Steelers 2018 Outside Linebacker Draft Needs – Time to Bail on Bud Dupree?

Coming off one of the best seasons any Steelers rookie has had in quite some time, T.J. Watt, the first round choice in 2017, appears to have finally satisfied the organization’s long search for the next prolific outside linebacker, a position synonymous with greatness in the Steel City.

Or has he?

With less than three weeks to go before the 2018 NFL Draft, just how high on the list of priorities is outside linebacker for the Steelers? The answer hinges not on Watt’s development, but on the development of his couterpart whom the Steelers drafted two seasons before him. Let’s take a look.

Bud Dupree, Bobbie Massie, Steelers vs Bears

Bud Dupree tries to get past Bobby Massie. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Starters

As mentioned, T.J. Watt had a whale of a rookie season, tallying 52 total tackles, seven sacks, seven passes defensed, one interception and one forced fumble (the only player in the NFL at his position–rookie or otherwise–to post such an impressive stat line in 2017.)

Being the younger brother of the legendary J.J. Watt, it’s perhaps no surprise Watt picked things up so quickly and was so productive in his very first season. As I alluded to earlier, unless he’s felled by an injury, Watt seems destined to be the Steelers next great outside linebacker.

  • But Watt can only man one position at a time–the right side.

What about left outside linebacker, a position that has previously been occupied by the likes of LaMarr Woodley and Jason Gildon?

Coming off of his third year in Pittsburgh, Bud Dupree appears to have all the potential in the world, and unlike disappointing 2013 first round pick, Jarvis Jones, Dupree has often shown flashes of that potential during his first three years with the Steelers.

After coming back from offseason groin surgery late in the 2016 campaign and recording 4.5 sacks over the final seven games, there was great excitement about Dupree heading into 2017.

  • However, despite starting 15 games, Dupree seemed to fall out of favor, at least with a fan base that wondered why he could only muster six sacks.

But as DK Sports’ Chris Carter pointed out late last year, Dupree was asked to drop back into pass coverage 75 percent of the time, something that seems to be more of a job requirement for Steelers linebackers in general, these days, as the pass rushing duties have been dispersed more evenly among all defenders under Keith Butler‘s watch (the defense set a franchise record with 56 sacks a year ago).

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Backups

As of this writing, there are only two backup outside linebackers on the Steelers’ depth chart–2015 sixth round pick, Anthony Chickillo; and 2017 seventh round pick, Keion Adams.

  • 2017 was a bit of a break out year for Chickillo, as the converted defensive end out of the University of Miami recorded three sacks, including two while starting in place of Dupree in Week 1.

At 25 years old, Anthony Chickillo is still young enough to offer legitimate “upside,” and he’ll surely continue to get that chance, as he’s been a regular part of the team’s rotation at the outside linebacker spot since 2016.

As for Keion Adams, it’s really hard to say what he brings to the table, considering he spent his entire rookie season on Injured Reserve. As suggested here last spring, given the Steelers pedigree at the position, being drafted in the 7th round as an outside linebacker might seem hopeless, but Carlos Emmons faced a similar fate in 1996, and had a pretty good career.

Steelers 2018 Outside Linebacker Draft Needs

With veteran Arthur Moats currently a free agent after spending the last four years with the Steelers, there is obviously room for another body or two at the outside linebacker spot.

However, with more pressing needs heading into the draft, such as inside linebacker, safety, and even running back, the outside linebacker spot may not be a position the Steelers feel anxious about addressing during the first few rounds–and this would especially be the case if the versatile Moats is still in the team’s plans.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • The real question in defining the Steelers 2018 outside lienbacker draft needs comes down to how you assess Bud Dupree.

When they drafted him the Steelers knew Bud Dupree was a “project” who offered tremendous athleticism but lacked polish. In his time in Pittsburgh, both traits have been on display, although Dupree’s contributions to the Steelers 2016 turn around are often overlooked.

Still, with three years under his belt, Dupree has yet to dispel the doubters. One prominent Steelers writer contacted by this site for an opinion about Dupree asserted that he will never be anything more than a “marginal starter.”

Yet, when asked about him recently, Kevin Colbert argued: “I think Bud is just scratching the surface to what he can be. He’s shown us enough signs that that can happen and will happen.” That’s an unambiguous statement from a General Manger who holds his cards close to the vest.

With that said, tt is true that Dupree’s fifth-year option has yet to be picked up, but that’s still not enough to make the Steelers need at the position anything but Low-Moderate. 

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Lessons, Failures & Successes of 2013 & 2014 Drafts Fuel Steelers Signings of Bostic and Burnett

In this great future you can’t forget your past….”
– Bob Marley, “No Woman, No Cry”

You don’t often see Bob Marley lyrics leading a column on the Steelers, but hey the Reggie legend did give his last concert in Pittsburgh back when Terry Bradshaw and Joe Greene held a 2-1 mark in their quest for “One for the Thumb” in September 1980, so I guess that gives us some connection.

And while you can bet the mortgage Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin didn’t have the Marley’s words ringing in their ears the last week, the decisions to sign Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett show they’ve taken Marley’s wisdom to heart.

