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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Word to the Wise: Huey Richardson Proves Even Busts Can Debut Preseason with a Bang

The rookie Steelers linebacker offered incredible promise. He arrived at St. Vincents a first round pick having been taken 15th overall. Distinct from his outspoken peers, this young man remained set on speaking with his actions instead of his words.

Playing not one, but two positions, defensive end and inside linebacker, in his preseason debut, his stat line screamed:

  • He sacked  the hottest young quarterback in the game
  • He pressured the passer on two other occasions
  • He forced one fumble and recorded another tackle

And when it was over, “I still have a long way to go” remained the rookie’s only words.

In terms of both form and demeanor, it was a preseason debut that even a noted stoic head coach like Chuck Noll could have scripted better. Unfortunately, it was also the preseason debut of Huey Richardson, the most notorious first round bust in modern Steelers history.

The date was August 17th 1991 and the opponent was the Philadelphia Eagles. And, to be 100% accurate, Richardson had seen spot duty in Pittsburgh’s previous preseason game. But his lesson remains relevant today: Preseason reveals a lot, but sometimes it can be deceiving.

Olasunkanmi, Adeiyi, Steelers vs Eagles preseason

Olasunkanmi Adeiyi Steelers preseason debut. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Several Steelers rookies stated their claim to permanent spots on Pittsburgh’s roster in the process. Receivers James Washington and Damoun Patterson made electrifying catches. Olasunkanmi Adeniyi came up with a strip-sack. Chukwuma Okorafor showed that he could perhaps serve as a legit swing tackle this season. Mason Rudolph looked poised and delivered the ball on target.

  • Such fast starts from rookies are you want to see this early in the summer.
  • But while starting strong is nice, sustaining a strong start remains essential.

As Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reminded, Terrell Watson, Doran Grant, Jordan Zumwalt and Derek Moye all authored outstanding single game preseason performances in recent years, yet none of that translated into anything of note when the games counted.

  • So how is an educated fan to know the difference between a preseason flash in the pan and the beginnings of something bigger?

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula. Stefan Logan and Isaac Redman earned a lot more with their rookie preseason than James Harrison did, but Harrison had the far better career.

  • Perhaps Huey Richardson’s experience can serve as a guide.

When the Steelers drafted Huey Richardson in the 1991 NFL Draft, the move drew praise. I remember a friend who wasn’t a Steelers fan and who knew far more about football than I did calling me telling me what a great pick he was.

Yet red flags arrived early and often with Richardson. He refused to talk with the press. The quote above which Ed Bouchette secured perhaps contains all only words Richardson ever uttered to the Pittsburgh press corps.

On the fields of St. Vincents things didn’t get much better. As Bouchette later recapped in Dawn of a New Steel Age, “Players made fun of the way he back-pedaled on pass coverage and how he ran stiffly.” In practice Richardson botched play after play.

  • Huey Richardson had even managed open training camp by breaking his nose in non-contact drills.

All of that, however, came before Richardson’s “breakout” preseason performance. But afterwards “It seemed like he was a force every once and a while” was the only praise that Ed Bouchette could muster out Dave Brazil, Richardson’s defensive coordinator.

The lesson it seems is that fans should first watch and then read between the lines when assessing a rookie’s preseason performances.

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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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You Want the Boz? Cough up a 2nd Round Pick. Steelers Tender Restricted Free Agent Chris Boswell

It is time. After close to two months rumblings, the rumors that have driven NFL story lines since the Eagles’s triumph in the Super Bowl are about to displaced by hard decisions. This includes the Steelers who are facing a number of decisions, and they have made one, albeit one with little drama.

  • Doing into free agency, there was little question as to whether the Steelers would tender restricted free agent Chris Boswell.

The only question surrounded what level tender the Steelers would offer Chris Boswell, their dependable place kicker. According to Adam Caplan the Steelers have placed a 2nd round tender on Chris Boswell:

What this means in practical terms is that the Steelers have offered a one year deal to Chris Boswell worth about 3 million dollars. If Boswell signs the tender he is bound to Pittsburgh for the 2018 season, restricted free agent tenders are not guaranteed. So the Steelers could cut Boswell, as they did to Isaac Redman in 2013 who was playing on a restricted free agent tender when the Steelers cut him in October 2013.

