Its Official: Defense is Once Again the Strength of the Pittsburgh Steelers

Controversial Pittsburgh sports talk show host, Mark Madden, described the Steelers defense as their most dynamic and exciting unit, these days, while describing the offense as “death.”

While I wouldn’t quite go that far with the death part, I do agree with Madden’s sentiment that, when comparing the two, the defense is more exciting and dynamic than the offense.

One might say that this is by default, thanks to the season-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2, a setback that came just months after the team had to part ways with disgruntled receiver Antonio Brown and his game-changing abilities.

I’ll give you that. After all, it was only two years ago that the Steelers were defined by the Killer Bee’s: Ben, Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell.

  • That was the trio that made things go for the Steelers, that made them legitimate Super Bowl contenders for many years.

Therefore, I can see where one would be a bit skeptical of the defense’s true strength, especially since it’s been a question mark since 2011, when Warren Sapp described it as “Old, slow and it’s over.”

  • But, the fact of the matter is, things have been trending in the direction of a defensive-heavy Steelers team for quite some time.

Take the draft, for example, and the fact that Pittsburgh has used its first-round selection on a defensive player every year since 2013. The last time the Steelers went offense in the first round was 2012, and that was to select guard David DeCastro. The Steelers haven’t used a first-round pick on a skill-position player since the infamous 2008 NFL Draft, when they drafted running back Rashard Mendenhall.

  • It was simply a matter of time before the defense became noticeably more talented than the offense.

You actually began to see signs of it two seasons ago, when the defense led the league in sacks and set a single-season franchise record with 56.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Unfortunately, 2017 was when the team lost the services of inside linebacker Ryan Shazier with a serious spinal injury. Shazier did a lot of the heavy lifting for the defense, and when he was lost, it showed.

The defense just didn’t have the cog to make it go, to help turn it into an opportunistic unit. That’s why, despite another prolific year getting after the quarterback, the defense could muster just 15 takeaways last season.

  • That just wasn’t going to get it done–it never has in the NFL.

Maybe that was why  Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin found it necessary to act quite aggressively in the 2019 NFL Draft and traded up into the 10th spot to take Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush.

Physically, Devin Bush is about as dynamic and explosive as Ryan Shazier was in his prime. He’s obviously not a finished product by any stretch, but he appears to be well on his way to being the player the Steelers need him to be in the middle of the defense.

Speaking of aggressive, the Steelers were that on September 16, when they sent their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins in-exchange for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. And while he’s only in his second season, he does appear to be a finished product, one that has finally turned the secondary into an asset. In five games with Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick already has three interceptions, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

Minkah, Fitzpatrick, Minkah Fitzpatrick interception Dolphins, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

Minkah Fitzpatrick 2nd interception against the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

As a whole, the Steelers defense, one that is still a force in getting after the passer with 23.5 sacks through seven games, has already surpassed its takeaway totals from last year with 19. That’s good for second in the NFL.

It wasn’t that long ago that you didn’t have to look very hard to find a weakness on Pittsburgh’s defense. Now, it’s becoming harder and harder to find a scapegoat, even after a loss.

  • Normally, when I watch a Steelers game, I’m a little on edge whenever they’re on defense.
  • It’s a natural state to be in, in my opinion. After all, the name “defense” is rather self-explanatory.

At any moment, some running back can break one the distance, or some receiver can get behind a defensive back, and, just like that, it’s seven points on the board for them.

But I don’t feel so defensive when watching Keith Butler’s unit, these days. In fact, I rather enjoy it when his players are out there putting on a show.

Who doesn’t love watching T.J. Watt and his DPOTY talent do this thing week in and week out? Who doesn’t get excited when Cam Heyward dominates an offensive lineman on his way to the quarterback?

The Steelers defense even has the signature celebrations on the team, these days, which it puts on full-display after securing one of its now patented takeaways.

  • The Steelers defense hasn’t quite risen to a level where it can be trusted fully, but it’s getting there.

In fact, I’d say it’s just a matter of time before it’s a unit Steelers fans can fully depend on to save the day on a weekly basis.

 

 

 

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Steelers Reserve Running Back Benny Snell Avoids Marijuana Charges, Fails “Idiot Test.”

Pittsburgh Steelers reserve running back Benny Snell Jr. was in the news this week and largely for the wrong reasons. On Wednesday the Steelers announced that Snell will be out for a few weeks after knee surgery from injuries sustained during the Steelers Monday Night win over the Dolphins.

That came a day after news broke that Harrison County, Ohio prosecutors had declined to charge Benny Snell for marijuana possession. Snell had been stopped for speeding on August 30th when police discovered marijuana in his car, and he admitted to having smoked it about 20 minutes before the stop.

  • So while prosecutors gave a pass on criminal chargers, Benny Snell failed the “Idiot Test” with flying colors.

Now comes the obligatory paragraph where the writer acknowledges that cultural, social and legal norms and mores on marijuana are changing rapidly. Moreover, it is clear that marijuana does offer legitimate medical uses.

Great. Got it. Now let’s also acknowledge:

  • Marijuana remains illegal under federal law
  • Marijuana is also illegal under Ohio law
  • Use of marijuana violates the NFL’s code of conduct
  • Its against the law to drive under the influence of marijuana
  • Marijuana gives off a highly distinct odor
  • Odor or no, police offers are permitted to search anything in plain view during traffic stops

Regardless of your views on marijuana, you knew all of this before you read it. Its likely that anyone from high schoolers or above know it too. Benny Snell Jr. knew all of that too and if he didn’t, he certainly should have.

