The Wild Ride of William Gay’s Steelers Career Comes to an End. Thank You Big Play Willie Gay!

In a long anticipated move, the Steelers cut William Gay the veteran cornerback who has served as a pillar of stability in Pittsburgh’s secondary for the last decade. In doing so they severed ties with the final draft pick from the 2007 NFL Draft, the Steelers first draft with Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at the helm.

Defensive back is a young man’s game, and William Gay will be 4 months shy of his 34th birthday on the Steelers opening day in 2018. He also carries a $1,750,000 salary that the Steeler figure to use more constructively elsewhere.

Judging by his Instagram post, he isn’t ready to being “Life’s Work” but with his time in Pittsburgh over, we now look back at the wild ride that was William Gay’s Steelers career and take a moment to say “Thank you Big Play Willie Gay.”

William Gay, William Gay Pick Six, William Gay interception, Big play Willie Gay, Steelers vs Falcons

William Gay’s 52 yard pick six vs Falcons in 2014. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

2007-’08 – William Gay Goes from “Trying to Survive” to Starter

With Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden topping the depth chart, cornerback didn’t figure to be a priority for Pittsburgh in the 2007 NFL Draft. After going (almost) all-in on defense by drafting Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan McBean with their first, second and fourth picks the Steelers went back to defense in the 5th round, drafting William Gay out of Louisville.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell pointed out, when questioned about an impressive preseason outing Mike Tomlin responded “William Gay’s just trying to survive!” William Gay not only survived but contributed in his rookie year, but his efforts were confined to special teams and spot duty in the secondary.

  • But it was in in 2008 William Gay began to turn heads.

Due to injuries, Gay made 4 starts at cornerback and effectively alternated with Bryant McFadden at other times. The Steelers 2008 defense was a special unit, and Gay’s played a small, yet important role in their success that culminated in Super Bowl XLIII.

William Gay played so well in 20018 that made Bryant McFadden expendable as he departed for Pittsburgh West aka Arizona.

2009 – William Gay Not Ready for Prime Time

Unfortunately, William Gay wasn’t quite ready for Prime Time.

  • 2009 proved to be a rough year not only for Gay, but for the entire Steelers secondary.

Troy Polamalu got injured in the season opener, and the Future Hall of Famer only played 4 more games that season. The rest of the Steelers defensive backfield struggled in his absence. By late November Steelers 2009 secondary was shell-shocked, and William Gay was in far enough in over his head that Mike Tomlin rotated Joe Burnett with him in the Steelers infamous ’09 loss to Cleveland.

William Gay seemed destined to become a footnote in Steelers secondary history.

2010- ’11 – Moving to the Slot Rejuvenates William Gay’s Steelers Career

Bryant McFadden’s return to Pittsburgh seemed to spell doom for Gay as it forced him into the role of slot corner. Instead the move probably rejuvenated his career. During the 2010 season, Gay led the Steelers in passes defensed and also recorded two sacks.

Going into 2011 Bryant McFadden remained the starter nod, but injuries led to Gay starting most of the season, where he defensed another 13 passes, and recorded two interceptions, including a game-clincher against Cincinnati in November.

However, with Cortez Allen on the rise (or so we thought) and Keenan Lewis showing signs of development, the Steelers opted to let Gay sign with Pittsburgh West and, once again, William Gay’s Steelers career seemed to have come to and end.

2013-’17 – “Big Play Willie Gay” Shines in His Second Steelers Act

…And like Bryant McFadden before him, William Gay’s stay with the Cardinals would only last one season. The Cardinals cut him, and the Steelers wasted little time in resigning him. Second acts with the Steelers have become a stable of the Colbert-Tomlin era, as Larry Foote, Antwaan Randle El, Byron Leftwich, Will Allen and Matt Spaeth all departed Pittsburgh as free agents only to return.

  • But Big Play Willie Gay probably had the brightest second act of any Steeler.

When the Steelers resigned William Gay in March of 2013, it was rightly interpreted as a Moneyball type move made in an effort to sort of secure a compensation prize for franchise too salary cap strapped to resign Keenan Lewis.

That may have been the case, but it was Moneyball at its best. The Steelers brought William Gay into man the slot, but Ike Taylor’s decline and Cortez Allen’s implosion led to Gay starting 52 games between 2013 and 2017.

A dispassionate analysis of William Gay’s contributions during this time would likely credit him with providing stability to a secondary staffed by plugins and accidental starters (see Antwon Blake and Brice McCain). But it was his penchant for explosive plays that earned him the love of Steelers Nation:

William Gay also had another interception returned for a touchdown negated by a penality in the Steelers 2016 win over the Bills. While he didn’t add any more pick sixes, Gay did intercept a pass against the Colts on Thanksgiving and again in 2017 in the Steelers home win against the Bengals.