Chris Boswell, Chris Boswell steelers restricted free agent, Steelers vs Packers

Steelers place 2nd round restricted free agent ender on Chris Boswell. LeClarie, USA Today, via Lindysports.com

However, Boswell is under no obligation to sign the tender and he and his agent are free to negotiate with other NFL teams. However, the Steelers would have the right to match any offer made to Boswell or, should they let him go, the signing team would have to give the Steelers a second round pick.

  • The move virtually ensures that Boswell will play in Pittsburgh during 2018.

A 2nd round pick is a lot to give up to get a kicker, although the Steelers did see New England extend an offer to Emmanuel Sanders when he was a restricted free agent in 2013, just as the San Diego Chargers did in 1993 when linebacker Jerrol Williams was a restricted free agent.

The Steelers chose to match Emmanuel Sanders offer and let Jerrol Williams walk, for those of you boning up on your Steelers free agent trivia.

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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Will Ben Roethlisberger Rebound? A Look at Ben Roethlisberger’s 2nd Half of Season Performance

The Pittsburgh Steelers end their bye week and commence the last half of their 2017 season today against the Indianapolis Colts. The Pittsburgh Steelers carry a 6-2 mark out of the season’s mid point, the same record they had in in 2008 and 2010, seasons which ended at Super Bowl XLIII and Super Bowl XLV respectively.

  • And the news gets better. As Mike Frazer of Behind the Steel Curtain points out, Mike Tomlin second half of the season winning percentage is .663.

Past performance doesn’t guarantee future returns, and Tomlin’s Steelers did see second half of the season implosions in 2009 and 2012. But Tomlin is only part of the equation. If there’s been one negative story line of 2017 it has been the sub-par play of Ben Roethlisberger.

That brings the focus firmly onto number 7, opening the question: How has Ben Roethlisberger typically performed during the second half of the season?

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger 2017

Is there hope for a Ben Roethlisberger rebound in the 2nd half of the season? Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via SI.com

Overview of Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance in the 2nd Half of the Season

By any number of measures, Ben Roethlisberger’s play this year has been far below his best.

Looking beyond the numbers, there’s no arguing that Roethlisberger has been helped by having an the best receiver in the NFL in the form of Antonio Brown and the best running back in form of Le’Veon Bell. And while Martavis Bryant has disappointed, JuJu Smith-Schuster has impressed.

Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette laid it out succinctly this week:

Forget the party line about Ben morphing into a steady “point guard” who’s having a stellar season “between the ears,” as he put it Wednesday. His numbers between the lines are pedestrian. He is missing more throws than usual.
Forget about Sports Illustrated’s Peter King ranking Ben 10th on his list of midseason MVP candidates, too. You can only be an MVP candidate if you’re having a great season. Ben is not.

Starkey goes on to argue that “I’m not sure I’d bet big on Ben returning to elite form, but there’s a decent chance…” justifying his faith in the fact that Ben Roethlisberger can still make all of the throws he needs to make.

Faith is one thing, but what do the number say? Let’s take a look:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger stats, Ben Roethlisberger performance 2nd half season

Ben Roethlisberger has typically played better in the first half of the season

First, these numbers depict just how far below par Ben Roethlisberger has been this season. He key vitals are well below his career averages in ever category, save for sacks per drop backs and of course winning percentage.

  • And, at first glance, the Roethlisberger first half of the season, second half of the season splits are a downer.

Sure, his winning percentges is up and his sacks have historically dropped during the later 8 games of the season. But he’s thrown fewer touchdowns and his passer rating is down a full five points.

That seems like very discouraging news. And it is, until you take a deeper look.

A Deeper Look at Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance in the 2nd Half of the Season

Like any player, Ben has seen ups and downs as his career has progress, has seen shifts in his supporting cast, and has had to work in 3 systems directed by 3 different offensive coordinators.

