1994 Pittsburgh Steelers: Over Confidence Is Cowher’s Achilles Heel

Despite having been painfully unready for Prime Time in 1993, the Pittsburgh Steelers entered 1994 as AFC favorites. Perhaps that’s because Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe reacted swiftly to 1993’s disappointment.

An overtime playoff loss ended the 1993 Steelers season thanks to a blocked punt and an inability to convert third downs. Bill Cowher summarily fired special teams coach John Guy and also dismissed defensive line coach Steve Furness and wide receivers coach Bob Harrison.

  • To replace them, Bill Cowher hired Bobby April, John Mitchell and Chan Gailey.

Roster changes followed. Starting wide receiver and defensive ends Jeff Graham, Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans were shown the door via free agency. Fan favorite fullback Merril Hoge signed with Chicago. Todd Kalis replaced a troubled Carlton Haselrig.

  • Then, as they do now, Steelers fans clamored for splash free agency signings.

Fans craved Darryl Johnson and Alvin Harper who visited Pittsburgh. The Steelers signed Ray Seals and John L. Williams instead. Dan Rooney also made the Steelers regular season contract blackout policy permanent, hoping to eliminate contract distractions that had plagued 1993.

Barry Foster, seconds after Dennis Gibson batted away the 1994 season. Photo Credit: Boltbeat.com

Reverse Omen: Steelers Opening Day Ass Kicking Signals Good Things…

As they had in 1993, the 1994 Steelers opened with a potential Super Bowl preview. This time the honor of whipping Three Rivers Stadium’s Tartan Turf with the Steelers faces fell to the Dallas Cowboys.

  • Charles Haley sacked Neil O’Donnell 4 times, with Cowboy defenders adding 5 more
  • Michael Irvin torched Rod Woodson for 8 catches and 139 yards
  • Emmitt Smith steamrolled the Steelers, rushing for 171 yards
  • The Cowboy defense bottled Barry Foster to 44 yards
Eric Green, Robert Jones, Steelers vs Cowboys 1994

Eric Green in the Steeler-Cowboys 1994 season opener. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

The final score read 26-9, but it might as well have been 51-0, leading Post-Gazette columnist Bob Smizik to opine:

There are 15 games to go. The Steelers will get better. But they are not likely to ever get as good as the media projected them to be.

True to his style, Smizik made many dubious assertions, but who could dispute his conclusion? But in hindsight, it was actually a good thing…

…The 1994 Dallas debacle confirmed a Cowher Era trend. When the Steelers struggled on opening day under Cowher, they bounced back for strong seasons. Opening day wins foreshadowed less rosier outcomes.

The Steelers bounced back big in week two against the Browns, notching their first win in Cleveland since 1989. As Steeler Digest editor Bob Labriola reminded, the logic of divisional tie breakers dictated that if the Steelers were to start 1-1, it was far better to beat Cleveland than Dallas.

1994 Steelers Field: Very, VERY Good Defense

You can’t label the 1994 Steelers defense as “Great” because they didn’t add a Lombardi. But let’s be clear: The 1994 Steelers defense was damn good.

Rod Woodson and Kevin Greene were authoring Hall of Fame careers. Greg Lloyd and Carnell Lake were hitting their primes. Chad Brown was coming into his own, and Levon Kirkland was covering receivers downfield the way no 300 pounder had a right to.

Ray Seals, Joel Steed, Gerald Williams/Brentson Buckner weren’t Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith but, for the first time since the 70’s, the Steelers defensive line was an asset.

  • Blitzburgh had been born.

The 1994 Steelers set a franchise record of 55 sacks which stood until 2017. They only allow opponents to break the 20-point mark 5 times and only yielded 14.6 points per game.

This is exactly what Pittsburgh needed because the 1994 Steelers offense struggled early and often.

Growing Pains: Evolving the Offense Beyond Forcing it to Foster and Green

Steelers offensive philosophy early in the Cowher era had been: “Feed the ball to Foster.” But Barry Foster’s mid-1993 injury had left the Steelers offense rudderless. Leroy Thompson had attitude issues and simply wasn’t good enough. The coaches refused to rush Merril Hoge. Neil O’Donnell compensated by forcing the ball to Eric Green. The strategy failed.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe retooled in earnest.

They replaced Thompson with Bam Morris. The Steelers demoted Dwight Stone, drafted Charles Johnson and enhanced Ernie Mills’ role. New wide receivers coach Chan Gailey noticed that 3 of 10 catches made by an obscure wide-receiver had gone for touchdowns. The player was Gailey gave Yancey Thigpen more opportunities.

  • The Steelers had improved their offense, on paper.

But improvement went MIA during the season’s first twelve weeks as the Steelers struggled to score, averaging just 17.6 points per game, or three points more than the defense was averaging against opponents.

  • By week 10 the Steelers had endured nail-biter after nail-biter to reach 7-3.

Things changed when Bill Cowher benched Neil O’Donnell and started Mike Tomczak.

Mike Tomczak, Barry Foster, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomczak hands off to Barry Foster in 1994. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Pro Football Talk

The record clearly reflects that Neil O’Donnell had sprained an ankle. But it still felt Cowher’s decision was motivated by more than injury. Whether by design or by happenstance, sitting O’Donnell for two games sparked Pittsburgh’s offense.

