Steady and Dependable: Free Agent Linebacker Robert Spillane Seeks 2nd Contract from Steelers

The Steelers have established a pretty interesting tradition at linebacker by pairing a stud alongside a player who is “good enough.” The Steelers haven’t intended it that way. But injuries have a way of derailing those intentions.

Since stepping in for the injured Devin Bush in the middle of 2020, Spillane has shown himself to be one of those inside linebackers who is “good enough” for the Steelers defense to excel with him in the line up.

Now that Robert Spillane is about to become a free agent, will “Good enough” translate into a 2nd contract?

Robert Spillane, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Saints

Robert Spillane stops Andy Dalton cold on 4th down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Robert Spillane’s Career with the Steelers

“Who?” That’s how most Steelers fans reacted when they saw Robert Spillane’s name on the inside linebacker depth chart entering 2020. Spillane was the one player whom the Steelers could not afford to have to play.

Yet play him they did when Devin Bush tore his ACL against Cleveland. Spillane played 50% of the snaps that day in a dominating Steelers win. The next week he made a hell of a hit on the goal line. The week after he took an interception to the house against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens.

When injuries kept Spillane out of the Steelers lineup during the final four games of 2020, his absence was painfully noted. Yet for all the stability he brought to the middle of the Steelers defense, the Steelers still brought in Joe Schobert via trade in 2021 and the two split time.

  • But the Steelers cut Schobert a year ago and offered Spillane a Restricted Free Agent tender.

Spillane began 2022 splitting time with Devin Bush and Myles Jack, but by the end of the year he was logging 100% of the snaps for the Steelers defense while Bush was on the bench and rookie Mark Robinson was getting his first NFL action.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Robert Spillane

Is Spillane an athlete in the mold of Hardy Nickerson, Chad Brown, Lawrence Timmons and/or Ryan Shazier? Heck no. But Spillane IS the type of hard hitting, contact seeking, center strengthen inside linebacker who can fill the shoes once worn by Jerry Olsavsky, Larry Foote and Vince Williams.

Foote wears two Super Bowl rings, Jerry O. was a part-time starter in another and Vince Williams helped the Steelers get to an AFC Championship. No other NFL team is going to break the bank for Spillane. Keeping him in Pittsburgh is win-win.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Robert Spillane

Yeah. Those “little inside linebacker that could” stories are nice. And make no mistake about it, those players did distinguish themselves.

But ask yourself:

  • How long did Larry Foote last in Detroit without James Farrior at his side?
  • How secure was the center of the Steelers defense with Vince Williams and everyone the Steelers tried after losing Ryan Shazier?
  • How confident were the Steelers in Spillane when Devin Bush was struggling back from his ACL tear?

The Steelers know what life is like with 2 down inside linebacker and they have no need to repeat it. Spillane’s success story is legit. But his story is driven by his status as an unheralded kid overplaying his rookie contracts.
Those tales rarely translate into successful second contracts, at least from the team’s perspective.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Robert Spillane

Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin and the Steelers defensive coaches like Robert Spillane. His end of the year snap count proves it. But what happens next is a bigger question.

Devin Bush is gone, Mark Robinson is promising but unproven. Myles Jack was good but might be too expensiveS.

  • Those amount to a lot of unknowns, and signing Spillane can help provide stability.

Expect that to happen, save for the caveat that the Steelers can’t get into a bidding war to retain him. (And they won’t.)

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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Changes: Steelers Hire Aaron Curry, Fire Jerry Olsavsky Resign Christian Kuntz

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has made his first coaching hire of the off season by naming Aaron Curry as the team’s inside linebackers coach. Curry arrives as a replacement for Brian Flores, who left Pittsburgh after a one year stint to take the defensive coordinator job with the Minnesota Vikings.

Curry comes to the Steelers from the Seattle Seahawks which has been his NFL home. Seattle drafted him in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft and he has served as an assistant coach with them since 2019. He spent his first two years as an assistant linebackers coach and the last two as a defensive line assistant coach.

Curry got into coaching at the University of Charlotte in 2014 where he coached defensive line and worked with current Steelers Alex Highsmith and Larry Ogunjobi.

  • Aaron Curry’s arrival, however, signals the end for another long time Steelers veteran.

Jerry Olsavsky joined Mike Tomlin’s staff in 2010 as a defensive assistant until earning a promotion to inside linebackers coach, a title he held since 2015. Although he retained that title last year after Brian Flores’ arrival, his role with the team appeared to be in doubt.

Jerry Olsavsky

Jerry Olsavsky at the Steelers South Side training complex. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Unfortunately for Olsavsky those doubts were well-founded. The team made no announcement of his departure, but his picture and bio disappeared from the team website. Jerry Olsavsky went to the University of Pittsburgh and was the Steelers 10th round pick in the 1989 NFL Draft.

Jerry Olsavsky distinguished himself in 8 starts as a rookie in the place of the injured Hardy Nickerson and topped that off with a blocked punt that helped fuel the 1989 Steelers upset of the Houston Oilers in the Astrodome on New Year’s eve.

Olsavsky earned the starting role during the 1993 Steelers season only to see his knee destroyed in a road game at Cleveland that saw the Dawg Pound pelt him with beer bottles. Overcame that injury and was back on the roster by late 1994, served as a part-time starter for Chad Brown in 1995, started for most of 1996 after Brown moved to outside linebacker to take over for Greg Lloyd, then finished his service to the team in 1997 serving as a backup for Earl Holmes and Levon Kirkland.

Olsavsky lost his wife, Rayme L. Olsavsky, to cancer in 2021 so it is possible that this father of 3 made his own decision to walk away from the Steelers. But the manner in which his departure has been communicated suggests the opposite is the case.

Steelers Make First Free Agency Move

The Steelers also made their first free agency move by extending a one year tender to exclusive rights free agent Christian Kuntz. Kuntz is a product of Duquesne and Chartiers Valley and beat out Kameron Candy for the long snapper’s job during 2021 training camp.

Since then he’s appeared in 34 games for the Steelers.

Most fans probably don’t even recognize let alone know his name. And if you’re a long snapper, that means you’re doing your job.

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Good While It Lasted… Steelers Lose Brian Flores to Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings have hired Steelers Assistant Brian Flores showing that some things are not meant to last. Literally.

Brian Flores, Steelers 2022 training camp

Brian Flores at St. Vincents in the summer of ’22. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

When the Steelers surprised the rest of the NFL by hiring Brian Flores as their senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach last spring, everyone suspected it would be a short-term relationship.

Brian Flores was head coaching material, having just been fired from the Miami Dolphins largely because – as Flores argues, he refused to tank for draft position. So there was a bit of a question over whether Flores would find a cold shoulder from the rest of the NFL.

