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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Big Play Willie Gay to Stay! Steelers Resign William Gay to 3 Year Contract

With the start of free agency less than 24 hours away, the Pittsburgh Steelers have left zero ambiguity over what their priorities are. The Steelers have resigned 3 of their own players. First came safety Robert Golden. Then wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey.

  • And now they’ve signed cornerback William Gay to a 3 year contract.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but William Gay communicated the word via his Instagram account and his agent confirmed it to members of the press.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BCstanIjBUs/

  • The Steelers also confirmed the report on their website.

By resigning William Gay and Robert Golden, the Pittsburgh Steelers have locked down two of potential starters from their secondary before they even hit the free agent market. That still leaves the Steelers needing help at both safety and cornerback.

Veteran safety Will Allen could retire and Shamarko Thomas has little more than disappoint since the Steelers traded up to get him in the 2013 NFL Draft. At cornerback, Cortez Allen has been an even bigger disappointment while Brandon Boykin and Antwon Blake are both free agents. Behind them the Steelers have rookies Senquez Golsen and Doran Grant, neither of whom played a down in 2015.

In William Gay, the Steelers have battle tested veteran, who owns a Super Bowl ring and can command respect on and off the field.

What a Difference 4 Years Makes

Both William Gay and the Steelers have been here before. In 2011 following the NFL lockout, the Steelers offered Gay a second contract, but at the time Gay was a number 3 corner who’d struggled as a starter and essentially got a “prove it” contract.

Gay’s play improved tremendously in 2011, yet the Steelers let him walk because of promising development of Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen.

Keenan Lewis developed as promised, but the Steelers had limited salary cap space and let Lewis go, banking heavily on on Cortez Allen surpassing Keenan Lewis.

The Arizona Cardinals cut William Gay after one season, and the Steelers almost immediately resigned him. Although Gay was only getting 1.5 million per year, far below starter money for the Steelers, William Gay has been a veritable big play machine since returning five interceptions for touchdowns, which ties Rod Woodson‘s  career total with the Steelers.

  • There is some risk in signing a 31 year old cornerback to a 3 year contract.

But skeptical fans should keep in mind that Rod Woodson intercepted 15 passes in the three seasons following his 31st birthday. Unfortunately, only six of those were with the Steelers as Tom Donahoe allowed him to depart as a free agent. To this day, Dan Rooney publicly regrets letting go of Rod Woodson.

While no one here is predicting a Hall of Fame career for William Gay, the Steelers have made sure he won’t follow Rod Woodson’s footsteps by playing some of his best ball in another uniform.

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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Shoulder Surgery May Jeopardize Senquez Golson Rookie Season

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is reporting that Pittsburgh Steelers second round pick Senquez Golson could be facing shoulder surgery which would end his rookie season before it even begins.

The Steelers picked Golson in the 2015 NFL draft due to his tremendous ball-hawking skills, Golson nabbed 10 interceptions last year while playing for the Old Miss, despite his 5’9” size. While no one was projecting or expecting that Senquez Golson would push for a starting job, the Steelers had planed to use him in the slot.

  • Golson participated in all of the Steelers OTA’s and mini-camps without incident, but later informed coaches that he felt he injured his shoulder during those sessions.

Golson was one of 5 Steelers to begin training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, and has not suited up for practice.

Concern about the availability of Golson apparently contributed to the Steelers decision to trade for Brandon Boykin over the weekend. Brandon Boykin, like Golson, is another short cornerback who has a knack for coming down with the ball.

Golson to Continue Recent Steelers Rookie Tradition?

If Senquez Golson’s rookie season is lost to shoulder surgery it starts, he will be following in the footsteps of a number of prominent rookies during the Mike Tomlin era. In 2012, David DeCastro and Sean Spence both began the season on IR, although DeCastro returned late in the season. A year before Baron Batch’s rookie season ended on the fields of St. Vincents. Prior to that, Chris Scott, a 5th round draft pick from 2010, injured himself weight lifting in June of that year and was lost for the season.

Lawrence Timmons, Keenan Lewis, Frank “The Tank” Summers, Ryan Shazier and Markus Wheaton all saw their rookie seasons seriously curtailed by injuries.

Rookies losing valuable time to injuries is not “tradition” that anyone would wish to emulate, but unfortunately it does seem like it will continue in 2015 at the very least.

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The Colbert Record: Steelers Third Round Draft History Under Kevin Colbert

Steel Curtain Rising’s annual installment of the Colbert Record began this morning with our evaluation of Kevin Colbert’s performance in the the Steelers 2010 Draft.

Now that the Steelers have drafted Bud Dupree with their first pick, focus shifts to day two of the 2015 NFL Draft which brings us to the third round. Accordingly, Steel Curtain Rising shines a light on Kevin Colbert’s draft record with third round picks.

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

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Tom Donahoe Leaves Kevin Colbert Tough Third Round Act to Follow

The NFL Draft’s third round is often called “the value round” as that is the spot in the draft where you still have a high probability of finding and impact player, yet the risk associated with missing on a third rounder is lower than the first and second rounds.

  • The NFL Draft’s third round was the Steelers money round during Tom Donahoe’s tenure.