In quarterbacking wins against Miami and Oakland, Mike Tomczak shifted the focus of the Steelers passing attack from Eric Green to the wide receivers. In the season’s first ten weeks, Eric Green had either been the leading receiver or tied a wide receiver for the lead 7 times. After week 10, Green only led in one game.

  • Bill Cowher made another critical decision going into December.

Prior to that point, Charles Johnson and Andre Hastings had started in quarters 1 and 3, while Yancey Thigpen and Ernie Mills started in quarters 2 and 4. Cowher scrapped the rotation in week 13. With Thigpen and Mills starting, the Steelers offense wasn’t the greatest show on turf, but its average points per game jumped from 17.6 to 23.3!

Steelers End Regular Season with Pre-Playoff Dress Rehearsal

The 1994 Steelers combination of suffocating defense and a workman-like offense gave Pittsburgh an 11-3 record heading into the final two weeks, with a show down against Cleveland and a trip to San Diego waiting.

  • The Browns brought a 10-4 record and AFC Central title hopes to Pittsburgh.

The Browns never had a chance. The score read 17-7, but Cleveland never even remotely threatened to put the outcome in doubt. Beating the Browns secured both the AFC Central as well as playoff home- field advantage.

So Bill Cowher rested his starters for the final game against the Chargers, which went down to the wire but saw San Diego squeak out a last second win. No one worried, because San Diego had barely made the playoffs. Besides, everyone knew the Chargers were going nowhere. Didn’t they?

1994 Steelers Thump Browns in Playoffs

The high-water mark of the Steelers-Brown rivalry came on January 7, 1995. With all due respect, the 21st century Steelers-Ravens rivalry has nothing on the Steelers-Browns 20th century predecessor! The two teams shared a hatred for each other that was as hard wired into their cities as it was their rosters.

  • The atmosphere at Three Rivers Stadium was so electric that the Steelers couldn’t properly introduce their starters.

Pregame, Bill Cowher spoke, relishing playing this game in the snow. Bill Belichick boldly declared he’d run Leroy Hoard between the tackles and dare the Steelers to stop him.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel. Photo Credit: Pinterest

The Steelers scored on their first three possessions, while the Browns dropped their first two passes. Late in the first half, with the Steelers leading 17-3 Cleveland made a show of contesting the game when Eric Turner recovered an Ernie Mills fumble. Tim McKyer responded with an interception that he returned to the Cleveland 6. Three plays later Yancey Thigpen celebrated a touchdown by waving a Terrible Towel in the end zone.

  • Three Rivers Stadium erupted.

For the record, Vinny Testaverde only threw two interceptions and the Steelers only sacked him twice, but by the time Carnell Lake dropped him for a safety late in the 4th, Vinny looked like he was just ready to go home. Barry Foster, John L. Williams and Bam Morris racked up 238 rushing yards on the NFL’s stiffest run defense.

Bill Belichick plan to impose his will via Leroy Hoard up the middle had yielded 8 yards on three carries.

  • One can only wonder why no one was calling Bill Belichick a genius then.

After the game Bill Cowher declared: “I thought that the first half was the best half of football we’ve played since I’ve been here.”

The Chin was right. And at that point in the Cowher era, such a conclusion was cause for concern.

3 Yards Short….

During 1994 Bill Cowher’s Steelers appeared to have matured. Their offense had taken time to find its legs, and the team hadn’t authored any dramatic “statement” wins such as the ’93 Steelers win over the Bills.

But, outside of the opening day loss to Dallas the 1994 Steelers hadn’t suffered any catastrophic breakdowns.

  • The Steelers, it seemed, had learned to handle success.

Yet that changed the Wednesday before the 1994 AFC Championship, when the Steelers openly discussed rehearsal plans to film a Super Bowl rap video.

Outside of Pittsburgh the story read as if this had been some secret which leaked prior to the game, but Ed Bouchette wrote a feature-length story in the Post-Gazette on the Super Bowl Rap video plans, including quotes from key players and production details. Even though the internet was in its infancy and social media was a decade off, and even though Bill Cowher erupted at his team (although he may have known about the plans in advance) the damage was done.

  • The Steelers looking past the San Diego Chargers was the lede to the AFC Championship.

Unlike the week before, the weather in Pittsburgh was an unseasonable 59 degrees. The Steelers scored on its first possession on a pass to John L. Williams, and then the teams traded punts for the next 20 minutes. San Diego kicked for three, late in the first half. The Steelers advanced to the San Diego 12, but a holding penalty pushed them back, and they settled for a Gary Anderson field goal and a 10-3 lead going into the locker room.

  • At half time, NBC commentator Joe Gibbs warned that “San Diego might steal this game from them….”

San Diego didn’t wait long to being its “Robbery.” The Steelers advanced to the San Diego 6 on their first procession of the second half, yet had to settle for another field goal. Disaster struck the Steelers on the next series.

The Chargers sold a play action pass perfectly. So perfect that the entire Steelers defense bought it.

  • 43 yards later Alfred Pupunu was running untouched into the end zone to tie the score.
Alfred Pupunu, Steelers vs Chargers, 1994 AFC Championship Game

Alfred Pupunu burns the entire Steelers defense in the AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Charlie Neuman, San Diego Union-Tribune

The teams traded punts for the next 5 series. Then, with just over 5 minutes left, Tim McKyer blew his assignment and Tony Martin took it 43 yards to the house.

With 5 minutes left it was all on Neil O’Donnell’s shoulders, as San Diego had neutered Pittsburgh’s running game all day. O’Donnell went to work from his own 17 with Ben Roethlisberger-like precision.

