Return to Oz? Could the Dual Threat Backfield Really Return to the Steelers Offense?

Anyone else getting an Oz vibe out of Steelers OTAs? It hit on Friday May 23rd while reading Jim Wexell’sCan heart-and-soul backfield alter Steelers’ culture, too?” where the following factoid clunked me on the head:

[Jaylen] Samuels is a mix of H-back and running back who confirmed the Steelers are already experimenting with him in the backfield simultaneously with Conner.

When I came to the world was suddenly in three-strip Technicolor, but instead of Dorthy, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion, I was seeing visions from the early 1990’s when Merril Hoge, Barry Foster, Tim Worley and Warren Williams headlined the Steelers running back depth chart.

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

Could I really believe what I was reading? Or was this promise of a two running back backfield going to be like Pittsburgh pipe dream that fades away when attention shifts from fields of St. Vincents to the Steelers preseason?

After all, we’d heard rumors of Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Jerome Bettis, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala backfied tandems that either never materialized or sustained themselves. When questioned, Jim Wexell reassured, “It’s more clear this time since Samuels is half an H-back. The coaches have a plan and are adding to it.”

Other reporters have since re-reported the news that Jim Wexell broke so it seems like the dual-threat backfield might really be returning to Pittsburgh for the first time since the 1990’s.

  • And if that does turn out to be the case, then could turn out to be very good news.

The Steelers inability to keep its top running back healthy has been a chronic problem during the Mike Tomlin era, save for 2008 and 2010. The fact that both of those seasons ended in games where a Lombardi was presented isn’t entirely coincidental.

  • Fielding a dual threat backfield could very well be the key to killing to birds with one stone.

Back in 2016, when Le’Veon Bell returned from suspension, I made an (albeit very amateur) attempt to crunch numbers looking at what the Steelers might need to do to facilitate the health and durability that, combined with Bell’s talent, could deliver a Hall of Fame career.

In doing so I looked at body of work of other Steelers feature backs:

Le'veon Bell's shelf life, franco harris, Jerome bettis, rashard mendenhall, barry foster, willie parker

Peak workloads of Steelers franchise running backs

In a nutshell, the average peak work load of Jerome Bettis, Rashard Mendenhall, Barry Foster and Le’Veon Bell came to 369 total touches and each of those running backs suffered a serious injury in the following season. (For the record, Bettis’ peak workload came in 1997, and he suffered no serious injury the following season.)

On paper, it is very easy to say “coaches should limit the number of carries a running back,” but in practice that is harder to pull off. Think back to the Steelers road win over Tennessee in 2014 or over Buffalo in 2016.

  • Le’Veon Bell took over both of those games, and pulling him to keep him under some sort of “pitch count” for running backs would have been insane.

But when you field a dual-threat backfield you can naturally split carries between running backs without disrupting the flow of the game. Everyone remembers Merril Hoge’s back-to-back 100 yard playoff games against the Oilers and Broncos for the 1989 Steelers.

  • But people forget is that Tim Worley had 50 yards rushing in both of those games as well.

Each running back set the other up for success (ok, officially speaking, Hoge was the fullback and Worley the halfback in Tom Moore’s offense.) That’s also another take away from Franco Harris tenure with the Steelers. He always split carries with Rocky Bleier, Frank Pollard or whoever was playing half back, and that certainly made him a better running back while extending his career.

It is important to remember that dual backfields while long a staple of Steelers offenses, are not necessarily a panacea for Pittsburgh. The quartet of Hoge, Worley, Foster and Williams averaged 104 carries a piece and rushed for a combined 1742 yards in 1990 on an under achieving playoff less 9-7 team.

  • Two years later, Barry Foster ran for 1690 yards all by himself on a 1992 Steelers team that earned AFC home field advantage for the playoffs.

But the fact that the Steelers are actively looking for creative ways to get James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr. and, who knows, Sutton Smith, on the field together is a welcome sign.

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Did Steelers Meet ALL Their Needs in the 2019 NFL Draft? No. Now Chill Out

With the conclusion of the 2019 NFL Draft, one may wonder how well the Pittsburgh Steelers did in terms of improving their team for a championship run.

As is always the case this time of year, the opinions on that are mixed. But what about specific needs? Did Pittsburgh adequately address every single one?

  • The answer is: Highly Unlikely.