But the Cleveland Browns leapt to interview Flores for their defensive coordinator spot. And that was followed by several other interviews, including a 2nd interview with the Arizona Cardinals.

So instead of a cold shoulder, Flores found a warm embrace. Steelers fans may have held out hope that Mike Tomlin and/or Art Rooney II could have convinced Flores to stay in Pittsburgh for another year. But the reality is that moving into the Vikings defensive coordinator chair provides Flores a better path to a head coaching job.

Flores Made an Impact in Pittsburgh

Judging the impact of an assistant coach from the outside in is difficult. Sure, when an assistant does a great job such as Mike Munchak their influence is obvious. But the reverse isn’t always true.

The 2013 Steelers opened the season 2-6 and a horrendous offensive line was the main culprit. Yet they fought back and kept their playoff hopes alive until a blown call in overtime swung victory and the final playoff spot to San Diego Chargers. Improved offensive line play had driven the ’13 Steelers surge during the 2nd half of the season.

Other times the influence of an assistant is more subtle. Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter as outside linebackers coach following he 2018 season and announced that Keith Butler would take over his responsibilities. Fans snickered an jeered Butler’s apparent demotion.

  • Yet under Butler’s tutelage, Bud Dupree finally began to play like a first round draft pick.

So if it is hard to pinpoint Brian Flores’ influence on the Steelers 2022 defense, there’s no question that he made his mark. And that mark is helping turn around a unit that was one of the worst run defenses in franchise history into a unit that ranked in the NFL’s top ten.

And the arrival of veterans like Larry Ogunjobi and Myles Jack fueled that improvement, it is quite clear that Flores had a role in helping raw rookies like Mark Robinson be ready to make contributions late in the season. And Robinson played a large role in shutting down stout running offenses such as the Carolina Panthers, Las Vegas Raiders and Baltimore Ravens.

Clearly, the Steelers will miss Flores.

Brian Flores’ departure marks the first coaching change to Mike Tomlin’s staff this off season, as Tomlin has already decided to retain offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Jerry Olsavsky remains as inside linebackers coach while Denzel Martin is on staff as assistant outside linebackers coach.

Mike Tomlin likes to promote from within although his best coaching choices have been veterans, like Flores and Munchak, that he’s brought in from the outside.

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6 (Not So) Random Thoughts on the Steelers 16-15 Preseason Win over the Jaguars

Preseason football isn’t what it used to be. (Or perhaps, as staff writer Tony Defeo suggested on BTSC, perhaps the good ole days of preseason weren’t all that good.)

Be that as it may, preseason football gives unproven players a chance to test their mettle in live fire circumstances. It gives coaches a evaluate unit cohesion. And, best of all, it gives fans a chance to evaluate young player with their own eyes.

With that in mind, here are 6 observations from the Steelers 16-15 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 preseason Jaguars

Kenny Pickett scan for a receiver. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

1. Pickett’s Got Poise

OK. Let’s be crystal clear on this: 2 preseason games does not a Hall of Fame resume make. Remember Matthew Thomas, the Steelers 2018 preseason standout? His NFL career consisted of 4 defensive snaps.

  • With those disclaimers in place, it is hard not to like what we’ve seen from Kenny Pickett.

His debut against the Seahawks was nice, but it is easy to see that as a varsity first round pick dominating JV competition. But against the Jaguars, Pickett was going up against NFL veterans.

  • He looked like he belonged. He made good decisions. Perhaps most impressive was his poise.

For the second time in two weeks, he took the reigns in a 2 minute situation and calmly went down the field. When asked about it, Mike Tomlin suggested that “…its probably who he is” before concluding “Some things people are born with.”

Leading touchdowns in the 2 minute drill against the Jaguars and Seahawks in August isn’t quite the same as doing on the road it against the Cincinnati Bengals or Baltimore Ravens in the 4th quarter of a rainy December night with the AFC North on the line, but we can now dare to dream.

2. Trubisky’s Mobility Will Be far More than a “Nice to Have”

So several times last season as it became clear that Ben Roethlisberger was about to ride into the sunset, Mike Tomlin mused about the importance of having a mobile quarterback, although it was clear he was thinking more along the lines of Steve Young than Kordell Stewart.

  • Against the Jaguars Mitch Trubisky showed his Steve Young-like mobility.

More than once, he slid his way out of pressure and delivered the ball down field to connect with Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool.

Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Jaguars 2022 preseason

Mitch Trubisky shows off his mobility against the Jaguars. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Its good that he has that mobility, because he’s gonna need it….

3. The Time to Worry about the Offensive Line Begins Now

…Throughout training camp, veteran beat reporters such as Jim Wexell and Mark Kaboly have warned their readers that the Steelers offensive line has been shaky. It is hard to know what that really means, even if the Steelers remain one of the few NFL teams to have live hitting during training camp.

  • The Steelers offensive line was atrocious.

The line’s decline began in 2019, became obvious in 2020 and accelerated in 2021. The conventional wisdom was that with the maturation of Dan Moore and Kendrick Green, and the free agent additions of Mason Cole and James Daniels, the Steelers offensive line couldn’t get any worse. Could it?

The performance against the Jaguars suggests that the Steelers offensive line IS capable of regressing even further in 2022.

4. Gunner’s Good, But Watch Those Fumbles

There’s a lot to like about Gunner Olszewski. When the Steelers signed him, it almost seemed like a steal when comparing his contract to what the 49ers had given Ray-Ray McCloud. Everything we’ve seen or heard since then has been a positive, with all signs indicating he can be a good return man and a viable 4th wide receiver on game day.

But, as suggested here when he signed with the Steelers, perhaps the Patriots parted ways with Olszewski because of his ball security aka fumbling issues.

After making a really smart kick return, Gunner Olszewski fumbled the ball in the 4th quarter, allowing Jacksonville to take the lead. That’s easy to forgive in preseason. When the games count? Not so much.

5. Time to Stop Beating around the Bush

As criticism of Devin Bush mounted last fall, Steel Curtain Rising urged restraint. ACL injuries were tricky things to come back from, reminding everyone that Rod Woodson, who tore his ACL in the 1995 Steelers opener himself admits he didn’t feel 100% until 1998. The Dr. de Acero wrote his own medical opinion in Spanish talking about the complexities of ACL rehab.

  • That was then. This is now.

I don’t pretend to have the savvy to do an X’s and O’s analysis of Devin Bush’s role in what was a very shaky run defense. But one image stands out is that of Bush getting turned so that he’s facing backwards as a running is cutting through to the second level behind him.

