Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Running Back: Moderate High

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

  • Does that sound funny to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Running Back

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs at Offensive Line

The Steelers offensive line building strategy has seen a sea change during the Mike Tomlin era, perhaps like no other spot on the depth chart.

  • During the first part of the Tomlin era, the Steelers used a “Plug and Patch” approach to building their offensive line.

Whether it was because the Steelers drank their own “Weapons vs. Protection” Koolaid for real or because they won Super Bowl XLIII and went to another with a makeshift offensive line, or because Bruce Arians wasn’t interested in line building as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reported in 2013, the Steelers ignored the offensive line in Mike Tomlin’s first several drafts.

That changed as Ben Roethlisberger started taking more hits, and the question we look at here today is whether the Steelers should continue to focus on the offensive line in the 2017 NFL Draft.

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Maurkice Pouncey flanked by David DeCastro and B.J. Finney on Le’Veon Bell’s record breaking day in Buffalo. Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via lastwordonfootball.com

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

The Maurkice Pouncey anchors the Steelers offensive line having been voted to the Pro Bowl by his peers in each of his non-injury seasons. Marcus Gilbert holds down the right end of the Steelers offensive line, followed by David DeCastro, with Ramon Foster and Alejandro Villanueva playing to Pouency’s left.

While it is fair to say that the Steelers offensive line got off to a slow start in early 2016, the unit gelled as the season progressed. Ben Roethlisberger took fewer sacks than he has in any season and Le’Veon Bell tured out single game performances in both the regular season and playoffs that neither Willie Parker, nor Franco Harris, nor Jerome Bettis could accomplish.

That only happens of the Steelers offensive line is playing well.

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

Behind their starting front five the Steelers have  and B.J. Finney who can back up at guard and center. Next they have Chris Hubbard who can play both guard and offensive tackle. Ryan Harris retired, leaving 2016’s 4th round draft pick Jerald Hawkins and Brain Mihalik as the primary backups at offensive tackle.

Both Chris Hubbard and BJ Finney saw action in during 2016, and both men played well, although Finney is stronger at guard than he is at center.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Offensive Line

The Steelers offensive line is as talented and as deep as it has been at any time in during the Mike Tomlin era. The Steelers starters and depth at guard are both strong. Depth at center isn’t quite as strong, but BJ Finney has shown he’s at least serviceable there, and he also possesses the proverbial “Upside.”Steelers 2017 Draft Needs offensive line

  • Depth remains more of a concern at offensive tackle.

Chris Hubbard started four games at tackle and also served as a third tight end as part of the Steelers “Big Boy Package.” In a perfect world Jerald Hawkins would give the Steelers 2 viable backups at offensive tackle, but Hawkins is an untested commodity.

Fate has had a nasty way of reminding Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert that the old saying “You can never have too many good offensive lineman” during more than one season in recent memory. And that leads one to the temptation to rate offensive line a higher priority, but the Steelers essential need at offensive line is to build depth, and therefore Steelers 2017 draft need at must be considered Moderate/Low.

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Dan Rooney’s Legacy: Matching Excellence with Humility

As the city of Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation lay Dan Rooney to rest perhaps the most fitting way to put Dan Rooney’s legacy into perspective is to recall the wisdom of my late father-in-law, Ruben Jorge Sosa, who often remarked:

Si quieres conocer la alma de verdad de un hombre, darle dinero y poder y ven como se trata la gente.”

The rough English translation of Rubencito’s Argentine dictum would be, “If you want to get to know the true soul of a man, give him money and give him power and see how he treats people.”

Dan Rooney was born as the first son of Pittsburgh’s first family and grew to lead one of the world’s most successful sports franchises inside the uber-competitive crucible of the NFL. He had more money, and more power than anyone whose eyes have browsed this blog, yet Dan Rooney always maintained his humility, and he always kept his focus firmly on the people.

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Joe Greene embraces Dan Rooney at his number retirement ceremony. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Steel Curtain Rising is hardly the only site to make this observation. The tributes to Dan Rooney that have rolled in since his death seemingly provide an inexhaustible source of stories about Dan Rooney’s sense of decency, justice and humility.

But it is also appropriate to consider just how remarkable an accomplishment Dan Rooney’s life represents when you take into account the environment in which he thrived.

Dan Rooney in the Competitive Crucible of the NFL

Have you ever stopped to consider which environment is more competitive, the NFL on the field or the NFL off of the field?

On the field, football provides as competitive and as brutal a contest as you can find. Long before Mike Webster’s death introduced the world to the ravages of CTE, the gridiron had a well-earned reputation for giving US pop culture its modern day equivalent of the Roman Coliseum.

  • Careers can and do end in a second and a lifetime debilitating injury is a possibility on every play.

Off the field things don’t get any easier. If you think the NFL is anything but a bottom line business, then I invite you to talk with San Diego Chargers or Oakland Raiders fans. Or St. Louis Rams fans. Or Houston Oilers fans. Or Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts fans.

Baltimore Colts move

Photo via Baltimore CBS Local

NFL owners understand the nature of the game. They know that careers are short and championship windows can take a generation to pry open, only to slam shut before many even realize their opportunity is at hand. The vast majority of owners grasp this reality and model their businesses with the requisite ruthlessness.

  • Dan Rooney stood in stark contrast to them all.

As he recounted in his self-titled autobiography, during the 1987 players strike, Dan Rooney once observed the Cowboy’s Tex Schramm and Tampa Bay’s Hugh Culverhouse comparing NFL players to cattle and the owners to ranchers. When the NFLPA’s executive director Gene Updshaw looked at Rooney in disbelief, Rooney simply shook his head, making it known he preferred to negotiate with the union in good faith.

Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Super Bowl X Trophy presentation, Pete Rozelle, Dan Rooney Legacy

Pete Rozelle hands the Lombardi Trophy to Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll after Super Bowl X. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

Lest you think this anecdote is merely a byproduct uttered in the heat of acrimonious labor negotiations, rest assured more mundane examples abound. Think Daniel Snyder firing dozens of front office staff – many secretaries and other low wage administrative staff – when he took control of the Redskins, simply to show everyone a new Sherriff was in town.

It takes a tough individual to build a successful business when your “partners” hold such attitudes.

  • But did Rooney did it, and he did it by being tougher than the rest.

When Pete Rozelle first proposed a unified television contract with equally shared revenues, the big market owners, George Halas, George Preseton Marshall, Wellington Mara and Dan Reeves of Los Angeles resisted, balked at the idea and insisted instead that larger markets get a bigger share of the pie.

Dan Rooney informed them that if they failed to compromise, then he would refuse to broadcast games to the visiting cities whenever their teams came to Pittsburgh.

The other owners relented, and revenue sharing was born.

  • Reeves later told the other owners, “That Rooney kid the toughest guy I’ve ever met.”

But Rooney pulled off the feat of being tough, of maintaining a profitable bottom line while continuing to make people the focus of his efforts as a single, simple tweet illustrates:

For those of you who’ve already forgotten who he is, the Tweet is from Josh Harris, whose NFL career amounted to 9 regular season and 9 post-season carries in 2014. Josh Harris was a roster-bubble baby if there ever was one, yet Dan Rooney knew his name before the two men had ever said hello.

  • Imagine yourself reaching your 80’s and running the Pittsburgh Steelers – would you have been able to do that?

I know I wouldn’t, and I’m 40 years younger than Dan Rooney.

But that was Dan Rooney. He was the NFL owner who once had Mike Wagner come in and sign a contract after he announced his retirement, simply so he could pay him a farewell signing bonus. That’s the same Dan Rooney who insisted on waiting in line in his own lunch room, and paid to send his cafeteria workers to see the Steelers in the Super Bowl. Dan Rooney drove himself around in a Pontiac, and carried his own suitcase when he served as ambassador to Ireland.

  • As Ryan Clark once observed, “He must not know he’s rich.”

But Dan Rooney most certainly did know he was rich, but he understood that his true wealth came from his ability to connect with people. He always remembered that.

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Dan Rooney leaving the practice field before the 2006 NFL Championship game. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Commentators often grouse about the “socialist” nature of the NFL’s business model which is built on revenue sharing. That’s AM Radio inspired nonsense. The NFL is the ultimate capitalist cartel. The result of this arrangement is that the NFL’s competitive landscape rewards pure excellence.

  • The result is that teams from markets like Green Bay and Pittsburgh can end up facing off in the Super Bowl.

Good decision making, on the field and off the field, determine who the winners are in the NFL, and with six Super Bowl Trophies to their credit, no team has been more successful than Dan Rooney’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

He did it by identifying and hiring three fantastic coaches in Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, standing behind them through thick and thin, giving them players like Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann, Terry Bradshaw, Rod Woodson, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger.

  • Yet through it all Dan Rooney always remembered where he came from.

Dan Rooney’s life was guided by faith, family and football and those values guided him and kept him at the pinnacle of his chosen profession. Dan Rooney’s legacy is his humility in the face of such awesome excellence.

Thank you, Dan Rooney, on behalf of Pittsburgh and on behalf of Steelers Nation.

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DeAngelo Williams Reaches Free Agency – Arm Chair Steelers General Managers Beware…

On paper, staffing a backup running back seems simple: Once a feature back establishes himself, you find a good number two back to slot him behind him. Your starter carries the bulk of the load, but you use your number two to keep your starter fresh and your backup sharp.

  • The process couldn’t be any simpler on paper.

Something simple like this is what the Pittsburgh Steelers had in mind when they signed DeAngelo Williams as a free agent during the 2015 off season. And while bringing DeAngelo Williams to Pittsburgh has been one of Kevin Colbert’s wiser free agent acquisitions, very little has gone according to plan.

Now, at age 34 and after 11 NFL seasons, DeAngelo Williams is a free agent, and the Steelers need to decide if he’s in their plans for the future.

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DeAngelo Williams AFC Championship touchdown may be his last, for Steelers at least. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of DeAngelo Williams Steelers Career

It says here that Mike Tomlin made the right move in cutting LeGarrette Blount after he abandoned his teammates during the Steelers 2014 win over the Titans. It also says here that Le’Veon Bell’s injury against the Bengals left the Steelers with their pants down when the playoffs arrived.

Clearly, the Steelers needed to find a reliable backup to Le’Veon Bell. Many were skeptical given that DeAngelo Williams was 32 and his production and been declining. Knowing that Le’Veon Bell was facing his first suspension, the Steelers were banking heavily on DeAngelo Willams to deliver.

  • And deliver he did, with two strong performances during the first two games of the 2015 season.

After Le’Veon Bell’s return, DeAngelo Williams saw his touches drop to single digits, but against the Bengals DeAngelo Williams was once again forced to carry the load for the Steelers rushing offense, as Le’Veon Bell was lost for the year. And DeAngelo Williams delivered again, proving to be a weapon rushing on the ground and catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger through the air.

  • Unfortunately, DeAngelo Williams got injured in the Steelers season finale against the Browns, and missed the playoffs.

In 2016, DeAngelo Williams again opened the season as the Steelers starting running back as Le’Veon Bell served his second suspension for substance abuse, and once again DeAngelo Williams delivered on the ground and through the air.

