Steelers 2018 Training Camp to Test Mike Tomlin & Kevin Colbert’s Defensive Talent Evaluations

All eyes at St. Vincents are on Pittsburgh’s position battles at safety, inside linebacker, and running back. But in many ways, the die has already been cast, with the true test at this Steelers training camp will be of Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s ability to evaluate defensive talent.

Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin press conference

Mike Tomlin addressing the press. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers post-Super Bowl rebuilding phase has been over for some time.

Ben Roethlisberger is the only veteran who remains from Super Bowl XLIII. Only Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and Antonio Brown remain from Super Bowl XLV. The Pittsburgh Steelers have steadily improved since their nightmare 2-6 start to the 2013 season, and with each season they’ve gotten closer to climbing the Stairway to Seven.

  • Progress crashed to an abrupt halt last January in the playoff loss to the Jaguars.

And the reason for Pittsburgh’s painful playoff exit can be pinned squarely on the Steelers defense, who got manhandled at Heinz Field for a second straight time by Jacksonville. The loss sent Steelers Nation reeling, with no shortage of Black and Gold faithful seeking blood. One Twitter exchange is particularly instructive:

It might seem a bit contradictory to run a blog post questioning the Steelers collective defensive talent evaluation skills, but it is not. Losing Ryan Shazier was a game-changer for the Steelers in 2017. Everyone accepts that. Now.

But what people forget is that the Steelers decision to draft Ryan Shazier was a questionable one and many fans were labeling Shazier a “bust” as recently as 2016. In a similar vein, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin clearly made the right choices when it came to Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams (remember the guy was a 6th round pick) and Joe Haden.

  • But Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have swung and missed on the defensive rebuild.

And those misses have carried real costs. Missing on a premium pick requires you to redraft for the same position, forcing you to forgo talent elsewhere.

Shamarko Thomas never contributed outside of special teams, forcing the Steelers to invest another premium pick on Sean Davis. Jarvis Jones qualifies as the first unquestioned first round bust of Kevin Colbert’s tenure, and that move led the Steelers to draft Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt.

If you look at the key position battles that will be fought out on the fields of St. Vincents this summer, they either involve redrafts or highlight questions about key defensive talent acqusitions. Consider:

  • The Steelers are swapping T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, in a bid to jump start Dupree’s pass rush
  • Sean Davis is moving to free safety after starting for two years at strong safety
  • Artie Burns enters training camp as the incumbent starter at corner, but Cam Sutton could challenge

Then stir in the battle at inside linebacker. Tyler Matakevich and free agent Jon Bostic will vie to “replace” Ryan Shazier. Matakevich is a fan favorite, an inside linebacker in the mold of Jerry Olsavsky. The sentimentally is nice, but fails to compensate for athleticism. Bostic looks like a serviceable player – when healthy.

The Steelers coaching staff seems to understand that neither player offers the athleticism needed in the middle of the field. Talk of deploying sub packages that use Morgan Burnett and/or Terrell Edmunds in some sort of hybrid safety-inside linebacker position dominated the off season.

  • As others have observed, fans clamored for Ryan Shazier to switch to safety; now the Steelers are using safeties to try to replace him.

It is important to remember that the Steelers 2017 defense actually looked pretty good at times, broaching shut down level against Kansas City and Cincinnati and playing really tough in the Red Zone against Detroit. Ryan Shazier was a key player in making that happen, but he didn’t do it himself.

  • By sticking to their board and refusing to reach for defensive in the 2018 NFL Draft Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin implicitly acknowledge that.

If nothing else, the duo is being true to themselves, as they’ve never made personnel decisions of fear. Now its time to see how whether their self-confidence is justified or not.

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Review of Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel – Jack Lambert Liked It and So Will Serious Steelers Fans

Who are former Pittsburgh Steelers Bill Dudley, Elbie Nickel, John Reger and Myron Pottios and what they mean to the franchise’s legacy? Unless you’re in your mid-60’s or older, you’ve probably never heard of them, let alone considered their importance.

After you read Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel, an 187 page volume published in 2006 and reissued in 2011, you’ll know more about 36 men who wore the Black and Gold before during and after the Super Bowl era and what’s more, Wexell’s work will make you care about their contribution to the Steelers legacy.

  • At first glance, Jim Wexell’s lean, simple structure to Men of Steel might appear to be a drawback, but in truth it is one of the book’s greatest strengths.

Each of the 36 Steelers Wexell profiles gets between four and five pages to tell their story, including first hand interviews, highlights from the player’s career and an update on each player’s “Life’s Work.”