I’m pretty sure that’s not how Brian Flores and Jerry Olsavsky had Bush’s responsibilities for that play drawn up. When asked earlier this week if this was his “Make or break” year in the NFL, Bush offered sanguine words. Talk is cheap.

It is now time for Bush to put up or shut up.

6. NFL GamePass Condensed Games Have Their Limits

As I did last year, I opted not to watch the game live and instead watch it via NFL Game Pass’ condensed viewing option, which not only cuts out commercials, but also pauses between plays with very view replays.

While that sure beats slogging through 3 hours’ worth of commercial breaks, you really do miss something watching games in such condensed fashion. Not only do you lose the flavor of the game, it is also hard to hone in on its ebb and flow.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Bengals. Time to Give Out F’s Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher fearing his students are slacking off just when the end of the semester crunch as begun, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2021 loss to the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Tee Higgins, James Pierre, Steelers vs Bengals

Tee Higgins burns James Pierre for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger played poorly. Cincinnati scored 17 points off of turnovers. If the Steelers can even manage to get field goals on those drives the dynamic of the game shifts drastically. Beyond the turnovers, Roethlisberger missed too many makeable throws. Grade: F

Running Backs
Najee Harris did better than his 2.9 yards-per-carry average would suggest, but with 8 carries he didn’t get much of a chance to do anything. Benny Snell had 2 carries. One for 4 yards another for 1. Kalen Ballage had 3 carries for 21 yards in garbage time, but at least he did well against Cincinnati’s JV. Anthony McFarland, activated because of special teams, did nothing to show he deserves a helmet as a running back. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 4 passes on 4 targets while Zach Gentry caught 1 of 2. That’s good, but this team needs better run blocking from its offensive line. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 9 catches for 95 yards on 14 targets while Chase Claypool had 3 on 8 targets for 82 yards. James Washington had 1 catch for 3 yards and Anthony Miller had 1 for 2 yards. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked twice and hit two more times, but pass protection was weak with Ben unable to step into his throws. Run blocking was equally bad with Najee Harris having no daylight. Unless this group improves the Steelers will likely not win another game this season. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Steelers moved Cam Heyward to nose tackle, trying to shore up the middle, and sat Isaiah Buggs. Neither move worked and both likely hurt the run defense. Heyward had a sack, but a lone bright spot. Grade: F

Linebackers
Alex Highsmith continues to work under the radar but T.J. Watt was clearly not 100% Devin Bush is struggling leaving a lot of space for Joe Schobert to cover on his own. Taco Charlton and Derrek Tuszka are making Generation X Steelers fans long for the days of Carlos Emmons. Grade: F

Secondary
James Pierre might develop into a quality cornerback, but he struggled all day in Joe Haden’s absence. Minkah Fitzpatrick was back and made a phenomenal interception that ultimately went for naught. But Joe Burrow completed 20 of 24 passes which tells you all you need to know. Grade: F

Special Teams
Anthony McFarland took over kick return duties for Ray-Ray McCloud and did a respectable job, whereas Cam Sutton did fare too well with his 2 punt returns. Chris Boswell made his one field goal and booted it into the end zone. Pressley Harvin III did “OK.” Grade: C+

Coaching
After showing steady progress throughout October and early November, Matt Canada’s offense is regressing towards its mean. After broaching respectability the running game is faltering. While falling behind early isn’t helping it, Canada doesn’t seem committed to establish the run.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns

Mike Tomlin at Paul Brown Stadium. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Nor has employed creative measures, like Jet sweeps, to jump start the ground game.

  • The alternative looks frighteningly like the offense based on 3 and 5 yard passes that sabotaged the Steelers in 2020.

On defense, Keith Butler has little to work with. If Doc Brown rolled up on the South Side and out of the DeLorean strode Kenneth Davis, Donald Evans and Tyronne Stowe one can imagine Butler, Karl Dunbar and Jerry Olsavsky jumping for joy at Flux Capacitor-infused upgrades they were enjoying.

  • Let that sink in for a moment. (Google the names if need be)

It says here that the Steelers ills are rooted in talent and not in coaching or scheming, but regardless this group of players is headed in the wrong direction. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He had 9 tackles and looked good in both run support as well as covering passes via the slot while participating in just under ½ of the Steelers snaps. There’s nothing “special” about being in the right place and making a tackle when you should but those to characteristics are in short supply with the Steelers and for that Arthur Maulet wins Unsung Hero Award honors for the loss to Cincinnati.

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Discipline Drives Steelers to 15-10 Win over Browns in Cleveland

The location was Cleveland, the day Halloween. The teams were the Steelers and the Browns. The stakes were avoiding the division basement. And Pittsburgh triumphed 15-10 in a game worthy of the old AFC Central.

The victory puts the Steelers within striking distance of the AFC North lead and extends their winning streak to 3. But the real take away from the game lies in how the Steelers won: By focusing on fundamentals and maintaining discipline.

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers vs. Browns,

Focused Pat Freiermuth scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Strange Things Happen in Cleveland. But This was Just a “Side Note”

Strange things happen when the Steelers play in Cleveland. Seldom are they good.

Joe “Turkey” Jones once pile drove Terry Bradshaw in a late hit. Dwight White once warned rookie Tunch Ilkin to wear his helmet at all times lest he get hit with a battery. Ilkin took the veteran’s advice. Leroy Hoard once got decked in the end zone, only to have pass, that deflected off of several players, literally land in his lap for a touchdown.

Jerry Olsavsky blew out 4 ligaments there and got pelted by the Dawg Pound with beer bottles as he was removed on a stretcher. The same game saw the Steelers dominate in every phase, yet lose thanks to 2 Eric Metcalf punt returns.

In 2012, the Steelers fumbled the ball 8 times, lost 5 of them, while Charlie Batch threw 3 interceptions.

  • The strange thing isn’t that the Steelers lost, but that they could have won it at the end.

And so it was that Mike Tomlin, instead of taking a near-certain field goal for the lead late in the first half, opted for a fake. And so it was that Chris Boswell, who’d been 1-1 and a 1 touchdown as a passer, not only threw an incompletion, but got a concussion on an illegal hit.

  • Mike Tomlin accepted responsibility for the call.

But this latest “strange thing” ended up being a “side note” instead of a defining moment largely because of the work Tomlin and his staff had done during the week.

Steelers Execute on Fundamentals while Browns Bumble

Going into this game, if you’d have said it would revolve around the fundamentals of blocking, tackling and simply hitting or pushing harder than your opponent, the smart money would have favored the Browns.