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs Raiders, DeAngelo Williams free agent

DeAngelo Williams ran for 170 yards and caught passes for 55 more in the 2015 Steelers win over the Raiders. Photo Credit: Kirby Lee, USA Today

Word was the Steelers would use Williams to spell Bell, but it didn’t work out that way, as DeAngelo Williams only touched the ball 8 times after Bell’s return. Nonetheless, those 8 touches were sufficient for Williams to injure himself, as he missed all but the final game of the Steelers 2016 season recovering from minor knee surgery.

DeAngelo Williams started in the Steelers New Year’s Day win overtime win over the Browns in a performance that didn’t make many fantasy owners happy, but D William’s performance was a lot better than statistics indicated.

DeAngelo Williams stepped in when Le’Veon Bell got injured in the AFC Championship, and ripped off a few impressive runs, including a touchdown, but overall the Patriots defense contained him on the ground, although he did do well catching the ball out of the backfield.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning DeAngelo Williams

Let’s acknowledge that an NFL running back who is about to turn 34 offers no “Upside” whatsoever. But does mean that a running back in his mid-30’s has nothing to contribute? Not at all. In fact, the opposite can often be true.

Last year this site set out to prove that because of his age, DeAngelo Williams was in danger of suffering a sharp drop-off from one season to the next because of his age. Logically, this seems like a no-brainer.

  • Research reveals that the opposite often comes to pass.

It is counter intuitive, but if an NFL running back both the talent and the durability to continue playing into his mid-30’s then, more often than not, he continues to perform at a reasonably high level. (Seriously, it took a ton of research, so click here and please read the article.)

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs Redskins, DeAngelo Williams Free Agent

DeAngelo Williams, at age 33, imposed his will on the Washington Redskins in the Steelers 2016 opener. (Photo Credit: Brad Mills, USA Today.)

Indeed, during the past two season, DeAngelo Williams has played in 28 games and missed 8 due to injury, whereas Le’Veon Bell has played in 20 games and missed 8 to injury.

  • Which Steelers running back has had more durability issues?

In DeAngelo Williams the Steelers have a viable number 2 running back who serves as a dual threat. If Le’Veon Bell can’t go, the Steelers offense is clearly in better hands with DeAngelo Williams in the backfield than Fitzgerald Toussaint.

Sure, DeAngelo Williams yards-per-carry might have dropped by a full yard between 2015 and 2016, but a big part of that drop is due to Williams getting carries in obvious kill the clock situations. DeAngelo Williams may be aged, but in this case age doesn’t signify “old” but rather “experienced.”

The Steelers should resign DeAngelo Williams.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning DeAngelo Williams

The story of the “should be over the hill football player defying father time” should stir the sentiments in any Steelers fan who saw players like John Stallworth, Dwayne Woodruff and Jerome Bettis perform at a high level long after they weren’t supposed to and leave the game on their own terms.

Those stories hold their rightful place in Steelers lore, but such sentimentality won’t win the Steelers a Seventh Super Bowl. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin know that, and Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II understand that too. The Steelers wanted to draft a running back last year, but couldn’t find one. This year they plan to address the position early in the 2017, and that’s the smart move.

  • Part of the reason the Steelers ran Le’Veon Bell so much during their 9 game winning streak was no one else was available.

The Steelers need a backup running back who will be available for 16 games, and DeAngelo Williams hasn’t quite done that, and expecting him to do it at age 34 simply isn’t realistic. The Steelers also need to think of the future at the position.

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers vs Browns, DeAngelo Williams free agent, DeAngelo Williams injury

DeAngelo Williams, carted off the field in the Steelers 2015 finale against the Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Sporting News

Should that prove to be his final year, either due to free agency or, God forbid, injury who is going to take over in 2018? Certainly not DeAngelo Williams nor Fitzgerald Toussaint. The Steelers need to draft and develop another running back, which makes DeAngelo Williams a luxury the Steelers can’t afford.

DeAngelo Williams has been a tremendous free agent pickup. He’s added a lot in the locker room and to the community. But it is simply time to move on.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers & DeAngelo Williams – Beware the Arm-Chair GM

If there’s any position that gets arm-chair general managers into trouble, it is running back. This writer knows this from bitter experience. The first lesson came in the 1995 Steelers run to Super Bowl XXX.

John L. Williams, 1995 Steelers

John L. Williams. Photo Credit: Scout.com

John L. Williams, the fullback the Steelers had signed to replace Merril Hoge, had arrived in 1994 at age 30 and upgraded the position (and these words come from a fan who practically worshiped Merril Hoge.) In 1995, Williams got injured and saw his production drop off. Yet, Williams made several critical plays during the Steelers regular-season close and playoff run.

  • Bringing him back to Pittsburgh seemed like a no-brainer.

Except it wasn’t. Not only did John L. Williams not return to Pittsburgh, he never got a wiff from another NFL team.

While Willie Parker’s injuries allowed Rashard Mendenhall to claim the starting role in 2009, Parker continued to get work and continued to perform well a backup. In the closing series of Steelers 2009 season finale against Miami, Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians opted to give Willie Parker 10 straight carries.

Willie Parker delivered with a display of power rushing that would have done Franco Harris proud, finishing with 91 yards and 7.98 yards per carry against a defense that knew he was coming. Willie Parker seemed to be making a statement that he was far from done.

  • Alas, Willie Parker would never carry in a regular season game again.

Isaac Redman did something similar. In October 2012 he was rushing for 150 yards against the defending Super Bowl Champion Giants. In October 2013 he got cut and was out of football.

In all three cases this writer thought that each of those running backs had something left; Steelers coaches concluded differently.

  • In all three cases the Steelers brain trust was right.

Word out of the South Side is that Steelers management has decided to move on from DeAngelo Williams. This writer would love to protest that they’re wrong, but history has shown that the Steelers have a pretty good eye for determining when it’s time for a running back (Franco who?) to hang it up.