He brought the Steelers to the 9 before throwing an incomplete pass. Barry Foster lost a yard on 1st down. O’Donnell missed Eric Green on 2nd. ON third O’Donnell hit John L. Williams, who made it to San Diego’s three.

The Steelers called time out. On the sidelines Neil O’Donnell stood with Ron Ernhart and Bill Cowher, who cracked a joke. It was 4th and goal for the Super Bowl.

  • Neil O’Donnell fired at Barry Foster.
  • Foster got his hands on the ball.
  • But Dennis Gibson drilled the ball away.

That was it. It was over.

The 1994 Steelers had fallen 3 yards short of the Super Bowl. Once again, over confidence had proven to be Bill Cowher’s Achilles heel.

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Like Fine Wine, Steelers 2015 Draft Grade of “B” Gets Better with Age

Bud Dupree, Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Bud Dupree strip sacks Ryan Finley. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

“Better late.”

As mentioned before, stories about Vince Williams, Tyson Alualu and JuJu Smith-Schuster leaving Pittsburgh were planned but never published due to time constraints. And that worked out well as all 3 are still Steelers.

This site follows Chuck Noll’s “It takes 5 years to grade a draft” philosophy, but the 2015 grades never got published by virtue of the pandemic-fueled 24/7 digital office.

That too has worked for the better because it proves once again that this is one draft report card that’s gotten better with time.

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

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

First Round: Budy Dupree the Late Bloomer

Bud Dupree, drafted as a “project,” started his rookie year gang busters, racking up 4 sacks early in the season before hitting the rookie wall. Year two began on injured reserve, but his return helped spark the Steelers late season defensive turn around.

  • Bud Dupree plateaued in years 3 and 4, and that’s being polite.

Then, in year five, under the tutelage of Keith Butler, Bud Dupree exploded for 11.5 sacks. But aside from his numbers popping, Bud Dupree did his damage in critical situations. But had we graded him last year, it would be impossible to know if 2019 was an aberration.

  • In 2020 Bud Dupree proved he was the real deal.

To understand how good Bud Dupree was, just look at how bad the defense got after he got hurt. Like a good bottle of Riglos Gran Corte, Bud Dupree’s draft has only gotten better with time. Grade: Grand Slam

Second Round: Senquezy Golson – The Ever Injured Cornerback

The Steelers desperately needed a corner going into the 2015 NFL Draft. They grabbed one in the 2nd round with Senquez Golson.

  • A torn rotator cuff scuttled his rookie season.
  • Another injury scrapped his second year.
  • His 2017 season consisted of maybe a practice and half before he suffered another injury.

All this for a guy whose college career was basically injury free. All at a time when the Steelers’ secondary screamed for help at cornerback. Grade: Incomplete

3rd Round: Sammie Coates the Strange Cat

Sammie Coates had a quiet rookie regular season but did a respectable job during the playoff loss to the Broncos. Coates started strong in 2016 and seemed to breakout with a 6-catch 136-yard two touchdown performance against the Jets.

Coates cut his hand and/or broke a finger. Or two. His story kept changing. He disappeared from the offense only getting 18 more balls thrown his way; he caught only 2. He was next seen wide open in the first drive of the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

If Coates catches it, he’s still running, Forrest Gump style. Coates did not catch it. The Steelers traded him the next summer and he caught 7 passes over two years with the Browns and Texans. Grade: Bust

4th Round: Dorany Grant – Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

When Pittsburgh drafted Doran Grant as their 2nd corner in the 2015 NFL Draft, Steelers Nation cheered. When they cut him at summer’s end, Steelers Nation called it a crisis. They chilled out when he returned via the practice squad.

The Steelers cut him the following September. Over the next two years he’d do stints with the Bills, Giants, Jaguars, and Bears but played nary a down. Grade: Bust.

5th Round: Jesse James – The Outlaw

 

Jesse James, Jesse James Patriots touchdown

Jesse James touchdown that wasn’t vs Patriots. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Pat Freiermuth’s arrival probably means Jesse James’ second act with the Steelers will never happen. That’s a shame. Because he’ll always be remembered for the Jesse James game, and that’s a shame, because as Tony Defeo pointed out, he deserves to be remembered for so much more.

  • In four years, Jesse James never touched Heath Miller’s status as the best tight end in franchise history.

Nor did he put himself into the conversation with Bennie Cunningham or Mark Bruener. But he was, and remains the Steelers most consistent player at this position following Miller’s retirement. And while Jesse James never kept opposing defensive coordinators awake at night, he delivered critical catches when called upon. Grade: Quality Value Pickup

6th Round A: L.T. Walton – Overvalued, Undervalued Elsewhere, Part I

We’ve spilled too much digital “ink” on L.T. Walton. If you’re burning for a deep dive (and you certainly aren’t, but do you REALLY want to get back to work?), click here and here. If not, here’s the skinny:

  • In his first 3 years, L.T. Walton broached becoming a viable 5th lineman in John Mitchell’s system.
  • Under Karl Dunbar, not so much, as he languished behind Daniel McCullers.

Not great for a 6th round pick, but not bad either. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

6th Round B: Anthony Chickillo – Overvalued Here, Undervalued Elsewhere, II

Sure, I overreached a bit when declaring Anthony Chickillo as “starter capable” when reached restricted free agency. Fair enough.