And it would be foolish to expect a team to do that anyway–at least not with high draft picks. Coming into the draft, the three biggest needs were believed to be inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver. And that’s why it was no surprise — despite general manager Kevin Colbert’s annual mantra of not necessarily drafting by need — that the Steelers used their first three draft choices to address those areas of their team.

On Thursday, the Steelers sent a 2019 second-round pick and a 2020 third-round pick (along with their own first-round pick, of course) to the Broncos in-order to move up in the first round to select Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush with the 10th overall pick.

Devin Bush, Steelers 1st round pick 2019, Steelers Devin Bush trade

Steelers 2019 1st round pick Devin Bush of the Michigan Wolverines Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski, USA Today via Saturdaytradition.com

On Friday, the Steelers used their first of two third-round picks (the one acquired from the Raiders in the Antonio Brown trade) to select receiver Diontae Johnson out of Toledo. With their original third-round draft pick, the Steelers took cornerback Justin Layne out of Michigan State.

“What about the depth at outside linebacker, safety, running back and tight end?” asked many fans following the first three selections.

  • This is a natural reaction, because the second a team addresses one need, someone comes along to worry about another position.

But as the title of this article suggests, you can’t hit every team need with every premium (first, second or third-round) selection. Some may say, then, that it was a mistake to part ways with this year’s second-round pick in-order to move up and get Bush.

Fine, but then you don’t get Bush. You likely spend your first-round pick on another position–probably cornerback–and use a second or third-round pick on a lesser talent at the inside linebacker spot.

Some argue that, instead of drafting Benny Snell Jr., a running back out of Kentucky, in the fourth round, the Steelers should have addressed the depth–or lack thereof–at outside linebacker. The theory is you can get a number three running back–with James Conner and Jaylen Samuels firmly affixed at the top of the running back depth chart, that appears to be Snell’s ceiling at the moment — much later in the draft — or even as an undrafted uookie free agent.

True, but it all depends on how much Kevin Colbert and the coaching staff value depth at running back, a position that has been decimated by injuries at playoff-time in recent years.

It also depends on what they think of the depth at outside linebacker behind T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. It’s safe to say they already know what they have in Anthony Chickillo, a former sixth-round pick out of Miami who was converted from a defensive end. As for Keion Adams (a seventh-round pick in 2017) and Ola Adeniyi (an undrafted free agent in 2018), the coaches see them every day in practice.

  • Perhaps they feel that one or both can provide adequate depth in 2019. That is something we’ll find out once training camp commences this summer.

As for the rest of the draft, if you think Vance McDonald is your number one tight end heading into 2019–and based on his production and salary, there’s no reason to think he isn’t — it wouldn’t seem wise to spend a high pick on one, hence the selection of Michigan’s tight end Zach Gentry in the fifth round. Based on Gentry’s college production, his ceiling screams number two or three tight end.

  • But, again, maybe that’s all Zach Gentry’s ceiling needs to be.

When it comes to the final four picks, which include an undersized edge rusher (Sutton Smith out of Northern Illinois), a defensive tackle (Isaiah Buggs out of Alabama), another inside linebacker (Ulysees Gilbert III out of Akron) and an offensive tackle (Derwin Gray out of Maryland), most likely, you’re hoping for a couple of special teams demons and some depth in the trenches.

  • In other words, your typical end of Day 3 draft menu.

No draft is perfect, and no team is ever going to have one that is universally loved by the experts and fans alike. All you can hope for is that a team addresses its most pressing needs early.

The Steelers appear to have done that in the 2019 NFL Draft. Did they address those needs with the right players? Only time will tell.

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Steelers Draft Derwin Grey in 7th Round, Close 2019 Draft with Offensive Lineman from Maryland

The Pittsburgh Steelers closed the 2019 NFL Draft by picking Derwin Gray an offensive lineman from the University of Maryland.

While it is tempting to writer off a 7th round offensive lineman as someone whose NFL dream rides on earning a practice squad spot, it was only in the 2012 NFL Draft that the Steelers ended up picking Kelvin Beachum, who was starting games at both guard and tackle before the season was over.

  • Truth be told, the Steelers 2019 offensive line figures to be much, much deeper than its 2012 predecessor.

