Will Ben Roethlisberger Rebound? A Look at Ben Roethlisberger’s 2nd Half of Season Performance

The Pittsburgh Steelers end their bye week and commence the last half of their 2017 season today against the Indianapolis Colts. The Pittsburgh Steelers carry a 6-2 mark out of the season’s mid point, the same record they had in in 2008 and 2010, seasons which ended at Super Bowl XLIII and Super Bowl XLV respectively.

  • And the news gets better. As Mike Frazer of Behind the Steel Curtain points out, Mike Tomlin second half of the season winning percentage is .663.

Past performance doesn’t guarantee future returns, and Tomlin’s Steelers did see second half of the season implosions in 2009 and 2012. But Tomlin is only part of the equation. If there’s been one negative story line of 2017 it has been the sub-par play of Ben Roethlisberger.

That brings the focus firmly onto number 7, opening the question: How has Ben Roethlisberger typically performed during the second half of the season?

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger 2017

Is there hope for a Ben Roethlisberger rebound in the 2nd half of the season? Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via SI.com

Overview of Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance in the 2nd Half of the Season

By any number of measures, Ben Roethlisberger’s play this year has been far below his best.

Looking beyond the numbers, there’s no arguing that Roethlisberger has been helped by having an the best receiver in the NFL in the form of Antonio Brown and the best running back in form of Le’Veon Bell. And while Martavis Bryant has disappointed, JuJu Smith-Schuster has impressed.

Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette laid it out succinctly this week:

Forget the party line about Ben morphing into a steady “point guard” who’s having a stellar season “between the ears,” as he put it Wednesday. His numbers between the lines are pedestrian. He is missing more throws than usual.
Forget about Sports Illustrated’s Peter King ranking Ben 10th on his list of midseason MVP candidates, too. You can only be an MVP candidate if you’re having a great season. Ben is not.

Starkey goes on to argue that “I’m not sure I’d bet big on Ben returning to elite form, but there’s a decent chance…” justifying his faith in the fact that Ben Roethlisberger can still make all of the throws he needs to make.

Faith is one thing, but what do the number say? Let’s take a look:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger stats, Ben Roethlisberger performance 2nd half season

Ben Roethlisberger has typically played better in the first half of the season

First, these numbers depict just how far below par Ben Roethlisberger has been this season. He key vitals are well below his career averages in ever category, save for sacks per drop backs and of course winning percentage.

  • And, at first glance, the Roethlisberger first half of the season, second half of the season splits are a downer.

Sure, his winning percentges is up and his sacks have historically dropped during the later 8 games of the season. But he’s thrown fewer touchdowns and his passer rating is down a full five points.

That seems like very discouraging news. And it is, until you take a deeper look.

A Deeper Look at Ben Roethlisberger’s Performance in the 2nd Half of the Season

Like any player, Ben has seen ups and downs as his career has progress, has seen shifts in his supporting cast, and has had to work in 3 systems directed by 3 different offensive coordinators.

When you look at the breakdown of Ben Roethlisberger’s performance in the 2nd half of the season vs. his performance in the 1st half of the season by offensive coordinator, things get interesting:

Ben Roethlisberger stats, Ben Roethlisberger performance 2nd half season, Ben Roethlisberger stats 2nd half season, Ben Roethlisberger stats november, Ben Roethlisberger stats december

With Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger is playing better than ever in 2nd halves of seasons.

First, its important to acknowledge that no matter whether Ken Whisenhunt, Bruce Arians or Todd Haley is calling the plays, the overall trend confirms itself, for the most part.

  • But there are important differences, differences that fuel hope for a 2nd half of the season Roethlisberger resurgence.

While playing under Ken Whisenhunt and with Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El, Santonio Holmes and young Heath Miller , Roethlisberger saw his biggest drop between halves of seasons. His completion percentage dropped almost 5 points, the threw 20% fewer touchdowns while throwing more interceptions. He also took more sacks, and his passer rating dropped a full 10 points and change.

  • When you consider how young Rothlisberger was, the drop off under Ken Whisenhunt isn’t that surprising.

When Bruce Arians took over, the overall trend continued, with some indicators improving while others deteriorated. Ben Roethlisberger’s sack percentage stabilized over the course of the season, but defenders still sacked Ben Roethlisberger on 9.4% of his drop backs.

He threw fewer interceptions, fortunately, but his touchdown percentage dropped by a third. His winning percentage also dropped, but that is probably skewed a little bit by the 2009 Steelers notorious 5 game losing streak.

Overall, Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating dropped a little over 5 points from one half of the season to next under Bruce Arians, which was half of the drop off he saw under Ken Whisenhunt.

The drop off in touchdowns is perhaps the most surprising, given that unlike Wisenhunt’s tenure, Roethlisberger only had Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer to lead his running game which by any measure marks a sharp drop off from Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker. So without the strong running game to lean on, one would figure Ben would be throwing for the end zone more under Arians.

But perhaps he did and failed, and perhaps that’s why the winning percentage took a hit.

  • Under Todd Haley, the differences between Ben Roethlsiberger’s first half of the season performance and his 2nd half encores get really interesting.

First, with Todd Haley Ben Roethlisberger’s second half season winning percentage improves above his career average. Second, Haley is the only Steelers offensive coordinator to get Ben Roethlsiberger to throw more touchdowns in the second half of the season as opposed to the first. Haley has also managed to reduce Ben Roethlisberger’s sacks in the second half of the season relative to the first.

  • And while Ben has thrown more interceptions in the second half of the season under Haley, his completion percentage and passer rating only drop by 2 points or less.

It would be interesting to see who Ben Roethlisberger 1st half vs. 2nd half season splits compare with other elite quarterbacks, and particularly those such as Tom Brady who play in cold weather, as a modest drop off is almost a given when you account for the wind, cold and snow of the AFC North in November and December.

The bottom line is, that while Ben Roethlisberger has seen his play decline through November and December throughout his career, he’s been better in the 2nd halves of season under Todd Haley than he was under Bruce Arians or Ken Wisenhunt.

So take heart Steelers Nation, the numbers suggest that Ben Roethlisberger is capable of a 2nd half of the season rebound.