When you look at the breakdown of Ben Roethlisberger’s performance in the 2nd half of the season vs. his performance in the 1st half of the season by offensive coordinator, things get interesting:

Ben Roethlisberger stats, Ben Roethlisberger performance 2nd half season, Ben Roethlisberger stats 2nd half season, Ben Roethlisberger stats november, Ben Roethlisberger stats december

With Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger is playing better than ever in 2nd halves of seasons.

First, its important to acknowledge that no matter whether Ken Whisenhunt, Bruce Arians or Todd Haley is calling the plays, the overall trend confirms itself, for the most part.

  • But there are important differences, differences that fuel hope for a 2nd half of the season Roethlisberger resurgence.

While playing under Ken Whisenhunt and with Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El, Santonio Holmes and young Heath Miller , Roethlisberger saw his biggest drop between halves of seasons. His completion percentage dropped almost 5 points, the threw 20% fewer touchdowns while throwing more interceptions. He also took more sacks, and his passer rating dropped a full 10 points and change.

  • When you consider how young Rothlisberger was, the drop off under Ken Whisenhunt isn’t that surprising.

When Bruce Arians took over, the overall trend continued, with some indicators improving while others deteriorated. Ben Roethlisberger’s sack percentage stabilized over the course of the season, but defenders still sacked Ben Roethlisberger on 9.4% of his drop backs.

He threw fewer interceptions, fortunately, but his touchdown percentage dropped by a third. His winning percentage also dropped, but that is probably skewed a little bit by the 2009 Steelers notorious 5 game losing streak.

Overall, Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating dropped a little over 5 points from one half of the season to next under Bruce Arians, which was half of the drop off he saw under Ken Whisenhunt.

The drop off in touchdowns is perhaps the most surprising, given that unlike Wisenhunt’s tenure, Roethlisberger only had Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer to lead his running game which by any measure marks a sharp drop off from Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker. So without the strong running game to lean on, one would figure Ben would be throwing for the end zone more under Arians.

But perhaps he did and failed, and perhaps that’s why the winning percentage took a hit.

  • Under Todd Haley, the differences between Ben Roethlsiberger’s first half of the season performance and his 2nd half encores get really interesting.

First, with Todd Haley Ben Roethlisberger’s second half season winning percentage improves above his career average. Second, Haley is the only Steelers offensive coordinator to get Ben Roethlsiberger to throw more touchdowns in the second half of the season as opposed to the first. Haley has also managed to reduce Ben Roethlisberger’s sacks in the second half of the season relative to the first.

  • And while Ben has thrown more interceptions in the second half of the season under Haley, his completion percentage and passer rating only drop by 2 points or less.

It would be interesting to see who Ben Roethlisberger 1st half vs. 2nd half season splits compare with other elite quarterbacks, and particularly those such as Tom Brady who play in cold weather, as a modest drop off is almost a given when you account for the wind, cold and snow of the AFC North in November and December.

The bottom line is, that while Ben Roethlisberger has seen his play decline through November and December throughout his career, he’s been better in the 2nd halves of season under Todd Haley than he was under Bruce Arians or Ken Wisenhunt.

So take heart Steelers Nation, the numbers suggest that Ben Roethlisberger is capable of a 2nd half of the season rebound.

 

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Steelers 2017 Preseason Starts: Stop Complaining & Start Finding the Next Jordan Dangerfield

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin their 2017 Preseason schedule tonight against the New York Giants. After a six month hiatus, Steelers Nation will rejoice at finally being able to watch the Black and Gold on the gridiron again!

  • But expect the excitement to fade fast.

As soon as Joshua Dobbs throws his first pick six and/or after the 5th commercial break during the 1st quarter, the traditional complaints about the ills of preseason football will litter social media from now until the Steelers kickoff the regular season a month from now.

You know them by rote, and very well may utter them yourself:

  • Preseason football is worse then watching paint dry…
  • Owners rip off fans by force them pay full price for preseason…
  • NOTHING’s worse than watching jobbers stumble through preseason 3rd and 4th quarters…
  • The NFL should cut down preseason by half….

