Sack Attack: Steelers Preseason Sack Spree Shatters (Recent) Precedents

Let’s begin, because it is important to remain firmly grounded: Its only preseason.

It IS only preseason, and the first game at that, which, in our current era of NFL football, means that the players who take vast majority of snaps will be lucky if they spend a day on an NFL practice squad. But of all of the statistics taken from the Steelers preseason win over the Giants, one sticks out:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers defenders sacked New York Giants quarterbacks 7 times.
TJ Watt, Josh Johnson, TJ Watt Josh Johnson, Steelers preseason Giants

TJ Watt drops Giants Josh Johnson for his second preseasons sack. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Tribune Review

Sure, “It’s only preseason,” but that IS part of the point. Consider this:

  • In the ‘14, ‘15, and ‘16 exhibition openers, Pittsburgh never registered more than one sack
  • 6 sacks – represented the Steelers cumulative sack totals in both ’14 and ’16 preseason campaigns
  • In 7 of 13 preseason games since ’14, the Steelers have either been held to one or zero sacks

These numbers only go back three years, because beyond that it gets hard to find preseason statistics. But it is a safe bet to say that the Steelers lack of pressure on the quarterback on those games was met with the ‘its only preseason’ mantra. But no matter how much you try to ratchet down the enthusiasm, the Steelers pass rush and an impressive evening.

Perhaps Steelers first round draft pick TJ Watt’s efforts are the most indicative of why. Here’s a look at Watt’s first sack:

https://twitter.com/steelers/status/896148169368543234

And now a look at his second:

Mike Tomlin, never one know to praise rookies, threw out some cold water on the way into the locker room at half time reminding everyone that “Those were probably the two easiest sacks of his career.” Fair enough.

That’s why you need to consider why they came so easily. Consider the analysis of “Heinzsight” who commented on Jim Wexell’s Steel City Insider site:

First sack, I thought was a picture perfect four man rush by all…. Heyward was the one that really made it go, collapsing a double team right into the QBs lap. But Watt also did a great job squeezing the OT back on a speed/power rush (which sounds like what Harrison was riding him to do last week). All 4 really squeezed the pocket, but you still have to work free to make the sack, and Watt did. Nothing heroic or mind blowing, but a very good rush by all.

One of Kevin Butler’s credos since replacing Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator has been “Get there with four.” And while the Steelers defense has improved its pass rush since Dick LeBeau “resigned,” they haven’t been “getting their with four.”

  • TJ Watt didn’t do anything special to get to the quarterback on either play.

And that’s the beauty of it. TJ Watt was able to get to the quarterback because Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave were doing theirs. Arthur Moats also notched 3 sacks, and while Mike Tomlin likened that to an 11th grader playing JV, Moats dominated when he was supposed to. That’s good and its characteristic of championship football.

Another notable sack came from training camp stand out Mike Hilton, who looks to be delivering the bang that his roommate from Ole Miss, Senquez Golson hasn’t been able to:

For the record, the Steelers 7th sack of the night came from Farrington Huguenin .

Yes, “Its only preseason.” But seven sacks on a night when neither James Harrison nor Bud Dupree nor Anthony Chickillo nor Ben Roethlisberger (ok, he doesn’t play defense) suited up is a statistic that demands respect now, even if the number will be long forgotten by the times the games count for real.

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Steelers 2017 Training Camp: 4 Question Pittsburgh Must Answer “Yes” to Bag Lombardi Number 7

As the Pittsburgh Steelers assemble for their 52nd training camp at St. Vincents in Latrobe, the franchise gathers with an unusual urgency. Everyone knows why. While smarting for yet another AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, Steelers signal caller Ben Roethlisberger uttered the dreaded “R” word last January.

  • The elephant in the room has been unmasked.

Super Bowl windows are notoriously hard to pry open and are wont to slam shut without warning. In the modern NFL, having a franchise quarterback forms a necessary, yet insufficient element to bringing home a Lombardi.

  • A quarterback can’t do it alone, even if his last name is Marnio, Elway, Brady and yes Roethlisberger.

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have known this and made their personnel choices accordingly since the Steelers rebuild began in earnest after 2012. The franchise returned to the playoffs in 2014, got a playoff win in 2015, and knocked on heaven’s door in 2016 only to be turned away.

Here are 4 Steelers 2017 Training Camp Questions whose answers will determine whether  Pittsburgh can bring home Lombardi Number 7 in 2017.

Beny Roethlisberger, Beny Roethlisberger St. Vincents, Steelers 2017 training camp

Can Ben Roethlisberger help Steelers bag Lombardi Number 7? Time will tell. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

1. Can Burns, Davis and Hargrave Avoid the Dreaded Sophomore Slump?

My, how times have changed. When decline of the Steelers defense became indisputable in 2013 commentators rightly pegged the dip to the to the 1,279 snaps logged by rookies during Dick LeBeau’s second to last year as defensive coordinator.

  • Three years later, it looked like rookies would write a similar story for Keith Butler’s second year as defensive coordinator.

People forget, but as Steelers scribe Carlos Ortega pointed out, at the middle of the 2016 the Steelers defense was on pace to match the 1988 Steelers defense’s records for futility. The turnaround of the Steelers defense on the back end of the 2016 is certainly one of the under-reported stories and it happened in large part because Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave stopped playing like rookies.

  • On paper, all three men will pick up right where they left off.

Think about it. Who were the only two Steelers to touch Tom Brady during the AFC Championship game? Davis and Hargrave. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler need these men to grow in their second years. And while that’s a reasonable expectation, it is far from a given.

Troy Edwards won the Steelers 1999 rookie of the year, and returned to training camp defended his lax training regimen by complaining that he couldn’t race air. Kendrell Bell looked like a Chad Brown, James Farrior, Ryan Shazier composite as a rookie 2001, but injuries and an unwillingness to learn coverage schemes surfaced at St. Vincents in the summer of 2002.

