Watch Tower: Analyzing Coverage of Unrest in Steelers Ownership Ranks, Coaching Shake Ups, Le’Veon’s Lateness

The Steelers 2017 abrupt playoff exit has drawn the season’s backstory out of the woodwork, giving the Watch Tower plenty of material to shine its lights on. So now we focus on unrest in the Steelers ownership ranks, Todd Haley’s departure, Le’Veon Bell’s lateness to practice, and much more.

Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley

Mike Tomlin yells, while Todd Haley scows. Photo Credit: Steelers 24/7

Unrest Among the Steelers Minority Owners…?

Two days after the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars, Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio reported “…some of the team’s limited partners intend to lobby owner Art Rooney to fire of Tomlin and to hire a new coach.”

By any measure, this qualifies as news.

While the Steelers 2008 ownership restructuring was big story, the minority partners have remained out of sight since then. In January 2010 rumors held some of them wanted Bruce Arians’ head, but if that’s true, they didn’t get it.

  • Outside of that, it’s safe to say that 99% of Steelers Nation hasn’t given the minority owners a 2nd thought until Florio’s report hit the web.

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Ed Bouchette added to the story immediately. While his reporting neither confirmed nor denied Florio’s report, Bouchette brought a bevy of factoids to the story that must be considered scoops.

Bouchette’s opinion piece put the Steelers supposed lack of discipline into perspective by offering:

[Bill Cowher] allowed his players in 1994 to hold a Super Bowl video rehearsal in the team meeting room before the AFC championship at Three Rivers Stadium.

The saga of the 1994 Steelers, the Super Bowl Rap video and the Chargers AFC Championship upset are well known, but this is the first time that the Watch Tower is aware of a suggestion that The Chin knew and approved of the escapade in advance.

At the time, word was that Bill Cowher hadn’t known, and when he learned he exploded at his team. Bouchette was only getting warmed up however, as he quickly dropped another bombshell:

But, again if true, it’s the audacity that a couple of the Steelers’ 18 listed limited partners think they can have an influence on the coach by ringing up Rooney. Collectively, these guys might own 5 percent of the team — or less. They sound like college boosters.

There’s never been any question as to whether the Rooneys and/or the Rooney and the McGinley families maintained majority control of the Steelers, but this is the first time the Watch Tower is aware that any enlightened observer has put a number on the stake controlled by the minority partners.

The Steelers hold the details of their ownership structure tightly to the vest. For example, Dan Rooney Jr. has been a partner, yet that only became public after his father’s death. While Bouchette leaves himself wiggle room with the language he chooses, it’s highly unlikely that Dean of the Steelers press corps would write what he did absent confirmation.

Finally, Ed Bouchette got Thomas Tull and Larry Paul on the record in favor of Art Rooney II’s stewardship, which is important because getting seldom-heard from minority owners on the record trumps anonymous sources by any journalistic measure.

This Bud’s for you Mr. Bouchette.

Shakeups on the Steelers Coaching Staff

If social media has given Steelers fans a platform to let the world know what they think about which assistant coaches should go, it still falls to credentialed media to inform us of who will actually go.

In doing so Bouchette linked Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement talk of a year ago to a harsh interaction with Haley following the AFC Championship game (although Bouchette’s language does leave wiggle room; nonetheless, he would have had to confirm this fact before reporting it.) Fellow Post-Gazette beat writer Gerry Dulac broke the news that Tomlin was not going to make changes on his defensive staff, albeit with the caveat that Bruce Arians has been told the same thing.

And of course Carnell Lake has resigned and Johnny Mitchell is moving into a new position, paving the way for Tom Bradley and Karl Dunbar to assume new positions.

This site’s assumption, although with several others, was that Lake was being politely shown the door. Not so fast reports Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell who in responding to a reader’s question (full disclosure, yours truly posed the question) informs:

OK, Lake’s departure was not forced. He has been missing his family for a couple of years now and had the chance (put to me that way) to get back for his son’s final year of high school and jumped at it.

Wexell also informs that Johnny Mitchell’s new job as full time assistant head coach isn’t a ceremonial or figurehead type position, but a serious gig that will include “bringing ‘tough love’ to Tomlin when he sees the need….”