As it happens to all great athletes, Father Time began gaining in the footrace with William Gay in 2016, as Artie Burns displaced him as the starter by the middle of the season, and rookie Mike Hilton took over the slot role in 2017.

There’d been talk of moving Gay to safety, and while Gay did play in a little bit of a hybrid safety-linebacker in 2017, the role never really emerged.

William Gay’s Place Among Steelers Corners + Thank You

When history ranks great Pittsburgh Steelers cornerbacks Hall of Famers Mel Blount, Rod Woodson and Jack Butler will come first followed by Ike Taylor and then probably Dwayne Woodruff. That gives Steelers Nation an undisputed top 5.

  • Should the work William Gay put on tape for the Steelers earn him a spot some where in the top 10?

Steel Curtain Rising will leave that for others to debate and decide. But there’s no disputing the fact that from 2013 until 2017 William Gay was most consistent contributor to the Steelers secondary.

He was also class act in the lockeroom and pillar of the community, and someone Steelers Nation should be proud to have had as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Thank you on behalf Steelers Nation and Good luck and God Speed Big Play Willie Gay!

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Carnell Lake Resigns as Steelers Secondary Coach. Did the Defensive Backs Coach Resign Voluntarily?

The dust from the Pittsburgh’s 2017 season still hasn’t settled on the South Side as Carnell Lake resigns as Steelers defensive backs coach. The Steelers announced the news on their website, with the following statement from Lake:

I have decided to return to California to be able to be a part of my youngest son’s last year of high school football.
I want to thank Mr. Art Rooney II and the Rooney family, Coach Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, the coaching staffs I have worked with throughout my time in Pittsburgh, and the entire Steelers organization. It has been a privilege and honor to play and coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I also want to thank all of the players I have coached during my seven years with the team – it truly was an honor to work with them. Finally, I would like to thank Steelers fans for their support and for being the best fans in the NFL during both my time as a player and coach.

Carnell Lake joined the Mike Tomlin’s staff in the spring of 2011 shortly after Super Bowl XLV, as he replaced Ray Horton who headed to Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals to take over as their defensive coordinator.

Carnell Lake, Carnell Lake Resigns Steelers secondary coach,

Carnell Lake resigns as Steelers secondary coach. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Lake’s return to Pittsburgh made him the first of several former Steelers players to join Mike Tomlin’s staff. The Steelers drafted Carnell Lake in the 2nd round of the 1989 NFL Draft, and converted a then linebacker into a strong safety. Lake not only won the starting job as a rookie, a rarity in a Chuck Noll coached defense, but pushed 1988’s starter Cornell Gowdy off of the roster.

Like Donnie Shell before him and Troy Polamalu after him, Carnell Lake became a fixture at the back of the secondary for the better part of a decade, including moving to cornerback twice in the Steelers 1995 and 1997 seasons.

If Carnell Lake’s contributions as a player are unquestionable positive, the same can not be said of his coaching tenure.

What of the Lake Effect?

When Carnell Lake arrived in Pittsburgh, cornerback was seen as an overwhelming liability, with Ike Taylor the only consistent performer while William Gay and Keenan Lewis were regarded as disappointments.

  • Yet William Gay made impressive strides in 2011 and Keenan Lewis had an outstanding year in 2012, and Cortez Allen appeared to be a superstar ready to burst.

Lake in fact, had made a point to take Keenan Lewis under his wing after much of the rest of the Steelers coaching staff had given up on him, per Rebecca Rollet’s reporting. Blogger Ivan Cole dubbed this as “The Lake Effect.”

  • However, not all of the players under Lakes tutelage thrived.

Cortez Allen flashed a little in his first year as a starter in 2013, but remained inconsistent. In 2014 Allen got demoted, benched, and ultimately banished to IR. His 2015 campain consisted of a few snaps. Injuries were a factor, but Allen’s fizzout was never fully explained.

Likewise, Carnell Lake positively gushed about Shamarko Thomas after the Steelers drafted him in 2013, yet Shamarko Thomas was an unabashed bust as a strong safety.

And while it doesn’t get talked about as often, Steelers were attempting to groom Ryan Mundy for a more prominent role as a safety when Lake arrived, and that grooming continued until early in 2012 when Mundy got benched in favor of Will Allen, and the Steelers defense improved accordingly. Finally, Lake also spoke glowingly of Antwan Blake, a corner who perhaps wasn’t bad as a waiver wire pickup, but clearly never developed into starter material.

Did Carnell Lake Resign Voluntarily?

Juding a position coach soley on the development of his players isn’t quite fair. Dick Hoak was a fine running backs coach, but Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis probably didn’t need Hoak to get them to the Hall of Fame. Mike Whipple, Ken Anderson and Randy Fichtner have helped Ben Roethlisberger, but Ben supplied the raw materials to start with.