A sophomore slump by any of these stud 2016 rookies could have catastrophic consequences for the Steelers defense in 2017.

2. Can T.J. Watt (or perhaps Chickillo) Become Starter Capable at Outside Linebacker?

The emergence Burns, Davis and Hargrave only partially explains the Steelers 2016 defensive turnaround. The rest of the turn around was fueled by Bud Dupree’s return to the lineup and James Harrison’s promotion to starter.

  • James Harrison is, by definition, a living legend.

And if the 2016’s James Harrison wasn’t the same as the 2008 version of Harrison that won the NFL’s defensive player of the year award, he was still better than any other outside linebacker the Steelers had.

But it would be foolish for anyone to expect James Harrison to remain a 16 game 3 down, four quarter starter in 2017.

If the Steelers are to seriously contend for Lombardi number 7 in 2017, someone else must step up. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert drafted TJ Watt to be that man, and if OTAs are any indication, the linebacker clearly has the athletic skills. The Steelers need to use training camp to get him ready to contribute early and often.

The other alternative would be to see if Anthony Chickillo can contribute on the right side. That’s not something that Steelers coaches seem to be considering, but we suggested it last year and will do so again.

3. Can Senquez, Sensabaugh or Sutton Turn the Corner?

The narrative on Pittsburgh’s defense since getting torched by Aaron Rogers in Super Bowl XLV has been that the Steelers need to get better at cornerback. This narrative has played for so long that William Gay, one of the “culprits” in 2010, has gone from scapegoat to “Big Play Willie Gay” to a player whose skills are seen as being on the decline.

  • Keenan Lewis looked ready to break out in 2012, yet the Steelers let him go, gambling on Cortez Allen offering more “upside.”

Ike Taylor failed in his footrace with father time. Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin and Justin Gilbert came and went. If Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell give the Steelers two solid options as starting cornerbacks, the AFC Championship revealed their limits. But the depth behind him is simply unproven, save for William Gay whom many pundits argue should be gone.

The good news is that with Coty Sensabaugh, Senquez Golson, Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, the Steelers for the first time in a long time, bring some real quantity to training camp with them. If the Steelers are going to make a serious Super Bowl run, Carnell Lake must find a way to coax come quality out of that unit over the next few weeks on the grass of Chuck Noll Field.

4. Can the Steelers Build Viable Depth at Running Back Behind Bell?

It says here that any running back sets both regular season and playoff rushing single game rushing records that neither Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis could touch is special. But the self-life of NFL running backs is precariously short.

It also says here that the process of trying to extend Le’Veon Bell’s shelf life by limiting his carries a simple exercise on paper but a horrendously complicated endeavor when you try to do it in the heat of a game.

  • Did anyone really want to see Tomlin spell Le’Veon Bell with Fitzgerald Toussaint in his record setting performance over the Bills?

I don’t think so either. Regardless of whether he had a choice or not, Todd Haley over used Le’Veon Bell down the stretch in 2016. Yes, lack of a number two wide receiver to complement Antonio Brown had a lot to do with that, but the fact is the Steelers cupboard was bare at running back.

On paper, the Steelers have given themselves better options for improving running back depth in 2016, by saying goodbye to DeAngelo Williams, drafting James Conner, and signing Knile Davis. And Fitzgerald Toussiant will be back as well.

The days when the Steelers RB depth chart would read Bettis, Huntley, Zereoue, Fuamatu-Ma’afala and Witman, with some guy named on Kreider on the practice squad have ended and will never return. But the Steelers have rolled the dice for several seasons by going with an offensive backfield that was 2 or at and a half players deep.

  • And they’ve paid for it in the post season, in three straight years.

Even if Le’Veon Bell can stay completely healthy for a 19 straight games (yes, that’s counting on a 1st round playoff bye) Steelers running backs coach James Saxon needs to use his time at St. Vincents to establish solid depth behind his starter.

Has Ben Roethlisberger‘s Career Come Full Circle?

As a rookie, injuries forced Ben Roethlisberger into the lineup where he lead team that had finished 6-10 the season before to a 15-1 finish an a playoff run that ended with a AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots.

The loss was devastating to Jerome Bettis, who’d planned to retire and felt he’d lost his shot at a championship. On the sidelines, rookie Ben Roethlisberger implored “The Bus” to return, promising he’d get him his ring. Roethlisberger delivered as the Steelers triumphed in Super Bowl XL.

Now, as Roethlisberger contemplates parking his own bus, the question remains as to whether his teammates can deliver as he did for Bettis 12 years ago.

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Steelers 2017 Salary Cap is Offensively Lopsided. And That’s a Good Thing.

Steelers 2017 training camp starts in 34 days and perhaps the only bit of football drama that will pass between now and then is whether the franchise comes to a long-term agreement with Le’Veon Bell. But even if they don’t one thing is certain:

  • At 101 million dollars, the Steelers will field the NFL’s most expensive offense.

As Steelers Wire’s Simon Chester details, seven of the Steelers top 10 salary cap hits will come on offense. To the naked eye, spending over 60% of your salary cap on half of your team might seem like an unfavorable imbalance.

  • But its not, and in fact shows that things are, in many respects, going according to plan.
Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Dolphins playoffs, Steelers 2017 salary cap offense

Ben Roethlisberger throws to Le’Veon Bell in Steelers 2016 playoff win vs. Miami. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Zimbo

The Steelers 2017 salary cap structure follows the franchise’s rebuilding effort that has been in the works since Super Bowl XLV. Salary cap mechanics can get tricky, but you don’t need to be an accounting or math wiz to understand what’s going on here.

All of the Steelers projected starters on offense, outside of Jesse James, Roosevelt Nix, Martavis Bryant, and Alejandro Villanueva are playing on their second or third contracts. And by the time the season starts, Villanueva might have his own long term deal.

  • On defense the difference is stark.

The only projected starters playing on second contracts are James Harrison, Cameron Heyward and Mike Mitchell. William Gay, Coty Sensabaugh and Arthur Moats are also well removed from their rookie contracts, but their contracts are relatively cap friendly.