Yet, he not only chose to drive after smoking marijuana in his car, he drove above the speed limit and while he had a bag of marijuana on the front seat (the bag had a Star Wars logo, we’re told.)

Snell won’t face criminal charges, but now that his offense is in the public eye, he could very well find himself in the NFL’s substance abuse program, which would include regular random drug tests. And for that, he has only himself to blame.

  • For the record I like Benny Snell.

Lack of depth at running back has plagued the latter part of the Mike Tomlin-Ben Roethlisberger era. Based on his play against the Chargers, Benny Snell looks like he’s at least capable of being a quality third running back behind James Conner and Jaylen Samuels.

But what he did here is really dumb.

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

Bell Snell rushing through the holes opened by the Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier

No Charges for Chickillo, Could Still Face League Discipline

Speaking of charges, Steelers reserve linebacker Anthony Chickillo will not face charges stemming from an alleged domestic incident between him and his girlfriend during the Steelers bye week at Nemacolin Woodlands.

  • As a result, Anthony Chickillo has been removed from the NFL’s Commissioner’s list.

The move returns Chickillo to the Steelers roster where he’ll back up T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. However, Chickillo isn’t out of the woods yet. Per Kevin Colbert’s statement, the NFL will continue to investigate the issue and he “could still be subject to discipline by the League Office under the Personal Conduct Policy.”

As Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reminds us , Anthony Chickillo could face a six game suspension with as a first time offender, although the league office reserves the right to revise that upwards or downwards.

To make room for Anthony Chickillo on the roster, the Steelers released Jayron Elliott.

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Key Take Away Exiting Bye Week? Steelers Remain “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s Recovery

Kinda of like “Midway” on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Steelers 2019 bye week didn’t arrive in the middle of the season, but it still provides convenient point to assess what we’ve learned about the team so far.

Heading into the season, the Steelers needed to affirmatively answer two key questions:

  • Could a post-Killer Bees Steelers offense survive or even thrive?
  • Would the Steelers defense build on the latent growth evident at the tail end of the 2018 season?

The easy responses are “No” and “Yes,” but after six games, honest answers evade both questions.

At first glance, the Steelers offense resembles a struggling, shell of its former self. Numbers don’t lie. The Steelers offense ranks near the bottom by any number of measures. Opposing defensive coordinators don’t lose sleep before playing Pittsburgh. They might fret over pressuring the quarterback, but this offense scares no one.

Sure, JuJu Smith-Schuster is frustrating fantasy owners, and James Conner isn’t running with the authority that he ran with last season. But starting 3 quarterbacks in 6 games yields a limited and unrepresentative sample. The reality remains that its far too early to write off the Steelers offense.

  • By the same token, its still too early to say dominating defense as returned to Pittsburgh.

New arrivals such as Steven Nelson, Devin Bush Jr. and Minkah Fitzpatrick have improved the unit. Keith Butler’s defense has been both harassing quarterback AND taking the ball away, and they’ve been executing those splash plays at critical moments in games (See Bud Dupree’s strip-sack vs the Bengals.)

  • All positive signs for Pittsburgh.

But can the Steelers defense sustain this? Arguably, the unit has lost its best player, Stephon Tuitt for the year. Stephon Tuitt was dominating opposing offenses and which paved the way for the Steelers to “Get there with four” when rushing the quarterback.

  • The improvement of the Steelers defense is real and appears to be sustainable, even without Tuitt.

But the same could have been said back in 2017, when the Keith Butler’s boys flirted with dominance in games against the Chiefs, Bengals and Lions only to end the season as unit that needed several Chris Boswell last minute saves in the regular season, and came up flat footed against the Jaguars in the playoffs.

To put it in Yoda speak, “Look good the Steelers defense does. But six games does not a dominating unit make.”

Key Bye Week Take Away Revolves Around Roethlisberger

So if we can’t say much with a lot of confidence about the Steelers offense and defense thus far in 2019, what is it that we can say?

  • It’s that the Steelers remain “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s recovery.

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, St. Vincents, St. Vincent's, Steelers training camp, Latrobe

Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger at St. Vincents in summer of 2019. Photo Credit: The Morning Call

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention for the last 3-4 years. While he wasn’t involved in management of the team, Art Rooney II certainly remembers what it was like to have Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, David Woodley and Bubby Brister starting at quarterback.

  • Art Rooney II has tasted life without a franchise quarterback, and he knows franchise quarterbacks are very hard to find.

That fueled decisions as far ranging as forcing Todd Haley out, to extending Ben Roethlisberger’s contract at age 37 to paying a premium to move up to draft Devin Bush Jr. in the 2019 NFL Draft. What has changed however, is Roethlisberger’s health.

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s 2019 campaign stopped after 6 quarters, and elbow surgery ended it for good.

The Steelers knew their 37 year old quarterback needed elbow surgery, yet still traded their 2020 first round draft pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Trading a 1st round draft pick cuts against the franchises DNA. But the fact is that Minkah Fitzpatrick can do a lot more to help the Steelers win a Super Bowl in 2020 than someone they might draft.

Its a plan that could payoff masterfully….

…But only if Ben Roethlisberger returns in franchise form.