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

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Steelers Resign Antonio Brown, Place Exclusive Franchise Tag on Le’Veon Bell

Rest easy Steelers Nation, the Steelers Killer Bees will not be straying from the Hive. The start of NFL free agency is a little more than a week away, but the Pittsburgh Steelers have taken care of their top two priorities in a hurry.

In a flurry of moves on the South Side, the Pittsburgh Steelers resigned Antonio Brown to a 5-year contract worth $72.71 million dollars. On the same day, the Steelers announced that they were placing the Exclusive Franchise Tag on Le’Veon Bell.

The contract includes money from Brown’s previous contract, which he signed in 2011 and is essentially a four year $68 million dollar extension complete with 19 million dollars in guaranteed money.

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Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown celebrate during the Steelers 2016 Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Antonio Brown was not set to become a free agent until 2018, and still had one year remaining on the 6 year contract which he signed after just two years in the NFL.

However, Brown had greatly out performed that contract, which didn’t remotely reflect his status as one of the NFL’s top three wide receivers. The current deal makes Antonio Brown the highest paid NFL wide receiver.

  • Antonio Brown will be 29 on opening day 2017 and this current deal will carry him through his 32 birthday.

While Antonio Brown’s third contract with the Steelers doesn’t ensure that he’ll be a Steeler for Life, as he tweet suggests, it does bring that reality within reach.

And, assuming Antonio Brown neither suffers a serious injury nor a drop off in play, the deal all but ensures that Antonio Brown will break all of Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Hines Ward‘s receiving records.

Steelers Use Exclusive Franchise Tag on Le’Veon Bell

One player who was set to hit free agency this week was Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell who had played through the rookie contract that he signed with the Steelers after they drafted him in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

  • While Bell’s development has zig-zagged more than Browns, he too is the best at what he does.

The Steelers have said all along that they want to reach a long-term deal with their star running back, and by using the exclusive franchise tag with Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh is proving they mean it. Because Le’Veon Bell now carries the exclusive franchise tag, no other team can negotiate with him.

  • That means the Steelers will be forced to pay Bell more, but prevents teams like the Cleveland Browns, who have salary cap space and first round draft picks galore from making a run at Bell.

While NFL running backs have a shorter-shelf life than NFL wide receivers, Le’Veon Bell has already broke the Steelers regular season and post season single game rushing records. While it is still way, way too early to project this far into the future, a long-term deal would at least open the door to the possibility that Le’Veon Bell might threaten other Steelers rushing records owned by Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis

  • While Ben Roethlisberger has yet to confirm that he will return for 2017, he is expected to do just that.

With two of the three Steelers Killer Bees locked up a week before training camp, the Steelers can now focus their attention on reaching new contracts with Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capsule Profile of Le’Veon Bell’s Steelers Career

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

Do we really need to say anything at all here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is Former Steelers Fullback Jon Witman Doomed to Become CTE’s Next Victim? Let’s Hope Not

Disconcerting. That describes my reaction to the headline “Former Steelers fullback Jon Witman pleads guilty to DUI crash.” For the record, Jon Witman was on a painkiller and a muscle relaxer when he ran a stop sign and crashed into a tree. Clearly Witman wasn’t on any sort of drunken rampage.

The Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s headline specifies a “2nd DUI crash” but only details the stop sign and tree incident. There’s more to Jon Witman’s story, it is not pretty, at least potentially, and it hits home for this writer.

Jon Witman, steelers fullback jon witman, 2001 steelers afc championship loss patriots

A distraught Jon Witman after the Steelers 2001 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Jon Witman and the Upshaw Players Assistance Trust

It’s ironic that we often get less news in the age when publishers no longer need worry about ink and page space limitations. A quick (and admittedly incomplete) Google search reveals that most of the news outlets ran the same AP stub on Jon Witman that appeared in the Tribune Review.

  • No one offered details regarding Witman’s other crash.
  • No one hinted that a bigger backstory lay behind Witman’s latest brush with the law

That’s a shame, because the last time Steelers Nation saw Jon Witman’s name in the news, USA Today sports writer Tom Pelissero was presenting Witman as a success story of the Gene Upshaw Players Assistance Trust. As Pelissero detailed, Witman was out of money, depressed, hooked on pain killers and literally had a gun to his head until the sight of his son walking into the room convinced him not to pull the trigger.

  • Michelle Witman called the NFLPA, which led to Witman spending time in detox and rehab for a methadone habit.

The article reported that assistance had gotten Witman sober, but that the former NFL running back still struggled with pain from back and ankle fusion surgeries. While Pelissero pulled no punches describing Witman’s post-NFL struggles, his December 2015 article did suggest that Jon Witman had turned a corner.

This latest news muddles the picture.

Don’t Jump to Conclusions on Jon Witman & CTE, But….

Let’s be clear on a few critical points:

  • This site has zero information about Jon Witman’s medical condition
  • Substance abuse alone can lead to the same, self-destructive behavior that Witman exhibited
  • Millions of people who’ve never had head trauma issues struggle with substance abuse

Fortunately, it is clear that Witman and his family are still actively seeking help. But it is hard not to read about this and wonder if Jon Witman isn’t doomed to be another victim of CTE. CTE is of course chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and CTE is caused by the accumulation of tau proteins in the brain due to repeated hits to the head.

CTE claimed the lives of former Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Webster and Justin Strzelczyk, as documented in the feature film Concussion, as well as Terry Long and Adrian Robinson.

The only objective indication that head trauma might be an issue is that Jon Witman has been getting treatment at Michigan’s Eisenhower Center whose “After Impact” program targets former soldiers, athletes, and first responders suffering from, among other things, post- concussion syndrome.

