Bell refused to follow or learn coverage schemes and didn’t pay attention to his gap responsibilities.

It seems that raw athleticism can indeed jump start an NFL career, but that if its not developed, you’ll sputter out quickly.

Early Returns on Steelers 2018 Defensive Talent Development Experiment

What does all of this tell us about the prospects for the 2018 Steelers defense?

  • Honestly, I won’t do you the disservice of pretending resolve the nurture vs. nature question.

When Franco Harris, who struggled a bit in as a rookie camp, took his first preseason carry, discarded the play call and reversed course to go the length of the field to score a touchdown, Chuck Noll’s instruction to Dick Hoak was “Don’t over coach the kid.” Yet players like Merril Hoge and Jerome Bettis unhesitatingly sing Dick Hoak’s praises coaching ability.

  • Bruce Arians refused to try to get Ben Roethlisberger to change his style, and praising Todd Haley is taboo, Haley managed to find a way to let Ben be Ben while designing an offense that kept him from getting killed.

It seems like, with parenting, a good coach must strike a balance between offering guidance and letting players be themselves.

Jumping to concussions after the first 10 days of training camp is never wise.

  • At this point in 2010, Thaddeus Gibson looked good. But the Steelers cut him in early October.

But word is that Artie Burns daily one-on-ones with Antonio Brown are finally yielding fruit. Terrell Edmunds is also looking good, and switching sides also seems to be benefitting Bud Dupree.

It will take a few months to know more about the Steelers defensive talent development exercise. But whether its because of nurture or nature, the early returns are positive.

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