The Browns are the NFL’s best rushing teams. They do it by winning the battles upfront which allows Nick Chubb to reach the second level just as he’s hitting his stride. You counter teams like this by putting 8 men in the proverbial box. But, as The Athletic’s Mark Kabloy explained:

The Browns have been outstanding against eight-man fronts. The majority of the time the Browns have countered with two tight ends. Still, they average a league-high 4.69 yards per carry when at least eight are in the box.

Devin Bush, D'Ernest Johnson, Steelers vs Browns

Devin Bush deflects a pass. Photo Credit: John Kuntz, Cleveland.com

Perhaps the Browns outsmarted themselves a bit, opening by throwing more than running. But in the end it didn’t matter. The Steelers shut down Nick Chubb. Devin Bush stopped him once at the goal line and then Bush plus T.J. Watt did it again on 4th down.

Cam Heyward had a hand on shutting him down on numerous 1st down runs. In the 4th quarter Alex Highsmith had a hand in shutting him down on three separate critical plays.

Taking Chubb out of the game put the onus of moving the offense on to Baker Mayfield. Mayfield, playing hurt, did make some courageous plays, but the Browns were 3-10 on 3rd down and 0-2 on 4th down.

Steelers Offense Embraces KISS Principle

Offensive innovation is in vogue. Everyone likes creative formations and deceptive use of motion. And who doesn’t love a good gadget play? To be certain Matt Canada’s clever play calling helped carry the day.

  • But the Steelers won because on offense they embraced the KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid principle.

Matt Canada didn’t try to dazzle the Browns with smoke and mirrors. Sure, he gave 3 carries to Chase Claypool and Ray-Ray McCloud, and those plays helped open up the offense. But Canada executed a conservative game plan designed to limit the damage Myles Garrett could do.

  • And by and large, it worked.

Even though Najee Harris was only averaging 3 and a half yards per pop, the Steelers stuck to the run and that kept the Browns defense honest, allowing Ben Roethlisberger to quietly author his best game of the season, which included a spectacular 50 yard hook up with Diontae Johnson. Johnson not only flipped the field, but had the discipline to stay in bounds, essentially sealing the game.

Discipline = Difference Maker

“Discipline.” There’s that word again. If the Steelers ability to stay in their gaps on defense and make tackles was critical winning the game, but Pittsburgh’s superior discipline was the difference maker.

Clinging to a 1 point lead early in the 3rd quarter, the Browns faced a 4th and at midfield. Cleveland lined up with Mayfield going into the hard count, trying to force a penalty. Playing from behind, on the road in front of fired up fans, the Steelers defense could have flinched easily.

  • They didn’t. The Browns punted.

Discipline was critical on the next drive, and Ben Roethlisberger on 4th and goal, waited patiently, and then hit Pat Freiermuth who not only had the concentration to catch a very contested catch, but also got his foot in bounds for the touchdown.

https://twitter.com/ESPNNFL/status/1454893552002011143

8 plays later, a lapse of discipline would undo the Browns, as Joe Schobert knocked the ball lose from Jarvis Landry, as T.J. Watt recovered. The Steelers punted 3 plays later, but the clock was ticking.

Finally, with the Browns sitting on the Steelers 25 yard line on 3rd and 12, Rashard Higgins committed a false start, knocking Cleveland back 5 yards. They got four of them back, but Minkah Fitzpatrick saw to it that Mayfield’s 4th down pass to Jarvis Landry fell incomplete.

Steelers Story Heading in Right Direction

When asked about what this game means to the team Mike Tomlin explained:

Its days like today that kind of gives you an indication of what you could be. We’ll continue to write that story positively or negatively, but today was a good day.

He is right. The Steelers will continue to write their story. But fortunately, for the first time since the opening day win against the Bills, the Steelers story is a tale of more wins than losses.

Yes, today was a good day.

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Vince Williams was “The Next Olsavsky” I’d Been Waiting For. But Only Now Do I Realize It.

The Steelers have done some soul searching at inside linebacker this summer, culminating in the Joe Schobert trade. That move leads me to reflect on a bit of my own soul searching.

My discovery? Sometimes the player you’ve been longing for is staring you right in front of the face, and you only realize it after he is gone. And such is the case with Vince Williams.

Since the late 1990s this Steelers scribe has been clutching his Rosary Beads and crossing his fingers waiting for the Steelers to find “The next Jerry Olsavsky.” Vince Williams was exactly that player but it took his being cut, resigned and retirement for me to realize it.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

This should have been clear far earlier, from December 15th, 2013 at the 11:56 mark in the first quarter to be precise.

If that point in Steelers space time is a bit foggy for you, here’s a refresher:

After starting the 2013 season 2-6, the Pittsburgh Steelers clawed their way back to 5-6, only to lose a heart breaker to the Ravens on Thanksgiving. Then the Miami Dolphins came to Pittsburgh, and spanked the Steelers in the snow. Up next was the Cincinnati Bengals, who were coming to Heinz Field with a 9-5 record as division leaders with a shot at a first round bye.

The Steelers won the toss. A couple of plays by Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown earned a first down, but after that it was time to punt.

Vince Williams, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams stuffs BenJarvus Green-Ellis for no gain. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images

  • After two plays the Bengals were looking at their own 3rd and 1, standing at their own 16 yard line.

At the snap BenJarvus Green-Ellis got the ball and charged forward. He barely made it to the line of scrimmage thanks to the efforts of a rookie linebacker who’d been in street clothes on opening day.

On 3rd and 1, Vince Williams had stoned him, forcing a punt with Kevin Huber bobbled, setting up an easy Steelers score and a subsequent ass kicking of the Bengals.

At that moment it should have dawned on me that Vince Williams was the player I’d been waiting for.

But it didn’t.

Why the “Next Jerry O?”

Steelers outside linebacker capture our imaginations. They sack opposing quarterbacks, force fumbles and make the “Splash” plays that turn games. They become our heroes.

  • Inside linebackers aren’t so lucky. Oh, we appreciate them to be sure.

Sometimes they dazzle us, such as Ryan Shazier did. But when it comes to inspiring, inside linebackers just don’t make magic on the same level of magic as their outside brethren (Jack Lambert a true middle linebacker doesn’t count.)

So inside linebackers are underdogs. I’m a sucker for an underdog.

  • And there’s perhaps no bigger underdog than Jerry Olsavsky.
Jerry Olsavsky, Steelers vs Patriots,

Steelers linebacker Jerry Olsavsky in the 1989 Steelers December win over the Patriots. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers of course drafted Jerry Olsavsky in the 10th round of the 1989 NFL Draft. In other words, he wouldn’t have been drafted today. Yet he not only made the 1989 regular season roster, he found himself starting in week 9 when Hardy Nickerson went down and earned a spot UPI’s all rookie team.