Colbert’s predecessor simply excelled in the third round drafting Joey Porter, Hines Ward, Amos Zereoue, Mike Vrable, Jon Witman, Brenden Stai, Jason Gildon, Bam Morris, Andre Hastings, and.

Donahoe and Bill Cowher’s Steelers did draft a few busts in the third round – Kris Farris, Chris Conrad, Steven Conley and Paul Wiggins all come to mind, but looking look across the 8 Donahoe-Cowher drafts  and you’ll literally cannot find a year in which the third round was a total loss for the Steelers.

How well has Kevin Colbert done by comparison? Time to find out.

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Steelers 2000 3rd Round Draft Picks – Kendrick Clancy and Hank Poeat

Joel Steed remains an overlooked key to the 90’s Blitzburgh defenses, but his abrupt in January 2000 left newly arrived Kevin Colbert with a gaping hole to fill in the Steelers defense. First Colbert’s signed Kimo von Oelhoffen and second he drafted Kendrick Clancy in the third round of the 2000 NFL Draft.

Clancy played in nine games as a rookie. In 2001 he actually kept Casey Hampton on the bench – for three games, before yielding the starting spot. Clancy never started another game in Pittsburgh, but he played in 15 games in 2000 and 17 games in 2002 and 2003. The Steelers cut him in 2004, but brought him back after Hampton torn his ACL. Clancy went on to play – and start, for the Giants, Cardinals, and Saints, playing all the way until 2009.

It’s hard to call a guy a “bust” because he couldn’t beat out Casey Hampton and Kendrick Clancy certainly wasn’t a bad pick. But still you expect more from a third rounder. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Kevin Colbert used his second third round pick in 2000 on Hank Poeat, a cornerback from Pitt. Yet Poeat’s primary contribution in Pittsburgh was as a kick returner, where he excelled as a rookie, returning a punt for a touchdown in the Steelers final game at Three Rivers Stadium.

But Poeat’s fortunes as a return man declined after 2000, and he never made an impact as a corner. The Steelers let him go after 2003, but Poteat played for Tampa Bay, New England, the New York Jets, and the Cleveland Browns until retiring in 2009. Grade: Disappointment

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Steelers 2001 3rd Round Draft Pick – Forfeited

When the Steelers signed Will Wolford to play guard in 1996 his contract contained a stipulating that Wolford got an extra $500,000 if he got switched to tackle. The page of paper that that clause was typed on (yes, typed) got lost, but Dan Rooney remembered it, and the Steelers honored their word to Wolford.

Unfortunately, paying that extra $500,000 resulted in a salary cap violation, which the Steelers turned themselves in for. As a result, they lost their third round pick in 2001.

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Steelers 2002 3rd Round Draft Pick – Chris Hope

The Steelers drafted Chris Hope in 2002 with an eye towards replacing Bret Alexander, who was turning 31. Hope neither started as a rookie nor as a sophomore, but earned a starting slot by his 3rd year, which was 2004 the year the Steelers went 15-1 and had the NFL’s number 1 defense.

Hope returned to start 16 regular season games in 2005 and started throughout the playoffs, playing his last game for the Steelers in Super Bowl XL. The Steelers never really felt that Hope was a long-term answer at safety – and Ryan Clark represented an upgrade there – but he did what a third round pick should do – develop into a reliable starter. Grade: Quality Value Pick

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Steelers 2003 3rd Round Draft Pick – Traded to Kansas City

The Steelers didn’t have a third round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft because Kevin Colbert traded it to Kansas City, as part of moving up to take Troy Polamalu….

…That was perhaps his wisest draft day decision.

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Steelers 2004 3rd Round Draft Pick – Max Starks

Kevin Colbert’s third round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, Max Starks, has perhaps the most colorful history of any in the group.

Max Starks gets knocked around a lot. He even had doubters on both Bill Cowher’s final coaching staff in 2006, which carried over to Mike Tomlin’s initial staff in 2007. The Steelers front office disagreed, making Starks their transition player in 2008. The coaching staff was unmoved, starting the season with Starks on the bench in 2008, and even giving Trai Essex the initial nod when Marvel Smith went down in the critical Steelers 2008 road win over Jacksonville.

It says here that Max Starks saved the Steelers season in 2008. Arguably, he did it again in 2011 and one can shudder to think of what would have happened had the Steelers not brought him back in 2012. Max Starks started 2 in Super Bowl XL and again in Super Bowl XLIII. Can you really ask more of a third round pick? Grade: Quality Value Pick

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Steelers 2005 3rd Round Draft Pick – Trai Essex

Kevin Colbert again went the tackle round in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft, this time picking Trai Essex.

 

Essex never developed into a full time starter at tackle, nor could he hold down the starting job at guard. But Trai Essex became a valuable 6th lineman who was able to back up at all five positions on the line. While that’s commendable, you do expect a third round pick to become a starter. Essex never quite fit that bill. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

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Steelers 2006 3rd Round Draft Picks — Anthony Smith, Willie Reid

Bill Cowher’s last draft left a lot to be desired particularly in the third round. First the Steelers drafted Anthony Smith. Smith was a hard hitter.