  • But that makes up for the lack of love Chickillo got from the rest of Steelers Nation.

But in 5 years Anthony Chickillo appeared in 65 games for the Steelers and started 9 of them at both outside linebacker spots. While averaging at about 30% of the defensive snaps during his middle 3 years, Chickillo made 7.5 sacks, 3 defensed passes, 3 forced fumbles and had 3 fumble recoveries. Not bad. Grade: Quality Value Pick

7th Round: Gerod Holliman – Unsafe in Any Round

What’s an NFL Draft analyst’s best friend? How about a 404 error? In January 2015, NFL.com draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah released his mock draft and had the Steelers drafting Louisville Safety Gerod Holliman in the first round.

  • Jeremiah was only off by 6 rounds.

Full disclosure. Both staff writer Tony Defeo and I mused aloud whether Gerod Holliman would be the next Darren Perry. He wasn’t. But hey, those were good articles for an otherwise dead time for Steelers “content.” Holliman played well in Steelers spring practices, but that was his peak. He got cut in training camp. He did some time on Tampa Bay’s 2016 off season roster and was done. Grade: Incomplete

Overall Draft Grade for the Steelers 2015 Draft Class

In Bud Dupree the Steelers got themselves a Pro Bowl caliber outside linebacker, even if his development was delayed.

At the bottom of their draft class, the Steelers got excellent value out of the Jesse James and Anthony Chickillo picks. While L.T. Walton is hardly a “Sleeper,” he did help steady the ship on the back end of the 2026 season after Cam Heyward went down.

For all of those positives, the Steelers got nothing out of their middle 3 picks, aside from a few tease plays by Sammie Coates. That brings the grade for the Steelers 2015 draft down a bit, but the grade is far, far better than I would have been 3 or 4 or even 5 years after draft. Grade: B

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Javon Hargrave Steelers Free Agent Profile: “Grave Digger” to Find Fortune Outside of Pittsburgh

The rookie wage scale implemented by 2011 NFL Collective bargaining agreement was a game changer of epic proportions for the NFL. By locking in rookies to a set wage scale, it gave teams the chance to fix a large portion of their roster and salary cap costs.

  • It also delivered a benefit to general managers who could draft players that could contribute immediately.

An impact player playing on his rookie contract is worth his weight in gold to an NFL team. The Steelers have perhaps had no better example of that than the experience of Javon Hargrave. A quick look at his career reveals why, as well as why such situations create bittersweet moments for teams and fans.

Javon Hargrave, Blake Bortles, Cam Heyward, Steelers vs Jaguars

Javon Hargrave deflects a Blake Bortles pass while Cam Heyward is blatantly held. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

A Capsule Profile of Javon Hargrave’s Steelers Career

The Steelers drafted Javon Hargrave in the 3rd round of the 2016 NFL Draft, drawing uncharacteristic praise from John Mitchell, the Steelers legendary, but cantankerous, defensive line coach.

  • Rookies (not named Casey Hampton) not only failed to start for coach Mitchell, they seldom played.

So Mitchell’s comments were a true eyebrow raiser. And true to form, Javon Hargrave started as a rookie and made an instant impact, making 2 sacks and 5 tackles from behind the line of scrimmage. He started strong, with the rest of the defense in the 2017, contributing to series of epic Red Zone stands against the Lions that yielded no points. Injuries limited Hargrave in late 2017, keeping him off the field at several critical junctures in the 2017 playoff debacle against the Jaguars.

They did, and Hargrave delivered both in 2018 and in 2019, where Hargrave stepped it up following Stephon Tuitt’s injury, where Hargrave made 60 tackles, 4 sacks and dropped 7 players behind the line of scrimmage.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Javon Hargrave

Former Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis once told Jim Wexell that the health of the Steelers defense can be traced to the quality of play in its center, from nose tackle to safety.

Javon Hargrave has shown he is more than up to the task. Moreover, he is versatile. Equally important, the Steelers don’t have an heir apparent but do have offensive needs galore in the draft.

Really, the Steelers have no choice but to keep Javon Hargrave in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Javon Hargrave

Sixty three percent. That is Javon Hargrave’s snap count for 2019 which takes into account his increased time due to Stephon Tuitt being on IR. Prior to that, he averaged about 46% of the defensive snaps. Assuming both Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt return in full health in 2020, it is hard to imagine Javon Hargrave’s time going up appreciably.

  • And as a free agent, Javon Hargrave stands poised to claim the 2nd or 3rd richest free agent contract.

Javon Hagrave knows this. So does his agent. Hargave won’t accept a “home town discount.” Watching a player the Steelers drafted and developed leave is difficult, but you can’t pay everyone.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Javon Hargrave

In a perfect world the Steelers would find a way to keep Javon Hargrave in Pittsburgh. But the world isn’t perfect, and the salary cap forces teams to make exactly these kinds of choices. In fact, the Steelers made one four years ago when they left Steve McLendon go.

  • Expect the Steelers to follow suit here.

The Steelers simply have to accept that Javon Hargrave delivered excellent value on his rookie contract and be glad they can get a compensatory pick.

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Steelers Free Agent Profile: L.T. Walton (What? He’s Still Around?)

The image of “The Red Phone” is one that conjures “emergency” in popular culture, wehther you’re watching commissioner Gordon call Wayne Manor or viewing a Cold War epic whose plot centers on use of the Washington-Moscow hotline.