Jim Wexell, Jim Wexell Men of Steel

Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger on the cover of the 2011 edition of Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel

Wexell effectively employs this spare approach to lend a rich relevance to the stories of familiar players to players from yesterday that even the most diehard Steelers fans will struggle to recognize.

The average “educated Steelers fan” might be vaguely familiar with the Steelers role in effectively ending the career of Y.A. Title, but most probably don’t know that the man who sacked Tuttle on that fateful play was John Baker, a man who went on to serve as sheriff of Wake County, North Carolina for the better part of two decades.

Devoting so much space to pre-Noll era Steelers might seem counter-intuitive from a commercial stand point, but Wexell explains, “I wanted to get the same amount of Steelers from each era, with the stipulation that I have to talk to them.”

Expanding on this goal, Wexell details, “I heard that Steelers fans wanted more of the stars, but I just assumed they had access to the internet. I’ve always wanted to know about some of the older players.” Wexell learned and shared stories.

And on that front, Wexell delivers, benefitting on guidance from the Steelers legendary PR man Joe Gordon, who for example, pointed him in the direction of Johnny Lattner, the only Heisman Trophy winner to sign with the Steelers.

Jim Wexell weaves each tale by starting with a key fact or action taken by the player, establishing its significance to the narrative and then providing the reader with a firsthand account from the player. After that, Wexell navigates seamlessly through the player’s college, pro and post-football careers.

  • Each chapter ends with the player moving on just as the reader turns the page to begin the next in medias res narrative a new player.

A book browser who might pick up Men of Steel, scan its table of contents, and see that Wexell takes 16 chapters to get to the beginning of the Super Steelers era could easily put the book down thinking there’s nothing interesting in there for fans focused on rooting for Mike Tomlin to bring home Lombardi Number Seven.

  • They’d be making a grave error however.

Wexell combines crisp, succinct sentences with detailed, game-specific research to deliver compelling stories about men who blazed the trails that opened the way for the NFL and the Steelers to become the icons we adore today.

Wexell matches his economy of words with copious research, as he relates, “There’s really my art. I love research. I love sitting in libraries and poring through microfiche.”

Men of Steel Narrative Galvanized by Super Bowl Era and 80’s Stories

The majority of Wexell’s Men of Steel is devoted to telling the stories of the Steelers from the Chuck Noll era onward. Steelers fans will see names that they know, starting with Joe Greene and ending with stories on Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger.

Wexell secured an exclusive interview with the Steelers signal caller prior to Super Bowl XLV and also documents a pre-draft nugget linking Roethlisberger to Steelers scout Mark Gorscak (the need for greater insight into the Steelers draft evaluation process has long been a pet cause of this site.)

Along the way, Wexell scores a rare interview with Jack Lambert. When prodded about how he got the reclusive Steelers legend to speak, Wexell shares that he’d tried, and failed to get an interview for his first book, Tales from Behind the Steel Curtain and for Men of Steel:

[For] , Men of Steel, I made the cursory call. He didn’t answer. I left a message, again, figuring he wouldn’t call back. But he did. “I don’t usually return calls to people like you,” he said with a pause. “But I thought your first book was the best Steelers book ever written. How can I help you?”

Jack Lambert, Jack Lambert Sports Illustrated Cover

Photo Credit: Tony Tomsic, Sports Illustrated

Lambert not only answered Wexell’s questions, but was surprised that the author only wanted to speak with him for 45 minutes and confesses, “To this day I’m kicking myself for not having more philosophical questions for a guy who obviously wanted to talk about pure football.”

Still, Wexell got enough to impress one of the most popular Pittsburgh Steelers of all time, as after sending him a copy, Jack Lambert wrote Wexell back:

It’s New Years Eve and I’m sitting down in the basement with my friends, a Michelob bottle and a pack of Tareytons. A long overdue thank you for sending me “Men of Steel.” … I just finished it and enjoyed catching up on some of my old teammates.

Aside from Lambert, Wexell also had the foresight to include stories on then yet-to-be Hall of Famers Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson and Kevin Greene.

But that’s essentially a function of the fact that we already know so much about those men. You’re not surprised when you enjoy reading Merril Hoge’s reflections on how special the 1989 Steelers playoff run is the way you unexpectedly crave more after learning of John Reger’s role in the 1955 MNF season opening win over the Chicago Cardinals at Forbes Field.

  • And, to be clear, Wexell succeeds in providing fresh insights on modern-era Steelers.

For transparency’s sake, its important to note that Men of Steel is not a perfect work and does contain a few factual errors. But just as a quarterback can throw an interception but still play a great game, these mistakes don’t keep Men of Steel from being a great book.