“How’s that?” you ask? Well, simply look back to the lessons of the 2013 and 2014 Draft.

Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones,

Jarvis Jones & Ryan Shazier during a Steelers practice in January 2016. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via San Diego Union Tribune

Lessons of 2013 and 2014 Draft & the Arrival of Bostic and Burnett

In 2013, the Steelers were caught in a serious salary cap crunch. LaMarr Woodley had just finished his 2nd season on IR, Chris Carter wasn’t proving to be “the steal of the 2010 NFL Draft,” (as one journalist had claimed he’d be) and Jason Worilds had only shown flashes.

In hindsight, Steelers management erred in determining that James Harrison was nearing the end. Yet injuries had forced James Harrison to miss large chunks of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons and he’d played much of 2010 with an injured arm. And Harrison was set to make somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 to 9 million dollars.

Sure salary caponomics rather than X’s and O’s dictated that decision, but no amount of number crunching could save the Steelers from harsh reality that they had to come out of the 2013 NFL Draft with a pass rushing outside linebacker.

Today, it is easy to slam the Jarvis Jones pick. Jarvis Jones is legitimately Kevin Colbert’s only first round bust. Clearly SOMEONE else on the board could have delivered more value to the Steelers. Fair enough. But Mike Maycock was rating Jones as the 19th best player in the draft and some mocks actually had Jarvis Jones going off the board at 15, two spots before the Steelers took him.

But that’s not the point.

  • In 2013 the Steelers hands were largely tied, and no one likes having choices made for them

It leaves you with a detestable feeling. Think about the “voluntary” hoops you need to jump through during a pre-employment process that aren’t so “voluntary” if you actually want the job.

In football terms, being forced to let need dictate your first round draft choice is dangerous not necessarily because of who you pick but because of who you must pass over.

At the end of the 2013 season, it was clear that the Steelers secondary was in need of repair. Early on, the only question seemed to be whether the Steelers would go corner first and safety second in the draft or visa versa. Even after the Steelers signed Mike Mitchell, fans “knew” the Steelers would target cornerback early and perhaps often.

As it turns out, the Steelers had less at cornerback than they thought, erring in thinking they could get another year out of Ike Taylor while Cortez Allen’s career imploded in splendid fashion for reasons that have never been explained.

  • So when it came time to pick, the Steelers surprised everyone by drafting Ryany Shazier in first round.

The Ryan Shazier pick came despite the fact that with Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Sean Spence and Terence Garvin the Steelers entered the 2014 draft with quality depth at inside linebacker. But Ryan Shazier offered the Steelers generational talent and prior to his injury was flashing Troy Polamalu type playmaking ability.

By signing Jon Bostic and signing Morgan Burnett, the Steelers are trying to give themselves the freedom to make the same kind of pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Word to the Wise

Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett arrive in Pittsburgh with some risk in that both men have fought injuries, and the Ladarius Green experience teaches us just how quickly injuries can derail a promising free agent signing.

  • But the presence of both men will free Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin from having to reach to get an inside linebacker or a safety.

It’s also important to remember that drafting for need sometimes ends well, as the picks of Heath Miller and Santonio Holmes from the 2005 and 2006 drafts show us. But its sure is a lot better go enter a draft with the freedom of picking the player you want to pick, instead of taking someone you need to take.

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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Steelers Restricted Free Agent Gambles with Anthony Chickillo and Eli Rogers are Wise Ones

While nothing is official yet, the Pittsburgh Steelers appear to have made their decisions on their restricted free agents. Yesterday word leaked that place kicker that the Steelers had placed a 2nd round restricted free agent Chris Boswell, a move that goes a long way to ensuring that Chris Boswell will be kicking in Pittsburgh in 2018.

Neither move comes as a great surprise. Anthony Chickillo has shown great promise as a backup linebacker and has improved in each year with the Steelers. With three years in the league, Chickillo has made 5.5 sacks in 38 games and just 9 starts. For comparison’s sake, that’s only a half sack less that Jarvis Jones managed in 50 games and 35 starts.

  • Anthony Chickillo has also shown that he can start at both outside linebacker slots.
Anthony Chickillo, DeShone Kizer, Steelers vs Browns

Steelers placed an original round restricted free agent tender on Anthony Chickillo . Photo Credit: David Richard, AP via PennLive.com

That gives the Steelers a solid “Next man up” behind Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt. The Steelers drafted Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft, which means that any team wanting to sign Chickillo would have to give up a 6th round pick to obtain his services and the Steelers would retain the right of first refusal.

  • An original round tender on a player who has as much “upside” as Chickillo carries a certain amount of risk for the Steelers, but it’s a wise gamble on their part.

No team is going to throw money at Chickillo, and if they do the Steelers can use a 6th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft as they currently do not have one of their own.

The Steelers apparent decision not to tender Eli Rogers amounts to perhaps a slight surprise, but tendering Rogers would tie up close to two million dollars in salary cap space with no assurance that Rogers would be ready for the start to the season due to the ACL he suffered in the playoff loss to the Jaguars.

  • The harsh reality is that no other team is going to make a run at signing Rogers, so there’s little incentive to protect him.