Both men quickly became starters, struggled a bit, but posted strong 2nd halves of their rookie years. Yet neither man appeared to make that fabled “2nd year developmental leap.” Word also broke that Mike Tomlin began taking over a larger role in the defensive backs meeting room.

Given the fact that Art Rooney II still hasn’t address the Pittsburgh press following the 2017 season, one can only suspect that Carnell Lake’s sudden resignation isn’t entirely voluntary, especially because Mike Tomlin had told Keith Butler and the rest of his defensive staff that they’d be returning.

Lake’s departure marks the 3rd major coaching change to Mike Tomlin’s staff, following the firing of Todd Haley and the retirement of Richard Mann.

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

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

Richard Mann, Steelers wide receivers coach richard mann

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

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

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

  • Then the games that counted started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one says that anymore.

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

Ward a Wise Choice to Replace Mann?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So word to the wise about welcoming Hines Ward back.

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Steelers 2017 Training Camp: 4 Question Pittsburgh Must Answer “Yes” to Bag Lombardi Number 7

As the Pittsburgh Steelers assemble for their 52nd training camp at St. Vincents in Latrobe, the franchise gathers with an unusual urgency. Everyone knows why. While smarting for yet another AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, Steelers signal caller Ben Roethlisberger uttered the dreaded “R” word last January.

  • The elephant in the room has been unmasked.

Super Bowl windows are notoriously hard to pry open and are wont to slam shut without warning. In the modern NFL, having a franchise quarterback forms a necessary, yet insufficient element to bringing home a Lombardi.

  • A quarterback can’t do it alone, even if his last name is Marnio, Elway, Brady and yes Roethlisberger.

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have known this and made their personnel choices accordingly since the Steelers rebuild began in earnest after 2012. The franchise returned to the playoffs in 2014, got a playoff win in 2015, and knocked on heaven’s door in 2016 only to be turned away.

Here are 4 Steelers 2017 Training Camp Questions whose answers will determine whether  Pittsburgh can bring home Lombardi Number 7 in 2017.

Beny Roethlisberger, Beny Roethlisberger St. Vincents, Steelers 2017 training camp

Can Ben Roethlisberger help Steelers bag Lombardi Number 7? Time will tell. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

1. Can Burns, Davis and Hargrave Avoid the Dreaded Sophomore Slump?

My, how times have changed. When decline of the Steelers defense became indisputable in 2013 commentators rightly pegged the dip to the to the 1,279 snaps logged by rookies during Dick LeBeau’s second to last year as defensive coordinator.

  • Three years later, it looked like rookies would write a similar story for Keith Butler’s second year as defensive coordinator.

People forget, but as Steelers scribe Carlos Ortega pointed out, at the middle of the 2016 the Steelers defense was on pace to match the 1988 Steelers defense’s records for futility. The turnaround of the Steelers defense on the back end of the 2016 is certainly one of the under-reported stories and it happened in large part because Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave stopped playing like rookies.

  • On paper, all three men will pick up right where they left off.

Think about it. Who were the only two Steelers to touch Tom Brady during the AFC Championship game? Davis and Hargrave. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler need these men to grow in their second years. And while that’s a reasonable expectation, it is far from a given.

Troy Edwards won the Steelers 1999 rookie of the year, and returned to training camp defended his lax training regimen by complaining that he couldn’t race air. Kendrell Bell looked like a Chad Brown, James Farrior, Ryan Shazier composite as a rookie 2001, but injuries and an unwillingness to learn coverage schemes surfaced at St. Vincents in the summer of 2002.

A sophomore slump by any of these stud 2016 rookies could have catastrophic consequences for the Steelers defense in 2017.

2. Can T.J. Watt (or perhaps Chickillo) Become Starter Capable at Outside Linebacker?

The emergence Burns, Davis and Hargrave only partially explains the Steelers 2016 defensive turnaround. The rest of the turn around was fueled by Bud Dupree’s return to the lineup and James Harrison’s promotion to starter.

  • James Harrison is, by definition, a living legend.

And if the 2016’s James Harrison wasn’t the same as the 2008 version of Harrison that won the NFL’s defensive player of the year award, he was still better than any other outside linebacker the Steelers had.

But it would be foolish for anyone to expect James Harrison to remain a 16 game 3 down, four quarter starter in 2017.

If the Steelers are to seriously contend for Lombardi number 7 in 2017, someone else must step up. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert drafted TJ Watt to be that man, and if OTAs are any indication, the linebacker clearly has the athletic skills. The Steelers need to use training camp to get him ready to contribute early and often.

The other alternative would be to see if Anthony Chickillo can contribute on the right side. That’s not something that Steelers coaches seem to be considering, but we suggested it last year and will do so again.