When asked what Steelers fans in 2018 can expect to gain by reading Men of Steel, Wexell concedes that he hasn’t given the question much thought, but then offers, “I love writing biographies because that’s where I learn the most.”

This reviewer concurs. Jim Wexell’s love for his subject matter is apparent on every page of the book, and so are the lessons he’s learned from those Men of Steel.

As of this posting, limited copies of Jim Wexell’s Men of Steel remain available on Amazon.com.

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Steelers 2018 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs – How to Replace the Irreplaceable Ryan Shazier?

“An NFL player’s career can end in a second.” It’s a cliché which gets throw around far more frequently than it actually happens. But lack of frequency that doesn’t do anything to dilute the cliché’s fearsome truth.

Will Ryan Shazier play again? He vows to, and God knows everyone is rooting for him to do it, but Ryan Shazier is only barely walking again. The loss of Shazier devastated the Steelers defense and it is no secret that it greatly impacts their plays at inside linebacker for the 2018 NFL Draft.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

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

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

Vince Williams inherited the role as leader of the Steelers inside linebacking corps when Shazier went down as he was in the process of having the best year of his career. The truth is, that Vince Williams simply lacks the athletic ability of either Shazier or his predecessor Lawrence Timmons. He’s more of a bruiser in the Larry Foote mode.

  • More knowledgeable football minds have taken issue with Vince William’s ability over on Steel City Insider.

These commenters know more about football than yours truly and, with that conceded, the far more pedestrian analysis here is that when paired alongside a superb athlete, Vince Williams is solid inside linebacker; absent that athletic presence, he’s going to struggle a bit.

To fill the hole created by Shazier’s absence, the Steelers turned to Jon Bostic, a veteran with experience starting experience gained in Chicago, Indianpolis and New England.

  • Bostic was in fact a 2nd round pick by the Chicago Bears in the 2013 NFL Draft and is a fine athlete.

The worry/knock on Bostic is that he has a history of injuries, which limited him in 2015 and cost him the entire 2016 season. Still, when healthy Bostic has been effective, and word is that he is a suburb tackler.

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

Losing Ryan Shazier taught the Steelers a hard lesson: Depth may look solid on paper, but sometimes that fails translate on the football field. Within a few plays of losing Shazier, his primary backup, Tyler Matakevich, also go injured.

No problem, the Steelers still had L.J. Fort whom they’d groomed for several seasons, and Arthur Moats could move inside in a pinch, couldn’t he?

  • Neither of those options worked out well, so the Steelers signed Sean Spence off the street.

Unfortunately, Sean Spence was out of football for a reason. Even when accounting for his rustiness, Sean failed to provide the stability in place of Shazier has he had done during 2014 and 2015.

Steelers 2018 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

The needs assessment of the Steelers at inside linebacker prior to the 2014 NFL Draft revaled just how quickly an area on the depth chart can jump from a position of weakness to one of strength. The Steeler of wisely ignored that, and drafted Ryan Shazier anyway.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • This year, Shazier’s injury reveals how the reality plays out in reverse.

The Steelers depth at inside linebacker is perhaps thinner than at any other area on the roster.

The Steelers apparently have a lot of confidence in Tyler Matakevich, if 2nd hand accounts from beat writers are any sort of guide. Like his inside linebackers coach, Jerry Olsavsky, Tyler Matakevich is one of those late round players who isn’t supposed to be big enough or fast enough but has a motor that never quits.

  • Fair enough. If Tyler Matakevich develops into a Jerry Olsavsky like player, then he’ll be an asset to the Steelers.

But even if that happens, he still lacks the athleticism to complement Vince Williams effectively. As they have done at safety, the Steelers have wisely signed Jon Bostic which will free them for needing to reach to fill the position. However, the Steelers 2018 draft needs at inside linebacker must be considered High-Moderate.

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

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

Richard Mann, Steelers wide receivers coach richard mann

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

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

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

  • Then the games that counted started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one says that anymore.

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

Ward a Wise Choice to Replace Mann?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So word to the wise about welcoming Hines Ward back.

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Steelers Report Card for Ravens Win – Missing Shazier, but Winning Nonetheless

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is simultaneously inspired and worried at his class’ performance with the star pupil absent, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the AFC North Clinching win over the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field.

