Should Steelers Feel Any Buyers Remorse over Trading Ross Cockrell Away?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a problem in their secondary. Labeling them “hiccups” or simply suggesting that big pass plays hindering the defense’s dominance dodges the issue. So we’ll repeat the statistic unearthed during this sites post-Packers analysis and Report Card:

Since Joe Haden left the field injured, the Steelers have given up a 57 yard touchdown pass in every 27 and a half minutes of play.

That’s a searing statistic that shows just how serious of a situation the Steelers must resolve with their secondary. To be fair to Coty Sensabaugh, Haden’s replacement, Artie Burns has been just as much at fault, if not more at fault, for these breakdowns. So have other members of the defense, who’ve literally players slip through their hands.

In other words, issues plaguing Pittsburgh’s defensive backfield might very well go beyond the secondary being different absent Joe Haden.

Which brings us to the question that no one else seems to be asking, so we’ll ask here:

  • Is it time for the Steelers to be feeling some buyer’s remorse over trading Ross Cockrell away?

OK. If you’ve come this far to read this instead of simply seeing the headline on Twitter, rolling your eyes as you click away, stay with us for a second longer.

Ross Cockrell, Steelers vs Raiders, Ross Cockrell interception, Mike Mitchell, William Gay

Ross Cockrell’s Red Zone interception against the Raiders in 2015. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

So let’s be clear, no one, not even the most wild-eyed homer, would suggest that Ross Cockrell’s should change his name to Mel Woodson Taylor. Suggesting that Ross Cockrell would develop into the next Deshea Townsend or William Gay would probably have been a stretch.

Moreover, Coty Sensabaugh appeared to be beating out Cockrell in training camp and he’s only started 4 games in New York, which is enough for Pro Football Focus to rate him as “Poor” whereas PFF rates Sensabaugh as “Average.”

  • With those negatives acknowledged, let’s also accept the advantages that having Ross Cockrell on the roster now would bring.

The biggest benefit that Cockrell would bring is that it would give Keith Butler and Carnell Lake some viable alternatives at cornerback. Steel City Insider’s Jon Ledyard expresses a sentiment that’s common in Steelers Nation these days, if social media is any guide:

Combine these consistent failures with Burns’ penalties and missed tackles and I think we’re all hoping Cameron Sutton shows something soon to start pushing Burns for playing time.

One reader pointed out that the more realistic scenario would be Cam Sutton  pushing Coty Sensabaugh for playing time. Both scenarios breathe new life into the old cliché of “grasping at straws.”

  • Steelers third round pick Cam Sutton has all of what, 6 quarters of preseason experience under his belt?
  • Contrast that with Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Bruns combined 110 games and 6 interceptions.

Should a serious Super Bowl contender really entertain the thought of replacing that kind of experience with a raw rookie 12 games into the season? That’s one’s hard to get your head around.

The Steelers could, however, entertain making the same sort of switch with Ross Cockrell. Sure, Cockrell struggled in the AFC Championship, but which Steelers (other than perhaps Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown) didn’t struggle that night?

Prior to that Ross Cockrell defended 15 passes, including a key 3rd down pass breakup on the road in Cincinnati, while making two interceptions in 15. Perhaps Cockrell is struggling in New York, although playing on a 2-9 team does have the way of bringing out the worst in a player. But last winter when the Steelers laid and original round tender on Cockrell, Steel City Insider editor Jim Wexell observed this:

Here’s another thing: Ross Cockrell is a treasure. He works so hard that no one will dismiss his chances. Therefore, no ones [sic] going to leak that they’re dissatisfied with their outside guys. And really, with how hard Cockrell works and how smart he is, there’s no certainty a high draft pick will beat him out.

And before you write off Wexell as a homer, Pro Football Focus was labeling Ross Cockrell as one of the Steelers “secret superstars” as recently as early July 2017.

Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake have forgotten far more about defensive back development than I will ever know. So has Kevin Colbert, who also understands how to make the cost-benefit calculations that the salary cap demands, and economics certainly factored into the Cockrell trade.

  • But Cockrell could have at least potentially pushed Burns and/or Sensabaugh whereas Cam Sutton is too young and William Gay is too old.

Which means the Steelers really need to find a way to coax Artie Burns out of his slump and get Sutton some help from either Mike Mitchell and/or Sean Davis. Barring that, the Steelers need Joe Haden to get healthy fast.

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Steelers 2017 Thanksgiving Honors: Ben Roethlisberger

Thanksgiving Day 2017 has arrived, and that means its time for Steel Curtain Rising to bestow its annual Thanksgiving Day honors.

  • And this year we’re going to make a bold break from tradition and award Steelers Thanksgiving Day Honors to Ben Roethlisberger.

Our Steelers Thanksgiving Honors tradition started in 2009. And while the Steelers were only 3 games into their notirous 5 game losing streak, things had not gone well, but Rashard Mendenhall was an undoubted bright spots, so he earned the inaugural honors.

Since then its gone to an up and coming contributor, such as Antonio Brown in 2011, Cam Heyward in 2013 or Le’Veon Bell in 2014. But this year our Steelers Thanksgiving Honors are as much about looking back as they are about the present, and it is only fitting that Ben Roethlisberger win the award.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2017 Thanksgiving Honors

Ben Roethlisberger wins Steel Curtain Rising’s 2017 Thanksgiving Honors. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors for Ben Roethlisberger

So why break tradition and award Thanksgiving honors to Ben Roethlisberger? Let’s start with this one fact: Since the Pittsburgh picked him in the 2004 NFL Draft, Steelers Nation has never celebrated a Thanksgiving holiday where the men in Black and Gold haven’t been in the playoff picture.