3. Can Senquez, Sensabaugh or Sutton Turn the Corner?

The narrative on Pittsburgh’s defense since getting torched by Aaron Rogers in Super Bowl XLV has been that the Steelers need to get better at cornerback. This narrative has played for so long that William Gay, one of the “culprits” in 2010, has gone from scapegoat to “Big Play Willie Gay” to a player whose skills are seen as being on the decline.

  • Keenan Lewis looked ready to break out in 2012, yet the Steelers let him go, gambling on Cortez Allen offering more “upside.”

Ike Taylor failed in his footrace with father time. Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin and Justin Gilbert came and went. If Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell give the Steelers two solid options as starting cornerbacks, the AFC Championship revealed their limits. But the depth behind him is simply unproven, save for William Gay whom many pundits argue should be gone.

The good news is that with Coty Sensabaugh, Senquez Golson, Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, the Steelers for the first time in a long time, bring some real quantity to training camp with them. If the Steelers are going to make a serious Super Bowl run, Carnell Lake must find a way to coax come quality out of that unit over the next few weeks on the grass of Chuck Noll Field.

4. Can the Steelers Build Viable Depth at Running Back Behind Bell?

It says here that any running back sets both regular season and playoff rushing single game rushing records that neither Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis could touch is special. But the self-life of NFL running backs is precariously short.

It also says here that the process of trying to extend Le’Veon Bell’s shelf life by limiting his carries a simple exercise on paper but a horrendously complicated endeavor when you try to do it in the heat of a game.

  • Did anyone really want to see Tomlin spell Le’Veon Bell with Fitzgerald Toussaint in his record setting performance over the Bills?

I don’t think so either. Regardless of whether he had a choice or not, Todd Haley over used Le’Veon Bell down the stretch in 2016. Yes, lack of a number two wide receiver to complement Antonio Brown had a lot to do with that, but the fact is the Steelers cupboard was bare at running back.

On paper, the Steelers have given themselves better options for improving running back depth in 2016, by saying goodbye to DeAngelo Williams, drafting James Conner, and signing Knile Davis. And Fitzgerald Toussiant will be back as well.

The days when the Steelers RB depth chart would read Bettis, Huntley, Zereoue, Fuamatu-Ma’afala and Witman, with some guy named on Kreider on the practice squad have ended and will never return. But the Steelers have rolled the dice for several seasons by going with an offensive backfield that was 2 or at and a half players deep.

  • And they’ve paid for it in the post season, in three straight years.

Even if Le’Veon Bell can stay completely healthy for a 19 straight games (yes, that’s counting on a 1st round playoff bye) Steelers running backs coach James Saxon needs to use his time at St. Vincents to establish solid depth behind his starter.

Has Ben Roethlisberger‘s Career Come Full Circle?

As a rookie, injuries forced Ben Roethlisberger into the lineup where he lead team that had finished 6-10 the season before to a 15-1 finish an a playoff run that ended with a AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots.

The loss was devastating to Jerome Bettis, who’d planned to retire and felt he’d lost his shot at a championship. On the sidelines, rookie Ben Roethlisberger implored “The Bus” to return, promising he’d get him his ring. Roethlisberger delivered as the Steelers triumphed in Super Bowl XL.

Now, as Roethlisberger contemplates parking his own bus, the question remains as to whether his teammates can deliver as he did for Bettis 12 years ago.

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3rd Time the Charm? Steelers Draft Cam Sutton in 3rd Round, Cornerback from Tennessee

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Cam Sutton in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft, adding the cornerback from Tennessee to a secondary desperate need of depth at corner.

  • Cornerback has been at the top of the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix seemingly every season since the Steelers loss to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV.

Slow development and salary cap miscalculations (see letting Keenan Lewis walk in favor of counting on Cortez Allen) attempts to get by with waiver wire pickups (see Antwon Blake), late draft picks (see Trent Hawthorne) and just plain bad luck (Senquez Golson) have created this seemingly chronic need at cornerback.

Cam Sutton, Steelers draft Cam Sutton, Steelers 2017 3rd round pick Cam Sutton

Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 3rd round pick Cam Sutton

While Steelers 1st round pick from the 2016 draft Artie Burns did have a strong second half to his rookie year, the Steelers still need help at corner.

According to Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake, Cam Sutton brings Pittsburgh:

Cameron is a press corner and plays close to the line of scrimmage but can also play off. He does a good job of mirroring the receiver. He stays close, and that shows in his productivity as a corner for Tennessee over the years in his career. He has led his team and is the all-time leader in passes defensed for Tennessee. He knows how to cover, he stays close, and that is something that we’ve been looking for in the draft. In the third round, he was available and that’s why we took him.

Cam Sutton stands at 5-11 1/4, weighs 188 pounds, but has short 30-inch arms and a 4.52 40 time, which explains why he stayed on the bard so long. At the NFL Combine he only benched only 11 times but did post Combine workouts saw him post decent numbers in the vertical jump (34), broad jump (10-0) and 3-cone (6.81). His shuttle time of 4.23 is acceptable.