As soon as the 2011 lockout ended the Steelers giving second (or third) contracts to Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Willie Colon. Management invested heavily in keeping the core of players together who’d brought Pittsburgh into 3 Super Bowls in six years.

  • Unfortunately, the plan failed.

But, for as frustrating as 8-8 seasons might have been, the Steelers invested wisely in building their offensive line to protect Ben Roethlisberger and in populating their skill positions with weapons to complement Antonio Brown. It is safe to say that by 2014, the Steelers had enough championship caliber talent on offense to make them viable contenders.

That’s a question that Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler’s boys can only answer on the field – as spreadsheet calculations will never drive Tom Brady into the turf on third and long.

But the key to winning in the salary cap era is to get the most bang for your salary cap buck, and one of the best ways to do that is to draft players who can start delivering that bang while they’re still playing on their rookie contracts. Cam Heyward did that. Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt have done that. Sean Davis, Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave showed signs that they can do that. God, willing T.J. Watt and Cam Sutton will do that.

Their ability to keep doing that this season forms the key part of any road map that leads Lombardi Number Seven to Pittsburgh in 2017.

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The Colbert Record: Grading the Steelers 2012 Draft, B-

The with 2017 NFL Draft in the books, it is now time to turn our attention to grading Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s performance with the Steelers draft class.

  • Of course, we’re talking about grading the Steelers 2012 Draft Class here.

The question of when a draft class is ripe to grade is an interesting one with no definitive answer. Same day draft grade border on inane, as Ike Taylor and the Steelers 2003 Draft Class demonstrates. Year after draft grades certainly aren’t much more helpful either.

After the rookie years of Sean Davis, Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave, the Steelers 2016 Draft Class is looking pretty smart. But the same could be said in May 1990 about the 1989 Steelers Draft class, which had its gems but also a lot of fools gold.

The Steelers 2011 Draft Class seems to make a solid case for why you really need to wait five years to grade a draft class, and while others may quibble, we’ll stick with it grade the Steelers 2012 Draft Class.

David DeCastro, Steelers 2012 Draft Class grades, DeAngelo Williams

David DeCastro lines up in front of DeAngelo Williams in 2015 as the Bengals visit Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Pittsburgh CBS Local

Steelers 2012 First Round Pick – David DeCastro, Guard, Stanford

When a highly rated prospect falls in the first round of the NFL Draft, it usually for two reason. First, some sort of off the field issue, be it true or not, surfaces and prospective buyers shy away. Second, sometimes one team will make an unexpected pick or trade scrambling everyone else’s draft board.

Going in to the 2012 NFL Draft, David DeCastro had been rated very highly, some experts had him in the top then. But then a run started on defensive lineman, and DeCastro continued to fall. The Steelers didn’t hesitate to pick DeCastro, and haven’t looked back since.

David DeCastro started as a rookie, although he lost most of that season ton injury, but was a full time starter by 2013. By 2014, DeCastro was establishing himself as a force on the field, and showing that streak of nasty that makes offensive lineman great. By 2015, David DeCastro had done well enough to see the Steelers exercise their 5th year option on him and eventually sign him to a long term deal.

For what it is worth, the NFL Network is rating DeCastro as the 97th best player in the league. Grade: Quality Value Pick (trending toward Grand Slam).

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Steelers 2012 Second Round Pick – Mike Adams, Tackle, Ohio State

Mike Adams provides the perfect example of a player who fell for kind of reason. In his case it was a failed drug test at the NFL Combine. The Steelers knew about this, and took them off their board because of it.

  • Mike Adams of course worked his way back into the good graces of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers took him admitting that there are risks with every pick. The easy evaluation, based on the disaster that was Mike Adams starting at left tackle, is that the Mike Adams pick was a bust. That’s a tempting conclusion to take, but it is not quite accurate.

  • People forget that Mike Adams started 6 games (per Pro Football Reference’s count) at right tackle in 2012 and played fairly well.

HE also made four starts at right tackle in 2014 and again he performed well. 2015 was lost to injury. OK, if you pick a man in the a tackle in the second round, and you project him as a left tackle, you expect more than 10 good starts at right tackle out of the player.

But the Steelers did get some value out of Mike Adams, it just wasn’t enough. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2012 Third Round Pick – Sean Spence, Inside Linebacker, Miami

This pick perhaps illustrates just how much of a factor luck plays in forming a successful NFL Draft. The Steelers drafted Sean Spence with an eye towards replacing Larry Foote. All indications in training camp and preseason were that Spence was capable of being that player.

  • Then disaster struck, as Sean Spence suffered what could have been a career ending injury during preseason.

The Steelers kept Spence on injured reserve for two years, and in the meantime drafted Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier. Spence returned to full health in 2014 and functioned effectively as “The Next Man” up starting 13 games over the next two years.

Steelers vs. Texans, Sean Spence

Sean Spence after forcing a fumble in the Steelers 2014 win over the Houston Texans. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

Who knows how good Sean Spence would have been had not been injured? How well would have he would have played during 2014 and 2015 had Shazier not forced him to the bench? Will never know the answer. All indications are that Colbert and Tomlin made the right pick with this selection, but unfortunately due to no one’s fault, injury prevented the Steelers from recouping its full value. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Steelers 2012 Fourth Round Pick – Alameda Ta’mau, Nose Tackle, Washington

Note to Kevin Colbert: Next time you think of trading up to grab someone in one of the middle rounds, don’t pick a guy that is getting KOed on highlight films by your first round pick.

Because that’s exactly what the Steelers did in 2012 when they traded up to get the “last pure nose tackle in the draft” even though one of David DeCastro’s highlight reels included him totally dominating
Alameda Ta’mau.

That didn’t stop some pundits from predicting that Ta’Mau would become Casey Hampton’s heir apparent. Instead Ta’Mau became best known for his South Side drunken rampage, where only by the grace of God no one got seriously injured.