  • That, in and of itself, perhaps isn’t so remarkable given that the Steelers have won at least 5 games in every season since 1970.

But Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers have gone into the final game of the season with at least a mathematical shot at the playoffs in all but two seasons since his arrival in 2004. Fans in places like Cleveland and Washington would beg for their team to have enjoyed playoff viability in the season’s final week even 25% of the time during that span.

  • During the Steelers rebuilding seasons of 2012 and 2013, Bob Labriola argued that the Steelers were contenders because “they had one.”

One being a franchise quarterback, that is. And he’s right. As the 2014 had slipped to 3-3 after losing on the road to the Cleveland Browns, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell penned what was and remains perhaps the best article written about the Steelers in the Post Super Bowl XLV era titled, “Deja Vu All Over Again.”

  • At the time, Wexell compared the 2014 Steelers to the 2000 Steelers, and found the two times in roughly the same spots in the rebuilding cycle.

The difference, Wexell argued, was that the Mike Tomlin’s ’12, ’13 and ’14 Steelers benefited from having Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback as opposed to struggling with Kordell Stewart (note, struggling is my term, not Wexell’s.)

Ben Roethlisberger, Bill Cowher, Super Bowl XL

Bill Cowher and Ben Roethlisberger during Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: 247 Sports

There are many reasons why Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe’s Steelers teams of the 1990’s knocked on heaven’s door but always failed to break through.

Kevin Colbert’s stellar record with 1st round draft picks and his uncanny knack for signing undrafted rookie free agents (hello James Harrison, hello Willie Parker) are two of those. While those are important, remember that Colbert and Cowher were brides maids who failed to become brides in ’01, even though they had Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis in his prime.

  • The key difference, the independent variable if you will, of course, is Ben Roethlisberger.

Ben Roethlisberger gave, and continues to give the Steelers something that they missed since Terry Bradshaw elbow popped on that fateful day at Shea – a quarterback who is truly talented enough to win it all.

  • Sure, Ben Roethlisberger has had his struggles this year, and this site hasn’t been shy in pointing those out.

But if the Ben Roethlisberger of 2017 isn’t quite what the Ben Roethlisberger of 2014 or 2015, he’s still better than all but a handful of his contemporaries. Measure his career however you like:

  • No losing seasons as starter
  • Victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII before his 27th birthday
  • 131 wins (and counting)
  • 36 fourth quarter comebacks in the regular season an 4 in the playoffs

All of that adds up to a championship caliber quarterback, and Steelers Nation should be thankful for having in Ben Roethlisberger. The conventional wisdom among Steelers fans is that Ben Roethlisberger will retire after 2017.

  • If that’s true, it will mark a sad day in Steelers history.

But the truth is no one outside of the Steelers locker room really knows what Ben Roethlisberger will do when this season is over, Ben Roethlisberger himself might not know. Even if the day doesn’t come during this off season, Ben Roethlisberger is clearly nearing his “Life’s Work.”

But we do know that Ben Roethlisberger is the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback now, and for that Steelers Nation should enjoy it and give thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving From All of Us at Steel Curtain Rising

We’ll conclude as we do every year at Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is one of the noblest of US holidays. It cuts across all races, creeds and economic backgrounds. And, the abomination that is Black Friday not withstanding, unlike Christmas or Easter, you can’t corrupt Thanksgiving through commercialization.

While we enthusiastically offer our Steelers Thanksgiving honors, we do so with the caveat that we sincerely hope that each and everyone of you has many, far more important non-football reasons to give thanks this Thanksgiving.

So we trust and hope you’re enjoying the day and surrounded by family friends. Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation.

Click here to read stories of past Steelers Thanksgiving Honors recipients

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4 Lessons Learned & Random Thoughts on Steelers Growth Since Vikings Loss in London

When the Pittsburgh Steelers kickoff for their 2017 home opener against the Minnesota Vikings this afternoon, 1450 days will have passed since these two franchises last squared off. Normally you don’t think of intra-conference games marking milestones, but this one does.

Because if the Steelers post Super Bowl XLV rebuilding project began with the Tebowing in the playoffs against Denver in January 2011, the rebuilding effort scratched rock bottom on September 29th, as the Vikings dropped the 2013 Steelers to 0-4.

  • To put this into perspective, the previous Steelers head coach to start 0-4 was Bill Austin, in 1968.

With that in mind, let’s look at how the Steelers have changed, and remained the same, since then.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers London

Le’Veon Bell scores his first touchdown in the Steelers loss to Vikings in London. Photo Credit: Daily Mail Online

1. Sort of Failing at Left Tackle is Like Being Sort of Pregnant

By the fall of 2013 the Steelers had relegated their “Plug ‘n Patch” approach to offensive line building to history. Indeed on that day they started Ramon Foster, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert just as they will this afternoon (and they would have started Maurkice Pouency had he not been hurt.)

  • They also started Mike Adams at left guard.