But he was an even bigger prima donna, showboating after a big play in 2006, and then moronically guaranteeing victory prior to the Steelers game vs. New England in 2007, only to have Tom Brady torch him with relish. He also injured a player in during the 2008 training camp, drawing Mike Tomlin’s ire. There’s a word for players like this. Grade: Bust

Willie Reid, the Steelers second 3rd round pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, didn’t generate the ink that Anthony Smith did, but he was just as disappointing. He appeared in 1 game as a rookie returning 1 kick and 1 punt in a loss vs. San Diego. He returned six more kicks in 2007 and caught 4 passes in that season then was done. Grade: Bust

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Steelers 2007 3rd Round Draft Pick – Matt Spaeth

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin surprised a lot of people when they picked Matt Spaeth in the third round of the 2007 NFL Draft. And since that time it has become clear that the Steelers picked Matt Spaeth too early. That’s not a knock on Spaeth per se. It’s not his fault he was drafted so early. But he really never delivered value commensurate with his status as a third round pick.

Certainly, the Steelers have a quality second tight end in Matt Spaeth. His blocking has been a critical element to Le’Veon Bell’s success. And he’s far underutilized in the passing game. But third round picks should perform at a higher level. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

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Steelers 2008 3rd Round Draft Pick – Bruce Davis

During training camp 2008, Jim Wexell reported in Steelers Digest that Mike Tomlin would pit Tony Hills and Bruce Davis together in one-on-ones while yelling, “I’m going to make a player out of one of you, I just don’t know which one yet.” The infamous Steelers 2008 Draft Class will go down as Colbert’s worst, with perhaps Bruce Davis serving as the poster boy.

  • As it turns out, Tomlin failed to make a player out of either man.

The Steelers drafted Bruce Davis as an outside linebacker, but he only played in 5 games on special teams, and he couldn’t cut it there. The Steelers wasted little time in cutting him in training camp the next summer. Davis resurfaced with the Raiders in 2010 and 2011 were he recorded 4 tackles in 10 games, and then Cincinnati in 2012 although he never played for the Bengals. Grade: Bust

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Steelers 2009 3rd Round Draft Picks – Kraig Urbik, Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis

As a rookie Kraig Urbik didn’t play a down, but the Steelers had high hopes for him as they saw great progress in his second summer at St. Vincents. Word was that Urbik, a guard, skills as a back up center were part of what sent Justin Hartwig to the waiver wire. Alas, Byron Leftwich’s preseason injury forced the Steelers to keep Charlie Batch on the roster, and that meant Urbik had to go.

The Steelers wanted to sneak him onto the practice squad, but the Buffalo Bills had other ideas. Urbik has started 53 of 69 games for them since then…. Grade: Farm Team

The Steelers knew Hines Ward’s time was coming to an end by 2009, and drafted Mike Wallace with the second of their 3 third round picks. While the decision not to offer Mike Wallace a long-term deal was controversial at the time, the Steelers wisdom in choosing Antoinio Brown instead has been vindicated.

But that doesn’t alter the evaluation of Mike Wallace as a draft pick, because he it was an excellent pick. Wallace made an immediate impact as a rookie, posted in inhuman yards-per-catch average in his first season as starter, and was a legit home run threat on every play. The drop off in his play during his second two years does impact his overall grade, but clearly Colbert made the right pick here. Grade: Over Performer

With their final 3rd round pick in 2009 NFL Draft the Steelers picked Keenan Lewis. Lewis was a late bloomer, as injuries ruined and Joe Burnett kept him off the field. 2010 was little better, as Lewis disappointed. Carnell Lake personally oversaw his rehabilitation, and Lewis began to work himself into a quality corner in 2011 and established himself as the starter by 2012.

 

The Steelers did get some value out of Lewis before he left via free agency, but just a little short of what you’d expect and need as a third round pick. Had he stayed in Pittsburgh, his grade would be higher, but this draft evaluation only covers performance of players as Steelers. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

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Steelers 2010 3rd Round Draft Pick – Emmanuel Sanders

The third round pick in 2010 of Emmanuel Sanders got covered in our analysis of the Steelers 2010 NFL Draft. Emmanuel Sanders impressed coaches as a rookie, even keeping Antonio Brown on the bench early in the season, with Mike Tomlin invoking the “Two dogs one bone” metaphor. Sanders got hurt in Super Bowl XLV, and injury that Bruce Arians said hurt the team’s game plan.

Injuries limited Sanders in 2011 and then again in 2012, but he emerged as a full time starter in 2013 and made the most of his opportunity. The Steelers optned not to resign him, but Sanders was still a quality third round pickup. Grade: Quality Value Pick+

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Steelers 2011 3rd Round Draft Pick – Curtis Brown

Super Bowl XLV made it glaringly clear that the Steelers needed to improve at cornerback, and Kevin Colbert addressed the position in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft by picking Curtis Brown….

…And he undoubtedly regrets the pick to this very day.

As a rookie, Brown forced a fumble during an ugly Steelers loss vs. Houston. He apparently played well on special teams, but it was Cortez Allen who saw action at corner. Brown never started a game, but saw a lot of action as a nickel back vs. San Diego in 2012, which was one of the most horrific performances by the Steelers of the Tomlin era. Brown only played in 7 games in 2013 and the Steelers gave up on him after that. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2012 3rd Round Draft Pick – Sean Spence

The Steelers had already parted ways with James Farrior and were looking to groom a replacement for Larry Foote by the time the 2012 NFL Draft arrived. Kevin Colbert picked Sean Spence out of Miami. Early in preseason, Spence looked like a stud in the making. Then disaster struck, costing Spence not only his rookie year, but also his sophomore year.