 

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4 Steelers 2017 OTAs Story Lines to Avoid (But That You Probably Can’t Resist)

Today marks the mid-point of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 OTA’s or “Oragniazed Team Activities” for those of you who insist on precision. That means that there’s only four more left after today. But fear not, there’s also minicamp.

  • Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin will be the first person to caution against drawing conclusions from “football in shorts.”

And he’s right. Nonetheless, there are times when OTA’s and/or Minicamp have provided insight into the direction of the Steelers. But reading last Tuesday morning’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s headline “7 Steelers Storylines as OTA’s Begin” inspired me to write the “4 Steelers 2017 OTA Storylines to Avoid” article….

…And then I started reading coverage from the first week of Steelers OTA’s, took my Black and Gold blood pressure, and added the “Probably Can’t Resist” part. You’ll see why.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2017 OTAs

Will 2017 mark Ben Roethlisberger’s final Steelers OTAs? Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Pittsburgh Tribune Review

1. The Roethlisberger Retirement Story

This is probably the most unavoidable of the ones to avoid. Ben Roethlisberger hadn’t talked to the press since dropping the R-word following the Steelers AFC Championship loss. So you knew this was coming. And let’s be honest, Jerry Micco & company would woefully neglectful NOT publishing a story on it.

  • As it turns out, Ben Roethlisberger proclaimed and demonstrated his 110% commitment to 2017 and refused to go further.

So in other words, Ben Rothlisberger has confirmed that his playing days are now on a year-to-year basis. We knew that already. So really, there’s no story there….

…And with that said, if seeing Ben Roethlisberger proclaim…

I am here on Day One. You saw me out there taking every rep I am supposed to take, and then some. I actually took some of the rookies’ today. I am 110 percent committed, like I said I was I love this city. I love these guys. I love being out here. Football is a passion of mine. It’s what I do and it’s what I love to do.

…Doesn’t make you wish opening days was this Sunday, then you’re not a real Steelers fan.

2. The Martavis Bryant Rejuvenation

If Ben Roethlisberger gauging the correct time to pull the plug on his career, Martavis Bryant is trying to keep his on life support.

Martavis Bryant returned to the South Side for the first time since his latest substance abuse suspension and proclaimed himself to be a new man. He’s in the best shape of his life, and apparently running a 40 that’s faster than when he was in college. Then Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell was kind enough to post this video:

Again, admit it: If the sight of Martavis Bryant lining up along Antonio Brown doesn’t make you wonder “What If” when you remember the AFC Championship game, then it’s time to turn in your season tickets.

  • But while that feel good story is legit, some buzz kill certainly remains in order.

It was just one year ago today that Le’Veon Bell was denying Mark Madden’s report that he’d failed multiple drug tests. With that direct denial in hand, the Steelers press corps moved on to other items, and the story died, until training camp arrived and Steelers Nation learned that Le’Veon Bell WAS in fact facing a suspension.

Martavis Bryant is saying all the right things and by all accounts doing the right things, but we’ve seen this movie before.

3. Position Battles at Tight End and Cornerback

This one comes with no need for qualification. Had Ladarius Green not been cut, then it’s possible that OTA’s would have given Steelers Nation the first sight that Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Scott Orndoff from Pitt was going to give David Johnson or Xavier Grimble a run for his money (and his roster spot.)

  • Possible, mind you, but not likely.

But as it stands, Jesse James is the Steelers number 1 tight end, with David Johnson and Xavier Grimble fighting for the number 2 spot. As the Steelers don’t typically keep four tight ends, Scott Orndoff might still need to beat one of those two men to get a spot. But absent Ladarius Green, Orndoff getting reps won’t tell us much.

  • Ditto the defensive backfield.

About the only thing we might learn is whether Jordan Dangerfield will continue to function in that hybrid linebacker/safety slot that he played in at times at the end of 2016. But don’t expect any realistic information to come out of OTA’s as to whether Coty Sensabaugh, Senquez Golson or 3rd round draft pick Cam Sutton will push William Gay to Safety or to the bench.

With that said, news that Senquez Golson is running well will be most welcome.

4. News That So-and-So Rookie Is As Good as Advertised…

If a team’s first round draft pick is kind of like a new car, then OTA’s represent the first time you get to take it around the block. Let’s admit it fun. The car retains all of its sex appeal and new car sent never smelled better.
No one ever discovered they’d bought a lemon on their first spin around the bock. Neither did they concluded that they’d made the best purchase of their life.

No Pittsburgh Steeler ever earned rookie of the year honors during OTA’s let alone the Pro Bowl. But they have left false impressions. Ryan Shazier immediately leap frogged Vince Williams, Sean Spence and Terence Garvin and worked alongside the starters during 2014 OTA’s.

  • Mike Tomlin loathes anointing rookies, so this represented a bold move.

And while this site was an remains a Ryan Shazier fan, injuries ruined much of his rookie year, and he had to fight his way back onto the starting roster. Jonathan Dwyer provides an even better example. If memory serves, Jonathan Dwyer was the toast of 2010’s OTA’s. Unfortunately, the PG Plus stories that Ray Fitapaldo wrote about him aren’t accessible via Google search.

  • We did unearth an article talking about how Jonathan Dwyer’s cousin James Farrior was helping him understand the work ethic necessary to transition to the NFL.

That make this all the more ironic, because while Dwyer did look good in OTA’s, he showed up at St. Vincents overweight and out of shape, and only got a roster spot thanks to a late preseason surge plus an injury to Frank “The Tank” Summers.

So with that in mind I could do nothing except roll my eyes when I saw Behind the Steel Curtain editor Jeff Hartman’s headline, “Steelers Top Draft Pick TJ Watt Flashes Ridiculous Ball Skills at OTAs.” I mean, come one, how “ridiculous” can the ball skills of any rookie, even a future Hall of Famer like Troy Polamalu, show at OTAs. Right?

Then I saw the video:

In case you’re just joining use, the Steelers drafted T.J. Watt in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft to replace James Harrison, not Heath Miller or Ladarius Green. And this wasn’t a one-play wonder:

OK. Let’s remember that this is coming during OTA’s in a situation where Watt knows not only knows the ball is being thrown, its being thrown to him without anyone contesting the catch.