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Steelers Trading Mike Tomlin to the Redskins is Crazy. Or Is It….?

If there’s one thing Pittsburgh Steelers fans hate more than a 1-4 start, it’s head coach Mike Tomlin.

It doesn’t matter what the situation is, fans want to blame him for the team’s failures. That is certainly understandable right now, and those #FireTomlin hashtags have no doubt multiplied in numbers over the past few weeks, thanks to a horrible start to the 2019 season that has been aided greatly by the year-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

  • Without No. 7 around to pick up so much of the slack, every coaching decision is magnified (see the intercepted Wildcat pass from the 12 yard line.)

And when you’re only winning 20 percent of your games, the people aren’t going to like what they see when they look under the microscope.

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Redskins, FedEx Field 2016

Might Mike Tomlin don the sidelines at FedEx Field on a regular basis? Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

This is going to be the greatest coaching challenge of Tomlin’s career, and trust me, few fans are giving him the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t matter who the quarterback is (Devlin Hodges will start in place of the concussed Mason Rudolph as the Steelers travel to Los Angeles to take on the Chargers on Sunday Night Football). It doesn’t matter how badly injuries have compromised his roster. If the 2019 regular season continues on its current downward trajectory, Steelers fans will put 100 percent of the blame on Tomlin’s shoulders and will want him gone.

  • Might Steelers fans get their wish this time? 

The Redskins, off to an 0-5 start, fired Jay Gruden last Monday, and almost immediately, rumors began to surface that Daniel Snyder, the team’s “Boy Billionaire” owner who Myron Cope once suggested should go stick his head in a can of paint, was extremely interested in Mike Tomlin as his team’s next full-time head coach.

That wouldn’t happen in the immediate future, of course, not unless the Steelers fire Tomlin mid-season, which would be extremely out of character for them. And with the way the Rooney family has treated its head coaches over the past 50 years, it’s unlikely that the likely first losing season of Tomlin’s tenure would lead Art II to consider a change at head coach.

  • But maybe Art Rooney II doesn’t have to fire Mike Tomlin.

Maybe they don’t have to deal with the ugliness of terminating a man who has won more consistently than any Steelers coach ever has over his first 12 seasons.

Mike Tomlin signed a one-year extension with the Steelers this past summer, which was a departure from the past, when the team would always give its head coaches two-year extensions. This quickly led to speculation that the organization wasn’t too pleased with Tomlin’s performance in recent years.

It’s certainly no secret that some minority Steelers owners aren’t the biggest Tomlin supporters, and when you couple that with the one-year deal, maybe the Rooneys are starting to consider another direction for the franchise.

But replacing a head coach is a messy process, especially for a team like the Steelers that hasn’t actually had to do it for over five decades — Chuck Noll retired in 1992; and Bill Cowher resigned in 2007.

And both of those were voluntary changes. The last time the Steelers fired a head coach was when Dan Rooney let Bill Austin go in late 1968, before man had even walked on the moon. 

However, if the Steelers can trade Tomlin’s rights to the Redskins for, say, a premium draft choice, that might be a different story. It’s no secret that Snyder isn’t afraid to over-spend for players and coaches, and while it seems ludicrous that he would part with a 2020 first-round pick that will surely be in the top five, you just never know with that boy billionaire owner.

It’s hard to say where these rumors started, but even though Tomlin dismissed them at his weekly press conference last Tuesday, they will likely persist until the Redskins hire a new head coach (veteran Bill Callahan was named interim head coach for the remainder of the season).

  • As for Steelers fans, these rumors are the kind of red meat they need right now.

1-4 starts are no fun for anyone, especially fans who love their football team as much as Steelers fans do. Steelers faithful need a distraction. They need something else to focus on besides the failures of the football team.

For some, the dismissal of Mike Tomlin as head coach has been something of a crusade since shortly after Super Bowl XLIII, when he supposedly won a championship with Bill Cowher’s players. (Why don’t we ever ask why Kevin Colbert only wins Super Bowls with Tom Donahoe’s players…? Just Say’in.)

When it comes to Mike Tomlin, one has to wonder where his mind is at right now. Despite his rough exterior and macho persona, the man is a human being. Fact is, he’s never been fully embraced by a large segment of the Steelers fan base. You can draw your own conclusions as to why, but that is a fact.

  • Does he want to stay in a city that has so much disdain for him?

Do you think he’s sick of hearing that he won a Super Bowl with another coach’s players? Do you think he’d relish the kind of autonomy he’d likely have in Washington, which would be a departure from the democracy that the Steelers organization has always been (even under The Emperor Noll)?

  • Do you think he’d feel flattered by the kind of money Daniel Snyder would no doubt throw at him?

Daniel Snyder isn’t an easy man to work for, and the Redskins, a once-proud franchise, have been an ongoing joke for a very long time. But money talks. Also, Mike Tomlin, like most head coaches, has a huge ego. You don’t think he’d like the challenge of turning the Redskins around? He wouldn’t have to deal with the criticisms of those who think he only benefited from the furniture that the last tenant left behind.

It would be his show. It would be his vision.

  • And for many Steelers fans, it would be a new era in Pittsburgh, one that they’ve been calling for for many years.

“It all starts with the coaches,” many fans are fond of saying. And, for so many, it begins and ends with the head coach. It’s never the players fault. The other team gets no credit.