Nonetheless, Spence returned for his third season, and started nine games splitting time with Vince Williams after Ryan Shazier’s injury. Spence helped force a fumble in the Steelers 2nd quarter explosion vs. Houston, and recorded a sack vs. Cincinnati. Any formal grade on Spence will need to wait, but he looks like a solid pick up on Colbert’s part. Grade: Too Early To Tell

Steelers 2013 3rd Round Draft Pick – Markus Wheaton

Kevin Colbert drafted Markus Wheaton in the 2013 NFL Draft with an eye towards replacing Mike Wallace and the soon to depart Emmanuel Sanders. Wheaton did next to nothing as a rookie, but he did earn the starting nod in 2014 and turned in a solid season.

 

Wheaton might not have gotten the ink that Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant get, but he made a lot of key catches. Again, one season as a starter is NOT enough to evaluate a player, but right now he has the look of a quality value pick, if not more. Grade: Too Early to Tell

Steelers 2014 3rd Round Draft Pick – Dri Archer

The Steelers traded their 2014 third round pick to get Shamarko Thomas in 2013, but got a compensatory pick for losing Mike Wallace. They used it on Dri Archer, who was the fastest man in the 2014 NFL Draft. The Steelers idea was to use Archer as a kick returner and utility back/wide receiver in the mold of Eric Metcalf (yes, I just dated myself!)….

It’s way, way too early to write off Dri Archer, but his rookie year can only be described as disappointing. Grade: Too Early to Tell

Conclusion – Kevin Colbert’s Checkered Third Round Record

The NFL Draft’s third round has not been as kind to Kevin Colbert as it was Tom Donahoe. Which is OK, as Colbert’s money round has been the first round of the NFL Draft.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers draft

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin discuss the Steelers Draft

Still, Colbert is charged with making the right pick in each round, and the record shows that he’s done it several times for the Steelers, most notably with Emmanuel Sanders, Chris Hope, Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis.

However, Colbert has had his share of under performing third round picks, and he’s picked more than one outright bust with both Cowher and Tomlin (see Willie Reid Davis and Curtis Brown.)

While its too early to tell on some of his later picks, the arrow does appear to be trending up for Colbert’s third round record, but for now his grade must reflect a balance between his 3rd round successes and 3rd round failures. Grade: C+

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Steelers Secondary Coach Carnell Lake: Revisiting the “Lake Effect”

With Dick LeBeau officially out and Keith Butler officially in at defensive coordinator slot, focus should now shift to Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake and the so-called “Lake Effect.”

No matter how Dick LeBeau apologists (of which I am one) attempt to dress it up, the Steelers defense has been in decline for years. While the question of whether aging talent or poor coaching fueled the decline is now irrelevant, the question of what actually defined the decline is not.

Seriously.

If you take total yards allowed as your metric of choice, the Steelers defense really only started to slip in 2013, having finished number 1 overall in 2011 and 2012, before slipping to 13th in 2013 and 18th in 2014.

But expand choice of metrics just a bit, and you’ll see that the roots of the Steelers decline on defense dig deeply into 2011. And there’s where the tale gets complicated….

Super Bowl XLV Exposes Steelers Secondary as Glaring Weakness

The 2011 NFL Lockout created an off season void, which Steelers Nation largely filled for itself by repeating what became accepted as iron-clad fact:

  • In Super Bowl XLV, Aaron Rodgers exposed the Steelers secondary and specifically its corners as Pittsburgh’s Achilles Heel.

It followed then that Bryant McFadden was a failure, Ike Taylor was slipping, Keenan Lewis was a bust, and William Gay a waste of a roster spot. Respected Steelers author and blogger, Tim Gleason aka “Mary Rose” of Behind the Steel Curtain went so far as to suggest that Art Rooney II order Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin to take a cornerback in the first round of the draft.

It was settled then. The Steelers needed to upgrade at corner, and they need to do it fast….

Steelers Pass Defense Rebounds in 2011 and 2012. But…

2011’s Debacle in Baltimore introduced “Old, Slow and Done” into NFL’s lexicon for discussing the Steelers. Yet it only 4 games into the season my friend and colleague at BTSC Ivan Cole (full disclosure, I also write for BTSC) noted a trend.

The Steelers pass defense wasn’t playing so badly. And in fact William Gay was playing pretty well. And Keenan Lewis, who’d been written off as a draft-day mistake, began to show signs of life. Ivan had a name for this. He called it, “The Lake Effect.”

Gauging the role of position coaches in player development is tricky.

  • Yet Carnell Lake’s tutelage undoubtedly had an impact on these young men’s careers.

Another BTSC scribe, Rebecca Rollet, documented how Steelers coaches had essentially given up on Keenan Lewis before Lake arrived on the South Side.

Today William Gay is the unquestioned leader of the Steelers secondary, boasting more pick sixes in a season than Mel Blount had in his career, while fans (and perhaps the front office as well as the coaches) universally lament letting Keenan Lewis get away.