Mike Adams didn’t represent any sort of Jonathan Scottesque attempt to get by on the cheap at left tackle. No, the Steelers invested a 2nd round pick in Mike Adams and made it very clear from the get go that they wanted him to win the starting job. He couldn’t do that as a rookie (and surprise, they turned again to Max Starks), but they gave him the job 2013.

  • The move was an epic fail, and the London loss to the Vikings was its supernova.

Adams struggled all day, and first and only time in his career, Ben Roethlisberger played like he had happy feet. The Vikings ended the game by sacking Roethlisberger, and while Adams didn’t directly allow the sack, he clearly didn’t win his battle at the line of scrimmage which helped collapse the pocket, paving the way for a sack.

The Vikings game in London marked Mike Adams final start at left tackle and Kelvin Beachum’s assent to the role.

2. Le’Veon Lived Up to the Hype, Jarvis Didn’t….

While neither he nor Mike Tomlin uttered the word “Rebuilding,” after the 2012 Steelers 8-8 finish Kevin Colbert as much as admitted changes were needed. Ergo, two key building blocks would come early in the Steelers 2013 Draft Class. One worked out, the other didn’t.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Ed Bouchette isn’t one to exaggerate, but even he seemed to be drinking a little Koolaid a big when he declared in July 2013 that Le’Veon Bell’s preseason debut “…will be one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

  • Le’Veon Bell’s debut didn’t come until London thanks to his Lisfranc injury.

While Le’Veon Bell’s statistics were rather pedestrian on that afternoon, he did score two touchdowns, and flashed some of the ability that the Steelers offense has come to depend upon.

On the flip side, Jarvis Jones, who’d boldly requested number 95, was making his third start at outside linebacker for the Steelers. Jones had one tackle on the day and by any measure must be considered Kevin Colbert’s only true first round bust.

3. How Long Does It Take to Rebuild Defense? Four Years

One striking observation is that there’s been very little turnover in the Steelers offense since that fateful London day. Sure, Health Miller retired and the entire tight end depth chart has turned over (thanks to David Johnson’s waiver). But the line remains intact and that was the first game that the Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown played together, and the trio has powered the offense since.

  • On defense you find an entirely different story.

Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were still manning both safety spots. Ike Taylor was still starting at corner, and Cortez Allen, the unit’s rising star, returned to the line up to get burned on a 70 yard touchdown. Aside from William Gay, who was back after a one year hiatus in Pittsburgh West, the entire Steelers secondary has turned over since the London Loss.

Looking at the linebackers, Vince Williams was making his first NFL start, and if the rookie looked woefully unable to fill Larry Foote’s shoes, no one can argue he hasn’t grown into the role. But Vince Williams is the only Steelers linebacker left from the London Game (remember, James Harrison was in Cincinnati.)

If the Viking’s victory in London marked the Vince Williams first start, it also marked Ziggy Hood’s last one, as Mike Tomlin would name Cam Heyward starter after this game. The other starters that day were Steve McLendon, who was just taking over from Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel. 1450 days later, the story remains the same on defensive line. Cam Heyward remains, everyone else is playing elsewhere or has begun “Life’s Work.”

4. Assistant Coaches Do Matter – See Mike Munchak’s Influence

People forget this, but Mike Adams wasn’t the only Steelers offensive lineman under fire 1450 days ago. Just one week earlier, in the Steelers loss to the Bears, Steelers coaches had rotated Kelvin Beachum on at both tackles.

While the Steelers offensive line improved during the course of 2013, Mike Tomlin quickly fired Jack Bicknell at season’s end and replaced him with Mike Munchak, and no one argues that the Steelers offensive line is far better for Munchak’s influence.

Young Money had been all the rage prior to 2013, but the promise of those young receivers was largely unrealized, as even Antonio Brown’s play was a little uneven by the end of 2012. Mike Tomlin responded by replacing Scottie Montgomery with Richard Mann, who has clearly transformed the Steelers wide receiving corps.

As Dick Hoak reminded everyone on the day he retired (after nearly 3 and half decades of serving as a Steelers assistant coach) NFL assistant coaches are “Hired to be fired.” He’s right. Often times assistant coaches act as the fall guys when either head coaches fail or draft picks flounder as busts.

But the additions of Richard Mann and Mike Munchak show that good assistant coaches can and do make a difference in the NFL.

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Steelers Report Card for Road Win over Browns – “Above the Line, But Below Par”

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who couldn’t watch the game live on Sunday, and then spent much of Monday stranded in Montevideo, Uruguay thanks to storms over the Rio de la Plata, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2017 road opener against the Browns.

Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers 2017 season opener, Joe Schobert

Antonio Brown 4th quarter jump ball catch sealed the game 2017 opener for the Steelers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger’s 24 of 36 for 263 yards with two touchdowns and one interception to give him a solid statistical start on his first action of the 2017 season. And to be fair, there are a couple of three occasions where Ben Roethlisberger threaded the needle in ways that only he can do. But if his only interception came on a ball that was tipped, he also threw at least two if not three passes that should have been intercepted but were not. While Big Ben had a good day against the Browns, he did look like a starting quarterback who’d only played one series in August. Grade: Bsteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Running Backs
In a preemptive attempt to help his running backs, Mike Tomlin argued that penalties prevented the Steelers from establishing their running game. There’s some truth to that. It’s also true on the offensive line’s run blocking was left wanting on more than one occasion. But much of 3 quarters, Le’Veon Bell looked nothing like a back who has earned the right about being forced to play for 12 million dollars. To his credit, Bell delivered when his efforts were most needed late in the game. But he had a subpar afternoon, by any standard. James Conner also struggled. Grade: C-

Tight Ends
Vance who? The Steelers turned heads in late August by trading for Vance McDonald, with Mike Tomlin citing the need for a “Varsity” tight end. Vance McDonald dropped the one pass thrown his way, and was clearly upstaged in the passing game by Jesse James, who caught two touchdown passes in addition to four others for 41 yards. ON the flip side, there did appear to be some issues with James blocking. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
5 summers ago a young wide receiver who was burning through Steelers records faster than he was burning defensive backs asked the Steelers to make him the NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver. Kevin Colbert said no thanks, and gave his contract to a man that they would later make the NFL’s NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver.

Against the Cleveland Browns, Antonio Brown again vindicated the faith the Steelers have shown in him. On an afternoon where the vaunted Steelers offense sputtering, Antonio Brown kicked into high gear, and was almost single handedly responsible setting up the Steelers first two scores as he was for killing to clock in overtime.

  • And let the record reflect that Antonio Brown bailed Ben Roethlisberger out late in the game in a ball that begged to be intercepted.

Martavis Bryant’s ballyhooed return to the gridiron consisted of 2 catches for 14 yards and a couple of drops. It might not be Bryant’s fault, but he never threatened to stretch the field. Eli Rogers caught two passes for 11 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had zero catches but multiple holding penalties. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Steelers have invested a lot in their offensive line and the unit it proved itself both in terms of pass protection and road grading run blocking during the latter half of 2016. The team doubled down by extending Alejandro Villanueva’s contract this summer. In terms of pass blocking, the unit did well, as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once, only hit another time, and needed very little fancy footwork to keep plays alive. The same cannot be said for the run blocking. While the sample size was small, Bell and Connor had difficulty finding day light. Fortunately, the Steelers were able to run the ball when they needed to kill the clock, but it shouldn’t have taken 4 quarters. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
How good was the Steelers defensive line against Cleveland? Well, I watched the game on tape delay furiously fast forwarding between downs, and didn’t even realize that Stephon Tuitt was out of the lineup until the 4th quarter. While Tuitt made his presence known in just two plays, Tyson Alualu, Javon Hargrave and Cam Heyward more than made up for his absence, with Heyward and Hargrave registering sacks, Alualu leading the group with five tackles, and all three men registering tackles for losses. At the end of the day, Cleveland rushed the ball 25 times and barley got more than 50 yards. Grade: A

T.J. Watt, T.J. Watt rookie debut, Steelers vs Browns, DeShone Kizer

T.J. Watt had two sacks & an interception in his rookie debut. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Linebackers
All T.J. Watt did in in his professional debut was lead the Steelers defense in tackles, register two sacks, and atone for a foolish personal foul by intercepting a pass…. Ryan Shazier was close behind, with 7 tackles and a quarterback hit. Starting in place of Bud Dupree, Anthony Chickillo got two sacks, hit the quarterback two other times, and dropped two Cleveland ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. Vince Williams had 5 tackles. The Steelers linebacking stat sheet is helped by the work of the defensive line, but the only thing that forces the minus on this grade is the penalties. Grade: A

Secondary
Joe Haden had a homecoming an then some, winning his first home opener in 7 years, while recording a sack and defending a pass. William Gay was all over the field and looked sharp, although his personal foul was costly (and perhaps unavoidable, he did not intend to lead with the head). Artie Burns and Sean Davis’ names weren’t heard much, which can be good. While the Steelers secondary had a good game, it must also be noted that there were times when Cleveland’s receivers had them beat, only to see DeShone Kizer overthrow the ball. Stiffer tests await. Grade: B

Tyler matakevich, Britton Colquitt, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers punt block browns

Tyler Matakevic blocks Britton Colquitt’s punt setting up a Steelers touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Special Teams
Sometimes measurables just don’t add up and the Steelers 1st quarter blocked punt explains why you keep a player like Tyler Matakevich on your 53 man roster. Matakevich blocked punt and Anthony Chickillo’s recovery got the Steelers on the board to start the day, and forced the Browns to play catch up from the very get go.

Eli Rogers saw his first duty as a punt returner, and he posted a respectable 10 yard average. The Steelers kick coverage was strong, although you don’t like to see an opponents punt return average 11 yards and break a 24 yarder. Chris Boswell was a perfect 3-3 on PAT’s while Jordan Berry had a strong day punting. Grade: A-

Coaching
Suffice to say, the Steelers offense failed to live up to the all of the pomp and circumstance that accompanied the return of the Steelers four Killer Bees. The unit stumbled for most of the afternoon hobbled by dropped passes, penalties and missed opportunities. But Steelers offensive sputters weren’t solely a question of failed execution.

In abstract terms, the Steelers coaches can be faulted for leaning too heavily on Le’Veon Bell during the latter half of 2016 (in practical terms, they didn’t have much of a choice). It seems like Todd Haley started 2017 determined to overcompensate.

  • The Steelers showed little desire in even attempting to establish the running game.