Thus far there’s been no word on the Steelers other two restricted free agents, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Greg Ducre (who? Yeah we asked that too, click here for more on Ducre) and for these young players no news is not good news as the Steelers will not (and should not) tender either man.

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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Never a Superstar, Steelers Free Agent Arthur Moats Is Solid Backup Who Delivers When It Counts

The Pittsburgh Steelers are not splash players in free agency. Sure, the franchise used free agency to secure the services of future Hall of Famers such as Kevin Greene and fixture starters like Ryan Clark, but the Pittsburgh has never put itself into contention for the off season Lombardi.

But most Steelers free agent signing headlines are more likely to elicit a “Who?” opposed to an, “Yes! We got him!” from fans. So, from that perspective, Arthur Moats in many ways has been a typical Steelers free agent signing, which speaks well of both him and the team. And as Moats reaches free agency again, it will be interesting to see if the Steelers offer him a third contract.

Arthur Moats, Arthur Moats strip sack Andy Dalton, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Arthur Moats strip sacks Andy Dalton. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Capsule Profile of Arthur Moats Steelers Career

Arthur Moats joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013 during a time of turmoil at outside linebacker.

After ending 3 straight seasons on injured reserve, the Steelers had parted ways with LaMarr Woodley. Jason Worilds had finally seemed to hit his stride, posting a good although not great year, prompting Pittsburgh to transition tag him. While Jarvis Jones rookie year had provided a mixed bag, the latest done jersey number 95 still had legitimate “upside.”

So it came as a bit of a surprise, when at the end of March, the Steelers signed Arthur Moats from the Buffalo Bills. The move to bring in Arthur Moats delivered almost immediate dividends, as Moats recorded a sack in relief of Jarvis Jones in the Steelers win over Carolina. Moats forced a critical fumble in the Steelers November win over the Ravens, and also downed Joe Flacco.

In 2015 the Steelers drafted Bud Dupree, but Bud Dupree’s arrival didn’t stop Moats from making splash plays, as he recovered a fumble on Cleveland’s first play of the game, setting up a Steelers score. For the season, Moats recorded 4 sacks and recovered two fumbles.

In 2016, Arthur Moats recorded 3.5 sacks and defensed 3 passes while splitting time with Bud Dupree, and finished the season with two sacks against the Browns in the finale. In 2107, Moats saw his playing time drop, as the rotation at outside linebacker ended. Still, he saw action n 14 games, including work at inside linebacker due to injuries to Ryan Shazier and Tyler Matakevich.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Arthur Moats

Let’s face it, backups don’t move the mercury of fan enthusiasm (save for perhaps DeAngelo Williams.) When you think of great Steelers outside linebackers, you think of Hall of Famers like Jack Ham and Kevin Greene, or intimidating legends like Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter or James Harrison.

  • Arthur Moats name’s never going to make that least, nor should it.

But that wasn’t what Arthur Moats was brought to Pittsburgh to do. He was brought to in to be a backup, and the first role of a good backup is to provide stability when the starter is unavailable. Arthur Moats has started 24 of his 62 games in Pittsburgh, and he’s provided solid stability with splash play making ability.

Arthur Moats is just the kind of player you want in the mix behind T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree and Anthony Chickillo. He’s only just turning 30, and he’s not going to cost a lot of money. What’s the wait?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Against Arthur Moats

For better (see keeping T.J. Watt in the game) and for worse (see the James Harrison situation), the Steelers ended their outside linebacker rotation in 2017 and there’s been no indication that will change in 2018.

The Steelers have salary cap issues, and while Arthur Moats isn’t going to command serious money from any NFL team, he is someone who deserves to get paid more than the veteran minimum. Depth is nice, but the Steelers have Kion Adams coming off of injured reserve, who could grow into a Moats type role and would do so for a lot less money.

Resigning Arthur Moats would make for a quality feel-good story, but is it a luxry the Steelers can afford?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Arthur Moats

We started by saying that in a lot of ways Arthur Moats is your typical Steelers free agent. His arrival was unheralded, he provided stability and depth in an understudy role and delivered convincingly when called upon.

  • In fact, Arthur Moats is kind of a defensive equivalent to Mewelde Moore.

When you say “Championship caliber player” you probably don’t think someone like Mewelde Moore, yet Moore was the unsung hero of the 2008 Steelers season that culminated in Super Bowl XLIII.

When it comes to winning Lombardi Number 7, Arthur Moats’ impact will never equal that of, say, Cam Heyward, but he’s shown the ability to be the “Next man up” when his number is called, and championship rosters require players who fit that role.

If the Steelers are smart, they’ll find a way to bring back Arthur Moats.

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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Steelers Hire Tom Bradley as Defensive Backs Coach. Bradley Inherits a Steelers Secondary at the Crossroads

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced that former Penn State Interim Head Coach Tom Bradley will join Mike Tomlin’s staff as defensive backs coach. Tom Bradley replaces Carnell Lake who announced his resignation as secondary coach a day earlier.