But how can you not be impressed by back-to-back one-handed interceptions. For the record, Jim Wexell posted a longer video of this same session that also showed Bud Dupree making some nice catches himself.

It might be “Only OTA’s” but I guess it’s still OK to enjoy what you see.

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

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

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

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

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Chargers, Le'Veon Bell touchdown chargers, Le'Veon Bell free agent, David DeCastro

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

Capsule Profile of Le’Veon Bell’s Steelers Career

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

Do we really need to say anything at all here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Mike Tomlin’s Record vs Giants Is a Poor Indicator of Steelers in Season Progress

As I look back at Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Giants as the Steelers prepare to play the New York Giants this week, I’m struck by both the similarities and ironies marked by the Tomlin era Steelers-Giants match ups. For starters:

  • In both 2008 and 2012 the Giants were defending Super Bowl champions
  • Both games were decided by 4th quarter comebacks

Dig deeper, and you’ll see that both the 2012 game and this year’s game reveal a lot about Pittsburgh’s post Super Bowl XLV roster retooling efforts. Moreover, the Steelers current .545 winning percentage is nearly identical to the .571 winning percentage the ’12 Steelers took into the Giants game.

However for all of these similarities, both the ’08 and ’12 games served as ironically poor indicators of how those two Steelers teams would be ultimately judged.

steelers vs. giants, mike tomlin vs giants, isaac redman giants 2012, isaac redman career game

Isaac Redman had a career game vs. the Giants in 2012, rushing for almost 150 yards. Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky, Getty Images.

’08 Steelers Stumbles vs. Giants Ultimately Signaled Nothing….

Mike Tomlin’s 2008 Steelers welcomed the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants to Heinz Field with a 5-1 record. Despite that record, this game was widely viewed as a “statement” game for the Steelers, given the lackluster track record of the opponents they’d beaten thus far.

Here was what we had to say about the game at the time:

No one should be fooled by the score as 21-14 does not begin to reveal the poor showing the Steelers made for themselves. The Steelers lost their first game against “PrimeTime” competition, and their performance revealed some troublesome issues which Mike Tomlin and company must address if the Steelers truly want to become contenders.

After describing the Steelers “bend but don’t break” defense of the day, the assessment of the offense came down to this:

Aside from Mewelde Moore’s 32 yard run, and Ben Roethlisberger‘s long bomb to Nate Washington, the Steelers offense produced nothing all day. They could not protect their quarterback, receivers could not get open or hold on to the ball, they could not convert third downs, and they could not sustain drives.

This game came well before Steel Curtain Rising had reached its its Arians Agnostic philosophy and the article harshly critiqued Bruce Arians reluctance to establish the run before concluding:

The Steelers are seven games into their season and they’re having difficulty sustaining drives and they cannot protect their quarterback. The Giants game revealed none of these warts, as each was on display in previous games. But the Steelers were able to compensate for them up until now. In fact, they compensated so well that one wondered if they were aberrations.

The Giants game revealed that the against a legitimate contender the Steelers would not be able simply make up for a several sloppy drives with a heroic comeback.

In the afterglow of Super Bowl XLIII, it Steelers fans can easily forget that the 2008 Steelers spent a lot of time stumbling and bumbling around yet, when the game was on the line, they pulled it together for the win more often that not. The Steelers 2008 loss to the Giants, complete with James Harrison’s errant snap as emergency long snapper, was one exception to that rule.

’12 Steelers Upset New York Giants on the Road

Unlike 2008, fans remember 2012 as the year the Steelers slipped into mediocrity. But that slip was anything but apparent after the 2012 Steeles win over the Giants.

Indeed, the early word on the significance of the 2012 win over the Giants flowed like this:

The Giants appeared to offer the perfect measuring stick, and the game in New York gave the team a chance to measure themselves against the defending Super Bowl Champions, as well as providing a different sort of test for the Steelers – one where they proved to be more than worthy to the task.

The Steelers started out the day strong, scoring a touchdown on their opening drive only to give up two touchdowns thanks to two very questionable calls that went in favor of the Giants. The Steelers defense held the Giants to field goals after that, as Shaun Suisham knocked in one of his own.

Still, the Steelers began the 4th quarter staring down a 10 point deficit against the defending Super Bowl Champions. Here is how we described the Steelers 4th quarter comeback:

Since Ken Whisenhunt’s departure the debate over the proper Run-Pass balance that should define the Steelers offense has consumed Steelers Nation.Such debate misses the point. Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain observed last season, the Steelers need a dynamic offence, that can either run or pass when the situation warrants.

  • The Steelers fourth quarter performance reveals a dynamic offense par excellence.
  • Ben Roethlisberger first connected with Mike Wallace for a catch-and-run quick strike.
  • Pittsburgh then mixed passes and runs to four different ball carriers, with Isaac Redman punching it in from the one

Finally, the Steelers iced the game on a clock killing drive that featured a 16 yard completion on third down and 28 yard scamper by Redman…. Versus the Giants the Steelers had multiple opportunities to flinch. But they chose to focus instead, and in the process the played their best regular season game in over a year. Not a bad place to be at the season’s half way mark.

Such high praise might seem misplaced give the 2012 Steelers 8-8 record and their dismal 3-5 finish which saw them lose multiple games in the 4th quarter. But the Steelers defense had struggled in early 2012, but the win over the Giants served as a turning point for that unit.

Dick LeBeau’s 2012 defense never did recover the splash play potential of its predecessors, but by the end of 2012, the Steelers defense was a strength. The fact that the Steelers gave up 8 turnovers to the Browns  a few weeks later and only lost by 4 points tells you all you need to know.

In contrast, Ben Roethlisberger got injured the next week vs. Kansas City, and wasn’t himself when he returned. The Steelers also lost Willie Colon shortly thereafter, and their run blocking fell apart because of it.

Those injuries, plus the performance against the Giants gives fans legitimate grounds to ask, “What If.”

Mike Tomlin’s Games vs. Giants Highlight Steelers Roster Retooling

The Steelers 2008, 2012 and 2016 matchups against the Giants provide excellent insights into Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s retooling of the Steelers roster. On offense Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Max Starks and Willie Colon served as constants between 2008 and 2012. Rashard Mendenhall was an additional roster holdover too, but he was already on IR for when the Steelers lost to the Giants in 2008.