Possibility of Jon Witman Having CTE = “Citadel Moment”?

The possibility that Jon Witman might be falling victim to head trauma hits home especially hard for me. I really don’t have many memories of Mike Webster playing, other than perhaps watching the tail end of the Steelers 1988 final preseason game against the Saints, and answering “Mike Webster” to my older brother’s “Who in the hell is that old man?” inquiry.

Mike Webster, CTE

Mike Webster in 1988. Photo via: Small thoughts in a sports world

Terry Long was little more than a name I’d occasionally see in the Monday morning papers while following the Steelers from Maryland in the late 80’s. I do remember Justin Strzelczyk well, rooting for him as he moved through all four positions of the offensive line whenever he was needed.

Reading about Jon Witman’s latest troubles called to mind a scene for Pat Conroy’s autobiographical My Losing Season. Conroy he recounts how, cadets at the Citadel during the 60’s cheered at breakfast whenever it was announced that an alumni had been killed in Vietnam, because more Citadel graduates were giving their lives for their country than West Point graduates.

  • But as Conroy chilling reminds his readers, one morning in the mess hall the cheering stopped, because someone the cadets had studied with had died.

That’s why Jon Witman’s troubles are different for me, because I remember when he was drafted. I remember a friend of mine telling me how good of a player he was going to be, I remember him flashing in preseason, and remember rooting for this 3rd round draft pick in his rookie season that earned him Joe Greene Great Performance Award honors.

Clearly, I never thought Jon Witman’s career would equal that of Franco Harris or Dick Hoak, two other Penn State running backs who played for the Steelers.

  • But during his rookie year, I thought he might develop in the mold of Merril Hoge.
Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

As a rookie Jon Witman got 69 yards on 17 carries for a respectable 4.1 yard average and got 59 yards on 10 carries in the playoffs. But his role as a running back never evolved. He was stuck for the next few years behind Tim Lester who was blocking for Jerome Bettis.

Witman got the starting job full time during the God-awful 1999 campaign, and was off to a strong start in 2000 before an injury cost him the season in week six. That injury led to Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala shot as a starting fullback. But Fu also got injured, opening the door for a little-known practice squander named Dan Kreider.

Jon Witman reclaimed the starting role in 2001, only missing the season finale in week 16 and starting both of the Steelers playoff games. Sadly, the Steelers first AFC Championship loss to the Patriots was Jon Witman’s last game, and sight of him staring down in despair at game’s end is one of the enduring images of the game for me.

  • Currently, there is no way to diagnose CTE in someone who is alive.

So let’s hope he wins his battle with substance abuse and pulls his life together. Let’s hope he doesn’t have and never gets CTE. And let’s pray that if there ever is a CTE diagnosis for Jon Witman remains a long, long way off in the future.

But should that diagnosis ever come, it will be yet another painful reminder of the brutal toll that the game we love exacts on players we cheers so heartily for.

Are you a former NFL player that needs help? Maybe you know one. Get help below:

NFL Life Line
1-800-506-0078
nfllifeline.org

NFLPA Get Help Hotline
1-877-363-8062
www.yourpaf.com

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Think Steelers Should Trade Antonio Brown? Then Follow Le’Veon Bell’s Example and Stop Smoking

Antonio Brown, the Steelers superstar receiver and social media celebrity, has come under fire recently for putting too much emphasis on his superstar status and for, well, being on social media too much.

Among Antonio Brown‘s many follies recently was his Facebook Live post in the Steelers’ locker room shortly after an exciting 18-16 victory over the Chiefs in the AFC divisional playoffs on January 15.

I can go on and on about Antonio Brown’s various transgressions that include your usual diva-like receiver tendencies of whining and complaining about not getting enough passes thrown his way, but if you’re reading this article, you probably know it all by now.

Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Browns

Antonio Brown leads Le’Veon Bell at Heinz Field in Steelers 2014 opener. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via PennLive.com

As is often the case in the Internet Age, fans have been quick to call for the Steelers to trade Antonio Brown to another team. Not all of the fans, mind you,  but, relative to his status as perhaps the game’s top wide-out, enough to make it noticeable.

  • “Trade him for two number one draft picks!” some fans have written or screamed in recent days.

Fans are just crazy about the NFL Draft and draft picks. And any scenario that could involve Pittsburgh having multiple first rounders in this spring’s draft would be akin to counting down the days until Christmas morning for so many out there.

But if you think Antonio Brown, who has one year left on his current contract, would garner two first round picks in a trade, you are crazy. Given Antonio Brown’s lame-duck status, fetching even one first rounder might be little more than a pipe-dream.

However, that begs an even bigger question: even if you can garner two first round picks for Antonio Brown, why would you want to?

Why Antonio Brown is Worth More than 2 First Round Picks

First of all, contrary to what you always think every February, March and most of April, first round picks don’t always pan out.

Secondly, how can a first round pick (or even two) possibly best what Antonio Brown has and will probably continue to produce on the football field week in and week out?

I know what you’re going to say. Yes, Antonio Brown’s stats declined last year. He made 30 fewer receptions in 2016 than he did the previous year (106) for 550 fewer yards (1,284).

  • But to point that out as a criticism of Antonio Brown while not also mentioning the probable reason is rather disingenuous.

Given that the Steelers were missing Martavis Bryant for all of 2016, Markus Wheaton for all but three games and tight end Ladarius Green for all but six, it makes perfect sense that Antonio Brown’s numbers would see a swift decline from the year before.

Remember that offense that everyone envisioned, the NFL’s equivalent of the Death Star, complete with a plethora of aerial weapons for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to pick and choose how to obliterate opposing defenses? That kind of went up in smoke (pun intended) when Martavis Bryant was suspended for testing positive for marijuana for the second time in as many seasons.