Indeed, at lot of thing would need to go wrong for Derwin Gray to find himself protecting Ben Roethlisberger and/or opening holes for James Conner and Jaylen Samuels. The Steelers are set with David DeCastro and Ramon Foster as their starters, with B.J. Finney entrenched as their top backup on the interior of the offensive line.

Derwin Grey, Steelers draft Derwin Grey

The Steelers closed the 2019 NFL Draft by picking Derwin Grey from the University of Maryland. Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer, USA Today

Beyond that, the Steelers have Matt Feiler who started 11 games for the Steelers at right tackle. With Marcus Gilbert now in Pittsburgh West aka Arizona, Matt Feiler is expected to battle Chukwuma Okorafor for the starting spot there.

  • Nonetheless, word is that the Steelers coaches consider Matt Feiler to be a more natural guard than tackle.

While the Steelers depth chart appears to be loaded with both quality players from end-to-end, you can never have enough good offensive lineman. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin confirmed that the Steelers will work Derwin Grey at both at guard and tackle.

Even late round offensive lineman have their own highlight tapes, and Derwin Grey is no exception:

Welcome to Steelers Nation Derwin Gray.

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Is Someone Listening in Pittsburgh? Steeler Draft Benny Snell, Running Back, Kentucky in 4th Round of 2019 Draft

Throughout much of the Tomlin era, and especially in over the past several seasons the Steelers, sometimes by chance and sometimes by choices, have skimped out on running back depth and it has cost them dearly in December.

  • Kevin Colbert took a step towards addressing that problem when the Steelers drafted Benny Snell Jr., running back out of the University of Kentucky in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft.

Although he scored 25 touchdowns, averaged 5.3 yards per carry and ran for just under 2,000 yards in two seasons for the Wildcats, Benny Snell performed poorly at the Combine, he had a 4.66 40 time, prompting some pre-draft analysts to take them off of their draft boards. Even his hometown paper concluded that Snell failed to help himself at the Combine.

Benny Snell Jr., Steelers 2019 4th round pick Benny Snell Jr.

Kentucky running back Benny Snell Jr. runs for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Bryan Woolston, AP via Yahoo! Sports

  • Clearly, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Randy Fichtner, new running backs coach Eddie Faulkner felt differently.

Here is a look at Benny Snell’s NCAA Highlight tape:

Clearly, Benny Snell likes to score touchdowns. In Pittsburgh Snell joins a backfield headed by James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, both of whom exceeded expectations in 2018. The Steelers also have Trey Edmunds, brother of Terrell Edmunds, on their roster, although Edmunds has never seen an NFL snap.

  • For the record, the Steelers also have Roosevelt Nix, who technically speaking is a running back, occupying the role of fullback.

During the 2018 season the Pittsburgh Steelers passed more than any other NFL team as Ben Roethlisberger threw 675 passes, far more than he’s ever thrown before.

While many commentators criticized Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner for abandoning the running, the imbalance in the Steelers offense began when it became clear that Le’Veon Bell would hold out for the entire season.

  • At that point the Steelers attempted to reduce James Conner’s workload in the hopes of avoiding injury.

That was the first sign that the Steelers brain trust realized that they take a differ approach to how they deployed their running backs. The decision to draft Benny Snell is a second sign and a step in the right direction.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Benny Snell Jr.

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Steelers 2019 Draft Needs Matrix

The 2019 NFL Draft is just hours away and when it does the Pittsburgh Steelers will have already logged one of the most unusual off seasons in franchise history.

  • They’ve traded away their best player for near fire sale value
  • The national media has piled on the team and its franchise quarterback
  • Kevin Colbert has been uncharacteristically aggressive in free agency

The latter point is the one that is most relevant one to keep in mind. A year ago the Steelers responded to the playoff disaster against Jacksonville by making piecemeal moves in free agency, and defying the critics and going offense heavy in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2019 pre draft press conference

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their 2019 pre draft press conference.

This year Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin moved swiftly to address the Steelers most glaring roster needs by signing cornerback Steven Nelson, inside linebacker Mark Barron and wide receiver Donte Moncrief.

  • While Kevin Colbert denies those moves will impact the Steelers draft decisions, don’t believe him.

Whether the freshly signed free agents turn out to be the next Ladarius Greens and Mike Mitchells or the next James Farriors and Ryan Clarks isn’t relevant tonight. What is relevant is that the Steelers have inoculated themselves against having to reach to fill need in with one of their premium picks.