If you have the right man in place, you’ll win. (Never mind that, when asked about the Steelers remarkable run of success since 1969, Dan Rooney always insisted that it started with the players.) 

According to many Tomlin critics, he’s never been the right man for the Steelers head coaching job.

  • Maybe the Rooneys are starting to feel the same way. Maybe Tomlin is, too.

Right now the tea leaf reading from several of the team’s most trusted beat writers, you know, guys who actually know and talk to the people whose opinions count on a regular if not daily basis, are telling us that the rumors are ridiculous. 

But come early January, Steelers Nation will find out if those rumors about Mike Tomlin to the Washington Redskins aren’t so crazy, after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Watch Tower: Bouchette Bolts PG for Athletic, Stories from Steelers Draft Room & More

A lot has happened since our last Watch Tower. Today we focus on Ed Bouchette’s big move, war stories from the Steelers draft room, Boswell’s bonus and more.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

Ben Roethlisberger in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Denver Post

Bouchette Bolts the Post-Gazette for the Athletic

This spring the Steelers press corps experienced a seismic shift when veteran reporter Ed Bouchette left the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for The Athletic.

To provide context, let’s borrow from Bouchette’s The Dawn of a New Steel Age, which covers the transition from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher. Bouchette opened his book by observing that Pittsburghers were likely certain about four matters:

The Allegheny and Monongahela would meet to from the Ohio. A parade would clog the Boulevard of the Allies on every obscure holiday. The most memorable moment in baseball history had occurred in Oakland – Pittsburgh’s Oakland.
And Chuck Noll would coach the Steelers.

Had someone else penned the above lines, they certainly would have added: “And Ed Bouchette would cover the Steelers for the Post-Gazette.” That’s changed, and Bouchette has explained that The Athletic simply made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The Watch Tower reached out to Bouchette to talk about his time at the Post-Gazette, his experience at The Athletic and trends in sports journalism.

  • When asked which Post-Gazette stories he was most proud of, Bouchette was humble, but still kind enough to cite a few specifics.

He reminded us of “…a long piece on Carlton Haselrig and his AWOL days from the Steelers that won the AP best sports story of 1996.” He also brought up an award winning piece on Merril Hoge’s fight with cancer, and cited a 1985 story about Rocky Beleier’s (legal and medically supervised) steroid use, which “caused quite a stir at a time when ‘steroids’ was becoming a four-letter word in the NFL.”

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

Bouchette also cited a non-Steelers story he penned in 1990 on Jackie Robinson and Curt Roberts, the Pirate’s first black player, whom he described as “a fellow no one was celebrating as the first until my story.”

When asked if there was a story that he wished he could have back, Bouchette was coy but conceded he “once wrote a story early in a season about the Steelers being on pace to set some record for team stats except I had my math wrong and they really weren’t. I’d like a do over on that.”

  • Bouchette’s most enlightening comments revolve around the transition from print to digital.

As a self-described “old newspaper guy,” Bouchette argues that the shift away from print is inevitable, sharing that, “As Jerome Bettis once told me — when we were bowling together — it’s a game of adjustments. You can apply that motto to many things in life, not just games.”

In terms of how the all-digital format impacts his work, Bouchette shares that his writing was trending towards being more analytical at the Post-Gazette. But “The difference at The Athletic is they have no advertising and don’t depend on ‘clicks’ but on subscriptions, and subscribers mostly understand what they are getting — not necessarily “news” that the fifth-round pick just signed, but perhaps what that fifth-round pick can mean for the team if he develops.”

And while Bouchette doesn’t make this leap, his last quote prompts the Watch Tower to suggest that subscription-based services could be an antidote to striking a better quality-quantity balance in sports journalism.

War Stories from the Steelers Draft Room

In the past, the Watch Tower commented commented on the lack of stories from inside the Steelers draft room during the Cowher and Tomlin eras in contrast with the Noll era.

  • That’s understandable. Today, a tweet with a stray comment from an anonymous assistant coach literally goes global in seconds.

But that doesn’t change public hunger for peeks inside the Steelers draft room. Fortunately a couple of veteran Steelers writers have supplied a few glimpses.

Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The first came from Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell. In a March Message Board exchange about the draft and free agency, Wexell offered this: “And a note on drafting playmakers, if the Steelers hadn’t traded up to draft Troy, they likely would’ve drafted the guy Cowher really liked at 27 – Alonzo Jackson.”

Trading up for Troy Polamalu in the 2003 NFL Draft is likely the 2nd most important decision the Steelers made that contributed to victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. In contrast, Alonzo Jackson is probably Kevin Colbert’s worst 2nd round pick.

Yet this is the first time to the Watch Tower’s knowledge that any journalist has reported that the Steelers could have taken Alonzo Jackson in the first, and for that Wexell wins Watch Tower kudos.

Yet, Wexell isn’t the only veteran journalist to enrich the narrative surrounding the Colbert-Cowher drafts.

Revisiting the Decision to Bring Big Ben to Pittsburgh

One story from the current era that is well known details how the Steelers came to draft Ben Roethlisberger in the 2004 NFL Draft. As Dan Rooney recounted in his 2007 self-titled autobiography, after Philip Rivers and Eli Manning went off the board, talk in Pittsburgh focused on Sean Andrews, an offensive lineman.

  • But Rooney, haunted by the ghost of the 1983 NFL Draft, steered the conversation to Roethlisberger. The rest is history.