T.J. Watt strip sack flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, T.J. Watt, Joe Flacco

T.J. Watt’s strip sack of Joe Flacco secured the win for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Quarterback
How’s this for numbers: 66 passes, 44 completions, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and 506 yards. Those were Ben Roethlisberger’s passing stats on a night when he became the first NFL quarterback to pass for 500 yards in 3 games. And this is the QB who took a supposed back seat to Brady and Manning? While the Steelers offense, including its passing game struggled in the third quarter, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 19 4th quarter points. Grade: A

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell dominated Baltimore in the first meeting but found much tougher sledding in the second, as the Ravens limited him to just 48 yards on the ground. But Bell’s blessing as a running back is his ability to be a dual threat, and on that front Bell soared paste the Ravens for 77 yards and more importantly 2 touchdowns. James Conner got some action, rushing for 6 yards while Roosevelt Nix scored a critical touchdown for the Steelers. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Wide Receivers
The NFL may have seen a better QB-WR tandem before, but there’s none more potent in today’s NFL than Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. In the 4th quarter alone, Ben and Brown hooked up on throws of 22, 34 and 57 yards – and those are only the long ones. Martavis Bryant caught 6 passes for 33 yards including some key possession downs, and Eli Rogers also did his part catch 3 passes for 33 yards. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Steelers struggled to run against the Ravens, but Ravens defense is pretty decent. ESPN’s stat sheet shows that Baltimore sacked Ben Roethlisberger 3 times – a low number by the standards of this rivalry – and also hit him 8 times. While there was more contact with Pittsburgh’s quarterback than has been the norm this season, Ben Roethlisberger had time to throw when it was critical late in the game. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The Baltimore Ravens averaged just under six yards a carry rushing against the Steelers and no Steelers defensive lineman, other than Stephon Tuitt, got to Joe Flacco. Any means of compensating for Ryan Shazier’s absence includes the entire Steelers defensive line stepping up and that didn’t happen against the Ravens, although Cam Heyward gave the rest of his teammates a piece of his mind at the end of the 3rd quarter and it appeared to do at least some good. Grade: C-

Linebackers
The Steelers linebacking crops struggled absent their leader. Vince Williams led the unit in tackles, but his compatriots Arthur Moats, L.J. Fort and Sean Spence struggled to stop Ravens rushers from making gains at the second level. Nor were the linebackers particularly effective in coverage. James Harrison saw time but didn’t make his typical impact against the Ravens, and Bud Dupree was a non-factor. T.J. Watt made some plays early on, and sealed the game with his strip-sack of Joe Flacco, which raises the grade of the unit. Grade: D

Secondary
Sean Davis started the game with an interception which on an ideal night would have been “tone setting” for the entire unit. He finished it by helping break up a key 3rd down pass. In between he contributed some of the worst safety play the Steelers have seen since Travis Davis tenure in ’99. Artie Burns did have one nice pass break up, but committed two costly penalties. Coty Sensabaugh looks primed to keep Tom Brady fantasy owners happy. Coverage improved in the 4th quarter to keep the Steelers in the game, but going forward this is not going to be enough. Grade: D

Special Teams
Any discussion of the Steelers special teams performance must begin with Martavis Bryant’s near disaster in fielding a ball that rolled just short of the goal line. The play evoked images of Barry Foster’s lapse in 1990. Mike Tomlin’s response said it all:

Then there was the issue of the Steelers kick coverage team that was having a solid night until it allowed Michael Campanaro to return a kick 40 yards after the Steelers had just pulled within 2, which set up the Raven’s final touchdown.

Jordan Berry boomed off several impressive punts, and of course Chris Boswell went 4/4 on field goals, including a 52 yarder and a 46 yarder – neither are gimmies at Heinz – which ultimately was the difference maker. Boswell’s performance pulls the group’s grade up, but only by a smidge. Grade: D

Coaching
Devising a game plan to replace your best player on defense on the heels of a Monday Night game no less, isn’t easy, but that’s the task that fell on Keith Butler this week. To be sure, there were errors execution, sloppy tackling and some inanely stupid penalties that no scheme or amount of chalkboard planning could have compensated for.

But if the Steelers ARE clearly struggling to replace Ryan Shazier in the middle of the field, the defense did stop the Ravens cold on 3 of four 4th quarter series.

  • That at least lends some hope that Steelers coaches find something that worked schematically during tape review.

The Steelers offense offers a more interesting tale. Todd Haley’s offense had an excellent first quarter, a solid second quarter only to disappear in the third quarter. The fourth quarter performance of the Steelers offense against the Ravens is nothing short of watching a legend in the making.

Mike Tomlin had the toughest task of all. He needed to channel forces of #Shalieve50 while keeping his players focused enough to realize that emotion alone wouldn’t carry the day. Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, John Mitchell, Carnell Lake, Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter clearly have some work to do on the defense, but they did earned their pay checks this week. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
On a night when Antonio Brown performed like an incarnate angel and a massed over 200 yards receiving the stat line of 14 for 149 went almost unnoticed. It shouldn’t.