And just what are the Steelers needs heading into the 2019 NFL Draft?

Steelers 2019 NFL Draft Needs

Over the last month, with a whale of an effort from staff writer Tony Defeo, Steel Curtain Rising has broken down the Steelers need on a position by position basis. Now that all is said and done, the Steelers areas of need break down into 3 tiers.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

At the top you have cornerback and inside linebacker identified as areas of High-Moderate need, followed by wide receiver and running back which clock in at Moderate-High.

In the middle tier, you have tight end, defensive line, outside linebacker and safety which are of Moderate need.

In the bottom tier you have offensive line which is of Low-Moderate need and quarterback which is of Low need.

There’s a lot of clustering there, so how do we break the ties? For that you have our annual Steelers 2019 Draft Need Matrix.

Steelers 2019 Draft Need Matrix

The premise of the Steelers draft needs matrix is simple – it is a guide to who the Steelers should pick in the event their on the clock and have two or more players with the same grade on them. Here is the Steelers 2019 Draft Needs Matrix:

Steelers 2019 Draft Needs Matrix, Steelers 2019 Draft Needs

Inside linebacker beats cornerback by a hair. Both are positions where the Steelers could and should draft to meet immediate future need. Inside linebacker wins out because the Steelers have more bodies at cornerback i.e. Cam Sutton, Brian Allen and dare we hope Artie Burns who could still contribute.

  • Whereas Jon Bostic is the only legitimate player behind Vince Williams and Mark Barron.

Running back will surprise many. And so it should. James Washington is the X factor in the quest to replace Antonio Brown. If he pans out as reporters and coaches assure use he will, the Steelers will be OK. If not, the Steelers will fall hard this autumn.

However, as is the case with inside linebacker and cornerback, the Steelers have more bodies at wide receiver than they do at running back. We’ve written time and time again how a dearth of running back depth as derailed the Steelers in December. Adding a third running back to play along side James Conner and Jaylen Samuels could go a long way to rectifying that chronic problem.

Wide receiver beats safety because of the above mentioned X factor and the simple reality that Ben Roethlisberger no longer has a Hall of Fame talent to target. Safety trumps outside linebacker because Anthony Chickillo has shown he can contribute at a far greater level than Marcus Allen or Jordan Dangerfield.

  • Outside linebacker beats out tight end because the Steelers might need to replace Bud Dupree before Vance McDonald sniffs free agency.

Tight end beating out defensive line is a no brainer. The Steelers could use more depth at defensive line, but they’re OK there. But defensive line depth clearly outshines the need to use a mid or even late round pick on a quarterback for a third straight year.

The NFL Draft – The Day Dreams Come True

Who will the Steelers pick in the first round? Will Devin Bush fall to him, or will Kevin Colbert engineer his first day one draft trade since picking Troy Polamalu in 2003? Or might they look to corernback, and draft Rock Ya-Sin, Bryon Murphy, or Greedy Williams? Or perhaps they’ll tap a safety again, such as Justin Thronhill or Darnell Savage?

  • Maybe they’ll surprise everyone and grab a tight end or a wide receiver?
  • I don’t pretend to know who that person will be any more than I’ll pretend to pontificate on who that person should be.

But every boy who ever wrapped his hands around a Nerf football and yapped out a bogus snap count has dreamed of playing in the NFL. And for a few hundred young men, that dream is about to become true. Let’s give those young men their day and wish the good luck and God speed in the NFL.

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Is the Steeler 2019 Draft Need @ Running Back Stronger than Conventional Wisdom Indicates?

Ask a fan, a journalist or even a team employee what the Steelers top needs are entering the 2019 NFL Draft and they’ll tell you inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver – probably in that order.

  • Few would, or should argue.

But after those positions, there’s little agreement over what comes next. Some would argue for edge rusher, others tight end while still others will insist that the Steelers add another safety. Those arguments all have their merits.

Few, however, think of, let alone mention running back – is this a mistake? Let’s find out.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

Home town hero and cancer survivor James Conner became an immediate fan favorite when the Steelers picked the former Pitt Panther in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. James Conner saw little action in his rookie season which unfortunately ended in the December showdown against the New England Patriots.