Or is it?

Ed Bouchette wrote a detailed article about the 2004 NFL Draft in The Athletic where he got Bill Cowher on the record as saying, “ ‘That really is not the true story,’ Cowher said. ‘Mr. Rooney never mandated me to do anything.’”

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney legacy, Dan Rooney Lombardi Trophies, Dan Rooney obituary

Dan Rooney sitting in front of the Steelers 5 Lombardi Trophies. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

That story, however interesting, would probably not have remained the Watch Tower’s radar screen were it not for a comment tucked in at the end of a mini-camp notes column by Jim Wexell. Wexell, as he’s wont to do presented a “historical nugget” where he observed:

Back in the 2004 draft, the Steelers were on the clock with the 11th pick and were debating between QB Ben Roethlisberger, OG Shawn Andrews and an unidentified third prospect. Owner Dan Rooney, of course, is credited with swinging the debate toward Roethlisberger, but what did Rooney say exactly?

Nothing. He put his right hand up near his right ear and flicked his wrist three times to mimic the act of throwing an imaginary ball. So, the Steelers took Roethlisberger.

A debate ensued between Jim Wexell and “jujumojo” on his message board, where Wexell acknowledged the Bouchette article while reaffirming his belief in the accuracy of Dan Rooney’s account.

  • The Watch Tower won’t pretend to evaluate the accuracy of the two contrasting stories.

Journalists who speak with different sources (at different times) are going to tell diverging stories. Just look at the contrast to how Antonio Brown’s departure was portrayed in Pittsburgh vs the rest of the NFL. Ultimately, readers must decide on which account is more accurate.

  • But in his message board exchange, Wexell offered a very wise piece of advice to readers in those situations.

Which is to focus on who is begin quoted, directly, on the record. If you have access to The Athletic then the Watch Tower advises you to re-read Bouchette’s story with a close eye to the direct quotes attributed to the subjects.

If nothing else you’ll find a new nuance to the narrative that you may have (or at least I) missed on the first go around.

About Boswell’s Bonus

Chris Boswell will return to kick for a 5th consecutive season in Pittsburgh. But we also know this was far from a pre-ordained conclusion during the 2019 off season.

Art Rooney II made little attempt to hide his dissatisfaction with the Steelers kicking game, and earlier this summer, both Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac reported that the Steelers had indeed forced Boswell to agree to delay his 2 million dollar roster bonus until the tail end of the preseason.

Both Bouchette and Dulac deserve credit for confirming this, but the real credit or breaking the story belongs to Ian Whetstone, Steel City Insider’s capologist.

Whetstone made this observation in mid-March based on careful evaluation of Steelers salary cap figures and he was not only right, but ahead of everyone else.

And for that Ian Whetstone wins Watch Tower kudos.

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Tomorrow, Steelers Rookie Devin Bush Steps into a Intense Spotlight

Steelers’ rookie first-round pick Devin Bush was the star of a training camp highlight over the weekend, when he got the best of fellow rookie Benny Snell Jr. in a backs on backers drill.

If you watch the video linked to the first paragraph, you’ll see that Devin Bush took Benny Snell, a fourth-round pick who earned a reputation at Kentucky as a hard-nosed running back who liked to run downhill, and drove him about five yards backwards before depositing him on his, well, backside.

  • Naturally, Devin Bush drew praise and cheers from the many onlookers at the team’s annual Friday Night Lights practice at Latrobe Memorial Stadium.

As a long-time observer of the team, I saw what Devin Bush did and the first thing I thought was that he needed to win just about every backs on backers battle he could against a rookie running back.

Devin Bush,

Steelers rookie Devin Bush on the fields of St. Vincents. Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo! Sports

Sure, Devin Bush, an inside linebacker from Michigan, is a rookie in his own right, and he’s out there learning just like every other player at his first NFL training camp. But it’s a little different for Devin Bush.

He’s not just a rookie first-round draft choice. He’s a rookie first-round draft choice that general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin deemed valuable enough to trade up 10 spots to select–and part with a first-round pick (2019), second-round pick (2019) and third-round pick (2020) in the process.

That’s a huge departure for a Steelers front office whose draft day philosophy is usually to stand pat and let the chips fall where they may. But the Steelers couldn’t wait and hope that Bush fell to them (that would have been a minor miracle, anyway), not this year, not with what he could possibly mean to their defense.

  • In that context, my thought process regarding Devin Bush’s dominance of Snell Jr. wasn’t really surprising. And that’s because my expectations for him are high.

And that brings me to what Bush is just days away from facing: a stadium full of Steelers fans who will have the same expectations of Bush that I do when Pittsburgh takes on the Buccaneers this Friday night at Heinz Field in the first preseason game of 2019.

Sure, it’s only an exhibition, and for most of the veterans, it will be a glorified practice and a way to get some more work in (that is, if they even play at all). As for the other rookies and younger players–many of whom are already on the brink of having to get on with their life’s work–yes, the pressure will be on. It will be do or die, perhaps the one and only time they’ll be able to leave a strong and lasting impression on their bosses.

  • Devin Bush is facing no such pressure. His spot on the roster is a lock, not only for this season but the next few.

However, this does not mean Devin Bush won’t be feeling the pressure to perform and to perform well, staring this Friday. You see, about 120,000 eyes will be trained on his every move for every second that he’s in the game. Why?