The Steelers didn’t cut him immediately, but he was gone by year’s end without playing a down and played in 14 games for Pittsburgh West over the next two season. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2012 Fifth Round Pick – Chris Rainey, Running Back, Florida

Unlike Ta’Mau who had a previous alcohol incident that the Steelers knew of but was not public knowledge, Chris Raniey brought a checkered history to Pittsburgh. However, the Pouncey family vouched for Rainey and the Steelers gave him a chance.

  • Chris Rainey was supposed to be a utility back for the Steelers – a small speedy back who could come out of the flat to spread the field.

As a running back Rainey saw spot duty in 2012 and had a respectable rushing average, and he also caught 14 passes on 22 targets which is also respectable, although he never showed any of that field stretching ability. Rainey had a minor run in with the law late in the season, and then his name popped up in the police blotter for domestic violence in January.

The Steelers cut their losses immediately and sent Rainey packing. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2012 Seventh Round Pick, A – Toney Clemons, Wide Receiver, Colorado

Toney Clemons never caught on with the Steelers, but he did play four games in 2012 for the Jacksonville Jaguars and was never heard from again. Grade: Farm Team

Steelers 2012 Seventh Round Pick, B – David Paulson, Tight End, Oregon

Fans will remember David Paulson for his dropped pass in the Steelers road loss to the Bengals in the second game of the 2013 Steelers 0-4 start. And yes he should have caught that, and yes it could have been a difference maker.

  • But David Paulson was a number 4 TE playing as a number 2 TE.

All told, David Paulson had 13 catches on 21 targets over 32 games for the Steelers. Those are hardly Mike Mularkey numbers, let alone Heath Miller type stats. But not bad production from the 240th man taken in the draft. Grade: Quality Value Pickup

Steelers 2012 Seventh Round Pick, C — Terrence Frederick, Cornerback, Texas A&M

Terrence Frederick never made caught on with the Steelers but played 5 games in 2012 and 2014 for the New York Giants and New Orleans Saints. Again, not for a 7th round pick and not a bad way to pocket six figures before starting your “Life’s Work.” Grade: Farm Team

Steelers 2012 Seventh Round Pick, D – Kelvin Beachum, Tackle, SMU

If most NFL General Managers would be forced to confess, when they get to the 248th pick of the draft they’re probably thinking, “If this works out well, he’ll land on the practice squad.” You don’t pick a man that late and expect him to play seven games for you that year, let alone start 5.

Yet that’s what Kelvin Beachum did for the Steelers as a rookie. There weren’t many bright spots for the Steelers offense on the backend of 2012, with Ben Roethlisberger’s injury to Young Money going broke, to the three headed implosion at running back.

But Kelvin Beachum was a true bright spot for the Steelers, as he went on to save the Steelers season in 2013 by stepping in at left tackle, and established himself as a legit starting left tackle in 2014. Grade: Grand Slam

Steelers vs. Chargers, Kelvin Beachum, Kelvin Beachum right tackle

Kelvin Beachum starting for the Steelers vs. the Chargers in late 2012. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via PennLive.com

Grading the Steelers 2012 Draft

Only David DeCastro remains of the Steelers 2012 Draft Class and by many measure’s that’s bad, because in theory this is when your draft picks should in their prime, hitting their stride. And when that happens, a team wins. See the roles the Steelers 2002 Draft Class played in winning Super Bowl XL.

  • But the 2011 NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement’s rookie salary cap altered that calculus a bit.

By essentially mandating that every NFL team devote the same portion of his salary cap on its draft class, it raised the marginal value of the production a team gets out of its draft picks during their rookie contracts.

Viewed in that light, the Steelers got excellent value out of David DeCastro and Kelvin Beachum. They also got solid contributions from the Sean Spence and even got “Something” out of Mike Adams and David Paulson. Unfortunately are weighed down by the loss of value of Ta’amu and Rainey and the draft pick they used to get Ta’Amu.

All told, Steelers 2012 Draft Class had a “Good But…” quality to it, and that’s why we’re grading out with a B-.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line: Low-Moderate

Getting “Younger and stronger” on defensive line was one of Mike Tomlin’s stated objectives when the Steelers 2008 off season began. As it was, the Steelers would continue to open with the same starting threesome for the next 3 seasons, and it wasn’t until the beginning of the 2015 season that Steelers defensive line had been completely renewed.

The question heading into the 2017 NFL Draft is whether the Steelers want to stand pat or continue that renewal process.

Stephon Tuitt, Tyrod Taylor, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Defensive line

Tyrod Taylor is road kill in Stephon Tuitt’s wake. Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via Bleacher Report

Steelers Depth Chart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starters

Two studs in the form of defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt bookend the Steelers defensive line.

During his first two years with the Steelers Cam Heyward doubters were easy to find, but in 2013 he beat out Ziggy Hood for the starting job and since then has established himself as one of the best defensive ends in the league. Cameron Heyward has 25 sacks, 18 passes defensed and a pair of forced fumbles and fumble recoveries to his name, but staistics do not do the man justice.

Week in and week out, Cameron Heyward makes the types of plays that don’t always show up on the stat sheet – unless you count the Steelers keeping more points on the board than their opponents.

Injuries to Brett Keisel thrust Stephon Tuitt into the starting line up late in the 2014 season, and no one has looked back since. With Cameron Heyward out for the second half of 2016, Stephon Tuitt stepped up as a leader of the unit, and despite Cam’s absence, the Steelers defense improved during the latter part of the season.

If you’re surprised to discover that Javon Hargrave didn’t start the entire year, so was I. He had to wait until week to get his first start, but held on to the job from that point in the season, and established himself along side Artie Burns and Sean Davis as one of the three rookies who made an immediate impact to improve the Steelers defense.