Tom Bradley played for Penn State as a defensive back, and joined Joe Paterno’s staff in 1979, working his way up from graduate assistant to defensive coordinator, a title he assumed in 2000.

  • Bradley also served as interim head coach in the fall of 2011, after the Penn State Board of Directors fired Joe Paterno as the result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Following his time at Penn State, Bradley served as assistant head coach at West Virginia in 2014, and then moved on to UCLA where he served as defensive coordinator until last season.

Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Steelers secondary, Tom Bradley

2016 draft picks Sean Davis and Artie Burns at the Steelers South Side Facility. Photo Credit: Via GZ Sports Report

Tom Bradley Inherits a Steelers Secondary at the Crossroads

Tom Bradley arrives in Pittsburgh as defensive backs coach at a moment when the Steelers secondary is at a crossroads. Following Super Bowl XLV, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin began rebuilding the Steelers defense from the back up, starting with defensive line, moving on to linebackers (with mixed success – contrast Jarvis Jones with Ryan Shazier) and finally moving to the secondary.

  • It may not be fair to “blame” Carnell Lake, but Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas were to early building blocks in that rebuilding effort both were tremendous disappointments.Those failures forced the Steelers to expend precious draft capital to re-draft those positions.

The redos at cornerback and safety came in the form of Artie Burns and Sean Davis in the first and second rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft. While both players struggled a bit early in their rookie years, they both made important strides during the second half of the season and were a big part of the turnaround of the Steelers 2016 defense.

  • Unfortunately, neither man appeared to grow much as a player in 2017 and perhaps it’s fair to argue that Artie Burns regressed.

With Ben Roethlisberger set to turn 36 before opening day 2018, the Pittsburgh Steelers simply cannot afford to hit the reset button with either Artie Burns or Sean Davis. And Burns and Davis’ development is hardly the only area of concern in the Steelers secondary.

  • Mike Mitchell, who only has one year left on his contract, did not play well in 2017.

His backup, Robert Golden, can hardly be considered as anything other than a “In case of emergency, break glass” replacement. William Gay rumored move to safety never materialized, and he looks more like a cornerback ready to begin “Life’s Work” than one set to learn a new position.

Joe Haden gives the Steelers stability on the other side, Mike Hilton offers promise in the slot, and Cam Sutton got a baptism by fire in the NFL, but turned in a strong rookie year, all things considered. Tom Bradley can also look forward to working with Brian Allen, who has little experience as a defensive back, but possesses the all-important measureables.

The bottom line is that the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary hasn’t been a strength on the defense since Ryan Clark was forced to curb his hard-hitting play and Troy Polamalu was striking hesitation into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks.

With Bud Dupree’s development stalled and Ryan Shazier only now standing, the Steelers defensive backfield must deliver more than it has been, and now its Tom Bradley’s job to ensure that this happens.

[Editors Note: The Steelers also hired Karl Dunbar as their defensive line coach. More on that tomorrow.]

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Steelers Wide Reciever Coach Richard Mann Retires. Is Hines Ward a Wise Replacement?

In a move that has been anticipated for at least two years, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann has announced his retirement. And while Richard Mann might not have the profile of other position coaches, make no mistake about it, his presence will be missed.

Richard Mann, Steelers wide receivers coach richard mann

Former Steelers WR coach Richard Mann offers instruction. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

Go back to 2012 and the days when “Young Money” aka Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown were all the rage in Steelers Nation.

Together the threesome was supposed to form the most fearsome wide receiver trio the NFL has seen this side of Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Jake Reed. It made for excellent copy during the off season and training camp.

  • Then the games that counted started.

While the Steelers offense had a fairly strong start to 2012, the unit fell off the rails during the second half of the season. While an injury to Ben Roethlisberger took its toll, the value of “Young Money” was measured in pennies rather than dollars. The whole was less than the sum of its parts.

  • After the season, Wide Receiver’s coach Scotty Montgomery, returned to coach at Duke, despite no position being associated with his hiring.

As The Watch Tower detailed at the time, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette issued dueling stories by Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac offering starkly contrasting interpretations of events. Dulac’s story suggested the move was Montgomery’s and one made only with great reluctance. Bouchette’s suggested Tomlin had pushed Montgomery out, and reported that, absent Hines Ward, chaos had enveloped wide receivers room.

  • Mike Tomlin responded by coaxing Aliquippa native Richard Mann out of retirement.

That’s all one blogger needs to accept Ed Bouchette’s interpretation of what transpired in 2012. The Steelers don’t allow assistant coaches much contact with the media, but when Richard Mann spoke about 3rd round pick Markus Wheaton during the 2013 NFL Draft, the man positively exuded an aura of “Been there, done that.”

  • And you’d expect that from a man whose been around long enough to coach for the Baltimore Colts, the original Cleveland Browns, and the Baltimore Ravens.