  • Devin Bush is seen by many as a minor savior for the Steelers.

If he is truly the real deal–if his speed, explosiveness, athleticism, play-making ability, leadership and high football IQ can make a seamless transition from the college ranks to the professional level–Pittsburgh’s defense may have its replacement for Ryan Shazier, who was lost near the end of the 2017 campaign with a spinal injury that he’s still not fully recovered from.

Ryan Shazier was everything to the Steelers defense, which is why the team drafted in him out of Ohio State in 2014. Shazier battled the injury bug over the course of his four-years as the center of the Steelers defense, but when he was healthy, there was no question he was central to its every move.

You saw that in the very wild wildcard victory over the Bengals following the 2015 season, when Shazier spent the entire game wreaking havoc on the Bengals offense before rescuing the Steelers season in the final seconds with a forced fumble just one play after backup quarterback Landry Jones nearly threw it all away with an interception.

Shazier was the guy who did all the heavy lifting for Keith Butler’s unit. The entire defensive game-plan was schemed around him and his ability to pursue, to make things happen just about anywhere on the field.

  • After Ryan Shazier was lost in the final month of the 2017 season, Pittsburgh’s defense was never quite the same and had no real replacement at inside linebacker.

But how could anyone come off the bench and replace a talent like Ryan Shazier? And if there wasn’t anyone on the bench, there surely wasn’t anyone on the street who could, even though the Steelers tried by signing Sean Spence right before the playoffs.

It was to no avail, as Spence, a third-round pick in 2012 who spent his first incarnation as a Steeler trying to rehab from a devastating knee injury, wasn’t anything close to what the Shazier-lacking defense needed him to be.

The Steelers defense, a unit that’s spent the better part of this decade trying to recapture the magic from the previous decade, had its moments in 2018. But it didn’t have that explosive play-maker in the middle to bring everything together.

  • Jon Bostic was a nice veteran signing, but that’s all he was. He certainly didn’t have the ability to be a difference-maker in the middle of the defense.

As for Vince Williams, a sixth-round pick in 2013, despite being a self-made man who has gotten every single ounce that he can out of his abilities, he wasn’t the same without Shazier by his side.

The Steelers’ had a lot of young and promising talent on defense as they entered the 2019 offseason, but they didn’t have someone who could bring it all together.

Now, maybe they do.

We’ll soon begin to find out, starting this Friday night. Yes, it might only be preseason, but not since Ben Roethlisberger started his first regular season game for an injured Tommy Maddox back in 2004 have expectations for a Steelers rookie been this high.

The world won’t be watching as Devin Bush makes his debut this Friday, just Steeler Nation, but how he performs could make a world of difference for the team’s immediate future.

 

 

 

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Controversy on Kevin Colbert’s Non-Contract Extension? NOT!

Art Rooney II used the opening of training camp to dispense with any potential distraction about Mike Tomlin’s future in Pittsburgh with a contract extension. However, the absence an extension for Kevin Colbert remained a bit of a mystery.

The mystery lasted little more than 24 hours, when Art Rooney II told Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,  “At this stage of the game, he’s really not looking to do any long-term planning. We talked and we agreed he’d rather wait till after the season to talk about the contract.”

  • This of course led to speculation about Kevin Colbert’s standing in the organization.

Colbert however quickly clarified the situation, going on Steelers.com to confirm that he has no plans to leave the organization nor is he angling towards transitioning out of his current role. At age 62, however, he’s simply not making long-term plans.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

The fact that Kevin Colbert’s status with the team could become a situation he evaluates yearly has been reported throughout the 2019 off season by reporters such as Ed Bouchette, Gerry Dulac and Jim Wexell, among others.

Sometimes When You Smell Smoke, There Really Is Fire – But Not Now

While the internet and social media have loosened things up to a point, the NFL remains a tightly managed product. There’s a lot that goes on behind closed doors that even the most engaged fan is unaware of.

  • When unwanted stories bubble to the surface, teams still have tremendous power to tone them down, if not quiet them outright.

The Steelers are no exception. Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley didn’t get along. All sides involved bent over backwards to tell everyone that the Ben Roethlisberger-Todd Haley relationship was fine. Yet, we know now that it wasn’t.

Shortly after the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, sniping between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown Who began, through surrogates in the press. Yet, the public was told that nothing was wrong. We know now that things were different.

Looking further back into Steelers history, rumblings of a breakdown between Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe began not too long after Super Bowl XXX. Over the next four seasons, the attentive fan could catch glimpses that contrasted with assurances that all was fine between the two. Of course, it wasn’t. By 1999 Cowher and Donahoe were barely speaking, forcing Dan Rooney to choose.

  • All of this is to say that often times skepticism in the face of the party line can be a healthy thing.

But this isn’t one of them. If Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert say that everything is fine, then Steelers Nation should take them at their word.

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Early Steelers 2019 Training Camp News: A Primer on Separating Facts from False Flags

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin arriving at St. Vincents in Latrobe today bringing the tumultuous 2019 off season to an end. And while Steelers Nation will be treated to interviews and photos of players and coaches, they’ll have to wait a bit before real news surfaces.

  • Staff writer Tony Defeo likened this period to breaking through traffic congestion while still needing to drive quite a distance before reaching home.