He did all of this, despite being, as Al Michaels described him on Monday Night Football, “One of those players who isn’t big enough, fast enough or tall enough, but just good enough.” In his first year as a full-time starter, 1993, Olsavsky blew up his knee in Cleveland Stadium and had to have multiple ligaments replaced.

Yet, he was back in a Steelers uniform a year later and two years later played a critical role in the Steelers run to Super Bowl XXX.

Jerry O. left the Steelers after the 1997 season, played a year in Baltimore and thus began my desire for “The next Jerry O.” For a while it seemed like John Fiala might have fit that bill. But when Kendrell Bell got injured to start the 2002 season, it was Larry Foote and not Fiala that Bill Cowher put in.

  • Other candidates have cropped up from time to time, including Tyler Matakevich.

But by the time the Steelers drafted Matakevich in the 2016 draft the Steelers already had Vince Williams for 3 years.

Vince Williams, Hard Hitting Underdog

No one handed Vince Williams anything. He looked good in preseason, but with Larry Foote went down in the Steelers 2013 season opener, it was Kion Wilson who went in as Williams wasn’t even dressed.

Vince Williams was starting within 2 weeks, the Steelers London loss to the Vikings, but he struggled as a rookie. And the Steelers defense struggled with him. But he got better. So did the Steelers defense. And by the end of the season, he was pretty good.

  • That tenacity would serve Vince Williams well.

Despite finishing his rookie year with the arrow pointed up, Vince Williams found himself starting his sophomore year behind Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Sean Spence. Although he would only officially start 6 games in the next 3 seasons, Vince Williams was a fixture in the Steelers defense.

  • Whenever Vince Williams was on the field, you could count on him to come to the ball.

From 2015 through 2020, Vince Williams logged 44 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, 43 QB hits and register 20 sacks. Whatever Williams may have lacked in athleticism, he made up for with willpower and want to.

By the peak of his career, Vince Williams was the perfect complement to a pair along side a super athletic inside linebacker such as Ryan Shazier or Devin Bush.

Facing salary cap Armageddon, the Steelers cut Vince Williams earlier this spring. Rather than play for another team, Williams agreed to return for a veteran minimum salary. Yet, just before training camp, he had a change of heart and retired.

That’s unfortunate.

Pass coverage was never Vince Williams’ forte, so it’s entirely possible that had Williams continued to play, the Steelers will would have had to trade for Joe Schobert. But make no mistake about it, the Pittsburgh Steelers will miss Vince Williams in the locker room, inside the huddle and perhaps most of all, at the line of scrimmage.

Thank you Vince Williams on behalf of Steelers Nation. May you find our Life’s Work well.

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1995 Pittsburgh Steelers: Return to Super Bowl, but Trophy “Two Interceptions Too Far”

The 1994 Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl hopes crashed 3 yards short of the goal in the AFC Championship  loss to the San Diego Chargers. Heartbreaking though it was, it did lead to the “3 More Yards” off season rallying cry.

  • Alas, the Steelers didn’t start 1995 3 yards short of the Super Bowl, however.

Quite the contrary. In 1995, Bill Cowher would need the Steelers to harness every ounce of energy within the franchise to find those final 3 yards.

Steelers Colts AFC Championship, Aaron Bailey, Randy Fuller, Jim Harbaugh Hail Mary AFC Championship

Randy Fuller bats a pass away from Aaron Bailey. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

1995 Off Season – Tempting Fate

When a franchise falls a hair short of the Super Bowl, its instinct is generally to keep the same team intact. Yet, the Steelers did the opposite in 1995.

Neil O'Donnell, Barry FosterBarry Foster and Eric Green had powered the offense in the Cowher Era, earning a third of the yards and scoring 40% of the touchdowns. The Steelers let Eric Green walk in free agency and sent Barry Foster to Carolina for a song.

  • Yes, the duo’s production dipped in 1994, but the moves carried enormous risk.

Pittsburgh replaced Green with Mark Bruener, a first round tight end who “Had no plans to hold a Super Bowl rap video.” Bam Morris’ emergence in 1994 and the arrival of free agent Erric Pegram in 1995 gave the Steelers the comfort they needed to trade the talented, but testy Barry Foster. On defense, the Steelers let Tim McKyer and Gerald Williams depart via the expansion draft, figuring they had enough depth to make up the difference.

These were calculated risks and in May 1995, it looked like the Steelers had lost their gamble when starting cornerback Deon Figures took a stray bullet in the knee while driving through Los Angeles.

  • However, Figures recovered quickly enough to play on opening day.

It seemed that the Steelers had tempted Fate and escaped. As they would soon learn, Fate was in fact a temptress, and one who did not appreciate being scorned.

Season Starts – Fate’s Vengeance Carries a Stiff Price

The Steelers opened the 1995 season in Pittsburgh on Sunday September 3rd with Three Rivers Stadium awash in brilliant sunshine. All was well as the Steelers sat on a 3-0 lead with 1:19 remaining in the 1st quarter as the Lions tried to convert a 3rd and 7.

  • Scott Mitchell passed to Barry Sanders in the flat.
  • Rod Woodson pivoted to make the tackle.

No one remembers now or cared then that Sanders converted the 3rd down because Rod Woodson tore his ACL on the play. Fourteen plays later, Neil O’Donnell converted a third down with a throw to Ernie Mills, then was seen holding his hand after handing off to Bam Morris.

Mike Tomczak was warming up after the TV time out as announcers informed that Neil O’Donnell had broken his hand.

The 1995 season was barley a quarter old, and the Steelers had lost their Hall of Fame cornerback and the starting quarterback. Fate’s vengeance carried a stiff price.

“3 More Yards” Is the Problem, Not the Solution

Although, Pittsburgh rallied to win on opening day on a last second Norm Johnson field goal, the Steelers would play some of their worst football of the Cowher era over the next six weeks.

Sure, Andre Hastings, Carnell Lake, Willie Williams, and Alvoid Mays all made splash plays on special teams and defense to score critical touchdowns that supplied the Steelers with 2 more wins.

Willie Williams, Myron Bell,

Willie Williams and Myron Bell. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • But those performances were exceptions, and not the rule.

While they were in route to a 3-4 start, the Boston Globe’s William McDonough argued that Pittsburgh was hopeless without their four best players from the previous year. The legendary columnist was wrong.

  • Oh, talent deficiencies were hurting hurt the Steelers.

Bam Morris struggled to crack the 3 yards a carry mark and hadn’t sniffed a 100-yard game. Bill Cowher benched Mike Tomcazk twice in favor of Jim Miller, but Miller didn’t give The Chin any reason to stick with him.