Here is what his highlight tape tells us:

As you can see, he also has experience returning punts, so perhaps the Steelers can finally send someone other than Antonio Brown out there.

Cam Sutton brings the Steelers a wealth of experience, having started for four straight seasons for the Tennessee Volunteers, playing as their team captain during his senior year. Leadership is another asset which he can potentially bring to the Steelers secondary, as indicated by his response to the question of whether he sees himself as a coach on the field:

Most definitely. I was voted captain my senior year, but that leadership role is something I embraced over time in my four years in college. Usually when I first start off in a new area or team, I kind of want to sit back and observe the guys that are around me and kind of get a feel for the personalities. But I am a guy that seeks out those guys, and I have a different way of talking to people. Not every player you’re able to talk to the same way. I’m able to decipher those guys. Some you can harp on, some you have to pull to the side. I’m able to do that. Whatever gets the guys going the right direction helps us all be successful.

By picking Cam Sutton in the third round the Steelers have set themselves up for a traning camp competition at cornerback. Artie Burn and Ross Cockrell will open camp as starters, with William Gay probably penciled in as their slot corner, assuming the Steelers do not move Gay to safety.

Sutton will have a shot to compete with Senquez Golson and Coty Sensabaugh for right to challenge Gay for the nickleback position.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Cam Sutton.

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Ryan Shazier Wins Steelers Thanksgiving Honors for 2016 – Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

Thanksgiving has arrived!. Today may mark the 15th straight Thanksgiving that I have celebrated in Buenos Aires, for the first 21 years of my life, Thanksgiving either meant a trip to Pittsburgh or a visit from relatives in Pittsburgh.

  • Pennsylvania Turnpike notwithstanding, either event was a welcome occurrence, and truth be told, something I’ve missed as an adult.

During high school those Thanksgiving trips gave me the chance to read a week’s worth of accumulated Pittsburgh Press and Post Gazette coverage of the Steelers. In those pre-internet days, that was like Christmas come early.

The days of having to rely in imported printed copies Ed Bouchette to follow the Steelers are long over. For 7 years running now Steel Curtain Rising has been publishing an annual column highlighting reasons for Steelers Nation to give thanks. Here is how our Steelers Thanksgiving honors series has gone so far:

2009 – Saw Rashard Mendenhall win Steelers Thanksgiving honors
2010Maurkice Pouncey, Emmanuel Sanders, and Al Everest shared the honors
2011 Antonio Brown won Steelers Thanksgiving honors hands down
2012 – Attention turned to the emergence of Keenan Lewis
2013 – Stud in the making Cameron Heyward earned recognition
2014 – Honors went to Le’Veon Bell for his emergence as an All-Pro running back
2015 Steelers understudies earned Thanksgiving honors

Its also satisfying that even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight there’s no reason to regret any of our“ Steelers Thanksgiving honors” shout outs. Sure, Rashard Mendenhall might not have blossomed into the “franchise” running back he was picked to become, but Mendenhall played a huge role in getting the Steelers to the Super Bowl a year later.

Maurkice Pouncey has won Pro Bowl honors for each year he’s been healthy, Emmanuel Sanders is a first rate NFL wide out, and most fans would exchange Al Everest for Danny Smith as Steelers special teams coach. Antonio Brown is simply the best there is. Keenan Lewis did depart in free agency but honestly, have the Steelers had better play at cornerback since Keenan Lewis left?

Cameron Heyward has grown into the dominant player and leader on and off the field everyone thought he would be back at Thanksgiving 2013, and Le’Veon Bell is probably the most complete back in the NFL. And one year later, the 2015 contributions of DeAngelo Williams, Will Allen, Alejandro Villanueva and Cody Wallace look no less important to what the team accomplished a year ago.

With that in mind, we now turn our attention to this years Steelers Thanksgiving honors award.

Ryan Shazier Wins 2016 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors

It’s become cliché, but when the 2014 NFL Draft arrived the only question about the Steelers top choice was “Which cornerback will Pittsburgh take?” Of course the Steelers wanted Justin Gilbert (perhaps its good they didn’t get him), but when he wasn’t there, they shocked everyone (except Jim Wexell) by picking Ryan Shazier.

Given that the Steelers had Lawrence Timmons, and rising youngsters Vince Williams, Sean Spence and Terence Garvin, the moved struck many as a head scratcher.

  • Two and a half seasons later, no one who understands football should question the move.
Ryan Shazier, Josh McCown

Ryan Shazier sacks Josh McCown in the Steelers 2016 win over the Browns at Cleveland. Photo Credit: Cleveland.com

Josh McCown of the Cleveland Browns certainly understands why Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau called Shazier’s number in the 2014 NFL Draft.