  • As 12 of those 14 catches came on scoring drives, and the Steelers needed everyone one of them on this might.

Those stats didn’t come from one player, but rather a duo. Tomorrow morning Tony Defeo will sing their praises here, but for now we’ll simply recognize the efforts of Jesse James and Vance McDonald as the Unsung Heroes of the Steelers AFC North Clinching win over the Ravens.

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Steelers Resign Sean Spence in Wake of Shazier, Matakevich Injuries

Injuries to Ryan Shazier and Tyler Matakevich have forced the Pittsburgh Steelers to resign Sean Spence.

The Steelers arrived a Paul Brown Stadium for their 23-20 Monday Night Football win over the Cincinnati Bengals with four healthy inside linebackers but left with only two.

In a move that has been rumored for over a day saw Pittsburgh Steelers resign Sean Spence, the inside linebacker whom they drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, kept on injured reserve during both the 2012 and 2013 campaign and who split time as a starter with Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams during 2014 and 2015.

Sean Spence, Steelers vs Texans, Steelers resign Sean Spence

Sean Spence after securing a key fumble recovery in the Steelers 2014 win over the Houston Texans. Photo Credit: SteelersWire

When he finally returned to full health, Sean Spence did everything the Pittsburgh Steelers asked of him, as he started 13 games over two seasons, where he record 2 sacks, over 60 tackles and a key fumble recovery in a game against the Houston Texans.

  • Facing a crowded inside linebacking depth chart, Sean Spence rejoined Dick LeBeau during the 2016 off season.

However, despite the his familiarity with the Dick LeBeau’s system, Spence only managed to start six games for the Titans, although he appeared in 15 contests where he recorded 3 more sacks, defensed 3 passes and forced a fumble.

During the 2017 off season, Dale Lolley mentioned that the Steelers might be intersted in bringing Spence back as a backup, but Spence instead signed with the Indianapolis Colts. However, Spence only saw action in 3 games with the Colts and found himself on the waiver wire back in October.

It is unknown whether Sean Spence will have a chance to start in place of L.J. Fort or, should his health allow Tyler Matakevich, but his presence does free the Steelers from the need of having to prep Arthur Moats, who has inside linebacking experience, to do emergency duty there.

While the fact that Sean Spence was still available in early December should raise a yellow caution flag, the Steelers know him well and Sean Spence knows Keith Butler and Jerry Olsavsky.

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Surprise! Steelers Promote Fitzgerald Toussaint from Practice Squad, Cut Terrell Watson. What’s Going On?

Its the last week of November, so it must be time for the Pittsburgh Steelers to….

…If you guessed “Promote Fitzgerald Toussaint from the practice squad” you’d be right, as that’s just what the Steelers did 24 hours ahead of their show down with the Green Bay Packers at Heinz Field. In a move that comes as a surprise, the Steelers cut rookie Terrell Watson and promoted the veteran Toussaint from the practice squad.

Fitzgerald Toussaint, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger

Fitzgerald Toussiant runs in the Steelers 2015 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Photo Credit: The SteelersWire

Two years ago, almost to the day, the Steelers activated Fitzgerald Toussaint from their practice squad ahead of their 2015 matchup against the Seattle Seahawks.

At the time, the move Steelers appeared to be protecting Toussaint from practice squad poaching, as the Ravens had just lost Justin Forsett, and Fitzgerald Toussaint had been with the Ravens in 2014.

  • This time the Steelers motives appear murkier.

Le’Veon Bell has been getting the lion’s share of the carries, with James Conner getting a few carries per game. Instead of risking Ben Roethlisberger on quarterback sneaks, Terrell Watson gotten the call as a short yardage back with mixed effectiveness and for the record had 5 carries for 8 yards.

While this site has taken heat on Twitter for being somewhat of a homer for Fitzgerald Toussaint, Watson had out performed Foussaint during training camp and preseason and won the job.

  • Might the Steelers have concerns about either Le’Veon Bell or James Conner’s health?

Or are the Steelers simply engaging in the type of roster shuffling on their running back depth chart similar to what they have done on the inside linebacking depth chart where Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Jerry Olsavsky have alternated L.J. Fort and Steven Johnson on the active roster and practice squad throughout the year.

  • That’s a possibility, its also possible that Fitzgerald Toussaint is looking better than Watson in practice.

While he won’t strike fear into the hearts of any opposing defensive coordinator, Fitzgerald Toussaint has proven to be a serviceable number 3 running back in his time in Pittsburgh.