  • Outside of those 5, the Steelers entire offense had turned over in just four years.

Yet if the Steelers rebuilding on offense was underway in 2012, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin had hardly touched the defense. Sure, Ziggy Hood had “replaced” Aaron Smith and Cam Heyward was waiting in wings. William Gay was on his sabbatical to Pittsburgh West, while Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen split the cornerback duties with Will Allen playing for an injured Troy Polamalu.

Fast forward to 2016. On offense only Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro (who was on IR in 2012) remain. On defense the difference is even more dramatic as only James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, Cameron Heyward and Robert Golden remain.

What Does the Steelers Intra-Giants Roster Upheaval Mean?

The tar and pitchfork portion of Pittsburgh’s fan base will no doubt look at the turnover between 2012 and 2016 and point to it as proof of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s personnel deficiencies. Too be sure, there is some room for criticism.

  • But by and large, the shifts highlight’s as many successes to Colbert and Tomlin rebuilding philosophies as it does disappointments.

After 2009, the Steelers stopped playing “plug and patch” with their offensive line and focused on drafting quality lineman, and the holdovers from 2012 show that they’ve been successful. (And remember, the Steelers wanted to keep Kelvin Beachum who they’d drafted in 2012.)

2012’s running back trio has all moved on to their life’s work, with injuries derailing Isaac Redman’s career and also hitting Rashard Mendenhall who didn’t have the desire, and Jonathan Dwyer who lacked discipline. Beyond those specific factors, the average career of an NFL running back is less than 4 years, so turnover there is normal.

As for the wide receivers, the Steelers bet on Antonio Brown over Mike Wallace before 2012, and never looked back. Since free agency arrived in 1993, the Steelers policy has been to invest heavily second contracts for only one veteran wide out, so the departure of the rest of Young Money hardly surprises.

  • To the extent that the defensive rebuild had begun in 2012, Cameron Heyward is the only true success.

The Steelers made a similar Cortez Allen instead of Keenan Lewis gamble (fueled in part by salary cap limits) and they franchise rolled Snake Eyes on that one. Ziggy Hood couldn’t replace Keisel or Smith.

  • The rest of the defensive rebuild has come since then.

In theory, this Sunday’s matchup against should provide a good measuring stick of Keith Butler‘s young defense’s progress. But history shows that Mike Tomlin’s record vs. the Giants has told us very little about the overall direction of the Steelers….

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Steelers Nation Gives Thanks in 2015 for the Steelers Understudies DeAngelo Williams, Will Allen, Cody Wallace, and Alejandro Villanueva

Thanksgiving is here and as always my thoughts turn to Pittsburgh because, for the first 21 years of my life, Thanksgiving either involved a trip to Pittsburgh or a visit from relatives from Pittsburgh.

Those days have long passed and 2015 actually marks the 14th consecutive year yours truly will spend Thanksgiving outside of the United States. Thanksgiving traffic could make the I-270/I-70/Pennsylvania Turnpike/Parkway circuit quite stressful, but it was a more manageable haul than Buenos Aires-to-Maryland.

As we have every year since 2009, Steel Curtain Rising takes stock of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and gives Steelers Nation something Steelers-related to give thanks for. And this year we’re giving thanks for “The Understudies” DeAngelo Williams, Will Allen, Cody Wallace, and Alejandro Villanueva.

 

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Pittsburgh, Thanksgiving 2015, photo by Dave DiCello

Steelers Thanksgiving 2015 “An Ode to Steelers Understudies”

Success in today’s NFL means preparing for the unexpected, which is, by definition, difficult. Unless you get really lucky, the question isn’t “If” a star player is going to injured, but “When.”

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers represent no exception.

The Steelers opened the 2013 season without their starting running back and their top two tight ends, and, by the third quarter, had lost their center, right cornerback, third down back and right inside linebacker.

  • ESPN.com argues that the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers have been hurt by more injures than anyone else.

ESPN might exaggerate, but at quarterback alone Pittsburgh has seen Ben Roethlisberger on the cart twice, and watched both Michael Vick and Landry Jones come out of games, never mind Bruce Gradkowski’s ten day journey from the PAP list to the IR list.

Fortunately, thanks to the role of understudies, the 2015 Steelers have been able to adapt and overcome.

Steelers Understudy DeAngelo Williams Isn’t Old, He’s Mature

A year ago Le’Veon Bell‘s injury left Steelers entering the playoffs with their pants down. Unfortunately Bell was injured again this year, but fortunately the Steelers have been ready thanks to DeAngelo Williams.

The NFL has always been a “young man’s game” but that statement is more true at running back now than it ever has been. Perhaps its appropriate to say that “26 is the new 30” for NFL running backs. Running backs just don’t play for very long. The Steelers know this. Their top three running backs from 2012 (Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, and Isaac Redman) were out of football by 2014.

When the Steelers signed him from the Carolina Panthers, DeAngelo Williams was 32, had nine seasons, and had rushed the ball one thousand four hundred and thirty two times. On paper, that would seem like a very risky proposition.

  • In just four starts, Williams is ½ way to 1000 yards, and his rushing average is actually a hair better than Bell’s.

In Bell’s absence, Williams just hasn’t held his own he’s helped move the Steelers offense forward. (Oh, yeah, and as the embedded Twitter video shows, DeAngelo Williams is a pretty good blocker too….)

Will Allen, the Under Appreciated Steelers Understudy

Has there been a more under appreciated Pittsburgh Steeler in recent memory than Will Allen?

You’d have to make a really strong case to convince me. We’ve told Will Allen’s story here before:

2015 was supposed to be Shamarko Thomas’ year to shine. The Steelers, in fact, let Will Allen hang in free agency until Troy Polamalu retired. Instead, the Steelers have benched Thomas and started Will Allen and Allen has been a source of strength, leadership and stability for the Steelers secondary.

Wallace & Villanueva: The Offensive Lineman No One Else Wanted

“There’s a reason why no one else wanted him….” That’s a stock response Steelers fans hear any time a fan ask “Why hasn’t Pittsburgh signed [insert player sitting at home] yet.” Sometimes it’s true. I confess to using it myself on more than one occasion.