  • James Conner’s body of work was so scant that the Steelers did not seriously consider him as an alternative to Le’Veon Bell.

Nonetheless, with Le’Veon Bell made good on threats to hold out/backed away of his stated intention to report and play in the franchise tag (Bell made both), James Conner became the Steelers starting running back.

James Conner proved to be up to the task as a quick look at his performance reveals.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

James Conner not only proved to be a capable replacement to Le’Veon Bell, by some measures, he was an improvement to Le’ Veon Bell. (One of those, unfortunately, was not ball security.) James Conner of course got hurt in the Steelers loss to the Chargers, but his return in week 17 should do nothing to dissuade fans that Conner is a championship caliber NFL running back.

  • The other Steelers starter at running back would be Roosevelt Nix, their fullback.

While Roosevelt Nix continued to play well when called upon by the Steelers, but in Randy Fichtner’s offense, Roosevelt Nix’s role decrease, as his 2018 snap count dropped to 9.86%, down from 16.37% in 2017.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

Behind James Conner the Steelers have Jaylen Samuels who was thrust into the starting role after Conner’s injury despite never having worked as a starting running back in his NFL life.

Given his lack of experience, the rookie Jaylen Samuels did incredibly well, rushing for 256 yards on 56 carries and catching another 26 passes for 29 yards which included 3 through the air.

Behind Samuels, the Steelers also have Trey Edmunds, brother of Terrell Edmunds, who got activated from the practice squad when Conner got injured, and remains an unknown commodity.

For those of you taking notes at home, the Steelers also have running backs Malik Williams and Ralph Webb on their roster.

Steelers Need @ Running Back Going into the 2019 NFL Draft

Although he only has a year of starting experience under his belt, James Conner already shares something in common with Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell, Isaac Redman and DeAngelo Williams.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • What might that be?

James Conner, like his Tomlin-era predecessors, suffered a late season injury that complicated “December football” for the Steelers because there was little proven depth behind him.

To be fair to the coaching staff, as soon as it became clear that Le’Veon Bell’s holdout would become permanent, the Steelers dramatically cut down on his workload as the table above indicates.

Perhaps that’s a sign that Mike Tomlin is learning that he shouldn’t take his credo of rushing a running back until his wheels start to fall off too literally.

  • However, the Steelers made no apparent attempt to target a running back during free agency.

And that leaves a bare cupboard behind James Conner and Jaylen Samuels. Steel Curtain Rising is already on record saying that beefing up running back depth is one of the under appreciated Steelers 2019 off season priorities. And with that in mind, the Steelers need at running back going into the 2019 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate High.

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How To Fix The Broken Pittsburgh Steelers? I Believe They’re Already “Fixed”

Since the end of the 2019 season, the questions involving the “broken” Pittsburgh Steelers have been abundant. How can they get back to the old “Steeler Way?” How can Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin fix this broken situation, this national embarrassment?

  • Call me crazy, but I believe the broken Pittsburgh Steelers have already been “fixed.”

At least when it comes to their sources of bad PR.

I look in my pretend pocket, and I find two receipts. One documenting the trade of receiver Antonio Brown to the Raiders in exchange for a third and a fifth-round draft pick. The other one is for the transaction that allowed running back Le’Veon Bell to simply waltz into free agency and get the multi-year contract he always wanted–or at least get a multi-year contract with the Jets.

James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Browns

JuJu Smith-Schuster watches as James Conner scores. Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker, USA Today, via SB Nation

The way I see it, Brown and Bell–often dubbed the “Toxic Twins” by both the media and the fans–were the headline acts of the circus that had been the Steelers the past few seasons.

They were the players that gave use Facebook Live, bad rap songs, drug suspensions, off-the-field issues involving flying furniture and speeding tickets, Gatorade bucket tosses and camp holdouts.

Brown and Bell were responsible for a great percentage of the non-football related questions — those so-called “distractions”–their teammates had to answer the past few years.

  • So many people wanted Brown and Bell gone, and now they are.

They are no longer going to be a problem for the Steelers. They are no longer going to be creating negative headlines (and even if they do–and even if they’re about the Steelers–they’ll be doing so in other locker rooms).

  • What more can the owner, the general manager and head coach do to “fix” this problem, other than extract the problem children?