Nonetheless, they’ll be lots of juicy headlines to feast on, and here’s a primer for separating the real news from the false flags.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Contract Action vs Contract Talk

The Steelers have opened camp in the past by announcing contract extensions for Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert. Both are due for new deals, but there’s been speculation about whether Art Rooney II will break from tradition this summer.

  • One way or another, fans will have some indication of Art Rooney’s inclinations very soon.

Likewise, with Ben Roethlisberger locked up, Joe Haden, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave are candidates for extensions, but in recent summers the Steelers have trended towards resigning veterans closer to the end of camp rather than the beginning. Talk you hear on this front over the next several days will likely be just that, “talk.”

Watch Out for Those PUP List Surprises

Every year a certain number of players begin camp on the PUP list. Often times this is simply proactive roster management. But at other times it is a red flag. And there are always surprises in the opening PUP announcements.

Casey Hampton began training camp in 2008 on the PUP, but was in fine form when the season started. Maurkice Pouncey has started camp on the PUP and played in full health throughout the season.

In 2015 Bruce Gradkowski’s name appeared on the PUP much to everyone’s surprise given that he’d played as recently as the playoff loss to the Ravens. Bruce Gradkowski got well enough to get activated and play in one preseason game and then his NFL career was done. Senquez Golson began 2015 on the PUP and literally has never played an NFL down.

Ladarius Green and Mike Adams were also surprise PUP additions. Adams never played for the Steelers again and Ladarius Green saw some mid season action before getting reinjured and has been out of football since.

Keep an eye on the PUP list.

Take Run Test Results with a Gain of Salt

Since Bill Cowher’s days as head coach, the Steelers have begun training camp with an annual run test where players must complete a set number of sprints within a certain time determined by their position.

  • Beyond gauging conditioning, it is often seen as the first test of a player’s mettle.
  • Yet, readers should take the results with a grain of salt.

rod woodson, carnell lake, st. vincents

Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake at St Vincents. via Steelers.com

The 1994 Steelers infamously finished the season 3 yards short of a go ahead touchdown in the AFC Championship loss to the San Diego Chargers. When the group assembled in Latrobe the next summer, every player successfully completed Bill Cowher’s run test. At the time, if memory serves, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola remarked that the results indicated the focus and commitment of the players.

  • Now that 1995 squad did of course reach Super Bowl XXX, but that was only after starting 3-4.

Injuries to Neil O’Donnell, Rod Woodson, John Jackson and John L. Williams had a lot to do with that. But a player’s only meeting that resulted in Greg Lloyd threatening to break any player who brought a phone or a pager (remember those??) to a team meeting was necessary to spark a turn around.

A little later in the Cowher era, the summer of 1999 started with 1996 first round draft pick Jamain Stephens failing the run test.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe cut him on the spot.

At the time the move was hailed as sending a strong signal on the heels of a 7-9 1998 season that ended with a 5 game losing streak. Signal it might have been, but the 1999 team finished 6-10 with Lee Flowers openly accusing unnamed teammates for quitting.

  • Enjoy the run test, but don’t read too much into the results.

On the flip side, Steelers fans can give thanks that no one will be arriving at St. Vincents via helicopter this sumer….

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Is Terrell Edmunds the Forgotten Component To Steelers 2019 Defense?

Usually, when a former first-round pick is coming into his second season, the expectations are fairly high.

The player and his coaches are often bombarded with questions about his progress that offseason, and whether or not he’ll make that all-important first to second year leap.

With the completion of Steelers OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and mandatory mini-camp, one might assume Terrell Edmunds, the second-year strong safety out of Virginia Tech who the Steelers selected (many say, reached for) in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, has been receiving the media coverage befitting his profile and draft pedigree.

  • But, believe it or not, there hasn’t been a whole lot of hype surrounding  Terrell Edmunds second season as a member of the Steelers defense.

 

Terrell Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds first interception, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Terrell Edmunds returns his first interception at Tampa Bay. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Maybe that’s due to all the drama surrounding Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell early in the offseason and their subsequent departures from the organization. Maybe its because the national media decided to dump on Ben Roethlisberger (after all, if Josh Harris says Big Ben is bad, who are we to argue?)

Maybe it’s due to all of the hype surrounding inside linebacker Devin Bush, the Steelers’ latest first-round selection and one they traded away multiple draft choices in order to move up into the top 10 to take.

Maybe it’s because other players like T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden and even the much-maligned Bud Dupree are all deemed far more important to the resurgence of a defense that has been a question mark since 2010 and the glory days of Dick LeBeau.

However, last I checked, strong safety, a position that helps make up the back-end of a defense, is extremely important. And despite starting 15 games last year in the wake of the rash of injuries veteran safety Morgan Burnett battled through after signing on as a pretty important free-agent in the offseason, Terrell Edmunds didn’t exactly give anyone much confidence that he was close to becoming a special player.

Perhaps that’s unfair of me. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert selected Edmunds under the premise that he’d be able to contribute right away, but as a sort of Swiss Army Knife in the secondary where he would play multiple positions–including dime linebacker, where he would utilize his speed and athleticism to make up for the absence of Ryan Shazier, who suffered a horrific spinal injury the season before.

But, again, due to Burnett’s injury woes, Terrell Edmunds saw the majority of his playing-time at strong safety. Was there improvement from the start of the season to the end? Not noticeably. In-fact, the consensus seemed to be that Edmunds looked lost and out of position a good bit of the time. Whether that was due to inexperience or lack of ability remains to be seen.