But Kevin Colbert has a keen eye for seeing upsides on struggling player that other NFL general managers miss. And ten games into the 2015 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line is starting two of them.

In September 2013 things did not look good for Cody Wallace. 2009 saw him suit up for one game with the San Francisco 49ers who’d drafted him in the 4th round. Spent 2010 getting signed and cut by the Jets and Lions but never played for either. In 2011 he held practice squad and a roster spots with the Houston Texans. Tampa Bay picked him up in 2012 where he played in 8 game, but the Buccaneers cut him before the 2013 season.

  • Such moves generally signal the end for 29 year old offensive lineman who’ve drifted from team-to-team.

But Kevin Colbert saw something in Wallace he liked, brought him to Pittsburgh, and Wallace has started 16 games and counting for the Steelers. Yes, Wallace poor technique has been cited by those who know more than I do, and he earned a spot as one of 6 Steelers who need to step up. But Cody Wallace has generally been soild for the Steelers.

Alejandro Villanueva’s story is well known. Son of a Spanish immigrant who grew up an Army brat. Four year player at wide receiver, offensive tackle, and defensive tackle for West Point. US Amry Ranger who served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan. And now, after one year on the practice squad, he’s the Steelers starting left tackle.

Villanueva struggled in his first start, and still has a lot to learn, but thus far he’s avoided being a liability.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

So in 2015 Steelers Nation can give thanks for the Steelers Understudies, DeAngelo Williams, Will Allen, Cody Wallace and Alejandro Villanueva.

But, while the Steelers are important to me and the fact that you’ve read this far says they’re important to you too. But Steel Curtain Rising’s real Thanksgiving wish for everyone has nothing to do with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and to that end we sincerely hope that all of you reading this have no-shortage of non-football reasons tied to good health and that of your family and friends to give thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation.

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DeAngelo Williams Foot Injury Highlights Thin Steelers Running Back Depth, Changing Times

As everyone knows, Ben Roethlisberger‘s name heads the Steelers injury report as Pittsburgh prepares to play the Cleveland Browns this week. That comes as no surprise after his leaving the Steelers victory over Oakland in the 4th quarter.

The next two names are linebackers James Harrison and Ryan Shazier. Clearly the Steelers are better with those two in the lineup than without, but both have a couple of three players who can take their place.

Last week the Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell to an MCL tear and this week DeAngelo Williams misses practice due to a swollen foot….? Neal Coolong of The Steelers Wire pointed out the Steelers 2015 playoff hopes might hinge on Landry Jones’ arm.

Because those are the “next men up” should DeAngelo Williams be unable to play vs. Cleveland, or at any other point in the remainder of 2015. For the record, Todman has 3 careear starts, 113 carries and 464 yards on his NFL rushing resume. He even has 3 touchdowns and has 3 receptions (although not 3 touchdowns for 3 receptions.) Pead has 19 carries for 78 yards.

Certain segments of Steelers Nation will no doubt wish to pick up the pitch fork and man the barricades to condemn Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert for allowing such a situation to come to pass. But the truth is that DeAngelo William’s swollen foot merely highlights the precarious nature of the Steelers thin running back depth, which simply a symptom of a larger, league wide problem.

Steelers Running Back Depth Long a Franchise Hallmark

Throughout Steelers history, the franchise has long boasted depth charts that were at least three deep at running back.

In 1976, the Steelers had two 1,000 yard rushers in the form of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Six years later the Steelers had three 1st round running backs on their depth chart as they did in 1982 with Harris, Greg Hawthorne and Walter Abercrombie along with work horse Frank Pollard.

The trend of the Steelers fielding a deep bullpen of running back depth continued through 80’s and into the 1990’s. In 1991 the Steelers running back depth chart had Merril Hoge, Barry Foster, Tim Worley, Warren Williams and Leroy Thompson. In 2000, the Steelers running back depth chart boasted Jerome Bettis, Richard Huntley, Amos Zereoue, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala, and Jon Witman with Dan Krieder on the practice squad.

As recently as 2008, the Steelers opened the season with Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Cary Davis, and Gary Russell for depth at running back. Even in 2012, the Steelers still had Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer – hardly three super stars, but the threesome gave Pittsburgh more running back depth than they currently enjoy.

Those days ended then and there, however.

2013 a Turning Point for Running Back Depth for the NFL and the Steelers

The Steelers picked Le’Veon Bell in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Assuming the Bell makes a full recovery from his injury and resumes his stratospheric performances fans will someday wonder how a back of his talent fell out of the NFL Draft’s first round. Or they won’t.

  • The 2013 NFL Draft marked the first draft since 1936 that no running back was taken in the first round.

The trend continued in 2014 and, while the San Diego Chargers took Melvin Gordon in the 1st round of the 2015, NFL Draft, 2013 marks milestone for running back depth for both the Steelers and for the NFL.

2013 saw Bell’s early season sacrificed to a Lis-franc injury, and Redman ailing due to an undisclosed neck injury, so it fell to Dwyer and Felix Jones to carry the Steelers load at running back. The duo did not do well. By comparison’s sake, in Isaac Redman 2012 out-rushed and out received the combined ’13 rushing and receiving totals of Dwyer and Jones.

Choices Lead to Thin Steelers Running Back Depth in 2015

The Steelers thin depth at running back in 2013 was largely a product of accident, but in 2014 it became more a product of choice.

The Steelers of course signed LeGarrette Blount in the off season to back up Bell. But behind Blount the Steelers only had Dri Archer, whom they envisioned as a utility back/wide receiver, and fullback Will Johnson. (Josh Harris was on the practice squad.) LeGarrett Blount discipline problems cost him his roster spot, forcing the Steelers to sign Ben Tate after Bell went down vs. the Bengals.

  • The Blount dismissal aside, the Steelers made a conscious choice to enter 2014 only two players deep at running back.

And the made the same choice in 2015, opting to go with Bell and Williams, only picking up Todman on waivers after Josh Harris failed to impress during preseason. The NFL is a passing league, and no one argues with the Steelers giving Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates roster spots.