Like his fellow rookies, something clicked for Hargrave during the second half of the season, as Hargrave got his first sack and first fumble recovery in the Steelers road win over the Cleveland Browns. Hargrave got another sack in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts, and also got to Tom Brady early in the AFC Championship game loss.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Finding depth on the Steelers defensive line has been a challenge for Pittsburgh, forcing Johnny Mitchell give his starters more snaps than he would like.

  • In 2016 the Steelers defensive line took a step in the right direction, as L.T. Walton stepped up in Cam Heyward’s absence as did Ricardo Mathews.

The Steelers have taken another step in that direction by signing free agent Tyson Alualu, a former first round pick out of Jacksonville who can play either at defensive end or a nose tackle.

Tyson Alualu’s arrival might spell the end for backup nose tackle Daniel McCullers. The Shady Tree offers and imposing physical presence, standing at 6’7” 352 pounds and his snap count percentage did jump from 9.5% in 2015 to 17.4% in 2016, which is good, but given all of the injuries the Steelers suffered on the defensive line, you’d expect to see McCullers getting even more playing time.

Injuries forced practice squad player John Maxey into the action in late in 2016 and Maxley did his part to help prove Mike Tomlin’s “The Standard is the Standard.”

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Defensive Line

The Steelers quest to rebuild their defensive line took longer than expected, although part of that is due to the longevity of Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton (although whiffing on Ziggy Hood didn’t help the cause.)Steelers 2017 Draft Needs defensive line

  • Yet, even after the Steelers found three competent starters on defensive line, they struggled to back them up.

Time was that when the Steelers had to play without either Cameron Heyward or Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers run defense became a sieve and the team lost. That fact seemed to doom the Steelers chances after Cameron Heyward went on injured reserve in 2016.

However, the rest of the defensive line responded and not only survived but thrived despite Cam Heyward’s absence. That shows that the Pittsburgh Steelers have real depth on their defensive line, and the unit got deeper with the addition of Alualu Tyson.

Let’s be clear, in the contemporary NFL, the difference between an outside linebacker and a defensive end is getting blurred by the concept of “Edge Rusher” and that’s not even taking to account that the Steelers depend on their nickel package, which includes four down lineman, all the more frequently.

  • Edge Rusher” is clearly a Steelers priority, and if they find someone who falls into that category who happens to play defensive line, then the rating you’re about to read is rendered moot.

However, if we’re confining our conversation to conventional 3-4 defensive lineman then the Steelers depth chart is as solid as it has been during the Mike Tomlin era, and Steelers draft need at defensive line can be considered Low-Moderate.

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Steelers Free Agent Signings of Hunter, Davis Sensabaugh & Tyson Alualu Offer Insurance

Ever notice how a certain album produces a few hit singles, while another just sort of hits you with one nice song after another, until you look up in February and realize it was just nominated for a Grammy?

When it comes to the NFL’s annual free-agent frenzy, the Pittsburgh Steelers never have any hit singles, let alone a few. This year was no exception, as big-time name after big-time name went off the proverbial “big board,” while Pittsburgh just sat back and made its entire fan base feel unfilled. (The re-signings of backup quarterback Landry Jones and journeyman tight end David Johnson did nothing to satiate anyone’s appetite.)

Nearly a week past, before Pittsburgh made news again (kind of), by agreeing to terms with both cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and running back/return specialist Knile Davis. 

Saving the best for last, the Steelers came to terms with veteran defensive lineman Tyson Alualu on a two-year deal for $6 million.

Senquez Golson, Senquez Golson injury, cotty sensabaugh

The Steelers signed free agent Cotty Sensabaugh as insurance that Senquez Golson can’t provide. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Actually, the addition of Tyson Alualu to an already talented defensive line was seen as a sound move by Pittsburgh, a signing that could pay huge dividends this season, as Alualu will no doubt be an upgrade over the likes of Ricardo Mathews and Cam Thomas, two free-agent signings who provided depth along the defensive line to varying degrees of success in recent years.

  • With Tyson Alualu acting as the cherry on top of the cake, Pittsburgh’s current free-agent crop now doesn’t look so bad, and you kind of get an idea of what the organization’s goal was from the start.

The 2017 free-agency period wasn’t about the splash move (even if Dont’a Hightower was wined and dined before he decided to stay with the Patriots); it wasn’t even necessarily about finding a veteran who may have not been seen as very splashy, but one would have started at a position of need.

  • No, if these four signings are any indication, the Steelers were driven by providing insurance in a few key areas.

Despite losing star defensive end Cameron Heyward to a season-ending injury on November 13, Keith Butler‘s young and often struggling defense showed great improvement over the last seven games and into the playoffs. But how much better off would the unit have been had it been able to plug in a defensive lineman of Tyson Alualu’s pedigree down-the-stretch?

The 10th pick of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Jaguars, Alualu started 88 games during his seven seasons in Jacksonville. While he hasn’t quite lived up to his lofty draft-status, he is clearly a talent upgrade over the likes of Mathews and Thomas and should strengthen Pittsburgh’s defensive line rotation. And in the likely scenario that Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave or Heyward has to miss time due to injuries next season, the gap from from starter to reserve shouldn’t be as great as it was in 2016.

After the Tennessee Titans made him the 34th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, Hunter, 25, has bounced around the league.

  • Justin Hunter averaged just over 22 receptions a season, before catching 10 in 2016.

With 78 career receptions for just over 1,300 yards, Hunter has fallen well short of his lofty pre-draft potential that included a 6’4″, 200-pound frame and 4.4 speed. But if we’re going to speak of pedigree, however, fairness demands that we acknowledge that Justin Hunter has never had a quarterback with Ben Roethlisberger‘s skill-set throwing to him; maybe if he had, his potential would have been fleshed out just a bit more.

Martavis Bryant,

Martavis Bryant reviews a play on a tablet during the 2015 season. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today via stillcurtain.com

Four of Hunter’s 10 catches went for touchdowns in 2016, so maybe he could benefit from now finding himself on a roster with not only Roethlisberger but some of the NFL’s best offensive weapons in Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant.