Mann also coached with the New York Jets, Washington Redskins, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he first met Mike Tomlin, and the two forged a bond evident in the words the Steelers head coached used to praise Mann upon his retirement:

I had the pleasure of working with him 15 years ago at a different capacity. My appreciation for him really kind of started there. I was a younger assistant position coach, defensive backs. He was a more senior veteran wide receiver coach. Obviously, by the nature of the positions, we worked cooperatively together in training camp. I learned a lot from watching him coach his guys on the grass and off the grass. I was appreciative of him allowing me to do that. Often times in training camp like settings, we would watch the same video of our guys together. I could hear him make coaching points to his guys about what was happening on the video. He could hear me make coaching points with my guys about what was happening on the same video. It was just a unique learning environment

He’s always been a teacher and not resistant to sharing that expertise with others and that is why I’ve always gravitated towards him. Very accomplished coach. Maybe a lot of opportunities were not afforded to him because of the generation in which he rose through the ranks. I’m cognizant of that. I am appreciative of that. I realize some of the opportunities I have been afforded in my career is because of efforts and accomplishments of men like Richard Mann. I am appreciative on a lot of levels. Probably can’t eloquently describe that level of appreciation, but he is a special man and a special coach. One that has impacted me in a lot of ways.

Richard Mann made an immediate impact when he joined the Steelers staff. People forget, but Antonio Brown’s play dropped off late in the season to the point where their were wispers about whether the Steelers had erred in giving him a long-term deal.

No one says that anymore.

Mann of course, has had a role in mentoring players such as Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster. He will be missed.

Ward a Wise Choice to Replace Mann?

Former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward is a candidate to replace Richard Mann. Ward has coached with the Steelers during training camp, and returned for a few stints during the regular season, and was present on the sideline during a number of games.

  • Hines Ward is a fan favorite and a franchise legend, but it’s a fair question to ask whether he’s a wise choice to replace Mann.

Former players returning as assistants always arrive with a sentimental cheer and such was the case each time Jerry Olsavsky, Carnell Lake and Joey Porter joined Mike Tomlin’s staff. And so it was with Joe Greene’s return to Chuck Noll’s staff in 1987 and Mike Mularkey’s return to Bill Cowher’s staff in 1996 (well maybe not on Mularkey.)

  • But, a wise fan will remember that Gerald Williams was the best defensive lineman during Joe Greene’s tenure.

If you don’t remember Gerald Williams, you’ve certainly heard his name, right? Well, you probably haven’t. Gerald Williams was a good player, but not a great player for the Steelers. True, Greene didn’t have a lot to work with (remember Donald Evans and Kenny Davidson, no? you’re lucky then) but he reportedly did lobby hard for the Steelers to pick Aaron Jones, who never amount to much more than a marginal starter.

Its perhaps a little harsh to judge position coaches by the development of their players – remember, Chuck Noll’s “Don’t over coach the kid” admonition to Dick Hoak about Franco Harris. But if William Gay and Keenan Lewis did improve under Carnell Lake, Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas were clearly mistakes.

Dupree, after an OK start to the season, disappeared from the pass rush down the stretch, although were assured that he was “going into coverage a lot and doing well against the run.” Fair enough, but let’s remind everyone that “they” said the same thing about Jarvis Jones up until the day Mike Tomlin benched Jones in favor of Harrison.

Perhaps Hines Ward will serve as an exception, but thus far no other team is breaking down the door to offer Lake, Olsavsky or Porter opportunities to climb the coaching ladder.

So word to the wise about welcoming Hines Ward back.

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Final Word: James Harrison’s Steelers Desertion Viewed by a Blogger Unable to Write as it Unfoleded

As every Steelers fan registering a pulse now knows, the Pittsburgh Steelers not only cut James Harrison before Christmas, but the linebacking legend signed with the arch enemy New England Patriots.

  • In highly uncanny and very personal sense, this story confirms that all is normal in the world.

And that’s because big Steelers news tends to break while yours truly is traveling and/or unable to write about it. Whether Antonio Brown resigning, Bruce Arians getting fired or Troy Polamalu retiring, its almost like a little light goes on at the South Side saying, “Ok, something big needs to happen NOW.”

James Harrison Patriots

Outside of the Ryan Shazier injury, has Steelers Nation seen a sadder sight this season? Photo Credit:

And so it was that 24 hours after arriving to spend my first Christmas in the United States since 2000, I got a text from my cousin informing me that Steelers had cut James Harrison. Family comes first, (Dan Rooney would certainly agree) and so Steel Curtain Rising said nothing.

  • In fact, the frustration over being unable to write was in fact a blessing in disguise.

My first reaction was “This is wrong.” And had I written anything, aim would have been taken at Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for such an unceremonious parting with a franchise legend while leaving the Daniel McCullers and Justin Hunters of the Steelers roster intact.

  • Then of course the situation took another twist, with the Patriots signed Harrison.

The move smacked of psychological warfare on the part of Bill Belichick, and only seemed to galvanize injustice of the situation. How could this be happening? Yet, because of both work and family obligations, Steel Curtain Rising remained silent, while the storm raged on the blogsphere.

If journalism is the first draft of history, then blogging provides a rough draft of journalism. To blog is to react, and sometimes, quite frankly, its best for bloggers to keep their mouths shut, even if that silence is a product of circumstance rather than choice.

  • And the James Harrison fiasco certainly qualifies as on of those situations.