His biggest game came in the Steelers 2015 playoff win over the Bengals, where he earned over 100 yards from scrimmage, although many fans still haven’t forgiven him for his fumble in the Steelers playoff loss to Denver the following week.

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How Carlos Emmons’ Story Offers Hope for Steelers 2017 7th Round Draftee Keion Adams

he end of the 2017 NFL Draft in Pittsburgh saw the Steelers draft Keion Adams, outside linebacker from Western Michigan in a pick that saw immediate comparisons to Arthur Moats.

For the record, the Steelers 2017 7th round pick stands at 6’2” and weighs in at 245 and led the MAC conference with 17 tackles for a loss and posted 13 sacks over two seasons as a starter.

Keion Adams, Steelers 2017 7th round pick

Steelers 7th round pick Keion Adams closes in on Central Michigan’s Cooper Rush. Photo Credit: Bryan Bennett, Kalamazoo Gazette

If you were to play a quick game of word association with a citizen of Steelers Nation and said “Keion Adams” the likely response would be “practice squad.” And landing on the Steelers practice squad wouldn’t be a bad outcome for a 7th round pick.

  • But Steelers history suggests that Keion Adams quest to make the final 53 man roster is far from hopeless.

Oh, to be certain, the odds are long. He’s looking at a Steelers outside linebacker depth chart that lists Bud Dupree and James Harrison as starters, with Moates and Anthony Chickillo as backups along with 2017’s 1st round draft pick T.J. Watt ahead of him.

  • Suffice to say, Keion Adams certainly shouldn’t commit himself to a long-term lease anywhere in greater Pittsburgh.

And like seemingly every NFL draft hopful, Keion Adams has a YouTube highlight clip:

Ok… That highlight clip doesn’t exactly conjure memories of Lambert and Lloyd. Fair enough. But Carlos Emmons was in Keion Adam’s shoes once before, and his story gives the Steelers 2017 7th round pick every reason to chin up.

Carlos Emmons and the Steelers 1996 Draft Class

Future Hall of Famer Kevin Greene departed Pittsburgh following the Steelers loss in Super Bowl XXX. But one of the reasons why the Steelers were ready to let Greene go was because Jason Gildon was ready to start.

  • 20/20 hindsight tells us that Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe made a mistake in letting the great Greene go in favor of the merely good Gildon.

But that fact wasn’t apparent on the fields of St. Vincents in the summer of 1996 and even if it had been, it would have meant nothing to Carlos Emmons, the outside linebacker that the Steelers had drafted in the 7th round of the 1996 NFL Draft.

Carlos Emmons, Steelers 7th round picks,

Steelers 1996 7th Round Pick Carlos Emmons’s story offers 2017 7th rounder hope Keion Adams. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Rantsports.com

Mind you, as Super Bowl losers the Steelers were drafting 2nd to last in each round. That made Carlos Emmons the 242nd player drafted out of 254 names called during the 1996 NFL Draft. As if those odds weren’t daunting enough, in addition to Gildon, the Steelers had just resigned Greg Lloyd and had drafted Steve Conley in the third round.

They also had Eric Ravotti who could play on both the inside and outside and, while Chad Brown was a fixture at inside linebacker, the team knew he should shift to the outside should the need arise (as it did, when injuries felled Greg Lloyd in the season opener.)

If that didn’t complicate things enough, the Steelers also had Jerry Olsavsky, Donta Jones and Earl Holmes behind Levon Kirkland and Brown on the inside.

  • Clearly, 1996 did not figure to be a good year to be a linebacker drafted by the Steelers in the 7th round.

As you’d expect, Carlos Emmons wasn’t a player most fans were eager to get a look at once preseason started. But during the Steelers America Bowl game in Tokyo, Emmons made the most of his time and recorded a sack late in the 4th quarter.

Carlos Emmons, Steelers Carlos Emmons,

Carlos Emmons tackles a Kansas City Chief. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette, Peter Diana

Dick LeBeau and Bill Cowher continued to give Emmons opportunities in preseason and, if memory serves, he led the team in sacks during that five exhibition game series. When cut down day came the Steelers had a quandary. Their linebackers all looked good.

  • So the Steelers did the unconventional thing, and kept 10 linebackers on their 1996 opening day active roster.

Seven of those linebacker dressed for the Steelers 1996 home opener at Jacksonville, and by the end of the game only 4 of them were in uniform. Greg Lloyd tore his patella tendon, Jason Gildon suffered a knee injury, and so did Steven Conley.

Things looked so bad that Dick LeBeau openly discussed moving to a 4-3, but that wasn’t necessary as Gildon was back in the lineup sooner than expected.