Yes, the line and Le’Veon Bell were not having a good afternoon, but they weren’t given much of a chance to warm up, let alone impose their will. Nor did Haley seem inclined to go with the vertical passing game, as his repeated bubble screens would indicate.

  • The Steelers offense was good enough to secure a W, but they left far too many plays on the field.

Keith Butler’s defense was its own worst enemy. Butler’s Boys gave DeShone Kizer a rude awakening to the NFL, stuff the run, and went 3-12 on third downs. The only issue is the defensive penalties, which set directly up one touchdown and facilitated another.

As Tony Defeo has rightly pointed out on BTSC, the Mike Tomlin’s Steelers avoided another embarrassing loss to an inferior team. But as Steel City Insider’s Jon Ledyard correctly argues, the Steelers have far too much talent on offense to allow a Browns team to need clock killing heroics to close the 4th quarter.

  • Mike Tomlin chose to rest a good number of his offensive stars for large stretches of the preseason.

Certainly, this is not the first summer Tomlin has taken that route. But regardless, the Steelers offense looked quite rusty against the Browns, although to their credit the units did effectively close both halves. The Steelers performance against the Browns was above the line, but still below par.  Grade: C+

Unsung Hero
This man has taken a lot of heat from fans in recent years, including barbs from this site. But Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith saw a weakness in the Browns punt formation, he trained his team to exploit it those men executed it to perfection and they scored the points that ended up being the difference in the game. And for that Danny Smith is the Unsung Hero for the win over the Browns.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Season Preview: Its Mike Tomlin’s Team & Ben Roethlisberger’s Time

Sometimes writing a Steelers season preview poses an extra special challenge. Fortunately, the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 season preview presents no special challenge because the defining themes of the Steelers 2017 season are obvious:

  • This 2017 Steelers squad is truly Mike Tomlin’s team
  • And it is Ben Roethlisberger’s time

Declaring that the Steelers are “Truly Mike Tomlin’s team” might sound a little strange, given that Tomlin already has 10 years and 103 victories under his belt and given that this site has never abided by the “Tomlin’s only won with Cowher’s players” nonsense (let alone the diarrhea mouthing of Colin Cowherd.)

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2017 season preview

Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin during the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Kevin Lorenzi, The Times

But a quick look at the roster reveals that aside from Roethlisberger, James Harrison is the only Pittsburgh Steeler to have played for Bill Cowher. In fact, the Steelers roster has come full circle under Mike Tomlin, with his first ever draft pick Lawrence Timmons having played for 10 years before departing for Miami.

But, with Kevin Colbert at his side, Mike Tomlin has taken a Super Bowl capable team and led it to a championship in Super Bowl XLIII and got back to the big dance two years later in Super Bowl XLV. In that time he’s overseen a rebuild of every area on the depth chart and he’s done so without suffering a single losing season.

Ryan Shaizer, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2017 season preview

Mike Tomlin and Ryan Shazier during the Steelers 2015 win over the Oakland Raiders. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via PennLive

Along the way, Mike Tomlin has replaced both his offensive coordinator and his defensive coordinator, cycled through 4 offensive line coaches, 4 special teams coaches, 3 wide receivers coaches, 2 running backs coaches while adding former players to coach his defensive backs and linebackers.

  • Mike Tomlin’s thumb print falls deep and wide across the organization.

And that’s a good thing, because Mike Tomlin is one of the best at what he does. Mike Tomlin has weathered several stiff tests since winning the Super Bowl, including a 5 game losing streak in 2009, Roethlisberger’s suspension in 2010, a seemingly chronic curse of offensive line injuries for several straight seasons and a 2-6 start in 2013 that ended with a blown call keeping the Steelers out of the playoffs.

  • Keeping your head above water isn’t easy in the NFL, but Mike Tomlin has done it. Now it is time to soar.

For two seasons now, Steelers Nation has salivated at the prospect fielding an offense featuring all four Killer Bees: Ben, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. Injuries and suspensions have prevented that. When the Steelers open against the Browns, this will be a reality.

Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant

Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant catching touchdowns in the Steelers 2014 win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via CBS sports

During Mike Tomlin’s first several years in Pittsburgh, whether it was by design or by happenstance, the Steelers employed a “Plug and Patch” approach to building its offensive line. That worked, for a while, but the Steelers open 2017 with 5 offensive lineman playing on their second contracts.

On defense, the Steelers have methodically rebuilt their roster, done some exercises in trial and error (see Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones), made some mistakes (see Cortez Allen or Shamarko Thomas), and has some plain bad luck (see Senquez Golson).

While some elements remain relatively untested, the front seven of the Steelers defense appears to be rock-solid. And while the secondary still must prove itself, the acquisitions of Joe Haden and J.J. Wilcox represent Tomlin’s commitment to talent as opposed to staying within his comfort zone.

  • The lynch pin to Mike Tomlin and the Steelers rebuilding strategy has always revolved around one man: Ben Roethlisberger.

The Steelers signal caller caused some cardiac arrhythmia last January when he openly mused about retirement. Fans old enough to remember Mark Malone’s 46.4 passer rating as a starter in 1987, fret at the thought of losing a franchise quarterback, but the positive to all of this is that Ben Roethlisberger will likely leave the game and the Steelers on his own terms.

  • You might have to go back to the Kennedy Administration to find another Steelers starting quarterback who could say they did that.