Given the number of paywalls that protect Steelers-related stories these days, the Watch Tower can’t verify Wexell’s the only person reporting these details, but he did make them available through a free article on his sight, and it’s good to see these stories enriched in such public fashion.

Some Context for Le’Veon’s Lateness, Please?

The Steelers discipline, or lack thereof has been a focus all season long, both of the fans and within the credentialed press. Perhaps there has been no bigger magnet Le’Veon Bell. It once again fell to Ed Bouchette to break what has been the hottest news of the off season thus far with his fateful paragraph:

Not only did Bell arrive much later than that for the playoff game against Jacksonville (as well as one coach), he missed practically the entire Saturday walk-through the day before, showing up about five minutes before practice ended.

The ripple effect created by Bouchette’s 38 words could spawn an entire series of Watch Tower-type columns. We will make no attempt to do so here. However, one source consulted by the Watch Tower as soon as the news broke cautioned about the story’s lack of context, suggesting that perhaps Bell’s absence was excused.

To be clear, the tone of Bouchette’s report, including the headline “Le’Veon Bell blew off the Steelers’ last walk-through” doesn’t suggest that Bell had permission to be late, although this was the explanation that Bell provided when prompted by reporters.

While the Watch Tower takes no issue with Bouchette writing a story whose tone is in tune with what his sources are telling him, but rather with other reporters who could have done more to confirm the story in the five days that elapsed between Bouchette’s report and Bell’s rebuttal.

This would have been all the more useful, given that Le’Veon Bell has a history of denying reports that later turn out to be true.

Wolfley Howls on SCI, and ESPN Gets a Clue (for now)

Veteran Steelers sideline reporter Craig Wolfley ears poised to step up his profile on Steel City Insider this off season and if his recent two part Q&A series is any indication, readers are in for a treat.

Wolfley answered well over a dozen questions and pulled no punches, offering frank commentary on everything from Mike Mitchell‘s play, to stories from the Chuck Noll era which make 2017’s supposed “lack of discipline” look tame by comparison, to tackling complex X’s & O’s questions.

  • Along the way, Steel City Insider Jim Wexell has reported a previously undisclosed Bud Dupree injury, which might not qualm fans criticism of the Steelers 2015 1st round pick, but is a nonetheless useful factoid.

Finally, the end of the 2017 playoffs has brought a welcome change to those who access to ESPN’s NFL site via Latin America (or at least Argentina.)

As the Watch Tower reported earlier, at the beginning of the 2017 season visitors who tried to access ESPN’s NFL site in English were automatically forced to the Spanish page, with no option to navigate back to English. Fortunately, during the week of the conference championships, visitors were once again free to browse the English language site.

While the Watch Tower expects to encounter the same problem next September, the change for the off season is appreciated.

 

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New Steelers Defensive Line Coach Karl Dunbar Returns to Pittsburgh with Big Shoes to Fill

In tandem with the announcement that Tom Bradley was joining the Steelers coaching staff as defensive backs coach, the team also announced that Karl Dunbar will return to Pittsburgh to assume the role of defensive line coach.

Johnny Mitchell, who has held the title of Steelers defensive line coach since 1994, will move into a full time roll as assistant head coach. And in doing so, he leaves Karl Dunbar with incredibly large shoes to fill.

Karl Dunbar

Karl Dunbar, Steelers new defensive line coach. Photo Credit: Mark Rebilas, USA Today, via SCI

Steel Curtain Rising will have a longer look at Johnny Mitchell’s tenure as defensive line coach in the future, but “distinguished” would be the first word the comes to mind. It’s often said that “NFL” means “Not for Long” and assistant coaches are hired to be fired.

  • By surviving two head coaches and 6 defensive coordinators alone Mitchell has beaten the system.

Not bad for a man who arrived in Pittsburgh and was tasked with succeeding Steel Curtain veteran Steve Furness.

Karl Dunbar is no stranger to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Chuck Noll took him as a linebacker in the 8th round the 1990 NFL Draft, although Dunbar did not make the team. Dunbar did get NFL experience playing for the New Orleans Saints in 1993 and the Arizona Cardinals in 1994 and 1995.

Dunbar coached for the Chicago Bears in 2004, and then moved on to Minnesota in 2006, where he worked for Mike Tomlin. Dunbar stayed in Minnesota until 2011, and then coached defensive line for the New York Jets from 2012 to 2014 and then with the Buffalo Bills in 2015.