Carlos Emmons had been in street clothes for the season opener, but he played in all 15 of the Steelers other games, and by the end of 1997 he was starting in after Greg Lloyd’s season ended injury. Emmons would go on to start during 1998 and 1999 before leaving for Philadelphia as a free agent, where he played for four years and then went on to play 3 more in for the Giants.

To be clear, when you talk about the Steelers lineage at outside linebacker you typically start by rattling off the name of Jack Ham, and perhaps you throw in Bryan Hinkle before getting to Lloyd, Greene, Gildon, Joey Porter, Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

  • You never stop to mention the name “Carlos Emmons.”

But that’s beside the point. In the spring and summer of 1996, Carlos Emmons looked like a throwaway pick 7th round picks, just as many pundits have already written Keion Adams as a throwaway 7th round picks.

But Emmons never looked at himself that way, nor did the Steelers. He never blossomed into a star, but had a decent run in Pittsburgh, and overall had a decent NFL career. Fortunately for Kion Adams, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Joey Porter will have him a chance to do the same.

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Hometown Hero Homecoming: Steelers Draft James Conner in 3rd Round, RB Pitt

The close of day two of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Steelers draft James Conner running back from Pitt with their third round compensatory selection.

  • Fans will remember that the Steelers made a similar move with their 3rd round compensatory selection in the 2014 NFL Draft when they took Dri Archer.

Dir Archer turned out to be a veritable head case, but the Steelers can rest assured that James Conner won’t follow in his footsteps. It remains to be seen if Conner can deliver in the NFL, but the man’s character and work ethic are above reproach, as he bounced back from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015 to lead the Pitt Panthers rushing for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016.

Steelers draft James Conner, James Conner, 2017 NFL Draft

Steelers 3rd round draft pick James Conner rushed for 3,733 yards and 52 TD’s at Pitt. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today

Steelers running backs coach James Saxon insisted that Conner wasn’t a sentimental or character pick and James Connor’s highlight reel from Pitt backs him up:

Hearing his name called by the Pittsburgh Steelers is a dream come true for Connor, who in addition to being a standout for Pitt, is an Erie native who played at McDowell High School.

James Connor will provide an immediate boost to a running back depth chart that has struggled to keep two starting caliber running backs healthy since the 2011 season. Le’Veon Bell will remain the uncontested starter, but after Bell the Steelers only have Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis behind him, a duo whose collective yards-per-carry average is 3.15.

James Conner described getting drafted by his hometown team as:

It’s a dream come true. I’m forever grateful to them for giving me the opportunity after everything I’ve been through. I know a lot of teams were scared, but they gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, and they are going to get a great person and a great football player, and I’ll give it my all for them.

The Steelers were expected to go for a running back early in the 2017 NFL Draft and Conner’s third round selection all but confirms what has been obvious for a while, DeAngelo Williams is not in Pittsburgh’s plans for 2017.

  • By drafting James Conner on the third round the Steelers revived what had once been a robust franchise tradition: Giving Pitt Panthers the possibility to play in the NFL.

The Steelers have drafted over 46 players from the University of Pittsburgh, but have not taken a Panther in the NFL Draft since choosing Hank Poteat in the 2000 NFL Draft.

That’s a far cry from the 1980’s, when the Steelers took 6 Pitt Players in the draft, including 3 in the 1989 NFL Draft in the form of Tom Ricketts, Jerry Olsavsky and Carlton Haselrig who was a Pitt-Johnstown graduate.

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No Time to Be Timid: Steelers Should Resign Lawrence Timmons, Make Law Dog Lifer in Pittsburgh

Regardless of what happens in free agency, Lawrence Timmons will always be the first draft pick that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert made together. Aside from being a mild surprise, linebackers were seen as a strength going into the 2007 NFL Draft, picking Timmons also revealed an important change in how the Steelers approach to the draft would change under Mike Tomlin.

  • Under Mike Tomlin, the Steelers would favor youth in the draft, particularly in the 1st round.

You can see impact of that shift today – Lawrence Timmons was only 21 when the Steelers picked him and today 10 seasons under his belt he has yet to turn 31 as he seeks his third contract.

Lawrence Timmons, Steelers 2017 free agents, Ryan Shazier, Steelers vs Giants, Lawrence Timmons interception, Roger Lewis

Lawrence Timmons returns an interception in Steelers 2016 win over Giants. (Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Extended Profile of Lawrence Timmons Steelers Career

Those who’re quick to label a draft pick “a bust” would be wise to acquaint themselves with Lawrence Timmons’ story.

  • You can begin with the fact that the Steelers initially selected Lawrence Timmons to play outside linebacker.