  • But every roster choice involves an opportunity cost.

And with Bell down for the count, and DeAngelo Williams nursing a swollen foot, the potential opportunity cost of the Steelers opting to staff such a thin depth chart at running back has just gone up.

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The Adrian Robinson CTE Diagnosis Raises Deeply Disturbing Questions

The suicide of former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Adrian Robinson caused a lot of commotion last May. And so it should. Robinson was 25 and seemingly had just renewed his lease on a pro football career, having signed a contract to play for the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Yet, he took his own life.

As family and friends struggled asking “Why?” Ivey DeJesus of Penn-Live asked the normal battery of questions:

He seemed to have so much: a career, friends, a loving family, a girlfriend and a baby daughter. What led him to the desperation? Was it the pursuit of perfection? Was it disappointment that his NFL career might be ending? Had his brain been ravaged by years of playing football – years of hits to the head? [Emphasis added]

The normal battery of questions, save for the last one, which today is all the more ominous, as tests on Adrian’s Robinson’s brain revealed the presence of an abnormal protein known as tau. The tau protein is similar to the proteins that build up in people who suffer from Alzheimer’s, although it builds up in different places in the brain. In other words Adrian Robinson was suffering from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy.)

Adrian Robinson, Adrian Robinson CTE, CTE,

Adrian Robinson playing for the Steelers against the Kansas City Chiefs. Photo Credit: Fox Sports

Why the Adrian Robinson CTE Diagnosis Should Deeply Disturb You

The Adrian Robinson CTE diagnosis is deeply disturbing on many, many levels.

CTE is the same brain disorder which afflicted former Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Webster, Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk. Mike Webster died after suffering for years from the disease, and the tales of his struggles in Gary Pomerantz’s Their Life’s Work are simply harrowing. Terry Long committed suicide. Justin Strzelczyk died in a fiery crash after a lengthy highway chase.

By all accounts, “Crazed” does not even begin to describe Justin Strzelczyk’s behavior before he died led police on a 40 mile chase.

  • Why is the Adrian Robinson CTE diagnosis so troubling? Let me count the ways.
Dr. Bennet Omalu, Mike Webster, cte, tau protien

Dr. Bennet Omalu

Mike Webster’s death, and Dr. Bennet Omalu post-mortem investigation on his brain, is credited for sounding the alarm bell on the dangers and risks that head trauma poses to football players.

But if Webster provided the medical community with a landmark case, his story was also somewhat exceptional. Webster played center for 17 years, and was estimated to have suffered tens of thousands of hits to the head.

For a time, Terry Long’s case appeared to be a potential exception because he was a known steroid user, although research has since discounted a connection between steroids and CTE. While Justin Strzelczyk had no known steroid use, Strzelczyk had banged heads for 9 years as an offensive lineman.

While no one would suggest that there was anything “comforting” about the cases of Webster, Long, or Strzelczyk all three men were lineman who played in an age when playing with a concussion was almost a mark of pride. Their cases, along with other high profile cases such that of Dave Duerson or Andre Waters came from players who played the game for a long time.

  • That at least suggested that awareness of the problem, along with the proper precautions, could mitigate the dangers of CTE.

The Adrian Robinson CTE diagnosis goes a long way to dispelling that illusion.

Adrian Robinson’s CTE Diagnosis Is a Potential Game Changer

Adrian Robinson was only 25, and had appeared in only 22 professional football games, unlike the hundreds of games played by Webster, Duerson, Waters, Long or Strzelczyk. If you love football AND you’re concerned about protecting players from head trauma then Adrian Robinson’s CTE diagnosis HAS to make you more uncomfortable.

The presence of tau in Robinson’s brain presents several inconvenient truths for football fans:

  • Robinson, like former Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry, had never been diagnosed with a concussion
  • Ergo, protecting against concussions is at the very least insufficient
  • With only 22 NFL games logged, the Adrian Robinson CTE diagnosis certainly suggests that CTE begins in college, if not before
Jonathan Dwyer, domestic violence, cte

(Photo Credit: David KadlubowskI/The Republic)

Robinson’s CTE-influenced suicide also suggests that any number of active NFL players could be suffering from CTE at this very minute. Last year when the NFL was reeling from the Ray Rice scandal, former Steelers running back Jonathan Dwyer was arrested for domestic violence.

At the time, former Steelers linebacker Larry Foote was a teammate of Dwyer’s at Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals and expressed shock at Dwyer’s arrest, indicating that he and his wife hat traveled with the Dwyers to an off season Christian Conference.

No one on this site will excuse Dwyer or anyone for domestic violence, but he if did experience a sudden change in character then it raises a legitimate question:

  • Could Jonathan Dwyer be suffering from CTE?

We don’t know. But the Adrian Robinson CTE diagnosis suggests that it remains a distinct possibility.

Adrian Robinson CTE Diagnosis Forces Another Gut Check

Raise your hand… if you’ve been concerned about CTE and head trauma but honestly wished the issue would “Just Go away.”

Raise your hand… if you’ve looked at players like Mike Ditka, Franco Harris and Lynn Swann, to name a few, who’ve made it into their 60’s or beyond without exhibiting any outward signs of CTE and thought, “See, those guys show the problem can’t be that bad….”

Raise your hand… if you’ve read stories about CTE and thought, “This is serious shit, but honestly, I know plenty of people who played in high school or college and are just fine as adults.”

Raise your hand… if you’ve seen the NFL rollout concussion protocols and other measures to protect the head and thought, “Good, that’s going to help a lot.”

My hand is raised to each of those questions and, if you’ve read this far, I suspect yours is too. And if you’ve gotten this point, I suspect that you’ll join me in celebrating any Steelers success vs. the Arizona Cardinals this afternoon, or whomever they’re playing next if Google should bring you to this article.

Fair enough.

For as deeply disturbed I am at the Webster, Strzelczyk and Juinor Seau stories and the stories of others who’ve suffered from CTE, I haven’t reached my “Come to Jesus moment” yet that forces me to turn away from the sport I love.

  • But let’s repeat something said here before: CTE is dangerous enough not just to end the NFL but the entire sport of football itself.