  • The NFL is no different. Every General Manager has a list of emergency players to turn to when disaster strikes.

Kevin Colbert has his list. Sometimes it has involved calling players with no history in Pittsburgh, think Matthew McCrane stepping in for Chris Boswell. Other times he’s turned to familiar faces – think Max Starks at any number of points in his career. In 2020 injuries to Stephon Tuitt forced Kevin Colbert to again to seek a surprise name from his emergency list, that of L.T. Walton.

L.T. Walton, Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin embraces L.T. Walton in the Steelers October 2017 win at Baltimore. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Capsule Profile of L.T. Walton’s Career with the Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers drafted L.T. Walton in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft. He earned a roster spot, but didn’t play which is no surprise in John Mitchell’s system.

Cam Heyward’s season ending injury in the middle of 2016 opened the door for L.T. Walton to get some playing time, as L.T. Walton saw his snap count rise to 24%. While the dramatic improvement shown by the Steelers defense in the 2nd half of the 2016 season came from James Harrison starting for Jarvis Jones, and stepped up play by Javon Hargrave, Sean Davis and Artie Burns, it would have been possible had L.T. Walton been a liability on the field.

Could L.T. Walton build on that in 2017? His record was mixed, with his snap count dropping, but Walton adding sacks in the Steelers wins over Tennessee and Green Bay. Walton also struggled while playing nose tackle in the playoff debacle against Jacksonville, but no Steelers defender played well that afternoon.

  • In 2018, John Mitchell gave way as defensive line coach to Karl Dunbar, and Karl Dunbar decided to give Daniel McCullers another shot.

And Daniel McCullers’ second shot came at L.T. Walton’s expense as his as his snap count dwindled to below 5%. L.T. Walton hit the free agent market a year ago, and failed to get any attention either inside or outside Pittsburgh.

The Steelers signed him on October 21st after putting Stephon Tuitt on IR, then put L.T. Walton on IR on November 19th without dressing him once.

The Case for the Steelers Signing L.T. Walton

“He knows the system,” is the credo coaches frequently fall back on when signing a journeyman veteran whom they’ve parted ways with in the past. That certainly applies to L.T. Walton. Moreover, with Javon Hargrave set to depart in free agency, and with the Steelers having little depth behind Heyward, Tuitt, Tyson Alualu and Isaiah Buggs and even less draft capital to add that depth, a veteran minimum contract for L.T. Walton seems like a low-risk high reward proposition.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning L.T. Walton

L.T. Walton is a player who has been in the NFL for four years and played a total of 480 snaps. 255 came when Cam Heyward was out and there was literally no one left to play. He sat on the open market a year ago and no one showed any interest, and managed to get injured after his surprise midseason return despite never even dressing.

Do I need to keep going? Even a veteran minimum contract takes up a roster space that could be used to give a chance to the next Willie Parker, James Harrison or Devlin Hodges. Using it one on L.T. Walton would be a waste.

The Curtain’s Call on L.T. Walton and the Steelers

This has all been an academic exercise, hasn’t it? Because there’s no chance the Steelers resign L.T. Walton. Right?

Probably. But….

Stranger things have happened on the Steelers defensive line during free agency. In 2015 the Steelers resigned Clifton Geathers the emergency defensive lineman signed to replace Brett Keisel. In 2018 the Steelers shocked the world when they resigned Daniel McCullers. Last year they did it again.

With that said, the smart money says that neither the Steelers, nor the rest of the league, give L.T. Walton a second look in free agency this spring.

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Steelers Hire Bryan McClendon as Wide Receivers Coach

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said there’d be changes to his coaching staff at his post-season press conference, and while Tomlin took his time, he’s made good on his promise.

Bryan McClendon, Steelers hire Bryan McClendon

Steelers hire South Carolina’s Bryan McClendon as wide receiver’s coach. Photo Credit: Jamie Gilliam, Icon Sportswire, via Getty Images, via BTSC

The Steelers will hire Bryan McClendon as their wide receivers coach who replaces Ray Sherman who in turn, stepped in to the void when Daryl Drake passed away during training camp. Bryan McClendon was the offensive coordinator at South Carolina and prior to that he coached wide receivers and running backs at Georgia.

Given his past work with running backs, there has been speculation that McClendon’s responsibilities might extend to the running game. There’s certainly precedent for this in Pittsburgh, albeit an aged one; Tony Dungy spent most of his first season as assistant defensive backs coach working with the linebackers.

Any help that Bryan McClendon can provide towards mentoring Benny Snell and/or Kerrith Whyte will be welcome, but his main focus will be to guide the development of Diontae Johnson, Deon Cain, and James Washington while helping JuJu Smith-Schuster realize his potential as true number 1 wide receiver.

Mike Tomlin Goes Back to School Again

Bryan McClendon isn’t the first wide receivers coach that Mike Tomlin has plucked from the Carolina college ranks. After moving Randy Fichtner to from wide receivers to quarterbacks coach following the 2009 season, he hired Scottie Montgomery from Duke to replace him. Montgomery held that position from 2010 until 2012 when he returned to Duke.

  • Tomlin replaced Montgomery by coaxing retired NFL veteran coach Richard Mann out of retirement.

Since then, however, Mike Tomlin has shifted back towards hiring coaches from college ranks. Last year, Tomlin hired N.C. State running backs coach Eddie Faulkner for his first NFL position, and in 2018 previous year he hired longtime college assistant Tom Bradley as defensive backs coach, while replacing John Mitchell with Karl Dunbar, who he hired from Alabama.