In a worst-case scenario, if Martavis Bryant, if he doesn’t find himself back on a football field next year, and Sammie Coates can’t recover from the finger ailments that derailed what started out as a promising sophomore season in 2016, Hunter should be a much more talented alternative than the likes of Cobi Hamilton

As for Knile Davis and Coty Sensabaugh, while the Steelers would obviously be in a bad way if either had to start many games at their respective positions in 2017, they should also provide some decent insurance,

Knile Davis, for example, may never be more than competition for Fitzgerald Toussaint, but if he does win the job as the team’s third running back, this will open the door to providing his real value as a kickoff returner.

With 1,960 career return yards on his resume, Knile Davis should be a significant upgrade over Toussaint, who averaged just 21.3 yards per kickoff return last season.

Finally, Coty Sensabaugh may not have been the veteran cornerback Steelers fans were hoping for–far from it–but he did start 15 games for the Titans two years ago.

  • Besides, the Steelers secondary may not need a splashy free-agent signing to see an upgrade.

If Artie Burns and Sean Davis improve over their already rather impressive  rookie seasons, and if Senquez Golson finally sees a football field in 2017 and ultimately performs like his 2015 second round pedigree, Coty Sensabaugh will act as the best insurance policy: one you never need to cash in on.

No, the Steelers didn’t make any big-time signings, but their free-agent class seems a bit more impressive when you examine it for it what really is.

Some nice insurance.

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Steelers Sign Tyson Alualu. Has Johnny Mitchell Found the Coveted “4th Lineman” for His Rotation?

After remaining relatively inactive during the first wave of free agency, Pittsburgh as been busy this week signing three players into days with the franchise’s latest acquisition seeing the Steelers sign Tyson Alualu the free agent defensive lineman from Jacksonville to a two year contract.

  • During the 2010 NFL Draft the Jacksonville Jaguars surprised the rest of the league when they drafted Tyson Alualu with the 10th overall pick.

Since then Tyson Alualu has had a solid, but hardly spectacular career, although it should be noted that he did make several “All Rookie teams” in 2010, per reporting by Jim Wexell on Steel City Insider.

Tyson Alualu, Steelers 2017 free agents, Steelers defensive line

Steelers reserve defensive lineman Tyson Alualu in Pittsburgh after arriving as a free agent. Photo Credit: Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette

With seven seasons under his belt, Tyson Alualu provides a perfect example of a player who may not have lived up to his lofty draft status, but is very far from being a bust. He’s never missed a game due to injury, he brings the Steelers 88 games of starting experience, 17.5 sacks, and offers position flexibility with the ability to play either nose tackle or defensive end.

All of this must make for pure music in the ears of Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell

Does Johnny Mitchell Finally Have his Coveted 4th Lineman?

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell has been with the team since the fall of 1994, having replace Steve Furness as part of Bill Cowher‘s coaching purge following the 1993 season. During Johnny Mitchell’s watch and, particularly during the Kevin Colbert era, the Steelers defensive line has been a model of stability.

While each of those starters played a critical role in securing Lombardi Trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII, their impact and importance of their understudies cannot be under stated. Johnny Mitchell’s system relies heavily on rotating defensive lineman in and out throughout the game.

  • But for Mitchell’s system to be effective, the Steelers can’t suffer a drop of in quality of play when the starter has taken a breather.

For a long time, players like Chris Hoke, Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason were good enough to allow Mitchell rotate Keisel, Smith and Hampton in out as needed. In his two years in Pittsburgh, Al Woods looked he was growing into that same role but the Steelers stint in salary cap purgatory in prevented the team from keeping Al Woods in Pittsburgh in 2014.

They signed Cam Thomas instead, who was decidedly not up to the role. Daniel McCullers whom the Steelers drafted during the 2014 NFL Draft has flashed, but has yet to show he can take that role. Ricardo Mathews performed well after Cam Hewyard was lost for the season and so did L.T. Walton.

  • But the Steelers appear to have found an upgrade from both men in Tyson Alualu.

During the heyday of Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel’s tenures, Johnny Mitchell quipped – not altogether jokingly – the he would retire when this trio began their “Life’s Work.” The arrival of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and most recently Javon Hargrave has provided Mitchell with another fearsome threesome.

Tyson Alualu just might provide the type of talent and stability that Mitchell needs to get his rotation humming.

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Thoughts on Mike Tomlin, Lawrence Timmons and Steelers Head Coaches First Draft Picks

Lawrence Timmons decision to sign with the Miami Dolphins marked a sad day in Steelers Nation. For ten years Lawrence Timmons had been a mainstay of the Steelers defense, first giving Dick LeBeau and the Keith Butler a durable, reliable presence in the middle of the field.

  • Lawrence Timmons had also been Mike Tomlin’s first draft pick.

Commentators were quick to assert that a head coach losing his maiden draft selection to the free agent market means something, and it does, but just what does it actually mean?

Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior, Ryan Clark, Brett Swain, Super Bowl XLV

Lawrence Timmons goes for a loose ball in Super Bowl XLV. Photo Credit: Streeter Lecka, Getty Images via Zimbio

It sounds sexy to say that a new head coach defines his legacy with his first draft pick and sometimes it’s true. Jimmy Johnson certainly defined his legacy in Dallas for the better by picking Troy Aikman just as Norv Turner did the opposite by picking Heath Shuler.

  • But in other cases the analogy falls flat.

Does anyone really want to try to argue that Bill Walsh in any way defined his legacy in San Francisco by picking making James Owens his first pick in 1979?

Which brings us to the question – how, and to what extent does Lawrence Timmons define Mike Tomlin’s legacy in Pittsburgh?

Steelers Head Coaches & Their First Picks

Steelers history gives a mixed bag when it comes to head coaches and their first picks. And this is a lot more difficult discussion to have in Pittsburgh than say in Cleveland or Washington, as the Steelers have only had 3 head coaches since the end of the Lyndon Johnson administration.