The Steelers locker room remain relatively silent regarding Harrison’s dismissal, but Debos former teammates unload on him the moment he inked his deal with the Patriots.

  • Maurkice Pouncey said he erased his legacy and spit in the Rooney’s face.
  • Fellow linebackers Bud Dupree and Vince Williams called out their former teammate.
  • Marcus Gilbert berated Harrison for not being more honest about forcing his own departure.

The picture that James Harrison’s teammates painted was far different than that Steelers fans have come to know. Silverback was sleeping in meetings and walking out on his teammates on game days after learning he was to be inactive. Instead of serving as a Jerome Bettis-like mentor, Harrison was acted like a selfish brat.

Yep. Sometimes the best favor a fate an offer a blogger is a chance NOT to write about a big story as it is breaking.

The James Harrison Departure in 1 Word: Disappointing

A single word suffices to describe James Harrison’s parting with Pittsburgh: Disappointing. The image below drives that home poignantly.

James Harrison, Art Rooney II, James Harrison Art Rooney Handshake

Happier times. Art Rooney II shakes James Harrison’s hand after the Steelers playoff win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Fans forget, but the Steelers defense struggled mightily in during the first half of 2016 and was so bad that Mexican blogger Carlos Ortega went as far as to compare it to the 1988 Steelers defense (which finished last in the NFL).
While the development of Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave was critical you can pinpoint the turn around to Mike Tomlin’s decision to bench Jarvis Jones and start James Harrison following the disaster against Dallas.

The Steelers playoff win over the Chiefs had ended with Harrison drawing a rare holding flag on the Chief’s 2 point conversion, setting up Sean Davis’ pass defense in the end zone. Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it better. Harrison still wanted to play, the Steelers wanted him back, and signed him to a two year deal complete with a 1 million dollar roster bonus.

  • Yet, the Steelers also knew that their future at right outside linebacker wasn’t to be found in a 39 year old man.
  • So they went out and drafted T.J. Watt.

The stage seemed to be set for Jerome Bettis-Willie Parker in reverse, this time with the Super Bowl record setting undrafted rookie free agent mentoring the ballyhood first round draft pick. Except it didn’t happen that way. Jim Wexell and Dale Lolley signaled during training camp that Harrison might be on the roster bubble.

  • Steel Curtain Rising took their cautions seriously, but speculated that the Steelers were merely “Bettising Harrison.”

Instead, as the season evolved, it looked like Harrison might play a role more closer to what Duce Staley played in 2005 – the veteran buried deep on the depth chart who nonetheless stepped up to deliver in spot duty (see Staley vs the Packers in 2005, Harrison on the closing plays vs the Chiefs and Ravens.)

But we now know that analogy falls flat. Harrison wasn’t the mentor, wasn’t the veteran gracefully aging into the football locker room equivalent of an elder statesman. No, instead James Harrison acted as a malcontent.

Anyone To Blame for This Fiasco? Yes – Harrison

Often times life requires you to give up something, to get something. No Steelers fan who remembers Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone or even Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell or Kordell Stewart slinging the ball wants to see Big Ben strike midnight.

  • But the sight of Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison hosting Lombardi Number 7 and announcing their Life’s Work would be poetic, beautiful and bittersweet.

Ain’t gonna happen now. The question is, is anyone to blame?

The NFL is a results driven business, and Mike Tomlin’s job is to make sure this kind of thing didn’t happen. But Harrison had to know the Steelers didn’t draft T.J. Watt to sit him. He had to see the development of Anthony Chickillo threatened his playing time. Joey Porter also made it clear, VERY early on that the rotation at OLB was over.

While James Harrison has always marched to his own drummer, he had never been a disruptive force in the locker room. And James Harrison has been in Pittsburgh long enough to know that the way to win the favor of Mike Tomlin wasn’t to mail it in.

Its easy to say that “Tomlin suspended Rashard Mendenhall for no-showing at games when he was inactive, so he shouldn’t have had a double standard for Harrison.” Which is true, but in a season filled with Antonio Brown’s tantrums, Martavis Bryant demanding a trade, Ryan Shazier’s injury, would Tomlin really have been wise to create another distraction?

  • As it was, the Harrison situation was kept under wraps until he openly complained in December.

At the end of the day, James Harrison had a choice: He could embrace the Steelers way, and act as a mentor off the field and contribute on the field when called upon or he could pout and act like a spoiled brat.

  • Like fellow Steeler-turned Patriot LeGarrette Blount, James Harrison deserted his teammates.

James Harrison chose to conduct himself like a 16 year old who throws a tantrum when he can’t have the car keys to the car, even when he knows it’s the only way for Mom and Dad to get to work. It is sad. This never should have ended this way. But the person to blame for this fiasco is James Harrison plain and simple.

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How Ryan Shazier Benefits from the Oft Maligned 2011 CBA

News that Ryan Shazier has begun physical rehabilitation at UPMC is welcome indeed, although the Steelers statement that UPMC will be providing further updates was a tad bit surprising. While all sorts of uncertainty clouds Ryan Shazier’s future there’s one thing that he his family can be sure of:

  • Ryan Shazier clearly benefits from the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement.