If you’re a Steelers season ticket holder, which let’s admit is a privileged minority in Steelers Nation, who is forced to pay full price for preseason tickets, then you’ve got a legitimate gripe. But if you fall outside that sphere, then it is time to accept a simple reality:

  • Preseason football is vital to the game.

If you need proof, then look no further than Jordan Dangerfield. Jordan Dangerfield is of course one of the Steelers 2017 exclusive rights free agents, who got his first shot at the NFL with the Buffalo Bills in 2013 as an undrafted rookie free agent. Dangerfield failed to make the cut with the Bills, and signed a “futures” contract with the Steelers in January of 2014.

Jordan Dangerfield, Tyler Matakevich, Steelers 2017 Preseason

Jordan Dangerfield and Tyler Matakevich close in on Brandon Tate. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Palm Beach post

The Steelers cut Jordan Dangerfield in 2014 and 2015, but brought him back each time to the practice squad. It took Jordan Dangerfield until 2016 to prove to Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake that he deserved a spot on the Steelers 53 man roster.

And even then, when you saw Jordan Dangerfield getting the nod over Shamarko Thomas as the Steelers, facing injuries at safety and heading into their game with Philly you probably asked, “Who?”

And that’s a problem.

  • Go back to the summers of 2014, 2015 and even, to a lesser extent, 2016 and do Google searches for “Jordan Dangerfield.” You won’t find much.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell wrote a glowing report of Dangerfield’s work in training camp on at the end of July, 2014. Neal Coolong, then at BTSC, wrote a nice “content aggregation” piece on Dangerfield offering his own unique spin as only Neal could. Curt Popjoy, then on the Bleacher Report, wrote something about Dangerfield’s chances of making the team.

There’s scant mention of him during 2015, save for one Bleacher Report stub on a fumble he forced in the Steelers 2015 preseason loss to the Bills. Dangerfield did get more attention last summer, as Penn Live’s Jacob Klingler wrote a really nice profile in the lead up to the Steelers preseason win over the Saints.

During that time, Jordan Dangerfield presumptively played in 13 Steelers preseason games. Yet these Google searches, (which admittedly can be imperfect) reveal only a handful of mentions.

  • There’s something wrong with this picture.

Jordan Dangerfield remains a roster bubble baby. He’ll have to prove himself this summer to get a helmet in the fall. But any guy who gets pulled of the NFL scrap heap and works his way up to being “the next man up” behind Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell in the Steelers safety rotation has come a long way.

  • And while his work in practice helped, his preseason performance undoubtedly is what convinced coaches to keep him around.

Dale Lolley is right to point out, is he did when writing about Pitt tight end Scott Orndoff’s training camp ending injury that for every Willie Parker and James Harrison there are hundreds of undrafted rookie free agent whose NFL dreams are demolished every July and August.

Willie Parker, Fast Willie Parker, Steelers preseason

Willie Parker stood out in the Steelers 2004 preseason an a year later was starting in Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

But those dreaded 3rd and 4th quarters of NFL preseason games give the Donnie Shells, Dwight Stones, Darren Perrys, Yancey Thigpens, Lee Flowers, Chris Hokes, Isaac Redmans and yes, Jordan Dangerfields their shot at NFL glory.

So during the 2nd halves of the Steelers 2017 preseason games, instead of grousing about Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant not playing, or griping about Le’Veon Bell’s hold out, why not sit back, relax, and that diamond in the rough who flying below the radar in pursuit of his NFL dream.

Does the quality of NFL preseason, particularly late in games, pale in comparison to the regular season? Certainly. But why not stop complaining and why not enjoy the fact that preseason gives most fans their only chance to see and evaluate rookies for themselves, without the filter of a beat writer and/or the team’s PR organ.

An who know? You might just earn bragging rights by uncovering the next Jordan Dangerfield.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Running Back: Moderate High

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

  • Does that sound funny to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Running Back

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Free Agent Focus 2017: Le’Veon Bell – Time for Pittsburgh to Ring the Bell

The modern NFL Draft is founded upon hyperbole. Even back during the 1988 and 1989 NFL Drafts I can remember watching ESPN and listening in disbelief to Mel Kiper Jr. all but predicted disaster or Super Bowl depending on whether he liked a pick or not.