Sure Shazier has spent more time than you’d like to see on the trainer’s table, but football is a violent sport. Sure Shazier might trail C.J. Mosley, who the Ravens took 2 picks later, in terms of sacks an interceptions.

But in addition to his uncanny athleticism, Ryan Shazier has shown that uncanny playmaking ability that paves the way for greatness:

While a lot of fans are down on Shazier, the simple fact is that he’s only broaching the beginnings of what he can do. This kid still has plenty of upside.

So for 2016, Steel Curtain Rising awards its Steelers Thanksgiving honors to Ryan Shazier, as he give Steelers Nation reason to give thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

Of course Thanksgiving is never been about football (although I do painfully remember the Thanksgiving day Massacre of 1983). It’s about things that are far more fundamentally important for life. Family, friends and faith.

  • Our sincere hope here at Steel Curtain Rising is anyone and everyone who reads this has reasons to give thanks that have nothing to do with either football or the Steelers.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in Steelers Nation.

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Panthers Bouncing Brandon Boykin Reinforces Fundamental Fact: Kevin Colbert Makes Good Decisions

Steelers OTA’s will bring a week of fresh news to Steelers Nation, as last week’s biggest “Steelers story” was the Carolina Panthers cutting Brandon Boykin less than two months after signing him to a one year $840,000 contract in favor of Shaquille Richardson.

  • Someday a college professor somewhere will write a paper about the role that the internet and social media play in sustaining Steelers Nation.

In the early ‘90’s a story like the Boykins, outside of Pittsburgh, would have merited maybe a line at two the “Transactions” column crammed at the back of a sports page. Don’t believe me? That’s how the Boston Globe treated the Panther’s decision to cut Barry Foster after the Steelers had traded him.

  • Today every Steelers site dutifully wrote their “Panthers cut former Steeler Brandon Boykin”  post
  • Steelers Nation simultaneously debated the decision on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat.

So be it. This isn’t a Watch Tower post, but rather one that shows how the Boykin story illustrates a basic point:

  • Kevin Colbert usually makes good personnel decisions.

Ah you say, but what about Dri Archer and Shamarko Thomas to name two recent, high profile draft day disappointments?

Fair enough. Kevin Colbert doubtlessly would like to have both draft picks back. But NFL drafting success is part art, part science and part blind luck. But when it comes to evaluating the talent on the Steelers roster, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are pretty good decision makers.

When Brandon Boykin signed with the Panthers, large swaths of Steelers Nation reacted as if the Steelers had just lost Rod Blount Boykin, to use a phrase coined by Dale Lolley. A case could be made for keeping Boykin, but he was no Rod Woodson or Mel Blount. Nor was he an Ike Taylor or even a Deshea Townsend.

  • Pittsburgh’s decision to go all in on Senquez Golson, Doran Grant and an unnamed draft pick (now Artie Burns) certainly carries risk for Steelers 2016 title hopes.

But now Ron Rivera and Dave Gettleman, two guys who just took their team to the Super Bowl, have made decided to trust in Shaquille Richardson over Brandon Boykin. Richardson, if you’ll remember, was the Steelers 2014 5th round draft pick who got cut in training camp and has yet to play a down of NFL football.

  • None of this should suggest that Kevin Colbert remains immune from making personnel mistakes.

That is hardly the case. The Steelers let Ryan Mundy go in 2013 and if his stat sheet is any guide, he’s had two solid seasons in New York and Chicago. That same off season, the Steelers gave up on Willie Colon due to his injury history and opted not to renew Doug Legursky’s contract. You’d better believe that when Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the year and Mike Adams couldn’t cut it at right tackle, Mike Tomlin wished he’d had either Colon or Legursky at his disposal

  • Keenan Lewis is another player the Steelers let get away in the 2013 off season that they wish they could have back.

But the decisions to let Mundy, Colon, Lewis and to some extent Legursky walk were as much or almost as much the result of salary cap restrictions as they were results of talent evaluations. That doesn’t exempt Colbert from criticism, because a general manager has to make those choices.

  • But outside of Lewis, Colon and Mundy, you’d be hard pressed to find someone the Steelers cut who thrived elsewhere.

What about Kraig Urbik?

Urbik is certainly one of the “ Ones that got away” from the Steelers 2009 draft class, but the Steelers wanted to keep Urbik, but were forced to expose him to the wavier wire because Byron Leftwich’s injury forced the Steelers to keep Charlie Batch on the roster during Ben Roethlisberger’s 2010 suspension. Urbik’s started 57 games for the Bills over the last six seasons, but the Steelers decision to keep Batch looked pretty smart when Dennis Dixon went down in week 2.