Most fans now take it for granted that Ben Roethlisberger will hang it up after this season, but no one knows. Would another AFC Championship loss or playoff disappointment lead him to conclude it was time to start “Life’s Work?” Should things work out differently, might he decide to follow Jerome Bettis’ lead, and retire with the Lombardi in hand? Or would he return to try to tie Terry Bradshaw?

  • The truth is, Ben himself probably doesn’t even know.
Ike Taylor, Demaryius Thomas, Tim Tebow, Steelers vs Broncos

Demaryius Thomas stiff arms Ike Taylor en route to an 80 overtime touchdown pass in the Broncos 2011 win over the Steelers. Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger, Getty Images

The window on the first Steelers Super Bowl era slammed shut in a 6-0 loss to the Houston Oilers on a Monday Night Football game in December 1980 that I was far, far too young to stay up and watch. But I remember watching Tim Tebow sear the Steelers secondary in the playoffs and thinking, “This feels like it must have felt in 1980.”

But Ben Rothlisberger hadn’t yet turned 30. The question since that moment has been “Can the Steelers reload before Ben gets too old?” As a rookie, Ben Roethlisberger led a team of veterans in their primes on a 16 game winning streak that ended with a brutal loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship.

12 years later, Ben would take a team starting 3 rookies on defense, and throwing to wide receivers named Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers on a playoff run that ended in bitter defeat to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship.

  • In his sophomore year, Ben Roethlisberger rebounded from the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots to lead the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL.

Now it is time to find out if Roethlisberger can respond in similar fashion at the opposite end of his career.

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Steelers Resign Steven Johnson, Put Cam Sutton on IR & Name Jordan Dangerfield Wavied/Injured

The NFL’s roster cut down day came and went at 4:00 pm on September 2nd, but that milestone didn’t even slow let alone stop Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin from making moves.

The Steelers were expected to make two roster moves to make room for J.J. Wilcox and Le’Veon Bell’s return. Yet the Steelers brain trust did everyone one better by making three moves:

And the beauty of all of it, for the arm chair general managers that is, is that the Steelers still must make one more move before they formally activate Le’Veon Bell prior to the 2017 season opener against the Browns at Heinz Field.

Cam Sutton

Like David DeCastro before him, cornerback Cam Sutton will start his rookie year on injured reserve. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The decision to put Cam Sutton on IR came as no surprise because by keeping him on the initial 53 man roster, he’ll be able to return at mid-season. It seems clear that this was putting Sutton on IR and resigning Steven Johnson was what Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert intended all along.

The Steelers decision to cut Jordan Dangerfield amounts to a minor surprise. While it is logical given the trade for J.J. Wilcox, Dangerfield had extensive experience with the Steelers defense having done a two year apprenticeship on the Steelers practice squad and having played last season. However, by designating Dangerfield as “injured/waived” the Steelers will retain his rights if no other team signs him.

In 2015 the Steelers placed Eli Rogers on the wavied/injured list and he returned to start for Pittsburgh in their 2016 season opener against the Redskins. In 2012 the Steelers placed David Johnson on the waived/injured list and he returned to start at tight end for Pittsburgh in the 2013 opening day disaster against the Titans.

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Steelers Trade for Vance McDonald. Does “Varsity” Tight End Mean Trouble for Xavier Grimble?

With the clock ticking on Ben Roethlisberger‘s career and therefore the franchise’s Super Bowl window, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert looked at the team’s tight end depth chart, found it wanting and took action.

  • The Steelers traded a 4th round pick form the 2018 NFL Draft to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for tight end Vance McDonald and a 5th round pick in 2018.
Vance McDonald, Vance McDonald Trade, Steelers trade for Vance McDonald

New Steelers tight end Vance McDonald advances the ball for the 49ers against the Broncos. Photo Credit: AP via Yahoo Sports

When asked what led the Steelers to make such an uncharacteristic move so late in the season, Mike Tomlin refused sugar coat his assessment of his Tight Ends:

The guys hadn’t been consistently varsity enough for our comfort. It’s as black and white as that. They’ve had some moments positively and had some moments negatively, and so we were in the market for a guy that was NFL-capable. McDonald is that.

Jesse James ears are burning brightly. When the Steelers drafted James in the 5th round of the 2015 NFL Draft the Pennsylvania native wasn’t regarded as Heath Miller’s heir apparent, a move made clear by the Steelers rapid signing of Ladarius Green to start free agency in 2016.

Nonetheless, James started for most of the 2016 season while Ladarius Green remained injured, and generally played above expectations, including making key catches in the game winning drive of the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. When the Steelers cut Green in June, James WAS the heir apparent, but his performance in training camp and preseason hasn’t been consistent.

  • But if Jesse James ears are burning Xavier Grimble’s  hands are likely the ones to tremble thanks to this move.

Grimble spent parts of 2014 on the Patriots and 49er’s practice squads, and then served a full internship in 2015 on the Steelers practice squad. While Grimble made the final 53 man roster, his performance was inconsistent down the stretch, despite having ample opportunity to prove himself in Green’s absence. Word is that Grimble has been inconsistent for much of the summer, and McDonald’s arrival could signal a visit form the Turk for Grimble.

Mike Tomlin has not commented how Vance McDonald’s arrival impacts the rest of the tight end depth chart, nor would he commit to using McDonald in any specific way, explaining that the Steelers first signed Darrius Heyward-Bey as a wide receiver, not realizing his ability on special teams.