While you don’t generally tend to associate Collective Bargaining Agreement’s with football, they’ve become a fixture of the landscape, and few documents are as maligned as the 2011 CBA. If you’ll remember, the NFL owners decided to opt out of the 2006 CBA in 2009, triggering the uncapped year (which, as it turns out, wasn’t so uncapped) and then lock out the players following the Super Bowl XLV.

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Will Ryan Shazier play again? No one knows. But Shazier does benefit from the 2011 CBA. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA TODAY via BTSC

The lockout continued until summer, when both sides blinked, got the deal done, which paved the way for football through 2020. But the CBA had a lot of things not to like about it:

  • It drastically curtailed OTA’s and mini-camps, which players hate but kept football-only sites going
  • Roger Goodell maintained his Czar like disciplinary powers perpetuating the arbitrary “justice” applied in the NFL
  • Training camp and in-season practices were regulated, shortened, limited and made less physical
  • This has led to sloppier play, shoddy tackling and arguably an increase in injuries

The 2011 CBA also imposed a rookie salary cap and wage structure, and standardized rookie contracts. But that also included a provision that Ryan Shazier now benefits from:

  • Teams could tender 1st round draft picks with an option year that was fully guaranteed for injury.

The Steelers made use of this provision with Cam Heyward and David DeCastro, opted not to tender Jarvis Jones, but did extend the tender to Ryan Shazier. According to OvertheCap, as a rookie Ryan Shazier signed a contract that was just shy of 5.6 million dollars in value, including a 1.3 signing bonus.

  • The tender Ryan Shazier signed was for 8,718,000 million dollars, and he’ll see every penny of it.

It is far too early to know if Ryan Shazier will ever play football again, and that is not the team’s nor his focus. The fact that he needed spinal surgery is not promising, but it is at least theoretically possible that he’ll play again someday, provided that he wants to.

  • Let’s be clear, Ryan Shazier was blossoming into one of the best, if not the best inside linebacker in the league.

Shazier was showing he was something special. Perhaps it was too early to say that he had Troy Polamalu type talent, but he was arguably on a trajectory to be better than Lawrence Timmons in his prime.

Had Ryan Shazier not been injured against the Bengals, the Steelers would have likely tried to sign him to a long term deal, which if the numbers on Over the Cap are any guide, probably would have averaged 10 to 12 million per year, and could have included upwards of 15 million on guaranteed money.

  • Clearly, the injury to Shazier will be costly in financial terms.

But 8,718,000 million dollars is a lot of money, far more than anyone reading this will likely ever see in their life times. Assuming Shazier can resume a normal life, as most reports indicate he can, he should be able to take care of his family.

Here’s to hoping that, regardless of whether he plays football or not, Ryan Shazier’s “Life’s Work” will provide him with comfortable living. But he’ll have a head start thanks to the dreaded 2011 CBA between the NFL owners and the NFLPA.

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#ICYMI: Steelers Rule T.J. Watt, Marcus Gilbert Out vs Bears

Compared to some other NFL teams (knock on wood) the Pittsburgh Steelers have remained relatively healthy during 2017, but Mike Tomlin’s men will have to win today’s matchup against the Chicago Bears without the services of starting right outside linebacker T.J. Watt and starting right offensive guard Marcus Gilbert.

  • As of Saturday evening, starting defensive end Stephon Tuitt was listed as questionable.

T.J. Watt injured his groin in the second quarter of the Steelers win over the Vikings, while Marcus Gilbert suffered a hamstring injury during the same game. Stephon Tuitt injured his biceps in the Steelers season opening win against the Browns.

  • Chris Hubbard will start in Marcus Gilbert’s place at right tackle, and therefore be charged with defending Ben Roethlisberger’s “sightful side.”

The question of who will start and who will play at right outside linebacker remains far more intriguing. When Bud Dupree was unable to start the Steelers season opener, Anthony Chickillo took his place. However, going into the Vikings game, James Harrison was assumed to be T.J. Watt’s backup, yet when Watt got injured the Steelers moved Chickillo over the right side.

  • Mike Tomlin explained the move as wanting to go with the “hot hand” at outside linebacker.

Tomlin’s explanation makes sense, given that Chickillo had two sacks and a special teams touchdown in the season opener (which, if you’re keeping notes, means Chickillo tied Jarvis Jones year three sack total in a single game.)

Stephon Tuitt was listed as taking snaps with the Steelers first team defense on Friday afternoon, which is a strong indicator that he’ll suit up to play against the Chicago Bears. Regardless, the Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell likes to rotate his defensive lineman, so fans can expect to see Tyson Alualu, L.T. Walton spelling Tuitt as well as Cam Heyward and Javon Hargrave.

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4 Lessons Learned & Random Thoughts on Steelers Growth Since Vikings Loss in London

When the Pittsburgh Steelers kickoff for their 2017 home opener against the Minnesota Vikings this afternoon, 1450 days will have passed since these two franchises last squared off. Normally you don’t think of intra-conference games marking milestones, but this one does.

Because if the Steelers post Super Bowl XLV rebuilding project began with the Tebowing in the playoffs against Denver in January 2011, the rebuilding effort scratched rock bottom on September 29th, as the Vikings dropped the 2013 Steelers to 0-4.