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin may miss on draft picks. They might overestimate the development potential of a player, such as Cortez Allen. They might trade for guys who disappoint, such as Levi Brown, Felix Jones or…. Brandon Boykin.

But when the Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin let a guy go, its not too often you’ll see the guy make a name for himself elsewhere.

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Steelers Release Cortez Allen

The experiment that was Cortez Allen as a starting cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers has officially come to an end.

As reported by various outlets–including the team’s official website–Allen, 27, was released on Friday after five seasons. According to UPI.com, Allen, who was scheduled to make $4.4 million in 2016, was let go after refusing to take a pay-cut.

Cortez Allen was the team’s fourth round pick out of The Citadel in the 2011 NFL Draft, and after showing a lot of promise near the end of the 2012 season–including two interceptions and a fumble recovery–and emerging as a starter in 2013, the front-office decided to reward him with a five-year contract extension prior to the 2014 season.

After watching Keenan Lewis, a third round pick in 2009, develop into perhaps the team’s best cornerback in 2012 and then leave via free-agency that offseason, Pittsburgh didn’t want to make the same mistake with Allen. Unfortunately, injuries and ineffective play stymied Allen’s 2014 season, and by the time the Steelers were marching towards the playoffs and their first AFC North crown in four years,  he had been surpassed on the cornerback depth chart by journeymen Antwon Blake and Brice McCain and was pretty much a non-factor.

  • The 2015 season would not prove to be a resurgence for Allen, as injuries reduced his season to just one game.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin pointedly refused to give Allen a vote of confidence in his season-ending press conference following the loss to the Broncos in the divisional round. And after months to think things over, Tomlin again hinted that Allen’s time with the team had pretty much come to an end when he addressed the media in March while in Boca Raton, Florida, for the annual owners’ meetings.

With Allen’s release following the free-agent departures of Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin, at the very least the Steelers will have to address their cornerback depth in the 2016 NFL Draft, which kicks off on April 28.

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Are the Steelers Pinning Too Much Hope on Senquez Golson? Kris Farris Offers Cautionary Tale

NFL owners meetings bring big news to Steelers Nation simply because they’re the only off season moment when Mike Tomlin talks to the press. At a recent meeting in Boca Raton, Tomlin offered unqualified praise for cornerback Senquez Golson:

We are excited about getting Senquez Golson back in the mix. I think oftentimes he is forgotten about. We were excited about him a year ago when we drafted him. I still share that same level of excitement. I can’t wait to get him on the grass.

Mike Tomlin’s embrace of Senquez Golson is both revealing and alarming. The 2015 Steelers weak spot was cornerback and it remains so a month into free agency with Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin departing.

However, last spring plays like the one below prompted the Pittsburgh Steelers to pick Senquez Golson with their 2nd round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

The athleticism, tracking ability and discipline Golson reveals in the play would leave any coach licking his chops. But Golson unfortunately course injured his shoulder in Steelers OTA’s last year, sat out training camp on the PUP list, and lost his rookie season to shoulder surgery.

  • The headline, “Rookie season lost to injury” sounds ominous, but should it?

Starting your career on injured reserve is hardly ideal, but several Seelers have bounced such setbacks.

sean spence, injury, 2012 preseason, steelers, carolina panthers

Sean Spence is injured during the 2012 preseason

Sean Spence lost his first two years to injury, yet Spence was starting for the injured Ryan Shazier by week 4 of 2014. Keenan Lewis suited up for a handful of games in 2009, but his rookie season was marred by injury. Lewis didn’t do much in 2010 either. He flashed little in 2011, and by 2012 he’d improved so much he became the guy the Steelers couldn’t afford to keep.

A torn ACL cost the legendary Greg Lloyd his rookie season, and another knee injury cost him the first half of his second season. Yet by the end of 1988, Lloyd was pushing for starting time, and going into 1989 NFL Draft, Greg Lloyd had made the reigning single season sack leader Mike Merriweather expendable.

Mike Tomlin’s faith in Golson is hardly unprecedented. However, placing too much hope in a rookie’s ability to bounce back from injury is generally a mistake, and the case of Kris Farris reveals why.

The Cautionary Case of Outland Trophy Winner Kris Farris

The Steelers offensive line needed help in 1999. Badly. When Jerome Bettis had arrived via trade in 1996, he proclaimed that running behind the Steelers offensive line was “Like running down hill.” But by 1999, the line had lost Leon Searcy, John Jackson, Justin Strzelczyk, Will Wolford to free agency, injury and retirement.

Worse yet, Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe had swung and missed badly in attempting to replace them by drafting Jamain Stephens, Paul Wiggins and Chris Conrad.

  • Drafting the 1999 Outland Trophy winner would appear to be a sure bet to snap that streak, if only the Steelers got the chance.

The Steelers got that chance in the third round of the 1999 NFL Draft, taking the Outland Trophy winner Kris Farris the middle of their trio of 3rd round picks that year.