And the Adrian Robinson suicide and subsequent CTE diagnosis suggest that roots of CTE and the forces that generate the tau protein that causes it drive far deeper and are woven far more fundamentally into the fabric of football than we’d like to believe or wish to admit.

Are you a former NFL player who needs help? Perhaps you know one who needs help. Help is available. Get it now:

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

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

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Steelers Activate Bruce Gradkowski

To the surprise of many in Steelers Nation, back up quarterback Bruce Gradkowski opened Steelers training camp on the PUP list. The move keeps Gradkowski from practicing and allowed the Steelers to use his roster spot with someone else.

  • The Steelers also would have been able to keep Gradkowski on the PUP until the middle of the season, and then activate him.

It is not something that happens often, but the Steelers did just that with Heath Miller in 2013. Miller of course tore his ACL at the end of the 2012 season, and was kept on the Steelers PUP list, until being activated before the debacle in London.

In his absences, the Steelers have been giving most of Gradkowski’s reps to Landry Jones. Landry Jones entered training camp with a target on his back, showed improvement during practice, but reviews of his performance in the Steelers Hall of Fame Game loss to the Minnesota Vikings and their preseason loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars have been mixed at best.

  • While Landry Jones HAS improved from previous outings, he clearly hasn’t show himself as a viable number 2 NFL quarterback.

In contrast, Gradkowski fits that mold perfectly, following in the footsteps of Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich who have held distinction of “QB Number 2” for much of Kevin Colbert’s tenure as Steelers General Manager.

Gradkowski has been nursing an ailing shoulder, although reports indicate that he began throwing on his own while at St. Vincent’s. However, Ed Bouchette reported on video following the Jaguars game that the Steelers weren’t looking to activate Gradkowski until the 4th preseason game.

  • Perhaps Bouchette was mistaken or perhaps Jones’ struggles have forced the Steelers hand.

Three summers ago both Isaac Redman and Johnathan Dwyer were nursing injuries in mid August prompting the Steelers to activate Rashard Mendenhall ahead of schedule (although Mendenhall did not play until after the first month of the season.)

Although Gradkowski has never thrown a regular season pass for the Steelers, did briefly relieve Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers playoff loss to the Ravens, and completed 2-3 passes and looked quite sharp doing it.

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Watch Tower: Is Mike Tomlin’s Personnel Decision Making Authority Less than Thought?

Just how much authority does Mike Tomlin have on Pittsburgh Steelers personnel decisions?

  • Fans debate this question tooth and nail, but the irony is that, most in Steelers Nation lack any insight whatsoever into how much sway Tomlin holds in personnel decisions.

The Colbert-Tomlin drafts clearly have a different character than the Colbert-Cowher drafts. Mike Tomlin’s thumbprints were all over the arrivals of Sean Mahan and Allen Rossum in 2007 and Mewelde Moore in 2008. But beyond that, the public knows little of how big of a seat Tomlin holds in Pittsburgh’s personnel pow-wows.

Until now.

Behind the Steel Curtain’s Dani Bostic recently caught up with Isaac Redman, he of “Redzone Redman” fame and stumbled across a potentially earth shaking insight into Tomlin’s authority over personnel matters.

After detailing the nature of Redman’s injury, and the team’s seeming unwillingness to take it seriously, Redman dropped the following bombshell on Bostic:

Mike Tomlin caught up to him as the star running back was leaving for his appointment. “We’re going to release you. I tried fighting for you,” Tomlin said. Redman was stunned, even more so when he realized they were releasing him healthy instead of putting him on the injured reserve where he could have continued to receive a paycheck. [Emphasis added]

There are two ways to take Tomlin’s admission that he tried in vain to fight for Redman:

It it could be simple coach speak, and an attempt to soften the impact of bearing bad news by implying that responsibility lie elsewhere. That’s certainly plausible.

But it is equally possible that Tomlin really did wish to retain Redman, but got overruled. And there is precedent here. Shortly before the 2013 season the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Mark Kaboly lobbed this grenade regarding Jonathan Dwyer’s getting cut:

Regardless, between Kaboly’s Tweet and Dani Bostic’s story on Redman, we now have two documented cases of players being released over the objections of coaches in 2013.

We also know that this is a sharp contrast from the days when Bill Cowher wore the headset. Shortly after Jerome Bettis published The Bus: My Life in and out of a Helmet, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola quickly debunked one of Bettis chief revelations – namely that Jon Witman had edged out Tim Lester at fullback because like Witman, Steelers running back’s coach Dick Hoak had gone to Penn State.

Bettis was wrong, as Labriola insisted, because Bill Cowher had say over those types of personnel matters and wasn’t shy about reminding people.

  • At the very least, it would seem that Mike Tomlin does not wield that kind of clout.

None of this suggests that Mike Tomlin is either a pushover or is powerless when it comes to personnel decisions. In fact, it is well documented that when the Patriots offered Emmanuel Sanders a restricted free agent tender, the front office was content to take the 3rd round draft pick and let Sanders walk, but the coaches pushed back and won the day.

  • But it underlines the reality that the dynamics behind the Steelers personnel decisions remain a mystery.

As the Watch Tower commends Dani Bostic on her scoop, it again encourages the credentialed members of the Steelers press corps to lift the lid on how Steelers personnel decisions are made.

Coolong Joins Kovacevic @ DK on Pittsburgh Sports

As the Steelers roster goes, so goes the press room? It certainly seems that way. The Steelers have experienced tremendous roster turnover over the past few seasons, and the press room appears to be catching up.

As the Watch Tower has noted, first Alan Robinson and then Scott Brown disappeared from the Pittsburgh Tribune Review and ESPN.com beats. Moreover, both men’s disappearance was Stalin-like in passing, as no announcement was ever made – both men simply stopped contributing.

  • However, their seats will not get cold anytime soon.

Neal Coolong, formerly of Behind the Steel Curtain, and more recently USA Today’s Steelers Wire, has joined Dejan Kovacevic at DK on Pittsburgh Sports. This is Coolong’s second move in only the space of a few months, but this is a definite step up the professional ladder, as Coolong finally has credentials, and will cover the Steelers on a daily basis (full disclosure, yours truly is a friend of Coolong’s and who has been a strong supporter of Steel Curtain Rising in general and the Watch Tower specifically.)