Beyond those individual accomplishments, during the first two seasons following Lake’s arrival, the Steelers pass defense ranked number despite the absence of a consistent pass rush.

So Carnell Lake is an unqualified success as Steelers secondary coach right? Not so fast.

Turnovers Scarce for Steelers Secondary

Another trend emerged in 2011 alongside the “Lake Effect,” and it’s one that continues today – namely a chronic inability on the part of the Steelers defense to produce turnovers. Interceptions are only one half of the turnover equation, they’re an important part.

And while interceptions can come from the defensive line or linebackers, often to great effect (see Brett Keisel vs. Houston), they’re the primary responsibility of the secondary. Numbers do not like on that measure, Lake doesn’t look so good:

steelers, interceptions, mike tomlin, carnell lake, secondary, corner, dick lebeau

Picks in short supply for Steelers secondary

Graphically, the trends are even more dramatic (note, inverse values have been used to chart the Steelers NFL rank in order to achieve visual congruity):

steelers, interceptions, turnovers, tomlim, carnell lake, dick lebeau, ray horton

Steelers interceptions, by number and by rank

Looking at the numbers as a whole, it is clear that Pittsburgh has had trouble intercepting the ball throughout Tomlin’s tenure, with 2008 and 2010 standing out as exceptions. But even if the roots of the problem stretch back to Ray Horton’s tenure as defensive coordinator, the Steelers worst performances have come during Lake’s time.

In another era, the term “Number One Defense” meant yards allowed. But today, both thanks to information technology and to the way the game’s evolved itself, defenses are measured by points allowed and increasingly, by their ability to take the ball away.

The Steelers have struggled to do that. The struggle didn’t begin with Carnell Lake, but he hasn’t improve the situation either.

Of Cortez, Brice and Blake….

Cortez Allen was an unmitigated disaster for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2014. He was supposed to be the secondary’s savior, instead he was put on injured reserve because the team needed his roster spot. Shamarko Thomas was also expected to push for time at safety, but couldn’t get off special teams. While it is unfair to hang that on Lake’s neck, neither Allen nor Thomas are not one of his success stories…

  • For those you can look to the men who played in their places.

Brice McCain and Antwon Blake arrived at Latrobe as two players salvaged from the NFL’s scrapheap fighting for a roster spot. They finished the regular season by making the turnovers the Steelers needed to secure victory over the Bengals, and ultimately the AFC North Championship.

  • Again, we don’t know how much impact Lake’s had in their growth.

But we do know its Lake’s job to guide it, and he didn’t bat an eye in mentioning Blake’s name when asked why the Steelers didn’t take a corner early in the 2014 NFL Draft. Do two better than expected corners make up for the Cortez Allen disappointment? Do they vindicate Mr. Cole’s “Lake Effect Thesis.”

Who knows?

But Keith Butler is going to need to find a way to get the Steelers to produce more turnovers, and he’ll need to determine of Carnell Lake is capable of coaching the secondary to help do that. Butler’s choice will be interesting.

 

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Keenan Lewis Returns to Pittsburgh; Should the Steelers Have Kept Him?

Keenan Lewis returns to Pittsburgh with the Saints this weekend, which begs the question – should the Steelers have kept him?

  • The answer doesn’t require a lot of football wisdom, nor does one need the proverbial “20/20 hindsight to answer it.”

The answer was crystal clear in during the Steelers 2013 off season – in a perfect world the Steelers should have and probably would have resigned Lewis.

The Steelers drafted Lewis in the 3rd round of the 2009 NFL draft, but his first year in Pittsburgh was lost to injury. Lewis struggled in his second year, but under the tutelage of Carnell Lake, Lewis showed signs of life in 2011, and had a breakout season in 2012.

Ike Taylor had played well in 2012, but was already pushing 33 in a position that is decidedly a young man’s game.

  • In pure football terms, bringing back Lewis would have been a no-brainer.

The problem was the Steelers only had 2 million dollars in salary cap space, the 4th worst in the NFL. To gain breathing room the Steelers needed to restructure multiple contracts, and cut James Harrison and cut Willie Colon.

  • This forced Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan to delve into the NFL’s variant of “Dollar Ball.”

They resigned William Gay and they placed their faith in the development Cortez Allen, who in just 3 starts accounted for six turnovers.

Personnel success in the salary cap isn’t about simple talent evaluation, its about getting the best bang for your salary cap buck. By signing Gay instead of even more painful salary cap cuts needed to make an offer to Lewis, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomin gambled that they’d come out ahead.

As Keenan Lewis returns to Pittsburgh, its time to put that decision under the microscope

Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, Ike Taylor and William Gay Compared

keenan lewis, cortez allen, ike taylor, william gay, steelers, saints, pittsburgh, new oreleans

Lewis, Allen, Taylor and Gay Compared, 2012-2014

Keenan Lewis had a very strong year in 2013 for the Saints, coming down with four picks and 1 forced fumble. There’s an irony there, because the word was the Steelers brass favored Allen precisely because he was better at creating turnovers.

Allen, for his part has four picks between 2013 and 2014, and had an equal number of passes defensed in 2013. Still, those numbers do not indicate his struggles, particularly in this year where he’s been so bad he got benched.

  • However, judging by the numbers, here in 2014 Lewis play has dropped off. He’s got only 1 interception and as many passes defensed as Allen.