Buddy Parker’s first picks was Len Dawson, which is painfully appropriate for his legacy. Dawson is one of various quarterbacks the Steelers brought into the league that won Super Bowls and/or NFL Championships for someone other than Pittsburgh.

Bill Austin’s first pick ever was a fullback by the name of Dick Leftridge who played all of one season and had a total of 8 yards rushing and got cut the next summer for show up overweight.

Some have suggested that Dick Leftridge could have been a victim of Bill Austin’s racism, while another source consulted to verify this argues that Leftride did in fact lack  the commitment to conditioning. Either way Austin’s pick of Leftridge was certainly indicative of the Steelers failure with the draft.

Joe Greene, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Sr.

Chuck Noll and Joe Greene Shake hands in front of Art Rooney Sr. in 1982. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On the flip side, picking Joe Greene first most certainly defined Chuck Noll’s legacy as Joe Greene’s arrival in Pittsburgh was the fulcrum that turned a perennial loser on to the path to being the greatest football team in the history of the sport.

In contrast, assessing the impact of Bill Cowher’s decision to pick (along with Tom Donahoe) Leon Searcy on The Chin’s legacy is a little more nebulous. To a certain degree, picking Searcy signaled a full-throated embrace of physical, power football that characterized the Cowher years in Pittsburgh.

  • But would anyone ever argue that Leon Searcy was a legacy defining pick?

I daresay the answer is no.

2007 Tomlin Takes Charge, Picks Lawrence Timmons First

The Steelers turned heads in the 2007 NFL Draft when they picked two outside linebackers, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley with picks number one and number two. (Yes, the Steelers originally picked Timmons as an outside linebacker.)

Unfortunately, Lawrence Timmons early career doesn’t give opponents of the “Tomlin’s only won with Cowher’s players” nonsense much ammunition. Timmons played very little as a rookie and, while he made impressive contributions in spot duty in 2008, most of those came at outside linebacker in relief of James Harrison. Timmons started in 2009, but the fact that he split time with Keyaron Fox had some fans labeling him a bust.

  • But if Timmons took a few years to find his NFL footing, he exploded in 2010.
Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Steelers vs Titans, Bo Scaife

Lawrence Timmons slams Titans Bo Scaife as James Harrison looks on in Pittsburgh’s 2010 win over Tennessee. Photo Credit: New Pittsburgh Courier

And from 2010 onwards, Lawrence Timmons clearly established himself as a Mike Tomlin talent acquisition success story, even if he had a subpar 2011 campaign. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell observed:

Timmons was explosive. And productive. And he played week in and week out. Timmons started the last 111 games (counting postseason) that the Steelers played. In his eight regular seasons as the starter, he averaged 95 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 passes defensed and 1.4 forced fumbles per season.

Mike Tomlin likes to draft his players, especially premium picks, young and the statistics that Jim Wexell cites show just how effective that strategy has been. The Steelers win 8-8 reloading seasons and the “4 seasons between playoff wins” chant were frustrating for sure.

In seminal 2014 article Déjà vu All Over Again , Jim Wexell compared the post-2011 Steelers to the 1998-2000 Steeler teams and argued that the presence of Ben Roethlisberger as opposed to Kordell Stewart under center is what explains Pittsburgh’s ability to keep the franchise’s head above water.

He’s right of course, but quarterbacks can’t carry a team on their own, and Lawrence Timmons steadfast playmaking presence on the Steelers defense during those years was arguably just as important as Roethlisberger’s was to the defense during that time span.

Lawrence Timmons, Thad Lewis, Lawrence Timmons sack Thad Lewis, Steelers vs Browns,

Lawrence Timmons downs Thad Lewis of the Browns in the penultimate play of 2012. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Think back to the Pittsburgh’s 2012 finale. The Steelers limped into the game against the Browns with an 7-8 record and, with the Steelers defending a two touchdown lead late in the fourth quarter, Lawrence Timmons ended the game with dramatic back-to-back sacks.

It was almost as if Timmons was proclaiming to the rest of the league, “Yes, the Steelers are down, but we’re not out.”

Lawrence Timmons and Tomlin’s Legacy

Lawrence Timmons continued to be the Steelers best defender for the next several seasons. By 2014 one could argue that Cameron Heyward had taken over that role, and by 2016 with Cam Heyward out, Ryan Shazier had established himself as Pittsburgh’s Alpha Male on defense.

  • But Lawrence Timmons continued to dominate, as 2016 second half surge proved.

Despite losing its best player, and despite starting rookies Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave the Steelers defense staged and impressive turn around during the second half of 2016, and Lawrence was a big part of it coming up with two sacks and two interceptions in the last 7 games, followed by his twin sacks to close the win over the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs.

It is just as unfortunate it the game marked Lawrence Timmons final game as a Pittsburgh Steeler. If Mike Tomlin is to reach the Mountain Top again, he’ll have to do it without the Law Dog.

  • In that sense, Lawrence Timmons’ impact on Mike Tomlin’s legacy falls somewhere between that of his predecessors.

Chuck Noll reached the Mountain Top with Joe Greene, and never sniffed it without him. Leon Searcy helped Bill Cowher broach the pinnacle in Super Bowl XXX, but the time The Chin summited in Super Bowl XL Searcy was a distant memory.

Mike Tomlin and Lawrence Timmons might have only reached the Mountain Top once together in Super Bowl XLIII, but Lawrence Timmons did so much to keep the Mountain Top in reach during the rest of his time in Pittsburgh.

And for that, Steelers Nation says, “Thank You Lawrence Timmons.”

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Why Steelers Should Let Free Agent Ricardo Mathews Walk & Seek Depth in 2017 Draft

Defensive end Ricardo Mathews was the quintessential journeyman free-agent when the Steelers signed him to a one-year veteran minimum contract for $760,000 last March.

One year later, it appears as nothing’s changed. Just days away from free-agency, Mathews will soon be free to shop his services to other teams. Will he do so, or will he set up some roots in Pittsburgh, provided Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Johnny Mitchell want him back….?