But talent really wasn’t the core issue bedeviling the 1995 Steelers as revealed by a simple fact: Their two worst losses came following O’Donnell’s return, first to the expansion Jaguars and second to Bengals.

The problem? Pittsburgh’s was playing with the attitude of a team that actually thought it only needed 3 yards to reach the Super Bowl:

  • Tackles were sloppy
  • Routine passes got dropped
  • Games were lost with balls thrown into traffic while receivers roamed uncovered in the end zone

Focus seemed to be everywhere except on the fundamentals. After 7 games the Steelers were 3-4.

9 Changes for a 9 Game Season

The lasting images of the Steelers Thursday Night Football loss to the Bengals were Alvoid Mays getting tortured and torched by Jeff Blake and Bill Cowher screaming on the sidelines. From a distance, The Chin appeared to be losing control.

Appearances deceive. Bill Cowher was actually asserting control.

Bill Cowher declared it a 9-game season and, as if to prove a point, he made 9 lineup changes:

  • At left tackle Justin Strzelczyk replaced injured John Jackson
  • Rookie Brendan Stai took Strzelczyk’s place starting at right guard
  • John Williams, returned to health, replaced Steve Avery at fullback
  • Bam Morris got benched, replaced by Erric Pegram
  • Jerry Olsavsky stepped in for Chad Brown, who’d suffered a high ankle sprain
  • Brentson Buckner slid over to replace the suspended Joel Steed, and Kevin Henry took his place
  • Myron Bell became the new starter at strong safety

Making 8 lineup changes in one week in the NFL is dramatic. But Bill Cowher’s 9th change bordered on revolutionary: Carnell Lake, who played linebacker at UCLA and started strong safety since 1989, moved over to cornerback. This was a bold move, as Lake had never played cornerback, outside of a few series during the 1991 preseason (don’t believe me? Check the August 1991 Steelers Digest editions).

Change came in the locker room. The Steelers held a players-only meeting, banning pagers (Google it) and cellphones from meetings and practices with Greg Lloyd promising to smash the next one he saw.

  • All of this was public knowledge. But Bill Cowher had another change up his sleeve that he was saving for the field.

And this was as electrifying as it was innovative.

“Slash” Is Born!

The following week the Steelers attacked the Jacksonville Jaguars with laser like focus, going up 21-0 at the half and closing with a 24-7 win. The win was impressive and needed. But the real lesson was tucked  into the end of the 1st quarter, when on 3rd and 2, the 4th string quarterback entered the game under center and ran for 16 yards.

Kordell Stewart, Kordell Stewart Slash, Steelers vs Jaguars

Kordell Stewart lines of up his first NFL carry. “Slash” was about to be born. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • It seemed like a gimmick. Instead, it signaled a revolutionary change for the Steelers offense.

But before starting the revolution, the Steelers needed to travel to Chicago, and play a 6-2 Bears team that had been one of the NFL’s best. It wasn’t easy. The Steelers fought the Bears for every blade of grass in a contest that saw the lead change 11 times.

In the end, the Steelers tied the game late in the 4th quarter, snuffed out a Bears comeback attempt with a Willie Williams interception, lost the toss in overtime, forced a punt but kicked a field goal to win it.

  • Against the Bears, Kordell Stewart had run once for two yards and caught another pass for 27.

Although both of those converted 3rd downs, Kordell’s contributions remained largely in the background.

That changed the following week on Monday Night Football, when Kordell Stewart stood under center at the goal line, scrambled from one end of the backfield to the next before connecting with Ernie Mills for his first NFL touchdown pass.

“Slash” was born.

While Neil O’Donnell remained entrenched as the starter, Kordell Stewart’s ability to run, throw and catch gave Pittsburgh’s offense a dynamic weapon that opposing defenses could not cope with. Lest anyone doubt how potent Pittsburgh’s offense became with Slash take a look here (tweet courtesy of Steel City Star):

This wasn’t just a 71-yard touchdown pass, it was the go-ahead score in a game that saw the Steelers start the 2nd half down 13 to 31. The offense evolved in other ways, as Kordell would sometimes join Yancey Thigpen, Ernie Mills, Charles Johnson and Andre Hastings to form an empty set formation which was rare in the NFL in those days, and unheard of in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers stacked wins. Some, like the 20-17 road win over the Browns, were more workman like than others. But most importantly, the Steelers took it in stride, with the implicit understanding that each win was simply a necessary stepping stone toward the playoffs.

Lessons of ’94 Serve Steelers Well in 1995 Playoffs

When the 1994 playoffs arrived, both the Steelers and Steelers Nation regarded the Divisional and AFC Championship games as formalities. The San Diego Chargers had disabused Pittsburgh of such fantasies.

The divisional round brought the Buffalo Bills to Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers jumped out to a steady, 23 to 7 half time lead. They tacked on another field goal to make it 26 to 7. But then the Bills, alternating between Alex Van Pelt and Jim Kelly, scored a second and then a third touchdown.

  • Yet there was no panic on the Steelers sidelines when the Bills made it 21-26 with 12 minutes left to play.
Levon Kirkland, Steelers vs Bills, 1995 AFC Divisional Playoffs, Myron Bell, Darren Perry

Levon Kirkland intercepts Jim Kelly. Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger, Getty Images, via Heavy.com

The Steelers responded with an 11-play drive that burned 5 minutes off the clock and ended with a Bam Morris touchdown. Jerry Olsavsky and Levon Kirkland ended the next two Bills drives with interceptions, allowing Bam Morris to score an insurance touchdown for a 40 to 21 win.

Instead of the euphoria that had engulfed Three Rivers Stadium a year earlier, Greg Lloyd held up 2 fingers, for two more games, as he entered the tunnel, confirming that the Steelers were taking nothing for granted.

  • As the next week would prove, that attitude would serve the entire team well.

Like the Chargers a year before them, the 1995 Indianapolis Colts weren’t supposed to have made it this far. But they upset the AFC favorite Kansas City Chiefs and their demeanor made clear that the Colts arrived in Pittsburgh with every intention of doing the same to the Steelers.

  • The two teams slogged it out in a defensive chess match that lasted three quarters.

Going into the 4th quarter the Steelers held a 13 to 9 lead, having scored the only touchdown in the first half. With about 8 minutes left, Jim Harbaugh hit Floyd Turner for a 47-yard touchdown and a 16 to 13 lead.

  • Steelers Nation uttered a collective, “Here we go again.”

What followed was perhaps the most intense 8 minutes of the decade. Every man on each team, left it all on the field. With just over 3 minutes to play, the Colts had a 3rd and one. A first down would likely allow them to kill the clock. Willie Williams responded; rushing from the opposite side he covered the entire width of the field making an improbable tackle of Lamont Warren for no gain.