  • But then there are moments when a draft pick lives up to the hype, the times when the Le’Veon Bells get picked.

Le’Veon Bell has surpassed his draft day hype and now looks to cash in with his first 8 figure contract as he reaches free agency.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Chargers, Le'Veon Bell touchdown chargers, Le'Veon Bell free agent, David DeCastro

Le’Veon Bell scores the game winning touchdown against San Diego in 2015. Photo Credit: Getty Images via antennamag.com

Capsule Profile of Le’Veon Bell’s Steelers Career

A lot of people rolled their eyes during the 2013 NFL Draft when Merril Hoge anointed Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers second round pick, as the best running back the draft. Months later, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette labeled Le’Veon Bell’s first preseason game as “one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

Bouchette has been covering the Steelers since the early 70’s, allowing him to see the preseason debuts of first rounders such as Greg Hawthorne, Walter Abercrombie, Tim Worley and Rashard Mendenhall. Bouchette has seen more than a few training camp sensations flame out. He is not wont to compare rookies to Hall of Famers. But still, the Dean of the Steelers press corps seemed to be going a little over the top.

  • Four years later it is clear that skeptics in Steelers Nation should have listened more to Hoge and Bouchette and snickered less.

After struggling for 3 years to replace Willie Parker with the likes of Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, the Steelers selected a blue-chip running back in Le’Veon Bell in 2013.

  • What’s all the more amazing is that it has NOT been all smooth sailing since then.

Le’Veon Bell began the 2013 season with a lisfranc injury. He ended 2014 unable to play in the post-season. 2015 and 2016 began with substance abuse violations, and he missed most of the rest of 2015 with another injury.

Despite those difficulties, with 4045 yards to his name, Le’Veon Bell has passed Hall of Famer John Henry Johnson to become the 4th all-time Steelers leading rusher. In four years, Le’Veon Bell has gone from being a 2nd round pick that left some pundits scratching their heads to a player with the potential to revitalize the concept of franchise running back.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

Do we really need to say anything at all here?

A year ago the Steelers 2016 offense was supposed to be the AFC North’s variant of The Greatest Show on Turf. That didn’t happen and for most of the year Ben Roethlisberger had little more than 5th and 6th string wide receivers to throw to other than Antonio Brown. In other words, opposing defenses knew Le’Veon Bell was going to get the ball.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Dolphins, Steelers Dolphins playoffs, Marcus Gilbert

Le’Veon Bell rush for a touchdown in the playoffs against Miami. Photo Credit: Don Wright, FRE via Houston Chronicle

But opposing defenses were powerless to stop Le’Veon Bell as he broke the Steelers single game regular season rushing record. Breaking regular season records is nice, but doing it in January is something else. In his first playoff game Le’Veon Bell broke the Steelers single game playoff rushing record. In his second playoff game, Le’Veon Bell broke the record again.

  • Le’Veon Bell did something in two playoff games which Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Rocky Bleier and Willie Parker couldn’t do in 58.

You don’t often hear the phrase “So and so running back took over the game for such and such team.”

Le’Veon Bell took over several games for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016 and the franchise would be wise to see that he continues to do so.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

In four years Le’Veon Bell has only appeared in 49 of a possible 68 regular and post-season games (depending on how you count the AFC Championship). The rest he’s missed either because of drug suspensions or injuries.

  • The average NFL career only lasts 4 years, and the average for running backs is lower yet.

He already has 1135 touches on his frame. How many more carries does Le’Veon Bell have before his production curve drops like a rock? The brutal reality of the NFL in the 21st century is that running backs flame out quickly. Hear anyone talk up DeMarco Murray’s Hall of Fame prospects lately? You haven’t, because Dallas has already replaced the man who led the NFL in rushing just two years ago with Ezekiel Elliott. Running backs are disposable commodities.