Yes, you read correctly. Mike Tomlin’s initial 2007 training camp depth chart slotted Lawrence Timmons in at right outside linebacker behind James Harrison. It didn’t matter much. Injuries in the spring and during training camp limited Timmons’ opportunities to earn a spot on the field and he spent most of 2007 watching and/or playing special teams.

During the 2008 off season the Steelers shifted Timmons to inside linebacker with an eye towards replacing Larry Foote. Timmons excelled in preseason, and while he only started 2 games (both at outside linebacker) he made his presence known by:

Following Super Bowl XLIII, the Steelers had seen enough to pencil in Timmons in over two-time Super Bowl starter Larry Foote. While Timmons started in 2009, the sailing wasn’t as smooth it seems now. He did register 9 sacks, but his play was inconsistent and he split time with Keyraon Fox.

In 2010 however, Timmons was a man on fire. He didn’t draw the attention that James Harrison or Troy Polamalu did, but he made critical play after critical play. The Steelers gave him Lawrence Timmons his second contract after the 2011 lockout ended, only to see Timmons struggle that season.

  • But from 2012 to 2014 Lawrence Timmons was the Steelers most consistent, if not best defender.

Nonetheless, the emergence of Vince Williams in 2013 and Sean Spence in 2014 gave the Steelers an abundance of younger and cheaper options at inside linebacker. This led to ultimately fruitless speculation that Timmons would be a cap casualty or would be traded (not that this site didn’t fan some of those April first flames….)

Lawrence Timmons, Steelers vs Dolphins, Jarvis Landry, Ross Cockrell

Lawrence Timmons moves to tackle Jarvis Landry. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

Lawrence Timmons began 2015 by playing through an injury and he appeared to have lost a step as Ryan Shazier usurped him as the resident bad ass in the middle of the Steelers defense. Those doubts persisted during the first half of 2016, but Lawrence Timmons stepped it up during the back half of the season, making two interceptions and two sacks during the Steelers nine game winning streak.

The Law Dog, as Mike Tomlin calls him, topped it off with 2 sacks in the Steelers playoff win over the Dolphins.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Lawrence Timmons

Lawrence Timmons will be 31 years old on opening day 2017 and will already have 10 seasons of experience under his belt. While age 31 is several years removed from being “young” in the NFL, Timmons has started every game for 7 straight seasons and hasn’t missed a game due to injury since 2009.

  • Timmons also is aware that age is impacting his ability, and he’s taken steps to counter that with his conditioning.

Lawrence Timmons knows the Steelers defense, and Keith Butler, Mike Tomlin and Jerry Olsavsky are intimately familiar with what Lawrence Timmons can do. Father time may indeed have robbed Timmons of a step, but Timmons strong finish to 2016 shows he’s still in that sweet spot where experience can compensate for a drop off in athleticism.

It is also fair to say that even at age 31, Lawrence Timmons probably brings more athleticism to the field than Vince Williams, his logical successor. Assuming his contract demands are not too high, there’s no reason to let him walk.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Lawrence Timmons

While Lawrence Timmons strong finish to 2016 was no mirage, the simple fact that it was necessary shows that Father Time is taking its toll. The Steelers have made a commitment to getting younger and faster on defense, and in that sense Timmons is a square peg in a defensive alignment filled with round holes.

  • No, Vince Williams isn’t going to scare anyone with his speed or athleticism.

But in Vince Williams, the Steelers have a modern day Larry Foote, who alongside James Farrior gave the Steelers a powerful inside linebacking tandem that brought home Lombardi Trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

Moreover, the Vince Williams’ salary cap number is about 2.5 million for 2017, or about half of what it would take to keep Lawrence Timmons. Those are 2.5 million dollars the Steelers could spend to bolster the secondary and/or pass rush, instead of paying it to a 31 year old inside linebacker who is only going slower with each passing year.

Curtain’s Call on Lawrence Timmons and the Steelers

Lawrence Timmons has repeatedly affirmed his desire to stay in Pittsburgh. Both Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert are on the record saying they want him back. When those two things happen, a deal usually gets done.

  • Is it a slam dunk?

Hardly. The Steelers like Timmons, but their decision to resign Vince Williams last year signaled that they’re prepared to move on if necessary. Indeed, Kevin Colbert’s comment that Lawrence Timmons is free to test the free agency waters clearly indicates that the Steelers won’t get into a bidding war to keep Timmons’ in Pittsburgh.

Nor should they. But they likely won’t need to, and a James Farrior type deal for Timmons would benefit all parties and more or less ensure that the Law Dog remains a lifetime Pittsburgh Steeler.

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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