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Sammie Coates drops a pass in the Steelers 2016 win over the Jets. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

You throw in the aforementioned injuries to some other targets–Green was supposed to be the downfield threat at tight end that would compensate for Bryant’s absence as the number two receiver–as well as Sammie Coates swift decline following a promising start to his second year, and Antonio Brown was destined to produce less in 2016.

Let’s face it, when you have Demarcus AyersCobi Hamilton and Eli Rogers (no offense to those men as they appear to be developing into a fine NFL receivers) as complementary targets, who do you think defensive coordinators are going to focus on stopping, them or Antonio Brown?

  • This is why No. 84 often dealt with double and triple teams in 2016.

This might also explain why Antonio Brown’s yards after catch (YAC) dropped from 587 in 2015 to 387 last year. Sure, it only makes sense that Brown’s YAC would decrease along with his overall yards, but it also illustrates the lack of room he had to work in after making most of his 106 receptions.

And even if Antonio Brown had benefited from being complemented quite nicely by Martavis Bryant, Marcus Wheaton, Sammie Coates and Ladarius Green in  2016, this does not mean his statistics wouldn’t have taken a dip. After all, Antonio Brown averaged 125 receptions a season between 2013-2015, a pretty historic run of productivity for a receiver from any generation–even one playing in the current era of pass-happy football.

Still Want Steelers to Trade Antonio Brown? Careful for What you Wish….

Again, fans are often quick to want to cut a player loose these days, even if his talents are all-world and his transgressions aren’t of the legal nature.

  • But, whether the fantasy football mentality or something else fuels this – careful what you wish for.

Let’s not forget, Pittsburgh’s franchise quarterback hinted at retirement mere hours after the Steelers 36-17 loss to New England in the AFC Championship game. It is believed that Ben Roethlisberger’s hints were mostly out of frustration, that he was tired of the likes of Antonio Brown and his antics.

However, despite an apparent friction between No. 7 and Antonio Brown, does anyone really think that the best way to entice Ben Roethlisberger into playing longer would be to eliminate his number one target, arguably the very best in the game at his position?

Yes, Antonio Brown is apparently a high maintenance member of the locker room and maybe a little more self-centered than most receivers (and that’s saying something), but this is the man who essentially saved the Steelers season, when, despite three defenders vehemently trying to prevent him from doing so, extended his arm over the goal line with nine seconds left to give the Steelers a pulsating 31-27 victory over the Ravens on Christmas Day, which clinched the AFC North title.

Brown is also the same man who had the presence of mind to keep running across the field late in the divisional round against the Chiefs, got himself open and clinched the victory by reeling in Roethlisberger’s pass on third and three.

Steelers young money crew, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace

Steelers “Young Money” Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Tribune Review Blog

Fans have also been quick to point out that since Pittsburgh has produced a seemingly endless string of receivers in recent years–let’s not forget Antonio Brown was once part of the Young  Money trio that included Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders–he could be replaced, if not totally, then approximately.

But with 632 receptions in just seven seasons–including four-straight with 100 or more– Antonio Brown is quickly ascending up the record books of Steelers receivers  and could quite literally ellipse all of the records set by Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Hines Ward while he’s still in his early-30s.

  • Despite what you think of him, and despite his apparent need to grow up just a tad, there is only one Antonio Brown.

Part ways with Antonio Brown, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are a lesser football team.

I don’t think anyone is ready for that.

 

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Colbert vs Donahoe – Why Do We Never Ask “Can Kevin Colbert win without Tom Donahoe’s players?”

The Super Bowl has arrived and, just as they have since 2010, the Pittsburgh Steelers are spectating with the NFL’s 30 also-ran teams. For a franchise that measures successful seasons in Lombardis and fan base with a “What have you done for me lately” mentality, 6 years without a trip to the Big Dance is a long drought.

And the lapse has gone on long enough, that even the most serious Steelers homer must acknowledge the elephant in the room, and the question we’ve strived to ignore has some legitimacy:

  • Will Kevin Colbert ever prove he can win a Super Bowl without Tom Donahoe’s players?
Kevin Colbert, Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher

Kevin Colbert sits along side Bill Cowher during the press conference announcing his hiring. Photo Credit: Toledo Blade

What’s that? Have you gone crazy? Isn’t that the wrong question to ask (it is)? Doesn’t everyone know that Mike Tomlin is the man with the proverbial monkey on his back? Musn’t Mike Tomlin STILL need to prove he can win the big one without Bill Cowher’s players?

Well, yes, there still are large segments fans in Steelers Nation along with a cohort of the press (see Colin Cowherd, Jason Witlock and sadly Terry Bradshaw) that insist that Tomlin’s inability to win without Cowher’s players this remains Dan and Art Rooney II’s fatal blind spot.

  • This site has debunked those arguments before, and will do so again as needed.

But really, if you buy into the Tomlin only won on Cowher’s coattails nonsense, then your intellectual honesty demands you apply the same standard to Kevin Colbert with respect to his predecessor, Tom Donahoe. Let’s see what happens when you do just that….

Tom Donahoe’s Overlooked Role in Architecting Super Bowls XL and XLIII

Tom Donahoe was of course the man Dan Rooney tapped in 1992 to be the Pittsburgh Steelers first ever Director of Football Operations following Chuck Noll’s retirement and Dick Haley’s departure for the Jets. For much of the 90’s, Donahoe was the most powerful person in the Steelers organization not named Rooney, until the Rooneys sided with Cowher in a power struggle, and sent Donahoe packing.

Tom Donahoe, Kevin Colbert vs. Tom Donahoe

Tom Donahoe, Steelers Director of Football Operations, 1992-99. Photo Credit. Stillcurtain.com

  • Donahoe had full control of the Buffalo Bills from 2001 until 2005, but was unsuccessful. He now advises the Philadelphia Eagles.