You can see Willie William’s tackle here courtesy of Steel City Star (it is number 4, coming @ the 1:26 mark):

Williams’ tackle forced the Colts to punt. Here’s what followed:

  • The Steelers got the ball back but struggled, being forced to convert a 4th and three.
  • Then Neil O’Donnell hit Ernie Mills for a 37-yard hookup that put Pittsburgh at Indy’s 1.
  • Bam Morris ran for no gain. Indy took a time out.
  • Bam Morris ran again, this time scoring, giving the Steelers a 20 to 16 lead.

The Colts had a minute 34 and were far from finished. Jim Harbaugh converted 3rd and 4th downs as he moved the Colts to the Steelers 29 with time for one throw. He heaved it towards the end zone. It found Aaron Bailey through a crowd and landed on his lap.

Bailey closed on the ball for a second, but Randy Fuller knocked it away.

Time expired and the Steelers were heading to Super Bowl XXX.

Super Bowl XXX – Two Interceptions Too Far

The Dallas Cowboys were undeniably the dominate team of the early 1990’s. The only thing keeping them from winning more Super Bowls was Jerry Jones’ ego and insistence on Barry Switzer over Jimmy Johnson.

Rod Woodson, Michael Irvin, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX

Rod Woodson beats Michael Irvin in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: @Sports Pics, via Behind the Steel Curtain

  • It says here that Vegas odds makers were right to favor Dallas in this game.

But was 17 points too much?

For the first 26 minutes of the game, that margin seemed about right. The Steelers played with stage fright and quite frankly, were lucky to hold the Cowboys to 13 points. But late in the 2nd quarter, Tory Aikman tried to hook up with Michael Irvin on third down only to have Rod Woodson knock the ball away.

Woodson’s presence alone was a medical miracle, let alone a play such as that against a fellow Hall of Famer.

The Steelers went to work and clawed their way down the field. The first half closed with Neil O’Donnell connecting with Yancey Thigpen for a touchdown. The Steelers were down 13 to 7 but had put themselves back into the game by halftime.

…Unfortunately, Neil O’Donnell almost took them back out of the game when early in the 3rd quarter he threw directly to Larry Brown who returned the ball 30 yards, setting up an easy Cowboys touchdown.

The Steelers refused to fade or fold.

They opened the 4th quarter with a Norm Johnson field goal, followed by a surprise-on-sides kick that Deon Figures recovered. Pittsburgh was not only going to continue to play, it was playing to win.

Larry Brown, John L. Williams, Steelers vs Cowboys, Larry Brown interception Super Bowl XXX, Larry Brown pick six Super Bowl XXX

Larry Brown en route to end zone in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: Al Belo, Getty Images via surgexsportsblitz.com

O’Donnell quickly moved the team down the field, and in just 3 minutes, Bam Morris was in the end zone, making it a 20 to 17 game. The Steelers forced the Cowboys to punt on a drive that featured their only sack of the game, an 8-yard drop by Levon Kirkland.

  • The Steelers got the ball back.

To this day, people argue whether Andre Hastings ran the wrong route or not, but what is clear is that Neil O’Donnell again threw it directly to Larry Brown. And again Larry Brown returned into the Steelers Red Zone. And again, Emmitt Smith did what he did so well – score touchdowns.

  • The final score read Cowboys 27 Steelers 17.

Bill Cowher’s Steelers opened the season by losing their best player. By midseason they were facing an abyss. The effort of the 1995 Steelers in turning the season around is worthy of story and song.

But at the end of the day, the truth is that Pittsburgh had glimpsed the Mountain Top, but it was two interceptions too far.

Thanks for reading. For our next article “1996 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Bus Arrives in the Steel City!” click here. For the full series on Bill Cowher click here (and scroll up or down).

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Steelers 2016 Draft Grades – Disappointments Add Up to a (generous) C-

With nine new players, numerous Pro Day visits, thousands of words of prediction and analysis and countless hours of video, the 2021 Draft is complete.

  • And now we can finally assign draft grades.

We can now finally grade the Steelers 2016 Draft class. Wait, what? Why pray tell, would a Steelers site grade the 2016 draft now?

Tyreek Hill touchdown Steelers, Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Steelers vs Chiefs

Tyreek Hill scores as Sean Davis and Artie Burns “watch.” Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

We’ve always harked back to Chuck Noll’s philosophy of waiting 5 years to grade a draft. And while its fun to say “If it was enough for Chuck Noll is good enough for me,” that rings hollow this year. Because after the Steelers 2016 Draft class was announced, I boldly declared:

The Steelers 2016 Draft Class, like the Steelers 2015 and 2014 draft classes will be judged by one criteria: Did the players selected by Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin add enough value to allow Ben Roethlisberger to lead the Steelers to a 7th Super Bowl.

Well, Ok now, the Steelers clearly haven’t brought home another Lombardi ergo, there’s nothing new we can learn from the 2016 draft, right?

  • Actually, far from it.

The Steelers 2016 Draft class reinforces a timeless lesson: Time and patience are required to grade a draft class. In that sense, the Steelers 2016 draft is reminiscent of the 1989 Steelers draft: Both looked pretty damn good the following January.

1989 Steelers broke a four year playoff drought, shocked the world with an upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome, and came within a dropped pass and a bad snap from the AFC Championship game.

  • Steelers 1989 draft class was a huge factor in making that happen.

Yet, as time passed, it became clear that the Steelers 1989 draft had far more Fool’s Gold than did did gems. 2016 is similar. The 2016 season ended with a bitter AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, but the 3 Steelers defensive rookies who started that game had played a huge role in getting them there.

  • The “Upside” of those rookies appeared to be limitless.

But appearances can be deceiving. As our grades reveal:

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

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

First Round: Artie Burns the Burn Out

When the Steelers called Artie Burns‘ name on draft night, the skeptics spoke up. Pitttsburgh desperately needed a cornerback and the top corners had gone off the board in a hurry. William Jackson the player Pittsburgh wanted, went one pick before the Steelers turn to draft.

  • Artie Burns looked and felt like a reach.

As a rookie, Artie Burns defied his critics. He won he starting job from William Gay at mid season, made 3 interceptions and deflected 13 passes. Was he perfect? No. But Burns certainly contributed to the Steelers late season defensive turn around.

  • Unfortunately, Artie Burns burned out after that.

Artie Burns struggled in 2017. Rumors circulated that Cam Sutton might replace him. 2018 saw Burns benched, and he got burned in his lone reapperance in the Steelers win over the Patriots. In 2019 he was purely a backup, although he played well in his start against the Chargers.