The San Francisco 49ers drafted Vance McDonald 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft, taking him six slots after Le’Veon Bell. During his first four season in the NFL, Vance McDonald has started 30 games and appeared in 48, while catching 64 passes for 391 yards for seven touchdowns.

In addition to Grimble, James and McDonald, the Steelers also have veteran David Johnson along with Jake McGee. The Steelers cut hopeful Phazahn Odom shortly after acquiring McDonald.

Welcome to Steelers Nation, Vance McDonald.

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Sisyphean Steelers Secondary Rebuild Underlined by Coty Sensabaugh Promotion, Phillips Trade

The Steelers preseason winning effort over the Atlanta Falcons didn’t come until after Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub and third-stringer Matt Simms carved up the Steelers secondary. On the Wednesday after the game, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert responded by:

Coty Sensabaugh, Steelers secondary Rebuild

Coty Sensabaugh practices during the off season at Steelers South Side facility. Photo Credit: Steelers.com via Steel City Underground

Coincidence? Perhaps, but probably not. No, these moves are likely the latest in what can only be described as a Sisyphean Steelers secondary rebuild. “Sisyphean”for those of you who’re rusty on your Greek Mythology, referse to the plight of Sisyphus who was condemned for all eternity to roll a bolder up hill, only to have it get away from him halfway up, so that he could start again.

On has to get the feeling that Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake can identify.

Steelers Secondary Rebuild Stuck in Second Gear

When the Steelers started training camp, building depth in the secondary in general, and at cornerback in particular were a key need for the team. On paper, things looked promising. For starters, the Steelers had bodies, in contrast to previous trips to St. Vincents.

Artie Burns and Sean Davis had come into their own during the second half of 2016, and Mike Mitchell had continued with another year of solid play. They’d added Coty Sensabaugh , word was William Gay was looking better than he had at the end of 2016, and Senquez Golson was also back.

A month later, finds Senquez Golson injured, again, joined by Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, who’ve largely been kept on the sidelines during training camp and preseason. The leaves the Steelers shuffling the deck again at cornerback, much as they did in 2015 when they traded for Brandon Boykin and claimed Ross Cockrell off of waivers.

  • Whatever else you can say, you can’t blame Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for lack of trying.

As recently as two years ago, you could argue that Pittsburgh was trying to rebuild the secondary on the cheap, as the Steelers brain trust ignored pleas from fans and the press to draft a cornerback early in the 2012, 2013, and 2014 NFL Draft. Indeed, in 2014 Carnell Lake shoed away questions about waiting so long to draft a corner by talking up Antwon Blake.

Cortez Allen, Torrey Smith, Steelers secondary rebuild

Images like this remind us why the Steelers once counted on Cortez Allen. Photo Credit: Alchetron

For the record, the Steelers had thought they had something in Cortez Allen and had invested heavily in drafting Shamarko Thomas as an eventual starter at safety. Both of those moves count as epic failures. But that was then.

  • Since 2014, the Steelers have drafted five defensive backs and used premium picks to draft all four of them.

Despite all of those moves, the Steelers still find themselves turning over loose stones hoping to uncover a defensive back or two who can help bring home Lombardi Number 7.

While that might not be listed as Standard Operating Procedure in the manual of a team that fancies itself as a Super Bowl contender, fans can take heart in the fact that the Steelers track record is pretty solid here.

Antown Blake wasn’t starting material, but he delivered good value as a waiver wire pickup. And while Ross Cockrell’s demotion is disappointing (and as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell indicates, probably permanent), the Steelers secondary was better with him starting in 2016 than it had been with Blake starting in 2015.

So the trajectory of the Steelers Secondary Rebuild remains upward. But unlike Sisyphus, the Steelers need to find a way to keep the ball rolling until they reach the mountain top. Because Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t have an eternity to wait.

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Steelers Activate Sammie Coates from PUP – Now, Can Coates Fit in Pittsburgh?

The Steelers activated Sammie Coates from the PUP this week, allowing him to practice with the team during training camp for the first time this summer. Suffice it’s been a long strange trip for Sammie Coates.

It was just two years ago that the Steelers turned heads during the 2015 NFL Draft when the drafted Sammie Coates in the 3rd round. Using such a high value pick on a wide receiver struck the fan base as odd, given that they had Darrius Heyward-Bey, Martavis Bryant had shown as a rookie Markus Wheaton had bounced back from injury marred rookies season and Antonio Brown was, well, Antonio Brown.

Sammie Coates, Darqueze Dennard, Steelers vs Bengals

Darqueze Dennard’s no match for Sammie Coates in the Steelers 2016 win over Cincinnati. Photo Credit: AP, via Al.com

Nonetheless, during the first half of the season, Sammie Coates was best known for a failed fourth down hookup with Mike Vick during the Steelers 2015 loss to the Ravens. You didn’t see much after that to the point that when reporters touted Sammie Coates potential heading into the Steelers AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Broncos, this site begged to differ, arguing that DHB was the man to watch.

  • Fortunately, I was wrong, Sammie Coates lived up to the hype come up with two strong catches in the playoff loss.

When news of Martavis Bryant’s next suspension broke, all eyes turned to Sammie Coates. While no one went so far as to say that Coates could make fans forget about Martavis Bryant, many did expect him to emerge as Ben Roethlisberger’s number 2 target.