While Tom Donahoe made his mistakes, particularly as friction between him and Cowher got worse, if you really want to see his impact on the Steelers, look no further than the Steelers Super Bowl XL roster. Take a good look and ask yourself, could the Steelers have won Super Bowl XL if they had:

Hum… Take away Hines Ward, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Deshea Townsend, and Alan Faneca – all Donahoe draftees, and Jerome Bettis whom Donahoe acquired via trade and it’s a lot harder to imagine “One for the Thumb” arriving in 2005, even if this alternate timeline still saw the Steelers drafting Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.

By the time Super Bowl XLIII rolled around, the Bus had been parked, Alan Faneca had moved on to New York and Joey Porter was in Miami. But I defy anyone subtract the contributions of Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, and Deshea Townsend and map out a route for the 2008 Steelers that ends in a 6th Lombardi Trophy.

And if you really want to get picky about it, had the Steelers pulled out a win in Super Bowl XLV, Hines Ward would have likely won his second Super Bowl MVP award. But that, as well as the rest of this, misses the point.

Time to Retire a Tired Argument Used on Mike Tomlin

The argument that Kevin Colbert’s achievements are somehow diminished by the fact that Tom Donahoe acquired several critical contributors to both of Colbert’s Super Bowl teams is idiotic. Part of being a good leader is being smart enough and secure enough NOT to clean house for the sake of cleaning house.

  • So why conduct this exercise?

There are two reasons:

First, to highlight the fact that while people always put Tomlin in Cowher’s shadow, no one ever follow suit with Kevin Colbert and his predecessor. Why shouldn’t the same standard apply to both men? The answer is that it shouldn’t apply to either man, which was the second and most important objective of this exercise.

Mike Tomlin, Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin and Bill Cowher, Tomlin wins with Cowher's players

Rare photo of Mike Tomlin and Bill Cowher together, taken in 2010. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

The fact that Mike Tomlin enjoyed his greatest success (thus far) with a large number of men who’d previously played for Bill Cowher doesn’t taint his accomplishments in the slightest. And the pundits in the press as well as critics within Steelers Nation need to stop making that suggestion.

As Kevin Colbert himself observed after Super Bowl XLIII, the Six Lombardi equaled 6 Super Bowls for the Pittsburgh Steelers as a franchise, instead of four Chuck Noll and one for Bill Cowher.

  • So please, let’s bury the “Tomlin only won with Cowher’s players” argument for good.

Although, if at this point, you remain unconvinced, then by all means please hold Kevin Colbert to the same standard and do it with equal enthusiasm and frequency.

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Steelers 2016 Season Highlights Living Example of Mike Tomlin’s “Moving Train” Metaphor

Crafting a compelling, yet honest, Steelers 2016 annual review presents a challenge, but Steelers President Art Rooney II is on the right track. While Rooney’s take aways from 2016 are by and large positive, he underscored the need for more “consistency” several times.

  • Head coach Mike Tomlin offers an even better metaphor for summing up the Steelers 2016 season – the moving train.

The “Moving train” metaphor is a Tomlinism that popped into the Steelers Nation’s vernacular in 2014 when Tomlin used it to explain Shamarko Thomas and Lance Moore’s inability to get back into the lineup after an injury. This year he applied it to Ladarius Green.

The truth is that Steelers 2016 season highlights Mike Tomlin’s “Moving train” metaphor perfectly – When the Steelers were on it, they got where they wanted to go; When the Steelers failed to get on it, they stranded themselves.

Steelers 2016 highlights, DeAngelo Williams

Steelers 2016 season highlights: DeAngelo Williams dives forward at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

2016 Steelers Forge Moving Train Identify Early

Like his predecessor Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin has oft asserted that an NFL team finds its identity in the first 4 to 6 weeks of the season and that was certainly true of the Steelers in 2016.

The Steelers entered the 2016 off season as Super Bowl contenders, and despite some radical personnel disruptions on offense, the Steelers 38-16 opening a day win over the Washington Redskins confirmed their status as potential champions.

Steelers 2016 highlights, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Redskins, Antonio Brown Redskins touchdown

Steelers 2016 Season Highlight: Antonio Brown scores a touchdown on opening night against Redskins. Photo Credit: Washington Post

History will forget that the Redskins actually forced a turnover to start the game and then quickly leapt to a 6-0 lead before the 2nd quarter began because the Steelers, like a moving train, never appeared to lose control. The story was the same a week later in Cincinnati. The Steelers didn’t dominate their rivals, but also never trailed during a 24-16 win.

  • In Philadelphia, the Steelers found the nasty flipside to the identity they were forging.

The Steelers opened by advancing to the Eagle’s 18 in a drive that consumed 6 minutes of clock, only to have Markus Wheaton drop a touchdown pass and Chris Boswell miss a field goal. And in the blink of an eye, the Steelers were off the train as they never contested the Eagles dominance after that point.

  • And so went the entire season.

At Miami, Ben Roethlisberger’s injury knocked the Steelers off the moving train and struggled to get back on the locomotive for the next 3 weeks. The only exception to the “moving train” metaphor came in the loss to Cowboys. Yes, the loss was dramatic, and potentially devastating precisely because the Steelers contested that game until the bitter end.

  • Undaunted by such drama, Mike Tomlin pulled the Steelers back on to the moving train for Steelers for 9 straight wins.

While the Steelers certainly didn’t dominate in each of those contests, Pittsburgh never let any of those games get out of control. Even in the come from behind win over the Bengals, and even on Christmas, when the Ravens re-took the lead with 1:18 remaining, the Steelers on the field demeanor never suggested that they couldn’t regain control.