On his website Dejan Kovacevic explained the decision to add Coolong to his team:

He’s a gifted, prolific and richly communicative writer, very much in the spirit we’re trying to establish at our site. And he’s got all the news sense and aggressiveness any reader would want in a beat writer.

The Watch Tower agrees and offers its congratulations to its friend Coolong and wishes him the best.

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Lessons from Past Steelers OTA’s – When “Football in Shorts” Does Yield Insights

Phase III of the Steelers 2015 off season workouts begin today, which are officially titled “Organized Team Activites” or just Steelers OTA’s. In the past Mike Tomlin has thrown cold water on drawing conclusions based on OTA’s, calling it “Football in shorts.”

  • And he’s right. There are real limits to what coaches, let alone fans, can learn from “Football in shorts.”

Fans are going to want to assessments on the Steelers 2015 draft class, they’ll progress reports on Bud Dupree, Senquez Golson, Sammie Coates and the rest of the crew. Unless any of those men get injured, there’s unlikely to be any meaningful news or insight on those players coming out of Steelers OTA’s

Yet looking back, past Steelers OTA’s have in fact given fans useful insights about the season to come — as well as plenty of false flags.

Steelers 2014 OTA’s & Minicamp – Shamarko 3rd on Depth Chart, Sean Spence Healthy

During OTA’s In 2014, Steelers Nation learned that Sean Spence had recovered enough to make a run at a roster spot after spending his first two years on IR.

 

Fans also learned that Shamarko Thomas, then going into his second year, was behind Will Allen on the depth chart at safety, something which remained constant through training camp all the way up to the Steelers playoff loss vs. the Ravens.

Steelers 2013 OTA’s & Minicamp – First Look at Le’Veon Bell and Shamarko Thomas

A photo of 2013 minicamp featured reserve cornerback in 2011 3rd round pick Curtis Brown wearing an ice pack, a development that foreshadowed his final summer at St. Vincents. Mark Kabloy of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review also told us the Le’Veon Bell ran with power, and that Landry Jones struggled passing. He also told us that Shamarko Thomas looked strong in gunner drills, and for whatever question still surround Shamarko as a safety, he’s played well on special teams.

Steelers 2012 OTA’s & Minicamp Polamalu Present, Wallace AWOL

In 2012 the big news out of Steelers OTA’s and minicamp was who was there – and who wasn’t. Following the departure of veterans like Aaron Smith and James Farrior, Troy Polamalu made a point of attending OTA’s to add leadership. However, Mike Wallace was absent, signaling his hold out. 2012’s OTA’s also featured the introduction of Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of the offense to Todd Haley’s system, and Ben’s admonition to the rest of his players to “not get frustrated” again signaled things to come.

Steelers 2012 OTA’s were also when we learned that Todd Haley had “officially” restored the fullback position to the Steelers offense, as David Johnson would make the switch.

Yet, Steelers OTA’s in 2012’s and mini-camp also contained their share of false flags, as Dale Lolley reported how strong rookie 5th round pick Chris Rainey looked while adding that Baron Batch looked fully recovered from his ACL tear. Rainey disappointed on the field before disappointing off the field, while Batch was never the same.

The other big “News” of 2012 OTA’s was Kordell Stewart’s decision to “retire” as a Steeler.

Steelers 2010 OTA’s & Minicamp the Roethlisberger Suspension

There were no OTA’s or mini-camp in 2011 thanks to the NFLPA’s lockout. In 2010 there wasn’t a lot of “news” out of OTA’s and/or minicamp as Ben Roethlisberger’s suspension dominated coverage, although word was rookie Jonathan Dwyer looked strong. The big insight came from Dale Lolley, who signaled Kraig Urbik’s rise on the depth chart (which the Steelers unfortunately could not take advantage of.)

Steelers OTA’s & Minicamp 2009 – Hill’s Demise, Mundy’s Rise Foreshadowed

The Steelers 2009 OTA’s and minicamps provided Steelers Nation with a mix and match of insight and false flags. Max Starks was absent and, tellingly, second year man Tony Hills did not take his place. Ryan Mundy also got extensive work, foreshadowing the Steelers efforts to groom Mundy as a future starter. (he never got there in Pittsburgh, but Ryan Mundy’s put up decent numbers in New York and better numbers in Chicago.)

However, Dale Lolley also opined that the 2009 Steelers showed a fire missing in 2006, an observation which ultimately did not carry over into the regular season.

Steelers 2008 OTA’s & Minicamp – Mike Tomlin Cautions Against “Football in Shorts”

Steelers OTA’s in 2008 provided Mike Tomlin’s “football in shorts” comment when asked about the development of Dallas Baker. The spring practice sessions also revealed that Anthony Smith still hadn’t learned anything, as evidenced by an over the top display following an interception. Dale Lolley, again offered some solid insight on the rise of Darnell Stapleton, who would start for the Steelers following Kendall Simmons’s injury vs. Baltimore that coming fall.

Also, it was Lolley who gave Mewelde Moore some of the love that the rest of the press covering the Steelers missed – and this is something that Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower missed when it critiqued the members of the Steelers media for ignoring Moore.

Steelers OTA’s & Minicamp – 2007 All Eyes on Faneca and Tomlin

The story in Steelers OTA’s and Mini-camp in 2007 was the Alan Faneca situation. Faneca was decidedly unhappy about not getting a contract extension from the Steelers, and went very public with his grievances.

  • Everyone wanted to see how rookie head coach Mike Tomlin handled the situation, and the record shows he handled it well.

One false flag came from Dale Lolley, who described Dan Sepulaveda’s punting as “awesome” something that didn’t translate to the field of play. He also singled out the Steelers interest in undrafted rookie free agent Kyle Clement, a kid who never made the team, but for some reason was a magnet for search visitors during Steel Curtain Rising’s maiden season.

[Quick note on sources. After 2012 Google is not very helpful in returning meaningful results for the queries “Steelers OTA’s” and/or “Steelers Mini-camp” even when limiting queries by date. Thankfully Dale Lolley has a site index archive that is searchable by date. Kudos to him. He gets the back links, for what they’re worth.]

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