Ike Taylor struggled in 2013 in ways the numbers don’t show. Here in 2014 he played well vs. Baltimore and was strong vs. Carolina, but has been hurt since then. While its no indictment on him as a player, you don’t get much for your salary cap buck when your guys are in street clothes on the sideline.

  • William Gay presents the most interesting case of all four.

With a cap number of 1.6 million, Gay is easily the cheapest of the four and perhaps his production has been the most consistent. Gay’s had 2 pick sixes this year, another in 2013, and while his pass defense numbers don’t look good, he made a key stop vs. Cleveland in the opener.

So as Keenan Lewis returns to Pittsburgh, it is still fair to say the Steelers should have signed him, but its also fair to say that in salary cap terms they’ve managed well nonetheless – although that analysis could change in future years. It is an open question as to whether Allen rebounds from a bad 2014, but his salary cap number is headed up regardless.

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Steelers Defense “Band Back Together” vs. Saints – Is That a Good Thing…?

For the Steelers Defense, the “Band Is Back Together” vs. the Saints as, something will occur that has not happened since Pittsburgh’s 2012 road victory vs. BaltimoreIke Taylor, James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, William Gay, and Brett Keisel will play together once again.

It’s an interesting twist of fate for a franchise that worked diligently to shake the “Old, slow and done” moniker that followed the 2011 opening day Debacle in Baltimore.

  • Does it, however, mean that the Steelers youth movement on defense has in fact failed?

On the surface, that’s the easy conclusion. Ziggy Hood was drafted to replace Aaron Smith and fell short. They Steelers brought a lot of young defensive lineman to Latrobe, but ended up bringing Keisel back.

Brett Keisel, steelers, defense, veterans

At 36, Brett Keisel is Still Going Strong

Keenan Lewis was good enough to start at corner, but the Steelers lacked the salary cap space to sign him. They resigned William Gay instead, while Cortez Allen has been benched.

Troy Polamlau signed a multi-year extension the day before the Debacle in Baltimore, and rightly or wrongly many characterized Polamalu’s deal as a mistake.

James Harrison of course left Pittsburgh, played for Cincinnati, retired and unretired and he’s now tied for the team lead in sacks.

  • Again, at first glance, it doesn’t look good.

As usual however, things are not as simple as they seem.

On the defensive line, while Kesiel has played well enough to open the door for his return in 2015, the Steelers are working in Daniel McCullers and Stephon Tuitt into the line up – a rarity for rookies in Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line. Don’t count out youth yet.

There was always an injury risk factor in bringing back Polamalu, but Troy has played well. His heir apparent, Shamarko Thomas has been hurt, which while bad, isn’t something you can “blame” on Mike Tomlin or Kevin Colbert.

Jarvis Jones was playing well before he got hurt, and the paucity of depth at outside linebacker forced the Steelers to break the glass and bring back Harrison. There are questions about what the Steelers will do with Jason Worilds, but again its way too early to write Jones off as a bust.

The real sticking point is at corner. Where fate and faith both seem to have failed the Steelers, which Steel Curtain Rising will take up tomorrow….

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Steelers Extend Contract of Cortez Allen for 5 Years

The Pittsburgh Steelers are about as conservative (in the non-political sense) of an organization as you can find. No cheerleaders. Decal on 1 side of the helmet. A single head coach press conference during the week.

  • But no one can accuse Kevin Colbert for lacking a flair for the dramatic. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers have had a regular season contract negotiation black-out policy since 1993 that they never violate. So it appeared that the Steelers would take to the field vs. the Cleveland Browns without extending Cortez Allen’s contract.

This mark’s the second time in three years that the Steelers have had an 11th hour contract signing. In 2011, prior to the Debacle in Baltimore, Troy Polamalu signed his contract extension at the airport prior to departing for Charm City.

The Steelers drafted Cortez Allen in fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Allen showed promise on special teams, and even worked into the team’s Dime packages, seeing significant playing time in the Steelers 2011 upset of the New England Patriots.

Allen was expected to push for a starting job in 2012, but was held off by Keenan Lewis, who budded into top NFL corner during the course of the season. However, injuries to Ike Taylor brought Allen into the starting lineup during the end of 2012, and in just 5 quarters of play, Allen forced 5 turnovers.

With Allen on the rise, and the Steelers mired in salary cap purgatory, Keenan Lewis walked as the Steelers opted instead to resign William Gay. Allen won the starting job in 2013, but was injured vs. Tennessee  in the opener (who wasn’t?), and didn’t regain his penchant for splash plays until the end of the year when an Allen pick six helped put the Steelers over the top vs. the Packers.

While Cortez Allen’s 2013 season was inconsistent, his 3 year totals see him out performing Lewis and are on par with Ike Taylor’s (note, the totals in the graphic above are for 3 years, not four.)

Prior to signing this contract, Allen was scheduled to be a free agent at the end of this season. As the off season began, Art Rooney II declared that the team would wait to extend quarterback Ben Roethlisberger‘s contract in favor of renewing other deals.

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Cortez Allen at the Crossroad – Kevin Colbert’s Choice

Once upon a time, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted a cornerback in the third round.