  • Karl Dunbar has worked on Nick Saben’s staff at Alabama during 2016 and 2017.

If Johnny Mitchell, who knows Dunbar from their days at LSU, leaves a big shoes to fill, he’s also giving his successor an awesome set of tools to work with. Cam Heyward is arguably the best 3-4 defensive end in the NFL and if Stephon Tuitt can manage to stay healthy, he could give Heyward a run for his money.

Javon Hargrave had a spectacular rookie year and continues to offer plenty of “upside” while Tyson Alualu has proven to be an invaluable 4th lineman. L.T. Walton certainly struggled in relief of Hargrave in the playoff loss to the Jaguars, he offers valuable depth.

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

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

  • As of Saturday evening, starting defensive end Stephon Tuitt was listed as questionable.
T.J. Watt, DeShone Kizer, Steelers vs Browns

T.J. Watt closes in on DeShone Kizer in the Steelers 2017 season opening win over the Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Obsev.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steelers Resign Stephon Tuitt to Six-Year $61-Million Contract

Bloggers live to brag when we’re right. But as the Steelers resign Stephon Tuitt to a six-year $61-million dollar contract-extension on Saturday, this is a blogger who is rejoicing to be wrong.

As per Pittsburgh Post-Gazette beat writer Gerry Dulac, who covers the team on a daily basis, the deal will keep Tuitt in Pittsburgh through the 2022 season:

“FYI to those asking: Tuitt’s new deal is 6 years–this year and five more to follow. That’s six. Total for six years is $61.05 million,” Dulac Tweeted Saturday afternoon, shortly after Tuitt’s new deal was announced.

Shortly after Stephon Tuitt fell to the Steelers in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Steel Curtain Rising praised the move, but openly mused about whether Tuitt would end the run of bad luck the Steelers had suffered with 2nd round defensive linemen AND players drafted from Notre Dame.

  • But as Stephon Tuitt proved, past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future performance.
Stephon Tuitt, Josh McCown, Stephon Tuitt contract, Steelers resign Stephon Tuitt

Stephon Tuitt obliterates Josh McCown in the Steelers November 2016 win over the Browns in Cleveland. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

In fact, Tuitt began proving that almost as soon as he arrived in Pittsburgh. Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell rarely plays let alone does he start rookies not named Casey Hampton. And he stuck to that script early as fans alternatively cheered and jeered as Brett Keisel and Cam Thomas played while Stephon Tuitt watched from the bench.

Then came the faithful, final game of the “Four Warhorses,” the Steelers November 2014 loss to the New Orleans Saints that saw James Harrison, Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel and Troy Polamalu‘s final appearance on the same field together.

Brett Keisel would of course fall injured in that game, ending his career and opening the door for Stephon Tuitt.

Stephon Tuitt, from Rare Rookie Starter to Steelers Defensive Stalwart

Since ascending to the top of the depth chart in his rookie year, Tuitt, 24, has started 32 games. Overall, for his three-year career, Tuitt has recorded 80 tackles and 11.5 sacks.

Along with veteran and team captain Cam Heyward, who is signed through the 2020 season, and second-year nose tackle Javon Hargrave, the Steelers boast one of the best front-three in the NFL.

While he has yet to break through and achieve superstar status, his lucrative, new deal is an endorsement from his team that the best is yet to come for Stephon Tuitt.

 

 

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line: Low-Moderate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Defensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tyson Alualu, Steelers 2017 free agents, Steelers defensive line

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

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

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

Does Johnny Mitchell Finally Have his Coveted 4th Lineman?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ricardo Mathews, Ricardo Mathews free agent

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

Capsule Profile of Ricardo Mathews Steelers Career

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

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

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

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mathews 

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

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

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

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

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ricardo Mathews 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ricardo Mathews 

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

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

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

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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Mike Tomlin’s Record vs Andy Reid ahead of Steelers Divisional Playoff Game Against Chiefs

The Vegas line has the Kansas City Chiefs holding a 2 point edge over the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into the AFC Divisional playoff game. The book makers are favoring the Chiefs despite the fact that Steelers hold a 20-11 advantage in the series, including a 10-7 edge in games played at Arrowhead Stadium, a notoriously difficult place to play. But all of those were regular season match ups.

  • The Steelers and Chiefs have played in the playoffs once, with the Steelers losing in overtime.