Is it really wise to invest serious long-term salary cap dollars in a player like Le’Veon Bell who might be suspended at any moment and who all statistical indicators suggest has a short shelf life?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell

The Steelers plans here are clear. Art Rooney II wants Le’Veon Bell back, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin want him back. Ben Roethlisberger has made it clear he wants Le’Veon Bell back. Le’Veon Bell wants to stay in Pittsburgh.

  • Le’Veon Bell will be playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017.

That’s a good thing. Period. How he gets there isn’t quite clear. The Steelers would like to give him a long-term deal, which is a smart move. The only question is will Bell be reasonable with his salary demands? If he is the deal will be made. If not the Steelers will use the franchise tag to keep him in Pittsburgh in 2017.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Why Mike Tomlin’s Record vs Giants Is a Poor Indicator of Steelers in Season Progress

As I look back at Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Giants as the Steelers prepare to play the New York Giants this week, I’m struck by both the similarities and ironies marked by the Tomlin era Steelers-Giants match ups. For starters:

  • In both 2008 and 2012 the Giants were defending Super Bowl champions
  • Both games were decided by 4th quarter comebacks

Dig deeper, and you’ll see that both the 2012 game and this year’s game reveal a lot about Pittsburgh’s post Super Bowl XLV roster retooling efforts. Moreover, the Steelers current .545 winning percentage is nearly identical to the .571 winning percentage the ’12 Steelers took into the Giants game.

However for all of these similarities, both the ’08 and ’12 games served as ironically poor indicators of how those two Steelers teams would be ultimately judged.

steelers vs. giants, mike tomlin vs giants, isaac redman giants 2012, isaac redman career game

Isaac Redman had a career game vs. the Giants in 2012, rushing for almost 150 yards. Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky, Getty Images.

’08 Steelers Stumbles vs. Giants Ultimately Signaled Nothing….

Mike Tomlin’s 2008 Steelers welcomed the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants to Heinz Field with a 5-1 record. Despite that record, this game was widely viewed as a “statement” game for the Steelers, given the lackluster track record of the opponents they’d beaten thus far.

Here was what we had to say about the game at the time:

No one should be fooled by the score as 21-14 does not begin to reveal the poor showing the Steelers made for themselves. The Steelers lost their first game against “PrimeTime” competition, and their performance revealed some troublesome issues which Mike Tomlin and company must address if the Steelers truly want to become contenders.

After describing the Steelers “bend but don’t break” defense of the day, the assessment of the offense came down to this:

Aside from Mewelde Moore’s 32 yard run, and Ben Roethlisberger‘s long bomb to Nate Washington, the Steelers offense produced nothing all day. They could not protect their quarterback, receivers could not get open or hold on to the ball, they could not convert third downs, and they could not sustain drives.

This game came well before Steel Curtain Rising had reached its its Arians Agnostic philosophy and the article harshly critiqued Bruce Arians reluctance to establish the run before concluding:

The Steelers are seven games into their season and they’re having difficulty sustaining drives and they cannot protect their quarterback. The Giants game revealed none of these warts, as each was on display in previous games. But the Steelers were able to compensate for them up until now. In fact, they compensated so well that one wondered if they were aberrations.

The Giants game revealed that the against a legitimate contender the Steelers would not be able simply make up for a several sloppy drives with a heroic comeback.

In the afterglow of Super Bowl XLIII, it Steelers fans can easily forget that the 2008 Steelers spent a lot of time stumbling and bumbling around yet, when the game was on the line, they pulled it together for the win more often that not. The Steelers 2008 loss to the Giants, complete with James Harrison’s errant snap as emergency long snapper, was one exception to that rule.

’12 Steelers Upset New York Giants on the Road

Unlike 2008, fans remember 2012 as the year the Steelers slipped into mediocrity. But that slip was anything but apparent after the 2012 Steeles win over the Giants.

Indeed, the early word on the significance of the 2012 win over the Giants flowed like this:

The Giants appeared to offer the perfect measuring stick, and the game in New York gave the team a chance to measure themselves against the defending Super Bowl Champions, as well as providing a different sort of test for the Steelers – one where they proved to be more than worthy to the task.