  • To put this into perspective, the previous Steelers head coach to start 0-4 was Bill Austin, in 1968.

With that in mind, let’s look at how the Steelers have changed, and remained the same, since then.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers London

Le’Veon Bell scores his first touchdown in the Steelers loss to Vikings in London. Photo Credit: Daily Mail Online

1. Sort of Failing at Left Tackle is Like Being Sort of Pregnant

By the fall of 2013 the Steelers had relegated their “Plug ‘n Patch” approach to offensive line building to history. Indeed on that day they started Ramon Foster, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert just as they will this afternoon (and they would have started Maurkice Pouency had he not been hurt.)

  • They also started Mike Adams at left guard.

Mike Adams didn’t represent any sort of Jonathan Scottesque attempt to get by on the cheap at left tackle. No, the Steelers invested a 2nd round pick in Mike Adams and made it very clear from the get go that they wanted him to win the starting job. He couldn’t do that as a rookie (and surprise, they turned again to Max Starks), but they gave him the job 2013.

  • The move was an epic fail, and the London loss to the Vikings was its supernova.

Adams struggled all day, and first and only time in his career, Ben Roethlisberger played like he had happy feet. The Vikings ended the game by sacking Roethlisberger, and while Adams didn’t directly allow the sack, he clearly didn’t win his battle at the line of scrimmage which helped collapse the pocket, paving the way for a sack.

The Vikings game in London marked Mike Adams final start at left tackle and Kelvin Beachum’s assent to the role.

2. Le’Veon Lived Up to the Hype, Jarvis Didn’t….

While neither he nor Mike Tomlin uttered the word “Rebuilding,” after the 2012 Steelers 8-8 finish Kevin Colbert as much as admitted changes were needed. Ergo, two key building blocks would come early in the Steelers 2013 Draft Class. One worked out, the other didn’t.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Ed Bouchette isn’t one to exaggerate, but even he seemed to be drinking a little Koolaid a big when he declared in July 2013 that Le’Veon Bell’s preseason debut “…will be one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

  • Le’Veon Bell’s debut didn’t come until London thanks to his Lisfranc injury.

While Le’Veon Bell’s statistics were rather pedestrian on that afternoon, he did score two touchdowns, and flashed some of the ability that the Steelers offense has come to depend upon.

On the flip side, Jarvis Jones, who’d boldly requested number 95, was making his third start at outside linebacker for the Steelers. Jones had one tackle on the day and by any measure must be considered Kevin Colbert’s only true first round bust.

3. How Long Does It Take to Rebuild Defense? Four Years

One striking observation is that there’s been very little turnover in the Steelers offense since that fateful London day. Sure, Health Miller retired and the entire tight end depth chart has turned over (thanks to David Johnson’s waiver). But the line remains intact and that was the first game that the Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown played together, and the trio has powered the offense since.

  • On defense you find an entirely different story.

Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were still manning both safety spots. Ike Taylor was still starting at corner, and Cortez Allen, the unit’s rising star, returned to the line up to get burned on a 70 yard touchdown. Aside from William Gay, who was back after a one year hiatus in Pittsburgh West, the entire Steelers secondary has turned over since the London Loss.

Looking at the linebackers, Vince Williams was making his first NFL start, and if the rookie looked woefully unable to fill Larry Foote’s shoes, no one can argue he hasn’t grown into the role. But Vince Williams is the only Steelers linebacker left from the London Game (remember, James Harrison was in Cincinnati.)

If the Viking’s victory in London marked the Vince Williams first start, it also marked Ziggy Hood’s last one, as Mike Tomlin would name Cam Heyward starter after this game. The other starters that day were Steve McLendon, who was just taking over from Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel. 1450 days later, the story remains the same on defensive line. Cam Heyward remains, everyone else is playing elsewhere or has begun “Life’s Work.”

4. Assistant Coaches Do Matter – See Mike Munchak’s Influence

People forget this, but Mike Adams wasn’t the only Steelers offensive lineman under fire 1450 days ago. Just one week earlier, in the Steelers loss to the Bears, Steelers coaches had rotated Kelvin Beachum on at both tackles.

While the Steelers offensive line improved during the course of 2013, Mike Tomlin quickly fired Jack Bicknell at season’s end and replaced him with Mike Munchak, and no one argues that the Steelers offensive line is far better for Munchak’s influence.

Young Money had been all the rage prior to 2013, but the promise of those young receivers was largely unrealized, as even Antonio Brown’s play was a little uneven by the end of 2012. Mike Tomlin responded by replacing Scottie Montgomery with Richard Mann, who has clearly transformed the Steelers wide receiving corps.

As Dick Hoak reminded everyone on the day he retired (after nearly 3 and half decades of serving as a Steelers assistant coach) NFL assistant coaches are “Hired to be fired.” He’s right. Often times assistant coaches act as the fall guys when either head coaches fail or draft picks flounder as busts.

But the additions of Richard Mann and Mike Munchak show that good assistant coaches can and do make a difference in the NFL.

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