His rookie year he mainly played special teams, but even then flashed greatness. Coaches and fans alike expected great things going into year two, yet the up and coming 3rd rounder failed to crack the starting lineup. Nonetheless, in his third year he did earn a starting slot, and even began shadowing opponents’ top receiver.

  • Inconsistency aside, the third rounder left the Steelers with a difficult choice.

Six years later, the Steelers took another corner in the third round. He little as a rookie year, sitting behind sixth rounder. He played more in his second year, but disappointed nonetheless. Many coaches wrote him off as a lost cause. Yet, in his third year, his play improve dramatically, leaving the Steelers with another difficult choice….

If you haven’t guessed it already, the two third round corners in question are none other than Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis, and the choice they both left the Steelers was whether or not to commit long-term money based on a three year body of work.

  • The Steelers ponied up big money to lock Ike Taylor down long-term, prior to the 2006 season

And although he faltered in that campaign, earning himself a slot of Bill Cowher’s dog house, he bounced back with Mike Tomlin’s arrival and the organization hasn’t looked back since.

  • The Steelers declined to offer Keenan Lewis a long-term deal and allowed him to play out the final year of his rookie contract. Lewis blossomed into an good if not great NFL corner in his fourth year.

The Steelers, hamstrung in salary cap purgatory, were unable to make Lewis and offer, Lewis left, and Steelers Nation has suffered buyers remorse since.

All This Has Happened Before, and Will Again…

This experience is important, because Kevin Colbert is now faced with a very  similar situation with yet another inconsistent, yet up and coming corner in the form of Cortez Allen.

The Steelers drafted Cortez Allen out of the Citadel in the 4th round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Unlike Taylor and Lewis, Cortez Allen saw playing time as a rookie, play a key role in the defensive effort that led to the Steelers Halloween upset of the New England Patriots.

Allen made a bull rush at Keenan Lewis for the starting job, but Lewis held him off. Allen’s name didn’t get mentioned much during the disappointing 2012 season, yet as the rest of the team was floundering, Allen flourished. Vs. the Bengals, Allen picked off two passes and forced a fumble, and vs. the Browns Allen forced two more fumbles.

  • In two games, Allen single handedly accounted for the lion’s share of the Steelers takeaways.

Even if that stat says a lot about the Steelers defense chronic inability to generate turnovers, it also shows Allen’s game-changing potential, and that was one reason why the Steelers let Lewis go.

  • Yet, like Taylor and Lewis before him, Cortez Allen has weaved threads of inconsistency into his own story.

Allen won the starting job was expected during Steelers 2013 training camp, yet got injured vs. Tennessee. His return in London vs. the Vikings is something that Steelers Nation would rather forget as he managed to both get burned and miss tackles on long touchdown plays.

Indeed, as the Steelers began their rebound, it was William Gay, (dubbed “Big Play Willie Gay” by my friend Tony Defeo), who won the accolades as Allen reverted to the bench. But Allen didn’t take his demotion sitting down, and recorded two interceptions and a crucial pick-six in the win over Green Bay.

What to Do About Allen?

Since the advent of free agency in 1993, the Steelers have made it their practice to resign the players the want to keep in the final year of their contracts. On a few occasions, think Levon Kirkland and of course Kordell Stewart, this has gotten them into commitments to players who ultimately proved unworthy.

  • But by an large, the philosophy has paid the Steelers dividends both on the field and on the salary cap ledger.

Now they need to decide if they want to do the same with Allen.

Some number are helpful

cortez allen keenan lewis ike taylor steelers stats
Cortez Allen compared to Taylor, Lewis

Of the three players, Ike Taylor had both the most solid body of work and the most consistent line of development. Lewis’ first two years were for naught, and his third year while solid, hardly projected “spectacular.”

However, compared to Lewis, Allen’s third year was gang busters, and while he’s lacked Taylor’s consistency, he arguably authored more splash plays in his limited time than Taylor’s entire career – save of course for Super Bowl XL.

The Steelers also have greater salary cap flexibility here in the summer of 2014 than they did in the summer of 2010.

Curtain’s Call

There are no guarantees in pro football. But Ike Taylor is probably playing is final year, and William Gay is the only other Steelers cornerback with experience. The Steelers aren’t going to offer nor will Cortez Allen’s agent allow him to sign, a low-ball, long term offer. Yet, the Steelers almost certainly keep him off the market in July or August 2014 for far less than he will command in come March 2015.

Ultimately, Carnell Lake, Dick LeBeau and Mike Tomlin know Allen and his work habits.

If he is in fact as diligent as he’s said to be, then the Steelers would be wise to resign him this off season.

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The Colbert Record: 0 for 0 – Steelers 2008 vs. 2009 Draft – Do Numbers Lie?

Numbers never lie. But sometimes they fail to tell the full story.

That bit of dictum has been thrown around a lot here on Steel Curtain Rising. And the conventional wisdom on the Steelers 2008 and 2009 drafts reveals why it is so relevant.  Exhibit A:

John Steigerwald’s logic seems irrefutable. The 2014 Steelers will field exactly ZERO members from either of their 2008 and 2009 drafts, ergo Pittsburgh has done a petty pathetic job of picking players. Steigerwald is known for his bare knuckles, semi-sensationalistic style, but he’s got company.