But during rookie workouts Farris’ foot began to get sore. At first he’d be OK after a few minutes, but each day it took longer to feel normal. Farris aggravated the injury on Memorial Day, sat out veteran mini-camp, and took it easy, hoping the rest would ready him for St. Vincents.

Kris Farris, not wanting to beg off of Bill Cowher’s annual run test, told the Steelers he was 90 to 95%. Farris gave it his all, but when it was all over a concerned Kordell Stewart and Jerome Bettis approached him because he looked so pale.

  • Farris tried to make a go of it in the first full pads practice of Camp Cowher 1999, but could not finish.

Subsequent MRI’s reveal cracks and then a full hairline fracture in his foot. The Steelers put Kris Farris on season-ending injured reserve, and hoped for the best.

During the 1999 season, the Steelers offensive line’s decline accelerated as as coaches alternated between Anthony Brown and Chris Conrad to see who would was “less worse.” In bars throughout Steelers Nation, fans shook their heads asking, “If only we had Kris Farris…..”

Kris Farris returned to St. Vincents with the Steelers in the summer of 2000, but earned reputation for “being soft” and Steelers cut Farris  trimmed their roster to 70.

The Bengals picked him up, but he was unable hold a roster spot in Cincinnati. Tom Donahoe brought Farris to Buffalo in 2001, did manage to play 3 games in 2001 but, in an cruelly ironic moment, Farris broke his leg in a 20-3 loss to the Steelers. Sadly, Farris never played football again.

  • The moral of the story isn’t that the Steelers can’t improve at cornerback from 2015 to 2016.

Despite that disappointment, the 2000 Steelers were far stronger at right tackle with rookie Marvel Smith, 1999’s third stringer Shar Pourdanesh and Larry Tharpe been out of football in 1999, but whom Kevin Colbert knew from his Detroit days.

But Kris Farris’ story also should serve as a caution against the Steelers pinning too many of their hopes for improving at cornerback on Senquez Golsen.

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Is 2016 the Year the Steelers Make a Splash in Free Agency?

Is 2016 the year the Pittsburgh Steelers make a splash in free agency?

  • ….Probably not. The Steelers never make a significant splash in free-agency, but this doesn’t mean they can’t make some moves that fans will feel good about.

Two years ago, the signings of safety Mike Mitchell and reserve running back LeGarrette Blount were met with great enthusiasm, especially after a few off seasons of financial blood-lettings that included the departure of promising corner Keenan Lewis and the release of veteran linebacker James Harrison in 2013.

All those years of cap massaging finally left Pittsburgh with no space at all, and the 2013 offseason was certainly a depressing time, complete with the inevitability that the upcoming regular season was going to be a bit of a downer, which it was–at least the 2-6 first half.

Obviously, Mitchell, who was injured, didn’t do much in 2014 but draw the ire of fans for his underwhelming play; Blount ultimately drew the wrath of teammates, coaches and, of course, the fans for his actions that included smoking a joint with Le’Veon Bell the day before an exhibition game in August and walking off the field moments ahead of the rest of his team near the end of the Steelers Monday night win over the Tennessee Titans.

But while the moves didn’t do much to help the 2014 team, they were good in-theory, and Pittsburgh’s 2015 free-agent running back do-over that was the signing of long-time Panthers’ veteran (and good guy) DeAngelo Williams more than made up for the gamble on Blount.

Due to a suspension and season-ending knee injury, Bell wound up only playing in six regular season games. In his place, Williams, who responded to a challenge by head coach Mike Tomlin and came to training camp in the best shape in years, started 10 games and rushed for 907 yards (the third-highest total of his already accomplished career).

As for Mitchell’s 2015 regular season, it was significantly better and the kind of upgrade over the retired Ryan Clark that everyone initially envisioned when he came on board the year before.

According to to the website Over the Cap, the Steelers have approximately $11.3 million of cap space, heading into free-agency.

  • That’s a fair amount, but certainly not enough to go after one significant player. But that’s okay, because football is a team sport.

While fans and the media like to fall all over themselves this time of year, after downtrodden organizations with a lot of room like the Buccaneers and Jaguars sign big names, the fact is, the smart moves can often make the biggest difference.

For the Steelers, maybe those smart moves will simply be re-signing guard Ramon Foster and/or cornerback William Gay. Maybe it’s going out and finding a dependable, veteran tight end who, if he doesn’t start in place of the young Jesse James, could be an upgrade over Matt Spaeth. How about finding a reserve defensive lineman that is an improvement over Cam Thomas?

None of these moves would get the Steelers added to any list of free-agent “winners,” but championships are won in January and February, not March and April.

A small ripple doesn’t have the same kind of initial impact as a big splash, but, in the long run, it can often be more effective.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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