That game came after the 1993 season, when James Harrison struggling to hold down a practice squad slot…. (Ha! fooled you didn’t I?) That’s a joke about Harrison, but the game was so long ago that it DOES preceed Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell’s time with the team, as Bill Cowher fired Steve Furness after that playoff loss.

  • How have things worked out since that fateful day when a Mark Royals’ blocked punt opened the door to another Joe Montana comeback?

Well, per Dale Lolley, the Chiefs are 0-4 at Arrowhead since that win and 1-9 overall in the playoffs. The Steelers in contrast are 19-12 in the playoffs since that day.

The bottom line is that the Steelers and Chiefs don’t have a lot of playoff history so perhaps the operative metric is Mike Tomlin’s record against Andy Reid.

Mike Tomlin, Andy Reid, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs. Chiefs, Mike Tomlin's record vs Andy Reid

Mike Tomlin shakes hands with Andy Reid after the Steelers 2014 win over the Chiefs at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: David Eulitt, The Kansas City Star

Mike Tomlin’s Record vs Andy Reid

Not including Steelers and Eagles annual preseason match ups, Mike Tomlin is 3-2 against Andy Reid. Tomlin’s games against Reid came in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016 which provides a fairly good cross section of both coaches work.

By 2012, both the Steelers and Eagles were in re-building phases as the Steelers prevailed at Heinz Field. In 2014 both the Steelers and Chiefs were fighting to establish themselves as playoff contenders. The Steelers got the better of that December 2014 tussle, while the Chiefs stayed home in January.

By 2015 and 2016 both the Steelers and Chiefs had reestablished themselves as contenders. In fact, Tomlin’s last victory against Andy Reid came in October at Heinz Field as Le’Veon Bell, steamrolled the Kansas City to the tune of 43-14.

Tomlin’s last loss to Andy Reid came in October 2015, with Ben Roethlisberger injured and Landry Jones making his first, unsuccessful, start.

  • At the time it was viewed as a “Tomlin Trap Game” but the Chiefs went on to win 11 straight.
Landry Jones, Tamba Hali, Jaye Howard, Steelers vs. Cheifs Arrowhead

Tamba Hali stip sacks Landry Jones as Jaye Howard recovers in the Chiefs 23-13 win over the Steelers at Arrowhead in October 2015. Photo credit: David Eulitt, Kansas City Star

And those two games perhaps, ominously, highlight the operative trend in Mike Tomlin’s record against Andy Reid. Mike Tomlin is 3-0 against Andy Reid at Heinz Field, but Andy Reid has never lost to Mike Tomlin at home.

So either the Steelers are doomed…

…Or it will come down to the Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to do their thing on offense, with Sean Davis, Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, Bud Dupree and Stephon Tuitt playing solid defense.

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Not the Turkey this Thanksgiving: Steelers Report Card for Win Over Colts

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who has seen his pupils accomplish a lot in a short amount of time, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Thanksgiving Day win over the Colts.

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Joe Reitz is forced to hold Ryan Shazier during the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 14 of 20 for 221 with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. The truth is that when Ben Roethlisberger can connect with Antonio Brown, there is little that can stop the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger’s 6 misses did contain a few ugly passes, which nudges is grade down, if however slightly. Landry Jones threw one incompletion during mop up time. Grade: A-

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell and another 100 yard plus game and added 22 more from the air with four catches. The truth is that the way things were going, Bell probably could have rushed for 100 more if it would have been necessary. Fitzgerald Toussaint saw his first action in a while, gaining a respectable 28 yards on 6 carries. Todd Haley also had Roosevelt Nix in there blocking, and he made a difference. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, steelers vs. colts, coaching, special teams, unsung heros, steelers colts thanksgiving