Earlier this off season, Mike Tomlin hired Matt Canada, another college coach with no NFL experience to work as quarterbacks coach where he’ll mentor Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges where helping to oversee Ben Roethlisberger’s comeback.

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Former Steeler Mike Vrabel’s First Playoff Run as Coach Mirrors Rookie Experience

As Tony Defeo pointed out on Behind the Steel Curtain, it is clear that the Tennessee Titans deserved that final 2019 AFC Wild Card spot far more than the Pittsburgh Steelers did. Their wild ride came to an end yesterday in Kansas City, but Mike Vrabel took his team much farther than Mike Tomlin could have taken his.

  • And in many ways, Mike Vrabel’s first post season as a coach mirrored his rookie season as a player.

People forget, but the Pittsburgh Steelers actually drafted Mike Vrabel in the 3rd round of the 1997 NFL Draft. The third round of the NFL Draft was the Money Round for Tom Donahoe. Tom Donahoe was hit or miss with his first and second round picks. But man, did he nail it with his third rounders, grabbing guys like Hines Ward, Joey Porter and Joel Steed. And Mike Vrabel.

Even Steelers draft history geeks rarely list Vrabel alongside Donahoe’s other 3rd round steals because Mike Vrabel made his contribution in New England, not Pittsburgh.

  • Mike Vrabel played in 15 games as a rookie defensive lineman for the Steelers.
  • While he played primarily on special teams, notching 17 tackles, he did contribute a sack and a half.

Legendary Steelers defensive lineman coach John Mitchell believed in keeping his starting defensive lineman fresh by rotating in backups. And if you were good enough to be part of the rotation, you’d be going into the game when your number was called, regardless of the situation.

Mike Vrabel Steelers, Mike Vrabel sack Drew Bledsoe, Steelers vs Patriots divisional playoff

Mike Vrabel strip-sacks Drew Beldsoe to seal the win in he ’97 AFC playoffs. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

So as fate would have it, with the Steelers defending a slim 7-6 lead against the Patriots at Three Rivers Stadium, rookie Mike Vrabel found himself on the field in during a drive the started less with less than 1:44 left to play. Bill Cowher had opted to go for it on 4th and one, but Kordell Stewart got stuffed.

While 1:44 isn’t a ton of time, it is sufficient for a veteran quarterback such as Drew Bledsoe to go 99 yards. And the Patriots started to move, going all the way to their own 42 with just under a minute to play, 2 time outs and a fresh set of downs.

  • Bledsoe faded back and Mike Vrabel strip sacked him, forcing a fumble with Jason Gildon recovered.

Mike Vrabel got his first win as a rookie player by forcing a turnover against a New England Patriots quarterback sealing the win for his team.

23 years later, Logan Ryan would intercept Tom Brady to seal Mike Vrabel’s first playoff win as a rookie head coach.

That win propelled rookie Mike Vrabel into the AFC Championship where he would lose at the hands of a hot comeback effort authored by an AFC West quarterback. Sound familiar?

Sometimes history plops pretty parallels like that into your lap.

Mike Vrabel the Steelers Linebacker that Got Away

Their appearance in the 1997 AFC Championship game seemed to confirm that the Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher had found the formula for winning while weathering annual exoduses of free agents. Indeed, in January 1998, headliners like Chad Scott, Will Blackwell, Mike Vrabel, Steve Conley and Earl Holmes, the Steelers 1997 Draft appeared to be a winner.

  • During that off season the Steelers decided to ask Mike Vrabel to lose weight and switch to outside linebacker.

The move seemed to be a natural. After coming back strong from a serious knee injury, ankle injury and staph infection had struck down Greg Lloyd, making it clear that legendary linebacker would have to be replaced. Mike Vrabel lost the weight and made the move.

  • Then his troubles began.

To win the starting job to replace Greg Lloyd, Mike Vrabel only needed to beat out Carlos Emmons. That might not sound like a tall order, but injuries would plague the summers of both 1998 and 1999 for Mike Vrabel. And by 1999, Joey Porter’s arrival also gave Mike Vrabel competition.

Coaches expected Porter to win the starting spot in 1999 after Carlos Emmons defected to Philadelphia as a free agent and Porter complied. That season, Jason Gildon and Joey Porter combined for 23 and half sacks.

  • It looked like Vrabel didn’t have a place in Pittsburgh, and he in fact did not.

He went to New England. Bill Belichick installed him as a starter. In 2001 he had 3.5 sacks and 2 interceptions while Gildon and Porter combined for 21. The Steelers had made the right move. But by the time Vrabel was catching touchdowns in spot duty as a tight in in Super Bowls, Jason Gildon was clearly falling behind in his race with father time.

Clearly, Vrabel had had far more “Upside” than Gildon, but such 20/20 hindsight wasn’t available in the ’00 off season.

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Steelers Draft Isaiah Buggs, defensive tackle Alabama, setting up Crimson Tide Reunion in Pittsburgh

The Steelers stuck with defense with their 2nd 6th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft as they took Isaiah Buggs a defensive tackle out of Alabama. The Steelers decision to draft Isaiah Buggs reunites him with defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, who had coached at Alabama prior to replacing John Mitchell in Pittsburgh.

  • The situation at Steelers defensive line presents plenty of opportunities for Isaiah Buggs to show he belongs.

Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave remain entrenched as the starters. Tyson Alualu’s status as the “next man up” likewise remains intact. But the Steelers have very little depth behind those four. Currently the only veteran under contract is Daniel McCullers, a man who can best be described as a roster bubble player.

Isaiah Buggs, Steelers draft Isaiah Buggs

Auburn Tigers running back Kam Martin carries the ball against Alabama Crimson Tide defensive tackle Isaiah Buggs. Photo Credit: John David Mercer, USA Today

During 2018 the Steelers also carried L.T. Walton on their roster, but thus far Pittsburgh has not opted to resign their backup defensive tackle, and the decision to draft Isaiah Buggs would seem to eliminate that possible.

Over the last two seasons Isaiah Buggs has appeared in 18 games for Alabama, amassing over 100 total tackles, 17.5 of which went for losses. He’s also shown an ability to rush the passer, having made 11 sacks during his time at Alabama, with 9.5 of those coming in 2018. He also recovered 1 fumble and deflected 3 passes.

Here is a look at Isaiah Buggs highlight reel:

Agents of course cherry pick their client’s video to compile these highlight reels, but even keeping that in mind it is a bit surprising that Isaiah Buggs last until the 6th round, although the minior injury he suffered in the Iron Bowl, could be one possible explanation.

Regardless, this young player would appear to have an excellent shot at making the Steelers 53 man roster, based on simple depth chart math.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Isaiah Buggs.

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Steelers 2019 Defensive Line Draft Needs – Time Double Down at a Position of Strength?

During the Steelers post Super Bowl XLV rebuild deserve some well earned criticism for misfiring when drafting at linebacker and in the secondary. Artie Burns, Jarvis Jones, Shamarko Thomas and perhaps Bud Dupree all provide prime examples.

  • However, the same cannot be said for their use of premium picks on the defensive line.

So heading into the 2019 NFL Draft the question is whether Pittsburgh’s dynamic draft duo should do what they’ve done best on the defensive side: Look to the defensive lineman. Let’s take a look.

Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Steelers defensive line, Steelers vs Raiders

OAKLAND, CA – DECEMBER 09: Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt during the Steelers loss to 2018 loss to the Raiders. Photo credit: W. Henderson, Getty Images via Fan Sided.com

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft

When the Steelers began their post Super Bowl XLV rebuilding effort, the lead off with a home run when they drafted Cam Hewyard in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Kevin Colbert labeled the move as a “historic day for the franchise.”

  • Historic indeed.

In the years since, Cam Heyward has not only developed into one of the league’s best defensive lineman and someone who is leader on the field and off the field. Although statistics fail to capture much of what Cam Heyward does on the field, one number stands out: 45.

  • That’s 45 sacks Cam Heyward has amassed all before hitting age 30.

To put that in perspective, Greg Lloyd had “only” registered 43 sacks before turning 30.

Playing opposite Cam Heyward is Stephon Tuitt, who the Steelers drafted in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft out of Notre Dame. Stephon Tuitt is a player in the mold of Cam Heyward, who has gotten better each year and currently has 20 sacks to his name and he hasn’t even turn 26.

  • Rounding out the Steelers starters at defensive line is Javon Hargrave.

The Steelers drafted Javon Hargrave in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft, and Hargrave immediately became something of a unicore in John Mitchell’s system: He cracked the starting lineup as a rookie. Due to the Steelers de-empahsis on of their “base” 3-4 defense, Hargrave’s opportunities declined a bit in the 2nd half of 2017.

However, a strong performance against the Jaguars led Steelers coaches to look to work Javon Hargrave into their starting line up.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Defensive Line Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Behind their starting front 3 the Steelers have Tyson Alualu who brings the team a versatile presence that can be counted on to step up either position along the defensive line. Although he saw reduced playing time in 2018 thanks to the health of the starters, Tyson Alualu recorded 4 sacks in 2018.

Beyond Alualu, the Steelers also have Daniel McCullers, whom they drafted in 2014 in the 6th round whose presence at this point is a surprise to many. New defensive line coach Karl Dunbar took McCullers on as some sort of a project in 2018 and the Shady Tree showed enough to earn a 3rd contract from the Steelers.

The Steelers also have defensive lineman Winston Craig, Conor Sheehy, Lavon Hooks and Casey Sayles under contract.

The Steelers 2019 Defensive Line Draft Needs

At first blush investing anything more than a 6th round pick in a defensive lineman might seem like a luxury the Steelers cannot afford in the 2019 NFL Draft.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs cornerback

  • But appearances can be deceiving.

Let’s start with the Steelers defensive line itself. Officially the Steelers are still a 3-4 team, but they play in their base defense so infrequently that Cameron Heyward is now listed as a defensive tackle instead of as a defensive end.

While the Steelers pure need for a defensive lineman might be low, a legit “edge rusher” to work opposite T.J. Watt could give Pittsburgh’s defense a real shot in the arm. Now such an “edge rusher” has traditionally been an outside linebacker, but given the way positions are evolving in the NFL, that could also be someone considered as a defensive lineman.

  • Beyond that, the Steelers only have 4 quality defensive lineman on the roster as it stands today.

If Daniel McCullers shows himself to be “serviceable” in 2019 then that will be an achievement. But it is not something the Steelers can count on. L.T. Walton did everything the Steelers had asked of him from the time the Steelers drafted him until 2017. He looked to be developing into a quality 5th defensive lineman.