I’ll tell you what they can do, they can draft people of higher character, something that has become a reality over the past few seasons. By selecting players like Sean Davis, Javon Hargrave, T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Terrell Edmunds and James Washington in recent years, Pittsburgh is clearly trying to organically change the culture of its locker room.

This new draft philosophy is something that’s not unique to Pittsburgh, either.

Mostly gone are the days when a team like the Rams would trade its franchise running back — Jerome Bettis — in order to make room to draft another running back — Lawrence Phillips — who was accused of the heinous crime of physically assaulting a woman.

Today, if there’s even a whiff of poor character coming from a prospect’s draft camp, that player’s stock is likely to plummet to the point where he may not even be selected.

No, this recent phenomenon of targeting great players with great character is not unique to the Steelers, but they have clearly hopped on board in a very noticeable way.

Again, what more can be done? Do you want the people of authority to take a more disciplined, hard-line approach to running the team? Do you want Mike Tomlin, who has always been known as a coach who likes to treat his men like men, to become someone he isn’t?

Or do you trust that these young men of great character will grow into veteran players who know what it takes to be responsible professionals, people who won’t embarrass the organization on a local or national level?

Or, maybe, when talking about the “broken” Pittsburgh Steelers, you’re really referring to a lack of Super Bowl titles for the past decade. “If the Steelers were just a little more disciplined, they’d win it all,” is a popular sentiment among the faithful looking for reasons for their team’s failure to win that One for the Other Thumb.

  • If you think getting rid of two All-Pro players will help that situation, then I guess we’re all about 10 months away from finding out.

The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers are no longer a broken organization, in my opinion–at least, as it pertains to having players in their locker room who will bring them bad publicity.

Are they now fixed to the point where they’ll be able to win a title without two very talented problem children?

That, of course, remains to be seen.

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Final Analysis: Steelers Killer Bees Were Too True to Their Nickname

March 2019 marks the date in Steelers history when the Killer Bees came to an end. Ben Roethlisberger remains in Pittsburgh, but Antonio Brown is now in Oakland while Le’Veon Bell is a New York Jet.

  • To milk the metaphor a bit more, Brown and Bell seem intent on keeping the story alive by stinging their former team via social media.

But none of the barbs that Brown and Bell are throwing Ben Roethlisberger’s way change the fact that these two Killer Bees left town without fulfilling their purpose – bringing Lombardi Number Seven back to Pittsburgh.

  • Maybe that shouldn’t surprise us, given the trio’s nickname.

Sports nicknames entrench themselves with fans when they’re both fun and accurate.

Steelers Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell

The Steelers Killer Bees were too true to their name. Photo Credit: pegitboard.com

“The Steel Curtain” conjured images of strength while Joe Greene, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and L.C. Greenwood became the front to an impenetrable defense. Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake and Rod Woodson breathed life into “Blitzburgh” as they terrorized opposing quarterbacks. Jerome Bettis was the football embodiment of a Bus.

  • This isn’t just a Pittsburgh thing either.

Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine really did churn out division titles, pennants, and championships in machine like fashion. Washington’s “Hogs” really did dominate the line of scrimmage. The Redskin’s “Fun Bunch” was fun.

  • And so it was with the Steelers Killer Bees, whose nickname was both fun and accurate.

The “killer bees” or Africanized bees were brought to the Americas in the late 1950’s in an attempt to breed bees that produced more honey. They were originally contained in a secure apiary near Rio Claro, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. But the escaped and headed north!

  • An urban legend was born.

The phenomenon reached critical mass in popular culture the 1970’s. Although their stings weren’t worse than normal bees, “killer bees” were more aggressive, and more likely to swarm. It was too much for Hollywood to resist.

Several (bad) killer bees movies were shot. If memory serves, a Super Friends episode plot line revolved around the “killer bees.” And I even had to read a story about the coming threat of the “Killer Bees” in one of my elementary school reading books.

  • When the killer bees arrived in the United States in the 1980’s, their buzz was much worse than their bite.

Kind of like the Steelers Killer Bees.

Injury = Steelers Killer Bees Insecticide

Shortly after the Steelers January 2015 playoff loss to the Ravens, a fellow Steelers blogger, who is no homer, sent me a sort of “chin up” email, assuring me that by mid-October the Steelers offense would be “Blowing other teams out of the water.”

Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant gave Pittsburgh its most potent collection of talent at the skill positions since the days of Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Yet, the later quartet delivered 4 Lombardi trophies; the former delivered none.

As others, such as the Post-Gazette’s Joe Starkey have pointed out, injuries and suspensions are the main culprit behind Steelers Killers failure meet expectations. Ben, Bell, Brown and Byrant only played together for a handful of quarters in 2015. Le’Veon Bell missed games to suspension in 2015 and 2016 and Martavis Bryant missed all of 2016 due to suspension.

  • The Steelers should have had the 3 Killer Bees on the field together for 6 playoff games.

Instead, Ben, Bell and Brown only managed 3 complete games and the first quarter of the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots together. They won 2 of those three, and only won 1 of the other 3 contests.

  • Injury was the ultimate insect repellent even when all 3 Killer Bees remained healthy.

The 2017 Steelers defense was flashing signs of being good, if not very good before injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier. But of course we know what happened to the defense without Shazier. For whatever else you want to say about the Jacksonville disaster, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell (and Martavis Bryant) did their part.

Its been pointed out that Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII before Bell and Brown even arrived on the scene. Perhaps he can do it again.

But if the trio of Ben Roethlisberger, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner develops a nick name, let’s hope they find one that has a stronger pedigree.

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With So Much Seemingly Wrong in Pittsburgh, Steelers Standing by Ryan Shazier is Fundamentally Right

A lot of things haven’t gone right for the Pittsburgh Steelers. After knocking on heaven’s door against New England in the 2016 AFC Championship nothing has gone Pittsburgh’s way.

Room temperature meant needing Cleveland to beat Baltimore to make the playoffs, and the Browns blew it. Then news broke that Antonio Brown had quit on his teammates before the season finale against the Bengals. Then Antonio Brown proceeded to humiliate the team on social media, ultimately forcing the team to take fire sale value in a trade with the Raiders.

The national media has decided to pile on Pittsburgh to the point where Josh Harris (who?) gets a national platform to dump on Ben Roethlisberger. Just how far reaching is this pile on? Well Josh Harris’ claim ignited two days of parallel debate on both Mexican and Argentine Steelers WhatsApp groups.

  • To be certain, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have begun taking action to right the wrongs.

The Steelers wisely decided not to slap the transition tag on Le’Veon Bell. That ended or at least signaled the end to that story. Then they gained come vindication to when Le’Veon Bell signed for less money than they’d offered him a year ago. And they’ll still have James Conner at a fraction of the cost.

  • The Steelers have also been active in free agency.

One by one they’ve signed Steven Nelson, Donte Moncrief and Mark Barron. Objectively speaking, each of those moves make them stronger today and gives the flexibility in the 2019 NFL Draft. However, it is wise to be a little wary.

Art Rooney Sr. warned his sons against “Putting on the dog. ” The Steelers recent history with splash free agency moves haven’t gone so well. See the tenures of Mike Mitchell and Ladarius Green. The Steelers aggressiveness is satisfying this spring, but those signings must not fall short come autumn. Time will tell.

  • But the one unequivocal right move the Steelers made involves a player who won’t take a snap this year.

And that player is Ryan Shazier. Last week the NFL announced that Ryan Shazier’s 2018 contract was tolled, or rolled into 2019 because he didn’t play the requisite games to qualify for a full year of service. This is an administrative decision made under the terms of the CBA.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Shazier, Steelers vs Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Shazier after the Steelers win. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA Today, via 937TheFan.com

Not that it matters to the Steelers. At the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine Kevin Colbert made clear the Steelers were going to keep Ryan Shazier on their 2019 roster regardless of whether the NFL tolled his contract or not.

The Steelers are making sure they do what they can to take care of Ryan Shazier. They could have given him a coaching or front office job, but by keeping him on as a player, Ryan Shazier gets access to better health care, another year of pension accrual, and access to all the other benefits that an NFL player enjoy.

After enduring several months when so much seemed to go wrong for Pittsburgh, Steelers are doing right by Ryan Shazier and that is fundamentally a good thing.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Trade Antonio Brown to Raiders for 3rd & 5th Round Picks – Robbery or Riddance?

Accentuate the positive: It is over.

Long before the Art Rooney II met with Antonio Brown, it became clear that the Steelers would trade their Hall of Fame talented wide receiver. And now that process is finally over as the Steelers trade Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders for a 3rd round pick and a 5th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

For both better and for worse, the soap opera is finally over.