Tight Ends
This is the Ladarius Green that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin thought they were getting when they signed him last march. Ladarius Green still may not have recovered his break away speed, but he did show his ability to stretch the defense, making two “field flipping” plays both of which set up Steelers scores. Jesse James had one pass thrown his way which may or may not have been catchable, but no other tight ends were targeted in the running game, but they did contribute to the blocking. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown scored 3 touchdowns and made it look easy on both. He also helped break up a would-be interception in the end zone, and likely did the same on another play down field that cost him a pass interference penalty. Eli Rogers was quiet for much of the game, but did set up Le’Veon Bell’s first touchdown with his 30 yard grab. Cobi Hamilton had 1 catch on 1 target. The Steelers tried to get the ball to Sammie Coates deep 3 times, each time in vain. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Colts not only couldn’t sack Ben Roethlisberger, they only managed to hit him once and the Steelers averaged 5.1 yards per carry rushing on a night where the longest individual run from scrimmage was 16 yards. You can’t ask for much more than that from your offensive line. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell rarely gushes about rookies, but he did so when the Steelers drafted Javon Hargrave. For a while it seemed hard to fathom why, but Javon Hargave took up permanent residency in the Colts backfield, taking down 3 people behind the line of scrimmage and registering a sack. Stephon Tuitt had 3 quarterback hits and Ricardo Mathews had one tackle. The fact is that Steelers totally shut down the Colt’s running game and that starts with the defensive line. Grade: A

Linebackers
Lawrence Timmons again led the Steelers in tackles, and was generally flying around the field. Ryan Shazier was next for the linebackers, helping Stephon Tuitt drop someone behind the line of scrimmage and getting some pressure on the quarterback. Mike Tomlin rhetorically asked, “What are we saving James for?” Plays like James Harrison’s sack of Scott Tolzien show why he is starting ahead of Jarvis Jones. Bud Dupree saw his first expensive action, and while he lacked any “Splash plays” he looked good. Anthony Chickillo quietly logged 4 tackles. Grade: A

Secondary
Splash plays from William Gay bookended the evening for the Steelers secondary, as Gay strip sacked Tolzien early in the game, and then intercepted his pass late in the 4th quarter. Gay was good, but he also got beaten on a long play that could have done more damage. Ross Cockrell also got beaten on a deep pattern. The biggest plays came from the safeties. Both Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell stoned Scott Tolzien on separate occasions when he tried to run the ball into the end zone. Mitchell also broke up a would-be touchdown pass, and picked off a pass in the 4th quarter that effectively ended the game. Grade: A-

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Mike Mitchell makes a grab for the ball in the Steelers Thanksgiving victory over the Colts. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Special Teams
Let’s acknowledge that often times assistant coaches get unfairly scapegoated by, well everyone, the fans, the press, head coaches and the front offices when in truth they just don’t have the players to work with. As Dick Hoak famously concluded on the day he retired, “You’re hired to be fired.”

  • Danny Smith has taken a lot of heat from the fans, and it is hard to defend him.

The Colts averaged 35.5 yards on kickoff returns. Those kinds of averages will lose you games against quality offenses. Danny Smith’s special teams also got caught with their pants down on a fake punt. Fake punts are hard to predict precisely because they are so rare. But Smith’s special teams were completely flat-footed after it was clear the play was a fake.

Chris Boswell’s 4 for 4 on PAT’s and Jordan Berry’s solid punting pull the grade for the unit up, but special teams must improve. Grade: D

Coaching
Todd Haley designed a solid game plan that saw the Steelers score 3 touchdowns on their opening 3 possessions. And if the offense did leave some plays on the field in the second half, part of that is probably due to attempts to get Sammie Coates worked back into the offense. Honestly, the Steelers were wise to attempt this with a 21 point lead.

  • Finally, the Steelers offense also converted turnovers into touchdowns.

Feel free to add whatever qualifications regarding the quality of opposition when evaluating Keith Butler’s defense, but Butler’s boys have now turned in two dominating performances in a row.

  • Some of the overall statistics might be inflated, but the Steelers defense defended their goal line twice against an offense committed playing on all four downs.

That’s impressive regardless of the opposition.

Playing well on the road and playing well on Thursdays has been an issue for the Steelers recently, regardless of opposition. None of those troubles were apparent vs. the Colts. The Steelers are playing more focused football, and executing the fundamentals on both offense and defense better, and the score board reflects that and Mike Tomlin deserves credit. Special teams is more worrisome which brings the overall grade down. Grade: B

Unsung Hero
His stat line might only read 5 tackles, but that hardly communicates the value of Sean Davis contributions to the Steelers win. Sean Davis had a hand on the Steelers goal line stops of Frank Gore, and the rookie made a veteran play in correctly reading Scott Tolzien attempt to rush it in at the goal line, and for that Sean Davis wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win vs. the Colts.

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