However, under Karl Dunbar he fell behind Daniel McCullers on the depth chart and remains unsigned. Therefore the Steelers defensive line draft needs in 2019 should be considered Moderate.

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Steelers Sign Daniel McCullers to 2 Year Contract. Why?

The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Daniel McCullers to a two year contract. While the move does not come at a complete surprise, it is still a fair to ask “Why?”

Last year when doing our free agent focus profile on Daniel McCullers, the only case for resigning McCullers that could have been made was a theoretical one. Namely, that new defensive line coach Karl Dunbar had seen something on film that motivated him to convince Keith Butler, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert to give McCullers “One more chance.”

So Daniel McCullers was back in the Black and Gold on a veteran minimum salary. That move looked to be a mistake as McCullers was completely blown off the line of scrimmage on Kareem Hunt’s 9 yard run on the Chief’s final drive in their week 2 win over the Steelers.

Daniel McCullers, Daniel McCullers Contract

Daniel McCullers closes in one RGIII in the 2016 season finale. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via BTSC

However, McCuller’s snap count remained fairly consistent through the rest of the year, topping out at 18 snaps in the Steelers win over the Jaguars. And it should be noted that the Steelers shut down the Jaguar’s rushing attack in the 2nd half, which was a key to their comeback win.

  • Now that contract details are clear, the Steelers decision to resign Daniel McCullers are perhaps a little easier to understand.

It is a two year, 2.75 million dollar deal, but Daniel McCuller’s signing bonus is only $250,000.

While that gives Daniel McCullers a bit of a raise, he still will have to win a job in training camp. The Steelers are set with Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt as their starters with Tyson Alualu severing ably as “The next man up.”

And given that the Steelers are in their base defense less and less frequently, the value that Daniel McCullers brings from his spot on the bottom of the depth chart is proportionally less than a defensive back in a similar position.

As staff writer Tony Defeo concluded in this year’s free agent focus profile of the Shady Tree, “It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the Steelers kept Daniel McCullers around for at least one more season.”

Once again the Defeo man is right. But if the Steelers get the chance to pick a defensive lineman with more “upside” in the 2019 NFL Draft let’s hope they take it.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Are Steelers Done with Daniel McCullers? Or Will the “Shady Tree” Plant Himself in Pittsburgh Again?

Note to aspiring Steelers bloggers who wish to channel their inner fortune teller while writing the Black And Gold:

  • Don’t quit you day job if you’re planning on predicting the future of Steelers defensive lineman

In 2015, this site was sorely tempted to do an April Fools article saying the Steelers had resigned Clifton Geathers, the defensive lineman they’d brought into “replace” Brett Keisel in late 2014. And what do you know? The Steelers not only resigned Clifton Geathers, but did it on April 1st!

Last year our free agent profile of Daniel McCullers titled “Big D = Disappointment,” took the possibility of his returning to Pittsburgh so unseriously that the article began by recounting Jr. High fantasies about Andre the Giant playing football. (Sound silly? Well it was one of the best performing articles in the series!)

Daniel McCullers is of course a free agent again? Are we deceived by the situation again? Could the Shady Tree plant himself in Pittsburgh for another year? Let’s take a look.

Daniel McCullers, RGIII, Robert Griffin III, Steelers vs Browns

Daniel McCullers closes in one RGIII in the 2016 season finale. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via BTSC

Capsule Profile of Daniel McCullers’ Steelers Career

Daniel McCullers was a fascinating prospect when the Steelers picked him the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. The Tennessee product, nicknamed “Shade Tree” for his massive size (6’7″ and 350lbs) was seen as a player with the potential to be the next great Steelers run-stopping nose tackle similar to a Joel Steed or a “Big Snack” Casey Hampton.

The short answer: No. In his first four seasons in Pittsburgh, Daniel McCullers appeared in just 42 games — starting two –while recording 29 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Daniel McCullers

Despite the lack of progress over his first four seasons, the Steelers did re-sign McCullers to a one-year “show me” contract prior to the 2018 campaign.

And, truthfully, McCullers did make some progress last season under the watch of new defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, who replaced John Mitchell after he assumed the sole responsibility of assistant head coach.

Appearing in 15 games and starting one, McCullers recorded five tackles and one sack. At age 26, he’s still young enough to develop into a solid veteran (or maybe even more), and unless he’s eager to test the free agent waters, he could probably be kept around with a deal similar to the one he inked last spring (the league minimum).

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Daniel McCullers

Yes, Daniel McCullers is still only 26 years old and, yes, he can likely be kept around at a very low price.

  • But how often do football players suddenly “get it” six seasons into their careers?

That was a rhetorical question because the answer is “not often.” Instead of a hole-clogging nose tackle, McCullers may actually be a roster clogger at this point and preventing younger players with more potential from making the Steelers 53-man roster.

Maybe it would be wise to allow Daniel McCullers to go out and see what kind of deal he can fetch on the open market, and if he doesn’t find something to his liking, maybe Pittsburgh can give him yet one more chance at training camp this summer.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Daniel McCullers

While it seems highly unlikely Daniel McCullers will ever develop into much more than what he is right now–a nondescript veteran nose tackle — he does know the system and he is a “safe” backup in the event that Javon Hargrave has to miss time due to injury.

And, again, how much do you really have to pay to keep him around? Yes, another rhetorical question because the answer is “tot much.” It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the Steelers kept Daniel McCullers around for at least one more season.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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