  • Contrast that with the AFC Championship game.
Steelers 2016 season highlights, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Patriots, Devin McCourty, Dont'a Hightower, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship

Steelers 2016 season highlights: Le’Veon Bell’s record breaking season stopped short in New England. Photo Credit: 247 Sports

The Patriots easily advanced to Pittsburgh’s 18 on their first drive, but the Steelers defense forced a in the Red Zone. However the Steelers offense answered with two strong runs by Le’Veon Bell followed Sammie Coates dropping well-placed bomb on third down. Javon Hargrave ended the Patriot’s next possession by sacking Tom Brady on 3rd down, but the Steelers offense responded with a 3 and out, the Steelers effectively out of the game at that point.

As a consequence, the 2016 Steelers were forced to watch the moving train continue to Super Bowl LI.

Why Did Mike Tomlin’s Moving Train Suddenly Stop and Start?

If Mike Tomlin’s moving train metaphor explains how the Steelers 2016 season unfolded, it does little to explain why things worked out that way. But objectively speaking, there’s no mysterious X-Factor behind Pittsburgh’s hot and cold performances of the 2016 season.

Steelers 2016 season highlights, Art Rooney II,

Steelers 2016 season highlights: Art Rooney II talks consistency. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Pro Football Talk

Art Rooney II hit the nail on the head in asserting that the Steelers need to be more consistent in establish a pass rush, covering in the secondary and scoring touchdowns in the Red Zone.

  • A football genius shouldn’t need to tell you if you can’t execute in these three areas, you won’t win much.

The good news is the Steelers pass rush and pass coverage improved during the latter half of the season. The Steelers Red Zone efficiency continued to be an issue, as evidenced by twin Chris Boswell 6 field goal games in December and January.

Although it may not feel that way now that New England has unequivocally asserted its dominance as the AFC’s alpha male, the Steelers did end 2016 with the arrow pointed up, and can potentially take some lessons from that experience into 2017.

A Year Later, Steelers Still Mastering Art of Learning How to Win…

The original theme for this article was to be “Struggling to Grow, Learning to Win.” It’s catchy, there’s a lot of truth to support such a sexy narrative. Unfortunately, the title of this site’s Steelers 2015 season review was “Learning to win by Overcoming Adversity.” Beyond being repetitive, it also invites the question “When are the Steelers going to stop ‘Learning to win’ and actually go about winning a Super Bowl?”

That’s a fair point, but the art of learning how to win and/or unlearning how to lose is very real process that champions must master. There’s no better example of two teams heading in different directions along this continuum than the Steelers and Bengals during the 2015 Wild Card game.

Steelers 2016 season highlights, Lawrence Timmons, Philip Dorsett, Steelers vs Colts

Steelers 2016 season highlights: Lawrence Timmons slams Colts Phillip Dorsett in Steelers goaline stand. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers goal line stands against the Colts and the Giants, Eli Roger’s and Ladarius Green’s key catches against the Bengals, Ryan Shazier’s and Lawrence Timmons fill in the blanks splash plays, Bud Dupree’s sacks vs. the Bill and all of the plays that culminated in Antonio Brown’s Christmas Day stretch count as part of the process of learning to win.

Lessons Steelers Must Take from 2016 to 2017

But those aren’t the lessons the Steelers need to take with them into 2017, instead here are 3 quick hits on what those lessons should be:

1. Expect the unexpected

To Mike Tomlin’s credit, he started preaching this the morning after Super Bowl XLIII and has reminded the team of this since. But contrast the names on the stat sheet from last year’s loss to Denver against those from the Patriots game or track the changes in the Steelers depth chart from the beginning of training camp to December 1st, and you see what Tomlin is talking about.

Sure, having Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton or Cameron Heyward would have helped the Steelers against the Patriots, but had they been available, its just as likely that someone else would have been out.

2. Toll the Bell, Just not Too Much

No one can accuse Todd Haley of being too pass happy during the second half of the season. 3 record breaking performances by Le’Veon Bell say that the Steelers executing the strategy that gave them the best chance to win.

  • But without Bell the Steelers were rudderless against the Patriots.

And, while more needs to be seen, it also seems like an over-reliance on Bell may be adding some rustiness to Roethlisberger’s game. Le’Veon Bell has Hall of Fame caliber talent, but the Steelers would be wise to remember that they had to do more than feed the ball to Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis to win their first 5 Super Bowls (well, OK, perhaps that’s not the case with Super Bowl X.)

3. Killer Bees + 1 = Steelers Success

Assuming that the Steelers can keep the trio together without busting their salary cap, and assuming that the sniping between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown doesn’t turn toxic, the Killer Bees give the Steelers a Super Bowl caliber trio along the lines of Aikman, Irvin and Emmitt.

steelers 2016 season highlights, steelers killer bees, le'veon bell, ben roethlisberger, antonio brown

Steelers 2016 season highlights: Killer Bees led to a lot of Steelers success. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

But just as those Dallas teams also needed their Alvin Harpers, Jay Novacks, Charles Haleys and Thomas Everetts (yeah, that hurt), the Steelers Killer Bees can’t do it on their own. The loss to Dallas brought that to light and, quite frankly, even had Bell not gotten hurt, the Patriots probably would have provided Pittsburgh with another reminder.

  • While the Steelers would do wise to keep Ben, Brown and Bell together as long as they can, they also must be mindful the the 3 of them can’t do it alone.

The Steelers 2016 season is now history. The 2017 off season will bring new challenges and new faces while some familiar names will depart for greener pastures or otherwise begin their Life’s Work. If the Steelers 2016 season highlights a living example of Mike Tomlin’s “Moving Train” then the reality is that train could deliver Pittsburgh’s return to the Super Bowl, but it did move them a step closer.

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