  • Just past the quarterpost of the 2016 season, it looked like Coates was about to become that man.

In what looked to be his breakout game against the Jets, Coates caught 6 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns. He also injured his hand in that game, and then things got strange. First there were conflicting reports over how many stitches Coates needed. Then there was talk of broken fingers. Nonetheless, Mike Tomlin continued to play him on specials teams. Beat writers started to suggest that injuries weren’t the only issues dogging Coates.

  • Regardless of the reason, Sammie Coates only caught two more passes for 14 yards during the rest of the season.

With and Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers and an injured Darrius Heyward-Bey the only downfield options opposite Antonio Brown, Todd Haley and Mike Tomlin were forced to lean heavily on Le’Veon Bell. That strategy served the Steelers well until the AFC Championship game, which not ironically saw the Steelers first possession end on a bomb that Sammie Coates dropped that, had he caught it, could have dramatically altered the dynamic of the game.

Sammie Coates knee surgery couldn’t have come at a worse time. Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and JuJu Smith-Schuster are roster locks, and one would have to figure that either Justin Hunter and/or Eli Rogers is guaranteed to make the team.

  • That leaves Coates vying for one roster spot with Hunter/Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Hamilton, and Ayers.

It says here that Sammie Coates is far more talented than any of those players. But it’s also true that all of them were far more productive down the stretch last season than Coates, injuries or no. His performance in the Steelers final three preseason games will show whether Sammie Coates really fits in Pittsburgh.

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Is James Harrison on the Roster Bubble? Or are the Steelers “Bettising” Him?

Is Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison roster spot in jeopardy? Recent comments by linebackers coach Joey Porter seem to open that door.

  • Yet it is also possible that the Steelers are “Bettising” their linebacking legend.

Joey Porter’s announcement that first round draft pick TJ Watt will start at outside linebacker across from Bud Dupree and that neither will rotate is welcome news.

James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons

James Harrison roars at practice while Lawrence Timmons looks on. Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports

Finding a starter-capable player at right outside linebacker was one critical question the Steelers needed to answer “Yes” two during training camp, and it appears they leave St. Vincents having done so. But they will also leave St. Vincent’s without James Harrison having practiced with the team, which isn’t all that out of the ordinary, given that Harrison doesn’t need the reps.

But before the Steelers preseason opener against the Giants, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell identified 15 potential open slots on the Steelers roster and 38 locks, leave Harrison and William Gay as “almost locks.”

  • In Wexell’s view a combination of a numbers game with Harrison not showing enough speed could put him in jeopardy.

Regardless of whether Wexell was simply speculating or musing about something he’d heard off the record, Dale Lolley of the Observer-Reporter’s conversation with Joey Porter thickened the plot, as Porter declared:

We know what he can do. At the same time, you want to see a little bit to make sure he still has got it,” Everybody has to be tested to see if you still got it. We can assume something. But the NFL, sometimes you just wake up one day and that pop is gone. There will be a time when we take the wrapping off of him and let him go out there so we can see if it’s still that James from last year.

That, combined with James Harrison being held out of practice, was enough to get Dale Lolley to question whether the Steelers were preparing to move on from James Harrison.

While that’s certainly a possibility, such a move would be out of character for the Steelers. It’s well known that Chuck Noll held on to too many of his starters from the 70’s for too long, but institutional memory has largely kept the team from making the same mistake, as James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Hines Ward learned during the 2012 off season.

The Steelers not only brought Harrison back, but offered him a two year deal, with Harrison proclaiming his desire to play into his 40s. The Steelers cut plenty of players before their contracts expire – think Justin Hartwig or Willie Colon, but it’s rare for them to cut someone after signing them to a new contract (Greg Warren excepted, although word is the Steelers did it this way so that Warren would benefit financially.)

Are the Steelers Bettising James Harrison?

The other possibility is that the Steleers are “Bettising” James Harrison. “Bettising” of course refers to Steelers Hall of Fame Running back Jerome Bettis, who began hearing calls from the experts (Mike Prisuta, for example) as early as the 2002 season.

  • And while Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Dan Rooney didn’t pay much heed to those calls, outside criticism his ability still served to motivate Bettis late in his career.
Jerome Bettis, Ryan Clark

Jerome Bettis and Ryan Clark at St. Vincents in 2015. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Could the Steelers be doing something similar with James Harrison? It is possible but unlikely. James Harrison, who was in the weight room at 5:00 am the morning after the Steelers playoff win over the Chiefs, epitomes the concept of “self-starter.” He needs no motivation.

So on the one hand, you have the Steelers who don’t typically sign veterans and then cut them, on the other hand you have two veteran reporters who are not wont to suggest that someone of James Harrison’s stature is on the roster bubble as a matter of idle speculation.

To be clear, Jim Wexell has reiterated that he expects to see Harrison on the final roster. And even offered this after Harrion’s “mob interview” at St. Vincents:

As someone who would love nothing more than to see James Harrison hosting Lombardi Number 7 alongside Ben Roethlisberger, the hope here is that Wexell’s instinct is right and  Mike Tomlin and Joey Porter are in fact “Bettising” Deebo.

Time will tell. But until then, we’ll chalk this up as a case of 2+2 not quite equaling four.

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