Most fans will write Artie Burns off as a bust, but he wasn’t a total loss. Grade: Disappointment

Second Round: Sean Davis Doesn’t Deliver on Rookie Promise

This site has written a lot about Sean Davis recently, reflecting on his career arc both in Tony Defeo’s free agent profile and the piece about his free agent signing with the Colts.

Sean Davis’ rookie of the year honors were well deserved. HE played well, like the rest of the defense, during the first half of 2017, then struggled with everyone else. He moved to free safety in 2018 and did fairly well, and lost his 2019 to injury.

He served as a backup and special teams player during his return in 2020. Might not have been his fault, but Davis never delivered on the promise of his rookie year. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Third Round: Javon Hargrave – The Grave Digger Finds Gold

Former Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell was spare with his praise, but he didn’t hold back when the Steelers took Javon Hargrave in 2016.

And Hargrave delivered. He won the starting job in 2016 as a rookie and neither he nor the Steelers looked back since then. Injuries limited his effectiveness in 2017, but the only question about Hargrave during the rest of his time in Pittsburgh was “Why doesn’t he play more?” Grade: Grand Slam

Fourth Round: Injuries Hobble Jerald Hawkins’ Career before It Starts

Jerald Hawkins was one of first lineman the Steelers had drafted in quite some time. Unfortunately, his rookie season was lost to injury. He saw some action in 2018 but got injured during OTAs in 2018 was lost for the entire season.

The Steelers traded him prior to the 2019 season, but brought him back for 2020 in a bit of waiver wire shopping where Hawkins served as the Steelers 3 tight end. Grade: Disappointment

5th Round: Travis Feeney. Who?

Travis Feeney didn’t make the Steelers 2016 roster and Pittsburgh lost him in a bit of practice squad poaching in December of that year when the New Orleans Saints signed him. Per Pro Football Reference, he never played a down of NFL football, as the Saints cut him the following June. Grade: Bust

7th Round A: Demarcus Ayers Remarkable Start All for Naught

Hollywood doesn’t script better than this. As a 7th round pick On his second week off of practice squad, in the 4th quarter of his first professional game, Demarcus Ayers:

  • Drew a 35 yard pass interference play that moved the Steelers into the Red Zone
  • Threw a key block 2 plays later that set up a touchdown
  • Made a 9 yard catch and got out of bounds with 0:57 left to play

Oh, and did we mention the AFC North was on the line? On Christmas? And against the Ravens?

Ayers went 3-3 targets/catches in against the Dolphins and Chiefs in the playoffs, but he failed to make the 53 man roster the next summer. He famously balked at rejoining the Steelers practice squad, spent a few weeks on the Patriot’s practice squad, was on the Bears 2018 off season roster and then out of football.

  • Could Demarcus Ayers have carved a niche role for himself by staying in Pittsburgh?

Alas, we’ll never know. Neither will he. Grade: Disappointment.

7th Round B: Tyler Matakevich – “Dirty Red” Excels on Special Teams

Tyler Matakevich was supposed to be one of those linebackers like Jerry Olsavsky who lacked measurables but was going to made up for it in preparation, effort and heart.

  • During four years in Pittsburgh Matakevich proved himself to be an excellent special teams player.

However, he never grew into a supporting role at inside linebacker. Coaches gave him a clear, first shot at winning the starting job at St. Vincents in the summer of 2018, but by time the season arrived “Dirty Red” found himself behind both Jon Bostic and L.J. Fort. Grade: Quality Value Pickup

Overall Final Grade for the Steelers 2016 Draft Class

The Steelers 2016 Draft Class delivered 3 Disappointments, 2 Serviceable Pickups, 1 Bust and one Grand Slam. So the Steelers got some value out of this draft class, but the value delivered by their premium picks diminished rapidly. Javon Hargrave keeps this grade in striking distance of respectable, and the final grade might be a bit generous given the stakes. Grade: C-

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Steelers Draft Buddy Johnson with 4th Round Compensatory Pick, Two ‘n a Row for Texas A&M

Last year it was Terrapins from the University of Maryland. This year its Aggies from Texas A&M. At least in the 4th round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

12 picks after calling Don Moore Jr.’s name with their own 4th round pick the Steelers went to the Texas A&M well a second time when they picked Aggies inside linebacker Buddy Johnson.

The decision to look to inside linebacker departs from the (definitive) Steelers Draft Needs Matrix which rated cornerback as a higher need, which in no way suggests that this move is a mistake. While a best case scenario for both Buddy Johnson and the team will be for Johnson to shine on special teams this year, the Steelers certainly need depth at inside linebacker.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Chris Adamski pointed out, Buddy Johnson was the leading tackler on the best defense in what is considered to be the NCAA’s toughest conference. But, Adamski reminds us that none of those statistics meant anything to Jerry Olsavsky, the Steelers inside linebackers coach.

Jerry Olsavsky, himself a former Steelers inside linebacker taken as a 10th round pick out of Pitt in the 1989 NFL Draft, explains his attraction to Johnson:

I don’t look at the production numbers, OK” I look at the film and I see production, and I say, ‘Oh, this guy’s a good player.’ I didn’t know (about Johnson’s stat superlatives). … The SEC is great football. But if you watch one game, you would be like, ‘Wow, this guy is active.’ And that’s what I’m looking for.

One would expect no less from Jerry Olsvasky. While Olsvasky has worked with superior athletes such as Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Devin Bush, he was once described by the Monday Night Football broadcast team as “One of those players who isn’t big enough, isn’t fast enough, but just simply good enough.”

Buddy Johnson, Steelers 4th round pick 2021 NFL Draft

Buddy Johnson during the LSU-Texas A&M game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

Buddy Johnson Video Highlights

So just what is that that Jerry Olsvasky sees when he looks at the tape of this 6’, 229 pound, 23 game starter for the Aggies who led Texas A&M in tackles for the last two years? Well, let’s take a look:

That’s a nice tape. What is particularly encouraging is that Buddy Johnson appears to have sound tackling technique. While the Steelers tackling has been better of late, failure on this fundamental skill has been at issue in the not too distant past.

How Buddy Johnson Fits In

The Steelers obviously have a lot invested in Devin Bush’s development, but with Vince Williams and Robert Spillane playing on one year deals, Pittsburgh clearly needs to think of the future. While Johnson will get a fair shake and a reasonable shot at earning a helmet on game day, he doesn’t need to come in and made an immediate impact.

That can change in a hurry, as Vince Williams learned during his rookie year, but for now Buddy Johnson adds depth in the present, offers potential for the future and hopefully can begin contributing on special teams immediately.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Buddy Johnson.

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