The Steelers certainly hope it’s the former, because while Terrell Edmunds hasn’t been discussed much by the media and fans this offseason, it’s safe to assume the organization is certainly expecting a huge leap from him in 2019.

“The game has slowed down for him,” slot corner Mike Hilton said in a TribLive article by Joe Rutter last month that was almost as much about Edmunds’ “like” of a negative Tweet from Antonio Brown about Ben Roethlisberger than it was on improving on the field in Year 2. “He’s being more vocal, he’s making more plays. He’s a guy that’s really trying to up his game. He knows that, in the back end, a lot is going to be on his shoulders.”

Those are encouraging words from Mike Hilton. Strong safety is an important position on any defense, but especially a Steelers defense that was once built around the legendary Troy Polamalu.

  • Obviously, I’m not trying to compare Terrelll Edmunds to Troy Polamalu. Nor am I saying he has to play up to that level.

However, a noticeable improvement in his play from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign could go a long way towards making the Steelers defense better in 2019.

There may not be much hype surrounding Terrell Edmunds as he prepares for 2019, but that doesn’t mean he’s not being counted on to become a better football player.

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Does a QB Improve a WR? or Does a WR Improve QB? Could Donte Moncrief Answer the Question?

Does a good quarterback make a wide receiver better? Or does a good wide receiver make a quarterback better? Let’s skip the suspense and concede that Steelers free agent Donte Moncrief won’t settle one of football’s existential questions in 2019.

  • Nonetheless, he seems poised to add to the conversation.

While pundits have praised Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for their uncharacteristic aggressiveness in bringing Steve Nelson, Mark Barron and Devin Bush to Pittsburgh, reaction to Donte Moncrief’s arrival has been more tepid.

Donte Moncrief,

Steelers wide receiver Donte Moncrief, @ OTAs in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

While no one would call the 3rd round pick from the 2014 NFL Draft a “bust” (he certainly has outperformed Dri Archer, whom the Steelers took 7 picks later) thus far his NFL career “lacks the ‘Wow’ factor.” Perhaps more ominously, his catch percentage is trending towards the mid to low 50’s.

  • “Ah, but what about the quarterbacks that have been throwing to him?” Donte Moncrief defenders retort.

During his first three seasons in the NFL, Donte Moncrief was catching passes from Andrew Luck. During 2017 and 2018 he had was Jacoby Brissett and Blake Bortles tossing him the ball. So logically, with Ben Roethlisberger hawking the pigskin his way, Moncrief is going to shine, right?

  • Maybe. Maybe not.

Football is the ultimate team game. Even the best running back needs a good offensive line to excel. (See Jerome Bettis’ dip in productivity in 1998 and 1999 behind some mediocre offensive lines.)

And while the relationship between pass rush and interceptions is more tenuous than many think, a quarterback under duress is going to make more mistakes than one who has all day to throw. (Go back and watch the tape. James Harrison was closing in on Joe Flacco on Troy Polamalu’s pick-six in the ’08 AFC Championship game.)

  • Ironically, the relationship between the performance of quarterbacks and wide receivers is more directly, yet the impact is harder to define.

It is more direct because a quarterback needs a receiver to catch his passes, and the receiver obviously can’t catch passes that are never thrown. In contrast, great running backs can and do make something out of nothing when blocking breaks down.

  • Quarterbacks can improvise on broken plays, but it means little if the receiver drops the ball.

Recently, Ben Roethlisberger credited Antonio Brown for his success. This was as much about Ben Roethlisberger showing he’s a bigger man than Brown than it is about expressing truth. Yes, during Ben Roethlisberger’s 2017 early season slump, Antonio Brown DID make Ben Roethlisberger look like a better quarterback than his performance really indicated.

All three are quality wide outs. Hines Ward should but probably won’t get Hall of Fame consideration. But each is far less talented than Antonio Brown.

Moving beyond Antonio Brown, a look at how the other two third of “Young Money” have preformed outside of Pittsburgh further complicates the picture. Mike Wallace has never had a quarterback as good as Ben Roethlisberger throwing his way in Miami, Minnesota or Baltimore, and he’s struggled consistently match the performance of his Pittsburgh days.

Contrast that with Emmanuel Sanders, who has generally played better since departing for Denver. But Sanders’ success has come both with Peyton Manning throwing him the ball as well as Manning’s  successors.

  • So that really doesn’t help us answer the question.

Nor should that surprise Steelers fans, who saw John Stallworth post far better statistical seasons catching balls from Mark Malone and David Woodley than he did when Terry Bradshaw stood under center. But no one in their right mind would choose a Malone-Stallworth or a Woodley-Stallworth tandem over Bradshaw-Stallworth.

  • It is hard to know exactly what role Donte Moncrief will play in the Steelers 2019 offense.

JuJu Smith-Schuster enters the season as the number 1 receiver, and both coaches and journalists tell us that if James Washington is poised to make a leap in his sophomore year. If that happens then the best-case scenario for Donte Moncrief is that he emerges as the number 3 receiver in the Steelers offense.

  • And if Donte Moncrief shines in that role, Ben Roethlisberger will deserve some of the credit.

But it will also be true that opposing defense will have been focusing on covering Smith-Schuster, Washington and Vance McDonald. So I guess Donte Moncrief presence in Pittsburgh might not contribute much to the QB improves WR/WR improves QB quandary.

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