The Steelers started out the day strong, scoring a touchdown on their opening drive only to give up two touchdowns thanks to two very questionable calls that went in favor of the Giants. The Steelers defense held the Giants to field goals after that, as Shaun Suisham knocked in one of his own.

Still, the Steelers began the 4th quarter staring down a 10 point deficit against the defending Super Bowl Champions. Here is how we described the Steelers 4th quarter comeback:

Since Ken Whisenhunt’s departure the debate over the proper Run-Pass balance that should define the Steelers offense has consumed Steelers Nation.Such debate misses the point. Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain observed last season, the Steelers need a dynamic offence, that can either run or pass when the situation warrants.

  • The Steelers fourth quarter performance reveals a dynamic offense par excellence.
  • Ben Roethlisberger first connected with Mike Wallace for a catch-and-run quick strike.
  • Pittsburgh then mixed passes and runs to four different ball carriers, with Isaac Redman punching it in from the one

Finally, the Steelers iced the game on a clock killing drive that featured a 16 yard completion on third down and 28 yard scamper by Redman…. Versus the Giants the Steelers had multiple opportunities to flinch. But they chose to focus instead, and in the process the played their best regular season game in over a year. Not a bad place to be at the season’s half way mark.

Such high praise might seem misplaced give the 2012 Steelers 8-8 record and their dismal 3-5 finish which saw them lose multiple games in the 4th quarter. But the Steelers defense had struggled in early 2012, but the win over the Giants served as a turning point for that unit.

Dick LeBeau’s 2012 defense never did recover the splash play potential of its predecessors, but by the end of 2012, the Steelers defense was a strength. The fact that the Steelers gave up 8 turnovers to the Browns  a few weeks later and only lost by 4 points tells you all you need to know.

In contrast, Ben Roethlisberger got injured the next week vs. Kansas City, and wasn’t himself when he returned. The Steelers also lost Willie Colon shortly thereafter, and their run blocking fell apart because of it.

Those injuries, plus the performance against the Giants gives fans legitimate grounds to ask, “What If.”

Mike Tomlin’s Games vs. Giants Highlight Steelers Roster Retooling

The Steelers 2008, 2012 and 2016 matchups against the Giants provide excellent insights into Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s retooling of the Steelers roster. On offense Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Max Starks and Willie Colon served as constants between 2008 and 2012. Rashard Mendenhall was an additional roster holdover too, but he was already on IR for when the Steelers lost to the Giants in 2008.

  • Outside of those 5, the Steelers entire offense had turned over in just four years.

Yet if the Steelers rebuilding on offense was underway in 2012, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin had hardly touched the defense. Sure, Ziggy Hood had “replaced” Aaron Smith and Cam Heyward was waiting in wings. William Gay was on his sabbatical to Pittsburgh West, while Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen split the cornerback duties with Will Allen playing for an injured Troy Polamalu.

Fast forward to 2016. On offense only Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro (who was on IR in 2012) remain. On defense the difference is even more dramatic as only James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, Cameron Heyward and Robert Golden remain.

What Does the Steelers Intra-Giants Roster Upheaval Mean?

The tar and pitchfork portion of Pittsburgh’s fan base will no doubt look at the turnover between 2012 and 2016 and point to it as proof of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s personnel deficiencies. Too be sure, there is some room for criticism.

  • But by and large, the shifts highlight’s as many successes to Colbert and Tomlin rebuilding philosophies as it does disappointments.

After 2009, the Steelers stopped playing “plug and patch” with their offensive line and focused on drafting quality lineman, and the holdovers from 2012 show that they’ve been successful. (And remember, the Steelers wanted to keep Kelvin Beachum who they’d drafted in 2012.)

2012’s running back trio has all moved on to their life’s work, with injuries derailing Isaac Redman’s career and also hitting Rashard Mendenhall who didn’t have the desire, and Jonathan Dwyer who lacked discipline. Beyond those specific factors, the average career of an NFL running back is less than 4 years, so turnover there is normal.

As for the wide receivers, the Steelers bet on Antonio Brown over Mike Wallace before 2012, and never looked back. Since free agency arrived in 1993, the Steelers policy has been to invest heavily second contracts for only one veteran wide out, so the departure of the rest of Young Money hardly surprises.