Ricardo Mathews, Ricardo Mathews free agent

Ricardo Mathews lines up in the 2016 Steelers road win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of Ricardo Mathews Steelers Career

Mathews was a seventh round pick by the Colts in the 2010 NFL Draft; after making the team out of training camp, he initially set up roots in Indianapolis, where he remained for four years. Mathews started six games as a member of the Colts, recording five sacks and 67 tackles.

In 2014, Mathews elected to sign with the Texans as a free-agent, but was waived and never appeared in any regular season games for Houston. However, Mathews found a home with the Chargers that same year and remained in San Diego through the 2015 season, before signing that aforementioned one-year deal with the Steelers.

The Steelers brought Ricardo Mathews to Pittsburgh to replace/upgrade the position previously held by Cam Thomas, who’d also come from the San Diego Chargers.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mathews 

Teams covet depth for a reason, and when star defensive end Cameron Heyward played in only seven games in 2016 due to multiple injuries, you saw why depth is so important.

In Ricardo Mathews, 29, the Steelers had a veteran player who started seven games for the Chargers the year before; they were forced to lean on that experience, as he started five games a year ago. While he only recorded eight tackles and one sack during the season, Mathews appeared in all 16 games in 2016 and played a bigger role than anyone could have anticipated.

During the Steelers embarrassing October loss against the Miami Dolphins where, Jay Ajayi ran like Walter Peyton in his prime, it appeared that the Dolphins had been targeting Ricardo Mathews.

Yet, the Steelers run defense improved during the final nine games of 2016 and that only happens if Ricardo Mathews is pulling his weight.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ricardo Mathews 

While Ricardo Mathews did play a fairly big role in 2016, he obviously didn’t make the splash plays that fellow defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt, rookie Javon Hargrave and Came Heyward are capable of. That was to be expected, of course. After all, if a journeyman defensive lineman was capable of making the same types of splash plays as superstars and promising rookies, he wouldn’t be a journeyman defensive lineman.

I believe Rotoworld summed up Mathews’ pedigree quite nicely, even before his arrival in Pittsburgh:

“A career reserve, Mathews played 525 ineffective snaps for the Chargers last season. He’s just a body for the Steelers, one who faces an uphill climb to crack the 53-man roster.”

A year later, can anyone suggest that Ricardo Mathews is anything more? Sure, he was an upgrade over Cam Thomas but so what? Keith Willis or Kevin Henry could probably come out of retirement and offer an improvement over Cam Thomas.

  • OK, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but its probably not to suggest that a health Brett Keisel could pull himself up off the couch to contribute more than Cam Thomas did.

L.T. Walton and Johnny Maxey showed they can play giving the Steelers cheaper and younger alternatives to Ricardo Mathews.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ricardo Mathews 

While Mathews did crack the 53-man roster a year ago and proved to be more than just a body for the Steelers, fact is, he’ll be 30 by the start of training camp. And in-addition to fighting the likes of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave for playing time, youngsters Daniel McCullers, L.T. Walton and Johnny Maxey are also in the mix.

While it would be nice to have a player with Ricardo Mathews’ experience on the roster in-case of injury, L.T. Walton and Daniel McCullers have now gained enough experience that they should be ready to step in and provide reasonable depth at a moment’s notice.

The Steelers would be wise to let Ricardo Mathews explore the free agent market, while looking to add defensive line depth through the draft.

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Belated Thank You: Thanks Steelers for a Wonderful 2016 Season

[Editor’s note: Steel Curtain Rising has already shifted coverage to the Steelers 2017 off season, but author Tony Defeo pauses to offer some belated thanks to the men in Black and Gold.]

It’s been nearly a month since the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2016 quest for a Lombardi trophy went up in smoke at the hands of the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.

  • During that time, the general feelings regarding the team’s accomplishments have been those of disappointment, along with bitterness and anger.

I must admit that I was quite depressed for a few days following the end of Pittsburgh’s campaign, and I even went so far as to  not want to acknowledge what a great ride 2016 really was. After all, the Steelers came within two victories of a seventh Super Bowl title.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers Christmas win Ravens

Antonio Brown scores game winner in Steelers Christmas comeback vs Ravens. (Photo Credit: Steelers.com via Steel City Blitz)

Think about that for one moment. Just two more victories, and the perception among fans would have been much, much different.

  • And when you put the Steelers 2016 season into that kind of perceptive, it really does make you appreciate what a wonderful job they did.

As Steelers fans, we’re almost nauseating when it comes to our high-standards for the team, and how nothing short of a championship is acceptable in our eyes.

  • If that’s the case, why celebrate any moment, any victory, any advancement in the postseason, if it doesn’t all lead to a championship?

Why not just sit on your hands the entire season and reserve your real appreciation for when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is presenting Dan Rooney with that Lombardi trophy on a grand stage following a Super Bowl victory?

Fact is, Pittsburgh gave you and I many great moments in 2016 that included 11 wins, a division title and two postseason triumphs on the way to the AFC Championship game.

The Steelers 2016 season included a nine-game winning-streak, almost 1900 yards from scrimmage by Le’Veon Bell in just 12 games, a coming-of-age defense that includes many young defenders, such as Ryan ShazierArtie Burns, Javon Hargrave and Sean DavisThen there was the resurgence of veterans such as Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison.

And, of course, that glorious moment on Christmas night, when Antonio Brown essentially extended the season by extending his arm over the goal line, as three Ravens tacklers were trying to prevent him from doing so in the waning seconds of the de facto AFC North title game at Heinz Field.

So, while many fans (and even some of the Steelers, themselves–including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger) have been screaming for change since that 36-17 beatdown at the hands of the Patriots, I just wanted to be one who offered my virtual hand and thanked you for a tremendous season.

  • It wasn’t long ago that just winning a playoff game was a monkey that needed to be extracted from the organization’s back.

Now, three in two years?

Again, sometimes it’s good to gain a little perceptive.

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