  • Traditional meat and potatoes beat writer Ed Bouchette, but began a recent column declaring the Steelers had laid two eggs in these drafts.

The ghosts of the 2008 draft and 2009 draft haunted the Steelers during their twin 8-8 seasons and arguably in their ’11 season too. Steelers Nation might hear echoes of those ghosts in 2014 too.

But even if we do, there’s a stark difference in the quality of those two drafts. Mark Kabloy gets it.

@Steigerworld Actually, 2009 draft was great. 7 are still in league; 4 are starters; 2 are making a ton of money … just not with steelers
— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) March 13, 2014

An more accurate description of the two drafts might be “The Wash and the One That Got Away.”

’08 Draft Puts Pittsburgh Behind Eight Ball

Little more need be said here about the Steelers 2008 Draft. With Ryan Mundy and Rashard Mendenhall’s departure’s last year, the 2008 draft’s status shifted from disappointing to “Loss.”

Outside of those two, neither the Steelers nor the NFL got anything. Limas Sweed, Bruce Davis, and Tony Hills were unmitigated busts.

Steelers 2009 Draft, the One that Got Away

The record reflects that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin, despite the handicap of picking last in each round, picked some pretty good players in 2009. The Steelers even got some value out of them. The problem is the rest of the NFL is getting more.

  • It might be unfair, but one player can and sometimes does define a draft. 

Look no further than 2004 when the Steelers got Ben Roethlisberger. That pick alone makes the draft an unqualified success, even if Max Starks was the only other player of consequence taken then.

First round picks don’t necessarily define a draft, 2002 was Kevin Colbert’s best all around but Kendall Simmons was far from the most valuable player taken. So it’s unfair to heap disappointment on Ziggy Hood, but it happens nonetheless. Had Hood grow into the player he teased he might have been in late 2010, perceptions would be different.

  • Alas, Hood’s late 2010 surge was a flash instead of a sustainable stride.

Ziggy Hood wasn’t a bust. He just wasn’t good enough for a first round pick. And in that sense Hood does set the tone for the value the Steelers realized from the 2009 draft – Too little or too late or too little shelf life.

Too Short of a Shelf Life

Mike Wallace falls into the too little shelf life category. For all his faults, Wallace is a legit home run threat, and delivered great value as a third round pick.

  • Mike Wallace was a fantasy owners wet dream. 

But fantasy stats don’t show things like refusing to contest underthrown balls that instead get intercepted.  Knowing that, the Steelers were happy to let Miami overpay. It was a smart move, but it is also requiring them to look to the draft for more receivers.

David Johnson was another with too short a shelf life. A versatile player, he was working himself into a model “late round pick makes good” story until injuries ruined his 2012 and 2013 seasons. Now he’s in San Diego.

A.Q. Shipley falls into this category by default. A Penn State player with local ties, Kevin Colbert justified the pick of someone short on measurable saying you couldn’t measure a man’s heart. He stayed on the Steelers 2009 practice squad, but declined a futures contract when his coach Larry Zierlin left. He’s now starting in Baltimore….

Too Late….

Keenan Lewis’ rookie year was marred by injuries. During his second year he was most notable famous for smashing a sign in Denver. By 2011, according to Rebecca Rollet’s report at Behind the Steel Curtain, the coaches had given up.

  • However, new arrival Carnell Lake wasn’t hearing any of it. 

Took him under his wing. Lewis contributed as a nickel and dime back in 2011 and established himself as a pass defense demon in 2012. Alas, the Steelers were caught short in salary cap space and had to let him walk without an offer. If only the Steelers had gotten something out of him sooner….

Kraig Urbik’s story shifted from “just in time” to “too late” in the matter of 1 game, thanks to Byron Leftwich’s sprained knee. The move forced the Steelers to keep Charlie Batch, cutting Urbik instead. That was a shame, because Urbik had made the second year leap, having shown something at guard and knocked Justin Hartwig down to third on the depth chart at center.

The Steelers thought they could sneak Urbik on to the practice squad, but Dough Waley knew better and now Urbik is starting for Buffalo.

Too Little…

Frank “The Tank” Summers was the draft pick with the catchy name in 2009. His lone moment as a Steeler was a very poor block in the backfield followed by “back surgery.” He got beaten out in camp in 2010, hung around on practice squads, and now he is the Bills fullback.

Joe Burnett looked good in camp in 2009 and got into the line up late in the year, but was famous more for dropped interception than anything else. Couldn’t make the final roster in 2010 and had no practice squad eligibility.

When the Steelers cut Sunny Harris at the end of camp, and Ed Bouchette compared him Dwaine Board (although he denied it later). Harris got picked up by Carolina, resigned by Pittsburgh, spent time on the Steelers practice squad in 2010, and was cut in 2011 but picked up by Houston. Low expectations await 6th round picks, but Harris ultimately fell short of those.

Steelers Loss is NFL’s Gain

At its core, the story of the Steelers 2009 reveals the complex, non-scientific, nature of personnel decision making in the NFL, and proves that timing and “luck” are often the ultimate trump cards.

  • 7 players still in the NFL, at least 4 starting and two playing on big 2nd contracts say that the Steelers made pretty good picks in 2009.

The problem is the rest of the NFL can attest to the fact from 1st hand experience.

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