Antonio Brown, Antonio Brown trade, Steelers trade Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin

Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin in happier times. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via BTSC

What a Long Strange Trip Its Been

The story began back in December. During the Steelers heart breaking loss ot the Saints, thanks in no part to two bogus pass interference on Joe Haden, Antonio Brown had been on fire. Ben Roethlisberger threw 19 passes his way, as Brown caught for 185 yards and two touchdowns.

  • Yet, a few days later Antonio Brown’s name showed up on the Steelers injury report.

Then, Jim Wexell mentioned that Randy Fichtner had begun his press conference with a preemptive “I’m NOT talking about Antonio Brown.” Antonio Brown didn’t play. The Steelers came out and struggled to beat the Bengals, despite the return of James Conner.

Shortly after the game (perhaps news leaked sooner) reports surfaced that Antonio Brown had walked out of Steelers practice due to an altercation with Ben Roethlisberger during practice.

Mike Tomlin informed us that Antonio Brown ignored phone calls, although Drew Rosenhaus made calls to the coach. Mike Tomlin didn’t dispute a report that Brown had abandoned the team during its “Darkest hour.” Art Rooney II pulled no punches with reporters admitting that it was “Very hard to see” Antonio Brown returning to the team.

Meanwhile, Antonio Brown proceeded to troll the Steelers at every turn on social media, mocking Mike Tomlin alongside with James Harrison during Tomlin’s press conference, photo shopping himself into San Francisco 49ers uniforms and otherwise acting like a buffoon.

Yet, through it all, Antonio Brown managed to sway a good chunk of the national media to his side.

  • Never mind that he was convicted for driving 140 miles an hour on McKnight Road.
  • Never mind that he’d physically threatened one reporter and cursed out Ed Bouchette.
  • Never mind that he’d been accused of throwing furniture off of a 14th floor balcony.
  • Never mind Antonio Brown’s alleged involvement in a domestic dispute.
  • Never mind Antonio Brown needing his dad as a chaperone, unable to do a simple 1-1 with Art Rooney II.

No, never mind any of that. Some how in the eyes of many in the media (Cris Carter excluded) Antonio Brown was a victim of a series of injustices leveled on him by Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and even Art Rooney II.

Antonio Brown Trade Robbery or Riddance for Steelers? How about Both?

The Steelers had done their part to try to keep the door open to Brown’s return, with players like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Maurkice Pouncey and Cam Heyward treating Antonio Brown with open arms to one degree or another in the press.

But it became pretty clear early on that question wasn’t “If” the Steelers would trade Antonio Brown but “How much will they get?”

  • We know the answer now: Not much.

I guess what goes around comes around. Last spring during the 2018 NFL Draft, the Steelers shipped troubled wide receiver Martavis Bryant to the Oakland Raiders for a 3rd round pick. Given that Bryant was one bong hit away from NFL oblivion it seemed like Kevin Colbert had gotten away with robbery.

  • He had, and now Jon Gruden returns the favor.

Antonio Brown is a Hall of Fame talent. While Brown did suffer a slow start to 2018, he was in Hall of Fame form when the season ended. He is the best receiver in the game and showed no sign of slowing down. He had a team-friendly contract.

  • Yet, all the Steelers could give for him was a third round pick.

Yes, of course the Steelers got a 5th on top of that, but when considering Brown’s talent that’s the equivalent of saying “A third round pick and two box tops.”

However, this is hardly a surprise. In early January Jim Wexell reported that a team source had told him that a 3rd rounder might be the best they could do for Brown. Ed Bouchette had other NFL personnel men tell him that a 6th or a 5th might have been the best the Steelers could do.

  • In the end, both were right as the Steelers got a 3rd and a 5th in the 2019 NFL Draft.

In pure football terms, the Steelers got robbed. However, the Steelers did what they had to do. Perhaps, just perhaps, in early January there was a bridge that Antonio Brown could have taken back to Pittsburgh.

  • Instead Antonio Brown chose to gleefully dump gasoline on that bridge at every chance he has gotten.

At the end of the day, the Raiders may have robbed the Steelers, but the Steelers also rid themselves of locker room cancer that would have scuttled their 2019 season before it started.

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