  • To the extent that the defensive rebuild had begun in 2012, Cameron Heyward is the only true success.

The Steelers made a similar Cortez Allen instead of Keenan Lewis gamble (fueled in part by salary cap limits) and they franchise rolled Snake Eyes on that one. Ziggy Hood couldn’t replace Keisel or Smith.

  • The rest of the defensive rebuild has come since then.

In theory, this Sunday’s matchup against should provide a good measuring stick of Keith Butler‘s young defense’s progress. But history shows that Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Giants has told us very little about the overall direction of the Steelers….

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Is 7 Raven’s Lucky Number? Inside Ben Roethlisberger’s M&T Bank Stadium Losing Streak

Although the Steelers injury report still lists him as “Questionable” word is that Ben Roethlisberger will start for Pittsburgh vs. the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium today. The news is welcome. Landry Jones first start in the Steelers loss to the Patriots wasn’t the disaster many (including yours truly) feared it would be. But starting at home is one thing, starting away is another.

News that Ben Roethlisberger probably will start evokes classic moments from the Steelers-Ravens rivalry like this one (available as of 11/6/16):

Although that wasn’t Troy Polamalu’s finest moment in the series – that distinction would be Polamalu’s pick six in the AFC Championship game – it is probably number two. Polamalu’s game changing play is also notable for fact most of Steelers Nation would prefer to forget:

  • It set up Ben Roethlisberger’s final winning effort at M&T Bank Stadium.
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs. Ravens, Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium, Ben Roethlisberger's M&T Bank Stadium losing streak

Ben Roethlisberger’s M&T Bank losing streak began in 2011 had has continued since. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Since the 2010 Steelers glorious Sunday Night Football win over the Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger (and the Steelers have struggled at M&T Bank Stadium.

In between, of course there was the Charlie Batch authored 2012 upset of the Ravens, but that game has been the exception, not the rule.

Inside Ben Roethlisberger’s Losing Streak at M&T Bank Stadium

Ben Roethlisberger’s lifetime record vs. the Ravens is 9-8, a stat which includes his rookie debut and improves to 11-9 if you include Roethlsiberger’s playoff appearances against the Ravens. However, since that fateful night in 2010, Roethlisberger is only 2-5 in the regular season vs. the Ravens and 1-1.

  • And as we can see above, none of those victories have come at M&T Bank Stadium.

Just how bad has it rough have Ben Roethlisberger’s travels to M&T Bank Stadium been? Well, numbers don’t lie and the tale they tell isn’t pretty:

ben rothlisberger, M&T bank stadium, Ben Roethlisberger's M&T bank stadium losing streak

M&T bank stadium hasn’t been kind to Ben Roethlisberger

First you can see that he hasn’t had a 300 yard game in Baltimore since 2010, where has he’s done it at Heinz Field twice, although to be fair those are his only two 300 yard games in the regular season series. He completes about 3.3% fewer passes at M&T Bank Stadium than he does at Heinz Field – no big difference there. Neither do sacks appear to be a determinative issues, as the Ravens have sacked Ben Roethlisberger 7 times in 3 games at Heinz Field since 2010 and 9 times in 4 games at M&T Bank Stadium.

  • Interceptions are the real culprit for Ben Roethlisberger at M&T Bank Stadium.

Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 6 interceptions at M&T Stadium since 2010 and only 1 at Heinz Field. Whether he’s targeting Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Heath Miller, or Hines Ward, Rashard Mendenhall or Mike Wallace, Ben Roethlisberger tends to hit the guys in Purple at M&T Bank Stadium.

There’s one other staistic that emphaizes the point above:

  • In 13 career games vs. the Baltimore Ravens, Antonio Brown has 1 touchdown pass.

If the Steelers are to break that cycle and assert their stamp on the AFC North title race, and if Ben Roethlisberger’s M&T Bank Stadium losing streak is to end, Todd Haley had better find a way for Number 7 to get the ball to Number 84, preferably in the painted parts of the field.

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